Phenomenology as Research Method

Several of the major challenges faced in my research are highlighted, and addressed, in Phenomenology of Suicidality.  From the outset, it was apparent that the research I sought to do would be difficult, and perhaps impossible, using the prevailing conceptual frameworks and research methods of suicidology.  The Comprehensive Textbook of Suicidology referred to in the paper, which explicitly defines suicidology as an exclusively third-person, objective science, remains the major reference in the discipline, especially in the US.  This can be seen in recent conferences of the American Association of Suicidology (AAS) where it is the prescribed text for the accredited education sessions of the conferences.  The emphasis in Phenomenology of Suicidality, and the discussion of it that follows, is on methods of enquiry for incorporating the first-person experience of suicidality into suicidology.  By itself, phenomenology could possibly address this major gap in suicidology without too much disruption to its current theoretical frameworks.   Later in the exegesis a more serious challenge is made to suicidology’s current conceptual models, and an alternative proposed, in order to integrate spirituality into our thinking about suicide.

Before the phenomenological method outlined in Phenomenology of Suicidality surfaced in my research – that is, before I knew that I was already doing phenomenology – other methods of enquiry were explored and considered (Webb 2002b).  One potentially useful field of enquiry was transpersonal psychology with its appreciation of the spiritual values and needs so central to my own research. In their survey of transpersonal research methods, Braud and Anderson (1998) identify four major categories of research question according to whether they seek to understand, explain, predict, or control.

Control type research questions are the more traditional, scientific questions which focus on testable, repeatable experiments or events, with an emphasis on precise, measurable outcomes.  Quantitative experimental methods are typically the most appropriate methods for these questions.  Research questions that seek to predict put more emphasis on process than outcomes to identify key factors contributing to or inhibiting some event occurring.  The epidemiological studies in suicidology are a good example of the methods used for these questions, which would also be mostly quantitative, though perhaps more statistical, population based studies than for the control type questions.  Questions that seek to explain or interpret help us to conceptualise and develop general theories about our subject of enquiry.  In this category, Braud and Anderson include qualitative methods such as theoretical analysis, historical and archival methods, grounded theory, textual and discourse analysis, and hermeneutics.  The aim of questions that seek to understand is to take us into the experience of the topic of our enquiry, in particular to understand and appreciate the subjective experience from the perspective of the participant.  Methods mentioned here include case studies and life histories, feminist approaches, and phenomenological and heuristic methods.

Braud and Anderson caution against using this taxonomy inflexibly.  Many methods span more than just one type of research question and combinations of methods are often the most appropriate approach.  But it is a useful analysis for it highlights significant qualitative differences between the sorts of research question we might ask and the types of methods that might be most appropriate for them.  No ranking of merit is implied in this taxonomy.  All are legitimate and all serve a useful purpose.  The key is for the researcher to employ appropriate methods for their research question.  Braud and Anderson argue that in transpersonal psychology “we are dealing here with Big Events”, and therefore “their study cries out for and deserves research methods that are as powerful and encompassing as the experiences themselves” (Braud & Anderson 1998 p 20).  Research into suicidality would seem to qualify as a Big Event, requiring similarly powerful and encompassing methods.

This is not simply a debate, an old debate, about the merits of qualitative versus quantitative research methods.  Although quantitative methods are invariably exclusively third-person forms of enquiry, so are many qualitative methods.  Sometimes this is implicit in the qualitative method itself, but sometimes it is the manner in which it is used.  For instance, many qualitative methods employ questionnaires, interviews or focus groups that do sometimes delve more deeply into the subjective, lived experience of the phenomenon under enquiry.  But the data collected in this way is then often analysed in ways that transform it into third-person data for further analysis using third-person methods, such as for validation based on statistical significance.  Once again, the test of a method is its appropriateness for the question being asked, and all of these methods have contributed much to our understanding of many interesting questions.

The four types of research question identified by Braud and Anderson are a useful taxonomy for the range of questions suicidology needs to address.  The taxonomy also helps highlight my thesis that understanding suicidality as it is experienced by those who live it – something largely neglected by suicidology – has a critical relationship with any attempt to explain, predict or control (i.e. prevent or ‘treat’) it.  The key research question and fundamental aim of this overall thesis is how can my story, as told in Thinking About Suicide, contribute to a better understanding of suicidality, and the phenomenological method is proposed as one means by which we can proceed in this enquiry.

