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The eminent Dutch phenomenologist J.H. van den Berg1 was speaking to a group of students and staff at my institution in the mid-1970s and asked the audience to describe recollecting a dream. One of the students, to everyone's surprise, began by saying, “You have a bedside table, a good light, a notebook and a pencil…” This drew emphatic praise from van den Berg. It was the immediacy of the connection with lived experience that he valued. In a related vein, Dorion Cairns tells us of a conversation with Edmund Husserl, the founder of modern phenomenology:
I recall particularly one argument about visual perception. I had been defending the doctrine that only perspective appearances are strictly seen. At last Husserl looked down at a box of matches in his hand, turned it this way and that, then, looking me squarely in the eye, reported loudly and distinctly: “Ich sehe den Streichholzschachtel (I see the matchbox)”. It was the proper method at that moment. I was startled into recognition of the obvious. (Cairns, 2010, p. 3)
Now, of course, phenomenological writing is full of debates concerning the proper treatment of issues such as the nature of the experience of the “other sides” of the matchbox—we certainly see the matchbox as a matchbox, but from a certain perspective (because we are embodied). Is this best described as our “constituting” the matchbox? Does phenomenology need an analysis of the structure of consciousness, with its noema (the experienced matchbox) in relation to the noesis (the manner of experiencing it—e.g., imagination, memory, perception…)? Or does this “inner” focus undermine the description of our experience of the matchbox, which is discovered out there? And surely we must notice that the meaning of this matchbox is in relation to a whole network of meanings that constitute the lifeworld (Is it a guilty reminder of my contravention of a pledge to my wife to give up smoking?) Phenomenologists have also been increasingly aware of the impact of language not just in reflecting on the world, but in constructing it. But in all this, the original call must come through, to describe the things themselves in their appearing within the lifeworld (I see the matchbox).
Phenomenologically based qualitative research on health and well-being aims to present us with aspects of some particular lived experience, which will startle us into recognising what should have been obvious (sometimes for the first time, perhaps). So, phenomenological work is emphatically not just “a way of analysing transcripts”, a technique. It is an approach to the world of experience, which aims to describe what that experience is like for the experiencer (subjectively—whether the experience is objectively true in some sense or not). The transcripts of people's accounts of how such-and-such appears to them are to be read in the spirit of free imaginative variation, helping to inform the imagination of the researcher about the phenomenon. And in our area the phenomenon may be enormously complex (the meaning to me of my illness; the world of the carer of someone with a certain illness, etc.).
An early discovery of the phenomenological method was that one does not, strictly, seek “inside the head” for that which one will describe. Rather, it is my lifeworld that I look to. This is the subjective world of selfhood (who am I in this situation?); embodiment; temporality; spatiality; personal projects (what does this situation mean for my interests and concerns?); understandings drawn from the discourse of the culture; the mood which the atmosphere of the situation engenders, and—often most importantly—relations with others. How do I live my world in this situation?2
So, one needs to set up research, which will evoke descriptions of the lifeworld of the research participant, and it is in terms of the researcher's informed imagination of the lifeworld of people in the situation under consideration that the report will be framed. This is true of phenomenologically based research, but qualitative research in general needs to recognise that a research topic is always contextualised, and it is often because of the context that it has the effect it does. The stronger kind of paper within the phenomenological tradition of qualitative research, then, is one in which, rather than just applying some notion developed by a leading phenomenologist to a certain situation, the author, drawing on the evidence of the research participants, personally wrestles with the experience itself and the reader is also drawn into the battle to find an appropriate description. And in qualitative research, generally it is quite inappropriate to rely on “authorities”—it is the researcher's responsibility to make sense of the research topic. Out of this, an account may arise which can be accorded the “phenomenological nod”3—in other words we can say, “Yes, this is indeed what it is like”—and perhaps now we can see more clearly what needs to be done.
1For an introduction to one important line of thinking of this author, see van den Berg (1972).
2For an account of this set of “existentials” (based on Heidegger, Boss, Merleau-Ponty and others), see Ashworth (2006).
3Several teachers of phenomenology have been credited with coining this term. van Manen (1990, p. 27) uses it repeatedly himself but regards Buytendijk as its creator.