The Role of the Researcher in Group-based Dialogic Introspection

Thomas Burkart

Group-based dialogic introspection has been developed by psychologists and social scientists at the University of Hamburg. The method uses groups to facilitate the exploration of the experience with introspection. The test design is characterized by a combination of (classical) individual introspection and (Würzburg-type) introspection by subjects (for a detailed description on classical and Würzburg-type introspection see Kleining & Mayer, 2002). This is achieved by changing social roles of the researchers and the subjects and changing mental activities of participants in their active and receptive attitudes towards themselves and towards other members in the group, both seen as dialogic processes and legitimated as attempts to improve the validity of introspection under the rules of an explorative (heuristic) methodology.

The Research Design

The research is done in a group of four to nine researchers, who alternate between the role of the researcher and the role of the researched subject (for a detailed description see chap. "TheRole of the Researcher in Group-based Dialogic Introspection").The research process starts with a preliminary definition of the research topic. It may be anything that can be experienced ("erlebt") in one or another way and therefore is accessible to introspection. Topics in our workshop, among others, are media reception, problem solving, game-playing, experience of emotions, of space, and time. As a rule, the topics are discussed and agreed upon within the group–unless a "surprising" experience should be investigated. Depending on topic, the procedure of data collection will be discussed within the group or delegated to one or several participants.

In a second step, the participants will be confronted with the topic (for an example of the test procedure see Kleining, 2002). Their role is to observe attentively what is in or comes to their minds. Introspection is either performed within the group (e.g. reception of a movie, viewed together) or by each participant individually (e.g. introspection of a momentary anger). If possible, participants take short notes during introspection. In any case, later they take down longer descriptions of what they have experienced.

After that period–in most cases up to ten minutes–participants report their self-observation to the group verbally, one after the other, clockwise or counter-clockwise, using or not using their notes, respecting their feelings on what they want to communicate and how. The other participants listen–there will be no questions, evaluations, or discussions. There is no time limit for the individual presentation, and it also will be accepted, if a participant does not want to say anything about a certain subject or experience.

A second round follows, providing the opportunity to supplement reports. After a person has listened to other members' experience he or she may be stimulated to reflect on his or her own experience again and to consider, if his or her first introspection report is actually complete. We are aware that this may influence judgments but participants insist that mentioning a certain aspect by another person only introduces a question to them, not the answer. Frequently after listening to another report, members of the group remember details, which otherwise they would have forgotten or regarded as unimportant.

Finally and separately, the data will be analyzed. Basis are transcribed recordings of the verbal presentations. In some cases, we supplement the data by transcriptions of respondent's notes or memos about their experience established retrospectively. The analysis is not done within the group but by one person individually outside of the group according to the procedures of heuristic research. Validation is internal, all aspects of the protocols fitting to each other (Kleining, 1995, pp. 273-277; Kleining, 1982/2001, chap. V). There is no consensual or communicative validity (e.g. agreement of the members of the group).

The research design calls for collecting both individual data and those of other participants. There is a change of social roles (researcher and subject), of social behavior (listening to other people and reporting to them), and of internal attitudes (listening to the self and asking questions to the self), which stimulates the development of an inner dialogue and the exploration of one's own experience (Erleben).

Methodological Requirements and Desiderata

The methodological basis for group-based dialogical introspection is the heuristic methodology documented elsewhere (Kleining, 1982/2001, 1994, 1995; Kleining & Witt, 2001; applied to introspection: Kleining & Burkart, 2001; Kleining & Witt, 2000). The main characteristics of the methodology are:

  • Openness of the research person, who should be prepared to change his or her preconception of the topic in case of its disagreement with the data.
  • Openness of the research topic, which might change during explorative research and is only fully known after the research was finished.
  • Maximal structural variation of perspectives during the phase of data collection. The topic should be seen from as many different sides as necessary.
  • Analysis of data in the direction of common patterns or similarities to discover the structure integrating all data.

