Interpretive Phenomenological Analysis (IPA) Research of Language Acquisition Issues

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23/09/19 Education Reference this

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Methodology Report

In the United States, an elevated percentage of high school students with a recorded learning disability are opted-out of foreign language education. The assertion is that learning an additional language provides extreme stress and/or exacerbates the learning disability in and out of the classroom, thereby making the learning disabled student feel more frustrated and defeated in their ability to acquire another language. This phenomenon of opting learning disabled students out of foreign language altogether has increased in U.S. public schools over the past twenty years but with little to no research supporting the rationale behind the decision. Therefore, the scholar- practitioner would like to focus attention on this educational phenomena through the use of Interpretive Phenomenological Analysis (IPA) as a qualitative approach to understand lived experiences of participants dealing with language acquisition issues. The primary objective of IPA will provide an opportunity for the scholar-practitioner to explore in great detail the lived learning experiences of participants with the goal of drawing connections, socio-emotionally and/or cognitively, of how LD students find little to no success in their language acquisition. It is hoped that participant accounts will yield information that will allow the scholar-practitioner to reflect on students learning attempts, potentially creating options for improved learning opportunities in foreign language acquisition for all learning levels.

Methodological Overview

As a whole, qualitative study imparts auxiliary returns to the experimental competency researchers need to explore and investigate their studies.  Delving deeper into the beginnings of research methodology, interpretative phenomenological analysis (IPA) was developed within the field of psychology to allow thorough consideration of idiographic experiences and social perceptions. To be more specific, IPA can provide researchers with an intimate connection to their participants shared experiences which formulates a tight bond and provides an opportunity to understand lived experience from the perspective of the interviewee. Yet, researchers considering IPA must first understand the theoretical underpinnings of this contemporary methodology as it is rooted in the phenomenology of Husserl, ideography, and hermeneutics. This paper will provide a transitory glimpse at the aforementioned theoretical subsections through a literature review of research supporting the benefits of IPA as a methodology best suited to the scholar-practitioner’s area of study.


Harkening back to the field of psychology, IPA was fashioned in response to the emergent division between two alternate approaches of qualitative thought geared toward the laws of human behavior: phenomenological and post-positivist (Smith, 2015). Seminal researchers like Smith (2015) pointed out how positivist streams of thought were front and center; thereby relegating alternative approaches that focused in on the understanding of the individual experience. However, Alase (2017) contends that it was Husserl who conceptualized and theorized IPA in context to the understanding of lived experience. Linking the theory of phenomenology to IPA underpinnings, historical research points to the extensive use of hermeneutical phenomenology (participant experience) as it related to the interpretation of the life lived. Again, Alase (2017) refers to researchers like van Manen and Moustakas as essential forerunners in the clarification and employment of phenomenological theories as they increased the application of IPA’s usability to different research concentrations.

Other seminal researchers like William James and Gordon Allport (as cited in Smith, Larkin, and Flowers, 2009) buoyed this point and argued for the analysis of a qualitative study that didn’t focus on large population samples and generalize data quantitatively. As Husserl contended (Alase, 2017), qualitative data analysis through a phenomenological approach provides a structured method of collection as there is a common meaning for several individuals when looking at their lived experiences. The process is interpretive on the part of the researcher who then must make meaning of the language. Though the reality of experience cannot be denied, assumptions about it must be bracketed. As Alase (2017) asserts, the experience is the source of knowledge. Adherence to these guidelines is straightforward and effective in creating a foundation of accessible data.


Researchers like Ferriera (2018) defend IPA idiography and its strengths as a method to examine participant experiences individually. Indeed, the purposeful design of IPA seeks to address two specific aims: one, to understand and communicate the experience(s) of the participants involved and two, to provide an interpretation of the phenomenological account as it is viewed within a wider social and cultural context. In the case of the scholar-practitioner, the phenomenon of LD students opting out of foreign language class on a continual basis within US public schools. In turn, there is an acceptance of the personal information provided by the interviewees that are taken at place value (Ferriera, 2018). Though there is a shared sense of the human condition found with IPA idiography, the level of in-depth questioning that is associated with this methodological approach must be scrutinized so not to veer off track and become watered down.

