A Phenomenological Research Inquiry of Lived Experience

by Gerard Rodgers

Introduction

In the spring edition of Inside Out (Rodgers, 2013), I presented a literature review of the types of themes that have dominated research of gay male experience. The purpose of my writing this follow on article is to present a research approach I recently utilised, one that is qualitative in nature, and privileges phenomenological analyses of first person accounts of lived experience. Moran (2002) describes the phenomenological project as “a way of seeing rather than a set of doctrines” (1). What I hope will become evident to counsellors and psychotherapists is that the philosophy underpinning the phenomenological method of research, through its in-depth focus on first person experience, is one that is not entirely dissimilar to the baseline philosophy guiding humanistic/gestalt/existential theories of self and self-consciousness (Rogers, 1963; van Deurzen, 2009; 2002; Mearns and Thorne, 2007; Spinelli, 2007; Clarkson, 2004). Phenomenology recommends an “empathic immersion in the situations described” (Wertz, 2011: 132), and “of slowing down and dwelling in each moment of the experience.”(132). However, unlike psychotherapy, the remit of the psychotherapeutic researcher does not aim for a direct therapeutic benefit. That said, indirect therapeutic benefits can often accrue from qualitative research interviews (Cutcliffe and Ramcharan, 2002). Merriam (2009) says the primary purpose of the phenomenological research interview has an intellectual flavour, in that the research question is geared towards knowing more about the phenomenon and extending knowledge.

I begin this paper with a short critical overview of a prior survey of psychotherapeutic literature on gay male experience (Rodgers, 2013). This critique contextualises the rationale for the broad exposition of the phenomenological research method. The paper also gives a good outline of the procedural steps in the research process.

Critique of current literature as rationale for the study

One of the main observations that struck me from surveying the psychological and psychotherapeutic research literature was the distinctive tendency to report on sexual and gender minority experience as a united group of persons rather than an emphasis on the diversity and uniqueness of each person. For example, there are often research assumptions that developmental, relational, adverse psychological issues and wellness experience are predominantly similar for all sexual and gender minorities (Dworkin and Pope, 2012). When such results are further analysed, findings are discussed on the probable correlative or causative mechanisms that can contribute to particular group experiences and life outcomes (Ritter and Terndrup, 2002). The inferential theories drawn from these large-scale participant samplings can subsequently influence policy-maker attitudes towards the allocation of research funding (Fox et al., 2009; Aldarando, 2007). Furthermore, an uncritical interaction with highlighted media representations of generalised research results can potentially influence individual subjectivities through popularised perceptions about the life outcomes of particular groups in our society (Goldacre, 2008).

Wertz et al. (2011) summarize this research problem in saying, “One of the greatest challenges facing human sciences and service professions is the choice and application of research methods that respect the uniqueness, complexity and meanings of human experience” (1). He says these alternative approaches “are not merely technique driven, they require a unique qualitative stance and worldview” (4). Also, Harper (2011) says “the received view about choosing a method is that it should fit the research question” (83). Unfortunately, this approach has not been the dominant way gay persons have been traditionally researched. Rather, top-down theorizing and methodological designs have culminated in all too frequent failures in understanding sexual and gender difference (Le Vay, 2011).

As psychotherapeutic practice deals with unique cases, psychotherapists may not be inclined to hypothesizing in a generalised way about particular groups of persons. For example, when psychological symptoms are similar across a number of clients, psychotherapists will recognise that symptoms arise in the context of a unique life experience. Norwegian based medical practitioner, Dr. Anna Luise Kirkengen (2010), drawing on her own phenomenological analyses, says “an objective view from outside cannot see the subjective rationale that guides the particular consequences affecting the individual’s life and body” (108). What she suggests is that the closer we are to the subjective experience, the resultant “insight” and potential for “healing” “presumes appreciation of the problem” (2010:109).

It is frequently acknowledged that there are significant gaps in understanding the individual lives of gay men in Ireland, both in terms of historical and contemporary experiences. Regarding the former, Irish gay rights campaigner Kieran Rose (1994) has said: “There has been little research into Irish lesbian and gay history in the period before the 1970s, but even though our knowledge is fragmentary, it is clear there are numerous sources awaiting researchers with relevant questions” (8). This view about lack of research on sexual and gender minority experience has been echoed by numerous Irish authors (Ferriter, 2009; Lacey, 2008). Tom Inglis (2005) suggests a historic silence in Irish academia about sex and sexuality could very well have been a form of collusion with the Catholic ethos, judging by the dearth and “lack of interest” for research on Irish sexuality (10). He elaborates that it may have been “that dominance of Catholic-church personnel in such key areas as philosophy, psychology, and sociology dampened any budding interest in the subject” (10), which Inglis says, equated to:

..little will to find a way of revealing the secrets of Irish sexuality. It is as if the sense of shame and embarrassment about sex – talking and writing about sexual practices, feelings, and emotions – reached so deeply into the psyche of Irish academics, and particularly historians, that they were unable to raise, let alone deal, with such issues.

