Goodbye PERFECT (Michael and Valeria)

A month from the end of project PERFECT, Michael Larkin (Co-Investigator) and Valeria Motta (Doctoral Research Fellow) reflect on what the project meant for them.

One helpful way to think about being involved in a project as expansive as PERFECT is to reflect on where it is sending you next. In this post, we discuss some of the things they have learned from our interdisciplinary work together.

Michael Larkin

Michael: One of the most interesting aspects of PERFECT for me has arisen from the opportunity to work with you on your PhD. It’s going to be a really innovative combination of philosophical argument and phenomenological-psychological investigation. I’m aware that – coming into it – you were already very well-read on the phenomenological philosophy. I’m curious to know what has struck you most about getting to grips with qualitative methods in psychology?

Valeria Motta

Valeria: Thank you Michael. It was very interesting for me working with you too. I was surprised to find a variety of approaches within qualitative methods. And it was interesting to think about the epistemological implications of these different approaches. I am specifically referring to the difference between discursive and experiential qualitative methods. The discursive method focuses on the linguistic resources and conversational features that participants use to give accounts of their experience. The experiential method (such as IPA) aims to understand the connection between embodied experience, talk about the experience and a participant’s making sense and emotional reaction to that experience. 

From a philosophical perspective this is interesting. It talks about the relationship between language and experience. As I read it, an important difference between these methods is the role of language. For the experiential method, language is more than what we employ to describe an experience. It is a constitutive part of it. In other words, the experiential method is making ontological claims about the very nature of our experience: that it is embodied, that it involves emotions and the use of language. This is not so clearly the case for a discursive method. And here I wonder whether, in the discursive method, the linguistic resources are regarded solely as ways of expressing an experience or as constitutive parts of the experience.

M: Right – these are the two most well-established epistemological positions in qualitative psychology, so it helps to orient yourself if you can get a feel for them. I’m not sure the distinctions play out quite the same in other disciplinary domains. I think a discourse analyst would want to pick up on your last point too. They might be interested in ‘experience,’ but I think they’d say that they were interested in how ‘experience’ is constructed – through talk and action – and how it might act as a socially-meaningful form of knowledge. So there is a relationship to ‘experience-as-topic’ there, but it’s quite distinct from the phenomenological one. And they might add that a particular kind of authority or expertise is invoked when people talk about ‘their experience’ of something – which is where Lisa’s work on narrative seems to be headed as well. I think both the experiential and discursive approaches are interested in sense-making though – it’s just that they focus on different contexts and dimensions of this.

V: I guess what I was thinking is that when a methodology proposes to study talk and action (all external manifestations), one could say that the implications of this are that the psyche can be perceived directly via its external expressions (language, culture, history). This is liberating as well as problematic. We rid ourselves from having to presuppose the existence of mental representations. But, at the same time, we could argue that what this method investigates is what is historically built. In other words, narratives may tell us more about a group than about individual experiences. Perhaps this serves as a good ‘way into’ individual experiences.

But you mentioned that both approaches are interested in sense-making. What qualitative methods refer to when they talk about sense making was another crucial thing for me understand and I thought it is used quite distinctively in methods such as IPA. We read that IPA researchers analyze what participants say in order to learn about how they make sense of their experience. I remember asking you to clarify sense making for me in this context.

M: Yes, that phrase is doing quite a lot of work. It’s also used interchangeably with meaning-making, and we’ll have to defer for another time a discussion about whether sense and meaning are the same thing! A lot of what’s implied by the phrase is related to its historical role in clearing a space for a different kind of psychology. Jerome Bruner’s work – particularly Acts of Meaning - was very important for qualitative psychology. It set out the possibility of a variant of psychology which was less interested in the causes of behaviour, or the intrinsic qualities shared by ‘types’ of people, and more interested in the meaning of behaviour, or how we make sense of our relationships to self and others.

Effectively, this kind of work is asking, ‘How do people make sense of the world?’ A lot of the initial progress was made on the discursive front, and so there the focus was on linguistic, social and cultural aspects of meaning. It employed the idea that meaning is a resource (in the form of say a discourse, or narrative) that is ‘out there’ in the world, available to us, but also working upon us. That in turn opens out a relationship between meaning and power (how do power relationships affect the meanings that we can claim for ourselves in different contexts?), and another between meaning and embodiment (how do we make sense of how we feel?), and another between meaning and experience (how do we make sense of what has happened to us?).

Each of these loosely reflects a different subset of epistemological and methodological interests, but a couple of concerns are cross-cutting – one is context and the other is the idea that meaning or sense-making is an active, effortful human endeavour. In IPA, we’re asking, ‘How does this person in this context, make sense of this experience?’ – and then across cases, we’re doing analysis to identify patterns of meaning in those accounts. That’s what a theme is: a pattern of meaning, a way of capturing people’s relationship to something of significance in their world. The focus of those patterns can vary, though, in terms of the degree of abstraction that analysts might aim for.

Your PhD is about loneliness and solitude but you’re not just interested in people’s experiences of these phenomena. You’re also interested in understanding the phenomena at a conceptual level. You’ve been carrying out research interviews with groups of people who have different perspectives on those phenomena. I’m aware that this isn’t completely unheard of in philosophy, but I understand that it is far from typical practice. What role has it played in the development of your conceptual arguments?

