The Pros and Cons of Interpretive Phenomenological Analysis


Interpretive phenomenological analysis (IPA) may be used by the researcher whose research question requires

“Participants interpretation of the topic under investigation” (cited in Smith et al, Chapter 15 ` Doing Interpretive phenomenological analysis).

IPA allows the researcher to gain a phenomenological account of participant’s experiences. Identifying their perceptions of their social world. These will be subjective and could be in-depth accounts.  Conrad (1987) calls this an

 “Insider’s perspective “

(Cited pp2).

IPA may be used by researcher, who uses qualitative research methods such as interviews using semi-structured, open ended questions rather than closed questions. The researcher needs to ensure that the design of the questions will allow the researcher to gain access into the phenomenological world of the participant. Questions that allow an insight into their personal accounts and experiences.

“IPA is concerned with cognition” (cited pp3)

The structure of the questions should allow the participant to talk freely so that the researcher gathers rich data for analysis. All participants’ perceptions will be unique.

IPA may be used for `Ideographic Studies`, where the researcher may be carrying out a small in-depth inquiry that may involve one or two participants, such as a Case Study.  When IPA used to

“Understand what the particular respondent thinks or believes about the topic under investigation”

(Cited in Smith et al Doing IPA)

Smith el al gave an example of a Case Study of number of people who suffered with chronic back pain. IPA as used to identify themes.  The article discussed the process from the initial stage of looked for themes.

“Associations or connections or preliminary interpretations”

 (Citied on pp5).

The article discussed how researchers interpreted the data. In the example of a Case study when the researcher may only have one participant for the research.

“Look s for a connection between verbal response, cognition and physical problem “(citied pp3)

IPA was used to identify themes in the data.

“Persons thoughts may not be transparent in the qualitative data” (Citied pp19)

It is through analysis that themes begin to emerge and the researcher is able to build up a personal account.

The interview could elicit thousands of words. How can you ensure that all words are recorded?  How could you give the participant your full attentions while trying to write down all responses? Vital quotes may be missed!  I would want to use a tape recorder however as past research has shown some participants would not allow their interview to be recorded.

Interviewers need to be skilled at interviewing. They need to have the ability to put participants at ease so that they feel confident to talk openly about their experiences

Interpreting the data using IPA is a very time consuming process.  There are various ways to carry this out, Smith et al gave an example:

“Document emerging themes, using key words “

(Cited pp6).

This requires re-reading of all data several times .

The interpretation of data is also influenced by the researcher.  As stated by Conrad (1987)

“Researchers own conceptions” (cited pp 3)

Researchers may analyse data looking for specific themes that will support their research question.  They may find it difficult to remain objective. There is a danger that they may miss other relevant themes. How researchers interpret data will also be dependent on their own phenomenological worlds and experiences. No two researchers will interpret the data and complete the write up from same view point. It is called interpretive as

“There is no definitive or prescribed way” (Citied pp19)

Smith et al also discussed how IPA may be used by researchers may have carried out research with a small group. This may tend to be

“Exploratory” (cited pp1)

IPA is used to

“Facilitate the identification of shared experiences across a group of participants “.
(Citied pp17)

It is acknowledged that the researcher who uses IPA for a group cannot provide as detailed analysis as a Case Study as it would take too much time to analyse and would

“Not be cost effective “
(pp 18)

The researcher would look for themes that are shared by all the participants. Once identified the themes may shape the direction of the analysis.

“Where personally distinct experiences would then be considered “(cited pp18)

This can be a very time consuming process as once the themes have been indentified, the researcher needs to re-read the data as

“Extracts could have been overlooked” (cited 21).

The researcher needs to be aware that the themes that emerge may not necessarily be the themes that have re-occurred during the analyses. It may depend on

“The richness of passages which highlight the themes “(cited pp13).

The analyses section of report

“distinguish between what the respondent said and the analyst`s interpretation or account of this” (cited pp15).

Several ways to write up the analyses that the approach the researcher decides to use must reflect the research question. Whether this may be

“Narrative argument “or an account concerned with “complexity or ambiguity” (citied pp15).

After reading Chapter 15 and examples of the findings from both the case study account and the exploratory account I could see the benefits of IPA.  Gaining a deep insight and into the participants   world through an in-depth narrative account.

However I think the researcher needs to be cautious.  Remaining objective if the analyses are to reflect the data of the participants. IPA is vulnerable to researcher bias. It also Raised issue of the importance of thorough analyses of the data required to provide a

“Significant and distinctive contribution” (cited pp27)

Would I use IPA?  Smith et al stated that IPA is used a lot in health psychology with participants who suffer with ill health

“Belief people think about their bodies and talk about their bodies “(cited in Smith et al)

I t would depend on my research question. For instance as a careers adviser in main stream school I might use IPA if I wanted to explore `personal accounts of specific groups` for example

`The personal experiences of children of travelling families who decided to carry onto post 16 education` or

` The experiences of teenage mothers who decide to return to education`

IPA would be an appropriate analysis to use.

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