The methodology of this dissertation draws upon the creativity and science of interpretation, which is at the core of hermeneutic research (Grondin, 1997). Hermeneutics derives from the Greek word hermēneutikós, translated as interpreting, or making clear (Dictionary.com, n.d.). Hermeneutics was originally a methodology applied to the interpretation of theological and legal documents during the 17th century (Ramberg & Gjesdal, 2013). Hermeneutics evolved during this time around the notion that the reader of the text, who is located in a different time and place to the author, will develop a unique understanding of a text, which differs from the author’s original intent either partially or completely. This perspective acknowledges that ideas are situated in history, linguistics, and culture, and to understand an idea comprehensively, we need to develop a contextual understanding of the time and conditions that were present when the idea formed. Even if we manage this, the idea will have changed, as we, the interpreter, are located in a different time and space. How we see the world today is based on how we have tended to see the world in the past, which has been influenced by our ethnicity, wealth, education, religion, and so forth. Becoming aware of this can help us to appreciate that how we experience and interpret experiences (or phenomena) is inseparable from our past and present (Smythe & Spence, 2012).
German Philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889–1976) expanded hermeneutics into the field of philosophy and existentialism with his seminal work Sein und Zeit published in the mid-1920s (Bjorn & Kristin, 2013). The core of this shift was towards a question of “who is this being?” and Heidegger believed that our understanding is naturally interpretive and subjective (Ramberg & Gjesdal, 2013). For example, we automatically open a door without needing to develop a conceptual understanding of the reality of the door, our lives are phenomenologically available to us (Bjorn & Kristin, 2013; Grondin, 1997).
Hans-Georg Gadamer (1900-2002) was Heidegger’s assistant and a pivotal figure in hermeneutic philosophy, he is most known for Truth and Method published in 1960 (Malpas, 2013). Gadamer diverged from Heidegger and defined three aspects to historicity and interpretation, that of experience; of objects; and of the understanding subject (i.e., the reader), in other words, the subjectivity of the reader and the intersubjective experience of engaging in a text (Bilen, 2001). Gadamer believed he was describing what occurs when we attempt to interpret anything, which was a response to the prevalent belief (in the 1960s) that an experience could be objectively understood (Bilen, 2001). Instead of developing a system of understanding, Gadamer (2004) was interested in illuminating the conditions wherein understanding occurs.
In the context of research, hermeneutic interpretation describes the dynamic relationship between researcher and literature; a unique and playful dialogue in which the subjectivity and prejudices of the researcher are recognised and valued (Smythe & Spence, 2012). The intention of interpretive research is to provoke thinking – questioning, pondering, mulling over – rather than attempting to present a meticulous review of a body of literature (Smythe & Spence, 2012). The re-viewed text is a partner, or a stimulus to thinking; some texts will spark inspiration and stimulate new ideas in the researcher, others may simply pass by with minimal influence. The hermeneutical circle was the term Heidegger developed to refer to the process of interpretation, “[h]ermeneutic analysis is like a dance in which the interpretations of the observer and the observed are repeatedly interwoven until a sophisticated understanding is developed” (Ezzy, 2013, p. 25). When we read a text, we are projecting onto it what we think it will say and mean, and we develop understandings from partial readings of the text from what we already know, otherwise we could not even understand the language (Immy, 2005; Moran, 2002; Packer & Addison, 1989). This process continues, with the reader projecting his or her own understanding and interpretation onto the text continuously, whilst new understandings and ideas emerge (Ezzy, 2013). As long as the reader holds in mind that they want to develop new understandings, they will be creating the space and awareness needed for them to emerge (Ezzy, 2013). It is important that the therapist attempts to be aware of their projections and responses during this process – much like a therapist aims for during a therapy session (Chessick, 1990; McLeod, 2011).
Instead of trying to remove or limit our subjectivity and prejudices in research, writing, or any endeavour, Gadamer’s ideas encourage us to acknowledge and accept our pre-judgments as they stimulate our thinking on an issue (Malpas, 2013). Once we know what our viewpoint is, we are able to modify or discard it in order to align it with the current context. Gadamer (2008) argued that all of our interpretations are primarily pre-judgemental, centred on our own current needs and concerns, and, therefore, hermeneutics involves a dialogue between our understanding of the issue and our self-understanding. This is a restatement of Heidegger’s hermeneutical circle whereby self and object understandings co-arise, and amidst this process we can develop ideas through awareness and curiosity. This is an ongoing process of change as “all understanding involves a process of mediation and dialogue between what is familiar and what is alien in which neither remains unaffected” (Malpas, 2013, sec. 3.2).
This perspective, to some degree, aligns with the practice of psychotherapy (Frank, 1987), wherein both client and therapist are in relationship within the complexity of all aspects of each other (such as, gender, culture, language, and religion) and of their respective pasts, presents, and (perceived) futures. This forms how a person feels, thinks, and behaves (among other aspects) in a moment of time. The therapeutic relationship occurs in this blending between and within client and therapist, which, by its nature, is constantly evolving (Chessick, 1990). There is no singular, correct way to respond to a client in a moment, rather there is a vast array of responses a therapist could offer which may facilitate healing, transformation, and self-understanding. This same response, however, could be equally be damaging if it was applied by another therapist; a point that illustrates the dynamic, subjective, and contextual nature of therapy. This unique interplay between client and therapist is the hermeneutic dialogue of each person’s self-and-other understanding, as well as their own interpretations of the present moment. This is important as it illustrates the similarities between the interpretative methodology and an interpretive, relational therapy, where the subjective experience is an acknowledged and essential aspect of both endeavours.
These similarities originally drew me to utilising a hermeneutic methodology, and upon further research, I believe that it also aligns with how people are who they are. All that came before this present moment, and our unknown (mostly unconscious) views, expectations, and experience of the future, shapes how we are experience this moment (Stern, 2004). Awareness of how all of space and time affects us now is helpful in order for us to feel less confined, and freer to change our beliefs and patterns. This alive, uncontrollable process of life – and of therapy – has in my understanding an affinity with hermeneutic methodology: that is, there are known and unknown conditions that create us, who we are, how we experience moments, and how others experience us. To accept that this is our reality is beneficial, as awareness and acceptance tend to be intrinsically transformative or, at least, are the precursors for creating an opportunity for change.
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