(Inglis, 2005:10)

However, the last number of years has witnessed significant growth in the number of Irish PhD dissertations on lesbian women’s and gay men’s experience (Duffy, 2008; Ryan, 2005; 2003; for review of psychological studies see Rodgers, 2013). What is particularly distinctive about some of these studies and their qualitative non- generalisable methodological frameworks is that they make explicit reference that their findings relate to ‘some’ lesbian women and ‘some’ gay men living in Ireland captured at a particular point in time.

In my phenomenological study, I was interested in exploring the subjective nature of gay men’s experiences. The objective of the inquiry was to retrieve a person’s lived experience as it related to the research question from “the perspective of the research participants themselves” (Harper, 2011:89). The aim of the retrieval was twofold; to generate knowledge and understanding of a uniquely situated individual and to examine the many possible variations or patterns of meaning within and across the participants (Behnke, 2010). I believe the phenomenological framework is well suited to psychotherapy researchers as the focus is very much on how persons descriptively account for their lived experience of their world (Harper 2011; Finlay 2011; Giorgi, 2009).

To sum up the argument for this research approach, it is my view, among others, that psychotherapy, psychology, sociology and psychiatry have created higher-order theories of sexuality and identity that often appear at a distinct remove from the everydayness of lived experience (Heinamaa, 2012; Heckma, 2011; Aanstoos, 2010; West, 2005). For the remainder of this paper I devote most of my attention to important issues that need to be considered in terms of phenomenological research methods and analysis. In the remaining sections, I will also allude to some of the ethical issues in conducting a qualitative study.

Phenomenological Research: Methods of Seeing (Gallagher, 2012)

Giorgi (2009) succinctly describes the essence of the phenomenological project when he cites the 19th Century Philosopher William James’ experience of a wood in close visual proximity to his university campus. The philosopher viewed the wood as peaceful and tranquil, while recognising that the same wood might be a scary and dark experience for someone else (25). Giorgi (2009) refers to this as “how the same ‘objective situation’ can be taken up by different persons, and even differently by the same person at different times” (25). How people experience their lifeworld (Ashworth, 2008) is one of phenomenology’s guiding principles. Phenomenologists are interested in discovering how “we can come to experience what is there, or that which can appear” (Mitchell, 2012:1). Gallagher (2012) says the lifeworld “in this sense, is not the world we take as object, as something distinct from ourselves, but is rather a specification of our existence… something already there providing a meaningful background for all our actions and interactions” (2). Furthermore, as Giorgi’s cited example highlights “the way things appear in conscious experience may be very different from the way things actually are in reality” (Gallagher, 2012:7). It is to the former where phenomenology focuses most of its efforts.

Researcher Presuppositions

An important perquisite in the conceptualisation of a phenomenological research project is that researchers bracket their natural ways of viewing things. In effect, this means parking our personal presuppositions about the research topic under investigation (Dahlberg, Dahlberg and Nystrom, 2008). This also includes putting out of our minds, before and during the interview and early analytic stages, what findings and theories have been previously stated regarding self and sexual identity (Wertz, 2011:136). This method is recommended so that the researcher engages in a fresh and novel way with the concrete examples of first- person accounts of lived experience.

As a researcher, I had to start thinking about holding back my own presuppositions, particularly the reductive sense of the natural attitude, but I acknowledge it is “impossible to obtain anything like a presuppositionless starting point” (Gallagher, 2012:3). Very briefly, when I thought about my natural attitudes, the following personal reflection came up:

I am a self-identified gay man, in my late forties. I grew up in a small town in Ireland and particularly in my young adolescent and younger adult years I had always perceived societal hostility to those who were perceived as being ‘different’. I remember listening to the taunts and insults that were regularly directed at someone who fitted a stereotyped perception as someone who was gay. Whether this person was gay or not, he was forever in receipt of attention from others through their introjections/projections of what they thought a gay person was. My own fearful projective thoughts at that time ran like this; “if this is the treatment that is going to be meted to someone who is gay, then I for one, will never allow anyone to get as much as an inkling about me being gay in this small town.” Most of the time I was not conscious of these thoughts as the internalised fear became ingrained as an emotional/affective state in my embodied subjectivity. Thankfully, today, I do not live with this pronounced sense of fear or shame about my own sexual orientation/identity.

