Amedeo Giorgi Interviewed by Former Students (Part 2 of 3)
In August 2011, Amedeo Giorgi was interviewed at Saybrook’s graduate conference on themes related to his life’s work in phenomenological psychology. The panel was comprised of four former doctoral students of Giorgi’s at Saybrook: Drs. Lisa K. Mastain, Adrienne Murphy, and Sophia Reinders, and was moderated by Marc Applebaum. This transcript was edited by Amedeo Giorgi and Marc Applebaum.
Reinders: How would you describe the essence of the method that you created?
Giorgi: Well, the essence of the method is looking for essences [laughter]. It is a search for essences…because I come from that natural science background, I really learned science and I appreciate it very much, and I don’t want to throw away science—I want to keep science in the picture. Now a lot of people think that because for years phenomenology was criticizing [empirical] scientific approaches, they were really criticizing the monopoly it had, not the scientific method itself. So it kind of got a bad reputation, as if, if you’re a phenomenologist, you’re anti-science. But anybody who reads Husserl cannot get that impression. He’s a tough read, and if you read him, you appreciate science, and so—one of his works is Philosophy as a Rigorous Science, huh? So this was the idea that Husserl was trying to pursue.
But it’s nothing like natural sciences as such, because it’s [dealing with] human experiences and human phenomena. So I want to be sure that our criteria is this: that every natural scientist will have to respect our method. I’m not just trying to satisfy clinicians, or therapists, or humanists, I’m trying to satisfy the most severe criterion—natural scientists. And so they have to respect my method, because I anticipate that some day, when qualitative research develops and gets strong, the natural science people are going to criticize it. And I want to be able to stand up and say, “Go ahead, criticize it—but you won’t find any flaws here.”
So that was the criterion that I always had, and the funny thing is, every time I go to APA—I went to APA for 25 straight years, before I gave up!—I went because I wanted to dialogue with mainstream psychologists, with the research psychologists, you know, who I was trained with. And while I was easily invited to give papers with Division 24, Philosophical, or 32, which is Humanistic, or Historical—I would go there, but all my friends come there [not the others]! So I was really trying hard to do Division 3, Experimental Psychology, because I wanted them to accept a qualitative [alternative]. One year they did, so at last, you know, I prepared a paper speaking to all of these experimentalists, explaining that phenomenology was equal to science…and all my friends showed up! [laughter] What happens is, the other side never comes! So I thought, “Well, I give up!”
But anyway, the essence of the method is the discovery of essences through the method of free imaginative variation. I would say that’s what we do, we try to come up with the essences. But of course in psychology—it’s a psychological essence, not a philosophical essence. And that makes it a little trickier of course because [historically] we don’t know what psychology is yet—it is not yet an historical achievement what “psychology” means. Nevertheless, I go ahead and do that—that’s what I would call the essence of the method.
Murphy re: can you contrast your approach versus that currently being employed at Duquesne, which focuses on identifying themes rather than essence?
Giorgi: Well, first of all a lot of people who call themselves “phenomenologists” [instead] come up with thematic analyses. Thematic analysis is not really phenomenological: they confuse the difference between the constituents of a structure. The difference is, the constituents are interrelated—Husserl makes a distinction among parts between what he calls “pieces” and “moments.” A “piece” is a part that can be independent of the whole: I can break a branch off a tree; the branch becomes a piece. But then there are parts that you cannot separate, and he calls them “moments,” so that the color green of a leaf is a moment—I can’t take green out of the leaf, OK? It belongs to it. So a constituent is a moment of a structure, it is quite different, it is interdependent with all of the other moments, it can’t stand alone like a piece.
Thematic analyses are like pieces, people do these analyses as if they were independent, and they get separate—they get six themes, or eight themes, but what’s the relationship between the themes is often not spoken to. And if anything, phenomenology is very holistic, it is sensitive to the whole. And so to do a thematic analysis and leave the themes independent is not satisfactory, at least according to phenomenological criteria.
