Phenomenographic Research

This is a summary and details from one article on the reading list for the 6511 Self-Directed Learning course. This is my external memory bank of readings that I may wish to reference in my dissertation.

Akerlind, G. (2018). What future for phenomenographic research? On continuity and development in the phenomenography and variation theory tradition. Scandinavian Journal of Educational Research, 62(6), 949-958.

Four Sentence Summary:

Akerlind explains the differences between phenomenographic theory and research with variation learning theory and research, claiming that the relationship between phenomenography and variation theory is not an either/or, or even one-over-the-other, but that these theoretical and research approaches are “inherently intertwined” (p. 957). Since variation theory “grew out of phenomenography, and they share a common theoretical framework and underlying epistemological and ontological assumptions” (p. 957), Akerlind outlines an argument to respond to questions surrounding the future of phenomenographic theoretical development and research, such as “Has phenomenographic theory been transcended by variation theory?” (p. 952) and “Has phenomenography as a research approach been transcended by variation theory as a research approach?” (p. 954). Akerlind addresses these questions in order to respond to a critique presented by Rovio-Johansson and Ingerman (2016) suggesting that, since there is an absence of ongoing theoretical and methodological developments in phenomenography, the field is phenomenography is complete and finalized, as well as surpassed by the field of variation theory. By examining the relationships between phenomenography and variation theory, Akerlind provides an updated view of both fields and the research foci within each, along with a call to action for renewed collection of research and writing based on innovations conducted by doctoral candidates and leading researchers in the field of phenomenography.

EXPLANATION: “Marton and Booth’s (1997) theory of the role played by variation in the experience of a phenomenon, and in explaining different understanding of the same phenomenon, led to a shift in the practice of phenomenographic research. Previously, the aim of phenomenographic research had been to unpack the different ways of understanding a phenomenon within a sample group. Now, additional analysis became expected in the form of simultaneously unpacking the different component parts of the phenomenon, as experienced with the sample group, and how different patterns of awareness of some component parts and lack of awareness of others is associated with the different ways of understanding the phenomenon found within the group. These new expectations added substantial additional analytic complexity to phenomenographic research.” (p. 950)


Phenomenography theory and research:

  • “Phenomenographic research focuses on unpacking the variations in holistic understandings of a concept and how different patterns of awareness and nonawareness of component parts leads to variation in holistic understandings. (p. 951)
  • “… questions underlying phenomenographic research, “What are the qualitatively different ways in which people experience various phenomena in the world?” became enhanced by the additional questions, “What critical aspects of phenomena must be discerned in order to experience them in those different ways?” (p. 951)
  • “… phenomenographic focus on awareness more generally” … “phenomenography is a theory of awareness” (p. 954)
  • “… phenomenography famously espouses a “second-order perspective” to research, that is, investigating the world as experienced by people, and contrasts this with “first-order perspectives” that is, investigating the world as it truly is, taken by more positivist approaches (citation omitted here)” (p. 954)
  • “phenomenography is more global” (p. 955)
  • “The data source for phenomenographic research has traditionally been the semi-structured interview (Marton & Booth, 1997). However, numerous innovations with collection of phenomenographic data have also occurred, for example combining interviews with use of photographs (Collier-Reed, 2006), concept maps (Yu, in preparation), and gestures (Herbert & Pierce, 2013, as cited in Tight, 2016).” (p. 956)

Variation theory and research:

  • “Variation theory research takes the next pedagogical step of first investigating and then manipulating (using “learning studies”) students’ exposure to variation in phenomena and component parts of phenomena, followed by measuring the outcomes of this exposure in terms of the resulting sophistication of students’ understanding of disciplinary concepts” (p. 951) (my question – why does this sound like action research; how do they compare)
  • “Meanwhile, variation theory research became directed towards questions of pedagogical design, “How are students’ learning outcomes influenced by exposure to different patterns of variation in the critical aspects of disciplinary phenomena?” (p. 951) (my thought – does this relate to SoTL? If so, how? Or even the burgeoning field of instructional design?)
  • “… those engaged in variation theory research have subsequently gone on to: (1) draw a clear distinction in pedagogical situations between the “intended”, the “enacted”, and the “experienced” object of learning, and (2) elaborate what is theoretically needed to maximize students’ chances of discerning variation when it is present: “contrast”, “generalization”, “separation”, and “fusion” (Marton, Runesson, & Tsui, 2004).” (p. 952)
  • “variation theory distinctions have arisen out of the theory’s focus on learning” … “variation theory is a theory of learning” (p. 954)
  • “variation theory research … returns to an externalised first-order perspective in their research questions, for example “Do lessons designed and taught according to the principles of variation theory lead to more complete understandings of disciplinary concepts?” (p. 954)
  • “variation theory research is still largely limited to its originating countries” Sweden, Hong Kong (p. 955)
  • “variation theory research is empirically dependent on preceding phenomenographic investigation” … “Without awareness of the critical aspects that constitute a disciplinary appropriate understanding of the concept, there can be no variation theory study…” (p. 955)

CRITICAL POINT: “Similarly, the strategies of contrast, generalization, separation, and fusion reflect the phenomenographic emphasis on part-whole relationships in our awareness of phenomena.” … “The four strategies also reflect Marton and Booth’s (1997) description of internal and external horizons of awareness: “…to experience something in a particular way, not only do we have to discern it from its context [external horizon] …. But we also have to discern its parts, the way they relate to each other, and the way that they relate to the whole [internal horizon] (p. 87)”. Discernment of the external horizon is clearly related to the idea of contrast. Whilst generalisation, separation, and fusion relate to discernment that form the internal horizon of awareness.” (p. 953)