QUALITATIVE METHODS: PART ONE

C. George Boeree

Shippensburg University


CHAPTER ONE

INTRODUCTION


Sultan would scratch his head slowly, otherwise moving nothing but his eyes or perhaps his head, while he surveyed the situation about him in the most careful manner.  (Koffka, 1924, p. 221, reviewing Kohler's studies of chimpanzees.)


        Chimps solving problems -- not by trial and error, but by looking and thinking -- led Kohler and his fellow Gestalt psychologists to introduce the idea of insight.  Insight is, roughly, the recognition of connections or patterns.  His mind on the "unreachable" fruit, Sultan suddenly saw boxes and sticks as something more:  tools, means to an end.  It is as if the laws of conservation of matter and energy were suddenly overturned.  A new reality comes into being, not with a "big bang," but with a small alteration of an ape's perspective!

        As a kid, I loved looking at the Gestalt psychologists' figure-ground illustrations and reading their descriptions of problem-solving, whether by chimps or human beings;  I loved reading the ethologists' descriptions of fish and gull and goose behaviors; the anthropologists' descriptions of exotic cultures; William James' discussions of will or consciousness....  Each gave me insight, a new perspective on the world, on myself.  I felt myself "expanding!"

        Then I went to college to study psychology in earnest, and I read "real" research.  I remember sifting through the dry statistics of modern journals and wondering where the excitement had gone.  I wondered as well about the individuals that went into the mean; about the way they felt in those bizarre experimental situations; whether Chinese people would behave the same; about the people who did the opposite of everyone else, but were now dismissed as "error." Instead of insight I got confusion.

        But people are getting interested in the methods that produce insights again.  And that is the reason for this workbook:  to reintroduce the methods used by Gestalt psychologists and ethologists and anthropologists and people like William James.

        Of course, to become proficient at these methods requires much more than this workbook can offer.  The student must become familiar with the best works of others and gain first-hand experience at full-scale projects.  I do hope, however, that students will be reminded of the excitement their own insights brought them and take it from there!

SEARCHING FOR A DEFINITION

        The most common question I am asked by students considering taking my course is "what are qualitative methods?"  Unfortunately, that's a hard one to answer.

        I could start by telling you who uses them:  philosophers, psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists, students of literature, historians, biologists...anyone, in fact, who finds the methods of the physical sciences somehow inappropriate for understanding human  (and, occasionally, even  animal)  realities.

        But perhaps the best way to get at a definition is to look at why these people have turned to qualitative methods:

        1.  For some, the manipulation most experimental studies require at least verges on the unethical.  Whereas a chemical substance, a subatomic particle, or perhaps a white rat has no cause to object to being manipulated, human beings certainly may.  To frighten them, persuade them of something, expose them to various conditions, etc., even in the name of science, may undermine their self-respect, their psychological integrity, their sense of self-determination, or even their physical health.

        2.  For others, it is the reliance on measurement that is disturbing.  While reducing everything to numbers may be justified in the physical sciences, doing the same to human experience seems to dismiss the other, non-quantitative dimensions of that experience.  How do you quantify meaning, for example, or love, or anger, or confusion?  You can describe the Grand Canyon using only numbers  --  but somehow that wouldn't capture the essence of it!

        3.  For still others, the issue is control.  In order to find the relationship between two variables, all others must be controlled, whether by a reduction of actual variety, or by the establishment of control groups, or by statistically factoring out other variables.  But how do you control the lifetime of experiences that a person brings to an experiment?  What is the significance of a causal relation that does not occur independently outside the laboratory?  And do results established by examining group tendencies then apply to individuals.  Control is problematic in complex physical systems; imagine the problem with human beings.

        4.  Others are disturbed by the tendency to reductionism.  In the process of manipulating, measuring, and controlling variables, it is a matter of practicality to go down a level-of-analysis.  Hence the predominance of physiological and information-processing explanations for human behavior.  But, by their nature, these explanations avoid the very problems they were originally intended to explain  --  e.g. consciousness, meaning, personality, self, etc.

