Integrated Description: a Phenomenologically Oriented Technique For Researching Large Scale, Emerging Human Experience and Trends

ABSTRACT - This article presents a phenomenologically oriented research technique that is suited to dealing with new, complex, broad based, or emergent human experience and activities. This technique combines basic qualitative and quantitative methods to result in an "integrated description" that may be especially useful for analyzing potential market trends and needs.


Christopher J. Mruk (1985) ,"Integrated Description: a Phenomenologically Oriented Technique For Researching Large Scale, Emerging Human Experience and Trends", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 12, eds. Elizabeth C. Hirschman and Moris B. Holbrook, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 556-559.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 12, 1985      Pages 556-559


Christopher J. Mruk, St. Francis College


This article presents a phenomenologically oriented research technique that is suited to dealing with new, complex, broad based, or emergent human experience and activities. This technique combines basic qualitative and quantitative methods to result in an "integrated description" that may be especially useful for analyzing potential market trends and needs.


The following pages concern the development of a phenomenologically oriented research technique that is well suited to dealing with new, complex, broad based, or emergent forms of human activity and experience. This technique is unique in that it combines established research methods which are often seen as being at odds with one another. That is, well established, basic qualitative and quantitative methods are combined to develop an integrated description of a particular human experience or activity. The qualitative aspect of the technique focuses on describing the underlying psychological structure of the target phenomenon. The quantitative description serves to balance the structure.

This discussion is situated within the context of a year long federally funded research project entitled, "Facilitating the Acquisition of Basic Computer Skills for the Older and/or Job Retraining Learner," sponsored by the US Department of Health and Human Services, and St. Francis College of Loretto, Pennsylvania. There is little need to discuss the importance of computer education or literacy for modern society. The social and economic significance of computerization is well documented in many quarters, and thoroughly popularized by the media. However, a brief account of the large context of the research project may help to communicate why the technique was developed, how it can be applied, and where its true value lies.

So great is the need that computer education has already been called "the next crisis in education" (Guvlette 1982, p. 107). Advanced massive computer literacy educational efforts are well underway in the secondary and college educational settings. However, it is ironic that if basic computer abilities are rapidly taking on the character of a survival skill in our culture, then those who need them the most seem to receive the least educational and market attention. Aside from those who are supported by their employers, millions of adult learners are left to fend for themselves in dealing with a very complex, poorly understood, high level learning process.

At least three factors complicate the situation. First, adults constitute an extremely large and very diverse learning (and market) population. There is no "one" adult learner or single adult learner profile (Cross 1981). Rather, we are dealing with a range of subjects that is characterized by incredible variation of background, ability, age, motivation, and economic support. Second, job security is becoming an increasingly important social issue because of the revolution in information. One aspect of the impact of computerization is an unprecedented problem of job displacement and need for retraining. Third, while researchers, educators and policy makers do have a handle on the structure and needs of computer education for the other learner populations, they do not for adults. One reason for this situation is that computer education is an emergent phenomenon less than a decade old. Education:1 knowledge is limited for this area in general. Additionally, those of us who are adults received our formal educations long before the computer was on the scene in a large scale way.

Because of these and other factors, the aim of our work was to develop a "first clear look" at computer education for adults in America. The project resulted in the development of a manual of empirically based findings and practical suggestions for teachers, learners, and policy makers aimed at facilitating the acquisition of basic computer skills by adults.

While the results of the project are interesting in themselves and include practical marketing implications, in this article we are primarily concerned with the question of method. Through the research, it became increasingly clear that our assignment demanded the use of both qualitative and quantitative methods, what we are causing here an integrated description. First, the method is capabLe of dealing with the problem of ambiguity that always surrounds new, or emergent, social phenomena. Second, the qualitative aspect of the research allows us to understand events from the perspective of the experiencing subject who also is the potential consumer. Third, the quantitative research activities permit us to address the development of a reliable sense of the so called "objective" aspects of the phenomenon, which is especially useful for identifying major needs or trends. As such, integrated description can be useful for identifying primary consumer characteristics, needs, and potential market trends.


One way of understanding the qualitative research activities is to view them as being concerned with discovering the "general structure" of an event or phenomenon. For those who are not well initiated in the language and techniques of phenomenology, by general structure we mean that which creates, constitutes and unifies any human experience as a particular or specific type. Very basically, the general structure of an experience is composed of two parts. One part of the structure Is the "ingredients" such as the situation effect, behavior, and meaning that are necessary to allow the experience to occur. The second aspect is the relationship among these elements.These relations are the "glue" of an experience. They interact to hold an experience together in a relatively stable pattern. thereby providing identifiable form and meaning.

