From Phenomenography to the Zen Method of No-Method: Plumbing Others’ Understanding of the Complex and the Existential


Researchers interested in how others understand some aspect of their world are often challenged to (a) design a way to elicit that understanding and (b) analyze the rich interview data in a way that preserves and conveys the participant's intended meaning. This case suggests ways to conduct an inquiry of this type beginning with an account of my dissertation research, which investigated computer novices’ understanding of what were then novel, as well as complex, devices. With no fitting research method available to adopt or adapt, I made one up-an early version of phenomenography, perhaps. This flexible, albeit disciplined, approach to research design is something I have encouraged some of my own students to do from time to time. The case ends with a discussion of my current work, which uses quantitative data to inform interpretations of participants’ responses in semi-structured interviews about their existential concerns. For one study, community-dwelling older adults responded to questions about their experience of aging; for another, nursing home residents with and without cognitive impairment discussed their interpersonal relationships and day-to-day activities and social interactions, including how they had changed in recent years. The case ends with explanation of the thread connecting these two phases of my career: With the Zen method of no-method, we explore a phenomenon or lived experience of another by adopting a reflective distance from our favored perspective and taking heed, at each point, of the possibilities that are open.

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