ISSN: 1705-6411
Volume 8, Number 1 (January 2011)

Thesis Deploying Baudrillard's Thought

Phenomenographic Hyperreality: Jean Baudrillard's Methodological Implications for Phenomenography

Steven Farry
(Master’s Thesis, School of Humanities, Griffith University, Brisbane, Australia)

Chapter Two

This chapter examines phenomenographic methodologies’ assumptions and processes in relation to simulation and its related concepts of simulacra and the hyperreal. It begins by proposing a reading of the one-sided meaning-making processes that were identified during the previous chapter. It invokes Baudrillard’s arguments from “In the shadow of the silent majorities” (1983 [1978]) to elucidate and account for the methodologies’ inability to evade the interpretive act and achieve their goal of describing objects as they appear to the subject (Marton 1986, 1992). The discussion demonstrates the limits of phenomenographic methodologies’ capacity to generate a representation of reality—including the subjective reality of the experiential perspective—forming an important preface to later arguments that the methodologies achieve simulation. As a related point, the section addresses the phenomenographic literature’s contention that quality-assessment measures such as reliability and validity are unsuitable for evaluating qualitative research methodologies and their results (Marton 1986; Kvale 1996; åkerlind 2002). In advocating that a new set of tools be adopted—tools that privilege values such as internal consistency and the communicability of results—the phenomenographic literature is argued to evidence Baudrillard’s theory that simulacra attempt to detach themselves from the extant reality they profess to reflect (Baudrillard 1983a [1976], 1988a [1981]; Poster 1981; Trifinova 2003). The proposed tools remove the need to invoke external referents, allowing phenomenographic methodologies to function recursively. This creates the conditions under which they become simulacrums, agents producing sets of signifiers entirely detached from the subjects and objects they ostensibly describe and measure. Applying Baudrillard’s insight helps interpret the structural forces motivating the changes proposed within the phenomenographic literature.

Having accounted for and contextualised phenomenographic methodologies’ limited capacity to achieve representation, the chapter considers the definition of simulation Baudrillard offers in his essay “Simulacra and simulations”, ‘the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal’ (1988a [1981]:166). After demonstrating how phenomenographic methodologies may be said to conform to this definition, the section examines how the steps involved in achieving simulation are facilitated through specific assumptions and processes. Invoking an argument Baudrillard advances in “The system of objects” (1988b [1968]), the section contends that phenomenographic methodologies’ relational principle, which locates meaning between subject and object (Marton 1992), positions the two constitutive elements outside the methodologies’ frame of reference, excluding the subjects and objects to which its indirect object ostensibly pertains. This argument helps to evidence phenomenographic methodologies’ practice of excluding external referentials from their simulations, a point that has been raised (Uljens 1993) but not widely discussed within the phenomenographic literature. The value of this discussion is that it provides an opportunity to examine and refine the impact of phenomenographic methodologies’ relational perspective on their capacities for representation, drawing attention to the representational devices they use to convey the image of subjective reality that masks their simulation. In addition, it develops an understanding of the nature of subject-object relations and the conceptions that represent them with emphasis upon the forces that potentially generate meaning in the contemporary empiric context, extending the phenomenographic literature’s recognition of the impact of context on meaning making (Marton & Booth 1997; Linder & Marshall 2003).

The chapter discusses whether phenomenographic methodologies’ categories of description and outcome spaces may be said to exhibit the characteristics of the hyperreal that Baudrillard describes simulation producing (1988a [1981]; 1988b [1968]). This section demonstrates that phenomenographic methodologies are incapable of distinguishing between ‘true’, ‘false’, and parodic accounts of experience. It shows how the absence of ideal and negative instances, both between and within phenomenographic methodologies, collapses polarity and produces results lacking in rationality. The chapter suggests that phenomenographic methodologies’ categories of description and outcome spaces are analogous to Baudrillard’s contention that simulations are merely operational matrices reflecting a linguistic combinatoire of signs (Baudrillard 1988a [1981]; Poster 1981; Huysenns 1989). This argument extends efforts to highlight linguistic and social influences upon phenomenographic methodologies’ analysis and representation of empirical subject-object relations (Säljö 1997; Buck et al 2003).

The final section of the chapter considers phenomenographic methodologies from a structural perspective by contrasting their function with the nihilistic view of the contemporary empirical condition that Baudrillard describes in “Simulacra and simulations” (1988a [1981]). The key points discussed are phenomenographic methodologies’ aim of producing metanarratives, the ways in which their models may be said to precede the data they generate, and the sense that the methodologies function as semiotic systems devoted to achieving their reoccurrence. The chapter asserts that phenomenographic studies may be construed as attempts similar to Baudrillard’s early work (1981b [1972]), which advocates gaining access to the codes that govern representation in order to achieve change. It concludes by suggesting that an improved understanding of the structural forces influencing phenomenographic methodologies’ assumptions and processes will help to place the simulations they produce in a recognisable framework, refining and extending their relationship with—and, therefore, their capacity for engaging—contemporary empiric conditions. In doing so, the thesis demonstrates how Baudrillard’s work provides useful tools for improving understandings of qualitative research methods such as phenomenographic methodologies and its attempts to provide knowledge of ways of experiencing contemporary empiric conditions.

Interpretation and its implications

During the first chapter of this thesis, the one-sidedness of phenomenographic methodologies’ meaning-making processes was demonstrated to reveal their limitations as qualitative research tools and highlight the interpretative function underpinning attempts to grasp the ‘subject-object relations of an internal nature’ that Marton describes in “Structure” (2000:115). From a Baudrillardian perspective, the implications of this reading become broader. In his essay “In the shadow of the silent majorities” (1983b [1978]), Baudrillard argues that the need to perform an interpretative act, to impose order on ambiguous and contradictory empirical accounts, reflects an act of resistance on the part of the masses more than the shortcomings of sociological research methods. For phenomenographic methodologies, the implication of this resistance—whether performed consciously or unconsciously—is that the aim to capture and represent all of the ways of experiencing a phenomenon will potentially be flawed.

Baudrillard commences his essay by describing the ‘imaginary representation’ of the masses within sociological frameworks ‘drift[ing] somewhere between passivity and wild spontaneity, but always as a potential energy, a reservoir of the social and of social energy’ (1983b [1978]:2). This accords with phenomenographic methodologies’ treatment of the subject: deindividuated and separated from the empirical accounts its referents provide, the subject position is effectively deemed to possess an unlimited potential to exhibit and express the ways of experiencing attributed to it, irrespective of the unique capacities of the subjects whom it is intended to represent. The phenomenographic researcher may be to argued to occupy a privileged position that is implicated in the manipulative relationship Baudrillard construes: as this thesis has shown, phenomenographic methodologies allow the researcher to exercise a capacity to excerpt, interpret, and attribute ways of experiencing phenomena from and to the subject position.

Baudrillard’s essay inverts the conventional hierarchy between researcher and research subject by inscribing the masses—constituted within qualitative methodologies as the research subjects—with the power to resist researchers’ requests for disclosure. He argues that researchers’ need for interpretative tools, which aim to get as close as possible to subjects’ ‘real’ meaning, evidences the masses’ capacity to reserve their ‘true’ thoughts and meaning structures (1983b [1978]). Within the phenomenographic literature, there are several references to the interpretative act as a methodological component (Burns 1994; Entwistle 1997; Marton & Booth 1997; Sandberg 1997; Svensson 1997; Bowden 2000b; åkerlind 2002); however, they position interpretation as a secondary process occurring after the conceptions from which subjects’ ways of experiencing phenomena are discerned. Marton and Booth illustrate this when they describe phenomenographic studies identifying ‘the totality of ways in which people experience, or are capable of experiencing, the object of interest and interpret[ing] it in terms of distinctly different categories that capture the essence of the variation’ (1997:121-22). In this sentence, the conjunction ‘and’ is used to separate the act of identifying from the act of interpreting and to imply a sequential order. Marton also infers the temporal location of the interpretive process in “Reality”, where he indicates that interpretation occurs when quotes from interview transcripts are ‘interpreted and classified in terms of the contexts from which they are taken’ (1986:42).

As observed in the previous chapter, the interpretive process occurs much earlier in phenomenographic methodologies than Marton’s description infers. It commences when researchers begin to apply themselves to transcribed interviews, determining which linguistic elements apply to and constitute the panoptic object. The difference in locating the point at which the interpretative act commences, however, does not detract from the understanding that interpretation influences the results that phenomenographic methodologies produce, allowing Baudrillard’s preliminary hypothesis that the interpretive act evidences subjects’ implicit resistance to requests for disclosure to stand.

Reflecting meaning

Having established subjects’ capacity to reserve their ‘true’ meaning, Baudrillard suggests that information gathered in sociological studies may be a product of subjects reflecting back what is projected onto them (1983b [1978]:3). In seeking to examine whether this could occur within phenomenographic methodologies’ analytic framework, this thesis has previously shown how their ontological assumptions indicate that each subject experiences its own direct object, an account of which is then used as the preliminary basis of analysis. This object (and the account of it) may be differentiated from the phenomenon the methodologies’ indirect object subsequently constitutes and defines. Attributing the indirect object’s ways of experiencing cumulatively to research subjects who may not have exhibited or expressed those ways of experiencing, and inferring that the panoptic object exists in their lifeworlds, suggests that the researcher is projecting an external and alien set of empiric encounters and meanings onto those subjects. This possibility is noted within the phenomenographic literature (Webb 1996; Hasselgren and Beach 1997; Sorva & Malmi 2007). It may be argued to demonstrate the need to refine the assumptions and processes with which phenomenographic methodologies engage subjects’ empirical encounters.

Echoing the social

Extrapolating from the idea that interviews produce only ‘official’ or socially-acceptable accounts of experience, Baudrillard’s essay offers the alternative possibility that research subjects echo the social, functioning as transparent conductors of norms and information from a previous era (1983b [1978]:28). He describes the masses’ ‘anticipated responses’ and ‘circular signals’ producing a cycle of ‘exasperating, endless conformity’ (1983b [1978]:33) to the extant social record. Within the phenomenographic literature, Roger Säljö (1997) makes the case that the accounts of phenomena collected during phenomenographic methodologies’ data gathering phase are the product of, ‘[an] attempt to fulfil one’s communicative obligations’ (1997:177) that owes itself to learned and shared communicative practices and criteria for encoding experience (1997:182). In terms of the temporal dimension of Baudrillard’s reading, Marton alludes to phenomenographic enquiry’s historic orientation in his essay “Metatheoretical” (1981), registering the way that conceptions of time, love, space, and childhood have differed between historical periods: ‘the obvious implication… is that such fundamental ”givens” of our existence are man-made. We have simply learnt to experience reality in one way instead of any of a number of other possible ways’ (1981:160). Gordon Taylor reaches an apposite conclusion, asserting that, ‘phenomenographic analyses of differing conceptions tend to tell us much the same as we can discover by studying the history of attitudes toward the subject in question’ (1993:63 in Webb 1996:3). These contentions conform to Baudrillard’s contention that subjects echo the social.