        5.  One more problem is that the experimental method and related methods are intrinsically deterministic.  What, in fact, would be the point of establishing causal relations if these relations could not be relied on?  On the other hand, many people involved in the human sciences are interested in things that assume at least some degree of freedom.  Morality, for example, has little meaning if people are as determined as falling bricks.  What are we to do with concepts such as bravery, responsibility, generosity, honesty, or compassion (or, for that matter, evil, guilt, cowardice...) if these are not a matter of choice?

        Generally, what disturbs so many people about traditional approaches in the human sciences is that they don't capture life as it is lived.  And that, perhaps, is the closest we'll get to an essence of qualitative methods:  They are methods that at least attempt to capture life as it is lived.

VARIETIES OF QUALITATIVE METHODS

        Like more traditional methods, however, qualitative methods come in many varieties.  For example, different researchers focus on different sources of data:
        1.  One's own immediate experience;
        2.  Others' experiences, which I might seek to understand through...
                a.  their speaking or writing,
                b.  their other behaviors,
                c.  their other products -- technology, artwork, footprints, etc.

        Another source of variation concerns how one collects one's data.  There are three broad orientations:
        1.  a "past" orientation -- collecting things that are the  results of past living, like artifacts or literature;
        2.  a "present" orientation -- observing (or introspecting) what is happening now;
        3.  a "future" orientation --  eliciting your data, making it happen, as in an interview or a project.

        And there are different ways of handling that data, of analyzing it.  I like to contrast between...
        1.  "cool" analysis, technical, like structural analysis or the repertory grid, and
        2.  "warm" analysis, wherein empathy is integral to the analysis, such as in phenomenology or hermeneutics.

        The variations will become clear as we look at them.  So let's get to it!

        My thanks to Chris Zeigler, Betty Anderson, and Donna Seltzer for allowing me to use examples of their work.  And thanks to all my Qualitative Methods students over the years for their contributions to the development of this workbook and the course itself!


TWO

PHENOMENOLOGICAL DESCRIPTION

        Traditional methods  --  e.g. experimentation  --  begin long before they seem to:  You derive a hypothesis from your favorite theory and expect it to hold up; you define your variables operationally, i.e. in terms of what you intend to manipulate and measure; you control other variables, either physically in the lab, or statistically with a nice big "n"; you choose a statistical device to decide the significance of the results for you....  It's sort of like declaring war on your topic!

        This is in contrast to phenomenology, which instructs us to allow the phenomenon to reveal itself in its fullness.  You "look" at it from all perspectives, using all your senses, even attending to your thoughts and feelings.  Phenomenologists say that phenomena are apodictic, which means the "speak for themselves"  --  which means in turn that we should be prepared to listen!

INTENTIONALITY

        We do this by (1) understanding intentionality and (2) practicing bracketing.  First, intentionality:  In phenomenology, we say "all consciousness is consciousness of....  Don Ihde explains:  "Every experiencing has its reference or direction toward what is experienced and, contrarily, every experienced phenomenon refers to or reflects a mode of experiencing to which it is present." (1986, pp. 42-43.)

        What it means is that all experiences have both an objective and a subjective component, and so understanding a phenomenon means understanding both.  The objective "pole" of a phenomenon is called the intended object or noema (plural:  noemata, adjective: noematic)  and the subjective "pole" of a phenomenon is called the intending act or noesis (plural: noeses, adjective: noetic):

        Intending acts might include seeing, hearing, feeling, thinking, judging... and intended objects the sights seen, the words heard, the feeling felt, the thoughts thought, the ideas judged, and so on.  Note that intended objects include not only objects in the traditional sense, but also such slippery little devils as feelings, thoughts, and ideas!

        More practically, intentionality means being open to all aspects of the phenomenon, not leaving out what belongs.  Spiegelberg said "The genuine will to know calls for the spirit of generosity rather than for that of economy...." (1965, p. 657.)

BRACKETING

        Bracketing, also called phenomenological reduction or the epoché, is the other side of the coin.  Bracketing means setting aside all our usual, "natural" assumptions about the phenomena.  You can't hear it if you are loudly telling it what it is!

        Practically speaking, this means we must put aside our biases, prejudices, theories, philosophies, religions, even common sense, and accept the phenomenon for what it is.  If therapists brought all their prejudices into the therapy situation with them, they would never be able to understand their clients in all their frustrating uniqueness.  The same is true for any phenomenon.