In Reid (2005), specificity associated with idiography is mentioned, as it concerns itself with the “particular” instead of the universal. Again, researchers should commit to the detailed analysis that is thorough. Reid highlights how commitment to deep understanding creates a natural progression of understanding how experiential phenomena is received from the perspective of an individual instead of a general context. While generalized ideas are not rejected, the development of generalized ideas is developed in a cautious manner.


A theory of interpretation, hermeneutics was vigorously supported by researchers like Heidegger and Schleiermacher (Davey, 2017). Since IPA is rooted in the capturing of quality, experience, and participant meaning as they acknowledge their own experience, such revelations are not directly accessible to the researcher. In reality, all accounts recorded in an interview/conversation carry a level of preset interpretation. This is viewed as participant interpretation and their commitment to making sense of the phenomenon in question. As this method relates to the scholar-practitioners area of interest, having a learning disabled (LD) students try to make sense of why they do not do well with learning another language is hermeneutic in its design. However, the scholar-practitioner’s role as interpreter of the accounts recorded appears as a hermeneutic as well (Smith, 2015)

The theory of interpretation is clear, following the philosophy of Schleiermacher an interpreter develops in their range of interpretive skills when he/she understands the interviewee better than he/she can understand him/herself (Larkin, M., Eatough, V., and Osborn, 2001). Indeed, the development of this craft is somewhat evolutionary, as the interpreter must consider his or her own insights as they exceed or subsume the claims of the research participants.

While the performance of an experiential qualitative study is not without its challenges, each stage draws on skills which are taught somewhat consecutively. As stated by Dowling (2007), IPA researchers must appreciate the developmental process in which the gathering of data (memoing and interviews) builds confidence over time as trust and confidence between the interviewer and interviewee(s) develops and strengthens over time. Specifically, procedural formats become less formal over time with the understanding of positionality (on behalf of the researcher and the interviewee).

Methodological Comparisons

In a qualitative research methodology, there are variations of analytical approaches that researchers can utilize for their data analysis. Some of these analytical approaches are Narrative Inquiry, Narrative Research, Case Study, and IPA. Regardless of the qualitative approach, the scholar-practitioner has the momentum to create and organize files of information. Second, the scholar-practitioner must engage in the process of a general reading and memoing of information. As alluded in Creswell (2013) this develops an impression of the data and allows the researcher to begin the process of making sense of the information collected. When all methods organize a phase of description, the researcher will begin to construct a scheme of the process. Suitable questions must be formulated by the scholar-practitioner so the focus is centered on personal meaning and the identification of a potential “shared experience.”

 Though the scholar-practitioner could make arguments for the justification of any one of these methods, at present time, IPA seems to be the most promising in terms of exploring trends in the opting out of foreign language courses when identified LD students are completing their academics studies. More specifically, the scholar-practitioner wishes to understand the lived experiences of a selected sampling of her LD students. By examining their individual narratives, the scholar-practitioner seeks to find out what foreign language experiences have been like up to this point in the students’ academic careers. The aim is to actively look at the direction of the phenomena and determine what literature will be used to ground the research data to identify potential problems LD students have/face when entering a foreign language environment.

In contrast to IPA, the scholar-practitioner is battling the efficacy of case study methodology as it is useful in the utilization of data collection. Case study analysis also aligns well to the phenomenon of the investigative study as it is beneficial in testing theories and running models that could be transferred to real-world applications such as the redevelopment of foreign language curriculum for LD students. With the scholar-practitioner’s area of focus, an in-depth study of a phenomenon is more beneficial than a broad-based statistical survey. Furthermore, the scholar-practitioner wishes to look at all data collected and possibly disaggregate the information. The pool of research participant information will be interpreted by the scholar-practitioner in a manner that could potentially yield indication and allow for a further explanation of a hypothesis on the subject of foreign language acquisition in general. However, IPA affords the scholar-practitioner the opportunity to explore personal experience instead of producing an objective statement about the event itself. This is critical for the scholar-practitioner if a phenomenon is to be seen.