An additional strand of reasoning may be developed from Mike Gane’s reading of Baudrillard, which points out how ‘in each phase of representation a former, dominant conception of the 'real' is taken as the reference model of 'current' reality, always already out of date’ (Gane 1991:95). Phenomenographic methodologies’ analysis proceeds by attending to artefacts that describe earlier empiric encounters; the best their experiential focus may achieve is a record of the object as the subject saw it. As a result, their findings may only be assumed to exist in relation to current empiric conditions. As with the interpretive gap discussed in the previous chapter, the existence of this relationship is a structural source of potential invalidity. Assuming an equivalence between past and present empiric possibilities suggests a static empiric condition. Such a proposed representation of empiric conditions may be argued to be inherently invalid as it does not account or allow for evolution and change. Baudrillard’s perspective, that research subjects are channelling the empiricism of previous time periods, offering a social record rather than providing access to a ‘true’ representation of empiric encounters occurring under contemporary ontological conditions (1983b), helps address this discrepancy by refining understandings of phenomenographic methodologies’ capacity and focus, improving their results’ validity claims and potential applications.

Defining phenomena

Baudrillard pursues an additional line of argument in “Silent majorities” that is of relevance to phenomenographic methodologies’ capacity to achieve the experiential focus and valid sets of results. As a preliminary element of his argument that sociological tools simulate the social rather than represent it, Baudrillard employs the example of ‘stellar gas known only through analysis of their [sic] light spectrum’ (1983b:21) as a metaphor for the limitations of their measurement and representative capabilities. Baudrillard’s metaphor reiterates C. Wright Mills’s argument that sociological tools define phenomena such as opinions or knowledge only in terms of what they have the capacity to measure and that this process has a tendency to encourage particular species of phenomena or knowledge within the social sphere (Cormack 2002). Relating this to phenomenographic methodologies, the difficulty for Marton’s proposed methodological model is that it aims to produce a record of all the ways a phenomenon may be experienced; however, the phenomenon is only defined (in other words, only said to exist) to the extent of the ways that the methodological tool has registered that it may be experienced. Marton describes ‘the phenomenon in question [being] narrowed down to and interpreted in terms of selected quotes from all the interviews’ (1986:42). He then advocates that the phenomenon be seen as ‘a complex of the different ways in which it can be experienced’ (2000:105), meaning that the outcome space is its synonym, representing ‘the thing as it appears to us’ (2000:105). In this way, topic phenomena are exclusively constituted from the data gathered as part of phenomenographic methodologies’ processes.

Although Marton writes that, ‘the very label “phenomenography” was chosen to convey the idea of describing various specific things as they appear to us’ (2000:102-103), it would be more accurate to state that phenomenographic methodologies determine aspects of reality that subjects ‘see’ and infer that these are specific things. As Richard Jenkins (2002) argues in a separate context, the classificatory procedure exerts a constitutive effect: the object is only defined according to the ways of experiencing that the methodologies identify. Marton’s acknowledgement of the representational limits of his methodology supports this reading. In “Structure”, he states that, ‘the thesis that an object of experience is not independent of the way in which it is experienced does not imply that the object is identical with the way in which it is experienced’ (2000:5). As with Marton’s reference to ‘narrow[ing] down’ phenomena (1986:42), elements outside the scope of the research interview and the data that has been collected—in other words, beyond the methodological tools’ capacity for measurement—may exist but are deemed to be extrinsic to the phenomenon as it is defined for the purposes of the study. The implication drawn follows one of the key points advanced throughout this thesis: phenomenographic methodologies’ objects are distinguishable from extant elements of reality. The topic phenomena that phenomenographic methodologies constitute does not have an equivalent reference beyond the methodology. It follows that phenomenographic methodologies cannot be argued to produce representations of objects or aspects of reality existing beyond their parameters; instead, in accordance with Baudrillard’s observation—which owes itself to both Mills and Max Weber (1949:72)—that sociological research tools constitute the objects of their inquiry (1983b [1978]; 1993 [1990]), they generate new objects.

An alternative way of examining phenomenographic methodologies’ constitution of topic phenomena is to consider them as the products of an expanded reading analogous to Temenuga Trifinova’s description of the shift from object to Baudrillarian image (2003). Trifinova suggests that images are produced as a result of saturation or overexposure to multiple perspectives: they are distinguishable from real empiric encounters because they reflect more empirical potential than any single subject would otherwise have access to at a specific point. The object is reduced to an image by virtue of exceeding its own capacity for exposure. In a similar sense, the panoptic object that phenomenographic methodologies constitute to encompass all of the ways of experiencing is one that has been exposed to the collocation of more ways of experiencing than any single subject exhibits. Like Trifinova’s reading of the Baudrillarian image, phenomenographic methodologies’ panoptic objects are visible or experience-able from all sides; they exceed the subject-object relations of any extant empiric record. As a result, they are reduced to images of the referents they purport to represent. The significance of this possibility, discussed later in the chapter, is that the image detaches itself from its referent and exhibits an independent existence from the phenomenon it was originally conceived to represent.

The collapse of meaning

Returning to the argument presented in “Silent majorities”, when an interpreter attributes something to the masses that is distinguishable (and, therefore, different) from what they have described or experienced, and presents this as a true representation of their empiric encounter, the social reality suffers what Baudrillard calls ‘the collapse of meaning’ (1983b:3). As Baudrillard puts it, ‘they [the researchers] have only penetrated…at the cost of their misappropriation, of their radical distortion’ (1983b [1978]:8), which seems an accurate, though hyperbolic, description of phenomenographic methodologies’ mediating assumptions and processes that harness multiple subjects’ discursive representations of direct objects and combine them to form panoptic objects that exceed any specific subject’s empiric encounter. Baudrillard’s collapse of meaning occurs when a newly-constituted panoptic object is attributed to subjects and presented as a valid representation of their empiric possibilities—the potential they exhibit for experiencing an object—through the indirect object. This conclusion challenges the validity of phenomenographic methodologies’ outcome spaces.

Following Baudrillard’s argument in “Silent majorities”, this collapse of meaning may be understood to indicate that the social is being simulated rather than represented: ‘[there] can no longer be a question of expression or representation, but only…the simulation of an ever inexpressible and unexpressed social’ (1983b [1978]:21). To develop an understanding of the nature of this ‘simulation’ and the extent and ways in which phenomenographic methodologies may be understood to achieve the concept, Baudrillard’s essay “Simulacra and Simulations” (1988a [1981]) provides a useful definition of the term and discussion of its attributes.

Introducing simulation

Baudrillard’s essay defines simulation as ‘the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal’ (1988a [1981]:166). In relation to the first element of this definition, phenomenographic methodologies may be considered models based upon an awareness of the assumptions and processes they exhibit that govern the constitution of subject, object, and the relationships between them. These assumptions and processes constitute the relevant elements and establish the parameters of the reality being created. Baudrillard describes this operation in a separate essay, “The ideological genesis of needs” (1981a [1969]). The assumptions and processes provide a framework (or, in other words, a model) that requires the user to gather, or create, certain data in order to generate a record (or, from Baudrillard’s perspective, a simulation) of empiric encounters.

A real without reality

Baudrillard’s contention that models—whether media or methodology-based—generate a real without reality may be established by considering the differences between the elements constituted within phenomenographic methodologies and their external referents’ capacities. The first chapter of this thesis has shown that, instead of representing a reality, phenomenographic methodologies generate new subject and object positions through their constitutive processes. The methodologies’ idealised subject position fills the space that extant subjects and their unique empiric capacities would otherwise have occupied within the model. The methodologies’ subjects and objects are constituted in a way that makes them distinguishable from—and therefore excludes—the external, reality-based referents they claim. As Baudrillard notes in Sheila Faria Glaser’s translation of “The precession of simulacra” (1994 [1981]:29), it is impossible to locate an instance of the model that has been generated: phenomenographic methodologies produce a real that is without external reality.

A similar conclusion may be reached by following the argument Baudrillard advances in his essay “The system of objects” (1988b [1968]). Baudrillard discusses Pierre Martineau’s explication of consumption, citing Martineau’s statement that ‘any buying process is an interaction between the personality of the individual and the so-called “personality” of the product itself’ (1957:73 in Baudrillard 1988b:14). Baudrillard’s essay subsequently locates the focus of consumption—and, more broadly, the empiric conditions under which objects are experienced in a consumerist or capitalist society (Grace 2000; Salquiero Seabra Ferreira 2005)—as the relation between objects and other subject objects (1988b [1968]; Poster 1981). Considering the premise of phenomenographic methodologies’ location of experience, the methodologies’ relational ontology appears to match Martineau’s understanding of consumption: Marton expresses the view that, ‘in phenomenography, object and subject are not separate, the subject’s experience of the object is a relation between the two’ (2000:104; 1986, 1992). Although Marton construes the ways of experiencing upon which the methodologies focus as ‘subject-object relations of an internal nature’ (Marton 2000:115; Linder & Marshall 2003), he points out that an experience cannot be defined spatially, nor attributed wholly to subject or object: ‘experiences’ are ‘relations between the individual and the phenomenon, and hence they are between the two’ (Marton 1992:260).

While Marton locates experiences between subject and object, he contends that ‘the research is never separated from the object of perception or the content of thought’ (1986:32). Bo Dahlin concurs, citing John Dewey’s reading of experience as ‘recognis[ing] in its primary integrity no division between act and material, subject and object, but contain[ing] them both in an unanalysed totality’ (Dewey 1981:257 in Dahlin 1994:90) as a reference point for phenomenographic methodologies’ ontology. In contrast with these views, an alternative reading of the relational perspective’s impact on experiences’ location is that placing those experiences (as captured in the categories of description) between subject and object separates ‘the research’ from both. In seeking to describe the relationship between subject and object, the two elements ostensibly responsible for generating the empirical encounter exist only to the extent that inferences about them may be drawn from the characteristics of the relationship the methodologies describe. They are extrinsic to the methodologies’ focus in the sense that any parts of the relevant subject and object not engaged in the relationship between them are excluded from the indirect object: adopting an experiential focus means that phenomenographic methodologies do not describe subject or object, but the way one sees the other (Marton & Svensson 1979); as Uljens puts it, ‘even though the conceptions have been understood in terms of man-world relations, both the man and the world are forgotten in the course of the empirical analysis’ (1993:145).

The reading of subject-object relations Baudrillard’s develops in “The system of objects” differs from both Martineau’s and Marton’s assessments by retaining some space for the original entities. It describes subject and object as both ‘included and excluded at the same time…abstracted and annulled’ (1988b:22). Victoria Grace’s reading of Baudrillard’s For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign (1981b [1972]) suggests that a dichotomous splitting of subject and object is an abstraction conducted to advance capitalist and consumerist conditions (2000:12). A similar interpretation may be applied to Marton’s proposal that the object be understood as the complex of different ways it may be experienced (2000:105). Reversing Marton’s formulation suggests that subjects be understood as complexes of different ways they experience the object, a perspective that would seem sympathetic to the development of capitalist and consumerist models of the self.

