Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Heidegger vs Husserl: Phenomenological choices

In the course of my research towards developing a framework for a Visual Communication Phenomenological Methodology, I have now followed literature back to Nursing sources. Several recommended papers have been useful, and in turn they have also pointed to other possibly useful nursing sources.

Lopez and Willis (2004) help to clarify the different philosophical underpinnings to a Phenomenological study, and the importance of positioning the study clearly within one of the two philosophical schools of Phenomenology.

I'm basing my study on Moustakas' (1994) guidelines, but those are merely generic and non-partisan. As Lopez and Willis state "implementing a method without an examination of its philosophical basis can result in research that is ambiguous in its purpose, structure, and findings" (p726). So I will need to position my research methodology firmly within either the eidetic or hermeneutic schools.

Eidetic Phenomenology is descriptive of the phenomena, and is Husserlian in its philosophical roots. Hermeneutic Phenomenology is interpretive and owes its philosophical roots to Heidegger, a student of Husserl. Where the importance of choosing the philosophical school for a study resides is in how its findings are generated and used. Both schools deal with this differently. Hence the importance of not being generic in the design of the methodology, but philosophically specific.

In Eidetic (Husserlian) research it is important for the researcher to absolutely 'bracket out' prior personal knowledge and biases, to achieve "transcendental subjectivity". This results in the researcher holding in "abeyance ideas, preconceptions, and personal knowledge when listening to and reflecting on the lived experiences of participants" (p728). From these lived experiences features or essences that are common under Phenomenological scrutiny emerge that represent the phenomena's true identity. This is so so that a generalised description can be made, through a foundationalist approach, with a belief (reflecting scientific values) that these essences "can be extracted from lived experiences without a consideration for context" (p728).

In the Hermeneutic philosophical school (or even movement) its application has predominantly been in Theology, and its purpose is to go beyond mere descriptions of core concepts, or essences, "to look for meanings embedded in common life practices" (p728) to bring out what is normally hidden in human experience. Its focus therefore is on what humans experience rather than know within what Heidegger terms being-in-the-world. This situates the experience within a context of a life-world, which all sounds comfortably similar to what Dourish (2004) and Suchman (1987) discuss in part of their respective theses.

As Lopez and Willis discuss "Heidegger asserted that humans are embedded in their world to such an extent that subjective experiences are inextricably linked with social, cultural, and political contexts" (p729). In Hermeneutic Phenomenology its foundational aspect is on the "interpretation of the narratives provided by participants in relation to various contexts" (p729), meaning that unlike Eidetics, the context remains crucial to understanding through interpretation. A fundamental divergence in approaches between the two schools lies in the act of 'bracketing'. In Hermeneutic Phenomenology making any preconceptions on the part of the researcher explicit and explaining their use within the research has a long tradition. Absolute 'bracketing out' that prior knowledge is inconsistent with an interpretive approach. This is a crucial difference I need to build into MY methodology.

Finally Lopez and Willis summarise that an interpretative approach is "useful in examining contextual features of experiences that might have direct relevance to practice. Moreover, a critical hermeneutic framework can enable the researcher to bring to light hidden features of an experience that would be overlooked in a purely descriptive approach" (p734). They urge for careful consideration of which school to choose to inform the analysis. Naturally I feel my framework approach to the methodology is more interpretative, and that will be more useful within design (more on this in a future post).

References used:

DOURISH, P. (2004). Where the Action Is: The Foundations of Embodied Interaction. Cambridge: MIT Press.
LOPEZ, K.A., and WILLIS, D.G. (2004) Descriptive Versus Interpretive Phenomenology: Their Contributions To Nursing Knowledge. Qualitative Health Research, 14(5), pp726-735.
SUCHMAN, L. (1987). Plans and Situated Actions: The Problem of Human-Machine Communication. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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