Posted by: Dorianne Cotter-Lockard | 20 October 2008

Phenomenology – My Research Approach

In my last post, I emphasized the importance of including a detailed research approach section in your papers.  Here is an excerpt from my paper that describes my approach.

I applied the Spiral of Mindful Inquiry framework (Bentz & Shapiro, 1998, pp. 42-53) to guide my research process. The framework includes four major turns in a spiral: critical social science, phenomenology, hermeneutics and Buddhism. Since this was my first encounter with phenomenology[1], I started with some basic readings about phenomenology (Bentz, 1995, 2002; Paget, 1988; Rehorick & Taylor, 1995; Schutz, 1970), which helped me to scratch the surface the topic. I then used phenomenological techniques described in Max Van Manen’s Researching Lived Experience (1990) and de Sales Turner’s work (2003) to conduct my research. I directly applied three turns in the Spiral of Mindful Inquiry (1998) and indirectly addressed the fourth spiral, Buddhism, through my inclusion of a consciousness theory based on Buddhist mindfulness concepts.

I started my research process by developing the research questions (see Appendix A) and then answering them from my personal perspective. Next, I interviewed six people who meditate regularly and have experienced higher states of consciousness, according to their own definition of higher consciousness states. Fielding Graduate University’s Institutional Review Board approved this research project and the participants signed an informed consent agreement.

My goal was to focus on lived experience and its meaning from the participants’ perspectives. I intentionally used open-ended questions during the interviews and refrained from responding to the narrative during the interview. Four of the interviews were conducted in person, two were in the participants’ homes, one at my home and one was conducted in a hotel lobby (not the best place for a phenomenological interview). The two remaining interviews were conducted over the telephone. I digitally recorded the interviews and had them transcribed by a transcription service. Each research participant reviewed their transcript and provided corrections and changes to their narratives.

I analyzed the narratives, using the phenomenological process described in Max Van Manen’s Researching Lived Experience (1990). He prescribes three approaches to identifying thematic aspects within a text: 1) a holistic or sententious approach, in which the interpreter reads the text as a whole and then formulates a phrase that captures the foundational meaning; 2) a highlighting approach, in which the interpreter selects specific phrases or sentences in the text that capture the essence of the phenomena; and 3) a detailed approach, in which every sentence is examined to determine what it reveals about the experience (1990, pp. 92-93). I used all three approaches.

I started by highlighting phrases and words that really captured the essences of the experience within each interview. Then I wrote the words in the margins of the documents. I noticed several words stood out across the interviews. I created a new document that contained the list of words and grouped them together. Then I copied representative quotes from each interview into another document and grouped them together as themes emerged.

Another key step in my process was to listen to the interview recordings as a form of meditation. Since I’m studying higher states of consciousness through meditation, it seemed natural and necessary to me to add meditation into my analysis process. Drawing deeper into myself, I created a space for a form of triple-loop feedback (Torbert & Taylor, 2008). In Triple-loop feedback, the inquirer questions their internal assumptions and changes the quality of their attention (p. 240). I sat in my office armchair with the text in my lap, closed my eyes, slowed my breath, and played the recorded interview, while continuing to breathe slowly. My internal ‘witness’ brought forth a word or phrase after listening to the interview. I wrote down the word or phrase and later incorporated it into the thematic analysis..

According to Bentz and Shapiro, Habermas talks about “understandability” and communicating “from similar norms and frames of reference” (1998, p. 47). Because I have meditated regularly for over twenty years, I share similar norms with most of the study participants. In the past, I adopted certain typifications (Bentz & Shapiro, 1998, p. 173; Schutz, 1962, pp. 226-273) related to how one should meditate (e.g., sit in a straight-backed posture, use various breathing or mantra techniques and spend 20-60 minutes on a daily basis). However, over time I altered my typifications to include chanting, walking, running, washing the dishes, and playing the violin as valid meditation approaches. The study participants had similar typifications about meditation, including one who said “the purpose of meditation is to get rid of the meditator.”

I used a Gadamerian approach to interpret four selected Western and non-Western consciousness theories (1975). The hermeneutic section compares and contrasts the phenomenological experiences captured through this study with the consciousness theories. First, I opened myself to being influenced by the interaction between the consciousness theories and participants’ experiences. Next, I reflected on how I was transformed through my interaction with the participants, their narratives, and the theoretical literature (Bentz & Rehorick, 2006).


[1] I am a first-year doctoral student. I decided to conduct a research project early on in my studies to immerse myself in the world of academic research.

Bentz, V. M. (1995). Husserl, Schutz, “Paul” and me: Reflection on writing phenomenology. Human Studies, 18, 21.

Bentz, V. M. (2002). From Playing Child to Aging Mentor: The Role of Human Studies in my Develpment as a Scholar. Human Studies, 25, 7.

Bentz, V. M., & Rehorick, D. (2006). Gadamer’s Three Levels of Hermeneutics. Fielding Graduate University.

Bentz, V. M., & Shapiro, J. J. (1998). Mindful inquiry in social research. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Gadamer, H. G. (1975). Truth and method. London: Sheed & Ward.

Paget, M. A. (1988). The Unity of Mistakes: A Phenomenological Interpretation of Medical Work. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Rehorick, D., & Taylor, G. (1995). Thoughtful incoherence: First encounters with the phenomenological-hermeneutical domain. Human Studies, 19, 25.

Schutz, A. (1962). Studies in Social Theory (Vol. Volume II). The Hague: M. Nijhoff.

Schutz, A. (1970). On phenomenology and social relations; selected writings. Chicago,: University of Chicago Press.

Torbert, W. R., & Taylor, S. S. (2008). Action inquiry: interweaving multiple qualities of attention for timely action. In P. Reason & H. Bradbury (Eds.), The Sage handbook of action research : participative inquiry and practice (2nd ed., pp. xxxii, 720 p.). London ; Thousand Oaks, Calif.: SAGE Publications.

Turner, d. S. (2003). Horizons Revealed: From Methdology to Method. Internation Journal of Qualitative Methods, 2(1).

Van Manen, M. (1990). Researching lived experience: human science for an action sensitive pedagogy.           Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press.

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  1. […] Phenomenology – My Research Approach 42-53) to guide my research process. The framework includes four major turns in a spiral: critical social science, phenomenology, hermeneutics and Buddhism. Since this was my first encounter with phenomenology[1], I started with some … […]


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