#35 Psychedelic Session IPA: refreshing or too avant-garde?

Interpretive Phenomenological Analysis: Theory, Method and Research by Smith, Flowers, and Larkin, pages 1-118, 177-206

Why did I read this book? Ok, I’m not saying this sarcastically even though it sounds that way. I read Smith, Flowers, and Larkin’s (2009) book on Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (IPA) because some psychedelic researchers have used this qualitative method in their studies, such as Turton et al (2014) regarding psilocybin and Schenberg et al (2017) regarding ibogaine. I was wondering whether we should use IPA in my upcoming collaborative neurophenomenological study on iboga. I don’t think we should and here’s why:

I have nothing against hermeneutical phenomenology, in fact, I’ll likely use it one day in my own books on the topic of decoding the iboga experience; however, our upcoming study isn’t about interpretation. It is a descriptive project, not a sense-making one. I’m not interested in making sense of what I or others experience during iboga experiences, at least not at present. What interests me is pure description in an Husserlian phenomenological manner. Before any interpretation can happen, the academic community must get lots of pure descriptions of the iboga experience from past books and modern research studies. For this reason, I’m not considering Max van Manen’s (1990, 2016) hermeneutical approach to phenomenology either, however, I do like the “how to” portions of his books that teach readers how to think and write phenomenologically, which in my opinion is a significant contribution to the field, especially to novice phenomenologists.

You might suggest I use Amadeo Giorgi’s approach. Of the applied phenomenology methods Dan Zahavi (2019) discusses (e.g. Giorgi; van Manen; Smith)—I consider Zahavi to be Husserl’s bulldog (note: this is a compliment), he prefers Giorgi’s phenomenological psychology because it adheres more closely to Husserl’s original project. Giorgi’s (2009) method is descriptive like Husserl wanted phenomenology to be, but it requires that study participants remain phenomenologically naïve, that is, the participant’s role is merely to provide the written transcript of a particular lived experience and then the researcher applies the phenomenological reduction to the text, and refraining from interpreting participants’ experiences as van Manen’s and Smith’s methods would do. Out of the three methods listed above, Giorgi’s is descriptive, and I think our research is going to be descriptive above all else. However, the participant is to remain naïve according to Giorgi’s method, and this is impossible for our study because I, the researcher, am going to take the substance and report and phenomenologically reflect upon the iboga experience in my analysis.

Other methods I don’t think we should use are micro-phenomenology because again, I won’t be able to interview myself, I cannot coax out qualitative data out of myself; perhaps I could, but not in an interview format. I see value in all the methods I address here, but the one that I’m leaning toward is what Lutz et al (2002) did for their study: not necessarily to train participants in phenomenological principles, but to guide participants a particular way to make them more reflective and able to report on their experiences in a highly effective manner. This seems to be the best method for a self-experimentation study of psychedelics. As far as I can tell, one of the most important aspects of a phenomenology research is to find themes and theme clusters, or “super-ordinate” themes as Smith et al (2009) call them. I do like IPA’s use of participant comments peppered throughout Discussion sections, common for IPA research papers; I think it adds weight and validity to the overall arguments of the paper. I also like IPA’s use of small case studies; even one-person studies are possible with IPA. Turton et al (2014) briefly mentioned at the end of their paper that roughly 15 participants were too many for an IPA study, and after reading Smith et al’s (2009) book, I agree.

I think the best way forward for our upcoming research project is to stay as close as possible to Husserl’s descriptive phenomenology, avoid interpretation, and allow for greater abstract analysis regarding previously discovered themes and new ones that arise as we focus on a couple of core themes about the iboga visionary experience explicated in Heink et al (2017) and Schenberg et al (2017). You might be thinking that researchers self-experimenting with psychedelics is subjectively too close, too biased, and not enough objectivity there. I disagree, but I will hold this stream of thought for another post and/or research article in which I will advocate for more researcher self-experimentation with psychedelics, at the very least in their private lives so they know where to look during their participant studies and which questions to ask.

Also, to keep in mind: all of the methods I mention are valid in their own right and I think it’s inevitable that phenomenology will evolve and perhaps change into something else completely one day. You must ask what your research’s purpose and questions are, and only then will you know which method is right for you.

Final note: for people new to phenomenology, Smith et al’s (2009) Chapter 2 on the theoretical foundations of IPA is a good, brief introduction to phenomenology and several of its main contributors, albeit they draw more heavily from hermeneutical phenomenology thinkers, so keep that in mind when you’re reading. For introductions to phenomenology that I’ve found helpful, see Dan Zahavi’s and Dermot Moran’s books for example.

Giorgi, A. (2009). The Descriptive Phenomenological Method in Psychology: A Modified Husserlian Approach. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: Duquesne University Press.

Heink, A., Katsikas, S., & Lange-Altman, T. (2017). Examination of the Phenomenology of the Ibogaine Treatment Experience: Role of Altered States of Consciousness and Psychedelic Experiences. Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, 49(3), 201-208.

Lutz, A., Lachaux, J. P., Martinerie, J., & Varela, F. J. (2002). Guiding the study of brain dynamics by using first-person data: Synchrony patterns correlate with ongoing conscious states during a simple visual task. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 99(3), 1586-1591.

van Manen, M. (1990). Researching Lived Experience: Human Science for an Action Sensitive Pedagogy. State University of New York Press.

van Manen, M. (2016). Phenomenology of Practice: Meaning-Giving Methods in Phenomenological Research and Writing. Routledge.

Moran, D. (2000). Introduction to Phenomenology. Routledge.

Schenberg, E. E., de Castro Comis, M. A., Alexandre, J. F. M., Tófoli, L. F., Chaves, B. D. R., & da Silveira, D. X. (2017). A phenomenological analysis of the subjective experience elicited by ibogaine in the context of a drug dependence treatment. Journal of Psychedelic Studies, 1(2), 74-83.

Smith, J. A., Flowers, P., Larkin, M. (2009). Interpretive Phenomenological Analysis: Theory, Method and Research. SAGE Publications.

Turton, S., Nutt, D. J., & Carhart-Harris, R. L. (2014). A Qualitative Report on the Subjective Experience of Intravenous Psilocybin Administered in an fMRI Environment. Current Drug Abuse Reviews, 7(2), 117-127.

Zahavi, D. (2019). Phenomenology: The Basics. Routledge.

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