The academic discipline that is concerned with determining structures of experience is called phenomenological psychology. The aim of this approach is to use established phenomenological methods of description to determine the structure of any given human experience or phenomenon. To paraphrase Martin Heidegger (1962), the goal of phenomenological methods is to "let that which shows itself" (any particular phenomenon) "be seen from itself" (from its own side or structure) "in the very way in which it shows itself from itself" (or with a high degree of descriptive fidelity). To be succinct, to do a phenomenological analysis means to identify the essential aspects of a phenomenon, and to fully articulate their character and relationship with one another until the entire phenomenon is laid bare.

It is very important to realize that while the subject's experience is paramount in this process, it is only the beginning, the data for analysis. Actual phenomenological analysis involves an extremely detailed, rigorous movement between experience and reflection aimed at uncovering what is "beneath" empirical regularities and observations. This activity is scientific in the truest sense of the word. The process begins with the empirical data of experience or observation as does any other kind of scientific activity. We also use established principles of description and analysis to identify regularities. The research activity ends in a presentation of results which can be duplicated for verification or "proof". To be sure, while phenomenology is a human and not a natural science, there is nothing in the method itself that is questionable from the viewpoint of science. Here as in other fields of endeavor, including natural science, a researcher's fidelity to the method may, of course, vary.

Our particular application of the phenomenological method resulted in describing the essential elements of three major aspects of the acquisition by adults of basic skill in computer use.Describing what was learned, how it was learned, and who was learning were the major qualitative activities. However, since the point of integrated description is that it combines the best of qualitative and quantitative description, we will examine the actual steps of the research after we consider the role of the quantitative activities.


Every method has its strengths and weaknesses. Qualitative research is penetrating or depth oriented. One of the chief advantages of such an approach is that it allows us to access the internal make-up of a phenomenon Another strength is the ability to deal with ambiguity. The development of a general structure "clears" the field, so to speak, by providing a map of the terrain. In short, through the methods of psychology practiced as a human rather than natural science, the researcher can attain a reasonably solid, scientific platform that can also act as a framework for understanding.

Of course, it must be said that the quantitative orientation of psychology practiced as a natural science usually critiques phenomenological methods as not being sufficiently "objective". For those who understand the structure of science as a human activity, this criticism does not present a problem. For it is already understood that objectivity actually is consensual validity. The discovery of truth in science is an ongoing social activity which transcends the limitations of both time and culture. As such, objectivity is at the very heart of phenomenology. If the substance of the quantitative criticism is taken to mean that qualitative research is limited. then it is quite correct.

For example while qualitative research is unparalleled at the analysis of structure, it does suffer from the simple limitation of sample size. It is true that there are phenomenologists who feel that it should be possible to reach the structure of an experience through a careful analysis of a single instance of a phenomenon. However, most of us realize this limitation. Typically, we use small numbers of subjects, knowing full well that while each experience has its general underlying structure, this structure is lived a little differently each time it is experienced.

Most phenomenologists are familiar with more traditional methods either through prior training or the need for self-defense. Therefore, we are also very much aware of the value of quantitative findings. The measurement of the range of variation, the frequency and intensity of an experience, and the presence of the physiological aspects of human behaviors are all important and necessary. The phenomenologist's criticism of traditional psychology is not directed to the value of its methods but to the danger that quantification becomes the end and not a mesas.


The sophisticated reader will see that not only are the qualitative and quantitative approaches useful but they also hold the potential to be complementary. It is this advanced concept that became so interesting and appropriate in our work. For we found it to be possible, even necessary, to integrate qualitative descriptions of structure with quantitative information concerning frequency and variation. The result of this activity was a balanced description of the three major, interactive components of the general structure of acquiring basic computer skills for adults. These include the major learning tasks, educational context and adult experience. Let us illustrate the technique by briefly presenting how it was executed in the study (Mruk 1984):

Describing What Was Learned. The first research issue concerned identifying basic computer skills, or "computer literacy". A standard review of the literature indicated that defining computer literacy itself has become a significant problem in the field of computer education. For instance, some people argue that computer literacy should mean the ability to do programming. Others take a more liberal view, suggesting that the ability to appreciate computers constitutes a basic degree of literacy. Another group speaks about "domains" of literacy. After examining some fifty articles on the subject, we decided on the following approach. First, since computer skills and education are so new, there are few facts, established-standards or other sources of empirical information concerning the nature of computer literacy. Therefore, the articles themselves were treated as data: they were viewed as a source of information concerning the phenomenon.

