Introduction to Phenomenography

Written By: 
Jane Costello, PhD, Memorial University of Newfoundland
Professor Marguerite Koole, PhD, University of Saskatchewan
Kari Ramussen, M.A., PhD Candidate,  University of Alberta  

Phenomenography seeks to answer questions such as ‘What are the different ways of experiencing a phenomenon?’ Largely popular in education research in Europe and Australia, phenomenography is little known here in North America. It originally was developed by a research group in the Department of Education, University of Gothenburg, in Sweden; the word phenomenography was coined in 1979 and appeared in print for the first time two years later (Marton, 1981). Since this time, it has evolved into several approaches, each of which focuses on the variation of human experience relating to a phenomenon.

Although sometimes mistakenly referred to as a lesser sibling to phenomenology, phenomenography is rooted in a different underlying philosophy. Based upon variation theory, it is used to explore the qualitatively different ways others experience a given phenomenon. Researchers are concerned with the nature of awareness and discernment. Using a second-order perspective wherein the experience as described by the participant is relayed it focuses on “constituting a structure of meaning” (Ǻkerlind, 2005).

Phenomenography employs method-specific approaches to data gathering, analysis, and portrayal of results. Interviews are the primary method of data collection wherein an understanding of the participants’ experience is constructed through dialogic interviews with the researcher. Analysis involves an iterative process of reading, coding, memoing, sorting, and identification of categories of description. During this activity, the researcher attempts to bracket, or put aside, her assumptions about the phenomenon to focus on what the participants’ are saying. Phenomenographic studies typically result in an outcome space mapping these conceptions across a population; they do not define an individual. This outcome space attempts to relay an understanding of how the participants’ conceptions are related to each other structurally and referentially and are often presented in a hierarchical structure. The results of this type of qualitative research are viewed as categories of conceptions of phenomena.

Phenomenography is useful for summarizing a collective experience of a group of individuals who all shared the same experience. For some, it is a precursor to further research or decisions making.

Ǻkerlind, G. (2005). Learning about phenomenography: Interviewing, data analysis and the qualitative research paradigm. In J. Bowden & P. Green (Eds.), Qualitative research methods series (Melbourne). Doing developmental phenomenography (pp. 63-74). Melbourne: RMIT University Press.
Marton, F. (1981). Phenomenography- describing conceptions of the world around us. Instructional Science, 10, 177-200.

Phenomenography Resources
-Bowden, J. A., & Walsh, E. (2000). Phenomenography (p. 154). Melbourne, Australia: RMIT Publishing. Retrieved from
-Dortins, E. (2002). Reflections on phenomenographic process: Interview, transcription and analysis. In Higher Education Research & Development Society of Australasia Conference 10 February, 2002 (pp. 207–213). Perth, Western Australia.
-Entwistle, N. (1997). Introduction: Phenomenography in Higher Education. Higher Education Research & Development, 16(2), 127–134. doi:
-Marton, F., & Säljö, R. (1976). On qualitative differences in learning: I–outcome and process. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 46, 4–11.
-Marton, F., & Booth, S. (1997). Learning and Awareness (p. 240). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
-Marton, F., & Pong, W. Y. (2005). On the unit of description in phenomenography. Higher Education Research & Development, 24(4), 335–348. Retrieved from
-Sandbergh, J. (1997). Are phenomenographic results reliable? Higher Education Research & Development, 16(2), 203–212.
-Sin, S. (2010). Considerations of quality in phenomenographic research. International Journal of Qualitative Methods, 9(4), 305–319.
-Svensson, L. (1997). Theoretical foundations of phenomenography. Higher Education Research and Development, 16(2), 159–171. Retrieved from
-Walsh, E. (2000). Phenomenographic analysis of interview transcripts. In J. A. Bowden & E. Walsh (Eds.), Phenomenography (pp. 19–33). Melbourne, Australia: RMIT Publishing.


About IIQM

The International Institute for Qualitative Methodology (IIQM) is an interdisciplinary institute based at the University of Alberta, in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, but serves qualitative researchers around the world. IIQM was founded in 1998, with the primary goal of facilitating the development of qualitative research methods across a wide variety of academic disciplines. Today IIQM offers a wide variety of training and networking opportunities through our annual conferences, courses, workshops, and programs. We have provided this YouTube Channel and video clips as a resource for the qualitative research community at large in order to advance qualitative inquiry. Email: Twitter: @theIIQM Facebook: @IIQMUofA LinkedIn: International Institute of Qualitative Methodology Youtube: International Institute of Qualitative Methodology (IIQM)
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