The study of phenomenology and its purpose


Understanding the meaning of people's lived experiences is the focus of phenomenology (McConnell-Henry, Chapman, & Francis, 2009). Phenomenology is the "philosophy or method of inquiry" whereby all truths are understood through self awareness (" Unabridged," 2006). Ascribed from the words "phenomenon" and "logos", an implied meaning of phenomenology is the "logical interpretation of a phenomenon". Phenomena refer to any observed occurrences that are understood in our minds. Whereas logos is the human ability to think and express thoughts clearly into words (Vivilaki & Johnson, 2008). In the mind, phenomena are interpreted logically through the use of logos (Vivilaki & Johnson, 2008) to enhance meaning and understanding of life's experiences (Bryne, 2001).


Philosophical Base

Phenomenology can be viewed as atheoretical in that it may not use a pre-selected theoretical framework (Mapp, 2008; Munhall, 2007). The epistemological and ontological theoretical basics of phenomenology have been established for decades by various philosophers with different methods (Mapp, 2008). Therefore, a thorough understanding of the theoretical underpinnings of phenomenology is essential when establishing the methods for a phenomenological research study. When qualitative researchers explain their methods using the phenomenologist they ascribe to, this foundation allows the unique ability of examining the world from a distinct phenomenological perspective. Thus, "the philosophy and theory of the method itself" guide the study when phenomenology is the theoretical framework (Munhall & Chenail, 2008).

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From a phenomenological viewpoint, the subjective experience of each person is examined for meaning and understanding, and not quantified into statistical data. While the scientific method has centered on the discovery of knowledge with little regard for the meaning of life experiences (Bryne, 2001), phenomenological studies are rising to provide insight into life experiences, particularly those surrounding health (Vivilaki & Johnson, 2008).

The three schools of thought related to phenomenology include Husserlian, Heideggerian, and Dutch/Urecht. Edmond Husseri, a mathematician, philosopher, and Father of phenomenology, believed the researcher should contain their beliefs and experiences through a process called 'transcendental consciousness' or 'bracketing' to objectively understand and describe the 'essence' of a participant's lived experience (Hunter, 2004; Mapp, 2008). The descriptive approach used in Husserlian phenomenology to explain phenomena is further delineated by van Manen (1990) into two forms, immediate and intermediate. The first form refers to the immediate lived experience and the second form is symbolic and refers to a mediated description such as text or art works, revealing greater analysis (van Manen, 1990).

In contrast to Husseri, Martin Heidegger, a pupil of Husseri, meshed hermeneutics with phenomenology possibly due to his early theological background. He believed the researcher used previous beliefs and experiences to interpret the participant's experience. Heidegger contended that being-in- the-world made it virtually impossible to bracket beliefs because the researcher's prior knowledge, or fore-structure, would facilitate understanding the meaning of lived experiences(Mapp, 2008; McConnell-Henry, et al., 2009). There are two features in the interpretative approach used in Husserlian phenomenology. One part 'points to' what the lived experience reveals and the other part 'points out' the meaning of something already interpreted such as art work or text (van Manen, 1990).

Both philosophical views, descriptive and interpretative were used with the Dutch/Urecht school of thought (Mapp, 2008; McConnell-Henry, et al., 2009). The philosopher, van Manen, believed the terms descriptive and interpretative could be used interchangeably. He seemingly concurred with the argument that "all description is ultimately interpretation" (van Manen, 1990). Each of the three philological underpinnings for phenomenology may overlap their theoretical base and generate confusion. This is no surprise given that the meaning of the lived human experiences is diverse with an endless range of inquiries(Hunter, 2004).

Key Assumptions

Phenomenology is supported by a number of key assumptions (Munhall, 2007; Orb, 2000).

Each person involved in the research study will be referred to as participants.

Participants are willing to speak openly and truthfully about their experiences.

The phenomenological question is a meaning question that is clear and easily understood by the participant.

The therapeutic imperative of nursing (advocacy) takes precedence over the research imperative (advancing knowledge) if conflict develops.

The ethical system of deontological (people are not to be treated as means) reflects qualitative nursing.

The researcher will continually inform the participant, renegotiate, and ask permission as unexpected changes occur during the study to reflect process consenting.

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The researcher will make no attempts to engage in problem solving.

It is possible for the researcher to discover and understand the participant's perception and derive meaning of their lived experience.

The researcher acknowledges any beliefs, biases, assumptions, or presuppositions that may that may hinder the veracity of the study.

The researcher is an active medium for the voice of their participants without altering their life experiences.

The sample is adequate and appropriate reflecting saturation and replication.

The researcher will not generalize study results.

