Interpretive approaches in nursing research
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Correspondence to firstname.lastname@example.org
Gerald Amandu Matua RN, BSN, MSN, DLitt et Phil is a lecturer at Sultan Qaboos University College of Nursing, Muscat, Oman
Dirk Mostert Van Der Wal RN, BA, BA Cur, MA Cur, DLitt et Phil is an associate professor at the University of South Africa, Pretoria, South Africa
Peer review This article has been subject to double-blind review and has been checked using antiplagiarism software
Author guidelines journals.rcni.com/r/ nr-author-guidelines
Differentiating between descriptive and interpretive phenomenological research approaches
Cite this article as: Matua GA, Van Der Wal DM (2015) Differentiating between descriptive and interpretive phenomenological research approaches. Nurse Researcher. 22, 6, 22-27.
Date of submission: August 7 2014. Date of acceptance: November 11 2014.
Introduction THE CONCEPT of ‘phenomenology’ emerged from the works of philosophers Kant, Hegel and Brentano, whose writings inspired Husserl to develop
phenomenology (Dowling 2007, Polit and Beck 2010). The phenomenological method has grown to become a credible approach for studying consciousness, including clarifying the foundations of philosophy
Abstract Aim To provide insight into how descriptive and interpretive phenomenological research approaches can guide nurse researchers during the generation and application of knowledge.
Background Phenomenology is a discipline that investigates people’s experiences to reveal what lies ‘hidden’ in them. It has become a major philosophy and research method in the humanities, human sciences and arts. Phenomenology has transitioned from descriptive phenomenology, which emphasises the ‘pure’ description of people’s experiences, to the ‘interpretation’ of such experiences, as in hermeneutic phenomenology. However, nurse researchers are still challenged by the epistemological and methodological tenets of these two methods.
Data sources The data came from relevant online databases and research books.
Review methods A review of selected peer-reviewed research and discussion papers published between January 1990 and December 2013 was conducted using CINAHL, Science Direct, PubMed and Google Scholar databases. In addition, selected textbooks that addressed phenomenology as a philosophy and as a research methodology were used.
Discussion Evidence from the literature indicates that most studies following the ‘descriptive approach’
to research are used to illuminate poorly understood aspects of experiences. In contrast, the ‘interpretive/ hermeneutic approach’ is used to examine contextual features of an experience in relation to other influences such as culture, gender, employment or wellbeing of people or groups experiencing the phenomenon. This allows investigators to arrive at a deeper understanding of the experience, so that caregivers can derive requisite knowledge needed to address such clients’ needs.
Conclusion Novice nurse researchers should endeavour to understand phenomenology both as a philosophy and research method. This is vitally important because in-depth understanding of phenomenology ensures that the most appropriate method is chosen to implement a study and to generate knowledge for nursing practice.
Implications for research/practice This paper adds to the current debate on why it is important for nurse researchers to clearly understand phenomenology as a philosophy and research method before embarking on a study. The paper guides novice researchers on key methodological decisions they need to make when using descriptive or interpretive phenomenological research approaches.
Keywords Nursing research, research methodology, descriptive phenomenology, interpretive phenomenology, qualitative research, novice researchers
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and science. Phenomenology continues to influence generations of scholars in humanities, human sciences and arts disciplines (Koivisto et al 2002, Wertz et al 2011). In nursing, ‘phenomenology’ is a method of inquiry that aims to explore and understand people’s everyday experiences (Polit and Beck 2010, Grbich 2012). It is also a science that explores and describes the appearance of things in people’s minds (Streubert and Carpenter 2011).
In this paper, phenomenology is conceptualised as an approach to the generation of knowledge that originates from and is influenced by the works of Husserl, Heidegger and those who subscribe to their epistemological viewpoints. Phenomenology is thus a discipline that investigates consciousness in ordinary life and science, and emphasises intentionality of consciousness and the self-transcending way that consciousness relates to other objects, to reveal ‘hidden aspects’ of experiences (Wertz et al 2011).
