Broomé: Intentional Analysis in Psychological Research

Dec 23rd, 2012 | By | Category: Praxis

Dr. Rodger Broomé


The descriptive phenomenological method of psychological research is rooted in the intentional property of consciousness. Husserl (1983) modified Brentano’s concept of intentionality, expressing it as consciousness acting upon an object or state-of-affairs that is not itself. In other words, embodied human subjectivity relates actively and passively to things that are immanent and external to it (Husserl, 1977). Of course, Husserl did not limit himself to human consciousness as I have explained here. He addressed the philosophical level of the transcendental consciousness. Gadamer (2008) describes Husserl’s project as an analysis of intentionality or intentional analysis. Giorgi (1985, 2009) developed the method inspired by Husserl’s philosophical phenomenology, which is the epistemological basis of Giorgi’s approach to psychological research. Therefore, I want to focus on the idea of data analysis within Giorgi’s method as an analysis of intentionality at the psychological level of inquiry. The researcher takes the naïve meaning units and describes the intentional acts of consciousness in psychological terms. By understanding intentionality the way Husserl (1983) explains it, the researcher can evaluate his or her own performance of the transformations in light of how well each describes the phenomenon within the form of intentional acts of consciousness.

Qualitative Subjective Perspective

The purpose of developing a phenomenological approach to psychological research was, and still is, to better understand how human beings experience their life-worlds. While not being anti-quantitative, the phenomenological approach seeks to get at the qualitative aspects of mental life in a holistic way, in its lived-context, from the first person perspective (Giorgi, 1985, 2009). Therefore, Giorgi’s approach to psychological analysis is an analysis of intentionality at the psychological level rather than at the universal level of philosophy. In short, phenomenological research psychologists do not aim at finding universal a priori facts about mental life, but rather to illuminate the lived-experiences of people in various kinds of situations. The purpose of using a Husserlian approach to intentional analysis is to get at the mental acts to see how they are synthesized by the mind into personal meanings. With that in mind, the researcher examines the personal meanings and generates a unified and coherent whole from the constituents meanings found in the analysis.

Systematic Analysis of Intentionality

Dr. Amedeo Giorgi

In the descriptive phenomenological psychological method, our raw data consists of transcripts of research participants’ accounts of a particular experience. The researcher may interview the participants while audio-recording their responses, have them provide their own written accounts, or even capture audio recordings during an experience as it occurs (Giorgi, 1985). Whatever the case, the raw data is a textual version of the account that can be read for a sense of the whole, divided into manageable parts called “meaning units,” and transformed into psychologically-oriented expressions. These psychologically-oriented expressions disclose the psychological constituents that make up the general structure. Constituents are psychological parts which can be distinguished from elements or factors, which would be psychological pieces. We term the psychological aspects we seek “constituents” because they are lived-context-laden, whereas elements are abstract concepts that have an identity irrespective of context (Giorgi, 1985). Phenomenological psychology does not seek to reduce mental life to a set of mental elements as “ready-made,” but rather to discover how the intentional acts of consciousness make meaning out of sensory-perceptions, thoughts, feelings, motivations, etc. (Giorgi, 2009). Therefore, we examine the text in light of the structure and functioning of intentionality to transform the data into coherent psychological descriptions of peoples’ lived-experiences.

The intentional structure of consciousness is described by Husserl (1983) as Subject – Act – Object or Subject – Act – State-of-Affairs. A person’s consciousness directs itself or points to objects or situations involving more than one object and their relations. Therefore, consciousness’ act on the object or state-of-affairs forms the personal “aboutness” for the person. Therefore, personal meaning and understanding is wrought by the acts of intentional consciousness. The first step of the data analysis is for the researcher to assume the phenomenological attitude and set-aside his or her theoretical biases. The second step is to read the entire transcribed account for a sense of the whole experience as it was lived. The third step is to divide the narrative text into manageable parts called “meaning units.”

