Getting inside people’s heads via ethnographic and phenomenological interviews

Distinctions between ethnographic and phenomenological interviews are profound and extremely important to maintain. In Research Decisions, Palys & Atchison allocate just two introductory pages to phenomenology, which is reframed as a philosophy of phenomenologism. Why is that?

In the glossary, P&A write that phenomenologism is “an approach to understanding whose adherents assert that we must ‘get inside people’s heads’ to understand how they perceive and interpret the world” (p. 425).

Can or should the phenomenologist or ethnographer ‘get inside people’s heads’? is this one of the purposes of research with human subjects via ethnographic and phenomenological methods? Add to this, historical methods, etc.?

In “Culture and Causality,” Fricke resolves at length:

It is true… that we cannot get inside people’s heads to actually know what motivates them or how they see the world. It is true, in other words, that we operate in terms of theories. But this is the same context within which we live our everyday lives. If I ask myself the ques- tion in my everyday dealings with people, “Why did she do that?,” I seek an answer as an attempt to understand that person’s view of the world, her motivations, and the concrete circumstances of a situation. I acknowledge, if I want to get as close to the true reasons as possible, that I might be wrong in my interpretation and that more information, or the reach for more consistency in light of the available information, may cause me to modify my initial understanding. If the thing I seek to explain is important, or if the person is particularly important to me, I may try to include information about her past history and wider networks of kin and association.

In some ways, anthropological fieldwork replicates this prosaic operation of the everyday. Our attempts at understanding are imaginative acts in which we try to get inside of the head of the cultural other. (pp. 476-477)

What do you think? Is this made obvious in research 2.0?

4 responses to “Getting inside people’s heads via ethnographic and phenomenological interviews

  1. Searching for the Holy Grail of Clarification ? Blog by Helen Ballam

    What is the difference between phenomenology and ethnography?

    Today in our EDUC 500 research methodology course, we discussed phenomenology and ethnography methodology, and their value as instruments in research. I had difficulty in understanding the distinction between these two methodologies. As there is a strong possibility that these two methods might be a part of my research project, I decided that I needed to develop a more comprehensive understanding of them.
    I will begin with phenomenology first. Our textbook, ?Research Decisions,? Palys described phenomenologism as in how human beings perceive and make sense of the world around them (Palys & Atchinson, 2014, pp. 8-9). A website called Righteous Research stated that ?phenomenological research seeks to understand the subjective, lived experiences, and perspectives of participants? (Anonymous, 2012). Dr. Feng accurately sensing my continued befuddlement during class, steered me toward a book called, ?The Spell of the Sensuous? by David Abram. Abram described the idea of phenomenology in a Western World perspective as the ?modern assumption of a single, wholly determinable, objective reality? (Abram, 1997, p. 31). Through the work of Husserl, Abram viewed phenomenology as looking at something subjectively, with a ?take it for granted attitude,? and without any analysis (p. 35). ?Phenomenology would seek not to explain the world, but to describe [it] as closely as possible? (p. 35). I understand it as a view of the world not from the outside, but looking from within.

    Where phenomenology is about knowing a world without questioning it, ethnography is to know that world. Palys described ethnography as understanding the world by gathering evidence ?that bears on theoretical issues that we deem ? or that emerge as ? important? (Palys & Atchinson, 2014, p. 203). Here perspective is gained through analysis of gathered observations and data.

    The confusion is that these two methodologies often overlap and blur the lines of distinction within research. For example in order to understand a world through an ethnographic lens, often it is through inclusion of phenomenological data. Data gathered about lived experience can enrich an understanding about the collective. Alternately the reverse is also possible. An understanding about a phenomenon can be built upon data analyzed through the ethnographic lens. In this case, it could be looking at lived experience through the collective representation. While the study of phenomenology and ethnography can be considered independently, a mixed methods approach could be invaluable to some research inquiries.

    I think that have I developed a clearer understanding of the difference between phenomenology and ethnography, as well as possible applications for overlap within these methodologies. Is this clarification similar to yours? I would be interested to hearing your feedback.
    Works Cited
    Abram, D. (1997). Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a more than human world. Vintige.
    Anonymous. (2012, 3 25). Phenomenological vs. ethnographic. Retrieved 7 10, 2014, from Righteous Research:
    Palys, T., & Atchinson, C. (2014). Research Decisions; Quantitative, Qilitative and Mixed Methods Approaches. Toronto, Ontario, Canada: Nelson Education Ltd.

  2. Hi Helen,
    My research in terms of lived experiences of first generation immigrants also overlaps in this field. My understanding is that ethnography is a more superficial, lighter on the surface and details about a culture. That culture can be a specific group of people, i.e. waitresses from our readings, teachers, or Punjabi people but the idea is that we are learning about their norms, routines and ‘strange’ patterns. Back in the day Stephen made reference to going into tribal communities and learning about their practices and it is done in a very friendly, superficial way. There is no meaningful, in-depth talk about lived experiences. I.E. Why do we exist in the world? Why are we here, as part of human existence? What is our purpose in life? I agree both overlap. When we talk about a culture of mothers i.e. we can cross compare mothers across the world ….different feeding, burping, diapering and child rearing practices but if you ask each mother about her lived experience it is quite unique what each woman would say what it means to be a mother. That reality lies in the core of each womans being….hope that helps, hope i didn’t confuse you…. my two cents worth…hope i am on the right track too, LOL
    think after we spoke with France what I understand ethnography to be is a

  3. Helen just came across a reading for my paper its called Lepervanchi’s (1984) ethnographic account of the community…maybe that will help too…

  4. Hello Geena,
    Thank you so much for replying to my essay. I have to comment on something that you said; “My understanding is that ethnography is a more superficial, lighter on the surface and details about a culture.” With respect to your comment I don’t believe ethnography to be superficial or lighter in the least. It provides a breadth that is not possible to achieve in quantitative research. I think your research is very interesting. I think that it is really cool that you are researching your heritage, after all it is what make up who and what you are. It adds to the perspective of community. I believe that we have something in common in that I am first generation (Hungarian) immigrant as well. I read an interesting ethnographic book called the “Ethnographic eye” by Caroline Ellis, which focuses on not an ethnic group in the traditional sense, but an academic group composed of doctoral students and their journey towards getting their dissertation. It might be a good read for you if you are going to do ethnography or autoethnogrpahy. It might give you some ideas when you are developing the framework for your research.

    Where the complication for me begins is that sometimes ethnography and phenomenology overlap, which might happen when you do your research. I believe that one can be used to give insight to the other. This is something that I will be aware of with my research as I analyze my data, or with research/studies that I read.

    I look forward to hearing to more about your project. Helen

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