4 August 2013

Experience Analysis! (book review)

Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis: Theory, Method and Research by Jonathan Smith, Paul Flowers, and Michael Larkin (pp 225, Sage 2009)

IPA is a research method in psychology. A subject is interviewed with probing questions. The method is referred to as a double hermeneutic because the subject's interpretation of his or her own experience is interpreted by the researcher. Themes emerge and are analysed in light of the subject's whole story, or other subjects' similar stories.

The book uses four divisions to consider IPA, which this post uses for its own structure:
  1. 'Theory': IPA's philosophy is discussed;
  2. 'Method': Provides practical guidelines for an IPA study;
  3. 'Research': Shows IPA examples; and
  4. 'Current Issues', which is self-explanatory.

1. Underlying Ideas

It is difficult to define IPA without being trite or tautological. Smith, Flowers, and Larkin manage to do so without these flaws but only because they complicate and expand. That is, IPA is exactly what it sounds like: interpretative, phenomenological, and analytical; the authors use more specific words for each element to remove definitions from a meta- exercise and broaden each word's meanings. The relationships and meanings are as follows:
  1. Phenomenology is related to 'experience'. This provides a useful differentiation that can be returned to and used at any time; for example, to consider experiential philosophers, who 'contribute to a view of the person as embedded and immersed in a world of objects and relationships, language and culture, projects and concerns'.1 Therefore the philosophical element is defined as experience.
  2. Interpretation is related to 'hermeneutic', which creates a direct link with hermeneutic circles. These concern the distinction and use of parts and wholes: each is necessary to elucidate and understand the other. The authors acknowledge the absence of logic in this meta- idea, but do not consider it problematical for IPA. This is probably an appropriate conclusion because Smith, Flowers, and Larkin neither need nor try to derive a whole or part from the other; each's existence is not under consideration.
  3. Analysis is a step removed because it is related to 'ideography'--which concerns particularities--itself spilt into two parts:
    1. '[D]etail, and therefore depth of analysis';2 and
    2. Individual experience, which makes the subjects' perspectives important.

A probably unimportant etymological issue begs a remark: the I in IPA is for 'interpretative'; but 'interpretive' may be spelt without the extra syllable. This is shorter and in comparison makes the research method as it is sound unnecessarily pretentious.

2. Research Methods

The authors refer to similar research methods, such as discourse analysis and Michele L Crossley's work. The latter author explains clearly how exploring themes in an interviewee's own interpreted experiences provides material with which a psychologist may help the subject overcome trauma.3 Crossley's book may be a better introduction to IPA, even though it forms only part of her book, because it is only a small part.

Crossley's framework is helpful because her work feels more forthcoming with background information than Smith, Flowers, and Larkin's. For instance, Crossley appears more thoroughly to discuss how interviewees may be worked with to develop a positive personal narrative: subjects discuss personal experiences, which are analysed for themes. These culminate in a narrative, which the subject can live out; rather than, perhaps, living according to a tacitly negative personal narrative.

Smith, Flowers, and Larkin's guidelines are practical and their work stands out as satisfying their aim to provide guidance. There seems little scope for using these guidelines in designing a legal curriculum, though. This is due to law's peculiar relationship with case law and statutes rather than empirical research--especially on an undergraduate course. There are, however, some perhaps-universal observations on 'analysis' applicable to learning law.

Analysis is an important concern for students of all disciplines. Elsewhere for example, Robert Pirsig acknowledges that analysis has practical importance in relation to motorcycles: the engine is analysed into mechanical and electrical; and each of these is analysed--the first into wires and batteries, the second into pistons and cogs; and so on.4 Analysis in law is more difficult than this because it is not about tangibles, but ideas that often conflict. This conflict has two parts.
    First, law is abstract and generalised to ensure a multifaceted application.
    Second, law is specific to cases to enable judges to distinguish and depart from inappropriate precedents.
As mentioned above, IPA deals with a conflict between an artificial two-part distinction in its use of ideography. The practical steps identified by Smith, Flowers, and Larkin may be useful, therefore, to learning law: it is a similar process to tease apart individually-narrated stories in IPA as to split up legally-narrated facts in case law. Then again, the best practice for legal analysis is, simply, just more legal analysis. Students would benefit more from reading surplus5 case law than from being distracted by learning about IPA. Perhaps it may be prudent to consider, however, how one might integrate ideography and legal analysis. The integration seems natural and extant already (for example when policy helps legal interpretation), but a focussed exploration may illuminate a new pedagogy.

