EVALUATION OF HERMENEUTIC PHENOMENOLOGY
Hermeneutic Phenomenology (HP) involves the attempted marriage of two terms that may already fall under ontology/epistemology. Hermeneutics is the methodology of interpretation (historically of biblical text), while Phenomenology is the study of consciousness in an aspect of life. Together the methodology attempts to interpret the meaning and importance behind a moment of human consciousness described through the creation of elaborate text (Max van Manen, n.d.; van Manen, 2014). In the words of the scholar credited with its creation, Max van Manen: it is “reflection on lived experiences,” a “study of meanings and insights.” (Left Coast Press, 2014)
Max van Manen (1942) was born and raised in the Netherlands. He immigrated to Canada as an English and EAL teacher in 1967 and settled in Edmonton where he completed his PhD. In his career, Van Manen has taught across Canada and is presently professor emeritus at the University of Alberta, and adjunct professor at the University of Victoria, continuing his work in Phenomenological methodology (Max van Manen, n.d.).
As part of the Baby boomer generation, he has lived through wars, the birth of the Albertan oil industry, the introduction of the Canadian Bill of Rights and Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the adoption of the Canadian flag, and Canada’s growth in the space industry. These watershed moments of Canadian history may have contributed to his fascination with phenomenology as a method of researching and capturing lived experiences (The Canadian Encyclopedia, 2019).
Van Manen’s focus has been on making European approaches to philosophy, methodology and pedagogy more accessible to Canadian graduate students and educators. He translated classic phenomenological pedagogical texts into English and developed a new area of research he has termed “human science research.” Overall, his research has evolved from the basic outline of phenomenological methodology and its connection to pedagogy, to an evaluation of identity, intimacy and how writing affects human relations (Max van Manen, n.d.).
Phenomenology begins by asking a question about lived experiences (i.e. What does it mean to watch the clouds?). As this methodology takes from life experience, the possibilities for evaluation and considerations are limitless – anything can be placed under the proverbially microscope for phenomenological interpretation.
“(P)henomenology is more a method of questioning than answering, realizing that insights come to us in that mode of musing, reflective questioning, and being obsessed with sources and meanings of lived meaning”
(van Manen, 2014, p.27)
HP research is conducted through interviews, conversations, notes, videos or other options for recording data from selected participants, with attention to capturing as much detail as possible. There may be a guiding topic or question, but it is typically very open with the participant being a co-creator of the meeting and its direction (Koch, 1996; Laverty, 2003).
Data is transcribed and analyzed through multiple rounds of “hermeneutic questioning” to allow themes to emerge from the participants’ descriptions and the researcher’s evaluation of the data. Presuppositions and biases should be noted by the researcher and are key in interpreting information and identifying meaning in the experience. (Koch, 1996; Laverty, 2003).
It is then on the researcher to accurately and deeply coalesce these accounts, in the way the participants intended, into in a rich and elaborately written paper. It is less a method of coding and strict steps, and more about the language of interpretation and writing to find underlining meaning in an experience. This methodology is also considerate of the difficulty of accurately representing the “living now” of an experience:
“(E)ven the most evocative experiential description will fail to capture the fullness and subtleties of our experience as we live it.”
(van Manen, 2014, p.54)
For the comparative research article, I chose a mixed-methods study on the use of reflection by high school physics students:
Effects of conceptual, procedural, and declarative reflection on students’ structural knowledge in physics (Trumpower & Sarwar, 2015)
This study has two research questions considering the type of reflection a student makes, and the how these types correlate with improvements in student knowledge structures.
This study is too complex; while the experience of an HP study can be broad or narrow in scope, it is unlikely to analyze a multitude of lived experiences in a single paper. Using this approach, the authors may have looked at any one of the following experiences: of being assessed; of writing a test; of writing a reflection; of being a student. Possible research questions that may have come from these experiences are:
- How does it feel to write a test?
- What is it like to be assessed?
- How does one read feedback?
- What is it to reflect?
Participants of the study were tasked with completing a rating-scale test to indicate the connectedness of unit concepts. After descriptive feedback was given based on their primary results, students reflected on noted misconceptions, and a similar, second rating-scale test was administered one week later. With a methodological switch to HP, the style of research would change as it would have moved towards qualitative data, using interviews and/or open discussion over quantified testing and analysis.
Trumpower & Sarwar (2015) selected 169 students across six grade 11 classes – HP methods would likely have the researchers choose fewer than 30 participants, interviewing until the researchers felt saturation was reached (Ryba, 2008; Laverty, 2003).
In addition to fewer participants, this method shift to HP would have also affected the participants in how they experience the setting of the study. As opposed to as the stress of the initial assessment, and a secondary assessment after the reflection, participants would have likely perceived a discussion with the researcher a more relaxed setting.
