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Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (IPA) is an approach to psychological qualitative research with an idiographic focus, which means that it aims to offer insights into how a given person, in a given context, makes sense of a given phenomenon. Usually these phenomena relate to experiences of some personal significance - such as a major life events, or the development of an important relationship. It has its theoretical origins in phenonemology and hermeneutics, and key ideas from Husserl, Heidegger, and Merleau-Ponty are often cited . IPA is one of several approaches to qualitative, phenomenological psychology.
Who takes part?
Sometimes IPA studies involve a close examination of the experiences and meaning-making activities of only one participant. Sometimes they may draw on the accounts of a small number of people (not usually more than 15). In either case, participants are sampled purposively (because they can offer a meaningful perspective on the topic at hand), and usually there is an attempt to construct a reasonably homogenous sample. More advanced IPA study designs may draw together samples which offer multiple perspectives on a shared experience (e.g. husbands and wives, psychiatrists and patients) or they may collect accounts over a period of time, to develop a longitudinal analysis.
How are data collected?
In IPA, researchers gather qualitative data from research participants using one of a number of techniques such as interview, diaries, or focus group. Typically, these are approached from a position of flexible and open-ended inquiry, and the interviewer adopts a stance which is curious and facilitative (rather than, say, challenging and interrogative). IPA usually requires personally-salient accounts of some richness and depth, and it requires that these accounts be captured in a way which permits the researcher to work with a detailed verbatim transcript.
How are data analysed?
Data collection does not set out to test hypotheses, and this stance is maintained in data analysis. The analyst reflects upon his or her own preconceptions about the data, and attempts to suspend these in order to focus on grasping the experiential world of the research participant. Transcripts are coded in considerable detail, with the focus shifting back and forth from the key claims of the particant, to the researcher's interpretation of the meaning of those claims. IPA's hermeneutic stance is one of inquiry and meaning-making, and so the analyst attempts to make sense of the participant's attempts to make sense of their own experiences. Thus, one might use IPA if one had a research question which aimed to understand what a given experience was like (phenomenology) and how someone made sense of it (interpretation).
As with Grounded Theory, this work is largely inductive and 'bottom-up' and is not theory-driven. IPA studies do often relate their analyses to wider theoretical contexts however, and IPA can be used as a method for examining the experiential-relevance or adequacy of a given theory. Unlike quantitative methods, IPA encourages an open-ended dialogue between the researcher and participants and may, therefore, lead to unforeseen answers, including a new perspective on the research question.
What should I look for in an IPA study?
In IPA, a good analysis is one which balances phenomenological description with insightful interpretation, and which anchors these interpretations in the participants' accounts. It is also likely to maintain an idiographic focus (so that particular variations are not lost), and to keep a close focus on meaning (rather than say, causal relations). A degree of transparency (contextual detail about the sample, a clear account of process, adequate commentary on the data, key points illustrated by verbatim quotes) is also crucial to estimating the plausibility and transferability of an IPA study. Engagement with credibility issues (such as cross-validation, cooperative inquiry, independent audit, or triangulation) is also likely to increase the reader's confidence.
Who is using it?
IPA has exhibited growing popularity among psychologists, especially those working in applied psychology.
- Action research
- Emic and etic
- Jonathan Smith (psychologist)
- Participatory action research
- Triangulation (social science)
- Heron, J. (1996). Co-operative Inquiry: Research into the human condition. London: Sage.
- Reid, K., Flowers, P. & Larkin, M. (2005). Exploring lived experience, The Psychologist, 18(1), 20-23.
- Shaw, R. L. (2001). Why use interpretative phenomenological analysis in Health Psychology? Health Psychology Update, 10(4), 48-52.
- Smith, J., Jarman, M. & Osborne, M. (1999). Doing interpretative phenomenological analysis. In M. Murray & K. Chamberlain (Eds.), Qualitative Health Psychology. London: Sage.
- Smith, J.A. and Osborn, M. (2003) Interpretative phenomenological analysis. In J.A. Smith (Ed.), Qualitative Psychology: A Practical Guide to Methods. London: Sage.
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