For now, it is sensible to summarise and partially adapt Smith, Flowers, and Larkin's analysis-suggestions for law:6
  • Read and read again. Skim the material to be analysed so that your mind may conceive a holistic understanding of the material. Then read the text's most relevant parts in more detail.
  • Take notes. 'There are no rules about what is commented upon (…).'7 Just write down anything--worry about validity and relevance later.
  • Consider themes in these notes. This step is specific to IPA but with creativity it may be applicable to legal analysis. For example, imagine a case about ECHR Article 10 (free expression), in which themes of proportionality, competing rights, and appreciation margins might emerge.
  • Group themes together. Various mentions of competing rights may be brought under a 'balancing act' heading.
  • Go wider with the analysis. The above themes grouped together may be found in other specific cases, which may identify broader consilience. For example another case may agree with how appreciation margins were earlier applied.
  • Seek patterns. This is fairly straightforward, though it is benefitted by accurate interpretation. For instance a pattern may emerge to show that some forms of expression have wider appreciation margins than others.

3. Demonstrating IPA Research

The book indicates IPA's broadest applications in selected research examples. IPA is useful in many situations:
  • Female identity in pregnancy;
  • Overcoming identity problems in dialysis patients; and
  • Supporting people through HIV trauma.8
IPA also concerns various classes:
  • Individuals and their experiences;
  • Themes across group identities; and
  • Changing themes in the same individuals over time.9

These many variations show-off IPA's qualitative features, and demonstrate how to follow the authors' practical suggestions from start to completion. Be aware that however broad, IPA always concerns experience. Therefore it is limited by subjects' compliance. While it may seem possible externally to interpret somebody else's experiences, it is recognised that IPA benefits from interview questions that expose and allow subjects fully to appreciate their own experiences. It is unhelpful to subjects to have themes drawn from and according to another's perspectives. Without the subject's compliance, the resultant findings would be unacceptably biased. In IPA:TMR the authors tacitly face this problem in relation to psychosis--the umbrella condition of schizophrenia, which is often a diagnosis given too easily to sufferers of massively varying phenomena.10 Smith, Flowers, and Larkin maintain IPA is useful even if a coherent account of experience is difficult to get from subjects with psychosis.

4. Concluding Comments

Smith, Flowers, and Larkin use their concluding words to examine flaws and areas for improvement, a good idea for conclusions. This is expected, though, because every thought in the book seems to have been put their with intent and reference to structures, micro and macro. This may be a result of any phenomenological study: the area is linked to deconstruction.11 It is clear the authors of IPA: Theory, Method and Research are familiar with deconstruction, simply by their presentation, which seems ever respectful of literature only hinted at.

IPA:TMR is well structured and written. It is, however, largely irrelevant for undergraduate law students without more exploration or more specific application. That said, chapter 5's advice on analysis is clear and detailed; the words on analysis are much more thorough than mine could in a short post like this. Moreover, there seems to be some scope--thanks to chapter 5 in particular--for IPA to have a place in legal curriculum design.

I plan to revisit IPA's place in law in the future. This post will be updated with a reference and link when the topic is revisited.

1 Smith, Flowers, and Larkin, Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (Sage 2009) 21.
2 ibid 29.
3 Michele L Crossley, Introducing Narrative Psychology: Self, Trauma and the Construction of Meaning (OUP 2000).
4 Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values (Black Swan edn 1989, Vintage 1974).
5 Warning: 'surplus' reading on a law degree is a misnomer.
6 Smith, Flowers, and Larkin, Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (n 1) ch 5.
7 ibid 83.
8 ibid 163–172, 122–131, 135–144, respectively.
9 ibid 121, 135, 163, respectively
10 ibid 149.
11 I say 'deconstruction' with caution: in this field every author seems to use a different variation to mean almost the same thing; I aim to capture everything that might be called deconstructionism, deconstructionist, post-structuralism, post-structuralist, etc.

Created: 1 August 2013. Version 1.0.

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