Choose Your Method: A Comparison of Phenomenology, Discourse Analysis, and Grounded Theory.

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Qualitative research is a type of social science research that collects and works with non-numerical data and that seeks to interpret meaning from this data that help understand social life through the study of targeted populations or places. People often frame it in opposition to quantitative research, which uses numerical data to identify large-scale trends and employs statistical operations to determine causal and correlative relationships between variables. This type of research has long appealed to social scientists because it allows the researchers to investigate the meanings people attribute to their behavior, actions, and interactions with others. Qualitative research is designed to reveal the meaning that informs the action or outcomes that are typically measured by quantitative research. But this type of research is not just prevalent in the social sciences. As we learn from this article qualitative research and its methods are now commonly used in our health care systems. Qualitative researchers have made significant contributions to health services and policy (HSP) research, providing valuable insights into the ways we conceptualize health, illness, patients’ experiences, the dynamics of inter professional teams and many aspects of care delivery. Qualitative methodologies, such as grounded theory, ethnography, and phenomenology, are now regularly employed to pursue a variety of HSP topics. Qualitative researchers investigate meanings, interpretations, symbols, and the processes and relations of social life. What this type of research produces is descriptive data that the researcher must then interpret using rigorous and systematic methods of transcribing, coding, and analysis of trends and themes. Methods of qualitative research include:

  • observation and immersion
  • interviews
  • open-ended surveys
  • focus groups
  • content analysis of visual and textual materials
  • oral history
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The chart labeled Figure 1 introduces us to the similarities and differences between Phenomenology, Grounded Theory and Discourse Analysis. Figure 1 is in an hour glass like shape which outlines the history, philosophy, goals, analytic methods, audience and products of each method. It’s a clear and cohesive chart that does a excellent job of highlighting the key differences and similarities between each method. In this article Starks and Trinidad compare and contrast all three methods. They also state in regards to Figure 1:

Phenomenology, discourse analysis, and grounded theory are the products of different intellectual traditions. However, their coevolution in the history of ideas means that the boundaries between them are porous. This is depicted in the figure by the vertical dotted lines that separate the three approaches. In what follows, we provide a brief summary of the intellectual lineage and basic value commitments of phenomenology, discourse analysis, and grounded theory.” (Starks; Trinidad, 2007).

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So lets start with the fundamentals of each methodology which we all have discussed, studied and presented in class. Phenomenology is an approach to qualitative research that focuses on the commonality of a lived experience within a particular group. The fundamental goal of the approach is to arrive at a description of the nature of the particular phenomenon. In its most basic form, phenomenology attempts to create conditions for the objective study of topics usually regarded as subjective: consciousness and the content of conscious experiences such as judgments, perceptions, and emotions. It seeks through systematic reflection to determine the essential properties and structures of experience. 

The phenomenological perspective is nicely captured in a remark attributed to Einstein that expresses the difference between embodied time and chronologic time: Put your hand on a hot stove for a minute and it seems like an hour. Sit with a pretty girl for an hour and it seems like a minute, That’s relativity.” (Starks; Trinidad, 2007).

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Discourse analysis is a research method for studying written or spoken language in relation to its social context. It aims to understand how language is used in real life situations. Whereas other areas of language study might focus on individual parts of language such as words and phrases (grammar) or the pieces that make up words. Discourse analysis looks at a running conversation involving a speaker and listener (or a writer’s text and its reader). In discourse analysis, the context of a conversation is taken into account as well as what’s being said. This context may include a social and cultural framework, including the location of a speaker at the time of the discourse, as well as nonverbal cues such as body language, and, in the case of textual communication, it may also include images and symbols. 

“Careful analysis of language, using what Gee (2005) has described as the seven “building tasks” of language (significance, activities, identities, relationships, politics, connections, and sign systems and knowledge), can shed light on the creation and maintenance of social norms, the construction of personal and group identities, and the negotiation of social and political interaction.” (Starks; Trinidad, 2007).