        This seems obvious.  But the most common bias for psychology students is one actually encouraged by mainstream psychology: that knowledge means measurement, cause-and-effect, and reductionism!  So psychologists and their students say that anger is "really" sympathetic nervous system activation, or that blue is "really" certain wavelengths of electromagnetic energy, or that thoughts are "really" just neural activity.  Yet these explanations are nowhere to be found in experience!

        So bracketing ultimately means a suspension of belief in the existence or non-existence of the phenomenon:  We must not be concerned with explanations of what the phenomenon "really" might be.

PROJECT

        The first project is the phenomenological description of a particular phenomenon,  a momentary happening or thing, something full of its uniqueness.  Spiegelberg (1965) outlines three "steps:"

        1.  Intuiting  --  Experience or recall the phenomenon.  "Hold" it in your awareness, or live in it, be involved in it....  Dwell in or on it.

        2.  Analyzing  --  Try looking for the following:

        the pieces, parts, in the spatial sense;
        the episodes and sequences, in the temporal sense;
        the qualities and dimensions of the phenomenon.
        settings, environments, surroundings;
        the prerequisites and consequences in time;
        the perspectives or approaches one can take.
        cores or foci and fringes or horizons;
        the appearing and disappearing of the phenomena;
        the clarity of the phenomenon.

And you must investigate these many aspects both in their outward forms -- objects, actions, others -- and in their inward forms -- thoughts, images, feelings.

        A common problem in the analyzing phase is what I call "walking away" from the phenomenon:  You start "free-associating" -- "this reminds me of the time I...."  Some might argue that that remembrance is also a phenomenon.  That's true, but it isn't the one you are studying.  When describing the physical environment of an experience, you don't say it's in Pennsylvania, the United States of America, planet earth, milky way galaxy...; neither should you drift too far afield psychologically.

        3.  Describing -- Write it down.  Write it as if the reader had never had the experience.  Guide them through your intuiting and analyzing.

        A problem in the describing phase is our tendency to write "for" something other than the description:  We write for other people.  Perhaps we wish to entertain them, so we use literary devices, get dramatic or poetic or novelistic, or sink into cliches.  Perhaps we are writing for our teachers, professors, or professional colleagues and, to avoid their censure, we get "academic," with technical jargon and A.P.A.-style obsessiveness.  Simple language is preferred; anything else adds too much to (or takes away from) the phenomenon.  If possible, relate your experience to familiar things or similar ones.  If not, you may have to make use of more creative devices, e.g. description by negation ("it's not like this..."), metaphors, and analogies.

        An important note, though:  Intuiting comes first (even though you will have to go back to it any number of times).  Spiegelberg (1965, p. 673) put it nicely:  "Phenomenology begins in silence."

        Your first project:  In class, describe the experience of drinking a cup of cranberry juice.  Don't just use your recollection:  Actually drink some, slowly, savoring the experience.  See if you can get a page or so of description.  Take about 20 minutes.  Then share your description with the class.

        Alternative or additional exercises:  Describe any sensual experience -- tastes, smells, the feel of something like fur or silk, a repeated sound (e.g. a single, low note played on a cello), or humming "om" as a class.  The only constraints for this beginning exercise is simplicity and clarity.


CHAPTER THREE

AN ANGER WORKSHOP

        This time, we're going to take a look at anger.  Three things will make this exercise more interesting, and more difficult as well:

        First, we'll be taking the workshop approach, introduced by Herbert Spiegelberg (1986).  By sharing our analyses with each other, we can help each other to develop full, unbiased descriptions.

        Second, we'll be looking at something more "noesis" than "noema," more act than object.  A feeling like anger isn't so directly available to us for analysis:  We must look at it as it is reflected in the way it affects our view of the world, our thoughts and images, ourselves and others.

        And third, we'll be describing, not a single, unique event, but a whole category of events  --  anger in general.  That means we have to look beyond the details of different episodes of anger for the commonalities, called essences.  (More on this in the next exercise.)

        Here are the steps:  Think about a particular time when you were very angry.  Try to recall it as fully as you can, and jot down a brief description that will communicate the experience to others.  This brief description is called a protocol.  It should be a simple, natural thing -- the actual phenomenology has not yet begun!  Then, in a group of three or four, share your descriptions -- either pass them around to read, or read them outloud.  Take some time to ask each other questions about the experiences.