While it could be argued that qualitative methodologies possess margins that are somewhat blurred, as they draw on multidisciplinary fields like phenomenology and or hermeneutics, different methods of phenomenology are socially constructed and have an extensive overlap in their purposes and vary in the manner in which they detach the experience from the experienced persons at the end of the research. Comparing narrative inquiry to IPA, evidence of phenomenological and interpretive analysis (Smith, 2015) is varied. With narrative inquiry, research produces findings that are well-grounded, supportable, and emphasize the linguistic reality of human experience. Stories are used for interpretive and phenomenological research (Creswell, 2013). Although comparable to IPA in the chronicling of participant experience, narrative inquiry delves deeper into the understanding of researcher/participant collaboration over a period of time as well as the social interaction of the environment. The simple principle of narrative inquiry is that individuals are viewed as storytellers. Provocation and examination of accounts are the common focus in the narrative inquiry (McGannon, K. & Smith, B., 2015). Unlike in IPA, where accounts provide rich experiential insight, narrative stories are observed as the primary standard through which meanings are derived in a holistic manner. Narrative Inquiry addresses issues of complexity as well as human and cultural centeredness. Participant perception is important but not the fundamental focus.

For the scholar-practitioner’s area of focus, the process will be more inductive, as natural observations will hopefully lead to the revelation of how a specific phenomenon has occurred over time. The scholar-practitioner looks to IPA methodology as a means for gathering data on personal experiences, in the hopes of revealing patterns, resemblances, and/or regularities/irregularities in the experiences to reach a conclusion.



In summation, IPA methodology is appropriate to observe phenomena that are of empirical substance for the research participants.  Such topics can often be life-changing and convey reflection and clarification for the people involved. IPA demonstrates, in particular, the suitability of examination of participant’s experience of significant events and the capacity to recognize the experience that makes it suitable for sociological investigations of events. In the case of the scholar-practitioner, the investigation of foreign language acquisition issues and LD students. While acknowledging the important role of IPA, it is important to reaffirm that this qualitative method was developed for the purpose of moving towards the understanding of an individual experience rather than the broader, socio-cultural aspects. The scholar-practitioner looks to do this with the interview of between 8-10 students who are currently documented as LD. Larkin et al. (2006) clearly insist that researchers make broader theoretical relationships that can ultimately be drawn to the specific interpretations at the future phases of IPA. The scholar-practitioner believes this enterprise will be more straightforward in the framework of interpretive research due to current hypothesizing the inter-personal features of the human condition. Furthermore, the scholar-practitioner asserts that IPA methodology will advantageous in the engagement of participant experience and grounding the analysis of their foreign language accounts.

Appendix 1: Methodology Key Sources

Author (year)

Main Ideas

Research Notes


Alase, Abayomi. “The interpretative phenomenological analysis (IPA): A guide to a good qualitative research approach.” International Journal of Education and Literacy Studies 5.2 (2017): 9-19.

Step-by-step comprehensive guide to help prepare and equip researchers with ways to utilize and apply the IPA approach in their qualitative research studies. Researchers develop with their research participants.

Organization of information files; general reading; memoing of participants lived experience (interviews); open-ended research questions; participant sampling 2-25 (homogeneous)

Relevant paradigms to IPA- Burrell and Morgan’s (1979) interpretive paradigm and Guba’s (1990) critical theory paradigm

Ferreria, A. M. (2018). An Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis on the Intercultural Experiences of International Students. ProQuest LLC.

Study sought to understand and make sense of the intercultural experiences of international students-IPA

Inductive analysis of intercultural experiences. No testing of a pre-determined hypothesis; connections to idiography; small sample; reflection; data collection (semi-structured interviews and snowball sampling)

Ponterotto’s (2005) constructivist-interpretivist approach-foundation for qualitative research

Reid, O. (2005). Exploring lived experience. Psychologist, 18(1), 20.

Bottom’s up inductive approach to understand participant decisions

Idiographic study focusing on people chosen for their expertise; rigorous systematic analysis; results are interpretive and data not given stats of fact; researcher reflection of their role; collaborative IPA interviewing

Coding overview; table of themes to support data variation; hierarchy model. Bypassing “borrowed hypothesis” to provide credible analysis as a stand-alone methodology.