Further, at this point during the data analysis the meaning units are converted into third-person versions of the participants’ first-person accounts while maintaining as much of their original language as possible (Giorgi, 2009). As the fourth step, the third-person version meaning units are transformed from everyday expressions to psychologically oriented expressions. I have found that paying attention to the intentional structure of each statement helps me to more easily see how to more accurately transform them into psychologically relevant expressions. By seeing the transformations as an analysis of intentionality, the mental-act and object or state-of-affairs upon which consciousness is acting emerges more clearly and coherently. Of course, the Subject in the intentional structure is the participant’s self-reference in the text. By paying attention to the Subject – Act – Object form, the researcher can use Husserl’s (1983) imaginative variation on each part of the intentional act to get at the best psychological expression he or she can.

When we analyze a physical object, we look at it from different perspectives and consider what aspects of the object are unique to that particular one and what parts are essential to its identity. In other words, the researcher mentally examines the object or state-of-affairs by taking different imagined perspectives and making modifications, like adding or subtracting or changing different features, to determine what is essential to the meaning and what is not. So the imaginative variation is an analysis of an object in the mind’s eye of the research using the imagination to vary and see it from different points of view.Imaginative-variation allows us to look at the mental verb, so to speak, in the participants’ statements and consider which psychological verb best describes what is occurring. For example, a participant may say that he or she “assumed” something because he or she later learned they were mistaken in fact.

However, the psychological researcher can express the act of consciousness in this kind of instance as “believed” which is usually based on the way the object or state-of-affairs presented itself to the participant when it was experienced. In other words, it is the statement within the context of the whole and the use of imaginative variation helps us render the participant’s lived-experience, which motivated actions or a response that was later found to be misguided, one of “belief.”. Once the act of consciousness is expressed in psychological language, the objects and states-of-affairs can be described in a way that shows the intentional structure of consciousness at the psychological level of analysis. This is described within a phenomenological attitude, meaning the psychological transformation does not posit, challenge, or impeach the participant’s point of view by making an ontological assertion regarding the experience. Rather, it simply describes what that experience was like from the participant’s point of view in the context of the whole.

Example and Explanation of Transforming Data

Within the phenomenological attitude and using imaginative variation, let’s consider an example of a hypothetical transformation using a popular nursery rhyme as our “data”:

“Jack and Jill went up the hill to fetch a pail of water. Jack fell down and broke his crown and Jill came tumbling after.”

These are the matter of facts about the incident and we can see what happened, but not how or what it was like. What is the relationship between Jack and Jill? Why were they interested in or motivated to get a pail of water? Why did Jack fall and how was it that Jill fell too? The phenomenological psychologist wants to get at the motivations, relations, perceptions, emotions and how the participant felt in the situation. The context of the entire story can be drawn upon by the research in the imaginative variation to unpack these which are explicated elsewhere or implied by the context. We recognize that when a person produces an expression, there is always more expressed than even the person was aware at the time (Gadamer, 2008; Giorgi, 1985). Suppose the research question/problem for Jack had been something like, “Tell what it was like for you to experience an embarrassing slip and fall accident.”

Meaning Unit 1

Let’s say we interview Jack and he relates: “Jill needed to get a pail of water for her mother and I accompanied her to help her because she’s my girlfriend.”

The researcher would first change this into a third-person version of the statement: “P’s significant other needed to get a pail of water and P accompanied her to help her because she’s P’s girlfriend.”

The transformation into the psychological statement could be: “P felt drawn by his affections and role as the significant other’s boyfriend to accompany her to the top of the hill to assist her with a household chore given by her mother.”

Meaning Unit 2

Jack’s first person account: “While on the climb, I slipped and fell causing me to bump his significant other and knock her down too. I felt my head strike something hard and while I was tumbling back down the hill, I saw my significant other tumbling down too. I found out I had broken my skull on a rock”

Third Person version: “While on the climb, P slipped and fell causing him to bump his significant other and knock her down too. P felt his head strike something hard and while he was tumbling back down the hill, P saw his significant other tumbling too. P found out he had broken his skull on a rock.”

