Is phenomenological psychology interpretive?

Mar 27th, 2019 | By | Category: Research

I recorded this short talk in response to psychology students who asked “What does “interpretation” mean in phenomenological research?” Merleau-Ponty makes a critical distinction in the first pages of the Phenomenology of Perception between explicitation (making the implicit explicit) and expliquer (explaining).

A bit more of the passage in Merleau-Ponty that I’m reading from is:

“…all of [Heidegger’s] Sein und Zeit emerges from Husserl’s suggestion, and in the end is nothing more than a making explicit of the ‘natürlichen Weltbegriff’ [natural concept of the world] or the ‘Lebenswelt‘ [life-world] that Husserl, toward the end of his life, presented as the fundamental theme of phenomenology….” (Donald Landes’ 2012 translation, p lxxi)

My aim in the talk was to free up students for the full range of imaginative variation as they discover meaning in interview data. I’m seeking to do this by helping them drop an overly simplistic and pejorative concept of “interpretation.”

Abstaining from theory-laden interpretation during data analysis allows the given to stand out just as it presents itself to the particular research position we have adopted. Withholding ourselves from imposing theoretical or quasi-theoretical explanation upon the data allows us to progressively render explicit the psychological meanings that are already-present in the participant’s narrative, but implicitly so. Such a research position is both descriptive and cognizant of the interpretive stance we are taking by adopting an empathic, psychological-scientific stance in relation to the Other’s already-meaningful experience.




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3 Comments to “Is phenomenological psychology interpretive?”

  1. Damien says:

    Thank you for that, Dr. Applebaum. Very helpful, although a couple more concrete examples of differences between theory-laden interpreting and ‘explication’ or ‘unfolding’ the data would be really helpful. Could you recommend further reading where I might find some?
    Also, is there literature specifically on writing an interview schedule for a descriptive phenomenological interview?
    Many thanks again,


    • Marc Applebaum says:

      Damien, a theory-laden interpretation of interview data might be, for example, reading a person’s narrative through the lens of Bowlby’s Attachment Theory (which seems to be popular among my clinical students), or from a Psychoanalytic perspective (which isn’t). Or consider the case in which a student steeped in Transpersonal psychology sees evidence of the Great Mother archetype in the data? In all these cases, the reading of the data would be theory-laden, rather than phenomenological.

      For examples of phenomenological explication, philosophically the work of Husserl on time consciousness, or Merleau-Ponty (Phenomenology of Perception is a good starting point) are exemplary. For psychology, you might read the data analysis sections of phenomenological dissertations, or you might read Phenomenology and Psychological Research (1985) or Fred Wertz’s chapter in Five Ways of Doing Qualitative Analysis (2011). Regarding interviewing, Magnus Englander has written a variety of articles focused on the interview, one of which is linked to in this blog. I myself have discussed aspects of the interview in my article on Husserl and Ricoeur likewise posted in the publications section of this blog.

      But the simplest answer regarding interviewing in this method is that a single core question is asked, and follow up questions are used so long as they’re not leading questions. For example, I supervised a dissertation in which the interview question was: “Please describe an experience of beginning an affair, while married?” The participant is encouraged to answer freely and spontaneously; it’s a “what was it like” question, rather than a question inviting explanation or self-conscious interpretation.

      • Damien says:

        Thank you for taking the time to reply. I have since read some very helpful articles by Englander, as you suggested, and these have helped a lot – especially in clarifying the interview schedule for a descriptive phenomenological study.