The researcher’s position towards the data would also change, as they would be involved in co-creating the experience, and in writing as best possible, a true representation of the participants’ reflections. Unable to plug numbers into Excel and have these representational values and statistics emerge, the researchers would have instead spent comparatively more time on following the hermeneutic circle of creating interpretations from the data, connecting meanings, and identifying themes in the data (Koch, 1996; Laverty, 2003).
Trumpower & Sawar (2015) draw multiple conclusions from the analysis of the quantitative values – correlating the usefulness, and type, of reflective work with improved student understanding. However, as HP would have conducted a very different qualitative study, the reader would not have been provided this kind of information of correlation. The researcher attempts to capture the essence of the moment with literary strength and engaging writing; HP is not concerned with making judgments or conclusions. So, while the reader would experience the phenomenon in a more detailed and emotive way, the study would likely not contain further action-research or guidelines for pedagogical change that the reader could then consider.
INSIGHTS AND QUESTIONS:
One of the most glaring issues with this methodology is that it is reliant on both the participant to adequately relate their experiences – which is dependent on the verbal or written abilities of the participant, and on the researcher to adequately evaluate and reveal the meanings and interpretations of these experiences through writing – which is then dependent on the linguistic and narrative abilities of the authors (Post, 2015; van Manen, 2014). The selection, sampling, and age of participants only adds to the flaws of a methodology that already has issues with objectivity and perception in academia. As noted by Kakkori (2010) “Researchers generally lack a common understanding of what this method actually is.” This statement echoes that of the originator of the methodology himself, as Van Manen (2014, p.29) states: “phenomenological method cannot be fitted to a rule book, an interpretive schema, a set of steps, or a systematic set of procedures.”
In my interpretation, it would be difficult to see how HP can contribute to a conversation on pedagogical practice – it appears so philosophical and abstract as to be meaningless to inform and change practice. It does not offer anything in isolation, in my opinion, beyond a uniquely written account and enjoyable read. HP is an attempt to detail with language the emotion and experience of the living moment; the artifact of the researcher’s account is most important – it cannot be altered or summarized without changing meaning, as the bulk of the experience lay in its capture by writing with emotive prose, examples and inferences. (IIQM, 2014) Even Van Manen notes (2014, p.39)
“(P)henomenological inquiry can play a contributing role to other studies that are driven by different methodological interests and expectations.”
Effects of conceptual, procedural, and declarative reflection on students’ structural knowledge in physics | SpringerLink. (n.d.). Retrieved July 9, 2019, from https://link-springer-com.ezproxy.library.uvic.ca/article/10.1007%2Fs11423-015-9368-7
IIQM. (2014, October 16). Introduction to Hermeneutic Phenomenology: A research methodology best learned by doing it. Retrieved July 18, 2019, from https://iiqm.wordpress.com/2014/10/16/introduction-to-hermeneutic-phenomenology-a-research-methodology-best-learned-by-doing-it/
Kakkori, L. (2010). Hermeneutics and Phenomenology Problems When Applying Hermeneutic Phenomenological Method in Educational Qualitative Research. Philosophical Inquiry in Education, 18(2), 19–27. Retrieved from https://journals.sfu.ca/pie/index.php/pie/article/view/214
Koch, T. (1996). Implementation of a hermeneutic inquiry in nursing: philosophy, rigor and representation. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 24(1), 174–184. https://doi.org/10.1046/j.1365-2648.1996.17224.x
Laverty, S. M. (2003). Hermeneutic Phenomenology and Phenomenology: A Comparison of Historical and Methodological Considerations. International Journal of Qualitative Methods, 2. Retrieved from https://doaj.org
Left Coast Press, Inc. (2014). Max van Manen, author of Phenomenology of Practice. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bItKpArzxnA
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Post, G. (2015, February 20). More than numbers: Ethnography or phenomenology? Retrieved July 11, 2019, from https://blogs.bmj.com/adc/2015/02/20/more-than-numbers-ethnography-or-phenomenology/
Ryba, T. V. (2008). Researching Children in Sport: Methodological Reflections. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 20(3), 334–348. https://doi.org/10.1080/10413200802056669
Significant Events in Canadian History | The Canadian Encyclopedia. (n.d.). Retrieved July 18, 2019, from https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/timeline/100-great-events-in-canadian-history
van Manen, M. (2002). Researching the Experience of Pedagogy. Education Canada, 42(4), 24–27. Retrieved from https://www.edcan.ca/wp-content/uploads/EdCan-2002-v42-n4-Van-Manen.pdf
van Manen, M. (2014). Phenomenology of Practice. New York, USA: Left Coast Press, Inc.