Phenomenology or Narrative Inquiry Methodology?

A friend asked me to review their dissertation prospectus before their defense.

I provided feedback and told them some suggested changes. Their committee, however, did not agree with me about the methodology.

I took some time to reflect on the committee's thoughts and to separate from my ego. After a few days, their decision bothered me.

I took personal offense. So much so that I decided to write a blog post about it.

This post is not about my friend per se. It’s about something I see so often. Everyone thinks they are completing a phenomenology research study. Phenomenology seems like the “go to” methodology for people who know NOTHING about qualitative research.

I will share excerpts for my friend’s prospectus. I have changed some things to protect the study and identity of my friend. This post is not about their writing or critiquing them. I am merely using this as an example to demonstrate a common occurrence.

Purpose: The purpose of this study is to identify and describe the experiences of first generation Black undergraduate women at a small PWI. I plan to investigate the first generation Black undergraduate women's experiences and explain how these first generation Black undergraduate women made sense of their experiences.

Rationale: This study has the potential to help increase retention rates and first generation Black undergraduate women student college enrollment. Additionally, this qualitative study will provide a body of literature undergraduates and college administrators can utilize to grasp a personal understanding of the first generation Black undergraduate women's lived experiences.

This research is guided by the following questions:

  • What are the lived experiences of first generation Black undergraduate women at small predominately White institutions?
  • How do first generation Black undergraduate women make meaning of their identified experiences?

Theoretical Framework: Critical Race Theory and Black Feminist Thought

Paradigm: Critical Research Perspective

Methodology: Phenomenology

Methods: In-depth interviews, field notes, and observation

My initial thoughts: Your research design has inconsistencies with your paradigm and what you stated as your purpose. Discuss your identified methodology with your chair. It is incongruent with your purpose and the nature of phenomenology. Please see notes listed throughout the paper.

IMO, the methodology should have been narrative inquiry because it is more consistent with the rest of the research design (i.e., purpose, research questions, theoretical framework). My friend’s committee disagreed. They concluded that phenomenology was absolutely the correct methodology and that the theoretical and conceptual (not included above) framework was inappropriate.

That ?? sh*t ?? don’t ?? make?? sense!

While I fully operate in feelings being my epistemology; I will make my point with proper ? citations.

All of the components of a research design is interconnected, nothing exists in isolation. Meaning, research questions, theoretical perspective, conceptual framework, methodology, and so on influences one another. There are reasoning and logic behind these things. Don’t just pick what sounds good without some thought and intentionality behind those decisions.

Phenomenology is not the appropriate methodology because it is not concurrent with the outlined purpose, questions, or theoretical framework.

First, let’s explore some definitions…


Methodology is “the study - the description, the explanation, and the justification-of methods, and not the methods themselves” (Kaplan, 1964, p. 18).

The primary focus of phenomenology is the essence of a particular phenomenon or lived experience and is rooted in constructivism. For those of you who like to just focus on the lived experience part, most qualitative research focuses on the lived experience! THERE ARE SEVERAL PHILOSOPHIES OF PHENOMENOLOGY. Meaning lived experience could mean different things.

Constructivism “Points up the unique experience of each of us” “Tends to resist the critical spirit” Crotty, 1998, p. 58

However, let me back up. Most education research projects use hermeneutic phenomenology (even if you don’t explicitly say it). Hermeneutics is about the researcher’s understanding of a subject’s relationship to a particular object.

Now, I’m no expert, I just know how to read. And it is my understanding that to “do” phenomenology work, is to get at explanation/understanding/essence of a specific phenomenon.

“The very nature of a phenomenon, for that which makes a some-’thing’ what it is - and without which it could not be what it is” (van Manen, 1990, p. 10).

Phenomenology is less about the participants’ experiences and how they make meaning of that phenomenon and more about the essence of the phenomenon (if we had to choose between the two). The role of the participants is to help aid in context and understanding of the phenomenon.

