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What is phenomenology in qualitative research?

Last updated

7 February 2023


Dovetail Editorial Team

Reviewed by

Hugh Good

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Phenomenology is a type of research that seeks to explain the nature of things through the way people experience them. It translates literally as the “study of phenomena.” In other words, it’s the study of the meaning these things (or phenomena) have in the minds of the audience you’re studying.

Take a closer look at this type of qualitative research along with characteristics, examples, uses, and potential disadvantages.

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What is phenomenological qualitative research?

Phenomenological research is a qualitative research approach that builds on the assumption that the universal essence of anything ultimately depends on how its audience experiences it.

Phenomenological researchers record and analyze the beliefs, feelings, and perceptions of the audience they’re looking to study in relation to the thing being studied. Only the audience’s views matter—the people who have experienced the phenomenon. The researcher’s personal assumptions and perceptions about the phenomenon should be irrelevant.

Phenomenology is a type of qualitative research as it requires an in-depth understanding of the audience’s thoughts and perceptions of the phenomenon you’re researching. It goes deep rather than broad, unlike quantitative research. Finding the lived experience of the phenomenon in question depends on your interpretation and analysis.

What is the purpose of phenomenological research?

The primary aim of phenomenological research is to gain insight into the experiences and feelings of a specific audience in relation to the phenomenon you’re studying. These narratives are the reality in the audience’s eyes. They allow you to draw conclusions about the phenomenon that may add to or even contradict what you thought you knew about it from an internal perspective.

How is phenomenology research design used?

Phenomenological research design is especially useful for topics in which the researcher needs to go deep into the audience’s thoughts, feelings, and experiences.

It’s a valuable tool to gain audience insights, generate awareness about the item being studied, and develop new theories about audience experience in a specific, controlled situation.

Examples of phenomenological research

Phenomenological research is common in sociology, where researchers aim to better understand the audiences they study.

An example would be a study of the thoughts and experiences of family members waiting for a loved one who is undergoing major surgery. This could provide insights into the nature of the event from the broader family perspective.

However, phenomenological research is also common and beneficial in business situations. For example, the technique is commonly used in branding research. Here, audience perceptions of the brand matter more than the business’s perception of itself.

In branding-related market research, researchers look at how the audience experiences the brand and its products to gain insights into how they feel about them. The resulting information can be used to adjust messaging and business strategy to evoke more positive or stronger feelings about the brand in the future.

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The 4 characteristics of phenomenological research design

The exact nature of phenomenological research depends on the subject to be studied. However, every research design should include the following four main tenets to ensure insightful and actionable outcomes:

  1. A focus on the audience’s interpretation of something. The focus is always on what an experience or event means to a strictly defined audience and how they interpret its meaning.

  2. A lack of researcher bias or prior influence. The researcher has to set aside all prior prejudices and assumptions. They should focus only on how the audience interprets and experiences the event.

  3. A descriptive emphasis on research insights. Research reports tend to be in-depth. The researcher should describe the phenomenon through the eyes of the audience as comprehensively as possible.

  4. Connecting objectivity with lived experiences. Researchers need to describe their observations of how the audience experienced the event as well as how the audience interpreted their experience themselves.

Types of phenomenological research design

Each type of phenomenological research shares the characteristics described above. Social scientists distinguish the following three types:

  1. Existential phenomenology—focuses on understanding the audience’s experiences through their perspective. 

  2. Hermeneutic phenomenology—focuses on creating meaning from experiences through the audience’s perspective.

  3. Transcendental phenomenology—focuses on how the phenomenon appears in one consciousness on a broader, scientific scale.

Existential phenomenology is the most common type used in a business context. It’s most valuable to help you better understand your audience.

You can use hermeneutic phenomenology to gain a deeper understanding of how your audience perceives experiences related to your business.

Transcendental phenomenology is largely reserved for non-business scientific applications.

Data collection methods in phenomenological research

Phenomenological research draws from many of the most common qualitative research techniques to understand the audience’s perspective.

Here are some of the most common tools to collect data in this type of research study:

  • Observing participants as they experience the phenomenon

  • Interviewing participants before, during, and after the experience

  • Focus groups where participants experience the phenomenon and discuss it afterward

  • Recording conversations between participants related to the phenomenon

  • Analyzing personal texts and observations from participants related to the phenomenon

You might not use these methods in isolation. Most phenomenological research includes multiple data collection methods. This ensures enough overlap to draw satisfactory conclusions from the audience and the phenomenon studied.

Get started collecting, analyzing, and understanding qualitative data with help from quickstart research templates.

Limitations of phenomenological research

Phenomenological research can be beneficial for many reasons, but its downsides are just as important to discuss.

This type of research is not a solve-all tool to gain audience insights. You should keep the following limitations in mind before you design your research study and during the design process:

  • These audience studies are typically very small. This results in a small data set that can make it difficult for you to draw complete conclusions about the phenomenon.

  • Researcher bias is difficult to avoid, even if you try to remove your own experiences and prejudices from the equation. Bias can contaminate the entire outcome.

  • Phenomenology relies on audience experiences, so its accuracy depends entirely on how well the audience can express those experiences and feelings.

  • The results of a phenomenological study can be difficult to summarize and present due to its qualitative nature. Conclusions typically need to include qualifiers and cautions.

  • This type of study can be time-consuming. Interpreting the data can take days and weeks.

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