Phenomenography is a qualitative research methodology, within the interpretivist paradigm, that investigates the qualitatively different ways in which people experience something or think about something. Phenomenography, an approach to educational research that appeared in publications in the early 1980s, initially emerged from an empirical rather than theoretical or philosophical basis.
Phenomenography's ontological assumptions are subjectivist: The world exists and different people construe it in different ways; and with a non-dualist viewpoint: There is only one world, one that is ours, and one that people experience in many different ways. Phenomenography's research object has the character of knowledge; therefore the ontological assumptions also become the epistemological assumptions. The emphasis is on description, implying an assumption about the importance of and the need for description. The importance is related to an understanding of knowledge as a matter of meaning and similarities and differences in meaning. Starting with a description follows from the assumption that, in the case of conceptions, these form both the results of and conditions for human activity, and clarification is dependent upon focusing on the meaning of the conceptions themselves. The object of study is not the phenomenon per se, but the relationships between the actors and the phenomenon.
A phenomenographic analysis seeks a "description, analysis, and understanding of ... experiences". The focus is on variation: variation in both the perceptions of the phenomenon as experienced by the actor, and in the "ways of seeing something" as experienced and described by the researcher. This is described as phenomenography's "theory of variation". Phenomenography allows the researcher to use their own experiences as data for phenomenographic analysis. Phenomenography aims for a collective analysis of individual experiences.
Phenomenography is not phenomenology. Both phenomenography and phenomenology have human experience as its object; however, phenomenology is a philosophical method, with the philosopher engaged in investigating their own experience. Phenomenographers, on the other hand, adopt an empirical orientation, and then investigate the experience of others. The focus of interpretive phenomenology is the essence of the phenomenon, whereas the focus of phenomenography is the essence of the experiences and subsequent perceptions of the phenomenon. Data collection methods typically include close interviews with a small, purposive sample with the researcher "working toward an articulation of the interviewee’s reflections on experience that is as complete as possible".
A phenomenographic data analysis sorts these perceptions, which emerge from the data collected, into specific 'categories of description'. The set of categories of description is sometimes referred to as an 'outcome space'. These categories (and the underlying structure) become the phenomenographic essence of the phenomenon. They are the primary outcomes, and the most important result of phenomenographic research. Phenomenographic categories are logically related to one another, typically by way of hierarchically inclusive relationships  although linear and branched relationships can also occur. That which varies between different categories of description is known as the 'dimensions of variation'. The process of phenomenographic analysis is strongly iterative and comparative and involves the continual sorting and resorting of data and ongoing comparisons between data and the developing categories of description, as well as between the categories themselves.
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