Phenomenological Research Methods


Phenomenology is a philosophy as well as a research method through which a researcher seeks to gain a deeper understanding of the lived experiences of the subjects of the investigation (Grbich, 2007). It is a type of qualitative researcher method which is interested mainly in describing, reflecting, interpreting, and engaging the subjects of the study. Phenomenology therefore entails a process of reading, reflecting and writing which enables the researcher to “transform the lived experience into a textual expression of its essence,” (Morse & Field, 1995, p. 151). A phenomenologist tries to express a lived experience exactly as it is without having to give causal explanations.

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Researchers interested in phenomenology research make the assumption that human existence is significant and relevant only because human beings are always conscious of something (Partis, 2003). Existence in this world is a phenomenological phrase which acknowledges the fact that people are embodied in their own worlds and therefore we can only understand them if we understand their world. A number of research methods can be used to conduct a phenomenological study including: in-depth interviews, participant observation, and analysis of texts (Stern, 2006, p. 106).

Participant Observation

Observation refers to “a research method of generating data which involves the researcher immersing himself in a research setting, and systematically observing the dimensions of that setting, interactions, relationships, actions and events,” (Mackey & Gass, 2005, p. 141). Participant observation however goes a step further by allowing the researcher to be a part and parcel of the subjects under investigation.

The researcher lives with them and takes part in their daily routines. When using observation to collect data, the researcher must aim at providing cautious account of the activities without overly exerting influence on the setting from which he is observing. The data are usually collected via a combination of field notes and audio or visual recorders. Field notes enable the researcher to collect thorough intuitions of the researcher, impressions, and emerging questions.

Field notes are particularly important in collecting non-verbal communication which may be difficult to capture using audio recorders. Audio and video recordings facilitate the analysis of the data collected later and allow external researchers to analyze the data. However in phenomenological research, the use of external researchers in data analysis is limited. This is because “the main objective of phenomenological research is to describe a lived experience” (Mackey & Gass, 2005, P. 139). As such, researchers who did not take part in the actual data collection may not be in a position to explain the phenomenon under investigation exactly as it is. The meanings of the phenomenon can only be understood by the researcher having a deep interaction with the subjects.

Advantages of participant observation

One of the greatest advantages of participant observation is its ability to offer the researcher the opportunity to gather huge amounts of rich information about the subjects’ behavior and actions. Secondly, an extended observation period enables the researcher to gain a deeper and more multifaceted insight into the subjects and their worldview (Stern, 2006).

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Disadvantages of participant observation

Observation may not enable the researcher to understand the motivation for their behaviors. Therefore, the method may be most valuable when used in conjunction with other research methods such as interviews. Second, participant observation may create the problem of “observer’s paradox.” This is a situation in which subjects may fail to behave normally once they recognize the presence of the observer. On the same note, it may create the Hawthorne effect in which the subjects under investigation behave better than they normally do due to the presence of the observer (Ary, Jacobs, Razavieh, & Sorensen, 2009, p. 432).

In-depth Interviews

An interview is a personal conversation between the researcher and the respondent. In-depth interviews are used in gathering data about participants’ opinions, feelings, ideas, and beliefs about the problem under investigation. They are used to aid the understanding of the experiences of people as well as the meanings they attach to the experiences instead of testing hypotheses. An advantage of interview over participant observation is that the former can provide information which may not be obtained through observation. This means that a researcher using an in-depth interview is in a better position to gain a deeper understanding of the context of a participant’s behavior. In addition, interviews can used to clarify observations. In-depth interviews can either be semi-structured or unstructured but not structured (Moustakas, 1994).

A semi-structured interview is one in which the researcher determines the area of interest and formulates questions which will aid data collection. However, the interviewer has the flexibility of adjusting the questions or format based on the direction in which the interview is taking. An unstructured interview on the other hand is unplanned. The researcher neither premeditates nor prepares any questions. Thus the questions asked depend on the setting and the responses given by the participants. All in all, in-depth interviews use open-ended questions which provide the respondents with the opportunity to give detailed responses.

