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Phenomenology: Understanding personal perspectives

Phenomenological research helps us understand what it is like to experience a specific situation or life event.
Two women sit at the table in an informal interview situation.
© Deakin University and Griffith University

Phenomenological research helps us understand what it is like to experience a specific situation or life event.

By describing the stories of people who actually lived through a particular experience and their perceptions of it, your research can cut to the heart of what it was truly like.

What’s exciting about this type of research?

It allows us an opportunity to understand a critical life event or set of circumstances that we may not have experienced ourselves.

Good phenomenology studies have the potential to produce rich data, usually generated by conducting in-depth interviews with people. This approach ‘studies the structure of various types of experience ranging from perception, thought, memory, imagination, emotion, desire, and volition to bodily awareness, embodied action, and social activity, including linguistic activity’ (Smith, 2016). So, while you can study any type of experience using a phenomenological approach, such as consumer buying decisions and management styles, it’s traditionally used in education and health research contexts.

In healthcare, it is often used to explore patients’ experiences of illness and medical care. For example, it has investigated the experience of being on a respirator in an intensive care unit.

Phenomenologists focus on describing what all participants have in common as they experience a phenomenon (Creswell, 2013).

Think for a moment about the tendency the media, government and other well-meaning institutions have to make assumptions about what’s needed in our communities. Without knowing all facets of a situation and the human experience of it, it’s easy to appreciate how less than ideal decisions are sometimes made.

With the insights a phenomenological study can provide, society is in a stronger position to empathise with others and make educated decisions. For example, where to spend public money, what action to take or what laws to amend. In some settings, this type of qualitative research helps us challenge assumptions, by creating awareness and empathy.

Consider initiatives to support the elderly, victims of rape, domestic violence or the homeless. What of those who have experienced the side effects of chemotherapy, lost a child, their employment or been deployed in war? How can we know what’s truly needed, unless we can see through the eyes of those who have lived the experience? The words of Roman poet, Virgil, come to mind….

Trust one who has gone through with it - Virgil — © Shutterstock

Please note, this kind of research focuses on describing, rather than analysing the phenomena. It’s a description of a lived experience at a particular point in time to better understand the meaning the participant ascribed to it. The research question often asked is along the lines of “What is the meaning of some experience?”

For example:

  • What do children experience when their parents divorce?
  • What is the meaning of physical disability to people who have been severely injured in the workplace?

With accurate insight and understanding, we can learn from another person’s lived experience and perhaps improve the situation for those in similar circumstances in the future.

Your task

Let’s brainstorm some starting points for a phenomenological research topic.

Think about an event, a situation or a moment in time you would like to understand more. Next, complete the following question and post your response in the comments section below.

‘What’s it like to experience…?’

Feel free to share with the rest of the group what sparks your interest in this event or experience, along with a suitable research question to explore that issue.


Creswell, J. (2013). Qualitative Inquiry and Research Design: Choosing among Five Approaches, 3rd ed., Los Angeles: SAGE Publications

Smith, D.W. (2016). Phenomenology: The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy Winter 2016 Edition, Edward N. Zalta (ed.).

© Deakin University and Griffith University
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Why Experience Matters: Qualitative Research

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