Origins and focus of phenomenological inquiry Phenomenology originated from the disciplines of philosophy and psychology in the 20th century at a time when reductionist approaches to scientific inquiry ‘ruled’ in the natural sciences (Smith 2013). In this period, human phenomena were explored independently of the people experiencing the phenomena. This prevailing ‘epistemological atmosphere’ prompted Husserl to seek a rigorous and unbiased approach for investigating ‘things as they appear’ in people’s consciousness that would enable the inquirer to ‘come face to face with the ultimate structures of consciousness’ or the ‘essence’ of a particular experience (Koch 1995, Smith 2013).
Phenomenological inquiry starts by asking the question, ‘What is the nature or meaning of this phenomenon?’ It then seeks to explore the phenomenon from the perspective of those who experience it first-hand. The phenomenological researcher thus seeks to offer accounts of time, body, space and relations, as they are lived by the people whose lives are altered by the phenomenon (van Manen 1997, 2011, Grbich 2012).
The nurse researcher uses the phenomenological method to investigate meaningful experiences such as what it feels like to be diagnosed with HIV/AIDS or to survive a life-threatening condition. Hence, the phenomenological method allows nurse researchers to critically examine experiences that are taken for granted, revealing their hidden meanings and essences, which caregivers can then use.
Transitions in phenomenology The phenomenological movement has transitioned over the years from emphasising only ‘pure description’, as prescribed by Husserl, to focusing on interpretation of experience, as advocated by Heidegger (Lopez and Willis 2004, van Manen 2011). This transition was led by Heidegger, Gadamer and Ricoeur (McConnell-Henry et al 2009, Streubert and Carpenter 2011, van Manen 2011). Although descriptive and interpretive approaches share the epistemological foundation laid by Husserl, significant methodological differences have emerged over the years between the approaches. It is thus critical that when researchers, especially novices, choose the phenomenological method as a research guide, they should be aware of some major methodological implications.
Descriptive phenomenology The main methodological consideration of descriptive phenomenology is the requirement to explore, analyse and describe a phenomenon while maintaining its richness, breadth and depth, so as to gain ‘a near-real picture’ of it (Van der Zalm and Bergum 2000, McConnell-Henry et al 2009, Streubert and Carpenter 2011). Doing this requires researchers to seek the content of consciousness in a ‘pure form’, devoid of any preconceptions, by engaging in ‘phenomenological epoché’ or ‘bracketing’ – ignoring all existing knowledge about a phenomenon so they can grasp its ‘essential’ elements (Giorgi 2008, Streubert and Carpenter 2011, van Manen 2011). This permits them to discover ‘the spontaneous surge of the lifeworld’, enabling them to achieve a more direct and primitive contact with the phenomenon as it is ‘lived’ rather than as it is ‘conceptualised’ (Merleau-Ponty 1962, van Manen 2011).
Epoché/bracketing hinges on ‘direct seeing’, which is the key to understanding an experience, enabling the researcher to look beyond preconceptions and tap directly into its essence (Husserl 1931, Tufford and Newman 2012). Hence, with descriptive phenomenology, the researcher emerges with a presupposition-less description of a phenomenon.
Interpretive phenomenology When the interpretive phenomenological approach is chosen, researchers need to focus on gaining a deeper understanding of an experience (Van der Zalm and Bergum 2000, van Manen 2011). Dowling (2007) and van Manen (2011) contend that phenomenological research becomes ‘hermeneutic’ when its method and focus is interpretive. The hermeneutic method allows
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nurse researchers to investigate the meaning of experiences related to issues that have implications for nursing research and practice, such as life, death and pain. It enables the interpretation of the meaning of the phenomenon to reproduce a clearer understanding of what the nurse researcher intended to portray. It also emphasises the ‘meaning of the meaning of the text’ – that is, the psychological implications of the ‘speech’, ‘language’ or ‘set of words’ in a particular context. For example, in patient care, hermeneutics can help researchers to investigate how patients interpret their diagnoses, including how these affect them as drivers, nurses or teachers.