The research process is seen as a mental dialogue between the researcher(s) and the topic of research, which is put into a process by asking questions to the topic and receiving its "answers," leading to new questions and answers etc. until no new information can be gained.

Basic methods are observation and experiments (in qualitative research, qualitative observations and qualitative experiments). Introspection also has an active, "experimental" part (e.g. asking questions to one's experience) and a receptive, "observational" part or period (e.g. to only record the experience).

Introspection, as all other research techniques, has its basis in everyday life. People reflect upon their experience for example in talking about it with other persons, writing a diary or letters. Dialogic introspection overcomes the shortcomings of the everyday situation, which is often selective, unsystematic, and one-sided, but saves it's heuristic potential as a direct, natural, and productive path to one's own experience. This is achieved by:

  • a systematic and varied documentation of experience,
  • the division of self-observation and analysis,
  • a combination of individual introspection and introspection by other members of the group, which stimulates inner dialogue and dialogue with outside phenomena, and
  • the control of undesired group processes.

The observed inner and transient experience must be documented. This may happen through talking, writing, or nonverbal communications. Documentation is often incomplete and sometimes perspective representation of observed experiences. Therefore, we use as a rule at least three different forms of documentation: notes during, and directly after the self-observation, which may also include drawings, as well as an oral introspection report in the group.

To prevent a blending of self-observation, evaluation, and interpretation, which is typical for everyday introspection, self-observation and analysis are strictly separated in dialogic introspection. The analysis always takes place with written documentation (the transcription of the tape recorded introspection reports, sometimes additionally the notes of the participants). The analysis, which is often time-consuming, is not made in the group but by one single person separately, also to avoid group influences.

The combination between individual introspection and introspection by other group members stimulates multifaceted dialogues, which facilitates the exploration of experience. In self-dialogues, everyone is engaged with his or her experience and with putting down notes and reports on that. The participant can ask himself or herself, whether the documentation of his or her self-observations is adequate or requires completion. The social dialogues, in which the participants report on their self-observations to the group, contrast the introspection reports of the others to the own experience. The individual person can remember aspects of his or her own experience through the reports of the others, which he or she had forgotten, found unimportant or too difficult for an oral presentation.

In order to prevent unwanted group dynamic processes and to reduce the risk of conformity, introspection groups have to be controlled carefully, which might be ascribed to a certain participant. Undesired are critical or evaluative comments, particularly those that devaluate respondents, direct their attention into a "desired" direction or clear a particular aspect (which in general is a problem of the interrogator, not the respondent). As little as possible, the group should have a hierarchical structure. Reduction of hierarchies is encouraged if all members of the group are allowed to report fully without interruption and questioning of any information presented. Contrary to Ach's (1905/1999) procedure we do not control the individual but try to free it from repressive influences. Dialogical introspection groups also are different from focus groups in the sense that we do not allow discussion, which may tend to establish collective evaluations of or within the group. Members of introspective groups should not feel that they are in a competitive situation. Minority opinions and views are encouraged. Important is a positive group climate, tolerant of all kinds of reports about personal experiences.

Data analysis is an open and dialogic process of searching for patterns, which the the data have in common. Analysis is not an interpretative (hermeneutic) but a heuristic procedure, a process of discovery. Not helpful is the preformulation of hypotheses or the establishment of categorization schemes (Kleining, 1995). The process of data analysis in explorative research is neither "inductive" (or "abductive") nor "deductive" but dialectic in the sense that it uses a question-and-answer process to find out in which way the data are organized.

For more information on the research approach of the Hamburg group, see our homepage: (please observe the German "k" instead of "c" in "introspektion").

The Role of the Researcher in Group-based Dialogic Introspection

Explorative or heuristic research requires openness of the researcher towards the topic of research. Openness within the qualitative-heuristic methodology is not at choice or associative but methodologically controlled. Group-based dialogic introspection implies self-openness,openness of social roles, openness toward the topic of research and openness of methods.