Now, if you have other criteria, it may be OK, but you’re really an empiricist—you know, like if you’re doing Grounded Theory, and you come up with the various themes, that’s OK because they are following empirical philosophy, not phenomenological philosophy. But we want to come up with an interdependent understanding of the parts, the moments, so I would say that if the Duquesne people have gone in that direction, they’re departing from phenomenology, in the strict sense, because it’s not phenomenologically qualitative.
Murphy: Might this be an effort to bridge with empiricists?
Giorgi: Well, I think they just don’t know phenomenology well enough—you certainly don’t undermine your own process in order to communicate. You have to communicate being faithful or integral to your own procedures and your own processes, and then you try to do communication, but if you undermine your own process in order to communicate, then its just…then you’re not communicating.
Applebaum: sometimes students who are learning the descriptive method think they can vary or add steps to the method, how would you respond to that?
Giorgi: I encounter it all the time! I don’t know what it is, but there’s something about not fully appreciating what a method is and what a method means, and what a method can do. I’m often accused of being a purist, you know? I mean, “Oh, you have that method and you just hold to it!” Well, let me give you a simple example: how much is five plus five?
Applebaum: Ten…as far as I know!
Giorgi: Ten? It can’t be 11? Or maybe nine, can it be nine sometimes? You mean five plus five is always 10? What are you, a purist? [laughter] In other words, there is a logic to methodology. In my method I’m not doing what I want to do, I’m doing what’s demanded of me by the method, so that, if there are certain steps there, there’s a logic behind all the steps, among the connections between the steps, it’s not me, it’s the logic, I’m following the logic of phenomenology in having these certain steps. But students…I think it’s because sometimes you mingle theories, they mingle theories a lot, and I do find students who sometimes say…you know Saybrook has a requirement that as part of candidacy you critique a dissertation, and I always have them critique a dissertation done elsewhere, because you’ll have a lot more to say, so if you picked a Duquesne dissertation that I directed you might not have much to day.
So what I get are students [reporting that the dissertation’s author said] “I used a little bit of Moustakas, and a little bit of Colaizzi, and van Manen, and I did this step—you can’t mingle steps like that, there’s a logical structure, you have to stick to the method, that’s a requirement, that’s a demand. You can change maybe with theories, you can say “Well, I took a little from Jung, a little from Freud, a little from Adler, you know I’ve come up with my own theory.” That’s maybe a little bit more defensible, but you can’t do that with methods. They are logical structures, there’s a logic, there’s a structure to it.
Now, what maybe makes phenomenological method more difficult may be that I follow the phenomenological criteria, but I also follow the criteria for good scientific practice—and you have to know science as well. What does science demand? What does phenomenology demand? Therefore, integrating those two can be tricky if you’re not well steeped in both traditions, the scientific tradition and the phenomenological tradition, but I claim to be able to meet both criteria. I always say the method is both good science and good phenomenology, and I articulate that logic, I take on all the critics, and I say “look, this is why,” and I spell it out, and I have never received criticism on that, so far: maybe it might come, but so far I haven’t. So the point is you don’t play with methods the way—maybe—you can play with theories. Methods are strict like logic, it’s like suppose you had students who had trouble with the analysis of variance? Do you change the formula so that the student can do it more easily? No, [if you’re the student] you say, “I have to come up to understanding the formula.” It’s the same with phenomenology, you say, “I have to understand these steps, and I’ve got to implement these steps.
And I say this because some qualitative researchers seem to say in their work, “If you think you have a better step than the ones I’ve proposed, go ahead, do it.” But then that’s not a method—flexibility is good, there can be flexibility of a certain type, but not any kind of flexibility. So I’m a little worried that if the so-called “mainstream” [psychological] people start looking at these sorts of qualitative research, it will be bad for the qualitative movement. You’ve got to have high standards: you’ve got to do the best. So if you want to learn something, you can’t casually mix methods, you have to pick a method.
Now you might do some little variation [on the method you’re using] but you’ve got to justify it. If you modify a method, you’ve got to justify it—it’s got to be logically consistent with all the other steps of the method. So I would say no, you can’t modify methods at will.