        The next step is to analyze the descriptions with an eye to developing an overall description of anger (not just a description of three or four individual examples of anger).  Look for the commonalities, what makes anger anger.  Also look for exceptions, or for dimensions along which anger can vary.  In addition to the protocols, consider any other experiences of anger, as you analyze, that suggest what is universal to anger and what is incidental.  Test out any assertions by trying to think of an actual experience that contradicts the assertion.  And so on!

        Let me help a little, at the risk of prejudicing your descriptions.  Here are some of the questions you might ask your experiences in order to extract the essences of anger:

        1.  How does it come on?
        2.  What happens to your experience of your body?
        3.  How does the world seem different?
        4.  What thoughts and feelings come upon you?
        5.  What acts do you need or want to do?
        6.  How does it dissipate?
        7.  What preconditions were there (set, mood)?
        8.  What outside triggers were there?

Some points to keep in mind:

        1.  Note the importance of intuiting.  Do more than recall the experience; try to re-experience it, strongly, repeatedly.  "Call" on it.  You will note that recalling angry moments may make you angry again, especially if the experience remains unresolved!

        2.  Note the importance of bracketing.  Whenever you sense yourself drifting away from the experiential into the theoretical, put on the brakes!  Whenever you hear yourself using a conceptual term, ask yourself: To what experience does that term point to?  Or does it?  A small example:  You may find yourself talking about the "storing up" of anger -- what does that mean, experientially?

        3.  Whenever things get "easy," think:  Have I had experiences that are exceptions to this "rule?"  Look at the extremes as well as the "norms," or at the mundane versions if you've gotten too involved in extremes.  For example, look at both anger that ended in violence and anger that we hold in and live with.

        4.  Beware premature closure:  When you think you're done, you are probably nowhere near; You've probably missed something important.

        Alternatives or additional exercises:  Almost any emotion will do, though strong negative ones like anger, fear, and disgust are best to start with.  Sexual desire is also a good one, if the group is sufficiently uninhibited.  Other acts are a bit more difficult:  judging, deciding, willing, attending, ignoring, etc.


A STUDENT'S PROTOCOL ON ANGER

(Please note that this is a sample of a protocol, not of an analysis.  This is the kind of description a phenomenologist asks others to give, and which he or she then analyzes, together with many other protocols.)

        Sophomore year was going to be great.  The idea of all five of us girls living in the same dorm held promises of good times to come.  Unfortunately, I did not anticipate the humiliation and anger that the notion held as well.

        No words can describe the sheer anger and frustration I felt when I learned that my four best friends had gotten together behind my back and decided to room together--leaving me without a roommate.  What made the situation worse was the fact that we had previously discussed the possibilities of this arrangement and had decided to room separately in order to avoid hurting anyone's feelings--how thoughtful we had all been at the time.

        When my girlfriends finally told me of their decision I went, as they say, "off the wall."  I couldn't believe they, my best friends, could be so cruel.  I yelled, screamed, and cried with every last bit of energy I could summon from my body and then I stormed out of the room.

        I was so much more that angry.  I was furious, seething, livid--no words can really do my feelings justice.  Every vein in my body stuck out, my heartbeat raced, adrenaline shot through my body, my shoulders and neck muscles tensed up, my head pounded--and yet despite these distracting conditions, my senses and my general awareness reached new heights.  I must have been aware of every sight and sound that took place in the dorm that night--and sleep was a long way off.

        As I lay in my room, crying, I hated the girls--I wished that I could hurt them as much as they hurt me and that I could somehow get back at them and make their lives miserable.  I hated the world as well.  I hashed and rehashed almost everything that had ever gone wrong at college and I saw everyone I knew as being cold, heartless, and apathetic to my problems.  I longed to strike out at someone, anyone, anything that would help reduce the pain and anger welled up inside my body--but relief had to wait until morning.

        After hours of crying, tossing, and turning, I helped myself (the only way I know how) by falling asleep and removing the anger from my consciousness. The next morning when I woke up I felt, as I always do, as if some of the anger had been whittled away from my system.  After a phone call to my boyfriend, the rest of my anger subsided and all that remained was dull pain and disappointment.

