Phenomenology as Research Method in Nursing

Afza.Malik GDA

Nursing Research and Phenomenological Method 

Phenomenology as Research Method in Nursing

Phenomenology as a Research Method,Perception,Edmund Husserl Work,Husserl and Heidegger Comparison,Phenomenology is Inductive and Descriptive,Interpretations of the Phenomenological Method,Six Necessary Constituents,Colaizzi's (1978) Phenomenological Method,Method of Phenomenological Analysis.

Phenomenology as a Research Method

     Phenomenology refers to both a philosophical movement and a research method. The philosophical underpinnings of phenomenology are first summarized to provide a back-drop for what this methodology aims to accomplish

    One of the philosophical tenets of phenomenology is intentionality, which refers to the inseparable connectedness of human beings to the world (Husserl, 1962).

    Subject and object are united in being in the world. One cannot describe either the subjective or objective world but only the world as experienced by the subject (Merleau-Ponty, 1964). The observer is not separate from the observed. 

    One can know what one experiences only by attending to perceptions and meanings that awaken conscious awareness. 

    Phenomenologists hold that human existence is meaningful only in the sense that persons are always conscious of something. Meaning emerges from the relationship between the person and the world as the person gives meaning to experiences. Phenomenology focuses on lived experience, that is, human involvement in the world.


    Perception is one's original awareness of the appearance of a phenomenon in experience (Merleau-Ponty, 1962). In phenomenology the process of recovering our original awareness is called reduction. Through phenomenological reduction one refrains from preconceived notions and judgments. Schutz (1973) described reduction as a process that is completed in degrees. 

    Little by little, one' layers of preconceived meaning and interpolation are peeled away, leaving the perceived world. The layers of meaning provided by a researcher's knowledge and interpretation are preserved by being temporarily set aside that is, bracketing. Through phenomenological reduction the world of everyday experience becomes accessible.

Edmund Husserl Work

    Edmund Husserl is considered the father of phenomenology. His is a descriptive phenomenology. He was interested in the epistemological question; how do we know about man? The goal of his phenomenology is the description of the lived world. 

    Husserl's student, Martin Heidegger, took phenomenology in a different direction. Heidegger (1962) was more interested in the ontological question, what is being? The goal of his phenomenology, called hermeneutic phenomenology, was understood. 

    This understanding is achieved through interpretation. Heidegger argued that it was not possible to bracket one's being in the world.

Husserl and Heidegger Comparison

    The phenomenological philosophies of Husserl and Heidegger have different methodological implications for nurse researchers, Husserlian phenomenology focuses on the analysis of the subject and object as the object appears through consciousness. Bracketing is essential in this descriptive phenomenology. 

    In Heideggerian phenomenology, bracketing is not used because this phenomenology views people as being in the world. This notion of being in the world allows researchers to bring their experiences and understanding of the phenomenon under study to the research.

Phenomenology is Inductive and Descriptive

    As a research method, phenomenology is inductive and descriptive. Phenomenology provides a closer fit conceptually with clinical nursing and with the kinds of research questions that emerge from clinical practice than does quantitative research. The goal of phenomenological research is to describe the meaning of human experience (Merleau-Ponty, 1964). 

    In its focus on meaning, phenomenology differs from other types of research, which may, for example, focus on statistical relationships among variables. Phenomenology tries to discover meanings as people live them in their everyday world. It is the study of essences, that is, the grasp of the very nature of something (Merleau-Ponty, 1962). 

    Essence makes a thing what it is; with-out it, the thing would not be what it is. The phenomenological approach is most appropriate when little is known about a phenomenon or when a fresh look at a phenomenon is indicated.

Interpretations of the Phenomenological Method

    As a research method, there are various interpretations of the phenomenological method available, from which nurse researchers may choose. Examples of descriptive phenomenology include Van Kaam's (1966), Colaizzi's (1978), and Giorgi's (1985) approaches. 

