Tag Archives | research

Phenomenology of Practice | Max van Manen

The cover of van Manen's Phenomenology of PracticePhenomenology is a philosophical tradition first described by Edmund Husserl (1859-1938). Phenomenology eschews post-event theorizing in an attempt to return ‘to the things themselves.’ Using a method called the reduction, phenomenologists bracket out all post-hoc interpretation and attempt to see the actual phenomenon in its prereflexive immediacy.

The philosophers that followed Husserl (Scheler, Stein, Heidegger, Patočka) expanded, challenged, and modified Husserl’s thought, giving it legs that in turn inspired existentialists like Sartre and de Beaurevoir and more language-based philosophers like Gadamer and Ricoeur. Still, phenomenology was first-and-foremost a philosophical way of understanding the world.

This changed in the early 1950s when various professional university faculties began to approach their own fields phenomenologically. Now psychology, pedagogy, medicine, and other fields were explored using phenomenological reduction.

Van Manen’s book is brilliant in a couple different ways. First, he offers an evocative look at the philosophy of phenomenology before transitioning to qualitative research methods. This grounds the reader in the right perspective from the start. Second, this book is a phenomenological text in itself. Van Manen writes evocatively, conveying a sense of wonder about the world.

Phenomenology of Practice is no simplistic follow-these-steps-and-produce-a-phenomenological-study guide. It’s far more valuable than that. This book will awaken the philosopher-researcher’s desire to do phenomenology both in an academic setting as well as in daily life.


Van Manen, Max. Phenomenology of Practice: Meaning-Giving Methods in Phenomenological Research and Writing. New York: Routledge, 2016.

Designing Religious Research Studies | C. Jeff Woods

The cover of Woods' Designing Religious Research StudiesResearch begins with passion and ends, hopefully, with a thoroughly explored answer to an important question. At the beginning of the research design process, the focus is broad and diverse. Then, with each decision the researcher makes, that breadth is narrowed. Like water through a funnel picks up speed, the research project gathers momentum and the once unmanageable idea transforms into a legitimate project.

In Designing Religious Research Studies, Woods gives the prospective researcher an overview of all the steps required to transform that initial passion into a doable project. He draws on his classroom experience teaching research to provide a simple overview of the process.

This introductory-level volume is void of technical jargon and could be read by anyone interested in how studies are designed. In a sense, this 125 page volume is like the abstract of a research paper: it offers a high-level overview of the topic at hand: research design.


Woods, Jeff C. Designing Religious Research Studies: From Passion to Procedures. Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2016.

Qualitative Inquiry & Research Design | John Creswell & Cheryl Poth

The cover of Creswell & Poth's Qualitative Inquiry and Research DesignI am in the awkward situation of learning sociological method after having spent my entire higher education studying theology. Starting from scratch is overwhelming, to say the least! Creswell and Poth’s text makes the journey easier.

Qualitative Inquiry and Research Design describes five overarching ways to do research:

  1. Narrative Research studies individuals and their stories.
  2. Phenomenological Research studies a several people who share the same experience.
  3. Grounded Theory Research studies a process, action, or interaction with a view to develop a theory.
  4. Ethnographic Research studies a group that shares the same culture.
  5. Case Study Research studies a specific event, program, or activity.

Each approach digs into the subject in a different way, providing a different perspective. Creswell and Poth bring the unique features of each approach to light brilliantly in the final chapter by taking a case study and reframing it in each of the other four approaches.

Creswell and Poth’s text hits the sweet spot where understandability and depth of insight meet. It brings clarity the the research methods required to do effective sociological work.


Creswell, John W. and Cheryl N. Poth. Qualitative Inquiry and Research Design: Choosing Among Five Approaches. 4th Edition. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, 2018.

Practical Theology and Qualitative Research | John Swinton & Harriet Mowat

The cover of Swinton & Mowat's Practical Theology and Qualitative Research

Practical theology and qualitative research are two very different disciplines. Neither are easy to summarize, let alone define.