        My relationship with my girlfriends has certainly been strained.  But now the anger is gone and my body and mind are no longer mobilized.  I can work on forgiving my friends and forgetting the situation that caused me to hate the people I care about the most.


CHAPTER FOUR

THE ESSENCE OF DISGUST

In the last exercise, we started going beyond the individual, unique phenomenon, and  looked for essences.   Essences refer to patterns, structures, invariant features..., what is necessary rather than merely incidental to the phenomena..., what, in some "class" of phenomena, is essential to the class, makes them what they are, causes us to think of them as belonging together.  We were trying to describe anger, not just some individual examples of anger.

        The "essence" of describing essences is simply to look at a series of exemplary phenomena.  Examine as many examples of anger as you can, for example, and keep you mind open to the commonalities.

        There are techniques to help you to distinguish necessaries from incidentals.  One is called free variation.   Once you have a decent description of a phenomenon or essence, you may want to "add" or "subtract" pieces of that description:  If you are describing triangles, adding a fourth side or removing one angle leaves you with something other than a triangle; on the other hand, coloring the triangle blue or constructing it out of wood makes no impact on "triangleness."  The number of sides and angles are essential to triangles, while color and substance are incidental.  Free variation tests the limits of a description.

        Notice that much of this is done "in one's mind."  Einstein called these mind experiments; Husserl called them free imaginative variations.

        Another way of getting at essences is to play with metaphors.   A common metaphor in the description of anger, for example, is "I felt like a volcano about to explode."  Well, what is it about volcanoes that reminds you of anger?  It is easier, sometimes, to see what two things that are fundamentally different have in common, like volcanoes and anger, than it is to see what two very similar things, like two episodes of anger, have in common.

        For this exercise, please as a class discuss disgust, with all its different meanings  --  disgust with food, with filth, with ideas, with people, etc.  --  and try to discover its essence.  Make use of free imaginative variation and metaphor.


CHAPTER FIVE

PROTOCOLS OF FRIENDSHIP

        Doing a phenomenological study on your own is difficult, and you run the risk that your own uniqueness will mislead you.  On the other hand, it isn't always convenient to gather together a bunch of fellow-phenomenologists for a workshop-style study.  We can get around these problems by using protocols.   A protocol in phenomenology is a personal account, a casual, natural description.  No real effort is made to be phenomenological; in fact, the protocols are usually made by "ordinary people."  When you have a number of these protocols, you analyze and describe as you might a series of your own experiences.  This technique, as you will see, shades into structural methods, and some criticism of it is justified:  You substitute a quantity of protocols for the quality that depends on thorough intuiting and careful bracketing.  Nonetheless, any technique that may add to our understanding should not be overlooked.

        To do this project, you will each have to ask someone to write a short account of how he or she became "best friends" with his or her best friend.  If you can't find someone, write your own.  Make three or four copies of these protocols to pass around to the members of your group.  When you get into your groups, read them carefully, more than once even.  Then discuss them as you did in the previous exercise.  Then individually write a description of falling in love.  The whole process should take you about two hours.

        An important point:  Every ten minutes or so of your discussion, think to yourself (or say outloud!) "Are we still on the topic, or have we wandered?  Are we describing or moralizing?  Are we talking about what is or about what should be?"  There is nothing wrong with values -- they are an important topic in phenomenology -- except when the task at hand is something else!

        "Becoming friends," more clearly than "anger," is an encounter, a dialog, a social interaction.  The experiences of the other are crucial, while they need not be when you are angry.  So, for additional and alternative projects, consider other encounters:  meeting someone, falling in love, falling in lust, making small-talk, trying to convince someone of something, being significantly influenced by someone, arguing, making up....

        A helpful hint:  Focus on that brief moment in time when you first recognized that there had been a change in your relationship from “stranger” or “acquaintance” to “friend” or “best friend.”  Then work out from there -- what was happening just prior to the change, what happened just after, and so on.  Note the emotions, thoughts, imagery, perceptions (especially of the friend), behaviors, attitudes.

        Or try it the other way around:  You were acquaintances once (“t1”); you are friends a day, a month, a year later (“t2”).  How were you different at t1 and t2?  How were things different?  Then go back and “fill in” the transition from t1 to t2.


