PhD journey unveiled #2: How deep should we dive?

ocean reef

Recently as I was investigating various approaches to phenomenological analysis, I started sensing a bubbling question to emerge: how deep should we go when we are constructing our methodology, and why? This question rose from several springs, which I open up below.

In an interview from 2012, one of the founding fathers of using phenomenology in psychology, Amedeo Giorgi, threw the following challenge (my apologies for the long citation, but I wanted it to be unaltered and un-focused by me):

“Australian psychologist named Joel Michell who measurement in psychology, he’s a quantitative psychology, and his point is that the idea that psychological variables can be measured is an assumption and its never been proven. He’d like to be the one to prove it, but he hasn’t done so yet and he admits that. He goes back to S. S. Stevens who wrote –when I was a grad student in the 1950’s this handbook of experimental psychology came out edited by S. S. Stephens, and he wrote on measurement where there’s the ordinal scale and he [Michell] says Stevens got it wrong, he didn’t ground quantification properly, and yet fifty years of research is based on what Stevens said. And you know what’s happening to him? He’s being ignored as well. I mean, I know where his articles are, but mainstream people are going ahead doing quantitative research, they’re not responding to the critique, so if qualitative research is vulnerable, it’s kind of new, quantitative research is in no better place, he knows philosophy of math and it’s not right, its an assumption, so everyone who feels like “I’m really being scientific it has never been proven that psychological variables are accessible to quantitative procedures.” (Giorgi, 2012)

Similarly in an invited presentation to discuss how Husserl’s Epoche might benefit Science, physicist Piet Hut (2001) expressed the following :

“Scientists, no matter how flexible and ingenious in exploring new approaches within specific areas of science, are rarely willing to apply the very same method they have been using all their life to science itself. Sure, scientists are willing to question the foundations of science, because they know from experience that what are called foundations actually have more of ornamental function. The foundations of each discipline have repeatedly been replaced, while work on the higher floors of the discipline went on without a glitch — try doing that with a real building!” (Huit, 2001)

If one wants to believe these texts, and not just try to refute them, one can see there is something fundamentally wrong in the contemporary (or is it perpetual?) way of doing research. We are often aiming at “practical outcomes”, but what does this actually mean? Has practical already defined in a way, that ignores revealing basic philosophical assumptions but also logic? Where do we end up if our instruments are based on constructs that many think are practical, but might be false instead?

Now, as I realize this might sound as one of those regular attacks that has been going on between quantitatively and qualitatively oriented people, I want to bring to the discussion another finding I consider rather important (that or I have really misunderstood something). I have been going through phenomenology from the perspective how can I research with it. For this, I have tried to find procedures and methods that would actually help me in doing it. At the same time I want to calm down those those who believe phenomenology with it’s epoche or bracketing one’s natural attitude is first of all a phenomenological attitude of doing research. I also think that just pure attitude will not a study make. You always have to do something, which means actions that are to be taken in time. There is always some sort of a procedure that you will then need to describe to others. If you cannot describe it, perhaps it is something else such as artistic inspiration of some very subliminal kind which isn’t generally considered as valid research (debating it or contrasting it to some aspects of phenomenology such as Imaginative Variation (e.g. Moustakas, 1994) is beyond the scope of this post). As Giorgi (2012) mentions in his interview, and I agree with him, is that not everything should be counted as qualitative research.

Now you might do some little variation [on the method you’re using] but you’ve got to justify it. If you modify a method, you’ve got to justify it—its got to be logically consistent with all the other steps of the method.” (Giorgi, 2012)

But back to my actual finding or puzzle. While searching for various more methodological descriptions of doing phenomenology, I found a book chapter from a certain widely cited author. Many seem to use his approach, from journal articles to PhD theses. Now, I could’ve stopped there, and be happy about my finding. After all, a) many people have cited him, b) his book chapter is in a respectful and perhaps in even a classic book from the 1970’s, c) an authority in research design has also cited him, and d) his approach sounds very much valid and doable. Shouldn’t I be very happy now? I have found a possible way of conducting my study.

Still I have a problem, and the problem is “wanting to know more”. More about the method, more about the philosophical underpinnings (because it doesn’t matter if you like philosophy or not, your philosophical attitude always undermines your doings), more about the person who wrote this. And in this, I hit a wall. It is as if this person disappeared from the face of the Earth after the 1970’s. He only seems to live in the studies of others. Even his “forthcoming book”, mentioned in his book chapter, is nowhere to be found.

In my eyes, this is a mystery. It is a mystery why nothing else came out from this prominent writer, and it is a mystery how this author became an authority by just a couple of publications, but never developed his method forward (as some such as Amedeo Giorgi have done to this date).

So the question still stays unresolved, inviting many more questions: how deep should we dive, how should we interpret and use what we find, and how many other similar hidden secrets lies there in the vast ocean of (any kind of) research that often goes unnoticed from the both the novice and more experienced explorer?


4 thoughts on “PhD journey unveiled #2: How deep should we dive?

