An introduction to Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis

introduction to Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis


Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (IPA) is an increasingly popular approach to qualitative inquiry and essentially an attempt to understand how participants experience and make meaning of their world. Although not to be confused with the now ubiquitous style of beer with the same initials (India Pale Ale), Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis is similarly accused of being too frequently and imperfectly brewed (Hefferon and Gil-Rodriguez 2011).

While you will often see it described as a ‘method’ or even an analytical approach, I believe it is better described as more akin to an epistemology, with its own philosophical concepts of explaining the world. Like grounded theory, it has also grown into a bounded approach in its own right, with a certain group of methodologies and analytical techniques which are assumed as the ‘right’ way of doing IPA.

At its heart, interpretative phenomenological analysis is an approach to examining data that tries to see what is important to the participant, how they interpret and view their own lives and experiences. This in itself is not ground-breaking in qualitative studies, however the approach originally grew from psychology, where a distinct psychological interpretation of how the participant perceives their experiences was often applied. So note that while IPA doesn’t stand for Interpretative Psychological Analysis, it could well do.

To understand the rationale for this approach, it is necessary to engage with some of the philosophical underpinnings, and understand two concepts: phenomenology, and hermeneutics. You could boil this down such that:

   1. Things happen (phenomenology)

   2. We interpret this into something that makes sense to us (hermeneutics - from the Greek word for translate)

Building on the shoulders of the Greek thinkers, two 20th century philosophers are often invoked in describing IPA: Husserl and Heidegger. From Husserl we get the concept of all interpretation coming from objects in an external world, and thus the need for ‘bracketing’ our internal assumptions to differentiate what comes from, or can describe, our consciousness. The focus here is on the individual processes of perception and awareness (Larkin 2013). Heidegger introduces the concept of ‘Dasein’ which means ‘there-being’ in German: we are always embedded and engaged in the world. This asks wider questions of what existence means (existentialism) and how we draw meaning to the world.

I’m not going to pretend I’ve read ‘Being and Time‘ or ‘Ideas’ so don’t take my third hand interpretations for granted. However, I always recommend students read Nausea by Sartre, because it is a wonderful novel which is as much about procrastination as it is about existentialism and the perception of objects. It’s also genuinely funny, and you can find Sartre mocking himself and his philosophy with surrealist lines like: “I do not think, therefore I am a moustache”.

Applying all this philosophy to research, we consider looking for significant events in the lives of the people we are studying, and trying to infer through their language how they interpret and make meaning of these events. However, IPA also takes explicit notice of the reflexivity arguments we have discussed before: we can’t dis-embody ourselves (as interpreters) from our own world. Thus, it is important to understand and ‘bracket’ our own assumptions about the world (which are based on our interpretation of phenomenon) from those of the respondent, and IPA is sometimes described as a ‘double hermeneutic’ of both the researcher and participant.

These concepts do not have to lead you down one particular methodological path, but in practice projects intending to use IPA should generally have small sample sizes (perhaps only a few cases), be theoretically open, exploratory rather than testing existing hypotheses, and with a focus on experience. So a good example research question might be ‘How do people with disabilities experience using doctor surgeries?’ rather than ‘Satisfaction with a new access ramp in a GP practice’. In the former example you would also be interested in how participants frame their struggles with access – does it make them feel limited? Angry that they are excluded?

So IPA tends to lead itself to very small, purposive sampling of people who will share a certain experience. This is especially because it usually implies very close reading of the data, looking for great detail in how people describe their experiences – not just a line-by-line reading, but sometimes also reading between the lines. For appropriate methodologies then, focus groups, interviews and participant diaries are frequently applied. Hefferon and Gil-Rodriguez (2011) note that students often try and sample too many people, and ask too many questions. IPA should be very focused on a small number of relevant experiences.

When it comes to interpretation and analysis, a bottom-up, inductive coding approach is often taken. While this should not be confused with the theory building aims of grounded theory, the researcher should similarly try and park or bracket their own pre-existing theories, and let the participant’s data suggest the themes. Thematic analysis is usually applied in an iterative approach where many initial themes are created, and gradually grouped and refined, within and across sources.

Usually this entails line-by-line coding, where each sentence from the transcript is given a short summary or theme – essentially a unique code for every line focusing on the phenomena being discussed (Larking, Watts and Clifton – 2006). Later would come grouping and creating a structure from the themes, either by iterating the process and coding the descriptive themes to a higher level, or having a fresh read though the data.

A lot of qualitative software packages can struggle with this kind of approach, as they are usually designed to manage a relatively small number of themes, rather than one for each line in every source. Quirkos has definitely struggled to work well for this type of analysis, and although we have some small tweaks in the imminent release (v1.5) that will make this bearable for users, it will not be until the full memo features are included in v1.6 that this will really be satisfactory. However, it seems that most users of line-by-line coding and this method of managing IPA use spreadsheet software (so they can have columns for the transcript, summary, subordinate and later superordinate themes) or a word-processor utilising the comment features.


However you approach the analysis, the focus should be on the participant’s own interpretation and meaning of their experiences, and you should be able to craft a story for the reader when writing up that connects the themes you have identified to the way the participant describes the phenomenon of interest.

I’m not going to go much into the limitations of the approach here, suffice it to say that you are obviously limited to understanding participant’s meanings of the world through something like the one-dimensional transcript of an interview. What they are willing to share, and how they articulate may not be the complete picture, and other approaches such as discourse analysis may be revealing. Also, make sure that it is really participant’s understandings of experiences you want to examine. It posits a very deep ‘walk two moons in their moccasins‘ approach that is not right for boarder research questions, perhaps when wanting to contrast the broad opinions of a more diverse sample. Brew your IPA right: know what you want to make, use the right ingredients, have patience in the maturation process, and keep tasting as you go along.

