Qualitative methods and phenomenology.

In the social sciences, qualitative methods are designed to help researchers understand the qualities of, or meaning in, a statement, event, or other phenomenon. Qualitative methods tend to involve sets of somewhat standardized procedures, in which researchers attempt to identify, clarify, and (to greater or lesser extent) classify the qualities revealed in their data. By doing so, they intend to promote greater understanding of the meaning and relationships revealed through the words of their participants. Phenomenology is one such qualitative approach, as are for example Content Analysis, Discourse Analysis, Ethnography, Grounded Theory, Participatory Action Research, and Queer Theory. Raven’s Eye accommodates research from any of these and other approaches, but it is built on a quantitative approach to phenomenology.

Phenomenology.

Phenomenology is, by design, a robust approach to describing and making inferences about complex and multicausal phenomena. Over the nearly 300 years since philosophers first began its development proper, both the term and its disciplinary purview have undergone change and expansion. From the historian’s vantage point, phenomenology began its pre-paradigmatic development through the thoughts and works of those such as Oetinger, Hegel, Brentano, and Dilthey. With the publication of Edmund Husserl’s Logical Investigations and Ideas I, phenomenology emerged from its pre-paradigmatic phase to become a pan-scientific approach designed primarily to provide a rich description of conscious experience by reflexively ferreting out otherwise unknown and unacknowledged assumptions borne of the investigators' worldview.

Soon after the publication of Husserl’s text, philosophical, practical, and conceptual variation as to the content, process, and goals of phenomenology arose among contemporaneous and subsequent phenomenologists, such as Alfred Schutz, Martin Heiddegger, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Over the course of the 20th Century, it becomes clear in the literature that many of these and other variations on Husserl’s phenomenology may be equally viable generally, but maintain particular strengths in relation to specific topics, disciplines, and outcomes. Often then, today’s phenomenologists do not view phenomenology as an intractably uniform method resulting in monolithic outcomes. Rather, contemporary phenomenologists tend to conceptualize phenomenology as the application of a somewhat permeable grouping of similarly reflexive approaches (sometimes called phenomenologies) to complex phenomena, which result in an intersubjectively valid and reliable contextual description of the particular phenomenon under investigation. While some transcendent phenomenologists would add to this outcome the ability to identify and describe aspects of a particular phenomenon that transcend the particular instance or context of its observation (pure consciousness), the common core outcome of phenomenology appears to be the production of an elaborate and valid description of an experience.

As we note previously, the use of Raven’s Eye is by no means restricted to phenomenologists, or to phenomenology. Phenomenology does, however—by training and experience—form our attitude and method of choice. Raven’s Eye is, therefore, designed to facilitate the processes and outcomes of many varieties of phenomenological investigation. Indeed, the Quantitative Phenomenology underlying its procedures is modeled after the descriptive phenomenological method of Amedeo Giorgi.

We explain some tenets of phenomenology via discussion on a few terms we borrow from it in the remainder of this section. We do so to both help you to understand the form and function of our software, and to better contextualize and extend your results. However, we encourage those applying Raven’s Eye to a specific discipline to review the available literature on the application of phenomenology to that discipline.

Intersubjectivity.

Phenomenologists have long asserted that conscious experience involves the holistic apperception of a complex interaction between observer and observed. As such, they have argued that observations and interactions with the world, and those in it, necessarily involve subjectivity. Because of this, they generally assert that purely objective observation is unattainable, and that all experiences in life will contain at least some subjectively-based meaning, either inserted into the observation by those observing it, or suggested to the observer by some quality or aspect of the event or object. As a result, in phenomenology, notions of objectivity are generally replaced with an understanding of experience as being co-created by both observer and observed, such that terms like intersubjectivity and co-construction of reality are used in place of objectivity.

To the positivist, such a perspective might seem foreign, and limiting. On the contrary, we have found the notion of intersubjectivity to be vital in the creation and application of our method, which provides unprecedented abilities with respect to the identification and prediction of experience. We discuss this further in the Methods section of these Technicals. However, and for now, it is important to note that we proceed with an understanding of conscious experience as one that inevitably involves intersubjectivity, be it an otherwise apparently solo experience, or a group experience. It is through examination of intersubjectivity at multiple levels of experience that Raven’s Eye produces heretofore unimaginable results, in terms of clarity, insight, and utility.