The point advanced in this thesis is that locating subject and object both inside and outside the relationship between the two suggests they are part of the reality being constituted, but are also beyond it. Marton’s oblique comment that ‘an experience of an object is…a part of the whole which is subjective and objective at the same time’ (2000:105) may be read as apposite. Additional perspectives—for instance, Donald Woods Winnicott’s work on the developmental stages and intermediate zones between that which is subjective and that which is objectively perceived (2005 [1971])—demonstrate the difficulty of determining whether subjectivity and objectivity are intrinsic, extrinsic, or adjacent to experience. In terms of this thesis’s contention that the relational assumption serves to exclude extant subjects and objects from phenomenographic methodologies, the key element of Marton’s statement is that the experience of the object is a part of the whole. The referents themselves are not the focus of the investigation; the only attempt made to apprehend them comes as a consequence of their presence in the relationship between subject and object. Relating this to the definition of simulation being discussed, the conclusion may be reached that the real (embodied in the external referents) is at least partially absent from the reality (the indirect object) that phenomenographic methodologies produce. The external referents’ partial incorporation allows a distinction to be made between extant subject and object and what the model represents. Since the model’s subject and object represent something different from the referents they claim, it appears that the extant referents are wholly, rather than partially, absent. In the absence of valid representations of external referents, it follows that reality may be said to be absent from the model. What remains is a reality that parallels Baudrillard’s reading of the postmodern empirical condition: ‘a mass which is itself the product of a social process yet can no longer be identified with any particular social subject or object’ (1983b [1978]:5). Following Rex Butler’s provocative argument that simulation’s aim is to ‘realise’ reality rather than hide it (Butler 1999:23), and in keeping with this thesis’s contention that phenomenographic methodologies generate new subjects and objects, it may be suggested that a ‘new’ reality has been produced.  

A real without origin

Baudrillard’s suggestion that simulation generates a real without origin is more difficult to demonstrate. Putting aside the temporal difficulties of phenomenographic methodologies’ analytic phase charted in the first chapter of this thesis, their new subjects and objects would seem to originate at the point where they are first located. My reading of Baudrillard’s definition is not that he is referring to the difficulty of untangling an evolutionary chain of subjects and objects’ incremental change and constitution. (The possibility of doing so, in any event, being contested by Jacques Derrida (1989) among others.) Instead, I interpret it as suggesting that simulation’s subject and object are without origin in reality; their origin is in a model. This interpretation accords with Gary Genosko’s reading of simulation, which argues that external referents are generated as an effect of the sign that defines them, rather than the reverse (1994:40). Both suggestions contrast elements of reality that originate through the authentic processes of pre-modern production—which Baudrillard sentimentally valorises in “Simulacra and simulations” (1988a [1981])—with those that are constituted through contrived attempts to create a logical and rational representation of the social. An awareness of such model-based origins complements Baudrillard’s reasoning that sociological tools are unable to accurately apprehend and represent the social (1983b [1978]; Bogard 1990; Butler 1999; Cormack 2004), necessitating the simulation of external referents.

Within the phenomenographic literature, Säljö comes closest to identifying the model-based origin of the realities that phenomenographic methodologies constitute. He warns of the potential for phenomenography to slip from methodology to ontology, describing a situation where ‘ways of experiencing are no longer the analyst’s tool for understanding human activities in context, but rather something that is supposed to be there in the material and which one is more less obliged to find’ (1997:178). This suggests an awareness that phenomenographic methodologies, ostensibly aimed at representing social phenomena, have the potential to devolve to something that does not represent the real, but generates it through internal assumptions and processes. The point may be developed using Robert Antonio’s discussion of Fredric Jameson’s reading of the implications of ‘postmodern hyperspace’ (1991:156). Antonio emphasises the significance of critical distance, where the ideology of a methodology is implicitly bound up with the investigation it pursues. It may be said that there is a lack of critical distance in phenomenographic methodologies because ways of experiencing are assumed to be discernable from interview data; therefore, as Säljö points out, they must exist in the transcripts of interviews carried out during phenomenographic methodologies’ data-gathering phase. A set of interviews where the researcher concludes that no ways of experiencing have been expressed is a failure, the result of either incorrect interviewing or insufficient interpreting. An alternative hypothesis—that the topic phenomenon and subjects’ ways of experiencing it could not be captured using the methodology—may not be validated using phenomenographic methodologies. This demonstrates the methodologies’ recursivity and the absence of external referents exhibited. Were phenomenographic methodologies able to accurately capture external referents, critical distance would be said to be achievable on the grounds that a contrast between the methodologies’ constituted elements and findings and their external referents could be drawn. This contrast would allow the alternative hypothesis to stand as the methodologies’ results would be potentially falsifiable. Instead, as Baudrillard suggests occurs with all sociological representation (Cormack 2002), subject and object are constituted through the methodologies and have no external referents. Their origin is in the model.

This observation complements the earlier point that phenomenographic methodologies’ constitute the objects of their enquiry through their assumptions and processes. It may be argued to account for the phenomenographic literature’s reluctance to use subjects’ response to phenomenographic methodologies’ indirect object as a validation measure. åkerlind’s (2002) discussion of phenomenographic validity makes explicit reference to the potential discrepancy between the results that phenomenographic methodologies generate and research subjects’ experiences and empiric conditions (see also Burns 1994; Marton & Booth 1997; Bowden 2000, 2005). åkerlind argues against the practice of asking research subjects to validate categories of description, suggesting that because conceptions change over time and with context, the interviewee’s perception of the categories of description should not be construed as authoritative; the subject’s perception may have changed from what it was. More significantly for this thesis’s argument that phenomenographic methodologies’ constitute new subjects and objects, she suggests that phenomenographic researchers are interpreting collective perceptions, not individual ones, hence there will be differences between the phenomenographic methodologies’ results and individuals’ experiences. One way of interpreting the reluctance to involve extant subjects as a validity measure is to suggest that it would remove the ‘alibi’—Baudrillard’s term from “Simulacra and simulations” (1988a [1981]) and The Perfect Crime (1995)—that phenomenographic methodologies’ subjects and objects provide for reality. Baudrillard’s alibi theory would seem to suggest that phenomenographic methodologies should demonstrate the falsity of their efforts at representation in order to reassert the reality principle (1988a [1981]:171-2). Under hyperreal empiric conditions, phenomenographic methodologies’ interpretive gap appears as the difference between their alleged representation of subject and object and what is ostensibly ‘reality’. According to Baudrillard’s alibi theory, this reinforces the illusion of a reality-based empiric condition that subjects may distinguish from hyperreality. The problem with this argument is that, in demonstrating an interpretive gap, phenomenographic methodologies remove the illusion of their capacity to represent reality, revealing themselves as simulation-producing agents. The competing structural tendencies for phenomenographic methodologies to both evidence the flaws of their representations and disguise those flaws may be argued to account for the difficulty of establishing an agreed-upon validity measure within the phenomenographic literature. This point will be further addressed later in the thesis.

Simulatory processes

Demonstrating that phenomenographic methodologies conform to Baudrillard’s definition of simulation does not necessarily indicate that the two are synonymous. While the previous pages have shown that phenomenographic methodologies’ assumptions and processes may be described as ‘generat[ing]…models of a real without origin or reality’ (1988a [1981]:166), to examine the extent to which their simulations are successful, it is relevant to consider whether they exhibit characteristics and operate in ways that are comparable to those Baudrillard describes in his essay.

A system of signs

Baudrillard suggests that simulation begins with the ‘artificial resurrection’ of referentials in systems of signs (1988a [1981]:167). This idea may be read in light of his thesis that the contemporary empiric condition is one where phenomena are not experienced per se but through a media-driven dimension of signs and values that exceed objects’ physical properties (Poster 1981; King 2000). As an initial step, however, Baudrillard’s proposition may be examined literally. At the broadest level, any attempt to assess elements of a culture in ‘its own terms’ positions it as a symbolic system. The researcher is involved in isolating the culture’s elements, specifying their relationship, and characterising the system in some way  (Geertz 1973:17). Phenomenographic methodologies produce systems of signs: each category of description is a sign that purports to represent one aspect of an empirical encounter between subject and object. Within the phenomenographic literature, suggestions that categories of description should be ‘meaning bearing in a particular way’ (Hasselgren and Beach 1997:194), related ‘as faithfully as possible’ to individuals’ conceptions (Sandberg 1997:157) and understood as ‘the researcher’s way of expressing the different ways of functioning’ (Uljens 1993:144) infer their interpretive and semiotic functions. Additional references to interjudge agreement, which 'gives a measurement of the extent to which other researchers are able to recognise the conceptions identified by the original researcher, through his/her categories of description' (Sandberg 1997:205), communicative validity (Kvale 1996; åkerlind 2002), and assessing the ‘intelligibility’ of outcome spaces and results (Neuman 1997) within the phenomenographic literature further emphasise the semiotic element of the methodologies’ results.

Marton stipulates the structure and systemic nature of the signs’ relationships in his essay “Studying conceptions of reality—a metatheoretical note” (1981), where he states that experience should be represented in a finite number of categories of description with each one characterising a specific way of functioning or ‘way in which individuals relate themselves to specific situations’ (166). Similarly, Marton and Booth’s (1997) criteria for judging the quality of a phenomenographic outcome space may be read as outlining the principles according to which the semiotic system is structured. The criteria are that categories must reveal something distinctive about a way of understanding the phenomenon; that they be logically related; and that data be represented as parsimoniously as possible (1997:125). Each of these criteria may be read as a means of ensuring the communicative or semiotic dimension and orientation of the system. In this context, the reliability-oriented measures and practices described in the previous paragraph function as tools for assessing and establishing the signs’ efficacy: their capacity to project an intelligible meaning that allows external parties to attribute appropriate data to each category.

Artificial resurrection

Baudrillard’s description of an ‘artificial resurrection’ of ‘referentials’ within a semiotic system is germane to a number of issues raised previously in this thesis. The use of the term ‘artificial’ may be argued to reflect the falsity of phenomenographic methodologies’ representation of extant subject and object. It may also connote that the subjects’ and objects’ resurrection has not occurred through an organic process, but through the contrivances of a model. The suggestion that the referentials are being ‘resurrected’ points to Baudrillard’s contention that reality, in the guise of the social, is in short supply, and has, in fact, disappeared, leaving only its echo (1983b [1978]; Bogard 1990). Where an authentic resurrection would be understood to bring reality back to life, constituting a new reality using empiric models that simulate extant referents may be understood as artificial. From these perspectives, phenomenographic methodologies’ referents may be described as artificially resurrected in a new field of signification.

Returning to one of Baudrillard’s themes that was mentioned previously—the critique of Marxism on the grounds that empiricism is no longer governed by the physical capacities of objects but by their sign value—the ‘artificial resurrection’ of referentials in systems of signs may also be understood to distinguish the objects or phenomena that exist under contemporary empiric conditions from the finite, stable objects that Baudrillard associates with pre-symbolic exchange-period production (1993 [1976]). As part of his critique of Marxism’s capacity to engage contemporary production and consumption (1988b [1968]), Baudrillard highlights how the media exhibits the power to inculcate sign values and attribute them to objects or phenomena to produce a new and limited system of recognition among subjects that is contingent upon a lexicon of consumption-oriented modes of apprehension. Under these conditions, the resurrected referentials being discussed point to objects or phenomena existing in a field where artificial and shifting sign values exercise their own capacity as signifiers and are components of empiric encounters and the discourse surrounding them (Poster 1981).

