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Phenomenological study: what is it and how is it performed?

What is Phenomenological research?

This article explains how to conduct a phenomenological study. If you’re interested in a free tool that helps you when undertaking your phenomenological study, check out Avidnote which helps you write and organize your research notes online.

Phenomenology is a form of qualitative research that aims to either use the experiences/perceptions gathered by the researcher during the research process to describe the phenomenon so as to provide more insight/knowledge about it or to use the experiences/perceptions of others to describe the phenomenon for the same purpose of providing insight or knowledge. It is usually based on the first-person point of view.

Phenomenology has been in existence in one form or another for many centuries. Johann Heinrich Lambert, Immanuel Kant, and Wilhem Hegel laid the foundations of phenomenology as a field of study. However, modern phenomenology started with Edmund Husserl’s magnum opus titled “Logical Investigations”, first published in 1900/01. Husserl, a German philosopher and mathematician has been described as “the fountainhead of phenomenology in the twentieth century.” Many others have since contributed significantly to phenomenological doctrine, including Husserl’s student Martin Heidegger as well as Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Jean-Paul Sartre to mention a few. Phenomenology is a separate field of philosophy albeit also related to other fields of philosophy such as ontology, logic, epistemology, and ethics.

In a nutshell, the main objective of phenomenology is to describe the essence or meaning of these experiences or perceptions in terms of what was experienced and how it was experienced. Phenomenological studies can be conducted in a variety of ways, depending on the approach to the what and how of the experience. This implies the existence of diverse philosophical schools of thought on the subject matter. For example, the Encyclopedia of Phenomenology has written on seven distinct forms of phenomenology. However, while more ideas and postulations continue to emerge in the field, the two main phenomenological schools are Husserl’s transcendental phenomenology and Heidegger’s hermeneutic phenomenology. 

How is Phenomenological research performed?

Like noted above, phenomenological studies can be approached in a number of ways.  For example, Husserl’s ideas are championed by descriptive phenomenologists such as Amedio Giorgi while Heidegger’s philosophy is espoused by interpretative phenomenologists like Max van Manen. There are others who don’t agree with a rigid methodological approach to phenomenology, e.g., Richard Hycner who insists that “the phenomenon dictates the method (not vice-versa) including even the type of participants.”

In terms of the data collection, common qualitative techniques used in phenomenology include participant observation, the use of narratives in interviews, diaries, video, and audio recordings and protocols, among others, as well as the use of reflective diaries and the introspective accounts of the researcher. Other secondary techniques that can help generate meaningful insight include poetry and art.

For data analysis, several approaches exist as noted above. Below is a modification of Husserl’s transcendental framework by Clark Moustakas.

Horizontalizing, [listing all relevant expressions]

Here, all data should be equally examined by researchers under the assumption that each statement is of equal value. Subsequently, the researcher generates a data list from the verbatim transcripts of the participants [also referred to as co-researchers] and then removes all repetitive, overlapping, or any other expressions determined not to be relevant to the phenomenon of interest. After this data cleaning process, what remains from the verbatim list are referred to as horizons [the textural meanings or constituent portions of the phenomenon]. According to Clark Moustakas, these horizons can be unlimited because horizontalism is a continuous process.

Reduction of experiences to the invariant constituents

This step requires that the researcher cluster the horizons into themes. Thus, the translated data has to be grouped into units of meaning or themes such that each theme is characterized by just one meaning. The focus is to describe the phenomenon in “textural language.”

Thematic clustering to create core themes

This involves the thematizing and clustering of invariant constituents or horizons. Moustakas calls these invariant constituents the “core themes of the experience” of the phenomenon.

Comparison of multiple data sources to validate the invariant constituents

In this step, the themes from participants’ experiences which have been obtained from a specific method of data collection, e.g., an interview, are compared to other methods like focus group interviews, researcher’s observation, field groups, and literature. This comparison is aimed at guaranteeing accuracy and ensuring clear representation across all sources of data. 

Crafting of individual textural descriptions of participants

Textural descriptions are narrations of participants’ perceptions of a phenomenon. The researcher has to use the verbatim excerpts from his or her interview of the participants to describe their experiences. He or she should also use a narrative format to explain the units of meaning. Using a narrative format will bring about a clear comprehension of participants’ experiences.   

Construction of individual structural descriptions

This aspect of data analysis is all about textural descriptions and imaginative variation. Through imaginative variation, the researcher creates a mental picture of how the experience occurred and subsequently constructs a personal structure of the experience.

Construction of composite structural descriptions

When the researcher must have successfully articulated a textural description for every participant, he or she should then integrate the textural description into a structure that explains how the experience occurred. A structure should be located at the end of every paragraph. Structural descriptions enable the researcher to comprehend the participant’s experiences in the context of the phenomenon that they are studying.

Synthesis of the texture and structure into an expression

Here, the researcher has to prepare a couple of narratives for each participant [co-researcher] which should include a textural description of “what” occurred and a structural description of “how” it occurred. The researcher should also list the units of meaning for each participant and then create units of meaning that are common to the participants as well as composite textural and structural descriptions based solely on the common units of meaning without any need to include individual meaning units.

These creations should then be accompanied by composite narratives prepared by the researcher for the whole group. This last step serves as a synthesis of all the group’s narratives – the structural description is merged with the composite textural description to form a universal description of the phenomenon. The objective here is to establish the essence of the experience of the phenomenon.

Note that the epoché denoted in the diagram means a bracketing of the researcher’s subjective feelings such as preconceptions, predispositions, and prejudgments for the entirety of the phenomenological study.

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