Psychologically Oriented Transformation: “P felt his footing give away and he lost his balance which made him fall down, bumping Jill off balance too. P felt a crashing blow to his head as it hit the ground and he experienced an uncontrollable tumbling of his body as he rolled down the hill. P saw that Jill was following him down the hill in a tumbling manner like he was experiencing. P’s later learned that he had broken his skull bone”

I took the risk of stretching a nursery rhyme too far, but I thought it fitting to point out how context shifts the personal meanings for people. Moreover, those personal meanings are the “raw feels” of the moments that lend psychological insights to various events. That is why the research question/problem for Jack had been, “Tell what it was like for you to experience an embarrassing slip and fall accident.” Perhaps the sources of embarrassment were related to his relationship with Jill, the role of ushering her to the top of the hill, and his ironically being the inhibition to her fulfilling her task. Moreover, what might have wearing a bandage on one’s head in public for weeks attributed to cementing the event as an exemplar experience of embarrassment in Jack’s personal history? I trust this example has sufficiently met its task.

Going back to the methodological implications of the transformations, it requires the researcher to be theoretically neutral by bracketing, pay attention to the intentional structure(s) within each meaning unit, and the use the imaginative variation to “see” it from the participant’s view point are required for making adequate transformations. Additionally, one’s using a Thesaurus while using imaginative variation to find precision in words that best capture the participant’s personal meanings through vocabulary is helpful Sometimes a researcher may understand the meanings to be expressed in the transformations, but needs lexical assistance for finding words that express them well.

The Constituents of the General Structure

Once the transformations are completed, the researcher must go across the transformed data sets of all participants answering the research question/problem. I make nominal categorical notes on each transformed meaning unit to “name” the meaning that is being expressed. Some meaning units express more than one meaning and I continually adjust the nominal titles (which can also be phrases) as I discover categorical like kinds of psychological experiences across the data sets and numerous transformations. Through this process, I discover the constituent psychological events and experiences that all of the participants had as part of experiencing the particular kind of event that I was asking about.

Constituents are identified by considering whether or not that psychological meaning was essential to that kind of lived-experience. If a particular psychological aspect’s removal would cause the whole of the structure of experience to collapse or fail in its unified sense, then that is a constituent of the general structure of experience (Giorgi, 1985). The constituents are assembled together in one coherent paragraph that lays out the stream of experience that was generally had be all of the participants of the study. This paragraph is the general psychological structure and regarded as the core “findings” of the study.

From Description to Scientific Dialogue

Like quantitative studies, phenomenological studies take raw data, transform it, and then bring the findings back to bear in the elaboration of the results and discussion with the extant literature. Quantitative research takes real life events, codes these observations quantitatively and defines them operationally. Each observation is captured in a numerical record which enables the researcher to transform the data through statistical analysis. After the statistical results are complete, the researcher brings the findings back into the real world and makes meanings through interpretations. Likewise, once we have a general psychological structure of the experience and set of constituents, we bring these findings back to the larger discussions of the topic we are researching. We elaborate on the constituents and use them with other literature to interpret how they pertain to other real life situations and possible implications for psychological theory.


In sum, an important key concept for performing the data analysis in a descriptive phenomenological study in psychology is attention to the intentional structure of the participants’ expressions. Typically, the verbs or  various tenses of the word “be” (e.g., is, was, am, are, etc.) in the participants’ relating of their experience needs to be refined by the researcher into specific psychologically oriented act-verbs or states of being to unpack the deeper and more precise meanings. The noun objects often need some abstracting because the personal identity is not as relevant as the particular type of relation he or she filled for the participant. So words like peer, colleague, etc. are used instead of the proper names. Other key concepts are the Husserlian parts, pieces and wholes concept and imaginative variation.