This shift of focus of phenomenological inquiry from ‘description’ to ‘interpretation and understanding’ is grounded in the work of Heidegger who argued that all descriptions are already an interpretation, because understanding is an inevitable basic structure of our ‘being in the world’ (Heidegger 1962, Finlay 2008). People almost always interpret and find meanings in events in their lives, including how these events affect the context in which these individuals operate, as say mothers or employees (Heidegger 1962, Wojnar and Swanson 2007).
In essence, interpretive phenomenological research results in a detailed interpretation of the meanings and structures of a particular phenomenon as it is experienced first-hand.
Differentiating between descriptive and interpretive phenomenology While these two approaches to phenomenological research depend on experience and have a shared history (Flood 2010, Reiners 2012), significant differences exist between them in terms of research’s focus, outcome and goal, as well as the role previous knowledge plays. Further differences also exist in the way researchers value and consider the participants’ context of the experience being investigated, including how knowledge derived through a particular method is applied in the professional disciplines (Lopez and Willis 2004).
Focus of the research Descriptive phenomenology focuses on the generation of knowledge that emphasises ‘direct exploration, analysis and description of a particular human phenomenon as free as possible from unexamined presuppositions, aiming at maximum intuitive presentation’ of the experience (Spiegelberg 1975, Finlay 2008, Streubert and Carpenter 2011). Descriptive phenomenological research attempts to discover what it is like to undergo a particular experience. To do this,
the researcher focuses on describing as faithfully as possible the first-hand experience being investigated so that others are able to ‘see’ and ‘feel’ it, without mentioning any of the participants’ social, cultural or political contexts (van Manen 1997, Dowling 2007, Reiners 2012).
However, in interpretive phenomenological research, the focus shifts to achieving a deeper understanding of the experience (Racher 2003, Flood 2010), concentrating on unveiling the otherwise hidden meanings in the accounts of the experience (Spiegelberg 1975, Streubert and Carpenter 2011) and taking into account the various contexts of the participants. This difference arises from the interpretive phenomenologist’s ‘attending’ to the individual for whom the experience has meaning.
McConnell-Henry et al (2009) added that interpretive research departs from ‘simply raising awareness about a phenomenon’ through simple description in favour of wanting to ‘attain a broader and deeper understanding’ of what the phenomenon means to those who experience it in their own social-cultural contexts and realities, including how the experience alters their entire being.
Role of previous knowledge In descriptive phenomenological research, researchers are expected to ‘shed and keep in abeyance’ all their personal knowledge related to the phenomenon (Giorgi and Giorgi 2003, Lopez and Willis 2004, Tufford and Newman 2012), assisted by bracketing. Bracketing helps descriptive phenomenological researchers to achieve a state of ‘transcendental subjectivity’ and to ‘abandon’ their realities to understand the experience in its purest form (Wertz 2005, Wojnar and Swanson 2007). Wojnar and Swanson (2007) further contended that it is this desire for ‘reduction’ that has led some descriptive phenomenologists to propose that researchers should avoid an in-depth literature review before starting research, to prevent being ‘contaminated’ by prior knowledge. Descriptive phenomenology therefore attempts to ensure that researchers’ pre-understandings do not creep into the study’s findings (Dahlberg 2006, Finlay 2008, Giorgi 2011, Chan et al 2013).
However, in the interpretive framework, pre-understandings are not bracketed; instead, they are integrated and become part of the research findings, being considered valuable guides that make research more meaningful (Lopez and Willis 2004, Humble and Cross 2010). This assertion is based on Heidegger’s notion that interpretation is an inevitable and basic result of our being in the world (Heidegger 1962, Finlay 2008): whenever an object is interpreted as something, this is grounded
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in the interpreter’s pre-understanding of the object (Heidegger 1962, Finlay 2008, Humble and Cross 2010), making it impossible for the interpreter to transcend it.
