Phenomenology

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During the past two decades there has been increasing interest in the use of phenomenological research published within the nursing literature; however, varied interpretations of the original philosophical assumptions underpinning this approach have led to much criticism (Koch, 1995; Paley, 1997; Van der Zalm and Bergum, 2000). Phenomenology as described by Husserl (1859-1938) is the study of the 'lived experience' whereby the researcher aims to uncover or illuminate the real meaning of human lived experience by asking questions such as 'can you tell me what it is like to have been given a diagnosis of cancer?'. In Husserlian phenomenology, importantly, the researcher aims to 'bracket' any prior preconceptions in an attempt truly to reflect and describe the world as viewed by the participant. Koch (1996, p. 176) suggests that 'the hallmark of any genuinely phenomenological inquiry is that its task is a matter of describing'. Heidegger, a student of Husserl, later developed the original concepts of Husserl, placing greater importance on understanding the 'meanings' attached to the experience of individuals. He rejected the notion of 'bracketing', suggesting that one cannot separate the description from one's own interpretation and hence, during the data analysis, the prior experiences of the researcher are merged with the participant's data (Koch, 1996).

Ultimately the primary objective of phenomenological research is to describe and provide an understanding of a person's lived experience: 'instead of pin-pointing a minute segment of experience as in quantitative research, the phenomenological view enlarges the experience and attempts to understand it in the complexity of its context' (Thibodeau and MacRae, 1997). This is done through the use of in-depth interviews with the overall purpose of the data analysis process being to maintain the originality and demonstrate rigour.

Example of a phenomenological study (Breaden, 1997)

Purpose

Using hermeneutic phenomenology, this study examined the experiences of women who had all finished treatment and who were at least 8 months post-cancer diagnosis.

Sample size

Six women.

Data collection

In-depth interviews each lasting approximately an hour. Analysis

After analysis of transcripts from in-depth interviews, return visits were made to the participants to discuss individual transcripts. Using the process of thematic analysis described by Van Manen (1990), the transcripts were read and reread several times to get a sense of the whole. This occurred during on-going data collection to enable the researcher to ask more focused questions. A highlighting approach was used to isolate thematic statements. Statements relating to the experience of surviving cancer were isolated and recurring themes were identified.

Issues of rigour

The participants were revisited for clarification of meanings. Dependability and confirmability were attempted through the use of a reflective journal.

Findings

Original text was used to demonstrate the construction of themes. Women describe a survival process that includes 'feeling whole again', 'the body as a house of suspicion', 'the future in question', 'changes in time', 'lucky to be alive' and 'sharing the journey'.

Comments

Although the researcher suggests that data analysis occurred simultaneously with data collection to enable the researcher to ask more focused questions, arguably in keeping with phenomenological principles interviews are generally unstructured, e.g. Koch (1996, p. 1979) states: 'I do not ask specific questions; the exchange is entirely open'. Despite using a reflective journal, it is unclear from the publication how this information was used and how it informed the analysis process, which would have been helpful to ascertain the trustworthiness of the data.

Ethnography

The primary purpose of ethnographic studies is to understand human behaviour and its relationship to the culture and social context in which it occurs (Hammersley and Atkinson, 1983). Ethnography can be defined as the systematic process of observing, detailing, describing, documenting and analysing the behaviours of cultural groups. To do this, the researcher enters the world of the group of interest to see it through the eyes of the individuals within the culture, and uses various methods of data collection, which usually include participant field observation as well as face-to-face interviews and recording of interactive dialogue within the cultural setting. Analysis occurs simultaneously in 'field' and involves the analysis of language, behaviour and field notes to make sense of the respondents' behaviour (Parahoo, 1997).

Example of an ethnographic study (Cope, 1995)

Purpose

To investigate the function of a breast cancer support group as perceived by the participants.

Sample

A convenience sample of 15 women diagnosed with breast cancer, all of whom were attending a cancer support group.

Data collection

Participant observation, plus two key informant interviews to seek further clarification, explanation and validation of the data.

Analysis

Content analysis of audio-tape recordings from 10 meetings and from the two key informants. Credibility was addressed through validation of the data by the informants. Auditability/reliability was checked through an independent review of the analysis process by an experienced researcher.

Findings

Three major categories were formed which described the purpose and benefits that the patients thought belonged to the group. These included exchanging information, sharing the illness experience and providing strength. All three categories were described by the researcher, and evidence was provided for each category.

Learning

Nurses should be cognizant of the functions of a breast cancer support group so that this information can be shared with women.

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