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Grounded theory is a research methodology that results in the production of a theory that explains patterns in data, and that predicts what social scientists might expect to find in similar data sets. When practicing this popular social science method, a researcher begins with a set of data, either qualitative or quantitative, then identifies patterns, trends, and relationships among the data. Based on these, the researcher constructs a theory that is “grounded” in the data itself. This research method differs from the traditional approach to science, which begins with a theory and the seeks to test it through the scientific method. As such, grounded theory can be described as an inductive method, or a form of inductive reasoning.

Grounded theory examines the six “Cs: of social processes (causes, contexts, contingencies, consequences, covariances, and conditions) to understand the patterns and relationships among these elements.” (Strauss; Corbin, 1998).

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The next section of the article is about The Approaches and Methods of each methodology and how they compare and contrast. When each is employed as a research method, differences emerge with respect to how the researchers frame research questions, sample participants, and collect data.

Framing the Research Question. Phenomenologists ask questions about lived experiences, as contrasted with abstract interpretations of experience or opinions about them. (Van Manen, 1990). Discourse analysts explore how knowledge, meaning, identities, and social goods are negotiated and constructed through language-in-use. Grounded theorists inquire about how social structural and processes influence how things are accomplished through a given set of social interactions.

Sampling. Phenomenologists are interested in common features of the lived experience. Data from only a few participants who have experienced the phenomenon-and who can provide a detailed account of their experience. Typical sample sizes for phenomenological studies range from 1 to 10 persons. With Discourse Analysis sampling different groups that participate within a given discourse can illuminate the ways in which participants appeal to external discourses and identity their influence on the discourse under study. The sizes depends on analytic objective and the data source. Grounded Theory relies on theoretical sampling, which involves recruiting participants with differing experiences of the phenomenon so as to explore dimensions of the social processes under study. The researcher continues to add individuals to the sample until she reaches theoretical saturation. Typical grounded theory studies report sample sizes ranging from 10 to 60 persons.

Data Collection. In all three approaches data collection strategies can use a mix of observation, interviews, and close reading of texts. In phenomenology observation of how participants live in their environment through time and space provides cues about how they might embody meaning. For discourse analysis observing participants speech provides insight about how the participants use language to accomplish their goals and position themselves in relation to others. Interviews are an important component of qualitative research data collection. In a phenomenological or grounded theory study the objective of the interview is to elicit the participant’s story. Both researcher and participant assume that their words will be understood as spoken and intended, in essence their words will speak for themselves. However, in discourse analysis the objective of the interview is to capture the participants language, including any references or appeals to other discourses. In discourse it is not assumed that the researcher and participant necessarily mean the same thing when they use the same words. In this context words are not assumed to speak for themselves.

When it comes to Analytic Methods all three methods are fairly similar. All three interpretive methods distill textual data to a set of categories or concepts from which the final product can be drawn. Coding Van Manen (1990) stated: “that phenomenological analysis is primarily a writing exercise, as it is through the process of writing and rewriting that the researcher can distill meaning.” Analysts use writing to compose a story that captures the important elements of the lived experience. By the end of this story the reader should feel that he or she has experienced the phenomenon under study and should be able to envision themselves coming to similar conclusions about what it means. In discourse analysis the objective is to understand what people are doing with their language in a given situation. So coding the coding phase entails identifying themes and roles as signified through their language use. Gee (2005) described the analytic process as one of searching for textual evidence to show how language accomplishes the seven building tasks. Grounded theory involves a constant comparison method of both coding and analyzing data through three stages: open coding, axial coding, and selective coding.

The Role of the Analyst is very important in qualitative analysis. The researcher is the instrument for analysis. The researcher makes all the judgements about coding, categorizing, decontextualizing and decontextualizing the data. Each of the approaches has its own techniques for monitoring, documenting, and evaluating the analytic process and the researcher’s role to assure the validity and trustworthiness.

