An Experiment Demonstrating Group-based Dialogic Introspection

Gerhard Kleining

During the 2001 Blaubeuren workshop the Hamburg group directed an experiment to show the potentials of the method of dialogic introspection for data collection. The experiment was “qualitative”, aiming at the exploration of a concept rather than testing a hypothesis about it. The method of the qualitative experiment was well known to Gestalt psychologists, for a description of its history and character see Kleining (1986). The procedure of dialogic introspection combines individual introspection with a mental (inner) dialogue between the individual's cognitive and emotional psychic qualities, between present and past experiences (introspective and retrospective) and between what the individual felt himself/herself and learned from reports of other respondents. The methodology of the approach is heuristic (Kleining, 1982/2001; Cox, 1995; Kleining & Witt, 2000, 2001; Burkart, 2002, pp. 91-98 in this volume).

About 15 researchers from different countries and native languages participated, men and women, all attendants of the Blaubeuren workshop and experts in qualitative psychological research. They were placed at a “round table” facing each other. The person directing the research (G. K.) informed the participants about the procedure:

  • They were requested to be attentive to feelings, thoughts, and experiences which came to their minds after hearing a certain concept (to be named later), to introspect about it by listening to their own emotions, thoughts, associations, and whatever happened to them in reaction to the concept under study.
  • They could make notes whenever they felt like it. The notes would stay privat.
  • After a while they would be asked to report their experience using or not using their notes. This would be done clockwise.
  • Everybody should listen to what other people said and take them as stimulation reports for their own introspection.
  • The most important communicative rule would be: no comments on other participant's information should be given, neither positive nor negative.
  • A second round would allow the participants to add comments to their previous reports.
  • All verbal information would be tape-recorded (this was not done during this particular test as it was intended for information of researchers only).
  • As for the participants it was the first test of this sort their active cooperation was requested and it was stated that its outcome would totally rely on them.

The function of the person directing the test is the following:

  • To inform about the procedure, establish and keep a friendly and communicative atmosphere.
  • To present the stimulus, concept, or topic for the introspection.
  • To ask all participants to start their introspection, allow for the necessary time and then ask each participant to offer their thoughts (if not, to accept it without comments). Also to thank each participant for his/her information.
  • If necessary during the reporting, to make sure that there were no comments on reports of other participants.
  • The directing person will accept every report positively but also will refrain from any evaluation of it.

The topic in our research demonstration was “a blackboard” pointing at one standing next to the group but with a comment that the topic could be understood more concrete or more general or in any other way.

The test proceeded as described above. The period of silent individual introspection lasted about five minutes until everybody had stopped to take notes. One persons then volunteered to start the reporting and after that the reporting continued clockwise. All participants gave information. The first reports were rather short and factual but later ones became more personal and included stories. There was spontaneous (non-verbal) agreement and laughing after one participant reported the terrible feeling caused by chalks scratching the blackboard. There was attentive listening and a general interest in other respondent's reports. The second round was used by most participants for additions to their previous information. The test overall lasted about one hour in total.

Though there was no verbal recording and analysis, some information can be given about the kind of data produced by this procedure. The following aspects were mentioned and/or described:

  • The name: “blackboard” vs. “whiteboard” vs. “green board” (the one standing next to the group was green). Differences in the meaning of the word in Finish, German, and English were indicated[i].
  • The physical components of a blackboard and its phenomenological appearance.
  • The personal experience with a particular blackboard, e. g. writing on it, feeling the sound, scratching on it.
  • The place of a blackboard in one's own biography when he/she was a pupil.
  • The role of a blackboaard when he/she was teaching.
  • The function of blackboards at school in general and within the institutions of education.

In sum the experiment produced lively comments and stories on different aspects of the topic. They were

  • factual (e. g. the description of the material),
  • personal (e. g. emotional and cognitive reactions, present and past),
  • social (e. g. the function within a class),
  • institutional (e. g. the function at school),
  • cultural (e. g. etymology and different meaning of the name in different languages).

Evaluating the procedure of dialogic introspection it can be stated that the test produced a number of different though related aspects opening up the frame of the concept for an explorative analysis. What had seemed to be a rather simple and banal “word” thus turned out to be a concept with many facets.

If the analysis of the (recorded) data would follow the heuristic methodology, we would try to find common patterns or similarities within the data to discover the overall structure of the experience based on this particular test which would give hints to related concepts and their range of validity.

It also became obvious that there are a number of advantages of this particular method.