Next, the articles were examined for empirical regularities. Those that seemed to have the same perspective concerning what kinds of skills were necessary to achieve "computer literacy" were considered as a group, suggesting a "type" or school of thought. In this sense our activity resembles a form of "content analysis". However, the next step involved using phenomenological methods to analyze the regularities in terms of their underlying structure. The result was the identification of four major types of computer literacy; the particular kinds of skills that distinguish each; and a description of their relationships to one another. In turn, these activities sensitized us to the general structure of the learning process that one must experience to achieve any particular type or degree of literacy.

Describing Bow The Learning . Since we were also concerned with developing teaching and learning suggestions for adults and their teachers, the structure of the educational context of acquiring computer skills was also important. Data sources for this phase of the research included articles on educational techniques and formats currently being used to teach computer skills to adults, the examination of text books, discussion with teachers of computer skills, and the observation of several classroom and learning situations.

When the same procedures were applied to analyze these data, it was found that there are two basic learning pathways (the academic and training routes) that adults travel in order to learn how to use computers. Likewise, it was also found that within this general orderliness, there were also four types of teaching models that were most commonly used. The results of the descriptive activities included a first articulation of the general structure of computer education for adults. In other words, once we found the major types of computer literacy or skills, as well as the major teaching models, settings, and learning pathways, it became possible to describe the whole configuration. The result was a rough or "working" general structure of what adults learn in acquiring computer skills of all types, and how they learn.

The Who Of The Experience. The working structure provided the background for the final research activity. Once the "what" and "how" of the phenomenon became apparent, it was time to focus on the experience of the individual adult learner. The final research activity may also raise a few phenomenological eyebrows, a response we have, no doubt, already elicited from their traditionally oriented quantitative counterparts. After a lengthy review of the adult learning literature and the psychology of the human-computer interface (so called "user psychology"), we found that little work had been done researching the experience of average, i.e. nonspecialized (Gilbert 1984), adults. Almost nothing was to be found on researching the experience of such adults as they were actually involved in the process of learning to do programming for professionals; how children learn to use a computer; and even on introductory level college courses for non-computer science majors. More recently, there is some evidence that this situation is changing in a favorable direction for adults (Harris and Anderson 1984).

In order to make the most widely applicable and efficient recommendations, our primary aim in researching the "who" of the structure was to identify the most significant adult learning patterns and needs- We found the survey to be among the standard tools for researching the human-computer interface (qualitative description and behavioral measurement are the other two), and decided to conduct one of our own. Surprisingly, a relevant comparison had not previously been made.Accordingly, our survey questions, which were based on our earlier work, were administered to both regular college students (age 18 to 24) in an introductory college computer course, and to a fairly equal number of adult learners (age 25 to 64) who were enrolled in a typical night school class. There were about sixty subjects in each group.

While the quantitative methods of analysis were limited to simple percentages, the procedure was useful in a number of ways. First, it allowed us to test our earlier results quantitatively. For instance, we asked participants questions concerning basic types of computer literacy or skill. Their responses helped to substantiate our findings concerning the existence of four types of computer literacy. Second, we were pleased to find that the survey surprised us. Using a larger number of subjects than generally found in qualitative studies opened the door to new insights that interview or description alone might not have reached. For instance, when asked if learning to operate a computer increased their self-esteem in any way, approximately 64% of the adults said yes, while only 40% of the regular students responded positively. The implication is that the psychological impact of acquiring computer skill could itself become a subject of interest. Finally, the results of the survey allowed us to "flesh in" our general structure, so to speak. The survey of a larger number of people allowed us to identify the most important aspects of the adult experience more easily. Since many people in our society believe in numbers, the use of even basic statistical information, speaking in terms of percentages may also increase the credibility and potential final impact of the project.


Those who are familiar with phenomenological methods might ask why we chose to focus on the experiencing subject last in our research, when the usual procedure is to begin there. The answer to this question is that unlike researching an effect like anger or making a decision, computer education is a very new human activity. In fact, this learning process did not even occur on a large scale until the advent of the microcomputer, which just appeared in the late seventies. While the contexts of other forms of experience are well understood, we are dealing with a very new area that is still emerging. Additionally, the Dace of the computer revolution is astronomical. If airplanes had been developed at the same rate as computers, today we would be flying jets that traveled over 250,000 miles on a single gallon of fuel' One implication is that even the most recent knowledge concerning computers will often be outdated before it is published.