Another approach for exploring the lived experience is ethnography, and in particular for research such as mine the autoethnography found in the work of people like Carolyn Ellis.  Ellis and her colleague Arthur Bochner (Ellis & Bochner 1996) describe their methodological approach as a form of radical empiricism which rejects the traditional boundaries between the observer and the observed (the researcher and the researched).  Although they locate themselves within the tradition of ‘dialectical enquiry’, Ellis and Bochner argue that the conventional dialectical approach still conforms to goals of analytical, abstract ways of knowing, reinforcing the conventional analytical and conceptual framework.  As both a way of knowing and a way of telling, the key features of the autoethnographic approach include being written in the first person and the highlighting of emotional experience, with the text presented as a story.  It also tends to focus on a single case, depicted in episodic form over time, rather than the more traditional approach of snapshots in time across many cases that we see as the ubiquitous first-person ‘snippets’ in many other forms of qualitative research.  This describes well many of the key features of my research, particularly Thinking About Suicide, so that it could perhaps also be viewed as an autoethnographic work.  I choose, however, to locate my research primarily in phenomenology, along with Mad Culture.

The key feature of the phenomenology explored in Phenomenology of Suicidality is the four-step method of Varela et al (reduction, intuition, expression and validation), an approach based on classical Husserlian phenomenology but refined by Varela and his colleagues in their research into the neuroscience of cognition.  Ellis and Bochner distinguished between “ways of knowing” and “ways of telling”.  In a similar way, Braud and Anderson distinguished between “ways of knowing, ways of working with the data, and ways of expressing findings”.  The four-step method of Varela et al encompasses all these important distinctions but with greater clarity, I believe, at least for my research.  It also adds, or makes more explicit, the vital last stage of validation in any research enterprise.  It is worth elaborating on these distinctions a little further.

It was apparent quite early in my research that expressing the voice of the subjective, lived experience in Thinking About Suicide was central to my project, and its own creative challenge on top of the research into suicidology.  As this work proceeded, it became apparent that finding this voice was a distinct and separate exercise to the related one of giving tangible expression to it.  In terms of structure, content and style, the final text (expression) of Thinking About Suicide conceals many reductions and intuitions behind its creation – the various ‘dead-end’ experiments, much personal reflection, as well as considerable discussion and review with my supervisors and other ‘critical friends’.  This is the distinction between the ways of knowing (reductions and intuitions) and the ways of telling (expressions) described by Ellis and Bochner.  That is, the process of finding your voice corresponds to exploring different ways of knowing or, in perhaps more academic terms, is an epistemological challenge that asks what we know and how we come to know it.  Varela et al describe the first two steps of their four-step method – the reduction and intuition – as “the basic cycle of the reflecting act”, which captures well the primary creative challenge of finding your voice.  Then, and in iterative combination with the first two steps, the third step in the Varela method – expression – completes what I have called in Phenomenology of Suicidality, following Varela et al, “the basic cycle of the creative act”.  The distinction between ways of knowing and ways of telling is again highlighted in the creative production of these expressions, or “communicable items”, as part of the research enterprise.  In this thesis, the primary communicable item or expression is Thinking About Suicide, the phenomenological ‘thick’ description (borrowing from Geertz) identified in Phenomenology of Suicidality.

The most important aspect of the four-step method that needs to be emphasised is the final step of validation.  Phenomenology of Suicidality makes it clear that the task of validating the expressions of this thesis – both Thinking About Suicide and this exegesis – is explicitly not a part of this research project.  It might be disconcerting for researchers working from the traditional scientific paradigm, but it is neither possible nor appropriate for this project and this thesis to attempt the final step of validation.  As the person who subjectively lived the experiences described in these expressions, no further validation is possible (or required) for me personally.  That is, they are expressions of intuitions that are the most fundamental and rigorous evidence, Husserl’s Evidenz, that require no other validation to the individual who experiences them than the subjective reality of them.  The only qualification to this is perhaps the skill and honesty with which I have attempted to give expression to these intuitions, but this is no different to the skill we strive for and intellectual integrity we expect in any academic enterprise.

