What is Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (IPA)?

This article examines what Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (IPA) is and what it is used to explore.

Acknowledgements

This material was primarily drawn from:

Both editions of Smith, Flowers & Larkin (2009; 2022). Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis: Theory, Method, Research. London: Sage

Smith, J.A., & Nizza, I.E. (2021). Essentials of Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association

Plus, many other theoretical journal articles on IPA. Please see the reference list at the end of the post for further reading.

What IPA is not

Well first off, IPA is not a particular type of beer with a cult following…at least, not in this context…

Where did IPA originate?

It is a relatively recently developed (Smith, 1996) experiential qualitative research methodology (yes, it is a methodology as opposed to simply just a method – more on this at a later date, I promise!) developed by Professor Jonathan Smith at Birkbeck, University of London.

IPA originated in psychology (Prof Smith specialises in the area of health psychology) and has been adopted widely across a range of different applied psychologies such as health, clinical, counselling, occupational and educational.

You name it, we’ve used it to research human lived experience.

It has also proved popular in other social and health sciences such as allied health professions including nursing, physio, OT, social work etc.

Over the years it has been adopted in a variety of other disciplines. For example, management, education, music, film, fashion, architecture, sport science – the list goes on.


IPA is committed to the examination of how people make sense of their major life experiences and thus explores a concern with ‘the human predicament’ (Smith et al., 2022, p. 3).

The main objective of Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (IPA)

The main objective of IPA is to get as close as possible to the lived experience of participants so that we can examine it in detail.

Broadly, we aim to gain insight into what it is like to have an experience from the point of view of the person having the experience.

We therefore gather rich descriptions from people (most often verbally) and try to access and gain an understanding of the emotions associated with the experience and how the person relates to it, makes sense of it, and understands it.

People tend to reflect on the significance of what is happening when they engage with an experience of something important or major in their lives and it is these reflections that we engage with for our IPA analysis.

Thus, the personal meanings associated with that experience are essential in IPA PLUS how that experience relates to that person’s worldview and their relationships. This is what we might call ‘sense making’.

In IPA, we explore experience in its own terms, rather than trying to ‘fix experiences in predefined or overly abstract categories’ (Smith et al., 2022, p.1). IPA is therefore what we might describe as a bottom-up approach in that we do not apply top-down categories to the data in order to perform our analysis – we work from the data up, keeping it truly participant-centred.


In summary, IPA is interested in:
Personal lived experience
The meaning of the experience to the participant AND how they make sense of that experience
We therefore explore ‘experience in its own terms’ (Smith et al., 2022, p.1)

However, we need to note and remember that:

While IPA is experientially focused, it does not (and cannot) claim to examine pure experience divorced from our participant’s sense-making. IPA’s stance concedes that there is no direct route or access to experience – we cannot look directly into someone’s mind and see or hear how they are experiencing something. Thus, we are really looking to get experience close with our IPA, as opposed to experience far, as this is the best we can manage.

In this case, we are looking at people as meaning makers in a Heideggerian sense and the meaning bestowed by the participant on an experience can be said to represent the experience itself (Smith et al., 2009, p.33; 2022, p.27). In other words, we aim to understand a person’s relatedness to the world through the meanings that they make of it and then relay to us, the researcher.

As humans, we are inherently sense-making beings and the account or narrative provided by a participant to you the researcher will reflect their attempts to make sense of their experience. This makes IPA an interpretative endeavour and ties it strongly to hermeneutics.

In addition, we the researcher are intimately involved in this process as we ourselves function as a filter or mediator of that experience.

If you think about it, our access to that experience will always depend upon what we are told about that experience – in the very act of relaying that experience to us, our participant is interpreting it already. And we will then, in turn, interpret what we are hearing from our participants in order to try and understand it ourselves.

This, my friends, is what is referred to as the double hermeneutic: it is our interpretation of their interpretation of their experience and our sense-making of their sense-making of that experience.

An IPA analysis of a participant’s account of an experience or phenomenon requires the researcher to engage in a systematic, deliberate, and mindful application of the very same reflective approach and skills that the participant has adopted in telling us their story. As such, IPA analysis demands a rigorous and methodical process of engagement and interpretation from the researcher, and this also ties IPA firmly to a hermeneutic standpoint.

What value can an IPA study add?

Given its idiographic and bottom-up nature, IPA offers the opportunity to achieve a close and detailed understanding of what an experience has been like for someone and how that person makes sense of it.

IPA can also shed light on any ambiguity and tension in peoples’ reactions to their significant experiences, reflecting the nature and complexity of human experience and potentially informing our understanding of important processes, life events, transitions, and interventions.

References and recommended reading

There is a monster list of basic theoretical texts and articles that you should be reading for your IPA study, and I itemise what I consider to be the absolute bare minimum here.

No brainers and not to be missed out:

Both editions of Smith, Flowers & Larkin (2009; 2022). Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis: Theory, Method, Research. London: Sage


Smith, J.A., & Nizza, I.E. (2021). Essentials of Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association

Essential journal articles:

Smith, J.A. (1996). Beyond the divide between cognition and discourse: Using interpretative phenomenological analysis in health psychology. Psychology and Health, 11, 261-271.


Smith, J.A. (2004). Reflecting on the development of interpretative phenomenological analysis and its contribution to qualitative psychology. Qualitative Research in Psychology, 1, 39-54.


Smith, J.A. (2007). Hermeneutics, human sciences and health: Linking theory and practice. International Journal of Qualitative Studies on Health and Well-being, 2, 3-11. Note: this article is open access – yay!


Smith, J.A. (2011). ‘We could be diving for pearls’: The value of the gem in experiential qualitative psychology. QMiP Bulletin, Issue 12, October 2011


Smith, J.A. (2019). Participant and researchers searching for meaning: Conceptual developments for interpretative phenomenological analysis. Qualitative Research in Psychology, 16 (2), 166-181

Top Tip for wading through these journal articles:

I advise taking the time to read the above journal articles in chronological order and in succession. Adopting this approach, you can see the progression and development of Prof Smith’s theoretical ideas about IPA across what is now nearly two decades!

Do you want to learn more about the theoretical underpinnings for IPA and how you can situate your IPA study firmly in these? Well, you are in exactly the right place, and need to book onto my Situating IPA: applying IPA’s theoretical underpinnings to your research study workshop!

I do hope this article has been helpful to you in clarifying what IPA is and what it hopes to examine.

Wishing you all the best for research success!

Until next time
With IPA-laden best wishes,
Elena

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