Phenomenology as Qualitative Research: A Critical Analysis of Meaning Attribution

Published by Routledge on 17th August 2016.


For links to full reviews, see News page.


“I think this book is a major milestone in the field of qualitative research… In his demolition of the claims made by a selection of phenomenologists… John Paley has pointed out the emperor’s lack of clothing and pushed him into the spotlight for all to see.” Professor Roger Watson, University of Hull, Editor-in-Chief Journal of Advanced Nursing.

 “Engaging, incisive, forensic.”  Alec Grant, Reader in Narrative Mental Health, University of Brighton.

“The persuasive force and dogged logic of John Paley’s argument demands a response. Whether you agree or disagree with him, this book cannot be ignored. It will be required reading for any nurse contemplating undertaking a phenomenological study. Likewise, anyone commenting on phenomenology who does not engage with the arguments Paley advances has not meaningfully engaged with the subject. The influence of this book will ripple through nursing research and education for many years to come.”  Martin Lipscomb, Senior Lecturer, University of Worcester.

“Paley’s book is a major contribution to nursing research, and social research more generally. It has the hallmarks of his work over the past 20 years and more: namely, formidable attention to scholarly detail, critical acumen and original thought.”   Professor Steven Edwards, Swansea University.


Chapter summaries

1    Introduction: the undecided

I distinguish between phenomenology-as-philosophy (PP) and phenomenology-as-qualitative-research (PQR). The book is exclusively about PQR, bypassing the complexities of PP, and focuses on how it is actually done, looking closely at examples provided by three textbooks. I introduce the ‘distinctiveness’ question, ‘What is it that, in practice, distinguishes PQR from other qualitative research methods?’, and argue that the answer has to do with meaning attribution. I suggest that the book is primarily intended, not for the already committed, but for the undecided, the curious, and the secretly baffled. Many of this group are postgraduate students. There is a chapter-by-chapter synopsis.

2    Meaning attribution in phenomenology

The distinctive feature of PQR is meaning attribution, in which meaning is assigned first to individual units of data, and subsequently to the phenomenon as a whole (although many studies become hybrids, reverting to more generic methods of qualitative analysis). According to the methodological writers, meaning is assigned on the basis of a ‘reading from within the text itself’: the use of external theories is illegitimate. I call this the axiom of resident meaning. The chapter ends with the question: How exactly is meaning distilled from the text? By what method is it extracted?

3    Amedeo Giorgi: jealousy

I tackle the question, ‘How is meaning extracted from the text?’ by examining an example from a book by Giorgi, in which he conducts an analysis of two narratives about jealousy. Giorgi identifies ‘meaning units’ in each story, and then performs ‘meaning transformations’ on them in order to ‘bring forth their psychological meaning’. On closer inspection, however, ‘meaning transformations’ consist entirely of arbitrary synonyms (‘secretly hoping’ becomes ‘covertly wishing’) and trivial adjustments to syntax (‘the group he went out with’ becomes ‘with whom he went out’). None of these changes adds anything to our psychological understanding of jealousy.

4    Max van Manen: being left or abandoned

Van Manen also fails to comply with the axiom of resident meaning. Instead, he brings a non-textual resource to his interpretation, namely (what appear to be) his own theories about parenting. In one of his examples, he projects these theories into both his definition of the phenomenon (‘feeling left or abandoned’), and the texts he proposes to interpret. In another, he transforms a tangential reference to hope into an inflated passage on the ‘ontological roots’ of hope and pedagogy. The ‘linguistic transformation’ in this case is almost completely detached from original text, in what comes across as a piece of devotional writing on the paramountcy of hope.

5    The linguistics of meaning

The preceding chapters leave the question, ‘How is meaning distilled from a text?’, unanswered, since the methods adopted by Giorgi and van Manen are underspecified, and neither offers an account of what meaning is. So I present my own account of meaning, derived from corpus linguistics. I suggest that the words ‘meaning’ and ‘means’ are inference markers. Their linguistic function is roughly equivalent to ‘therefore’. One consequence of this is that, in the absence of a background theory, meaning attribution is impossible. In contrast to the axiom of resident meaning, my analysis shows that meaning attribution presupposes an ‘external’ theory.

6    Smith, Flowers, Larkin: the HIV interview

In order to test this account, I turn to an example from Smith, Flowers & Larkin, and evaluate their claim that interpretative phenomenological analysis should not be based on ‘a reading from without’, but must be ‘based on a reading from within the text itself’. If my own account of meaning is correct, a ‘reading from within the text’ without recourse to ‘external’ theory is not possible. This chapter examines SFL’s analysis of the HIV interview, line by line, and shows that their interpretation of the data presupposes a theory which is nowhere to be found in the data itself.

7    Meaning, models and mechanisms

Theory is necessary, not only for qualitative analysis, but for the identification of the phenomenon. For this reason, I distinguish between topic and phenomenon, and suggest that many PQR studies begin not with a phenomenon but with a topic. I clarify the relation between theories, data and models, and argue that one important function of qualitative research is to use ‘some bits of theory and some bits of data’ to construct explanatory models of phenomena. Most of the last chapter provides a practical example, based on a published PQR study of empathy, of how this might be done.



General description

Phenomenology originated as a novel way of doing philosophy early in the twentieth century. In the writings of Husserl and Heidegger, regarded as its founders, it was a non-empirical kind of philosophical enquiry. Although this tradition has continued in a variety of forms, ‘phenomenology’ is now also used to denote an empirical form of qualitative research (PQR), especially in health, psychology and education. However, the methods adopted by researchers in these disciplines have never been subject to detailed critical analysis; nor have the methods advocated by methodological writers who are regularly cited in the research literature.

This book examines these methods closely, offering a detailed analysis of worked-through examples in three influential textbooks by Giorgi, van Manen, and Smith, Flowers and Larkin. Paley argues that the methods described in these texts are radically under-specified, and suggests alternatives to PQR as an approach to qualitative research, particularly the use of interview data in the construction of models designed to explain phenomena rather than merely describe or interpret them. This book also analyses, and aims to develop, the implicit theory of ‘meaning’ found in PQR writings. The author establishes an account of ‘meaning’ as an inference marker, and explores the methodological implications of this view.

This book evaluates the methods used in phenomenology-as-qualitative-research, and formulates a more fully theorised alternative. It will appeal to researchers and students in the areas of health, nursing, psychology, education, public health, sociology, anthropology, political science, philosophy and logic.