Swinton and Mowat begin with with practical theology:

Practical Theology is critical, theological reflection on the practices of the Church as they interact with the practices of the world, with a view to ensuring and enabling faithful participation in God’s redemptive practices in, and for the world. (7)

The church reflects copiously and rigorously on the interpretation of scripture. Practical theology offers rigorous theological reflection on the actual practices of the church.

Next up: qualitative research. Swinton and Mowat survey a few definitions before settling on McLeod’s:

Qualitative research is a process of careful, rigorous enquiry into aspects of the social world. It produces formal statements or conceptual frameworks that provide new ways of understanding the world, and therefore comprises knowledge that is practically useful for those who work with issues around learning and adjustment to the pressures and demands of the social world. (30)

Qualitative research is rooted in rooted in a methodology, typically constructivism, that views reality as constructed by the subject. Qualitative research with a constructivist ontology and epistemology then uses various methods, “specific techniques that are used for data collection and analysis” (69).

There is a key tension between the worlds of practical theology and qualitative research. Many theologians hold a view of ontology and epistemology (i.e. God exists outside our sensory world and makes himself known through revelation) that contradicts the constructivist foundation of qualitative research. Swinton and Mowat acknowledge this tension and attempt to demonstrate, through definitions and case studies of specific theological qualitative research projects, how these tensions can be resolved.

Our task has been to lay down some foundational understandings of how Practical Theology can utilize qualitative research in a way that retains the integrity of both disciplines and allows theology in general and Practical Theology in particular to remain faithful and confident in its identity and task. (265)

In the end, qualitative research is a tool to help theologians discern and interpret situations rigorously and faithfully.


Swinton, John and Harriet Mowat. Practical Theology and Qualitative Research. 2nd Ed. London: SCM Press, 2016.

Practical Theology | Richard R. Osmer

The cover of Osmer's Practical TheologyPractical Theology is no mere one way application of Systematic or Philosophical Theology to the present situation: it’s a serious exploration of the situation itself. In order to do justice to the situation we need to approach it with just as thoughtful a hermeneutic as we would apply to ancient texts.

Osmer describes his hermeneutic of the situation in four tasks which form an interpretive spiral.

  1. The Descriptive-Empirical Task: Priestly Listening. What is going on in the situation? Before rushing to interpretation we need to research and grasp what is happening.
  2. The Interpretive Task: Sagely Wisdom. Once the data has been collected we need to interpret it. We use various theories from appropriate fields of knowledge to interpret what we have researched.
  3. The Normative Task: Prophetic Discernment. It’s not enough to describe what is happening—we need to grasp what should be happening.
  4. The Pragmatic Task: Servant Leadership. Here is where we apply the normative task. The knowledge which was uncovered through research, interpretation, and discernment is now applied.

Illuminated by gripping case studies, Richard Osmer’s text brings concrete form to the ever-changing field of practical theology.


Osmer, Richard R. Practical Theology: An Introduction. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008.

Practice-led Theology or Thinking Theology Through Practice | Neil Ferguson

The cover of Ferguson's Practice-led TheologyImagine an old-fashioned scale with trays on both sides. On one side stacked with books and theories. The other side is filled with the experiences of our lives. The scale weighs head knowledge against heart knowledge or thinking against doing. The university has traditionally tipped the scale on the side of theory while practitioners around the world claim that they discover real knowledge on the experiential side.

For the Christian, this scale can be viewed through James’ words on faith and works—they need one another. The true Christian cannot live solely in her head nor in her heart. We are to love God with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength.

Practice-led research is a way to balance the scale. Practice-led research affirms that there is legitimate knowledge to be found in and through experience, but that experience needs to be critically reflected upon.

In his PhD dissertation, Neil Ferguson gathers the disparate threads of practice-led research and develops a definition that is neither too narrow (it has application beyond the art and design world where practice-led research was born) nor too broad to be of any practical use. He then illustrates his definition with numerous potential practice-led projects in the field of theology.

Ferguson’s dissertation brings clarity to a muddy field and provides a practical way to do practice-led research in any field, including theology.


Ferguson, Neil. “Practice-Led Theology or Thinking Theology Through Practice.” PhD diss., University of Notre Dame, Australia, 2014.

Powered by WordPress. Designed by WooThemes

antispam