Qualitative Research: Hermeneutics & Phenomenology

Key components of qualitative research include hermeneutics and phenomenology. This post will examine these two terms and their role in qualitative research.

Hermeneutics

Hermeneutics is essential a method of interpretation of a text. The word hermeneutics comes from Hermes, the Greek messenger God. As such, at least for the ancient Greeks, there was a connection with interpreting and serving as a messenger. Today, his term is most commonly associated with theology such as biblical hermeneutics.

In relation to biblical hermeneutics, Augustine (354-430) develop a process of hermeneutics that was iterative. Through studying the Bible and the meaning of one’s own interpretations of the Bible, a person can understand divine truth. There was no need to look at the context, history, or anything else. Simply the Word and your interpretation of it.

In the 17th century, the Dutch philosopher Spinoza expanded on Augustine’s view of hermeneutics by stating that the text, its historical context, and even the author of a text, should be studied to understand the text. In other words, text plus context leads to truth.

By combing Augustine’s view of the role of the individual in hermeneutics with Spinoza’s contribution to the context we arrive at how interpretation happens in qualitative research.

In qualitative research, data interpretation (aka hermeneutics) involves the individual’s interpretation combined with the context that the data comes from. Both the personal interpretation and the context of the data influence each other.

Phenomenology

The develops in hermeneutics led to the development of the philosophy called phenomenology. Phenomenology states that a phenomenon can only be understood subjectively (from a certain viewpoint) and intuitively (through thinking and finding hidden meaning).

In phenomenology, interpretation happens through describing events, analyzing an event, and by connecting a current experience to another one or by finding similarities among distinct experiences.

For a phenomenologist, there is a constant work of reducing several experiences into abstract constructs through an inductive approach. This is a form of theory building that is connected with several forms of qualitative research, such as grounded theory.

Conclusion

Hermeneutics has played an important role in qualitative research by influencing the development of phenomenology. The study of a phenomenon is for the purpose of seeing how context will influence interpretation.

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