Furthermore, Streubert and Carpenter (2011) posit that hermeneutic research differs from descriptive approaches because it does not require researchers to bracket their preconceptions during data analysis, rather requiring the researcher to exercise what Finlay (2008), Wertz (2005) and van Manen (2011) described as ‘openness’, ‘empathy’ and ‘reflexivity’ respectively. In addition, Koch (1995) said that it is impossible to rid one’s mind of the background of understandings that lead one to undertake research.
Hence, contrary to the idea that presupposition ‘taints’ research data (Paley 2005, Giorgi 2008), pre-understandings assist in achieving a deeper understanding (Flood 2010, Humble and Cross 2010).
Outcome of the research Descriptive phenomenological research aims to ‘unveil’ how a particular experience presents itself, with ‘nothing added and nothing subtracted’ (Wertz et al 2011), the outcome being the arrival at ‘universal essences’ or ‘eidetic structures’, which are ‘pure’ descriptions of what an experience is that are not unduly ‘tainted’ by the researcher (Husserl 1970, Wojnar and Swanson 2007, Finlay 2008). Its methods ensure that the knowledge generated reflects the phenomenon as experienced by participants first-hand. This is why Newstrom and Davis (2002) portrayed descriptive phenomenology as aiming to accurately describe an experience and not generate theories or explanations about it, resulting in detailed descriptions of ‘what an experience is like’ for those people who go through it (Giorgi 2008, Wertz et al 2011).
The generation of ‘pure’ descriptions and ‘universal essences’ is aided by reductive processes, supported by the belief that there are features to any experience that are common or ‘given’ to all people who have had the experience (Lopez and Willis 2004, Giorgi 2008). Descriptive phenomenological research thus considers researchers as ‘aliens’ whose role is to grasp ‘what something is’ from the first-hand perspective of those who experience it (Wertz et al 2011) and then meticulously describe the critical elements, while emphasising individual or universal features of the phenomenon (Giorgi 2008, Streubert and Carpenter 2011).
In contrast, the goal of interpretive phenomenological research is to enter another’s world and to discover the wisdom, possibilities and understandings therein (Polit and Beck 2010). The goal of hermeneutic inquiry is to identify participants’ meanings of a phenomenon from the
blend of the researchers’ understanding of the situation and what participants and other relevant data say about the phenomenon in question (Wojnar and Swanson 2007, McConnell-Henry et al 2009). This ‘final product of inquiry’ – the deeper understanding of the phenomenon – is what Flood (2010) describes as ‘co-constitutionality’, Gadamer as the ‘fusion of horizons’ (Fitzroy 2012) and Heidegger as the ‘hermeneutic circle’ of understanding of an experience (Streubert and Carpenter 2011). This implies that meaning-making within the hermeneutic methods of inquiry connotes ‘shared meaning-making’, which requires ‘seamless fusion’ of the researcher’s and participants’ perspectives about the phenomenon being investigated.
In interpretive phenomenological research, understanding the essential elements of a phenomenon occurs when the researcher’s horizon – often consisting of social, cultural or interpersonal views (Fry 2009) – intersects with the meanings attributed by participants to the phenomenon (Flood 2010). Fitzroy (2012) said that to spawn the emergence of new perspectives through the ‘fusion of horizons’, researchers need to constantly question and re-question their existing knowledge during the hermeneutic circle of understanding.
In essence, in terms of outcomes, interpretive research focuses mainly on the understanding of socially situated meanings, habits and practices from a person’s experiences, thereby allowing common, taken-for-granted or concealed meanings and social practices to become more visible and intelligible for others (Spiegelberg 1975, Lopez and Willis 2004, Brykczynski and Benner 2010, Streubert and Carpenter 2011).