Dowling, M. (2007). From Husserl to van Manen: A review of different phenomenological approaches. International

 Journal of Nursing Studies,

 44, 131-142.

Philosophical basis of knowledge development; understand the essential features of a phenomenon as free as possible from cultural context

Contemporary qualitative research; descriptions are divided into units, (b) the units are transformed by the researcher into meanings that are

expressed in psychological and phenomenological concepts

and (c) these transformations are combined to create a distinct description of the experience

Many perspectives of phenomenology locates its various forms in the positivist (Husserl), post positivist

(Merleau–Ponty), interpretivist (Heidegger) and constructivist (Gadamer) paradigms (Racher and Robinson, 2003).

Larkin, M., Eatough, V., & Osborn, M. (2011). Interpretive phenomenological analysis and embodied, active, situated cognition. Theory and Psychology, 21(3), 318-337.

“Third phase” cognitive science and phenomenological philosophy; personal experience in the context of meaning, relationships, and the lived world

Interpretative phenomenological analysis of two bodies of work; phenomenological investigations; small number of cases yields detail-rich data (interviews, diaries, written accounts); reflection of transcriptions

Smith, J. A. (Ed.). (2015). Qualitative psychology: A practical guide to research methods. Sage.

Relationship between IPA and other qualitative approaches to psychology; measure of prevalence for a theme and the corpus should be well represented in the analysis

IPA analysis of three databases; categorization of data trends


Appendix 2: Comparison of Methodology


Key Features

Similarities to Selected Methodology

Differences to Selected Methodology


– To look in detail at how someone makes sense of life experience.

-To give detailed interpretation of the account

to understand the experience

Is the methodology selected

Is the methodology selected


-Narrative Inquiry addresses issues of complexity as well as human and cultural centeredness.

-Narrative research produces findings that are well-grounded, supportable, and emphasize the linguistic reality of human experience.

-Storytelling research

Investigates individual interpretation and global views of human-centered events.

– Data techniques (surveys, observations, interviews, documentation).

-Psychological analysis

– Sequential analysis of data, not the reasoning behind the processes in data.

– Assumes subjectivity of the person through qualitative measures not the researcher’s subjectivity. Participant perception is important but not central focus.


-Investigates a contemporary phenomenon within its real-life context.

-Illuminates a decision or set of decisions:  why they were taken, how they were implemented, and with what result.

-Data collection can be interviews.

– Description(s) of the case/theme are developed.

-The case studies is looked at as a unit of analysis rather than a topic.

-Can be a single person that may be an example of a group, program, community, etc.



Is the methodology selected

Is the methodology selected


Works Cited

  • Alase, Abayomi. “The interpretative phenomenological analysis (IPA): A guide to a good qualitative research approach.” International Journal of Education and Literacy Studies 5.2 (2017): 9-19.
  • Creswell, J.W. (2013). Qualitative Inquiry & Research Design: Choosing among Five Approaches. Los Angeles, CA: Sage.
  • Davey, N. (2017). The Future of Hermeneutics.
  • Dowling, M. (2007). From Husserl to van Manen: A review of different phenomenological approaches. International Journal of Nursing Studies, 44, 131-142.
  • Ferreria, A. M. (2018). An Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis on the Intercultural Experiences of International Students. ProQuest LLC.
  • Larkin, M., Eatough, V., & Osborn, M. (2011). Interpretive phenomenological analysis and embodied, active, situated cognition. Theory and Psychology, 21(3), 318-337.
  • McGannon, K. R., & Smith, B. (2015). Centralizing culture in cultural sport psychology research: The potential of narrative inquiry and discursive psychology. Psychology of sport and exercise17, 79-87.
  • Reid, O. (2005). Exploring lived experience. Psychologist, 18(1), 20.
  • Smith J., Flowers, P., Larkin, M., (2009). Interpretative phenomenological Analysis: Theory, Method, Research. London: Sage.
  • Smith, J. A. (Ed.). (2015). Qualitative psychology: A practical guide to research methods. Sage.

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