Applying this reading of contemporary empiric conditions to phenomenographic methodologies expands awareness of the breadth of empiric dimensions they recognise when constituting their topic phenomena. An attempt to record ‘the totality of ways in which people experience, or are capable of experiencing, the object of interest’ (Marton & Booth 1997:121-22) necessarily includes more than phenomena’s physically-apparent dimensions. It will potentially include accounts of symbolic values that are created and attributed to objects and phenomena through the media and other modes of cultural dissemination. The use of phenomenological techniques such as bracketing, epoché, and horizontilisation during phenomenographic methodologies’ data gathering and analytic operations (see Sandberg 1997) increases the likelihood that researchers will incorporate ethereal dimensions of experience that exceed the fixed physical and functional properties of their topic phenomena into the ways of experiencing they identify. In this context, phenomenographic methodologies’ emphasis upon using subjects’ own terminology to describe phenomena (Marton & Svensson 1979; Nordenbo 1990; Svensson 1994; Entwistle 1997) encourages the potential recording and retransmitting of media-centric discourses and symbolic values. As will be shown below, this has potential ramifications for phenomenographic methodologies’ attempts to access subject-object relations and ways of experiencing phenomena through discursive analysis.

Acknowledging that phenomenographic methodologies incorporate symbolic values into the experiences of phenomena they constitute alters the dyadic subject-object relationship that Marton posits as the basis of phenomenographic methodologies. Although Marton acknowledges that learning takes place in a context and involves the delimitation of an object from its context (Marton & Booth 1997:108), phenomenographic methodologies do not attend to context—understanding context as everything outside the topic phenomenon—as including entities that may independently transmit or determine the discourse with or through which subjects account for their empiric encounters. As Anders Berglund notes, ’phenomenography, with its focus on the learners and the phenomena that is learnt about, does not alone offer the intellectual tools that are needed for extending the study object to include to the relation between the learner and his/her whole learning environment’ (2002:2). In “The system of objects” (1988b [1968]), Baudrillard describes how symbolic values may be generated independently of products and connected to them through advertising and the media. Incorporating these symbolic values into the ways of experiencing a phenomenon acknowledges the presence of elements that mediate the relationship between subject and object. Although Marton describes phenomenographic methodologies as being interested in ‘the content of thinking’ rather than ‘the relations that exist between human beings and the world around them’ (1986:31-32), he also emphasises the importance of ‘understand[ing] the relationship that exists between an individual and what he or she is trying to learn’ (1986:43-44). An awareness that conceptions are the products of a relationship between subjects and object as well as between subject and context—which may be distinguished from the understanding that the relationship occurs within a context, as Marton and Booth’s (1997) framing would suggest—would seem to be a necessary prerequisite to understanding the relations between an individual and the world.

Without acknowledging the extended or mediated nature of the relationship between subject and object, there is no basis on which to differentiate between conceptions that relate to the topic phenomenon and those that relate to independent contextual elements such as advertising and other social influences disseminated through the media that attribute content or empiric possibilities to the topic phenomenon. Tom Adawi, Berglund, Booth and åke Ingerman (2002) register contexts’ mediating influence upon meaning in their discussion of the different contexts that exist at phenomenographic methodologies’ successive stages. They allude to the ‘social, spatial and temporal dimensions that lend [topic phenomena] meaning’ (2002: 82) without specifying the role that specific entities or phenomena may play in this ‘lending’ or establishing the empiric grounds upon which meaning should be attributed to topic phenomena instead of to the contextual element. Marton and Booth may also be argued to engage the issue during their discussion of the margin of awareness (Marton and Booth 1997; Marton 2000), which distinguishes between ‘internal’ and ‘external’ empirical horizons and asks how phenomena are delineated from their context (Cope 2002). Their discussion addresses issues that Marton and Svennson had previously raised: ‘how valid descriptions of student learning might be obtained in order to decide what is general and what is context-dependent, in what way and to what extent’ (1979:479). While the later discussion recognises the need to distinguish subjects’ apprehension of phenomena from their contextual awareness, it fails to conceptualise subject-object relations as one of many possible ways of experiencing that may be identified. A pertinent example is Robert Govers, Frank M Go and Kuldeep Kumar’s (2007) phenomenographically-oriented study of potential tourists’ perceptions of destinations they had not yet visited. Should the subjects be understood to have developed meaning structures and conceptions based on a relationship with the object—a place they had not yet visited—or is their relationship more accurately described as being with other contextual objects and phenomena, in particular (and as discussed in Govers, Go and Kumar) with advertising and information-technology transmitted messages that convey meaning about the topic phenomenon? Attributing the conceptions and meaning structures produced to the topic object in this example evidences a central problem with the validity of phenomenographic methodologies’ analysis: at what point and on what grounds may it be decided that a subject is evidencing a way of experiencing a phenomenon as opposed to a way of experiencing a symbolic value propagated by an independent entity or an aspect of context that confers meaning upon the topic phenomenon?

The point being pursued here is not whether social expectations and symbolic values reflect actual or valid ways of experiencing phenomena but whether phenomenographic methodologies’ attempt to represent the act of experiencing phenomena through these extrinsic dimensions will have implications for the (hyper)reality of the empiric model produced. To an extent, this concern is reflected in issues raised in the literature regarding phenomenographic methodologies’ lack of attention to the source and nature of conceptions (Uljens 1993; Säljö 1997; Richardson 1999). In particular, it underpins Säljö’s critique of phenomenographic methodologies as reproducing learned behaviour that reflects social contexts rather than empiric encounters (1997). Phenomenographic methodologies require a set of empiric assumptions that account for mediating social forces that influence and provide the discourse surrounding experience as well as on the dimensions of the experience to which subjects attend while being in some way distinguishable or independent from objects themselves. To this end, Svensson’s conspectus of conceptions as ‘dependent both on human activity and the world or reality external to any individual… [they are] created through thinking about external reality’ (1997:165) suggests the more sophisticated style of view necessary to engage subject and object under contemporary empiric conditions, although it does not establish the principles according to which analysis that differentiates between context and phenomenon may proceed.

Distorting the real

The implications of failing to develop these principles may be examined in relation to Baudrillard’s contention that, once simulation begins, ‘the real…no longer has to be rational, since it is no longer measured against some ideal or negative instance. It is nothing more than operational’ (1988a [1981]:167). When phenomenographic methodologies incorporate fluid and limitless sign values into the relationship between subject and object they are creating the possibility to distort the reality produced to the extent that the empiric model presented will no longer be rational. 

Baudrillard’s “The system of objects” (1988b [1968]) describes one way that this empiric distortion can occur. The essay points out that, as a result of advertising and media impact on the social environment, subjects may not understand the meaning of the characteristics they attribute to phenomena. The subjects only understand that the characteristics they have been taught to associate with a particular phenomenon are in some way desirable (Baudrillard 1988b [1968]; Poster 1981). In relation to phenomenographic methodologies, this may be demonstrated by considering how my experience of the computer on which this thesis is written could be constructed. If I am asked about the computer, one of the things I might mention is that it has or is ‘dual core’. I do not know what ‘dual core’ does or means; however, I believe both that my computer has/is it and that this is a desirable trait. A phenomenographic methodology does not need to know how I developed this information or conception (Uljens 1993; Richardson 1999); it is satisfied to determine that one way I experience my computer is through apprehending that it exhibits/possesses a particular feature.

The irrationality of this way of experiencing is revealed when trying to identify the meaning ‘dual core’ has for me. I have understood that the computer has/is dual core based upon information provided to me: the words ‘dual core’ are written on the box that the computer came in. The box does not specify that the computer ‘has’ a dual core, nor does it make any direct claims as to what this dual core does; it simply exhibits the words in a logo. I may imagine that ‘dual core’ connotes or somehow produces improved speed or performance; however, I could not say that I have experienced this. Potentially, the function of ‘dual core’ may simply be to distinguish this computer from other computers that do not have ‘dual core’ written on their boxes.

It would seem that ‘dual core’ has no meaning for me beyond the sense that it is in some way desirable. Despite this lack of meaning, phenomenographic methodologies consider such a conception to be part of the content of my thinking (Marton 1986) from which a way of experiencing may be discerned. The example illustrates one of phenomenographic methodologies’ limits by demonstrating how subjects can operate and experience phenomena in ways that exceed their understanding of those phenomena. Baudrillard provides a description that seems analogous to the way in which phenomenographic methodologies’ encode such experience: ‘it is not the concrete structure…that is expressed but rather the for, colour, shape, the accessories, and the “social standing” of the object…[it] establishes a repertoire and creates a lexicon of forms and colours in which recurrent modalities…can be expressed’ (1988b [1968];15). As discussed in relation to the artificial resurrection of signifiers, phenomenographic methodologies exhibit the potential to capture and retransmit elements of the advertising of an object and infer that these represent ways of experiencing the object, even where the discursive content has little relation to the properties of the phenomenon and little meaning for the subject. While åkerlind (2005b:114) asserts that these sorts of conceptions should be identified during a well-conducted interview because probing questioning would reveal the absence of such terms’ meaning for subjects, this practice does not accord with recent framing of categories of description reflecting discernment of variation (Marton & Booth 1997; Marton & Pang 2002; Pang 2003). In the example given, the subject identifies the capacity for the computer to be or not be dual core despite not understanding the difference between the two states. More broadly, it fails to address the influence that minimally-understood conceptions may have upon behaviour and perception, suggesting further limits to phenomenographic methodologies’ efficacy as sociologic tools that allegedly focus upon empiric encounters and experience.

The example above suggests that phenomenographic methodologies may only produce what Baudrillard describes as a ‘floating…immense combinatorial matrix of types and models, where incoherent needs are distributed’ (1988b [1968]:15). Such a description seems appropriate to the categories of description and outcome space that would be produced based on the experience of the computer as I have described it. The categories of description would ‘float’ in the sense that they are not connected to the external referent they assert to represent. They reflect the language and meaning of the object’s presentation: the subject’s experiences of phenomena as mediated by the ideas that have emerged from the social environment, not the properties of the phenomena per se. As has been shown, phenomenographic methodologies’ categories of description may present ways of experiencing that are based upon language that has no meaning for the subject; language that would seem only to describe and differentiate aspects of commodification and desire for these aspects. Following this line of reasoning, Baudrillard’s description of a matrix of incoherent needs—incoherent in the sense that it lacks the capacity to communicate meaning—is appropriate. Incorporating sign values and other ethereal dimensions of experience into phenomenographic methodologies’ constitutive processes creates the potential for the real being produced to lack rationality: the meaning expressed in the categories no longer accounts for or engages with the object but with aspects of its context: the empiric conditions mediating its apprehension.