    Van Manen's (1990) method is a type of hermeneutic phenomenology. Specific examples of how these different methods were used in nursing research are provided. Van Kaam's (1966) phenomenological method of analysis was used by CT Beck (1992a) in exploring the meaning of nursing students caring with physically/mentally handicapped children. 

    The 36 nursing students' written descriptions of their caring experiences yielded 199 descriptive expressions related to the phenomenon under study. The next step in Van Kaam's method focuses on grouping these descriptive expressions into “necessary constituents,” which are moments of the experience expressed either implicitly or explicitly in the majority of the participants' descriptions.

Six Necessary Constituents

    The following six necessary constituents of a caring experience between a nursing student and an exceptional child were revealed: authentic presenting, physical connectedness, reciprocal sharing, delightful merriment, bolstered self-esteem, and unanticipated self-transformation. 

    In the final step in Van Kaam's (1966) analysis the necessary constituents are synthesized into one description of the experience being studied. 

    In Beck's (1992a) study this description of caring between a nursing student and an exceptional child was as follows: “an interweaving of authentic presenting with physical connectedness and reciprocal sharing overflowing into delightful merriment, bolstered self-esteem, and an unanticipated self-transformation ”.

Colaizzi's (1978) Phenomenological Method

    An example of Colaizzi's (1978) phenomenological method is found in Beck's (1992b) study of the lived experience of postpartum depression. 

    After reading and rereading the transcriptions of interviews with seven mothers, 45 significant statements that directly pertained to postpartum depression were extracted. Meanings were then formulated from each of these significant statements. 

    Next in Colaizzi's method is the clustering of these formulated meanings into themes. Eleven themes describing mothers' experiences of postpartum depression emerged. 

    These themes captured the women's unbearable loneliness, uncontrollable anxiety attacks. and obsessive thoughts, haunting fear that their lives would never return to normal, consuming guilt, inability to concentrate, loss of control of their emotions, insecurity, lack of positive emotions and previous interests, and contemplating death. 

    Finally, these 11 theme clusters were integrated into an exhaustive description of the experience of postpartum depression.

Method of Phenomenological Analysis

    Bennett (1991) used Giorgi's (1985) method of phenomenological analysis to uncover the meaning of adolescent girls' experience of witnessing marital violence. Interviews with five adolescent girls who had grown up in violent homes were read and reread to identify what Giorgi labeled as “meaning units.” 

    These units were segments of the interviews that revealed some aspect of the phenomenon under study. These meaning units were then transformed into statements. that expressed implicit or explicit meaning. Next, the transformed meaning units were synthesized into a summary of each adolescent's experience of witnessing physical violence directed toward her mother by her father. 

    Giorgi refers to this synthesis as the “situated level description.” The final phase of Giorgi's analysis called for an integration of each of these individual descriptions into one. “ General level description” that was composed of shared themes and meanings. Bennett's general level description of violence experienced included the following seven themes: 

(a) remembering

(b) living from day to day

(c) feeling the impact

(d) escaping

(e) understanding

(f) coping

(g) resolving or settling.

    Lauterback (1993) used Van Manen's (1990) method of “doing” phenomenology to study the meaning of mothers' experiences of the perinatal death of wished-for babies. The following four concurrent procedural activities in Van Manen's method were incorporated in this study: turning to the nature of lived experience, existential investigation, phenomenological reflection, and phenomenological writing. 

    Data analysis and interpretation of the data yielded the discovery of the essences in meaning of mothers' experiences. These essential themes included:

(a) the essence of perinatal loss

(b) reflective pulling back, recovering, reentering

(c) embodiment of mourning loss

(d) the narcissistic inquiry

(e) the purpose of death of the body

(f) living through and “with” death

(g) altering worldviews

(h) death overwhelmed with life

(i) falling and trying again.

    Diverse clinical specialties of nursing such as maternal child, gerontological, and medical surgical nursing provide fertile ground for phenomenological research. These studies illustrate the breadth of applicability of this qualitative research method for nursing.

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