One must understanding that the meaning unit delineation is simply a working-operation to create manageable portions for the researcher and not a division of the text into independent pieces by the researcher (Giorgi, 1985). This is not an atomizing of the text because the meaning units are still interdependent parts of the participant’s account of his or her experience as it was lived. So the parts must be regarded as part of a coherent and contextual whole. Finally, the bracketing of theory or presupposed beliefs about the kind of event under inquiry must be maintained until the general structure is complete. In other words, the data analysis must be complete before the findings are interpreted. That is to say, we arrive at a descriptive structure before shifting to an interpretation of the possible implications the structure has in the ongoing scientific dialogue. Interpretation and explanation follows description in the descriptive phenomenological psychological method of research.



Husserl, E. (1977). Phenomenological psychology: Lectures, Summer semester, 1925. New York: Springer.

Husserl, E. (1983). Ideas pertaining to a pure phenomenology and to a phenomenological philosophy: First book: General introduction to a pure phenomenology. F. Kersten (Trans.). New York: Springer.

Gadamer, H.G. (2008). Philosophical hermeneutics: 30th Anniversary ed. Ewing, NJ: University of California.

Giorgi, A.P. (Ed.). (1985). Phenomenology and psychological research. Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne University.

Giorgi, A.P. (2009). The Descriptive phenomenological method in psychology: A Modified Husserlian approach. Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne University.

Credit: Jack & Jill photo credit: perpetualplum via photopin cc

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4 Comments to “Broomé: Intentional Analysis in Psychological Research”

  1. Susan Hadley says:

    Rodger – Thanks for a great article, here. I would love it if you could explicate a bit more on the process you discuss here “I have found that paying attention to the intentional structure of each statement helps me to more easily see how to more accurately transform them into psychologically relevant expressions. By seeing the transformations as an analysis of intentionality, the mental-act and object or state-of-affairs upon which consciousness is acting emerges more clearly and coherently…By paying attention to the Subject – Act – Object form, the researcher can use Husserl’s (1983) imaginative variation on each part of the intentional act to get at the best psychological expression he or she can.”

    • Rodger Broome says:

      I’m not really sure what you want explicated. By giving me my own words back, it simply seems understandable to me because I am not catching what you didn’t get clearly. What specifically are you not catching?

  2. Marc Applebaum says:

    Roger, I imagine it would be helpful if you describe in more detail what “paying attention to the intentional structure” means, in practice, for you? For example, what do you mean by the “intentional structure” of a statement? For those not steeped in Husserl, intentional structure might be a little opaque. What is it, an how do you recognize it?

    • Rodger Broome says:

      I see, well I imagine the intentional structure as the person’s relationship to the world-things. But we must also orient this psychologically so that the relationship is expressed in terms of the mental-actions. For example, when I say that “seeing Jack fall down the hill made me laugh…” I am the subject whose psychological act is has a two-fold nature. First, I saw Jack fall which is the perceptual contribution that amusement is based upon, for me. When Husserl talks about “Affairs Complexes,” we can call them state-of-affairs or a manifold of happenings. Jack’s fall is a state-of-affairs rather than an object or thing. So the intentional structure has Jack as an object that I see. But also, Jack’s falling strikes me as funny so my psychological act or relation to the state-of-affairs is that it amuses me.

      When I find out that Jack broke his crown, my amusement might turn to concern, compassion, sympathy, or some other psychological act. But that psychological act is the relation or “aboutness” that links Jack and I as persons. Sometimes these relations are intersubjective, and sometimes we objectify the other and experience the situation as a subject-act-object which depersonalizes the other.

      Perhaps I am now at risk of blathering on. But I hope that the intentional structure of “subject-act-object” or “subject-act-[state-of-affairs]” is more clear by these explanations. When we do the transformations, we take the everyday language of the participant and re-state them in terms of the intentional structure with the psychological act linking the subject with the world. When the transformations are complete, we can begin looking at the psychological acts in the transformations to find patterns.

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