Value of context Radical autonomy, which arises from the Husserlian approach to the generation of knowledge, is another difference between the two phenomenological methodologies. In descriptive phenomenology, people are ‘free agents’, uninfluenced by the environment and culture in which they live (Plotka 2011). This implies that the impact of culture, society and politics on the individual’s ability to choose and act is unimportant (Lopez and Willis 2004, Flood 2010), and that the environments in which people live do not influence their experiences (Wojnar and Swanson 2007). Hence, descriptive phenomenological researchers describe essential features of phenomena, without paying attention to the socio-cultural contexts of the people being studied (Mackey 2005, Dowling 2007, Flood 2010).
In interpretive phenomenology, however, people are inextricably linked to and embedded in their
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‘life worlds’ (Mackey 2005) to the extent that their subjective experiences are inevitably influenced by the social-cultural contexts in which they find themselves (Mackey 2005, Flood 2010). Knowledge generation therefore shifts from the contextless description of descriptive phenomenology to explicating what individuals’ narratives of their experiences imply in their specific circumstances (Lopez and Willis 2004). It is for this reason that Benner (2001) advised that phenomenological researchers should understand and interpret the meanings of situations in the contexts in which participants experience them. This leads to what Todres and Wheeler (2001) termed ‘positional knowledge’ or ‘situated meanings’, which requires researchers to elucidate experiences in participants’ realities of time, space, relationships, body or culture (van Manen 1997, Van der Zalm and Bergum 2000, Flood 2010).
Application of the knowledge generated within the disciplines The final important difference between the two research methodologies relates to how the knowledge generated augments professional
knowledge. Lopez and Willis (2004) pointed out that because descriptive phenomenology generally results in knowledge that is free of context and universal in nature, research guided by this framework will largely be geared towards understanding what it is like for a person or a group of people to experience a particular phenomenon. Hence, disciplinary knowledge is built using descriptive phenomenology by generating new knowledge about a poorly understood phenomenon so that others can know its ‘distinct’ or ‘essential’ features, which then allows for a ‘generalised conception’ of the phenomenon (Lopez and Willis 2004, Streubert and Carpenter 2011).
In contrast, hermeneutic phenomenology generates knowledge that may be used to describe a poorly understood phenomenon, but in the context of the person experiencing the phenomenon (Mackey 2005, Pascal 2010). It not only generates new knowledge about defining features of a phenomenon (‘whatness’), but goes into great detail to obtain participants’ descriptions of a typical experience, explicating how the phenomenon affects their relations with others and experiences of their body,
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space and time, and placing the experience in the proper context of daily living (Smith 1987, Lopez and Willis 2004, Humble and Cross 2010). In the professional disciplines, interpretive researchers generally try to generate knowledge that shows how particular experiences affect people in their usual ‘landscapes’ (Lopez and Willis 2004). This contextual understanding and explication of experience hinges on the affirmation that people’s realities are invariably related to the world in which they live, since they cannot abstract themselves away from their own lifeworlds (Heidegger 1962, Lopez and Willis 2004, Pascal 2010).
Conclusion In this paper, we have attempted to clarify the methodological differences between descriptive and interpretive phenomenological research. We began with a general conceptualisation of what phenomenology is, and then highlighted its origins, focus and the transitions in the phenomenological movement. We then discussed the key methodological differences between
the two approaches, including how they each contribute to the development of knowledge in professional disciplines that ground their practice in people’s experiences of health and illness.
Most studies that follow the purely descriptive approach to research do so to unearth aspects of experience that earlier research has not yet completely uncovered (Wojnar and Swanson 2007, Polit and Beck 2010, Creswell 2014). However, the interpretive approach is generally considered when researchers want to examine an experience’s contextual features, such as a person’s or group’s culture or gender and other factors that might affect nursing practice, especially practice addressing the unique care needs of such clients (Polit and Beck 2010, Streubert and Carpenter 2011, Fitzroy 2012).
We conclude that it is critical that nurse researchers should choose to be guided by descriptive and/or interpretive methodologies only after carefully determining which method or methods they consider to be most appropriate in achieving their objectives and generating knowledge relevant to nursing.
Conflict of interest None declared
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