Differentiating between descriptive and interpretive phenomenological research approaches
Phenomenology Previous     Next

Differentiating between descriptive and interpretive phenomenological research approaches

Gerald Amandu Matua Lecturer, Sultan Qaboos University College of Nursing, Muscat, Oman
Dirk Mostert Van Der Wal Associate professor, University of South Africa, Pretoria, South Africa

Aim To provide insight into how descriptive and interpretive phenomenological research approaches can guide nurse researchers during the generation and application of knowledge.

Background Phenomenology is a discipline that investigates people’s experiences to reveal what lies ‘hidden’ in them. It has become a major philosophy and research method in the humanities, human sciences and arts. Phenomenology has transitioned from descriptive phenomenology, which emphasises the ‘pure’ description of people’s experiences, to the ‘interpretation’ of such experiences, as in hermeneutic phenomenology. However, nurse researchers are still challenged by the epistemological and methodological tenets of these two methods.

Data sources The data came from relevant online databases and research books.

Review methods A review of selected peer-reviewed research and discussion papers published between January 1990 and December 2013 was conducted using CINAHL, Science Direct, PubMed and Google Scholar databases. In addition, selected textbooks that addressed phenomenology as a philosophy and as a research methodology were used.

Discussion Evidence from the literature indicates that most studies following the ‘descriptive approach’ to research are used to illuminate poorly understood aspects of experiences. In contrast, the ‘interpretive/hermeneutic approach’ is used to examine contextual features of an experience in relation to other influences such as culture, gender, employment or wellbeing of people or groups experiencing the phenomenon. This allows investigators to arrive at a deeper understanding of the experience, so that caregivers can derive requisite knowledge needed to address such clients’ needs.

Conclusion Novice nurse researchers should endeavour to understand phenomenology both as a philosophy and research method. This is vitally important because in-depth understanding of phenomenology ensures that the most appropriate method is chosen to implement a study and to generate knowledge for nursing practice.

Implications for research/practice This paper adds to the current debate on why it is important for nurse researchers to clearly understand phenomenology as a philosophy and research method before embarking on a study. The paper guides novice researchers on key methodological decisions they need to make when using descriptive or interpretive phenomenological research approaches.

Nurse Researcher. 22, 6, 22-27. doi: 10.7748/nr.22.6.22.e1344

Peer review

This article has been subject to double-blind review and has been checked using antiplagiarism software

Conflict of interest

None declared

Received: 07 August 2014

Accepted: 11 November 2014

Want to read more?

Already subscribed? Log in


Unlock full access to RCNi Plus today

Save over 50% on your first 3 months

Your subscription package includes:
  • Unlimited online access to all 10 RCNi Journals and their archives
  • Customisable dashboard featuring 200+ topics
  • RCNi Learning featuring 180+ RCN accredited learning modules
  • RCNi Portfolio to build evidence for revalidation
  • Personalised newsletters tailored to your interests
RCN student member? Try Nursing Standard Student

Alternatively, you can purchase access to this article for the next seven days. Buy now