How to use the new IPA terminology

Whether you are new to Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (IPA) or have been using it for a while, you may have noticed some differences in the language associated with this qualitative approach to research.

This might seem confusing at first but don’t worry; help is at hand!

Confused? PGPR are here to help

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The guidance and steps suggested to conduct your analysis remain the same. So do the underlying principles. All that’s changed is some of the terminology.

Terms like emergent theme or superordinate theme, which you will see in most IPA papers published pre-2022 and in the first edition of Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis: Theory, Method and Research by Jonathan Smith, Paul Flowers and Michael Larkin (2009), have been updated, as explained in the table below.

Old term New term
Emergent Theme Experiential Statement
Superordinate Theme Personal Experiential Theme (PET)
Master Theme Group Experiential Theme (GET)

Emergent Themes are now known as experiential statements, superordinate themes are now called personal experiential themes, and master themes are now referred to as group experiential themes.

This change in terminology can actually make things clearer as you work through your analysis. Experiential statements are just that, statements about the experiences captured in your data in terms of their meaning for the participant.

Let the new IPA terminology light your pathway through analysis

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In the new book Essentials of Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (Smith & Nizza, 2021), the authors provide an example analysis of a participant’s holiday experience.

The example transcript includes the lines “so I really had to put in the effort and judge people quite quickly as well. So, yeah, I just had to put stuff out there quite a lot”. One of the experiential statements to arise from this analysis is ‘Selectively and purposively bonding with strangers’ (p. 41).

This statement is both concise and rich. It captures the participant’s description of forging relationships with other travellers and their sense of this being a deliberate, active process. A statement such as ‘Meeting new people’ or ‘Social aspects of travel’, although still reflective of the data, would not provide the same experiential detail.

The new IPA terminology is nearly as much fun as meeting new friends whilst travelling. Honest!

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Thinking in terms of experiential statements – rather than emergent themes – can help you orient yourself during the earlier analytic stages. An experiential statement involves summarising the meaning in a short portion of the text – perhaps just a few lines. At this stage, being too concerned with the bigger picture of ‘themes’ can distract you from looking carefully at each section of the transcript in a close, fine-grained fashion.

Personal experiential themes or PETs, are themes developed through an analysis of a single case, meaning they are personal to that individual.

Group experiential themes or GETs are developed by looking across individual cases for patterns of convergence and divergence. They are themes which represent the group.

As you can see, the revised terminology makes finding your way through the analysis easier.

Doing IPA can feel like tackling a maze. The new terminology can help you find your way.

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This new terminology, and guidance for each stage of the analysis, are included in the two new books mentioned. These are the 2nd edition of Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis: Theory, Method and Research by Jonathan Smith, Paul Flowers, and Michael Larkin (2022), and the new APA Essentials Book Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis by Jonathan Smith and Isabella Nizza (2021).

The new terminology is also used in the recent paper I wrote with Jonathan Smith: ‘Making sense of an artwork: An interpretative phenomenological analysis of participants’ accounts of viewing a well-known painting’ (Starr & Smith, 2022).

This blog was written by Rachel Starr, one of PGPR’s IPA experts. To book a video consultation with Rachel, contact us via the box below.

How a PGPR video consultation can help you with your qualitative analysis

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Feeling stuck

There are times in any research student’s experience where they lose a sense of direction or need some reassurance. We all sometimes feel stuck! Unfortunately, students don’t always get the support they need or want from their research supervisors (we’re not blaming supervisors as many are often over-stretched and under pressure). This can sometimes mean students need help in:

  • Formulating a concise qualitative research question
  • Figuring out which qualitative method would fit the best with the research question
  • Understanding if their interview schedule will elicit the best qualitative data
  • Getting feedback on a table of themes to see if the analysis is appropriately in-depth
  • Advice about their project from an independent qualitative expert
  • Thinking through what they might say at a viva to defend their project

Maximising the focus of your precious time

Many postgraduate students work long, solitary hours on their projects, and for some, these hours are undertaken after the ‘day job’ or while juggling other commitments. Time is a precious commodity and it is frustrating to not have a clear sense of direction when a few hours have been carved out.  For full-time students, the single focus of the research programme can be overwhelming, to the point where students ‘can’t see the wood for the trees’. Does any of this sound familiar?

At times students struggle to find a clear way forwards with their research
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Moving forwards

Sometimes, having a human-to-human conversation can be a much-needed antidote to needling concerns, unanswered questions, and, at times, a sense of isolation for postgraduate students. Having someone encourage, give direction, affirm and offer insight into an element that has been problematic can pave the way for a more productive way forwards.

We’ve been there! Our experienced team have empathy for postgrad students and recognise that sometimes you just need to have a helping hand. This is why we now offer one-on-one video consultations with our qualitative experts. Our team appreciates how important timely supportive and empathic feedback is, and we work hard to make our time with you as productive and helpful as possible. And we’re friendly!

Here’s how it works

You contact us and tell us a little more about what you need. If a video consultation seems like a great fit, we’ll arrange for a mutually convenient time for you to talk with one of our team. They will spend an hour in preparation for the session reading your work, so you might want to send material relevant to your discussion beforehand; although do bear in mind that we can’t read an entire thesis in an hour. You might also give some thought to the main aims you’d like to achieve in the hour of talk-time. Then we’ll contact you and talk with you for an hour, based on the agreed session outline.

Previous students who have engaged with our video consultations have really appreciated them:

I would say what helped me the most was just having a discussion with you as it was absolutely paramount in building my confidence. I felt more confident going into the viva and definitely answered the questions with a lot more conviction. So again, I just want to thank you for all your help! (PhD student)

So, if your project needs an injection of human-to-human discussion, please get in touch via the form below. Sometimes a little support is all it takes for your project to take flight again.

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