Open-ended questions also enable the researcher to probe further or clarify vague responses (Ary et al., 2009, p. 439). In phenomenological research studies, the use of in-depth interviews enables the researcher to gain a deeper understanding of the phenomenon under investigation as well as the worldview of the participants. During in-depth interviews, data can be collected using filed notes or audio recordings. However, field notes can be distracting to the interviews and thus audio recordings are preferred to field notes. Moreover, the audio recordings provide an accurate record of the responses unlike field notes.

Advantages of in-depth interviews

In-depth interviews enable the researcher to collect huge volumes of data in a short time span. In-depth interviews also provide the researcher with deeper insight into the respondents’ perspectives, the meanings they attach to their social world, information about the setting, and information about unexpected issues (Reimen, 1986). In-depth interviews also enable the researcher to follow-up on the respondents immediately and to clarify any vague response, an element which lacks in other research methods such as mailed questionnaires (Moustakas, 1994).

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Disadvantages of in-depth interviews

One disadvantage of in-depth interviews is that they are time consuming. It takes a lot of time to successfully interview respondents and to transcribe the audiotapes or excerpts later for analysis. Perhaps the greatest disadvantage of in-depth interviews is the possibility of researcher-induced bias. Respondents may be uncomfortable to provide some responses or worse still, they may provide false information. It is therefore imperative for the researcher to have strong interviewing skills and tactic (Mackey & Gass, 2005).

Document Analysis

Document analysis is a research method that uses written documents or other artifacts to gain insight into the phenomenon under investigation (Bernard, 2006). Documents may include written, physical and visual materials. They may also be personal such as diaries, letters, and autobiographies, or official such as memos, reports and films among others. Besides the written documents, non-written documents can also be used including photographs, audiotapes and videotapes. A researcher can use documents that already exist or alternatively he may ask the participants to create the documents themselves.

In phenomenological research, personal documents are best used to achieve the objective of the research: that is, to gain a deeper understanding of the subjects of investigation. Subjects can be asked to create journals or diaries, write letters, or make videos which capture their experiences about a particular issue. A primary document is one that is written or prepared by a person who had a firsthand encounter with the problem under investigation. A secondary document on the other hand is prepared by a person who may have heard about the issue under investigation.

Advantages of document analysis

Document analysis has several advantages. Documents provide a good source of data in that they offer a good account of information, events or experiences. In addition, documents are a secure source of data and can facilitate the grounding of a study in its context (Bernard, 2006). Nevertheless, document analysis is limited in several ways.

Disadvantages of document analysis

Documents are susceptible to biasness and distortion especially if they are secondary documents. Secondly, documents may not have originally been created for research purposes and therefore they may have incomplete or unrepresentative information. It is therefore imperative for the researcher to determine the originality of the documents used in the research process (Bernard, 2006).

Reference List

Ary, D., Jacobs, L., Razavieh, A., & Sorensen, C. (2009). Introduction to research in Education. Belmont, CA: Cengage Learning.

Bernard, H. (2006). Research methods in anthropology: qualitative and quantitative approaches. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Grbich, C. (2007). Qualitative data analysis. Los Angeles, CA: Sage Publications.

Mackey, A., & Gass, S. (2005). Second language research: methodology and design. Mahwah, NJ: Routledge.

Morse, J., & Field, P. (1995). Qualitative research methods for health professionals. London: Sage Publications.

Moustakas, C. (1994). Phenomenological research methods. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Partis, M. (2003). Hope in homeless people: A phenomenological study. Primary Health Care Research and Development, 4, 9-19.

Reimen, D. J. (1986). The essential structure of a caring interaction: Doing phenomenology. In P. L. Marshall & C. J. Oiler (Eds.), Nursing research: A qualitative perspective (pp. 85-108). Norwalk, NJ: Appleton-Century-Crofts.

Stern, J. (2006). Teaching religious education: researchers in the classroom. London: Continuum International Publishing Group.

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