ROMANCE:  A PARTIAL ANALYSIS

Romance is a mood or state of mind akin to several others, including love, friendship, sexual interest, contentment, self-assuredness, and so on.

It is normally experienced in the context of an actual relationship, although it may be experienced in other ways, such as in fantasy, expectation, or possibility.  It may also be experienced vicariously, such as when watching a romantic movie or real couples in romantic situations.  It is even experienced occasionally with friends or relations.

It is, more specifically, associated with courtship and with the intimations of sexuality that go with it.  It is itself, however, not primarily sexual.  In fact, it often has an innocent feel to it, and is associated with "puppy" love, first love, early flirtations, and the like.

Romance often involves courtship symbols, traditions, and stereotypes, such as flowers, gifts, hand-holding, candle-lit dinners, "romantic" music, ....  These, however, are not essential, but rather seem to derive from certain natural ways of expressing romantic feelings.  Once upon a time, they were probably original!  These symbols, etc., are now often used to "set the stage" for romance.

The romantic state of mind seems to come on rather suddenly, a matter of rather abruptly becoming aware of being in a romantic moment.  It very often involves surprise.  This is where many of the aforementioned symbols come into play:  Romance often involves being surprised by signs of someone's affection, whether it be in the form of a gift, a helping hand, an appreciative glance, a confidence shared, or what have you.

Associated with surprise is the sense of great motion, lightness, being swept up in the moment, or swept off your feet!  On the other hand, some people instead focus on a feeling of steadiness and solidity, reflecting the firmness of a commitment or the solidity of a relationship, especially in adversity.  The lightness in oneself and the steadiness of the other are by no means incompatible.

There is often a degree of gender stereotyping involved in romance:  "He made me feel pretty, feminine....  He is my knight in shining armor....  He swept me off my feet....  I found comfort in his broad shoulders...."  These comments are used to good advantage in romance novels, but have their sources in ordinary experience.  In men, we find similar statements, in reverse:  "She made me feel strong, like a real man...."  Please note that this is not to be understood as a "power thing," but rather an awareness of the need to care for a woman, to "nurture."  The connection with courtship seems quite strong, despite the many exceptions.

The mood may come upon both people naturally, but it is often "arranged for" by one or the other.  The structure of the romantic episode seems best left simple and it is greatly enhanced by at least the appearance of spontaneity.

Circumstances can be very important.  A small gesture or sign of support in adverse circumstances can be far more valuable than great generosity in good circumstances.  Romance seems, in fact, to thrive on adversity, as in our common recollections of our "poor days."

This introduces as well the symbolism of the hero and the fair maiden in fairy tales.  Selfless help in adversity, revealing deep affection, is a theme common to most fairy tales, many movies, and many real-life romantic moments as well.

The key feeling would seem to be one of a heightened self-worth seen as coming from the other person.  Examples would include feeling especially attractive, important, strong, interesting, intelligent, and so on.  Even the sense that one has been involved in something important can bring on a sense of romance.  The increase in self-worth, curiously, results in an increase in one's valuing of or affection for the other.

Paradoxically, these feelings can also occur in reverse, so that coming upon the other person in circumstances that lead you to particularly value him or her may lead to feelings of strength, security, confidence, etc., and this too is felt as romantic!  Common to both is the sense of being fortunate or lucky to be you, to be there, to be with this person.

Other aspects of a romantic mental state include (a) lightness, airiness, giddiness, a glow, excitement, enchantment, joking and laughing; (b) coziness, cuddling, contentment, comfort, closeness; and (c) riskiness, danger, and naughtiness.  Set (a) seems most common, with the others being variation, and (c) being the least common, but certainly not rare.

The essence of romance seems to me to be the sudden discovery or bringing to awareness (whether by accident or by arrangement) of your importance or value to another, along with an awareness of their value to you.  It is a confirmation that one is "lovable" or worthy of affection, whether in the eyes of a desirable young man or woman or in the context of a long, comfortable marriage.  This confirmation comes with many of the qualities associated with other kinds of "ego-transcendence" or "ego-expansion," such as love itself:  By losing yourself in your affection for another, you become stronger as an individual.  As is often mentioned, it is just one of those things that defies logic!


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Copyright 1998 by C. George Boeree