  1. As an engineer I found this interesting point : “his point is that the idea that psychological variables can be measured is an assumption and its never been proven.”

    A lot of research seems to be based on the assumption that the input and output of the system can be measured reliably – people do believe in their own variables. But even more they tend to believe in their own examples. For example :), I just read an article claiming that people very often pretend or imagine to be wiser than they really are – a claim that is rather easy to believe. The article then illustrated that this can be seen in a prank when you ask people about the qualities of something that doesn’t exists at all, for example, many did agree with the interviewer that non-existing band had what it takes to get to the top. But then again, is it certain that the people who were questioned were totally unaware of the fact that they did not know this band? It is possible, but it could also be the social nature of people to agree with the argument if they are uncertain of the premises.

    While the example most likely was bad, the rest of the article was quite interesting to read. To believe in one’s own abilities has certain benefits even if your assumption would be wrong. However, the research of what people do assume they know vs. what they really did know about a subject has clearly one serious flaw and it is the methodology: how can we know that people really are answering to the question we are trying to ask them?

    One of the most difficult things is to find the right question to ask. If I remember right, Peter Drucker said something like a good question is something that can immediately lead to action.

    • Hey Tero! An insightful comment as always. 🙂 I think you’ve nailed one of the important questions and debates.There’s so many things I would like to reply, so let’s hope I can maintain at least some coherence here. 🙂

      First things first, I am sure we are all somewhat familiar with Neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) and other similar “methods” for self-development. There is a constant story going on that not always are those with “the best abilities” (whatever that might mean) the ones to succeed (also, whatever that might mean in different contexts). In common language, it is sometimes suggested that people who believe they will succeed, and have the passion for it, or are “stupid” enough to bare the difficulties and proceed and not quit, are the ones who do succeed. At least this is one story that has long been going on in the popularized human “science”. Perhaps it’s “true”, if we believe it. 😉 So definitely, people might not always be on the top of things when it comes to themselves. I guess that’s why psychology was originally born I guess. 😀

      Another thing about how people believe things. Your example of the band actually illustrates well one of the suggested weakness of a controlled experiment. It can be that people try to please the researcher, playing sort of a game of “trying to find out what the research might want”. There’s also the fact in multiple choice questionnaires, that people might not always understand the questions and choices the same way. Still, they will answer accordingly (and quite magically some statistical process should eliminate these errors).

      There’s also another thing with controlled experiments, and studying people’s behavior or thoughts outside a context. Let’s take making coffee as an example. Making and drinking coffee might be one of the most relaxing things to you when you are at home, but what about workplace where the coffee machine is usually broken, someone has left it untidy, and the other people who are using the coffee machine are creating an impossible social layer that you can hardly stand? Depending on in which context you study, “coffee drinking” might reveal quite different results.

      But to go to the crux of your comment: “how can we know that people really are answering to the question we are trying to ask them?”. Different people argue this can take place in different ways – and then there’s the ones who say it is never possible, but let’s not listen to them at this point. 🙂 I personally believe it is about trust, and verisimilitude (or likeness of truth), instead of an absolute, stable truth. It is also researcher’s skill to triangulate, and connect one’s findings to existing studies and theories. Rarely is a study an island on its own, at least in human research. I personally consider finding about black holes and other natural phenomena to be a different matter, so yes, I don’t agree with purely naturalistic portrait of a human “machine”. If we were smart machines, we would not take all the illogical actions on this Planet, but I guess that’s another matter to discuss in some other time! 🙂

      I really like your comment that “one of the most difficult things is to find the right question to ask”. Some people seem to believe there is “interviewing”, but there are many ways of doing interviews. More open ended questions lead to open ended replies. We might for example direct an interview with bad questions that lead to yes/no replies. We might focus the replies too much with our own actions. Also, if we have established a situation of trust with our participants where they feel they can say what they think, we could help them a little bit to go deeper in reflection. Afterwards we might go back to them and ask if our analysis was even close to what they meant.

      But yeah, there are many many more things in this, so thanks for commenting! 🙂

  2. Nice post Marko! I am starting data collection on a few qualitative research projects and I am starting to think about some of the questions that you present in your post. I remember taking a qualitative research class and it was interesting to hear that as the researcher I would know when I had enough data (coming from a primarily quantitative background). I think it is a challenge to know how deep we should dive or the interpretation we make of the data but at the same time that is the beauty of qualitative research — it doesn’t provide a black or white answer.

    • Hey Enilda. Great to see you here commenting! Sorry for the late reply though. 🙂

      Yeah, I have the same thing, but the different way around as my experience is in qualitative research. 🙂 I would also say that it is easier to understand qualitative research if one tries to do it, instead of just reading about it. At least that is my personal impression based on a couple of methods I’ve tried in different studies. Sometimes the things you read start to make more sense after battling with them for a while. 🙂 Could be the same with Quan too I guess.

      Also, as they say in the book I recommended to you, I am sure we have lot to discover with an open mind and combining or “mixing” different research processes and mindsets. And when we study people, I feel some aspects of us are more transient than other. So yeah, lots to discover and stones to turn!

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