Phenomenology is an approach to research that focuses on describing people’s lived experiences. “Phenomenology Research Overview” and Thomas Groenewald’s “A Phenomenological Research Design Illustrated” offer in depth looks at the research process when using this method; both articles suggest interviewing a small number of people to discover how they experienced a specific event or phenomenon. In addition, they suggest that the researchers should practice “bracketing” by carefully sealing away their own biases so as not to taint their interpretation of the data.
Both of these articles were incredibly helpful in understanding the process of phenomenology. I particularly appreciated Groenewald’s step by step explanation of his own research process and the examples of data he collected, such as interviews, field notes, and essays. He even gives helpful tips about recording audio, storing data, and interpreting field notes and interviews, all of which I’m keeping in the back of my mind for when I begin my own research.
After reading both of those articles, I thought I had a pretty good idea of the structure of phenomenology: you choose a phenomenon to research, interview a few people, make detailed field notes, and then set your own biases aside so you can interpret the data you’ve collected. But then, I read Peter Elbow’s “Toward a Phenomenology of Freewriting,” and suddenly, I felt a lot more confused. Even though he uses the term “phenomenology” in the title, I couldn’t quite see how the same method Groenewald so meticulously describes is present in Elbow’s piece.
Part of me thinks his article reads more like an autoethnography because he’s using his own personal artifacts—such as journals, feedback to students, etc.—as data, but he’s not really making any statements about culture, which rules out the “ethno” part of autoethnography. He also doesn’t conduct any interviews to find out other people’s experiences with freewriting, nor does he interpret any texts other than his own, which makes me question whether his research can really be considered phenomenology.
Elbow focuses a lot on his “feelings” rather than on any concrete data. I’m not sure whether that’s just Elbow being Elbow, or whether an emphasis on personal feelings is an integral part of the phenomenological research process. Although I agree (as usual) with pretty much everything Elbow says about the benefits of freewriting, I couldn’t really see how his article could even be considered research; it reads more like a personal reflection on his own writing process and a testament to how well freewriting has worked for him (and only him).
Of course, just because I’m not convinced Elbow’s article is real research, doesn’t mean I don’t think it’s valuable. After reading his article, I’m feeling inspired to do some freewriting myself to attempt to narrow down my research question. His article also makes me wonder whether there’s a way to combine autoethnography with phenomenology in order to explore the cultural implications of a phenomenon that the researcher has personally experienced. I love the creative aspects of autoethnography and the way the method shines a light on a broader cultural experience, but I also love the in depth personal interviews and meticulous interpretation of data that characterize phenomenology.