Division of Counselling Psychology

Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis

This summary is an abridged version of Dr Neha Malhotra’s Method section, taken from her Doctoral Thesis titled: An investigation into therapists’ experience of learning about transference Whilst they were training, completed at The University of Roehampton in 2015.
 
Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis
Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (IPA) is an investigative method, developed by Smith (1996), which sets out to “... capture the experiential and qualitative, and which could still dialogue with mainstream psychology... ” (Smith et al. 2009, P. 4). IPA seeks to understand in detail how an individual experiences a phenomenon from a particular perspective within a particular context and is concerned with ways in which people make sense of their experience and attach meaning to life events Smith et al., 2009). As Reid, Flowers and Larkin (2005) say, IPA is the exploration of lived experience coupled with a subjective and reflective process of interpretation. Any inferences that are drawn from the data are done so cautiously, and with an awareness of the context and culture within which the study is situated. 
 
IPA is for
Particularly used for understanding under-examined phenomena or novel phenomena, or that which is difficult to explain. For this purpose, a lived-experience account of the meaning-made of the phenomena can provide a very rich and detailed understanding of the phenomena from a particular perspective. Thus, shedding light on the phenomena and opening other avenues of exploration.
 
IPA’s Philosophy
The theoretical underpinnings of IPA, are situated, as Shinebourne notes, in phenomenology and hermeneutics, coupled with an idiographic perspective (2011). With phenomenology being the study of conscious experience in detail and depth, and hermeneutics the study of interpretation, it must be recognised that ‘Without the phenomenology, there would be nothing to interpret, [and] without the hermeneutics the phenomenon would not be seen’ (Smith et al. 2009, p. 37). Heidegger said that ‘the meaning of phenomenological description as a method lies in interpretation’, thereby presenting hermeneutics as a pre-requisite of phenomenology. IPA involves a combination of phenomenological and hermeneutic insights by definition; phenomenological enquiry necessitates intimacy with personal experience that inevitably results from an interpretative process, thus positioning IPA as a hermeneutic phenomenology. 
IPA is idiographic in nature in its stated concern with particular or unique events (Shinebourne, 2011), and thus, as stated previously, there is a very specific focus on how a particular experience has been understood from a particular perspective in a particular context (Smith et al. 2009). The experience of the phenomena under study is considered on its own terms and not classified into pre-defined categories, through an inductive, bottom-up process. 

Sampling in IPA
IPA's sampling criteria focuses on small and purposive samples (Reid et al, 2005; Hefferon & Gil-Rodriguez, 2011) of usually fewer than 10 participants, each providing a detailed and rich account of their experience of the phenomenon and reflecting on it. Most importantly, the sample must be homogeneous, i.e. closely defined within the study (Smith et al. 2009). Participants are purposely sought out and selected because they have something to say about the phenomenon under study – '...they ‘represent’ a perspective, rather than a population.' (Smith et al. 2009, p. 49). 
 
Data gathering
A semi-structured interview is the typical method of gathering data, and an interview schedule is established in order to elicit participants’ accounts of their experiences of the phenomenon. Inferences regarding what participants may divulge as part of their experience are avoided as far as possible, however it is influenced by the researcher’s for-conceptions and the literature review.

Thus, whilst the interview schedule included prompts, it was not possible to pre-empt all that might have formed participant’s experiences. This open approach to constructing an interview schedule thus remains true to the inductive nature of IPA, and allows retention of an idiopgraphic focus through the consistency of a homogenous participant group. 
 
Researcher’s Role and reflexivity 
IPA situates the researcher as central to the research process, in that observations made during analysis of the participant accounts, “... are necessarily the product of interpretation.” (Willig, 2008). The way in which the researcher understands the participant’s experience of the phenomenon under study – in this instance learning about transference, and the meanings participants made of this, is influenced by the researchers engagement with and interpretation of the participant’s account. IPA is both phenomenological and interpretive, and necessitates researcher reflexivity throughout.

As a result of this researcher-involvement the researcher’s reflexivity is a particularly important aspect of IPA as a research method according to Smith et al. (2009). This consideration stems from a Heideggerian perspective regarding our human state, in which we are born into a world filled with people, objects, language and culture. This ‘being-in-the-world’ as Heidegger calls it, precludes any meaningful detachment from the world as our understanding (of the world, the self and others) are often formed through these filters (Smith et al., 2009). According to Heidegger, disclosures are already immersed in the context of this ‘being-in-the-world’, i.e. what he termed 'dasein', and “interpretation is grounded in something we have in advance, in a fore-having” (1962, p. 191, in Shinebourne, 2011). As such, every interpretation is also already contextualised and can never be presupposition-less (Shinebourne 2011). 

This Heideggerarian concept of ‘fore-having’ points to the researcher’s 'prior experiences, assumptions and preconceptions' (Smith et al. 2009, p. 25), developed through socialisation from birth. The researcher’s access to meaning is through the participant’s account and their own fore-conceptions, which may enhance, or as Smith (2007) hypothesises, impede the interpretation. It may not be possible to know all our fore-conceptions prior to the analysis, as ‘one may only get to know what the pre-conceptions... are once the interpretation is under way’ (Smith 2007, p. 6). Not only this, as Gadamer says, “fore- conceptions constantly change during interpretation” (quoted from Truth & Method in Smith 2007, p. 6-7).
 
It is imperative that researchers engage in a critical and reflective process of evaluation and consider how these fore-conceptions influence the research according to Finlay (2009). Consequently, interpretation is dynamic and iterative, and necessitates some interplay between the parts and the whole, and between the interpreter and the object – i.e. the hermeneutic circle (Smith et al., 2009). 
It important to consider the individual sentences within an account, but also their context in the wider account, and the positioning of the singular account within the full data set. One must also consider the reverse – the data set in relation to the singular account, and the singular account in relation to the individual sentences or experiential claims that participants make. 
As researchers inevitably have fore-conceptions, as far as possible these values, interests and assumptions are presented throughout this research, alongside reflections on the implications on the research process.
 
To Husserl, humans are not bystanders in life, but rather sense-makers, constantly seeking to attach meaning to events and phenomena. One person’s account of a phenomenon is their subjective experience and not their property (Smith et al., 2009), just their perception. Interpretation involves the researcher making sense of the participant making sense of their experience (Smith et al., 2009). 
IPA does not strive to make universal claims, but rather cautious general claims about the particular group studied (Smith & Osborn, 2008).