Validation of this work begins when this thesis is put into the public domain for intersubjective validation, a process described in Phenomenology of Suicidality.  Ken Wilber’s notion of a “community of the adequate” indicates the various peer groups who will be called upon to validate this thesis, whether it be Thinking About Suicide, this exegesis, or both.  These include the examiners of the thesis, participants in the discipline of suicidology and the wider mental health field, and also the general public, since a stated goal of the work is to speak to all concerned about suicide in our communities.  And for me personally, the most important are my suicidal soul-mates, who are the most ‘adequate’ of all communities to perform the task of validating the first-person experience of suicidality.  Phenomenology of Suicidality gives some preliminary, anecdotal validation of the research based on those expressions of my work that have already appeared in the public domain, which includes not only the few published papers but also the public presentations of my work over the last few years.  So far this has been mostly positive and affirming, but the real validation begins when the entire thesis, especially Thinking About Suicide, is in the public domain.

It is quite likely, even probable, that the validation of this work may never be more than ‘anecdotal’, at least in the eyes of the traditional scientist.  Again, this may be disconcerting for those researchers who require greater certainty but – again – this uncertainty is in the nature of what we are enquiring into.  Intersubjective validation, which is the only kind of validation possible for expressions such as Thinking About Suicide, is always about (intersubjective) qualitative salience rather than (objective) quantitative certainty.  As an aside, it is worth noting that what is called objectivity can be seen as an intersubjective agreement on what constitutes valid objective data (see Zahavi 2003 for a clear explication of this).   Other researchers doing similar work (Braud and Anderson, Ellis and Bochner, Varela and his colleagues, Ken Wilber, and many others) talk of validation criteria such as intuition, insight, direct knowing, aesthetic knowing, empathic sensitivity and sympathetic resonance.  These and other criteria are how the phenomenological data of subjective experiences are intersubjectively validated.  Furthermore, validation never comes to an end and stops in this work.  There is never any black-and-white, totally right or totally wrong, final solution to the questions raised by research into human experiences such as these.  For the simple reason that it is the very nature of what we are enquiring into in any phenomenological study of suicide and suicidality – the deepest mystery of what it is to be human.

As Albert Camus observed in the opening lines to his study of suicide, The Myth of Sisyphus: “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide.  Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.”  Camus closes his opening paragraph with an observation that strongly suggests a method of enquiry not unlike the phenomenological method described in Phenomenology of Suicidality: “These are facts the heart can feel; yet they call for careful study before they come clear to the intellect” (Camus 1975 p 11).  The best we can strive for – and it is well worth striving for – is for us to collectively move towards an ever deeper, intersubjective appreciation and understanding of the phenomenon of suicidality.  My various peer groups, not I, will be the judges, the validators, of whether this thesis has contributed to our collective understanding of suicidality or not.

An important argument in Phenomenology of Suicidality is on the validity of first-person data, which is summarised from a separate paper, Bridging the Spirituality Gap, included as an appendix to this exegesis.  As the title suggests, this part of my research originally sought to explore some key ideas about spiritual ways of knowing to help bridge an identified ‘spirituality gap’ in mental health.  My research shows that the gap in question arises from the ideological prejudices of those who assert objective knowledge as the onlyvalid knowledge.  For this thesis, the most influential proponents of this ideology are the medical profession, and in particular psychiatry, though the mainstream of modern psychology also strives for the mythical goal of an exclusively objective knowledge.  Furthermore, it can be seen that this gap is sustained not by any rational or scientific argument, but by the power and influence of those who have a vested interest in maintaining the myth of objectivity as the sole form of valid knowledge.  Put another way, the continuing exclusion of first-person knowledge – of the first-person voice, or the ‘consumer voice’ as it is called in mental health – occurs because of the power, influence and vested interests of those who cling to an ideology of objective knowledge as the only valid knowledge.

Having established the validity and importance of first-person data and knowledge, it is necessary to demonstrate their exclusion from suicidology (and from mental health in general) and that this indicates significant gaps in the discipline.  This brings us to the next paper of this exegesis, which examines suicidology as a discipline with a culture where the exclusive ideology of objective science operates to create and sustain these gaps.  Thus far in the thesis, Thinking About Suicide has been viewed as phenomenological data, but in Anthropology of Suicidology my personal story of suicidality is used instead as an analytical tool or prism through which the knowledge of suicidology is examined.  The ‘data’ for this research therefore is effectively the collective wisdom of suicidology.  If suicidology is unable to respond adequately to my history of suicidality, as told in Thinking About Suicide, then it must admit to some gap(s) in the discipline.  The immediate and obvious gap revealed by this exercise is the almost total absence of spirituality from suicidology.  Almost as stark is how little discussion there is on what suicidal feelings mean to those who live them or, in the terminology of this thesis, on the phenomenology of suicidality.  The following paper explores how and why these gaps occur in suicidology.