Audience and Product the products of research will vary based not only on the analytic approach but also on how far the analyst carries the interpretations of the findings. Phenomenological analyses produce thematic descriptions that provide insight into the meaning of the lived experience. It is often written out as anecdotes or thematic stories. Audiences for these analysis include clinicians and others whose practice would be enhanced by understanding how individuals live through and make sense of a particular experience. The products of discourse analysis use evidence from participants narratives and other texts to expose the ways in which people use language to accomplish their objectives; as such, discourse analysis often have a pragmatic aim and require more analytical abstraction. This audience usually includes clinicians, interventionists, and policy makers. They use discourse analysis to understand how framing and language can help achieve a desired outcome. Although the goal of grounded theory analysis is to produce theory, some analysts only identify patterns within and between categories. Audiences for grounded theories include clinicians, practitioners, and researchers who are interested in designing interventions to support engaged in social processes explained by the theory.

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The last part of the research article details how researchers applied the three approaches to a Single Data Set. I won’t go to far into details for the conclusion because there is a detailed chart and three brief data sets that are there to help us compare and contrast the methodologies. I’m also excited to see what Kevin has to present for us on Monday. I hope to gain more knowledge and insight into this article through his presentation and his break down of it. It’s always nice to hear my fellow cohorts interpretations and perspectives on each article. We all are unique learners with a distinct voice and each one of us brings new insights and ideas to everything we have read and presented on so far this semester. So I will just briefly explain the premise. An interview study with 25 primary care physicians (PCPs) that explored their use of informed decision making (IDM) in the context of prostate cancer screening. Table 1 summarizes the differences with respect to the purpose, research questions and audience. This table is helpful in dissecting the data and information gathered from all three approaches. Phenomenology: PCPs Lived Experience of Decision Making Under Uncertainty: The analysis reveals aspects of PCPs lived experiences of decision making under uncertainty. The product of the research is a thematic description of the common elements of the experience. The audience in this case includes other physicians who can use this to make sense of their own difficulties with decision making under stress and uncertainty. How The Discourses of Medicine and Public Health Constructs Doctor-Patient Roles and Identities. Examining how PCPs and how they talk and converse with their patients about prostate cancer screenings reveals which discourses they and their patients bring to the encounter as well as what other factors in the conversation trigger use of one preferred discourse over another. This analysis can help in understanding how discourse in medicine and public health can help or hinder the IDM techniques used by PCPs. The audience for this is great for medical educators to help PCPs asses patients assumptions and expectations and address these in conversations that warrant informed decision making. Last but not least: Grounded Theory: Making the Most of the Visit: The goal of this analysis is to develop a theory that explains what circumstances lead to prostate cancer screening discussions in primary care settings. Also how and why doctors and patients engage in these discussions. The six C’s are used to discover the conditions that shape the clinical encounter between doctor and patient. In the IDM study we learned that many factors affected whether and how PCPs discuss prostate cancer screening. First limitation was tight appointment times and scheduling. Patients expectations were also a factor to consider in prostate cancer screening discussions. PCPs were more likely to engage in an involved conversation with a patient if the patient had not already made up their minds about whether to be screened. In these cases doctors were trying hard to meet their patients needs, offering information, expert advice, and ways for their patients to weigh the pros and cons of screening and their future treatment plan. In grounded theory analysis what is seen to be most important is making the most of the visit. The audience that can benefit from this finding is clinic directors and others with an interest in promoting informed decision making around cancer screenings.

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Overall I enjoyed reading and analyzing this article. I did my best to present and highlight the most important facts. I thought learning about the three different methods was important for us as a class especially at this stage in the game. We are all about to embark on our final research proposal projects. While some of us will continue on even further in the research field (not me). For the final article to be a compare and contrast of three methodologies that we already studied was great. I think its safe to say we can all use a refresher. It can only be a benefit to us and our own research endeavors going forward. Reading this furthered our knowledge and understanding into each of the three methods and how we can apply them to our own proposals if we so choose. I gained new insights about my own proposal. I also learned more about phenomenology and how it applies to my personal research. I embedded three videos below which I think give a great overview of each method we studied in this article. As I said before, it never hurts to have a refresher on the methods. Hope it helps and good luck to everyone on their final proposals! Yay our final blog! We did it guys! Xo

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