Mastain: If so many students are adding these steps, clearly they’re having a problem with the method…so what do you see as the most difficult aspect of teaching this method to students, that students are struggling with?
Giorgi: Well first of all, have you ever encountered students struggling with statistics? I have. The fact that students are struggling with the method is not a new phenomenon, that’s all, it’s part of training. Now in my aim the hardest part is getting the structure, moving from the third transformation. That’s always—because it’s an intuitive process, and by “intuitive” I don’t mean in the everyday sense, I mean in the phenomenological sense. You’ve got to be able, through imaginative variation, to see what’s genuinely essential, it’s a process, it’s a “seeing.”
I have also learned that sometimes, because people are having such a difficult time, to say, “Tell me what’s the last movie you saw? Tell me about it, quickly.” And then they’ll tell me, “Well, it was a mystery about such and such,” and I’ll say, “Well, that’s what you do to get the structure.” You’re giving me the essence of a plot. And I say, “Now, what did you do [just now]?” And it’s hard to do it and describe it. When I try to describe it, I don’t do it well, so I have to bracket describing it, and do it—so then when I do it and show the outcome, most students will say, “OK, now I see it.” Well, how did I do it? I ask myself the question, “What is truly essential about this phenomenon?” I have the data here, you know, and I have to go through, but you know, I come up with it.
Now part of the problem is, I deal with—for example, at Saybrook—is I often have students without sufficient background in phenomenology—you don’t get exposed to it. So the more you’re exposed to philosophical phenomenology, the easier the task becomes.
Secondly, you’re also invited to do a truly original, creative task. Nobody has ever done this before—psychologically. There are philosophical examples. Then you have to struggle with, “What do I mean by ‘psychological’?” As I’ve said, there’s no historical answer to that yet that’s agreeable to the community of psychologists. I’ve come up with that in my own sense—that it’s the subjective meaning that we attribute to things. What is the subjective meaning of this experience, for you? But you also have to say “psychologically subjective,” because “subjective” is larger than just the psychological.
Then you have to come up with an insight, once you have the right framework. Nobody has ever done that before. And if you have a different phenomenon, then you have no history—it’s not that I can give you, “Well, read Wundt, he’ll give you…”—no, Wundt doesn’t do it, or “read Freud”—no, Freud doesn’t do it…you can’t read anybody, you’ve got to do it without reading. That makes it difficult—it’s a new, creative task. Well, should we not try it then, because nobody’s ever done it? I don’t think science works like that—even if it’s difficult, scientists say, “Well, try the task.” So every student who does a phenomenological dissertation is creating something that never existed before, if you’ve done it right. Then you have to reflect on that, and say “What did I do, how did I get there? Can I articulate that for somebody else?” And get it done. So it is genuinely new.
You know if you really want to be a scientist working at the forward edge of things, then do a phenomenological dissertation on a phenomenon that nobody has ever worked on, and come up with the psychological essence of it. There’s no place but other dissertations that I can tell you to read [for examples] but they’re usually different phenomena. So I say, that’s why that is so difficult.
Reinders: Can you speak a bit about validity and reliability in phenomenological research—this is an issue that often comes up in my work with graduate students.
Giorgi: Well, it is so simple in a phenomenological way, but everybody doubts it or doesn’t believe it. You know part of Husserl’s theory of meaning—there’s a threefold process. There is what he calls the empty meaning—what’s the technical word, I always forget that word…
Applebaum: [The intuition is] “unfulfilled.”
Giorgi: Yes, it’s unfulfilled but that’s not the word itself…you search for a meaning, then there is a fulfillment. You see something that may or may not fulfill what started the search for the meaning. And if it meets the criteria of the empty search, then you have identification. When you have identification, you have validity—if you do it twice you have reliability. I always give this example, “Where did I put my glasses?” That’s true enough for me anyway, I leave them on…so I’m searching for my glasses and somebody sees me, “What are you doing?” “I’m searching for my glasses.” That’s the meaning—its empty because I’m searching. Then, if I look around the room and see some glasses, it’s a kind of fulfillment—“there are glasses.” But wait, they’re not my glasses. It looks [at first] as if they could fulfill, but eventually I have to say “No, they’re not my glasses.” Then if I find my glasses, then good, I can now see well. What triggered off the search was a kind of empty meaning, I had a kind of quasi-fulfillment, but they weren’t identifications, [then] I got the glasses, I have identified.
