Data Collection in Phenomenology

Although reducing researcher bias is an important issue in all methods and models of qualitative research, in phenomenology this is an especially important issue which is addressed within the phenomenological methodology itself. In all stages of conducting a phenomenological inquiry, the researcher will use the process of epoch–conducting a “reduction” of his or her biases and preconceptions. This method will involve setting aside or “bracketing” the researcher’s preconceptions while collecting and working with the data. The aim is to adopt the “phenomenological” attitude, being as open to whatever reveals itself in the data as possible. This is contrasted with the “natural attitude,” which is our ordinary, non-reflective state of mind in everyday life. In the natural attitude, for instance, one unreflectively takes all one’s assumptions for granted –  Republicans are “big -government lackeys of business,” Democrats are “tax-and-spend liberals,” the sun and moon travel across the sky , evolution means we’re no different from apes, and so on. In the natural attitude, one is not reflective about one’s experience. In the phenomenological attitude, attained via the “phenomenological reduction,” one assumes nothing, tries to remain open to how phenomena actually appear as they appear. Now, in the phenomenological attitude, Republicans must reveal themselves in all their actuality. Democrats too.

The researcher cannot expect participants in the psychological phenomenological study to be phenomenologist’s and, thus, capable of assuming the attitude of the phenomenological reduction (setting aside their natural attitude). Moreover, the preconceptions, details, biases, errors, and prejudices that participants carry with them in everyday life are exactly what have to be understood in psychological phenomenological research. What is critical is that the description be as precise and detailed as possible with a minimum number of generalities and abstractions.

However, the phenomenological attitude – which the researcher adopts – does demand that the researcher be able to do his/her work from within the attitude of the reduction or else no phenomenological claims for the analysis could be made. There are two descriptive levels of the empirical phenomenological model which arise from the data collected:

1)  Level 1, the original data are comprised of naïve descriptions obtained through open-ended questions and dialogue.

2) Level II, the researcher describes the structures of the experiences based on reflective analysis and interpretation of the research participant’s account or story.

To collect data for these levels of analysis, the primary tool is the in-depth personal interview. Interviews typically are open – that is, beyond initial orienting information, usually the only pre-formed questions will be open-ended, designed carefully to inquire into the participant’s lived experience of the phenomenon under investigation and to allow the respondent the maximum freedom to respond from within that lived experience. Follow up questions would be asked to tease out deeper or more detailed elaborations of the earlier answers. Because the objective is to collect data which are profoundly descriptive – rich in detail – and introspective, these interviews often can be lengthy, sometimes lasting as much as an hour or more.

Sometimes other sources of data are used in phenomenological studies, when those sources are equivalent in some way to the in-depth interview. For example, in a study of the experience of grief, poems or other writings by the participants (or other people)about personal grief experiences might be analyzed in the same way as the in-depth interviews. Similarly, audiovisual materials which have a direct bearing on the lived experience of grief might be included as data (e.g., photos of the participant with the deceased person) and interpreted similarly.

Although other less personal data sources (such as letters, official documents, news accounts) are not often used as direct information about the lived experience, the researcher may find in a particular case that these are useful either in illuminating the  participant’s story itself or in creating a rich and textured background description of the contexts and settings in which the participant experienced the phenomenon.

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