Of course, it should be said that considerable experimentally oriented pilot work was done in the very early stages of the project. This activity included enrolling in computer courses, observing a number of teachers, and informal discussion with regular and older students. However, it was the development of a working general structure that gave the researchers a firm place to stand while examining this new, emergent kind of human activity. The initial but empirically stable platform allowed us to have a grounded, ongoing perspective and sense of direction in an otherwise extremely fluid and complex field.

Anyone who really understands phenomenological research already knows that the particular route the researcher takes depends upon his or her training, perspective, and, of course, the phenomenon itself. It is only necessary that the path be documented for others to see and evaluate for themselves. Another thing to consider is that our phenomenon showed itself as a new phenomenon; one that was genuinely emergent, or half-buried among a number of related events concerning computers, computer science, education and psychology. In other words, by combining qualitative and quantitative methods, integrated description truly enabled us to pursue the phenomenon as it "showed itself from itself". While it may have been possible to follow the descriptive trail from a small number of subjects, it certainly would have taken much more time. Although it is true that we could have tone a much more sophisticated survey and analysis, a survey alone can not hope to reveal the learning process involved in acquiring computer skills for adults.

As we move toward closure, we can say two things concerning integrated description to those who dismiss qualitative methods, or who feel alienated by our simple use of very basic quantitative methods. First, we have no desire to produce another collection of facts so discrete that they are devoid of context or meaning. Psychology has been abused by this practice long enough. The entire phenomenological tradition has already addressed these issues and the basic argument is available elsewhere e.g., Edmund Husserl's (1954) The Crisis of European Sciences and Andy Giorgi's (1970) Psychology as a Human Science are representative. Second, the practical possibilities offered by combining qualitative and quantitative methods in this way far outweigh any philosophical bias. Let us turn to a brief consideration of how this is so.


The ultimate value of any applied science like psychology is its ability to improve the quality of human life. In this case facilitating the acquisition of basic computer skills for adults was the ultimate objective. The qualitative aspect of our work allowed us to see the structure of what was being learned and how. Such things as teaching techniques, learning environments, and what kinds of educational materials were being used, which ones were seen as helpful, and what was needed or being asked for, were identified. In short, because our description included both qualitative and quantitative information, we were better able to develop concrete research, teaching, learning and policy making suggestions that were firmly situated within the structure of learning computer skills.

Earlier we saw that one chief value of the qualitative work was the development of a general structure to organize information. Likewise, a survey of the specific target population in the actual learning situation, gave us a sense of priorities for adult learners. The integration of basic qualitative and quantitative descriptive methods into one technique allowed us to make practical recommendations to the areas of greatest need, and highest potential return. For instance, we were able to target aspects of computer educating adults that seem most viable in the competition for state or federal funding. Private sector applications include such possibilities as identifying areas of the greatest market potential for publishing companies that write textbooks, or for computer manufacturers and dealers interested in meeting the hardware and software needs of this large, growing market.

In short, the final value of developing an integrated description is that it is eminently practical. The teaching, learning, and policy making suggestions that we developed were designed not only to enhance the learner's movement through the learning structure, but also to further our suggestions through the highly competitive worlds of public sector funding and through the even more highly selective private sector or market situational Practically speaking, the research dialectic that arises by integrating an appreciation of quantity into the qualitative framework of the phenomenological perspective takes the work much further than it could otherwise go. Being phenomenologically oriented, we definitely have a preference for qualitative research. However, there can be no doubt those who work from the quantitative perspective would also benefit from the balance that would be created by building in a concern for the qualitative. In either case, it is the integration of methods into a single technique, and not mere combination, that we emphasize here for its descriptive power and practical utility.


Cross, Patricia K. (1981), Adults as Learners, San Francisco: Josey-Bass.

Mruk, Christopher J. (1984), "Facilitating The Acquisition of Basic Computer Skills for Adults", U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Grant # 90PD10056.

Gilbert, Steven W. (1984) "First Year Reflections" Computer Literacy Project. Princeton: EDUCOM.

Giorgi, Amedeo (1970), Psychology as A Human Science, New York: Harper & Row.

Guvlette, David G., Editor (1182), Microcomputers for Adult Education. New York: Cambridge.

Harris, Linda and Anderson, Ronald E. (1984) "Computer Learning and The Public Need", SCSR Technical Report, Minneapolis: Minnesota Center for Social Research.

Heidegger, Martin (1962), Being and Time, New York: Harper and Row.

Husserl, Edmund (1954), The Crisis of EuroPean Science and Transcendental Phenomenology, Evanston: Northwestern University Press.



Christopher J. Mruk, St. Francis College


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 12 | 1985

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