Appropriate Situations for Use

Phenomenology is widely used in various areas of research that deal with human

experiences such as nursing, psychology, sociology and education (McConnell-Henry, et al., 2009). Several phenomenological nursing research studies were examined. In one study, Clarke (2009) used a reflective diary to provide transparency, self-development, and clarification of her thoughts and feelings as a novice researcher. Another study conducted by Koch (1994) examined the rigor involved in a study of elderly patients who were victims of negligence. A study on spiritual care for the ill patients without religious affiliation identified several implications for policy change to affect current nursing practice and the educational preparation of nurses (Creel, 2007). Research on experienced emergency nurses stressed the importance of knowledge and experience as key to intuition (Lyneham, Parkinson, & Denholm, 2008). The final study cited the experience of advance beginner nurses employed in psychiatric facilities with limited educational preparation and the need for change in the educational arena (Waite, 2006).

Each of the studies examined were useful in communicating how participants view the world as they experience the studied phenomenon (Munhall, 2007). The results of the studies are most useful when the researcher allows the data to speak to the reader (van Manen, 1990). Most important, the phenomenology studies create hope. In addition, these studies can be used to liberate us from long held beliefs that cut-off the voice of a person's lived experience (Munhall, 2007).

Sample Research Questions

The questions in phenomenology research are meaning questions and unlike problem questions, they are not designed to be solved. Instead, the questions allow significance and understanding of phenomena. Phenomenological questions are never closed out with a correct answer. These questions remain open to provide new meaning and insight to those who hope to benefit from the response (van Manen, 1990).

Phenomenological questions are questions of wonder that resonate in the heart of the researcher whereby the researcher lives the question and becomes the question by questioning over and over again until the question reveals the essence of its nature. In contrast, empirical research allows statistical data to answer the question for masses of people with no regard for the unique lives of participants. The question in phenomenological research focuses on the phenomenon studied and what the experience is "really" like for the participant. The knowledge derived from the simple question, "what is it like?" not only helps participants think and talk about their experiences, but it pulls the reader into the phenomenological description and instills wonder about the phenomena revealed and aids understanding of human experiences (van Manen, 1990).

Formulating the research question has some similarities to empirical methods in that the research question is formulated according to the chosen philosopher and the aim of the study. For example, if Heidegger is the philosopher, then the question will focus on "being in the world". As an example, the question would reflect the experience the "being" is in and ask: What does it mean to be a human being and have this experience" (Munhall, 2007)? According to Munhall (2007), it is imperative that meaning be the primary focus of the study.

Sample questions that focus, reflect meaning, and understanding of the phenomenon are as addressed (McConnell-Henry, et al., 2009; Munhall, 2007; van Manen, 1990).

"What is/are meaning(s) in this experience or phenomenon?"

"What is being described here?"

"What is it like to be a person having this experience?"

"What is it like for those surrounding the person?"

"How is the phenomenon reflected and manifested in human relationships?"

"What is the evolving meaning(s) that surrounds the phenomenon over time and how does this manifest itself in human experience?"

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Data Analysis

Most Common Methods

Unlike empirical research, there is no method of procedures that are quickly understood and mastered when conducting phenomenological research (Munhall, 2007). Phenomenology with its emphasis on understanding the lived experience does not lend itself to specific steps in an effort to protect the veracity of the phenomenon (Groenewald, 2004). Description of methods are not designed to be linear procedural steps, but rather a way to understand the approach to phenomenological research (Munhall, 2007; vanManen, 1990). According to van Manen (1990), methods cannot be fixed, but as questions arise during the research, methods may be either discovered or invented.

Munhall (2007) purposed a two-fold purpose for developing a phenomenological method of inquiry. Her first intent was to aide students and colleagues in various efforts such as novice researcher understanding, preparation for dissertation proposals, institutional review board approval, and grant applications. Secondly, she wanted qualitative research established with the same credibility and respect as the scientific method (Munhall, 2007).

Munhall (2007) derived her analysis method from the work of van Manen. The

main philosophical difference between Munhall and van Manen is that Munhall views phenomenological research as a problem solving agent that can effect change in policy and practice. In addition, she believes phenomenological research results can augment the capacity for caring and compassion, and enhance awareness of unknown and erroneous information (Munhall, 2007).

An overview of the methods for phenomenological inquiry and data analysis described by Munhall (2007) is compared to the different phenomenological approaches. Table 1 depicts the similarities of three common methods, descriptive/interpretative (van Manen, 1990), descriptive (Waite, 2006), and interpretative hermeneutics (Crist & Tanner, 2003).

How Results Are Usually Presented

Results are written in a narrative format and condensed into a summary of major interpretations. The narrative should reflect the most meaningful aspect of the research study that could shed light on the problem studied and potentiate social change. Participants are generally asked to read the summary to verify the meaning of their lived experiences. Understanding the lived experiences of the people in the world in which they live can have powerful implications for issues such as non-adherent behaviors (Munhall, 2007). Munhall (2007) purports that non-adherent behavior "results from not understanding the patient and the meaning of a behavior to the patient".

Findings from phenomenology studies should be disseminated to give voice to the lived experiences of the participants (Munhall, 2007). The thrust of phenomenology is to give birth to the ideas of others (Vivilaki & Johnson, 2008). Phenomenological research studies are rooted in caring about the experiences of participants and the desire to make a difference. The question upon the completion of the study is "So what?" These studies command interventions for change that are viable and designed to make a difference (Munhall, 2007).