For Husserl, that’s validity, because the fulfillment [of the intuition] satisfies precisely the meaning that started off the search. And if you do it twice or more, it’s reliability. So some people think it’s too subjective or too individualistic, or I don’t know, too easy, but you see phenomenology trusts individual experiences—with a critical perspective of course: you have to evaluate it, criticize it, which you do when you go from quasi fulfillment to the kind of fulfillment that you call an identification. So that’s reliability and validity from a phenomenological perspective: it’s all in Husserl, it’s all right there.
Murphy: I believe the term [you were looking for earlier] is “signifying”…
Giorgi: Signifying, yes—the first search in meaning is signifying. It’s a way of understanding my [seemingly] random activity, looking over tables, chairs, it’s a signifying intention, then a possibly fulfilling intention, then identification: signifying, fulfilling, identification. Now, his theory of meaning is more complicated than that, but I’m pulling out the one side [of Husserl’s theory] where he says it’s the same as validity.
What’s validity? Well, will this test really measure anxiety? Is this test really going to fulfill the intention I had? I had the intention of finding out how anxious this person is, I’m going to give this test to them, I come up with a score, did that score really fulfill the intention I had? How well does it do it or not do it? That would be the identification. But, of course, at the empirical level, it’s never perfect, you get quasi-fulfillments, probably, not true identification.
Murphy: Can you talk about how reflection is part of a phenomenological point of view?
Giorgi: I think you’re asking about is about a critical reflection, a reflection—is this something I really want or am I responding to something like “I won’t be happy until I have a Mercedes!” A critical reflection would be, “where does this idea of being happy with a Mercedes come from? Is that really something I feel or is it being imposed by something external?” I would say the most important part of a critical reflection is honesty—can you be honest with yourself, and own up to, let’s say, less than integral aspects of yourself? We can all be had by ads, and I hate myself when I do it, but I do respond! So the whole point of it is being honest when you do the critical reflection.
And usually it means expanding the experience, opening up the horizon of the experience, beyond the simple thing, “I am feeling down today, I should buy a Mercedes” you know. Well wait a minute, slow down, expand that, where does that come from? What are some other alternatives, what are some other things I can do?
And I would say it would be the same thing with respect to the experiences of the other. Somebody just did something negative to me, well, the first response might be anger and you want to condemn them, you know, “Why are they doing that?” but if you slow down a bit and ask where are they coming from? Let me try to see what perspective they may have had, were they maybe forced into it, something they didn’t really choose to do, but found themselves doing it…did I ever find that happening to me? Yes, it did, it happens to me when I find myself doing something…so it’s the same way, it is always critical reflection with honesty, you have to open up to every dimension of that experience that presents itself to you, without trying to alter it, or change it, or justify it, or condemn it.
And I would say that’s part of what a descriptive approach means—a descriptive approach is simply “What is there?” Not “Do I like it?” “Do I dislike it?” “Do I evaluate it, do I turn against it or support it?”
No, first: “What is there?” Simply—pure and simply. So that’s why I follow a Husserlian descriptive approach rather than an interpretive one, because the first question is always “What is there?” “What am I experiencing?” “What is really there?” I have to be honest with myself and with the other. Then once you have seen, you can do the critical evaluation. For me, it is a two-step process, and often, for me, with interpretive approaches, you often find that the interpretive step comes up too fast, huh?—too quickly—and they are interpreting before they even see completely what is there.
So, like I told you at the beginning, I want to defend it [the research] against natural scientists, and I can defend a descriptive approach much more easily than an interpretive one. Because I’m saying, “This is here [in the data], you evaluate me, tell me if it is really there.” So I prefer a descriptive approach.
Part 3 will appear tomorrow. Part 1 appeared yesterday.
-- Amedeo Giorgi and Marc Applebaum