Further aspects of rationality

Within the phenomenographic literature, Richardson observes further methodological problems that may be approached under the rubric of rationality. He points out that, unlike contemporary ethnographers, phenomenographers do not take a skeptical approach to what people say during research interviews (1999; see also Säljö 1997). Through the guise of ‘seeing with’ the subjects, phenomenographic methodologies do not contest conceptualisations: Bowden (2005:14), for instance, is specific about not making judgmental comment on subjects’ descriptions of phenomena that may influence the direction or emphasis of the accounts; Peter Ashworth and Ursula Lucas also caution against marginalising ‘views and factual claims which…may well be regarded by the researcher as quite erroneous’ (2000:299). Identifying ‘the totality of ways in which people experience, or are capable of experiencing, the object of interest’ (Marton and Booth 1997:121-22) means that it is sufficient for phenomenographic methodologies to identify potentialities. They are not obliged to determine whether subjects actually do experience phenomena a certain way, merely that they express a conception that infers the capacity to do so. In addition, phenomenographic methodologies preclude the possibility of observing causal or correlative relationships between specific subjects and the accounts of experience they offer (Hazel et al 1997; Barnacle 2005). As a result, it may be observed that phenomenographic methodologies limit and are limited in their capacity to validate what subjects assert.

In relation to this observation, the problem Richardson highlights is that subjects may say that they experience a phenomenon in a way that they do not (1999). Following the recent proposal that conceptions reveal the discernment of variation (Marton & Pang 2002; Pang 2003; Marton, Runesson & Tsui 2004), this is acceptable because the subject’s account of the experience evidences the potential capacity to apprehend the phenomenon’s capacity to vary in a particular dimension. One implication of this doctrine is that the ways of experiencing identified do not represent how subjects experience or are capable of experiencing a phenomenon, but how they believe they are capable of experiencing it. Such a conclusion is suggestive of Butler’s reading of hyperreality as a realisation of how the world could be rather than how it is (1999:25).

This perspective’s difficulties arise where subjects suggest that although they themselves do not experience a phenomenon in a certain way, others do. At their most reductive, phenomenographic methodologies may interpret such suggestions as evidencing that subjects apprehend a topic phenomenon by imagining others’ experiences of it. At the same time, the subjects are discerning the topic phenomenon’s capacity to vary, but attributing the experience of that dimension of variation to others. While this poses an interesting analytic dilemma, a concern of relevance for this thesis is that, where subjects’ information about how others experience phenomena is incorrect, phenomenographic methodologies will record and retransmit the error. Putting aside the political implications of passively accepting (mis)information, ramifications for phenomenographic methodologies’ empiric model exist. On one hand, it may be argued that a subject’s assumption about a phenomenon remains part of their understanding of it, whether the assumption is demonstrably true or demonstrably false (Dahlin 1994:88, see also Dahlin 2007). As a result, subjects’ imagined or mistaken elements of a phenomenon are an accurate component of the content of their thinking and their experiences of phenomena (Ashworth & Lucas 2000). This outcome is not without its benefits. As Anna Eckerdal and Michael Thuné note, knowledge of ‘inaccurate’ conceptions of phenomena are of potential use to educators and researchers (2005). From phenomenographic methodologies’ non-dualist perspective, it may also be assumed that there is no objectively-graspable reality to which accounts of phenomena may be compared (Marton 1981; Marton & Neuman 1996), therefore there is no basis on which to assess whether the accounts are ‘true’ or ‘false’.

The exception to this reasoning stems from phenomenographic methodologies’ aim to assess the totality of ways that a phenomenon is capable of being experienced (Marton 1986). By incorporating information that does not accurately reflect how subjects experience a phenomena and asserting that subjects do have the capacity to experience it in that way, it may be said that the methodologies’ attempted representation is inaccurate. For instance, a subject may imagine and assert that a phenomenon may be experienced in some way by other subjects. If the subject is mistaken, and no other subject actually does have the capacity to experience the phenomenon that way, should this be recorded as a way of experiencing the phenomenon?

The capacity to produce a reality where such alleged representations are possible suggests the irrational, not in the pejorative sense that it lacks logic, but in the sense that the ways of experiencing being produced may, as Richardson notes (1999), not be grounded in empiricism. Marton and Booth concede the point when suggesting that phenomenographic methodologies’ validity claim is made only in relation to the data gathered and that determining whether subjects possess the capacity to experience phenomena in the ways of experiencing identified ‘falls outside phenomenography proper’ (1997:136; see also åkerlind 2005a). This has subsequent implications for the subject position. Given that none of the subjects have, by necessity, experienced a phenomenon in the ways they allegedly have the capacity to, is there any need for the subject? This question will be addressed later in the thesis, when Baudrillard’s contention that simulations produce empiric models that are ‘nothing more than operational’ (1988) is discussed. In relation to the point currently being discussed, the observation supports this thesis’s characterisation of phenomenographic methodologies as achieving simulation rather than representation.

The absence of ideal or negative instances

Baudrillard associates the demise of rationality with the absence of a structure that can provide the capacity for measurement. His contention that, ‘the real…no longer has to be rational, since it is no longer measured against some ideal or negative instance’ (1988a [1981]:167) extends the non-positivist theme that, with no capacity for objectively grasping reality, there is no basis on which to establish the accuracy of representation. Baudrillard suggests that it is not accurate representation that is at stake—he has already concluded that this is impossible—but the rationality of the real. Considering the ways that phenomenographic methodologies may be understood to remove ideal or negative instances from their simulations provides a context for interpreting the relationship Baudrillard draws between those instances and rationality. It develops this thesis’s argument that phenomenographic methodologies achieve simulation and extends awareness of the methodologies’ empiric models and their influence on the reality presented through their results.

Phenomenography’s non-dualist ontological assumptions and processes prohibit the positioning of an empiric ideal (Marton 1981). As Säljö notes, it is not possible to prove that a phenomenographic methodology’s categories of description are accurate or superior to another (1988:45 in Sandberg 1997; åkerlind 2002). Baudrillard’s suggestion that the real is no longer measured against an ideal does not contradict my assertion that phenomenographic methodologies manifest an idealised subject position. The idealised subject is ideal in that it that exhibits the capacity to experience a phenomenon in all of the ways the constituting phenomenographic methodology identifies. Phenomenographic methodologies do not attempt to measure the real against this ideal subject; as has been shown, their assumptions and processes prohibit comparison between the simulations they produce and the original subjects that provide the data from which these simulations are generated (Hazel et al 1997; Barnacle 2005). The methodologies also do not exhibit a predictive (and, therefore, falsifiable) capacity in relation to individual external subjects’ accounts of phenomena. Their aim of generating potentialities rather than actualities problematises attempts at measuring subjects’ accounts: given the methodologies’ demonstrated capacity to incorporate non-verifiable or false assumptions into the ways of experiencing, there can be no hierarchical assumption that it is logical or preferable for subjects to exhibit as many of them as possible. Furthermore, there is no assertion that subjects actually experience the phenomenon in the ways identified (Marton & Booth 1997). As a result, it may be said that the ideal subject described in this thesis does not provide a scale against which the real may be measured.

Using ways of experiencing as the basic interpretive unit (Dunkin 2000) removes the possibility of negative instances from phenomenographic methodologies’ simulations. Svensson (1997:163) associates this with the decision to describe knowledge in qualitative rather than quantitative terms. Abstracting from Marton’s recent aligning of phenomenographic methodologies with variation theory (Marton & Pang 2002; Pang 2003; Marton, Runesson & Tsui 2004), a way of experiencing may be understood as a variable that is invoked in a relational and structural sense. Interpreting and categorising by variable diminishes the specificity of subjects’ accounts of experience to the extent that the distinction between opposing viewpoints is collapsed into categories that exhibit an absence of polarity. Following Gane’s reading of Baudrillarian subject-object relations, the process of fragmenting the relationship between subject and object into autonomous zones ‘tends to neutralise these zones as sites of potential contradiction’ (1991:28-29). This may be seen when considering the way phenomenographic methodologies would interpret two subjects who express different ideas about the size of a phenomenon. Although one subject may state that the object is big and the other that it is small, both subjects may be said to exhibit a way of experiencing the phenomenon that involves an apprehension of its size. The ‘size’ category of description will collocate opinions that differ in the content of their perception because the methodology establishes ‘size’ as the variable structuring both subjects’ accounts of the phenomenon. Collocating these divergent statements in a single category of description has the effect of collapsing the distinction between them: an expressed perception that an object is big becomes equivalent to one that it is small. Categorising by variable, and evidencing the resulting categories with contradictory accounts, collapses the results’ polarity and removes the possibility of constituting a negative instance using a phenomenographic methodology.

It may be argued that phenomenographic methodologies present ways of experiencing in the form of binary dyads that create the potential for negative instances to occur. For instance, it could be asked whether subjects experience a topic phenomenon according to a specific way of experiencing or not. As the ways of experiencing are only potentialities, however, a subject who fails to express a conception that may be interpreted as involving this way of experiencing does not negate it; they only fail to exhibit that way of experiencing. If none of the subjects interviewed using a phenomenographic methodology expressed a way of experiencing, it would not exist within the results; in not existing, it could not be a negative instance of some other extant way of experiencing. Attempts to establish a negative instance, for instance by engaging in ‘narrative incitement’ strategies (Gubrium & Holstein 1997:153) that prompt subjects by asking them whether they apprehend or experience a phenomenon in a certain way contradict the tenets of phenomenographic methodologies’ experiential focus (Bowden 2005:30). From a variation theory perspective, asking subjects if they experience a phenomenon in a certain way forces them to exhibit the capacity to do so, even if they state that they do not experience the phenomenon in that way and had not done so previously. Conceivable ways that a subject could offer a negative instance would be if they expressed an inability to answer or understand the question. If this did occur, the categories of description and outcome space, which are intended to represent the ways of experiencing, would not exhibit any record, as they do not function to present ways that phenomena are not experienced (Dahlin 2007). As a result, it may be concluded that negative instances of ways of experiencing cannot be identified generated using phenomenographic methodologies.

Attempting to replicate phenomenographic methodologies’ results with the intent of confirming the existence of previously-identified ways of experiencing will also not achieve negative instances. As phenomena are constituted during the methodologies’ operations, and outcome spaces are understood as synonyms for the relevant phenomena (Marton & Neuman 1996; Marton 2000), methodologies that produce different ways of experiencing must be understood as constituting different phenomena: a replica phenomenographic study that does not generate one of the ways of experiencing the original study produced is therefore constituting a different phenomenon. Dahlin (2007) alludes to the point when discussing the implications of non-dualist ontology for learning: ‘if one’s consciousness of the world changes…then the world itself, what one consider to be reality, must also change… both the self and the world are constituted in a new way’ (2007:339; see also Taylor 1993). Consequently, it would appear that phenomenographic methodologies produce simulations that have no capacity to evidence a negative instance. Neither the ways of experiencing nor the categories of description that seek to contextualise and evidence them are directly negatable within or between phenomenographic methodologies. The absence of rationality Baudrillard associates with this situation is visible through the previously-cited example that demonstrates phenomenographic methodologies’ capacity to generate models of empiric encounters in which the ‘same’ object may be both big and small at the same time.