  • Varied qualitative data can be produced in a rather short time and rather economically which in some research projects is an important point (vs. individual qualitative interviews, vs. individual introspection in classical test design e. g. the one by Wundt or the Würzburg school and vs. collecting individual therapeutic reports from clients).
  • Individual concepts can be maintained despite a group-approach (vs. group discussions or focus groups which tend to reduce varieties as an effect of group dynamics).
  • Data of high complexity can be achieved as different persons respond and open answers and descriptions are requested and accepted.
  • The group stimulates those areas of responses which were not in the foregrounds of the minds of individuals in the first place but were recalled after listening to reports of other members (vs. individual testing and/or private introspection e. g. in personal diaries).

The discussion of the procedure after the end of the data collection pointed to ways of analysis of the information gained:

  • Analysis can following different intentions and methodologies. The type of analysis the Hamburg group uses is that of searching for homologies applying a question-and-answer (“dialogic”) procedure (see also references).
  • Analysis can group gender reactions to show differences (and similarities). It also can compare early and later responses as first and second responses to study their dynamics. Also national differences could be investigated.

There are also limitations of this particular method. As all single methods dialogic introspection is not “the” but only “one” method among others and should be combined with other approaches which also is suggested by the heuristic methodology (“variation”). The limitations of each method, as well as its advantages, should be explored and taken into account in each research design.

  • Limitations may be personal. (a) A person might not be willing to give his/her answer to a certain topic. This would be accepted without discussion and without an indication of any negative evaluation. We do not question that a person might have good reasons for his/her behavior. (b) A person may be regarded to talk too much and switch from one theme to another. In this case the person directing the research should accept that there is no “too much” in data collection in introspective research (we have techniques to handle large masses of qualitative data). (c) A person might give what seem to be irrelevant answers. Our response to that is that in this sort of qualitative research there are “no irrelevant answers”, every answer is accepted.
  • Limitation also may be caused by social conditions: As the test collects verbal data about the self some people may not be used to present their personal stories to other people in a group.They also might not feel comfortable to put their feeling into words. This might exclude them as a possible source of information in this sort of research.
  • There also may be anthropological/cultural restrictions. One expert mentioned that it was uncommen with certain Eskimo (Inuit) families to inquire about the feelings of family members.
  • Limitations certainly are produced by the sample of the persons participating. A sample theory is necessary to deal with this factor. The answer of the heuristic methodology is a “maximal structural variation of perspectives” saying that the samples should be able to describe the topic from as many different sides as necessary which will become clear during the research itself. In our example additional samples of pupils and of respondents of different social levels and of different educational systems could be suggested.


Burkart, Thomas (2002). The Role of the Researcher in Group-based Dialogic Introspection. In Mechthild Kiegelmann (Ed.), The role of the researcher in Qualitative Psychology (pp. 91-98).Tübingen: Ingeborg Huber Verlag.

Cox, Laurence (1995). Discovery and dialectics: Gerhard Kleining's methodology of qualitative research. RetrievedJanuary 9, 2002, from http://www.iol.ie/~mazzoldi/toolsforchange/postmet/method.html

Kleining, Gerhard (1982). An outline for the methodology of qualitative social research.Hamburg: University of Hamburg. Retrieved December 28, 2001, from http://www.rrz.uni-hamburg.de/psych-1/witt/Archiv/QualitativeMethoden/KleiningEng1982.htm#; now available at http://www1.uni-hamburg.de/abu//Archiv/QualitativeMethoden/Kleining/KleiningEng1982.htm

Kleining, Gerhard (1986). Das qualitative Experiment. Kölner Zeitschrift für Soziologie und Sozialpsychologie, 38, 724-750.

Kleining, Gerhard & Witt, Harald (2000, January). The qualitative heuristic approach: A methodology for discovery in psychology and the social sciences. Rediscovering the method of introspection as an example [19 paragraphs]. Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung / Forum: Qualitative Social Research [On-line Journal], 1(1). Retrieved December 28, 2001, from http://www.qualitative-research.net/fqs-texte/1-00/1-00kleiningwitt-e.htm#

Kleining, Gerhard & Witt, Harald (2001, February). Discovery as basic methodology of qualitative and quantitative research [81 paragraphs]. Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung / Forum: Qualitative Social Research [On-line Journal], 2(1). Retrieved December 28, 2001, from http://www.qualitative-research.net/fqs-texte/1-01/1-01kleiningwitt-e.htm#

[i] In Finish „backboard“ would be “taulu”, which also indicates art paintings, at school the name would be “liitutaulo” (chalkboard). In German the translation is “Tafel” meaning also “table” from Latin “tavola” and art paintings on a wooden plate – “Tafelmalerei”. At school it would be “Schultafel” (information after the test).