Phenomenology as Research Method
Victoria University of Technology
Outline of the paper
This paper is an account, the interweaving, of the narrative of the writing of my own thesis using a phenomenological approach, with my developing interest in phenomenology as research method. My study of personal transformation provides the context for these reflections on phenomenology as research method. I have spoken in other forums about the content of the research; in this paper I want to do something different. The focus for this paper is on the possibilities and dilemmas for higher degree studies encountered as I learnt to use a phenomenological approach. Firstly I will give a brief account of the study and then explore some of the issues that arose for me in the process of the study and which I am pursuing in my subsequent reading on research in general and phenomenology more specifically. This paper will give some history and background of phenomenology as research method, to show its origins and what it offers researchers as a way of exploring research questions. I will also outline how the research I carried out was informed by principles of cooperative research, as well as to address some of the tensions of working within a phenomenological framework and although cooperative in intention the constraints which prevented it from being a truly cooperative project. To a degree this paper is a critique of the development and subsequent writing of my own M.Ed. thesis and the questions about the phenomenological approach which have formulated for me since writing it.
Phenomenon of personal transformation
What I have called the phenomenon of personal transformation was the focus for my study. Different experience in and reflections on three different examples of personal transformation within the adult education context were the basis for further exploration of the research question. The three examples were the experience of change within the context of adult literacy education as recounted by one adult literacy student supported by one of his tutors, my own observations of some students experience in a post-graduate course I taught in a university of a profound sense of turmoil and subsequent change, and lastly my own reflections of change precipitated by involvement in a higher degree course. Finally, through a process of clarification and refinement, the research question became focussed on the experience of personal transformation for one person in the context of adult literacy. As with any research project the question of the appropriate methodology evolved simultaneously as I defined and redefined the research question. The course I did on research methodology made the broad distinction between quantitative and qualitative research methods. This distinction is no longer adequate to define the many different research approaches which do not categorise easily within this split. I will address this issue in more detail later in the paper.
Choosing a research methodology
I needed a method of data collection and an approach which would allow me to research the question. A re-constructed narrative based on three interviews provided the data for analysis, and at the same time, after reading Giorgi (1989) and van Manen (1984, 1990) I decided to carry out a phenomenological study. My reading of Reasons (1988) Human Inquiry in Action added a further dimension to the framework I was developing; the need for the investigation to be guided by principles of cooperative inquiry and for the study to be mutually benefitting to all participants. The study used a combination of Giorgis interpretation of meaningful transformation units and van Manens immersion in the data. As well I developed an understanding of metaphor ( Lakoff, G. and Johnson, M. 1980) and applied it in three ways in the thesis; the first provided a theoretical framework for the literature review which resulted in the identification of seven metaphors predominant in the literature. Other literature in adult literacy studies (Sanguinetti 1994, Lee & Wickert 1994, Luke 1992, Gee 1990) identifies the dominant discourses currently in play which are shaping policy and practice in literacy education; these are analogous to the concept of metaphor. The naming of these seven metaphors in turn provided a lens through which to interpret the frameworks or metaphors for literacy which were predominant in the thinking of Bill, as the student and Nancy, as the tutor. Another way I used metaphor was to frame the whole thesis in terms of the dominant metaphor life as narrative. There is a body of literature which works from and extends this metaphor (Epston & White 1989, Salmon 1985). Finally metaphor was used as an analytical tool in the interpretive process to help identify seven metaphors and several other major themes arising from Bills narrative and the interview texts which were analyzed at length. It is not the purpose of this paper to outline either the metaphors in the literature or the metaphors for change which were identified.
Any exploration of phenomenology as research method needs to be set in a wider context of research and what Kuhn (1970) calls a paradigm shift. The research paradigm shift is only part of a larger paradigmatic shift which is taking place in the Western World in the late twentieth century. The move from modernity to post-modernity, from nationalism to globalization, from cultural supremacy of one group over others to the concept of multi-culturalism and the acknowledgment of cultural diversity, from an understanding of one faith and its dominance in society to acceptance of multi-faiths, are some of the major changes taking place in the world in which we live and which we have to accommodate. The recent spotlight on Pauline Hanson and her views on the nation, immigration and racism, could be interpreted as arising out of this paradigmatic shift. The views she is espousing and which are so well supported, spring from the reassertion of the nationalism paradigm and the belief that everything that it represents is to be invoked as the way that Australians should live.