 A way of operating

Baudrillard suggests that, with ideal and negative instances absent, reality is reduced to being ‘operational’ (1988a [1981]:167). For Baudrillard, this operationality is what remains once rationality and the capacity to generate meaning are removed from the empiric condition. He conflates his idea with the sense that encounters between subject and object may persist through the coding and decoding rituals governing their encounters, even when the external referents and meaning structures to which they pertain are absent. These rituals create the illusion that encounters between elements remain meaningful, obscuring the revelation that reality is absent and that all that remains are simulations of those encounters.

Baudrillard’s notion of operationality would seem analogous to the hyperreality that phenomenographic methodologies present through their indirect objects. Through their relational ontology and use of ways of experiencing to depict empiric encounters, the outcome spaces do not convey or consign any meaning or value upon subject or object. In mapping the (alleged) dimensions that have the potential to vary during encounters between ideal subjects and panoptic objects, phenomenographic methodologies may be argued to reflect the coding and decoding rituals their subjects employ when encountering an object, not a record of a specific encounter between those objects. This is appropriate, as no instance of the newly-constituted subject and object encountering each other may be identified. As Ekeblad and Bond describe, phenomenographic methodologies produce ‘the span of generative possibilities for relating with the phenomenon’ (Ekeblad & Bond 1994:155); they reflect a set of coding operations, presenting ‘a complex of aspects of the way that the experience of the phenomenon in question has been expressed’ (Marton & Booth 1997:125) or ‘the structures of awareness, which people constitute from the world of their experience’ (Entwistle 1997:127). In relation to the categories of description, where specific accounts of empiric encounters are allegedly reproduced (Dunkin 2000), the collation of potentially contradictory accounts and descriptions prohibit the emergence of a determinate object. Phenomenographic methodologies’ indirect objects are operationally-oriented simulations of what may happen during an empiric encounter between panoptic object and idealised subject, not a representation of a specific empiric encounter based in reality. As a result, the categories of description and outcome space ‘aim to be generalisable across individuals, time, space and psychological action’ (Burns 1994:72). In the context of postmodern attacks on metanarratives (Lyotard 1984 [1979]), Butler’s previously-cited reading of hyperreality as a potentiality (1999:25) helps account for phenomenographic methodologies’ generation of operational models of empiric encounters, rather than representations of extant encounters, subjects, and objects. This understanding supports the reading of phenomenographic methodologies’ results as hyperreal.

Imitation, reduplication and parody
Baudrillard diagnoses operationality as an aspect of the contemporary empiric condition. He develops his reading of the condition when proposing that there ‘is no longer a question of imitation, nor of reduplication, nor even of parody. [There] is rather a question of substituting signs of the real for the real itself’ (1988a [1981]:167). In relation to the demise of imitation and reduplication, this thesis has shown how subjects’ empiric records are not imitated or reduplicated in phenomenographic methodologies; instead, they are transformed into simulations of empiric encounters through being detached from the original context of subjects and their direct objects and attributed to the relationship between a pair of newly-constituted subject and object positions. In relation to the absence of parody, phenomenographic methodologies’ demonstrated failure to distinguish between subjects’ ‘true’ and ‘false’ accounts of empirical encounters extends to an inability to apprehend accounts of experience that parody empiric encounters. In Baudrillard’s example of a parodied bank robbery (1988a [1981]), even if the subject performing the event announces that they are only acting out a parody, the contemporary order cannot distinguish between or moderate its responses to this parody and a ‘real’ bank robbery. Similarly, under phenomenographic methodologies’ variation-oriented interpretive processes, a subject who imitates or parodies an empiric encounter will be treated as through they are providing ‘true’ evidence of ways of experiencing. As has been shown, phenomenographic methodologies’ simulations, like Baudrillard’s reading of the contemporary empiric condition, are ‘beyond true and false, beyond equivalences, beyond the rational distinctions upon which function all power and the social stratum’ (1988a [1981]:178). They collocate data that indicates phenomena are, for example, both big and small, presenting results that cannot be proved, disproved, or replicated. The operationality of these results—effectively, their capacity to simulate empiric encounters—is described below.

Replacing the real

Baudrillard’s contention that signs of the real replace the real itself under contemporary empiric conditions may be applied literally to phenomenographic methodologies’ simulation develops the operational theme. Each way of experiencing is conceived as a sign for a qualitatively different operational aspect of an empiric encounter. In the sense that ‘representation starts from the principle that the sign and the real are equivalent’ (Baudrillard 1988a [1981]:170), phenomenographic methodologies assume that discursive representation functions as a series of signs that offer unmediated access to the reality of subjects’ empiric records (Hasselgren & Beach 1996; Säljö 1997). Interpreting this discursive representation through the research object substitutes the signs of an experience—the discursive formulations the methodologies assume reflects what has been experienced—for the real experience. In this way, the signs of the real replace the real itself as the focal point of attention. This understanding extends Säljö’s view that phenomenographic methodologies study what people say—the signs they employ to represent their experience under certain conditions—rather than what they experience (1997). Within the phenomenographic literature, arguments advanced in favour of constructing categories of description with exclusive attention to interview transcripts (Entwistle 1997; Barnacle 2005; Bowden 2005; Green 2005) compound the methodologies’ shift in focus from reality to sign. As shown above, the ways of experiencing and categories of description do not achieve or intend a representation of a specific real, but the identification of a set of signs that will allegedly vary when the real is encountered. Applying Baudrillard’s reading of the absence of reality to phenomenographic methodologies’ indirect object, these collated signs are tools used to simulate the presence of extant subjects, objects, and empiric encounters. They are an alibi for reality; signs that dissimulate that reality (the constituent parts of the assumed relational ontologic fields the phenomenographic methodologies’ indirect objects allegedly present) is absent.

Changing empiric conditions

Having raised the relationship between phenomenographic methodologies and contemporary empiric conditions, the final section of this chapter examines how the methodologies may be argued to contribute to, reflect, and ultimately create the possibility of changing those conditions. It demonstrates how phenomenographic methodologies’ simulations exhibit a capacity to influence reality through their substitution for and subsequent adoption in reality. An additional argument is advanced that while phenomenographic methodologies achieve simulation, they also provide a context in which the assumptions and processes that facilitate that simulation may be observed. An awareness that simulatory processes are operating destabilises them by undermining the illusion that they capture and reflect reality. Challenging the assumptions on which phenomenographic methodologies seek to access reality encourages them to evolve. If the ontological assumptions that underpin the method, and the processes that action them, are improved, phenomenographic methodologies’ potential capacity to engage reality will increase, limiting the proliferation of simulation. Increasing skepticism about phenomenographic methodologies’ assumptions and processes and their relation to reality will lead to increased skepticism about what is known of contemporary empiric conditions. This may be considered a precondition for achieving social change (Agger 1991) of the kind that the phenomenographic literature suggests its methodologies enable (Marton 1986; Booth 1997; Bowden 2000b; Dall’Alba 2000).

Perfect descriptive machines

As a preliminary point, Baudrillard’s description of  ‘present-day simulators’ in the essay “Simulation and simulacra” (1988a [1981]) is notably similar to the function and goals the phenomenographic literature ascribes to phenomenographic methodologies. Baudrillard describes contemporary simulators as ‘perfect descriptive machine[s] which provide all the signs of the real and short-circuit all its vicissitudes’. He suggests that they ‘try to make the real, all the real, coincide with their simulation models’ (1988a [1981]:167), concluding that the empirical condition they produce will be ‘a programmed micro-cosm, where nothing can be left to chance…a universe purged of every threat to the senses’ (1983d [1981]:62). These descriptions exhibit a thematic similarity to phenomenographic methodologies’ characteristics and assumed goals; in particular, the aim of describing ‘the totality of ways in which people experience, or are capable of experiencing, the object of interest’ (Marton & Booth 1997:121) to produce a ‘synonym’ of some aspect of reality (Marton 2000), including the reality of the experienced world: the description of outcome spaces as synonyms connotes that they present a perfect sign, one that achieves a representation of all of the ways the phenomenon may be experienced. It implies a totalising—and, therefore, micro-cosmic and threat purging—simulation of reality.

For phenomenographic methodologies, the most significant element of Baudrillard’s description of modern day simulators is the suggestion that they try to make the real coincide with their simulation models (1988a [1981]). This observation forms part of Baudrillard’s broader theme that images and simulations detach themselves from reality and seek to occlude or replace it. Baudrillard locates the manipulation of reality as part of his second phase of the image, where it masks and perverts its referents (1988a [1981]). This manipulation exceeds the distorted representations of reality and the constitution of new subjects and objects charted earlier in this thesis, suggesting a direct capacity for simulatory machines to influence extant subjects and objects, in other words, to influence reality itself.

Eleanor Walsh’s exegesis of the construction/discovery dichotomy within phemenography (1994; Bruce 1997) suggests a need for two accounts of the ways that phenomenographic methodologies manipulate reality to coincide with their models. Walsh argues that a construction perspective attributes phenomenographic methodologies’ findings to the relationship between researchers and their data (1994). She suggests that ‘researcher[s] follows certain procedures, observe[s] certain principles, and ha[ve] a sense of control over the data…where the data conflicts with the expert’s or the researcher’s preferred framework, the framework, rather than the data, will take precedence in developing a description’ (1994:21). This description reflects Baudrillard’s belief that simulatory processes try to make the real (in this case, the data attended to as part of a phenomenographic study) conform to an extant framework or map. It suggests that phenomenographic methodologies allow aspects of reality to be selectively presented to accord with their models. A more nuanced approach to the construction perspective would still suggest that phenomenographic methodologies tend to identify and privilege aspects of the real that accord with pre-existing models of empiric encounters (Webb 1996; Sorva & Malmi 2007): methodological recommendations to define topic phenomena clearly (Bowden 2005) and ensure that all interviewees are describing the ‘same’ phenomenon (åkerlind 2005b:113) indicate that a pre-existing model of the direct object from the researcher’s perspective exists and that subjects are assumed to be referring to this object during the data-gathering phase. Neuman is most clear on this point, writing that, ‘a detailed analysis is presented of the phenomenon as it is experienced by the researcher…a clear definition of the phenomenon to be studied, as experienced by the researcher, is of great importance’ (1997:63-7). As has been shown, the problem with this approach is that the researcher’s preconceived object may not exist (or exist in substantially different forms) in subjects’ lifeworlds (Ashworth & Lucas 2000). Phenomenographic methodologies create the capacity for researchers to selectively determine relevant data from subjects’ accounts and privilege that data with the capacity to confer meaning upon their understanding of the topic phenomenon. This facilitates manipulation of the real by marginalising some aspects of the empiric accounts provided and selectively attributing the capacity to confer meanings to other aspects. It manipulates the ‘reality’—the subjects’ accounts of their empiric encounters—to which the methodologies attend. As a result, the reality that is constructed—constructed in much the same sense as Baudrillard’s reference to physicists ‘inventing a new particle each month’ (1990:13 in Genosko 1994:44)—and which the methodologies present as representing aspects of reality exhibits a tendency to coincide with the methodologies’ models of empiric encounters and the elements that constitute them. As Ashworth and Lucas note in a brief aside, those aspects of the accounts of empiric encounters that do not conform to the researcher’s preconceived model are not presented, obscuring their existence.

