5 ‘mistakes’ made by phenomenological researchers
Assuming that research on individuals’ ‘experience’ is automatically phenomenological - It isn’t. There are numerous qualitative research approaches which explore ‘experience’: Narrative research, grounded theory, heuristic research, cooperative action research, ethnographic research, Intuitive Inquiry, arts-based research… The question at stake is establishing when something is phenomenological or simply phenomenologically orientated towards (inter-)subjective experience.
Misunderstanding the nature of description in phenomenology – In simple terms, the aim of phenomenology is to explore and describe lived experience in all its density, poignancy, richness and paradox. However, just reproducing hearing participants’ own literal descriptions of their experience is insufficient as they are speaking in the natural attitude (i.e., that the taken for granted world is as it appears). Instead, phenomenology is a reflective process that seeks to ‘bracket’ the natural attitude and probe the subtle, latent, and implicit experiential meanings of the embodied, cognitive, perceptual, emotional, volitional and imaginal threads which bind us to the world in a meaningful way. Phenomenological enquiry involves trying to get back to the way the phenomenon is experienced before its conceptualized. Put in the words of Merleau-Ponty (1960/1964, p.157) “[Phenomenological description] must stick close to experience, and yet not limit itself to the empirical but restore to each experience the ontological cipher which marks it internally.”
Not being sufficiently grounded in phenomenological philosophy – Without a grounding in phenomenological philosophy – at least, a glancing acknowledgement of the tradition – how can study be called phenomenological? For instance, has a “phenomenological attitude” been adopted (e.g., engaging the reduction and epoché to reflexively restrain pre-understandings and stay open to the phenomenon)? This is a weakness of many studies conducted by novice researchers who claim they are using Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (IPA). Without some recognition of the hermeneutic phenomenological foundations of this methodology, IPA becomes merely a qualitative thematic analytical tool. In this form it may be phenomenologically orientated but it is not phenomenology.
Seeing subjectivity as being located within an individual – By locating cognition/perception or emotion within an individual simply perpetuates the very dualisms phenomenology seeks to expunge such as individual/social, body/mind, self/other, internal/external. Instead, phenomenology seeks to explicate our bodily relationship with the world. Person and world are intertwined. We are always in relational to others while our consciousness is shared with others through language, discourse, culture and history. We are placed in a worldly matrix of meanings. The concept of ‘lifeworld’ (Lebenswelt) as the taken-for-granted world that is experienced. A study that focuses just on just ‘thinking’ or ‘perception’ in a reduced way, for instance, is not phenomenological.
Killing the phenomenon in an effort to be rigorous and scientific – There are many examples of this in research literature. Qualitative research studies which misguidedly have more than a handful of participants (perhaps in an effort to have a big enough sample size so the findings can possibly be generalised) run the risk of being too superficial and losing the ambiguous complexity of embodied meanings phenomenology can capture. As another example, some studies present the findings in such dry or heady ways and so lose the ability to evoke the phenomenon (for instance, when using a distancing, third person ‘scientific’ voice or intellectualising via excessively elaborate thematic structures).
Put in other words… For a phenomenological study to be truly phenomenological and hold its methodological integrity, it needs to:
- Focus on pre-reflective experience/consciousness
- Describe (rather than explain) the phenomenon in a rich and evocative way
- Be properly grounded in phenomenological philosophy
- Grapple with the complexity and ambiguity of embodied (inter-)subjective meanings
- Engage the ‘lifeworld’ – the experiential-relational lived world of being that holistically recognises the intertwining of the individual with the relational/social.