The research paradigm shift has to do with major shifts in the way knowledge is constructed and created. Associated with this is the further question of whose interests are served by the dominant paradigm? Research has been dominated in the last hundred years or more by what is commonly known as the scientific method. Also known as positivist or quantitative research its emphasis is on objectivity, neutrality, measurement and validity. To live in the scientific method means to live within an understanding of the beliefs, values and techniques that guide scientific inquiry' (Lather, 1991). Those working within the scientific framework also accept the conventions, language and methods of carrying out research in this way. Those living within the scientific paradigm judge other ways of carrying out investigations as too open to multiple interpretation, too biased, too subjective, simply not scientific or rigorous enough.
The scientific method
The scientific method was adopted by other disciplines such as education, sociology, and geography as the only legitimate way of doing research. And whilst it did offer legitimate ways of researching some questions, there were other questions which were never seen as legitimate to ask and consequently were never investigated. In the last thirty years the domination of positivism has been challenged and often found wanting in relation to research projects in the humanities, social sciences and education. Increasing dissatisfaction with the silence in relation to other research questions has led to the development of a variety of methodologies called 'postpositivist' in the literature. Lather favours the term 'postpositivist' over 'qualitative' research although the two are often used interchangeably.
I have long argued that the term 'qualitative' is inadequate for naming this unprecedented cross-disciplinary fertilisation of ideas. Qualitative is 'the other' to quantitative and hence is a discourse at the level of method, not paradigm. (p7)
As in other areas of life this paradigmatic shift has been accompanied by considerable tension. Scientific inquiry is still the dominant paradigm although other modes of inquiry have shifted its position of dominance. Lather has developed the following table to help interpret the way this shift is taking place.
The first three columns she has named after Habermas's three categories of human interest that underscore knowledge claims and she has added the fourth as her own. A phenomenological approach has been placed in the column under understanding; the intention being to seek understanding of some defined response to human behaviour. Within the postpositivist paradigm with its emphasis on disclosure there is a major shift in the role of the researcher. Language becomes one of the major tools for analysis. The research project is frequently one of emergent design, where the question under investigation may be defined and re-defined several times in the life of the project and where the researcher does not draw final conclusions until the interpretation has been completed.
Not included in Lather's table of postpositivist approaches is what Reason (1988) calls 'cooperative inquiry', also commonly referred to as collaborative inquiry. Doing a thesis for a higher degree placed constraints on the way the research was carried out. A collaborative approach did offer a way of involving the participants in the research project as more than just subjects to be researched. The intention of making the project mutually benefitting for all participants did mean that the interview sessions provided the opportunity for reflection, both for Bill as the adult learner and for Nancy as the tutor. The limitations of higher degree work require that ownership and authorship be attributed to one person and these boundaries are blurred in collaborative work. Real collaboration is perhaps only possible where colleagues work together to determine the question or where a researcher works with a collaborative group to help individual members identify the question they want to pursue. The results of a phenomenological study arise from interpretive analysis of texts, and where the text is derived from human subjects then the project is not unproblematic.
Traditions of phenomenology
Phenomenology has its origins in the thinking of the German philosopher Husserl and the French phenomenologist Merleau-Ponty, that which Crotty (1996) calls the classical phenomenologist approach. For research in the 1990's it is a question of whether it is a philosophical enterprise or a phenomenological enterprise. According to Van Manen (1990) it is an exploration of 'the essence of lived experience'. With the development of postpositivist approaches phenomenology has been adopted by different disciplines as an appropriate way of exploring research questions which led to a different way of knowledge being constructed. A project for further research is that of investigating the different models of phenomenological inquiry which are being developed within different disciplines to see whether there are identifiable differences of approach in the way phenomenological research is carried out. Gillian Rose (1993) in a book called Feminism and Geography describes how she sees the discipline of geography being influenced by feminist studies. In particular phenomenology has become a way of researching the gaps in the discipline, those areas which previously were not considered important to research because they had little to do with the public and patriarchal world of geography. Nurse education, in recent moves to define itself as a separate and different discipline from the rational, scientific medical model has adopted phenomenology as a way of researching previously uninvestigated areas in order to inform the theoretical base of nursing practice on which nurse education is based. To name just two phenomenological studies undertaken by nurse educators gives a flavour of the sort of areas being explored: one is a study of how nurses learn the art of touching as part of their professional expertise (Huyn, M. 1995); the other is called Capturing the experience of the clinical nurse specialist through phenomenology, (Borbasi, S.A. 1996) which appeared in a recent publication on qualitative research practice in education (Eds, Willis, P. & Neville, B. 1996). It was the case in 1995 that the Peter McCallum Hospital for cancer patients employed a phenomenological researcher. Without knowing any of the details of the role of this person one can only imagine that their task was to go beyond the clinical diagnosis of the medical condition to document the feelings, emotions and experiences of cancer sufferers and the medical staff who cared for them in their illness.