As usual, I want to caution the reader against taking anything from my crude summary of IPA as being gospel, and suggest a true reading of the major texts in the field are essential before deciding if this is the right approach for you and your research. I have assembled a small list of references below that should serve as a primer, but there is much to read, and as always with qualitative epistemologies, a great deal of variety of opinion in discourse, theory and application!



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Biggerstaff, D. L. & Thompson, A. R. (2008). Qualitative Research in Psychology 5: 173 – 183.

Hefferson, K., Gil_Rodriguez, E., 2011, Methods: Interpretative phenomenological analysis, October 2011, The Psychologist, 24, pp.756-759

Heidegger, M. ( 1962). Being and time (J. Macquarrie & E. Robinson, Trans.). Oxford, UK: Blackwell. (Original work published 1927)

Husserl, E. ( 1931). Ideas: A general introduction to pure phenomenology (W.R. Boyce Gibson, Trans.). London, UK: Allen & Unwin.

IPARG (The Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis Research Group) at Birkbeck college

Larkin, M., Watts, S., & Clifton, E. 2006. Giving voice and making sense in interpretative phenomenological analysis. Qualitative Research in Psychology, 3, 102-120.

Larkin, M., 2013, Interpretative phenomenological analysis - introduction, [accessed online]

Smith, J., Jarman, M. & Osborn, M. (1999). Doing interpretative phenomenological analysis. In M. Murray & K. Chamberlain (Eds.) Qualitative health psychology, London: Sage.

Smith J., Flowers P., Larkin M., 2009, Interpretative phenomenological analysis: theory, method and research, London: Sage.



An overview of qualitative methods

There are a lot of different ways to collect qualitative data, and this article just provides a brief summary of some of the main methods used in qualitative research. Each one is an art in its own right, with various different techniques, definitions, approaches and proponents.

More on each one will follow in later articles, and it’s worth remembering that these need to be paired with the right questions, sampling, and analysis to get good results.


Possibly the richest, and most powerful tool: talking to someone directly. The classic definition is “conversations with a purpose“, the idea being that there is something you are interested in, you ask questions about it, and someone gives useful responses.

There are many different styles for example how structured your questions are (this paper has a wonderful and succinct overview in the introduction). These can range from a rigid script where you ask the same questions every time, or completely open discussion, where the researcher and respondent have freedom to shape the conversation. A common middle ground are semi-structured interviews, which often have a topic guide, listing particualar issues to discuss, but will allow questions for clarification, or to follow up on an interesting tangent.

Participant Observation

Often the remit of ethnography or sociology, participant observation usually involves watching, living or even participating in the daily life of research subjects. However, it can also involve just watching people in a certain setting, such as a work meeting, or using a supermarket.

This is probably the most time intensive and potentially problematic method, as it can involve weeks or even years of placement for a researcher, often on their own. However, it does produce some of the richest data, as well as a level of depth that can really help explain complex issues. This chapter is a fine starting point.

Focus groups

A common method used in market research, where a researcher leads a group discussion on a particular topic. However, it is also a powerful tool for social researchers, especially when looking at group dynamics, or the reactions of particular groups of people. It’s obviously important to consider who is chosen for the group, and how the interactions of people in the group affect the outcome (although this might be what you are looking for).

It’s usually a quicker and cheaper way of gauging many reactions and opinions, but requires some skill in the facilitator to make sure everyone’s voice is being heard, and that people stay on track. Also a headache for any transcribers who have to identify different voices from muffled audio recordings!

Participant Diaries

Getting people to write a diary for a research project is a very useful tool, and is commonly used in looking at taboo behaviours such as drug use or sexuality, not just because researchers don’t have to ask difficult questions face-to-face, but that data can be collected over a long period of time. If you are trying to find out how often a particular behaviour occurs, a daily or weekly record is likely to be more accurate than asking someone in a single interview (as in the studies above).

There are other benefits to the diary method: not least that the participant is in control. They can share as much or as little as they like, and only on topics they wish to. It can also be theraputic for some people, and is more time flexible. Diaries can be paper based, electronic, or even on a voice recorder if there are literacy concerns. However, researchers will probably need to talk to people at the beginning and end of the process, and give regular reminders.


Probably one of the most common qualitative methods are the open ended questions on surveys, usually by post, on-line, or ‘guided’ by someone with a clipboard. Common challenges here are

  • Encouraging people to write more than one word, but less than an essay
  • Setting questions carefully so they are clear, but not leading
  • Getting a good response rate and
  • Knowing who has and hasn’t responded

The final challenge is to make sure the responses are useful, and integrating them with the rest of the project, especially quantitative data.

Field notes

Sometimes the most overlooked, but most vaulable source of information can be the notes and field diaries of researchers themselves. These can include not just where and when people did interviews or observations, but crucial context, like the people who refused to take part, and whether a interviewee was nervous. It need not just be for ethnographers doing long field work, it can be very helpful in organising thoughts and work in smaller projects with multiple researchers.

As part of a reflexive method, it might contain comments and thoughts from the researcher, so there can be a risk of autobiographical overindulgence. It is also not easy to integrate ‘data’ from a research diary with other sources of information when writing up a project for a particular output.


This is just a whistle-stop introduction, but more on each of these to follow…