Phenomena.

Because phenomenologists view any given experience as being a holistically acquired intersubjective or co-created apperception, they seek to contend with each experience as a complex whole throughout their investigations. Instead then, of isolating and focusing exclusively on a particular behavior, structure, or function, they seek to understand an experience as it presents itself in its full complexity. As a result, they tend not to use terms such as objects or stimuli, instead preferring to reference them as phenomena (or phenomenon in the singular). While they certainly examine, describe, and relate specific aspects of an experience in the course of their investigation, their function in doing so is generally to enhance detail about, or otherwise elaborate on, the whole phenomenon.

Those not familiar with phenomenology should note from the previous discussion on intersubjectivity that the whole phenomenon includes not only the perceived experience, but also aspects of the person or people experiencing it. In other words, the phenomenon is intersubjective, and therefore describing it includes both the observed (stimulus) and the observers (participant and researcher). Raven’s Eye automatically identifies those aspects of the phenomenon apparently emanating primarily from the observed (or stimulus), and those apparently emanating primarily from the observer (or participant) by way of projection. When we turn to describing Quantitative Phenomenology in the Methods section of these Technicals, we will discuss the manner in which Raven’s Eye uniquely contends with researcher projection and influence on analysis of the phenomenon and interpretation of its results.

Description and phenomenological validity

Phenomenology emphasizes the authentic and detailed description of experience as its primary outcome. This is because, to the phenomenologist who views reality as fundamentally intersubjective and co-created, validity is an expression of the ability to describe an experience in a way that resonates with the reader, while retaining a high degree of fidelity to the phenomenon as originally experienced. In other words, validity is expressed when others understand the phenomenon as experienced in a manner similar to those who originally experienced it. As such, and when dealing with natural language data resulting from an experience, phenomenologists tend to present detailed information on the context, process, and facets of the phenomenon being expressed. Concordantly, their results are often presented and related in terms that replicate the language originally used by participants to describe their experience of a given phenomenon.

This notion of validity is quite different from the way it is typically understood by scientists who proceed from a positivistic perspective. In typical positivistic validation procedures, greater abstraction is associated with greater validity. By defining validity as the ability to share an original or authentic experience, however, phenomenological validity prizes the concrete and specific over the abstract. Raven’s Eye accommodates both phenomenological and positivistic understandings of validity. To understand phenomenological validity as it is constructed by Raven's Eye, it is useful to briefly describe a procedure many phenomenologists use to acquire ever greater phenomenological validity: bracketing.

Bracketing.

The most prevalent process phenomenologists use to reach greater validity, or the authentic description of an experience in a relatable manner, is to engage in what has become known as bracketing. The process of bracketing involves the reflexive identification and suspension of meanings or assumptions otherwise automatically inserted into the interpretation or experience by the researcher or observer. Bracketing commonly reveals additional and alternative qualities and meanings, which are often not readily apparent at the outset of the investigation. Indeed, the process of bracketing at once creates both greater insight into, and more expansive perspective on, the phenomenon being studied.

Various mental (e.g., suspension of a thought) and physical (e.g., writing memos to oneself) procedures have been proposed to increase consistency and standardization in the process of bracketing. Similarly, various authors recommended that bracketing be employed during different portions of the research process. In Raven’s Eye, bracketing becomes a practical and reliable process of identifying and suspending the multiple forms and sources of projection involved in perceptual, cognitive, and linguistic processes. Raven’s Eye allows researchers to bracket throughout their analyses, and to do so in multiple, yet highly consistent and standardized ways. We discuss the procedures used to bracket with Raven’s Eye in the Quantitative Phenomenology with Raven’s Eye pages of these Technicals, as well as in the Practicals and Tutorials.

This discussion on bracketing reveals another fundamental difference between phenomenology and positivistic scientific approaches: whereas positivistic approaches often test either/or hypotheses and ask yes or no questions, phenomenological approaches often ask, “Is there anything else to this phenomenon, and if so, what?” The process of bracketing was originally designed by others to facilitate answers to the latter kind of questions. However, through its transparent, standardized, and multimethods procedures, Raven’s Eye accommodates the investigation of both phenomenological and positivistic research questions.