Phenomenological Research Guidelines

  • by Dr. Janet Waters 
     (revised 2017)

    Research Method:

    The goal of qualitative phenomenological research is to describe a "lived experience" of a phenomenon. As this is a qualitative analysis of narrative data, methods to analyze its data must be quite different from more traditional or quantitative methods of research. Essentially, you are focused on meaning, the meaning of the experience, behaviour, narrative, etc. 

    Research Ethics for Phenomenological Research: As with all research methods, make sure your research proposal has been approved by your instructor or supervisor before conducting your experiment. Your research proposal must include how you plan to gather data on your participants, and a copy of your consent form. Always go over the consent form with your participants before they sign and ensure their anonymity and confidentiality is protected in your research process (within the legal requirements). Phenomenological research views participants as "co-researchers", and in many cases will review their analysis of the meaning of an experience with the participant as an essential step in the analysis of meaning.

    Data collection:

    Any way the participant can describe their lived phenomenal experience can be used to gather data in a phenomenological study. You can use an interview to gather the participants' descriptions of their experience, or the participants' written or oral self-report, an observation of their behaviour, or even their aesthetic expressions (any artistic expression can be data, including art, music, narratives, drama, poetry, dance, or film).

    Try to be as non-directive as possible in your instructions. Unlike a survey or questionnaire, in a phenomenological study you would ask participants to describe their lived experience of the phenomenon, (in the following example, of "riding on a BC Ferry"), without in any way directing or suggesting their description. However, do encourage your participant to give a full description of their experience, including their thoughts, feelings, images, sensations, memories - their stream of consciousness - along with a description of the situation in which the experience occurred. You may need to ask for clarification of details in the self-report or interview. If so, your follow up questions should again ask for further description of the detail, without suggesting what you are looking for.

    Data analysis:

    The first principle of analysis of phenomenological data is to use an emergent strategy, to allow the method of analysis to follow the nature of the data itself which may emerge or change in the course of analysis. For example, artistic depictions of experience would have to be approached differently from narratives or interview data. In all cases, however, the focus is on a deep understanding of the meaning of the description. To get at the essential meaning of the experience, a common approach is to abstract out the themes. These are essential aspects "without which the experience would not have been the same", discovered through a thoughtful engagement with the description of the experience to understand its meaning. The meanings are usually implicit, and need to be made explicit with thematic analysis.

    In a narrative, consider aspects such as the physical surroundings, the objects, the characters or aspects of the characters (e.g. their relationship), the social interactions between the different characters (or groups), the type of activity, the outcome, the descriptive elements, the time reference, and the emotions, beliefs, attitudes, plans etc. If the narrative would keep its essential meaning even when various of these aspects are changed, then those specific aspects are not part of the essential theme. Only those elements that can't be changed without losing the meaning of the narrative contribute to the essential theme.

    For example, in a description of "the experience of riding on a BC Ferry", some essential themes (without which the experience would not be the same) might include shared themes of spectacular scenery, stunningly awful coffee, expensive ferry tolls, late ferries and long waits, tasteless but expensive ferry food, and brief but moderately strong boredom relieved by the spectacular scenery. You couldn't substitute an Ontario ferry in Great Lakes scenery, or riding on a cruise ship through B.C. waters (with the food in cruise ship buffets) or a journey on a different type of vessel or vehicle and still retain the essence or meaning of the lived experience of "riding on a B.C. ferry".  Once you have fully abstracted and presented the essential themes of the experience (as described by your respondents), you will be able to present the unique experience in a way that is understandable (and recognizable to anyone who has had the experience).

    It would also be clear how the respondents' experience of the phenomenon would differ from other, similar experiences. (For example, in the mid 70's I once took a frighteningly decrepit ferry in Greece which had minimal unhygienic toilet facilities. That experience included similar themes of spectacular scenery, awful food and boredom, but was a very different ferry experience. Differences with other experiences of the same phenomenon would therefore need to be made clear in any themes analysis).

    Translate those specific elements which do contribute essentially to the meaning into an abstract form of the concept (e.g. translate "Spirit of British Columbia" into "a B.C. ferry", unless it has to be that particular ferry to convey an essential meaning). Try to remain congruent with the meaning of the participant's description (For example, a ferry from Vancouver to Vancouver Island would be different from the ferry to Bowen Island or the Sunshine Coast, especially in length of time, so you would have to make it clear if the experience is one that would be had on any B.C. ferry, or only on the Sunshine Coast one).

    In abstracting the themes from an artistic product, a similar process of reflection would be used to determine what the art means, and what elements of the art, or statements or behaviour of the participant are particularly significant, qualitatively, always in terms of their meaning. Similarly, the abstract category of which these concrete elements are particular examples would then be determined. (For example, depictions of volcanoes erupting, explosions, violent figures, weapons, the colour red, etc. might all be concrete examples of the theme of anger), in consideration of the participant's meaning making.

    In the theme analysis, meanings do rely on socio-cultural & linguistic or artistic context; just as in everyday conversations, you must often "go beyond the words" to the context "given with" the narrative or art. However, don't over-interpret from a pre-conceived theory which might seriously alter the meaning of the experience. Phenomenological Theme Analysis would avoid, for example, psychodynamic interpretations of symbolism (for example, that the ferry trip represents a "transitional state of consciousness, a journey across the surface of the Unconscious"), unless the participant has explicitly told you or confirms after "member-checking" that this was actually an aspect of their meaning or understanding of the experience. 

    Usually, there are two types of themes, collective themes that occur across a group of participants have a similar experience, as in the BC Ferry example above, and individual themes that are unique to one or a few individual participants. For example, individual themes of riding on the ferry could include for some of your participants' visits to the children's section, or the gift shop, or video games. Some individuals might enjoy ferry food, or find the trip to be like a cruise. If so, note these individual differences.

    As well as a theme analysis, you could also do a content analysis of the narrative or the art. (See the guidelines for content analysis for further information).

    Presentation of your results:

    Although your results could be presented in other ways, it is also possible to use the standard APA style research report to present the results of your phenomenological study. As usual, in the Introduction, briefly review past research and theory in your topic question (e.g. summarize current research on elements of travel experiences that participants find enjoyable or distressing). Use APA referencing style to cite your sources. Then in the Method section, present a general description of your participants (number, mean ages, gender, occupation, etc.) in the Participants section, any materials or equipment you may have used in the Materials section (though usually that would only be the question you asked your participants, or any art supplies or musical instruments you may have provided), and in the Procedure section, note that your general research strategy was a qualitative or phenomenological study.

    In the Results section of the report, present your findings, that is, the themes of the descriptions of the participants' experience. Label and define your theme, with examples of narratives that illustrate your theme. You may wish to directly quote from the narratives for each theme to illustrate it.

    In the Discussion section, relate to theories presented in the Introduction, or develop your discussion from the themes you have found. As your goal in phenomenological research is to describe the essential meaning of your participants' lived experience, in this section, you can expand on the themes and relate them to similar experiences you have found discussed or described by your sources. Of course, phenomenological data and your theme analysis is subjective, so your ability to generalize is limited.

    © Janet Waters (2017)