ALSO, to truly do phenomenology research, one much engage in constant reflexivity through epoché and bracketing. If not these activities, then at the very least explicitly laying out your thoughts, assumptions, experiences, and beliefs about the phenomena. It is an ongoing activity that the researcher engages in to separate the phenomenon out from the researcher and participant.

Narrative Inquiry

Narrative inquiry, in short, is about stories and participants’ lived experiences. Additionally, it is ALSO about the histories and contexts that surround those stories. Meaning, narrative inquiry is about how the participant tells and understands their experiences AND how society, culture, and institutions shape those experiences.

Most will get hung up on the “storytelling” conflating methodology with methods.

Narrative inquiry is about the relationship that exists between the researcher and participant. The researcher is not separate (nor can separate) themselves from the process and/or stories. Both are an active participant in the meaning-making happening through storytelling.

Similar to phenomenology, the researcher must also state their thoughts, assumptions, experiences, and beliefs about the phenomena to inform instead of separating themselves from their telling of the phenomena.

Narrative inquiry has also been thought to be rooted in a constructivist perspective.

There are some overlaps between phenomenology and narrative inquiry.

The shifts are subtle and blatant; (both/and).

Phenomenology is about engaging in formalized processes of understanding a phenomenon and the contexts that influence that phenomenon by separating that phenomena from the persons researching and experiencing.

Narrative inquiry is about the person’s story (it’s context, the person telling it, and the person researching) - there is no separation; a dance an entanglement. It is reported through the story and connection of this - it's about the phenomena, the context, and the people.

Back to the example…

The purpose and research questions place emphasis on the meaning-making of the lived experiences of first generation Black undergraduate women.

If it was about describing a concept of a phenomenon (i.e.,  college persistence, first generation college student) then I would say this is a phenomenology methodology.

That’s not how the study was framed.

My friend also made a point to state a critical perspective for their theoretical perspective and critical theories (i.e., CRT BFT) as their theoretical framework. They also place great emphasis on the women’s experiences. Placing emphasis on the participants themselves and not solely the phenomenon.

No right or wrong exist (IMO).

I’m sharing my opinion and my perspective I have and would have had in the defense or as my friends' chair.

Going back to my opening statements, it comes down to how YOU define your terms, your research design, and the literature used to situate the design.


It comes down to:

  • What is your paradigm? How do you see the world? Describe your epistemology, ontology, and axiology. You have to know yourself.
  • What is guiding your understanding of methodology? Which theory/lens used in your methodology? How does your methodology provide justification for the methods being used?
  • Or vice versa, how do the methods collect the data that justifies or validates your methodology and paradigm? In other words, how do you know you are using the appropriate methods that will collect the data that corresponds with your understanding of the world - collecting what you intended to collect?

Based on the information provided, which methodology would you choose? I would love to know your thoughts!

Until next time!

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Bowleg, L. (2017). Towards a critical health equity research stance: Why epistemology and methodology matter more than qualitative methods. Health Education & Behavior, 44(5), 677-684. doi: 10.1177/1090198117728760

Carter, S. M., & Little, M. (2007). Justifying knowledge, justifying method, taking action: Epistemologies, methodologies, and methods in qualitative research. Qualitative Health Research, 17, 1316-1328. doi:10.1177/1049732307306927

Crotty, M. (1998). The foundations of social research: Meaning and perspective in the research process. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Kaplan, A. (1964). The conduct of inquiry: Methodology for behavioral science. San Francisco, CA: Chandler.

Katz. S. (2015). Qualitative-based methodology to teaching qualitative methodology in higher education. International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, 27(3), 352-363.

Jones, S. R., Torres, V., & Arminio, J. (2014). Negotiating the complexities of qualitative research in higher education: Fundamentals elements and issues (2nd. ed.). New York, NY: Routledge.

van Manen, M. (1990). Researching lived experience: Human science for an action sensitive pedagogy. Albany, NY: SUNY Press.

Willig, C. (2013). Introducing qualitative research in psychology (3rd ed.). New York, NY: McGraw Hill.