Walsh’s reading of the discovery perspective, which assumes that conceptions and ways of experiencing exist within the research object independently of the analytic framework that uncovers them (Walsh 1994; Bruce 1997) exhibits a similar, though less immediately-visible, capacity for selective attention to and manipulation of the real that phenomenographic methodologies present. Walsh’s discovery perspective assumes a capacity to bracket prior experience and achieve some atheoretical objective grasp of reality. This capacity is contested from poststructuralist and postmodern perspectives (Agger, 1991; Best & Kellner 1991) and suggests a degree of correspondence between phenomenographic methodologies and phenomenologic research orientations that has been rejected in the phenomenographic literature (Marton 1986; Uljens 1993; Hasselgren & Beach 1997). Suggesting that conceptions or ways of experiencing have an independent existence ignores the ontologic assumptions that frame and define the elements—subject and object—and the nature of the relationship between them as phenomenographic methodologies hypothesise it. The sense in which the accounts of empiric encounters are manipulated is based on an awareness of the discrepancy between the direct object that subjects experience and may describe and the attribution of the discovered conceptions to the newly-constituted object. As shown in the previous chapter’s discussion of the move from direct to panoptic objects, the data suggested to harbour objective and independent conceptions is subjected to a manipulative process that transfers the meaning it confers upon one object position to another. The conceptions may have an independent existence, however, they are expressed in relation to the subject’s direct object. Attributing them to the panoptic object manipulates their deployment in the ‘reality’ of the subjects’ accounts of their empiric encounters.

Following these observations, the argument advanced in this thesis is that, irrespective of whether researchers adopt a construction or discovery perspective, phenomenographic methodologies’ initial assumptions and one-sided meaning-making processes create the conditions under which data that coincides with their ontological models of subjectivity, objectivity, and the relationship between the two is gathered and presented. Phenomenographic methodologies’ processes exercise a manipulative effect from their earliest stages of attending to reality. From a practical perspective, the phenomenographic interview that generates the data assumed to exhibit aspects of reality is produced according to the methodologies’ model of a successful interview. It aims to elicit variation (Bruce 1994; Francis 1996; åkerlind 2005a), has specific characteristics that differentiate it from other interviews (Bruce 1994; Francis 1996), and is planned in advance (Bowden 2000b; Dunkin 2000; Dortins 2002). These factors shape the reality of the empiric encounter between researcher and subject with the intent of ensuring that the data it generates will coincide with phenomenographic methodologies’ models. The subsequent analysis phase deploys assumptions about what sort of data can confer meaning on the phenomenon. It identifies and attends to only that type of data—frequently that which is capable of being verbalised and transcribed (Hazel et al 1997; Barnacle 2005)—obscuring elements of reality that do not exhibit the desirable attributes. This delimits the reality to which phenomenographic methodologies attend: the data privileged with conferring meaning upon the topic phenomenon is preordained not to exceed the initial assumptions about what may be presented. Like the contemporary empiric conditions Baudrillard describes in “Simulacra and simulations”, the methodologies generate and present events and information that ‘are inscribed in advance in…decoding and orchestration rituals’ and that are ‘anticipated in their mode of presentation and possible consequences’ (1988a [1981]:179). The object is defined as a function of the structured code—the methodologies’ signifying practices and ontologic assumptions—that precedes them (Grace 2000:8).

Phenomenographic methodologies’ shaping of the real to coincide with their models is indirectly evidenced by their tendency to produce similar number of ways of experiencing phenomena. Although åkerlind (2005a) suggests she has experienced phenomena of different degrees of complexity—as measured by number of categories of description—she notes that this ‘is an issue that [she] ha[s] not seen discussed elsewhere’ (2005a:67). Phenomenographic methodologies’ generally produce between three and five categories of description to represent the ways of experiencing they have identified (Hawke 1993:10; Säljö 1988). One way of interpreting this is to hypothesize that the presence of some moderating influence is encouraging uniformity. As William Macfie points out in relation to historical causality, despite the absence of a consensus model of causation that identifies some fundamental nature or principle, contemporary studies of historical events generally produce models of causation that are divided into similar numbers of strands (2006). This infers that different events in different époques and locations have causes that exhibit a uniform divisibility. The alternative hypothesis Macfie proposes is that this consistent number of causal strands reflects the framework of analysis and cultural/discursive parameters surrounding the analysis. Relating Macfie’s critique to phenomenographic methodologies contests the possibility that all phenomena may be experienced in a similar number of ways. Marton’s contention that, ‘when investigating people’s understanding of various phenomena, concepts, and principles, we repeatedly found that each phenomenon, concept, or principle can be understood in a limited number of qualitatively different ways’ (1986:30-31; Renström, Andersson, & Marton 1990; Burns 1994) potentially reflects the methodologies’ influence on the ways of experiencing identified rather than the ontologic relationship between subject and object. An alternative formulation of Marton’s hypothesis would be that using a phenomenographic methodology to investigate people’s understanding of various phenomena repeatedly identifies (or generates) a limited number of qualitatively different ways of experiencing. Considering this from a Baudrillarian perspective suggests that phenomenographic methodologies exhibit a tendency to manipulate the reality to which they attend and present so that it coincides with their models. Such manipulation reflects a constructive urge forming part of a broader drive to establish order from the disorder of contemporary empiric conditions (Rojek 1993:121) that may be argued to reflect phenomenographic methodologies’ needs for discrete subjects and objects more than an attempt to accurately represent reality. 

Representation, reality, and maps

A significant implication of phenomenographic methodologies’ shaping of reality to coincide with their empiric models is that, as Baudrillard points out, ‘the sovereign difference’ between representation and reality disappears (1988a [1981]:166). This exceeds the collapse of meaning identified earlier in this thesis, as it marks what Baudrillard describes as the third phase of the image: the emergence of an entity that masks the absence of reality and its connection to the alleged representation. In relation to the metaphor Baudrillard invokes at the start of “Simulacra and simulations” (1988a [1981]), and the terminology Marton adopts in the phenomenographic literature, the ‘map’ of ways of experiencing diverges from the empiric reality it originally sought to represent. Examining how this ‘map’ of reality begins to distort subjects’ apprehension of reality so that they perceive the map itself as reality demonstrates a practical way that phenomenographic methodologies’ simulations contribute to achieving and propagating the hyperreality they present through their results.

Baudrillard’s use of a cartographic metaphor parallels Marton’s description of phenomenographic methodologies ‘mapping the qualitatively different ways in which people experience, conceptualise, perceive, and understand various aspects of, and phenomena in, the world around them’ (1986:31). The reference to mapping is repeated within the phenomenographic literature (Säljö 1988; Dall’Alba 1997; Hasselgren and Beach 2000; åkerlind 2002; Bowden 2005) and, more broadly, has a history of usage in pedagogic theory (Dewey 1902). Baudrillard uses a Jorge Luis Borges fable to introduce his argument that simulation encourages subjects to apprehend models of reality rather than reality itself. In Baudrillard’s recounting of the tale, a map becomes so detailed that it covers the land it is intended to represent, obscuring the area beneath it. While Borges’s story eventually allows the topography to exceed the map, Baudrillard’s vision of the contemporary empirical condition sees the map successfully obscuring subjects’ view of the terrain, leading them along paths that increasingly deviate from reality. Eventually, there is nothing beneath the map; simulation has not only obscured but reshaped and ultimately replaced the empiric field. The territory that subjects are experiencing does not have a referential basis in reality; it has become reality.
Studies employing phenomenographic methodologies may be argued to evidence practical examples of the capacity to produce simulations that distort and replace reality in this way. Seeking to justify phenomenographic methodologies’ focus upon ways of experiencing, Marton suggests that, ‘for a teacher who is dealing with the power aspect of society in the classroom it might, for instance, be useful…to know the possible ways in which his or her students think about power’ (1981:168; see also Booth 1997). Marton is proposing the use of a phenomenographic methodology-produced map of the ways of experiencing ‘power’ as a pedagogic resource. Potentially, teachers will ‘believe’ or endorse the phenomenographic methodology’s definition of ‘power’ and the ways students may experience it by designing their teaching activities and strategies based upon the simulations the methodologies present. In turn, the teacher’s students will assimilate the lessons, learning to distinguish between the ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ ways of experiencing power but also assimilating the entire simulation because even the ‘wrong’ ways of experiencing are conceived as ‘real’ possibilities. As a result, the simulated ways of experiencing ‘power’ become manifested by real subjects; Baudrillard’s vision of the map preceding the territory has been achieved through structuration. Although phenomenographic methodologies’ pedagogic domain heightens the pertinence of this example, the principle extends to all fields of sociological enquiry. Using phenomenographic methodologies to generate simulations of phenomena and ways of experiencing them accelerates progress towards hyperreality by influencing subjects’ understanding of reality’s empiric possibilities.

Context as counter-argument

A more optimistic way of reading phenomenographic methodologies is to consider that they provide a context in which simulation and hyperreality may be observed to occur. Unlike Baudrillard’s reading of the media’s operations (1981b [1972]; see also Merrin 2005), phenomenographic methodologies do not seek to obscure their simulatory assumptions and processes. They are necessarily specific about the steps involved in generating what they present, addressing assumptions directly, as may be seen when Marton and Neuman commence a chapter on phenomenography by stating that their aim is to ‘make the ontological assumptions underlying phenomenography explicit’ (1996:315). Employing Marton’s gloss of variation theory—that there is no discernment without variation (Marton & Booth 1997; Pang 2003)—it may be said that identifying these ontological assumptions infers their capacity to vary. This establishes their contestability: ‘assumptions can be articulated and subjected to criticism from the scientific community, they can be defended modified, or abandoned, in response to criticism’ (Longino 1989:266 cited in Burns 1994:74). Where ontological assumptions are contestable, it follows that understandings of the contemporary empiric condition derived from them may also be challenged. In this sense, phenomenographic methodologies may be said to combat the proliferation of hyperreality by increasing the capacity to observe and contest the assumptions that enable simulation and extending the grounds for skepticism about the empiric encounters they portray.