Now, let us say if I were to project my own developmental trajectory and narrative into a research interview. And as backup to my history, I utilised all the recent data that indicates that life has significantly changed for the better for gay persons in the context of the socially transformative and momentous changes that have taken place in Ireland over the last twenty years or so. I could operationalise these broad ideas in my semi-structured research interviews by implicitly or explicitly encouraging the elicitation of particular experiences in the questions that I ask, and perhaps only following through and developing particular lines of inquiry consistent with the researcher’s implicit or explicit reasoning. Such an analysis might also infer that older gay persons that I interviewed were more likely to have had oppressive experiences growing up. While these broad social patterns may have had some meaningful significance in the lives of the gay men I interviewed, my point is that researchers have to be mindful of their own projections, both in the questions that they ask, and in the ways in which they analyse data (Vandermause and Townsend, 2010).

Psychotherapists would have appreciation of these same issues through the clinical concepts of transference and counter-transference, where therapists must be able to work out and separate their own thoughts and reactions in the therapeutic experience of working with clients (McWilliams, 2004). While the process contexts of gaining ethical approval for a research project, supervisory monitoring and peer review are designed to ensure researchers remain on track, phenomenologists say this process of bracketing our presuppositions can never be perfect or error-free (Wertz, 2011; Giorgi, 2009). In human science, what is important is that the researcher aims to make explicit how they have arrived at their interpretation of the data (Vandermause, 2008), one that demonstrates rigour and validity.

Data Gathering

Participants who met the inclusion criteria were recruited from a recruitment notice placed in the letters to editor section of Gay Community News. The inclusion criteria were that the men identified as gay, were over eighteen and were ready and able to talk about their personal experiences of being gay. After obtaining informed consent, the interview began with one central research question: ‘What comes to mind when you think of your experience of being gay?’ Other central questions were ‘What have been the key moment or events in your life as a gay man?’, ‘What have been your positive and negative life experiences?’, ‘What has changed for you in your life?’ and anything else the participants would like to talk about that related to the research question.

In deepening the self-experiential nature of the interview, I used prompts: ‘Can you tell me more about that?’, ‘What was that experience like for you?’, ‘Can you give me an example of that?’ or ‘Could you tell me what that experience meant for you?’ These one-to-one, audio recorded interviews lasted between sixty and ninety minutes in a confidential, secure and professional setting. As the research question aimed to evoke personal experience, at the outset I informed the participant that I would stop the interview when it became obvious that the participant experienced a level of distress over and above their level of comfort. This procedure is consistent with the ethical principle of avoiding harm to the participant, but also respects their self-agency and capacity when they wished to restart the interview or if they wished to withdraw at any time (British Psychological Society, 2011). In these circumstances, I would have provided a list of counselling and psychotherapy or community supports if they wished to have it. As it transpired, for the nine males that I interviewed for this study, this protocol was not necessary.

All transcribed data was anonymised to protect the participant’s anonymity and confidentiality and at all times throughout the research process all participant data was and is securely stored and deleted or erased when the dissertation is submitted. Any partial or full publication only contains anonymised data, using fictitious first name and location detail in re-presenting the participant’s experience.

Methods of Individual Analysis

The first step was to organise the data into “a first-person master narrative” (Wertz, 2011:136). With the phenomena of the experience of being gay uppermost in mind, I organised the narrative of each participant into paragraphs, each containing “a meaning unit that coherently describes a moment in the participant’s life” (136) while never losing sight of the meaning of the whole experience (van Manen, 1997). A further aim of organising data is to make it “readily accessible to reflection” (Wertz, 2011:136). Giorgi and Giorgi (2008) say:

there are no objective units in the text as such; rather they are correlated with the attitude of the researcher… the making of meaning units is a practical step…ultimately, what matters is how these meaning units are transformed in subsequent steps (34-35).

Having organised the data, the next step of the analyses will be to think about how each of the units reflect the experience of being gay for each participant. In such reflections, the aim is to grasp the psychological meaning sense in context and in relation to the other units of meaning.

Wertz (2011) says after reading each unit of meaning or the significant statements, he then writes his raw reflections, including what spontaneous questions came up and what his uncertainties were in reading them. He says these reflections can be much longer and sometimes shorter than the unit itself, depending on its relevance (138). Wertz (2011) tends to reflect on a unit of meaning or significant statement in general and then reflects on its specific relevance to the research question (138).

Once this stage of reflection is completed, the researcher “attempts an integrative summary of the findings” (Wertz, 2011:142), where the aim will be to express the knowledge he has gained. He starts with a heading, followed by an introduction that highlights the overall theme and then elaborates on its specifics. This summary is temporally organised, takes a narrative form, so as to organise, explicate and reflect on the individual psychological structure of the experience. Wertz describes this reflective step of discovering the implicit meanings of life experience as a “searching, tentative excursion” (146).

