Some Similarities and Differences among Phenomenological and Other Methods of Psychological Qualitative Research

By Osborne, John W. | Canadian Psychology, April 1994 | Go to article overview
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Some Similarities and Differences among Phenomenological and Other Methods of Psychological Qualitative Research


Osborne, John W., Canadian Psychology


Abstract This paper compares the research method of phenomenological psychology to other qualitative research methods such as ethnography, participant observation, grounded theory, dramaturgical interviewing and content analysis. An attempt is made to identify similarities and differences. As a prelude, the major metatheories with which they are associated (phenomenology and symbolic interactionism) and the related differences between natural science and human science are discussed.

Interest in qualitative research methodology appears to have gathered momentum over the last decade (e.g., Rist, 1980). One of the recurrent themes in the discussion of qualitative methods has been the question of whether quantitative and qualitative methods are compatible. Opinion has been divided. Gibbs (1979) made a plea for complementarity of subjectivist and objectivist methods in psychology. Mahrer (1988) has advocated discovery oriented research in the field of psychotherapy, while Sperry (1988) has suggested an integration of positivistic and phenomenological thought to form a more naturalistic approach to the study of brain and consciousness.

The split between those who support and those who do not support complementarity of quantitative and qualitative methodology has also occurred in the field of educational research. For example, Howe (1985, 1988) and Firestone (1987) have argued for compatibility, while Smith (1983) and Smith and Heshusius (1986) have argued for incompatibility.

The early eighties marked the growth of an interest in qualitative methodology which has paralleled the growing disenchantment with traditional logical - empirical research methods. The hegemony of natural science type research methods has been increasingly challenged by descriptive and hermeneutically oriented methods (e.g., Giorgi, 1986; Packer, 1985; Palmer, 1969; Polkinghorne, 1983; Rommetveit, 1987). Contextualism (Rosnow & Georgoudi, 1986), social constructionism (Gergen, 1985) and deconstructionism (Derrida, 1977) have also challenged the objectivity of traditional natural science methodology by emphasizing the socially derived foundationalisms upon which methods are based.

There seems little doubt that qualitative methodology has come out of the closet in the field of the human sciences. Although quantitative methodological hegemony continues, the degree of coexistence and complementaritybetween quantitative and qualitative research methods seems to be increasing. Nonetheless, there are those who, while seeing symptoms of the inadequacy of standard quantitative methodological practice, see possible cures and solutions in the same metatheoretical terms (e.g., Aiken, West, Sechrest & Reno, 1990). Sarbin (1976) has noted the difficulty that psychologists trained in logical - empirical traditions have in breaking their reliance on habitual methods.

The Transition from Quantitative to Qualitative Methodology

Those researchers who are willing to explore qualitative methods face several difficulties. Usually they have been trained in the quantitative tradition and find the transition to qualitative research methods requires a major shift in world - view. The metatheories underlying such methods often differ from the logical - empirical base of natural science (Jacob, 1987). As will be seen later, some aspects of the qualitative methods associated with symbolic interactionism follow normative natural science practice (e.g., the Iowa school of ethnography) while other qualitative methods use a mixture of natural and human science approaches to research (e.g., the Chicago School of ethnography). Qualitative research methods such as phenomenology and the phenomenological aspects of ethnography, participant observation and grounded theory are based on metatheories that are associated with a human science approach to psychology (see Giorgi, 1970). The emphasis is upon discovery, description and meaning rather than the traditional natural science criteria of prediction, control and measurement.

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