Phenomenology: New Methods For Asking Questions and Interpreting Results

Jeffrey F. Durgee, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
ABSTRACT - Phenomenology has been proposed as an alternative to logical positivist methodologies which dominate consumer research (Fennell 1984). Whereas the logical positivist researcher deduces and formulates his or her variables, hypotheses and operational definitions based on existing theory, the phenomenologist puts aside or "brackets" all theoretical presuppositions and instead works from scratch, seeking to describe what a product or service means in depth--ant in great detail--to the consumer. Two problems with the phenomenological approach, however, are that (a.) few guidelines exist on how to draw rich material from respondents other than conventional methods such as depth interviews and protocols and (b.) few guidelines exist on how to interpret this material.
[ to cite ]:
Jeffrey F. Durgee (1987) ,"Phenomenology: New Methods For Asking Questions and Interpreting Results", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 14, eds. Melanie Wallendorf and Paul Anderson, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 561.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 14, 1987      Page 561

PHENOMENOLOGY: NEW METHODS FOR ASKING QUESTIONS AND INTERPRETING RESULTS

Jeffrey F. Durgee, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

ABSTRACT -

Phenomenology has been proposed as an alternative to logical positivist methodologies which dominate consumer research (Fennell 1984). Whereas the logical positivist researcher deduces and formulates his or her variables, hypotheses and operational definitions based on existing theory, the phenomenologist puts aside or "brackets" all theoretical presuppositions and instead works from scratch, seeking to describe what a product or service means in depth--ant in great detail--to the consumer. Two problems with the phenomenological approach, however, are that (a.) few guidelines exist on how to draw rich material from respondents other than conventional methods such as depth interviews and protocols and (b.) few guidelines exist on how to interpret this material.

Regarding the first point, this paper suggests that researchers can draw rich material from respondents by drilling them in creative writing techniques and asking them to write creative descriptions of the product or service under investigation. Teachers of creative writing face the same problems as qualitative researchers: getting people to use keen observation, use all of their senses, use concrete descriptions, be honest, and use original metaphors. Given sufficient encouragement, as well as a brief discussion of a descriptive excerpt from James Joyce, all types of respondents enjoy this task and tend to write vivid descriptions.

As an example of this technique, a group of undergraduates were asked to write detailed descriptions of "something you bought which made you wildly happy." Answers referred to such things as cars, sailboards, engagement rings, bicycles, fishing poles, art books, sailboats and class rings .

One of the answers, a young woman's description of a tape-playing "music box" was singled out for closer analysis:

"I felt extremely adult and responsible--out in the world earning money at a summer job, then spending it on the luxury item of my choice. I had watched music boxes for a long time in anticipation of this huge investment I was about to make. I went to the store, looked around, listened to a tape and wrote a check! It blew my mind, to be so independent, old, writing checks, making mature decisions about everyday boring purchases! When I left the store I was singing - mentally and literally. I immediately began referring to my radio/ tape player as 'my baby' and I felt a definite sense of motherhood. I took (and still take) extreme care of the thing, picking up cleaning tips when I hear them (i.e., don't use Q-tips to clean the heats). I was horrified and unable to scream or speak if my box accidentally fell or got bashed around. I was even so protective as to want to punch my sister for not caring about it as I did. I couldn't understand how she was so blah about my wonderful, acoustically fine music box. When I was shopping and buying I guessed the situation was the beginning of a life-time of expensive decisions:-earning money and writing checks. Listening to my box gives me any emotion that can be recorded on a cassette tape: fine harmony and story telling of Harry Chapin, or the ugliness of the world situation. And it takes me everywhere--N.Y. Central Park with Simon and Garfunkal or the Big Ben clock with the Moody Blues. I began to understand music is universal and this box was part of my possessions and ability to tune in/out. I still feel very maternal towards a hunk of Japanese metal and technology. At the same time it makes me feel very youthful and unburdened to be able to push 'play,' to get noise to match or modify my mood. Like I own a little bit of the power of.music."

Regarding the second point, how to interpret phenomenological data, Keen's (1975) 4-way plan for understanding how people attach meaning to experiences is described and applied to the music box case. Briefly, Keen suggests that the direction (positive or negative) and content of peoples' feelings toward objects and experiences are shaped by how they position them against "horizons" of time, geographic space, interpersonal relations and self-definition. Thus, the young woman in our example felt very attached to her music box for four reasons. (1.) Buying it was a future-oriented event for her. It was an "adult" purchase (the first time she ever used a check) and, like all teenagers, she reacts favorably to things based on their implications of imminent adulthood. (2.) It symbolically carries her away to exotic places, rock concerts in London and New York City. Anything reflective of home and being geographically restricted is negatively valued. (3.) It is something she has but her sister does not. In fact, she seems to resent her sister, and relishes the fact that the sister broke an informal pact which says, "One-sister-must-show-a-polite-interest-in-the-other-sister's-possessions." Since her sister broke this pact, she feels entitled to punch her! (4.) It requires deliberate care and maintenance, again implying a responsible, adult self-definition.

The article concludes by stressing how important it is that marketers manage the frames of reference used by consumers to evaluate products and services. Obviously, many marketers already do. Claims that a product will make you "the envy of your friends" implicitly locates the product in consumers' minds in terms of relationships they have with other people. The claim that an automobile is "the car of tomorrow" causes consumers to evaluate it against a temporal horizon. The key point, however, is that a phenomenological approach be used to describe how consumers currently position the product or service in terms of some frame of reference, and use this learning to modify or create new frames of reference in consumers' minds, thereby causing positive evaluations of these products and services. This is a different approach from current positioning theory, which suggests that consumers cognitively position products against other product;. In this approach, the horizon or frame of reference is the key positioning element, whether it be temporal, spatial, interpersonal or self-definitional.

REFERENCES

Fennell, G. (1984), "The Things of Heaven and Earth: Phenomenology, Marketing, and Consumer Research" in E.C. Hirschman and M.B. Holbrook (eds.) Advances in Consumer Research. Vol. 12. Provo, Utah: Association for Consumer Research.

Keen, F. (1975), A Primer in Phenomenological Psychology, Washington, D.C.: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, Inc.

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