Other phenomenological studies
Once alerted to the possibilities of phenomenological research it becomes possible to see the potential to research almost any phenomenon, any lived experience, as a human response. Other phenomenological projects I encountered in my reading were:
Sa phenomenological study of post-partum depression (Tatano Beck, C.1992)
Sa study of writers on writing led to a paper called The water-colourist, the oil-painter, the architect and the bricklayer as the four main metaphors used to describe how people go about the task of writing (Chandler 1994). This sort of study raises fewer ethical and political dilemmas for the researcher because of its more theoretical nature since it is dealing with textual analysis of texts already written.
SMax van Manen's (1996) recent publication called Childhood's Secrets
Possibilities and dilemmas of phenomenology
Phenomenology does offer ways of understanding not offered by other research methodologies. In contrast to the scientific method it is both poetic and interpretive but those working from an emancipatory view of the role of research express dissatisfaction that it does not go beyond interpretation; it does not become emancipatory. Research needs to do more than offer understanding about human experience. Ehrich, (1996) discusses this dilemma which confronted her in her doctoral studies when she moved from a commitment to a critical approach to adopting a phenomenological approach.
I have already mentioned the way the metaphor life as narrative provided a framework for the thesis. I asked Bill to tell me his life story and this became the text for interpretation. There are several issues here which need to be addressed. Is simply interpreting life narrative enough? Where in phenomenological studies is the political dimension? Barbara Kamler's article in Open Letter, (1996, Vol, 6, No.1) Is Personal Writing Empowering? Developing Critical Writing Practices in Adult Education explores ways of moving from personal experience to situating it socially and culturally, in a process of what Kamler calls 'relocating the personal'. Although the approach reported in this study is probably not phenomenological it is another way of dealing with the issue of the personal response and its wider social location.
The second problem in working within this metaphor is that of representation. Bill was happy to be interviewed by me, to tell me his story. I needed him to tell me his story which would provide me with a text for interpretation. Throughout the research project the research question was mine and remained mine and the analysis and interpretation were mine. The second interview was an opportunity to collaborate with Bill about statements he had made in the first interview and whether he had been appropriately represented. I am still left with the question as researcher Do I have the right to appropriate someone else's story? Where is the adult literacy student in this thesis and how is he represented? Even the process of gaining approval from the university ethics committee and asking Bill to sign a consent form does not provide an adequate solution to this problem. And thirdly, questions are raised of the power and authority of the researcher in the interview situation and how and whether the construction of the narrative might have been shaped according to what Bill thought I wanted to hear in the telling of his story.
Having finished the thesis it is only now that some of the tensions and inconsistencies of carrying out research in the middle of this paradigm shift have become apparent. Many of the conventions of writing a thesis for a higher degree still sit within the scientific method paradigm. Writing a thesis in the postposivist mode means writing with some of the legacies of the scientific method in mind. The design of my thesis was quite orthodox; the chapter headings are testament to my belief that there were certain conventions to be fulfilled.
The Narrative: three texts: the researcher, the adult learner and the adult literacy teacher
The Literature Review: a reading of the metaphors in the literature
Design and Implementation
Analysis and Interpretation: a symbolic approach
Implications for Practice
As well although markers sympathetic to a postpositivist approach were sought for assessing the thesis there was no certainty that they would be. That there were certain disciplines to be adhered to in the thesis writing and presentation was communicated to us as higher degree students in varied and subtle ways. Triangulation was another research convention that had to be fulfilled in order to satisfy examiners that the project had some sort of validity and credibility, that it was not just the subjective response of one person. Debate about assessment of postpositivist research is on-going. What does it mean to do a doctorate in the performing or visual arts? How is triangulation possible in autobiographical thesis writing? How are higher degree theses based on autobiography to be assessed?
Interpreting symbolically and thinking metaphorically provided a way of understanding Bills life story and the changes that were taking place at the time of the study as a result of him taking on literate ways of being. By working phenomenologically with the concept of metaphor I was able to identify important areas which would merit further research pertinent to the teaching/learning relationship which I called in the title of the thesis the hidden spaces. I was wanting to go beyond measurable outcomes to find ways of understanding the affective domain; to find ways of talking about how these new ways of reading and writing were effecting Bills very sense of self.
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