Methods of General Analysis

What the researcher aims for is discovering what type of experience the individual experience is: “one that sets the boundaries for possible instances” (Giorgi, 2009:197). Phenomenological analysis can draw on the “researcher’s personal experience, the scientific literature, and from creative works” (Wertz, 2011:150) … but comes with the warning that “critical thinking in the performance of this method is decisive for its scientific character” (Wertz, 2010:267). When the analyses moves to comparing to other participants, an attempt is made towards increasing levels of generalisation “from the highly idiosyncratic, to the rare, to more general subtypes, to highly general ways, very most general processes, meanings…. which would be manifest in all examples of this phenomena” (Wertz, 2011:159).

Giorgi (2009) says “if one discovers that the analytic description… requires the use of terminology that is too abstract, then the data is telling the researcher, that the variations are too large to be incorporated into a single structural meaning” (104). Furthermore, Giorgi (2009) says of this final step, that if the data is still so different, then an analysis can be created for each participant as “there could still be interesting findings” (103). Where knowledge is improved is when it demonstrates that it has remained intuitively and extensively grounded in the commitment to the phenomenon being researched. While the goals of most research is to gradually and incrementally overcome uncertainties in our knowledge base, phenomenologists have warned of the seduction of the natural attitude which can lead to prematurely foreclosing on “multiple qualities and horizons constituting personal experience” (Wertz, 2010:268). Also, access to experience is limited by how a participant describes their experience in the context of an interview and by the comprehension and understanding of the interviewer (Wertz, 2011).

Conclusion

In this article, I have outlined a methodological approach that guided the rationale for the study. Not only does phenomenology fit the nature of the question of self-experience, it is also compatible with frameworks of person-centred and existentialist thought and theory. For that reason, my wish is that its findings are intelligible to the community that I serve.

Gerard Rodgers is a humanistic and integrative psychotherapist in Dublin. He began his professional doctorate in psychotherapy in 2010 in Dublin City University and will submit his dissertation in 2014 within the structure of the psychotherapy programme at the DCU School of Nursing and Human Science. Gerard can be contacted at email: gerardrodgersu@gmail.com

References and Further Reading:

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Ashworth, P. (2008) ‘Conceptual foundations in qualitative psychology.’ In J. Smith (ed.) Qualitative Psychology: A Practical Guide to Research Methods. (2nd ed.) London: Sage.
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British Psychological Society (2011) Code of Human Research Ethics. London: BPS. Clarkson, P. (2004) Gestalt Counselling in Action. (3rd ed.) London: Sage.
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Dahlberg, K., Dahlberg, H., and Nystrom, M. (2008) Reflective Lifeworld Research. (2nd ed.) Lund, Sweden: Studentliteratur.
Duffy, M. (2008) Voices from the Hinterland: lesbian women’s experience of Irish health care. Unpublished PhD thesis, Dublin City University, Dublin.
Dworkin, S.H. and Pope, M. (2012) Casebook for Counselling: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Persons and Their Families. USA: American Counselling Association.
Ferriter, D. (2009) Occasions of Sin: Sex and Society in Modern Ireland. London: Profile Books.
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Giorgi, A. and Giorgi, B. (2008) Phenomenology. In J. Smith (ed.) Qualitative Psychology: A Practical Guide to Research Methods. London: Sage.
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Inglis, T. (2005). ‘Origins and Legacies of Irish Prudery: Sexuality and Social Control in Modern Ireland’. Eire-Ireland, 40(3-4), 9–36.
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Ritter, K.Y, and Terndrup, A.I. (2002) Handbook of Affirmative Psychotherapy with Lesbians and Gay Men. London: Guildford Press.
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Rose, K. (1994) Diverse Communities: The Evolution of Lesbian and Gay Politics in Ireland. Cork: Cork University Press.
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Ryan, P. (2005) ‘Strangers in Their Own Land: The Everyday Lives of Gay Men and Irish Society 1970-80’. Partially published dissertation. (see reflective extracts of dissertation in P. Ryan (2006) ‘Researching Irish Gay Male Lives: Reflections on Disclosure and Intellectual Autobiography in the production of personal narratives. Qualitative Research, 6(2): 151-168.

Spinelli, E. (2007) Practising Existential Psychotherapy: The Relational World. London: Sage.
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Wertz, F.J., Charmaz, K., McMullen, L.M., Josselson, R., Anderson, R., and McSpadden, E. (2011) Five Ways of Doing Qualitative Analysis: Phenomenological Psychology, Grounded Theory, Discourse Analysis, Narrative Research, and Intuitive Inquiry. London: Guildford Press.

West, D. (2005) Reason and Sexuality in Western Thought. London: Polity Press.