In a similar vein, phenomenographic methodologies’ descriptions of their processes for minimising bias and interpretive influence (Sandberg 1997; Dunkin 2000; Patrick 2000) may be read as further revealing the mechanisms that facilitate their simulations. They may be described as ‘the representational devices used by society and the sociologist to convey the image of objective (or subjective) reality’ (Gubrium & Holstein 1997:76). In highlighting the use of these devices, phenomenographic methodologies evidence the interpretive gap, the potential difference between the accounts of experience they gather and the abstractions they provide. In addition to the effect described in the previous paragraph, this removes simulations’ constitutive illusion that they are representing reality. Extrapolating from Baudrillard’s discussion of illusion in The Perfect Crime (1996), a simulation recognised as such is no longer a simulation. In failing to give the appearance of producing a ‘real’, the attempted simulation cannot achieve its goal of replacing reality; it is understood to produce only an abstraction. As a result, the simulation can no longer exist. This reasoning accords with Butler’s (1999:23) contention that simulation is a way of removing illusions about the world. It reinforces the sense that by providing a context in which simulation may be observed to occur, phenomenographic methodologies help to limit the proliferation of hyperreality.

Coding representation and creating change

Another way of optimistically framing phenomenographic methodologies’ simulation and hyperreality-enabling characteristics is to suggest that the methodologies, like Baudrillard’s early work (Poster 1981), attempt to provide access to the codes governing representations of empirical encounters for the purpose of achieving beneficial social outcomes. As Mark Poster suggests, once a structured code of representation has been revealed, ‘an argument could be developed that radical change must focus on the code, develop a practice to dismantle it and a strategy to create a new order’ (1981:468). The phenomenographic literature evidences an apposite theme of identifying the variables structuring accounts of empirical encounters as a prerequisite to achieving change. Marton explains phenomenographic methodologies’ utility on the basis that ‘a careful account of the different ways people think about phenomena may help uncover conditions that facilitate the transition from one way of thinking to a qualitatively “better” perception of reality’ (1986:33). He goes on to suggest that, ‘if we understand the relationship that exists between an individual and what he or she is trying to learn, our pedagogical opportunities are greatly expanded’ (1986:43-44). Similarly, Bowden advocates a form of ‘developmental phenomenography’, which ‘seeks to find out how people experience some aspect of their world, and then to enable them or others to change they way their world operates’ (2000:3). Booth (1997) and Dall’Alba (2000) emphasise that understanding others’ ways of experiencing phenomena creates the possibility of change, either for oneself or others.

Noting Noel Entwistle’s contention that phenomenographic methodologies produce ‘analyses [that] are readable and accessible to non-specialists’ (Entwistle 1997:129), it may be argued that revealing the codes that govern the representation of empiric encounters reflects a strategy of encouraging subjects to comprehend and access meaning making processes themselves. This argument extends Säljö’s emphasis upon phenomenographic methodologies’ discursive basis, which identifies experience as a function of internalising shared criteria for codifying events in particular contexts (1997). From this perspective, separating and defining the variables according to which empirical encounters are encoded may be seen as a preliminary step towards manipulating them. Although Baudrillard disagrees with the value of this approach, providing subjects with access to this knowledge potentially redistributes the capacity to determine meaning from traditional custodians—institutions, the media, and political parties—to a broader demographic. For phenomenographic methodologies, the value of this reading is that it suggests their effects are paralleling the development of contemporary empiric conditions, particularly those related to the effect of information communication technologies and the media on subjects’ capacity to engage with and shape discursive practices (McLuhan 1962, 1967). In the context of Baudrillard’s suggestion that the media produce ‘speech without response’ and reduce subjects to passive receivers of information through an implicitly value-laden structure (1981 [1972]:173), phenomenographic methodologies’ results—if not their analytic processes—may be read as attempting to provide a way to redress the exclusion from the meaning-making processes that subjects experience. Giving subjects access to the codes that govern simulation exceeds attempts to simply democratise the dissemination function.

In the context of Baudrillard’s later work concerning subjects’ occupation of a media-defined reality (1995)—the implications of which he sees as more serious than occupying a media-dominated one (Turner 1993:81)—phenomenographic methodologies’ treatment of the subject and their relationship to the object may be read as imbricating the possibilities that hyperreality offers. Experiences that may ordinarily be unavailable to subjects for social reasons are made available in hyperreality (King 2000); the proliferation and proximity of these experiences and images influence subjects’ perceptions of the world (Crocket 2005) and potentially create freer subjects (Kellner 1989:165). In a similar sense, phenomenographic methodologies constitute an idealised subject, one that exhibits the capacity to experience objects in all the ways the methodologies identify, challenging restrictive readings of the subject’s empiric possibilities. In this sense, they may be interpreted as adapting themselves to the hyperreal empiric condition. Less optimistically, emphasising the benefits of increased access to diverse perspectives may be understood to occlude a broader awareness of the limitations applied to the diversity being made available. As Säljö points out, ‘the prime interest of phenomenographic research (in Marton’s interpretation) is in finding and delimiting the variation in ways of experiencing reality’ (1997:175). This assumes that there are a limited number of ways of experiencing reality. The potential ramifications, as Denzin describes in a separate context, is that the ‘the field… [is] viewed as residing within the prevalent social images that mediate lived experience’ (1991:80). It suggests that phenomenographic methodologies may not only reproduce the discourse they study (Webb 1996), but establish it as a totalising set of empiric possibilities that are ultimately restrictive rather than empowering.

One way of resolving this problem is to suggest that, in proposing a finite set of ways of experiencing, phenomenographic methodologies create the possibility for change by providing a ‘map’ of reality that may be exceeded. As argued earlier in this thesis, under phenomenographic methodologies’ ontological assumptions, if a subject expresses a new way of experiencing a phenomenon, they are constituting a new phenomenon (Dahlin 2007) and becoming a new subject (in the sense that they are distinguishable from their previous incarnation) (Taylor 1993). As a result, a successful attempt to exceed the ways of experiencing proposed means that reality changes: the constituted record of assumed empiric possibilities is manipulated. This possibility grants subjects the capacity to achieve change, although it should be noted that the power to recognise the new way of experiencing remains in the hands of the persons or entities operating the phenomenographic methodologies.

The arguments made in this chapter demonstrate how Baudrillard’s theorising and analysis of contemporary empiric conditions may be used to refine and extend phenomenographic methodologies. Identifying that phenomenographic methodologies are engaged in a process of simulation refines them by accounting for many of the issues raised during the first chapter of this thesis. Applying Baudrillard’s definition of simulation, ‘the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal’(1988a [1981]:166), presents the move from direct to panoptic and indirect object as part of a process of generating a new ‘reality’. This acknowledges phenomenographic methodologies’ lack of external referents and accommodates the awareness that their results are not demonstrably empiric. It links the distinction between indirect objects’ idealised subject and object positions and the reality of individual subjects’ empiric encounters to a broader process where the new entities are detached from the reality they were initially constituted to represent. In this way, the reading encompasses phenomenographic methodologies’ focus on identifying potentialities and helps to account for related issues such as the absence of accepted reliability and validity measures.

In a similar sense, applying Baudrillard’s diagnosis of the precession of simulacra (1988a [1981]) helps explain the temporal issues that problematise phenomenographic methodologies’ ability to achieve an experiential focus. It frames the issue as an effect of the simulation in which phenomenographic methodologies are engaged. This evades the difficulties of trying to achieve full phenomenological bracketing that Ashworth and Lucas (2000) and Dortins (2002) identify. It also informs discussions of the construction-discovery dichotomy that Walsh proposes (1994), revealing that both perspectives involve a model-oriented analytic phase that manipulates the reality allegedly being measured. Proposing a new function—simulation—and suggesting that phenomenographic methodologies have entered the age of precession removes the grounds for critiquing their results on the basis of flawed representation. The awareness that phenomenographic methodologies are simulating reality migrates discussion of their validity to a new dimension.

The chapter extends phenomenographic methodologies’ function by exploring the possibilities that simulation, and the provision of a context in which it may be observed to occur, creates. It argues that constituting new subject and object positions affords the methodologies a capacity to create and disseminate change. The idealised subject and panoptic object that phenomenographic methodologies generate are shown to exhibit increased empiric possibilities. This awareness exceeds the methodologies’ existing capacity to achieve change through the application of their results (Marton 1986). It shows that operating phenomenographic methodologies exerts an intrinsic capacity to manipulate the reality of subject-object relations. This advances the developmental and interventionist perspectives that Bowden (2000b, 2005) and Nita Cherry (2005) describe, enhancing phenomenographic methodologies’ capacity for political intervention. As the chapter explains, the benefit is an egalitarian assumption of mutual empiric capacity; the danger identified is that empiric possibilities are attributed to subjects who may not exhibit the capacity to experience them.

In advancing these points, the chapter achieves the thesis’s secondary goal of demonstrating how Baudrillard’s theorising and reading of contemporary empiric conditions can help to refine and extend qualitative research methods such as phenomenographic methodologies. While the first chapter’s reflexive examination is conducted without reference to a broader set of theoretic tools, the second chapter evidences the further insights that a Baudrillarian field of reference can inspire. Characterising phenomenographic methodologies’ categories of description and outcome spaces as hyperreal demonstrates how Baudrillard’s work provides a useful vocabulary for describing their characteristics. The discussion of phenomenographic methodologically-produced results’ lack of calibration, polarity, rationality, and ideal or negative instances uses Baudrillard’s reading of contemporary empiric conditions to offer a framework for exploring the effects of the assumptions and processes that generated them. As argued throughout the thesis, the improved understanding of phenomenographic methodologies’ function this yields increases their validity and helps to perpetuate their ongoing use: the new vocabulary and epistemologic framework locate and organise the strands of phenomenographic methodologies’ assumptions and processes into a cohesive whole that increases the communicability of their results and findings.

The chapter’s deployment of Baudrillard’s analysis of contemporary empiric conditions in “The system of objects” (1988b [1968]) demonstrates another potential contribution by evidencing the need to update phenomenographic methodologies’ empiric model. Following Baudrillard, the chapter highlights the potential for independent contextual entities to confer meaning upon objects or phenomena. This is argued to problematise phenomenographic methodologies’ attribution of ways of experiencing to subject-object relations within a context (Marton & Booth 1997). The examples given demonstrate the difficulty of determining the parameters of phenomena under investigation, suggesting that phenomenographic methodologies afford researchers a unilateral capacity to determine phenomena’s external horizons in a way that is incompatible with the precepts of an experiential focus. The discussion is argued to reveal the instability of the meanings that phenomenographic methodologies generate and the fluidity of the subject-object relationships they present. The chapter complements this point by applying Baudrillard’s insights concerning the language of desire (1988b [1968]) to demonstrate the potential meaninglessness of the language used to present the methodologies’ results as well as subjects’ records of their empiric encounters. This advances Säljö’s (1997) arguments concerning linguistic and social influence on phenomenographic methodologies’ data collection and analysis.

In these ways, Baudrillard’s concepts and theories are shown to provide a set of tools that can be used to refine and extend phenomenographic methodologies by proposing a new function and relationship with contemporary empiric conditions. Baudrillard’s work enhances phenomenographic methodologies’ epistemological bases by juxtaposing their assumptions and processes with a reflexively-analysed vision of contemporary empiric conditions. The avenues explored—that phenomenographic methodologies function to generate simulations and provide a context in which those simulations may be observed to occur—show that Baudrillard’s theories do not herald the end of qualitative and sociologically-oriented research tools, but facilitate their extension and persistence.

© International Journal of Baudrillard Studies (2011)

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