In spite of the general subject's dependence of cognition, many methods in psychology and sociology–not psychoanalysis–aim to minimize or exclude the subjective influences, in order to reach "objectivity." Therefore, a strict distinction between the researcher and the researched is made. It is assumed, that the researcher is only important as a scientific expert. As a person and in his relation to the topic of research he/she is regarded however as not relevant. Contrary to this strategy, researchers in group-based dialogic introspection are their own research subjects and open for their own psychic processes, their subjectivity. The self-openness acknowledges the self-reference of the research topic, because the researcher has also a psyche and is part of societal patterns.

Instead of the normal fixed role-separation between the researcher and the researched, group-based dialogic introspection has a concept of openness of the social role. The researchers alternate between the role of the researcher and the role of the researched subject. At the beginning, they are in a pure researcher role, when defining the preliminary topic of research and the procedure of data collection. In the data collection, they are in a role of the researched subject, observing their own experiences, whereas they examine their first description of their experience in a dialogic process through varied documentations and through the introspection reports of the other group members. The analysis of the transcribed introspective reports requires once more a researcher role.

The flexibility of roles during the research process is a synthesis of Wundt's or Brentano's unity of the researcher and the object/subject of research in introspective research in classical psychology on the one hand, and the research procedure in introspective research of the Würzburg psychologist on the other hand with a separation of the researcher and the subject of research(for a description on classical and Würzburg-type introspection see Kleining & Mayer, 2002). It keeps the advantages of both (the necessary distance for scientific analysis, the acceptance of self-reference) but tries to avoid their disadvantages (artificial distance between the researcher and the subject in a hierarchical social setting, problematic methodological restrictions, e.g. Wundt's concept of the experiment).

The researchers regard their topic as preliminary and only completely known after finishing the research. They want to learn new aspects of their topic and are prepared to adapt their preconception about it, as far as it does not correspond to the data.
This openness towards the topic of research has consequences for the data collection, the data analysis, and the attitude towards the researched subject:

  • As for the data collection this means, that neither introspection itself nor the introspective report will be restricted by predefined categories or questions.
  • The data analysis will also be practiced in an open dialogic process and not with a predefined categorization scheme. The analysis however is not open to interpretations of the data. The structure of the topic will be discovered through the analysis of common patterns of the data.
  • The subject will be respected in his subjectivity without any restrictions. This means, that disadvantages of subjectivity such as the holding back of information or the one-sidedness of a single introspection have to be accepted. Each member of the introspection group decides, how and how much he or she will report about his or her experience. The one-sidedness of a single introspection as consequence of a conscious or unconscious selection of contents of experience can be compensated with the introspections of the other members of the group.

The method, which has been developed through our practice of research, is regarded as open for change and adjustment. Changes may be indicated by the introspective research on the method´s experiencing.

Experiencing the Method

Group-based dialogic introspection is a method, which is experienced as positive, interesting, and productive. The group situation is regarded as helpful and stimulating though sometimes participants have to get accustomed to its rules. Despite its positive characteristics, there may be some difficulties associated with heuristic research (see also Kleining, 1995, pp. 231-249).

Problematic for researchers engaged in explorative research may be the abandonment of those ("pet"-) ideas, which are not in line with the data. Also problematic can be the acceptance of the fact that the topic of research may change during the research process. This is contradicting the deductive-nomological paradigm that the topic of the investigation has to be well defined before starting the research and should be fixed until the end. Stability of the research topic might offer a feeling of security to the research person, which an explorative researcher has to miss. Also structural variation of perspectives may be experienced as difficult or seen as unnecessary. Analysis of similarities in general is the most difficult step because similarities and patterns are relations we are not trained to observe.

The introspective setting in particular may open a too direct contact to one's own experiences and emotions at least for some participants and some topics or some state of minds–this is a reason to deal sensibly with introspective material. Moreover, there may be blocking expectations (e.g. "I want to observe something interesting."), which can alter the experience. Our observation suggests however that insecurities of this sort are reduced by continuing systematic introspection under rules, which are known to the participants and accepted by them. The group situation on the other hand may motivate and encourage systematic self-observation and of course finding something new or solving an old problem is gratifying in itself.


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