V: Yes, my project looks to explain the experiences of loneliness and solitude as they are contemporarily lived and aims to provide a philosophical perspective that expands the current tendency in other disciplines to focus on social distress, which is just one aspect of the experience. The philosophical perspective is informed by (and a lens through) findings from different disciplines. As you said, some other philosophers are interested in drawing from the phenomenological tradition of philosophy to analyse and understand first-person accounts. Perhaps the novelty here is that this hasn't been done to study loneliness, that I have complemented this with two of my own empirical studies, and that I used different methodologies to investigate further into different dimensions of the experience.

The interviews were crafted with different aims but mostly so that the questions would help me explore aspects that would be of interest from the perspective of the phenomenological tradition in philosophy (such as the temporality and embodied aspects of loneliness) In the analysis I discovered how seemingly different descriptions were pointing at some characteristics that could be structural of those experiences.

I found this very interesting because it is precisely the fact that loneliness is described so differently by different people what is most striking to researchers of this phenomena. I guess, an in-depth analysis and knowledge of phenomenology has help me get to some core fetures of the experience. And drawing on the theory from phenomenology was important to make this step. And I say this thinking in hermeneutic terms that the researcher is another interpreter when she analyses the data. However, this did not seem like I was being less faithful to the participant’s accounts. Perhaps part of this has to do with IPA being less directive as an interview technique? I think of that sort of interview technique as a letting the story know itself.

M: Yes, I like that. In IPA, you’re looking for ways to aid the expressive activity that we were talking about above, but there’s also an admission that you can’t fully or consistently access the meaning of the experience (because it changes across contexts, and with different audiences) or the phenomenal object (because language and other forms of expressive activity are constructive, rather than representational). So the interviewer’s job is to enable the participant to tell their story, and prompt them to reflect on it, and explore their affective relationship to things that they talk about. It’s generally achieved through open questions, a curious and exploratory style, and invitations to add detail or reflect on what has been said.


You might sometimes add some activities – such as working with image-making – to open out the affective dimension of the conversation. But that’s all quite different to, say, micro-phenomenology, or descriptive experience sampling, which have developed outside of the epistemological landscape of qualitative psychology. In those approaches, there is much less engagement with the work that language and context are doing, and consequently much more willingness to pursue a questioning style which seeks to evoke or recall the ‘experience’ or the ‘object’ in and of itself. I think that’s evolving into a very interesting approach, but it is difficult to see yet how those approaches can unproblematically theorise their treatment of language as directly representational.

V: Some researchers refer to the practices of psychotherapists such as Carl Rogers and Milton Erickson who have invented speech acts that can enable participants to become aware of their lived experience in order to describe it. Some employ a psychotherapeutic method created by Gendlin (1962/1997, 1996) called ‘focusing’ which aims to put the participant in direct contact with the dimension of subjective experience that is felt through the body or 'felt meaning'.

M: Yes, I know some IPA reseachers are experimenting with ‘focusing’-influenced approaches as well. I think these data sources can be very rich and interesting, but that – just as with other forms of interviews - we need to work carefully and cautiously with the linguistic and contextual content of these interactions. The kinds of ‘conversational form’ that might evolve because it is helpful in a therapeutic context might also be useful in other contexts, of course, but we still need to 'think like researchers,' when research is what we’re using them for.

V: I have one last topic to raise. We have also discussed this recurrently. It’s about the possibility of developing methods that can reach different dimensions of experience. Since the mere possibility of referring to our experiences is closely related with language, a question we could ask is how do we explore pre-conceptual dimensions of experience? Do you think the use of multiple methodologies can address this? We have discussed the use of images, drawings and photos in qualitative research and creating images as a way to help individuals communicating and processing their experience.

M: I haven’t got a problem with the idea of pre-reflective structures - but I don't think it's possible for researchers to access that layer without engaging in interpretation, because language and imagery are not direct representations of the content of any experience (pre-reflective or otherwise). So we could study pre-reflective structures, but with the same caveat that we have for studying other layers/aspects of experience: we can get close/near, if we are imaginative with the data collection (and/or with the skills that our participants bring), but we can't get to an unmediated content (or essence). This might be an important distinction between phenomenology-as-philosophy and phenomenologically-informed qualitative research.

For the former, the epistemological status of our insights may not have to be resolved (i.e perhaps it can remain an open question, because the investigation is conceptual?). But for the latter, it can't be dodged - we can't get outside of interpretation, because we can't get outside of language, the world, context, and so on. It’s evident from recent comments on IPA by Giorgi, Van Manen, Zahavi and others, that IPA’s commitment to staying within the epistemological ‘sense-making’ tent of qualitative psychology on this issue isn’t well understood by those working outside of that tent. 

It’s not clear to me that either the focus on sense-making, or the rationale for sustaining that focus, have been understood. I’m bound to say that I think there are some epistemic benefits to being in the tent (I seem to be stuck with this metaphor now), but of course, I can see that there are benefits to being outside of it too. I’m just not sure about the acceptability of the epistemic costs out there. It needs a really good defence of representationalism to be persuasive to me in the long-run.

In the meantime, I’m genuinely interested in what’s emerging from the new wave of phenomenological research, in terms of the creative approach to data collection, the engagement with phenomenological theory, and the efforts to produce insights for cognitive science - so we’ll see!