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Intuitive Inquiry: Five Cycles of Interpretation
—research with heart and meaning

I originally developed intuitive inquiry in response to my doctoral students’ needs in the field of transpersonal psychology. Intuitive inquiry is aligned with the intuitive wisdoms in spiritual traditions worldwide. The ways of the heart integrate and balance analytical ways of knowing.

Intuitive Inquiry is composed of five iterative cycles of interpretation. As a research method, it follows in the philosophic lineage of Western hermeneutics originating with Friedrich Schleiermacher, Wilhelm Dilthey, and Hans-Georg Gadamer and the embodied phenomenology of Maurice Merleau-Ponty and contemporary feminist theorists and researchers.

Cycle 1: Identifying and Engaging a Research Topic through Imaginary Dialogue (The Topic)
In conventional research, a researcher typically chooses a topic based on current research in an area of academic specialization and scholarly interest. In Intuitive Inquiry, however, the researcher begins by selecting a text or image that repeatedly attracts or claims the intuitive researcher’s attention and relates to his or her area of interest in a general and often obscure and non-obvious way. The text or image chosen becomes the researcher’s external “dialogue partner” for Cycle 1 to:

(a) help the researcher clarify a research topic,

(b) understand more about his or her own intuitive processes,

(c) activate an intention to use intuition throughout the study, and

(d) indicate the unique ways in which intuition is likely to show up in the course of a particular study. Even in cases where the dialogue partner seems imaginary or internal, I nonetheless recommend that intuitive researchers identify an external symbol or image to support an outward expression for these imaginary dialogues.


Cycle 2: Developing the Preliminary Lenses (A “Conceptual” Literature Review)
In Cycle 2, the researcher reflects upon her or his own understanding of the topic in light of a set of selected texts found in extant literature about the topic and prepares a list of preliminary interpretative lenses that express the researcher’s understanding of the topic as unambiguously as possible. These Cycle 2 lenses describe the researcher’s pre-understanding of the research topic prior to the collection of original data. Cycle 2 requires the intuitive researcher to lay bare his or her personal values and assumptions about the research topic prior to data collection. Typically, Cycle 2 lenses are prepared simultaneous with writing the Literature Review as a means of presenting the researcher’s pre-understanding of the topic in light of the theoretical and empirical literature relevant to the topic studied.

In Intuitive Inquiry, lenses are both a way of viewing a topic and what is seen by the observer. The articulation of lenses in Cycle 2 is not intended to identify and “bracket” them from influencing the research process so as to set them aside. Rather, the method is boldly hermeneutical and personal in nature. The lenses are not removed from the research process in an effort to be “objective.” In articulating preliminary lenses, the intuitive researcher places preliminary lenses in full scrutiny and invites their transformation, revision, removal, amplification, and refinement as cycles of interpretation proceed.


Cycle 3: Collecting Data and Preparing Summary Reports (Findings or Results)
In Cycle 3, the researcher (a) identifies the best source of data for the research topic; (b) develops criteria for the selection of research informants or selection of extant historical, empirical, or literary records; (c) collects the data; and (d) then prepares summary reports in as descriptive a manner as possible. Often there are many qualitative and quantitative data sources available, so making this crucial choice is often not an easy decision. Most important, the data collected should inform the heart, or essence, of the research question. It is sometimes tempting to choose conveniently available data. Since Intuitive Inquiry invites an in-depth process, choose the data sources that will satisfy your passion as a researcher. If your research participants (or other sources of data) take your inquiry in a direction that you did not anticipate, you are probably doing Intuitive Inquiry as it was intended: new insights are likely.

After data collection, depending on the type of data collected, the researcher organizes and summarizes research data using conventional thematic content analysis, descriptive summaries, portraits, or conventional statistical analysis. These summary reports allow the researcher to review and organize the data prior to the preparation of the Cycle 4 lenses and allow readers to review the data in a descriptive form.


Cycle 4: Transforming and Refining Lenses (Empirical Discussion)
Utilizing the preliminary lenses developed in Cycle 2, the researcher then interprets data in order to modify, refute, remove, reorganize, and expand his or her understanding of the research topic. This cycle invites researchers to expand and refine their pre-understandings by incorporating the experiences of others and represents the researcher’s summary of findings based on his or her interpretation of Cycle 3 data. By comparing Cycle 2 and Cycle 4 lenses, the reader of an Intuitive Inquiry can evaluate the changes and refinements in the researcher’s understanding of the research topic.

Throughout Intuitive Inquiry, the most important feature of interpreting data is intuitive breakthroughs, those illuminating moments when the data begin to shape themselves into view. Patterns seem to reveal themselves with each fresh set of information. I usually work with a paper and pencil, drawing small and large circles—representing themes or stray ideas—and shifting the patterns and modifying the relationships and size of the circles, rather like a mobile Venn diagram. I know other researchers who work more verbally—bringing together ideas in an array of interrelated themes, narratives, sequences, or irreducible features of the experience studied. This interpretative process may go on for several days or weeks with rest or incubation periods between work sessions.


Cycle 5: Integration of Findings and Literature Review (Theoretical Discussion)
In Cycle 5, the intuitive researcher stands back from the entire research process to date and takes into consideration all aspects of the study anew, as though drawing a larger hermeneutical circle around the hermeneutical circle prescribed by the forward and return arcs of the study. In a conventional empirical study, the researcher always returns to the literature review conducted prior to data collection and reevaluates that theoretical and empirical literature in light of the results and vice versa.


Placement of Five Cycles in a Conventional Research Report

Given the spiraling acts of interpretation in Intuitive Inquiry, it is not always clear where to present the five cycles of Intuitive Inquiry in a conventional research report. Given the linear limits of conventional report writing, it generally is best to place Cycle 1 and a clear statement of the research topic at the end of the Literature Review. Logically, it may be possible to place Cycle 1 at the end of an Introduction, but I have never seen a Cycle 1 short enough for such a placement. The results of Cycle 2 may follow Cycle 1 in the Literature Review or begin the Results section. Cycle 3 is always reported in the Results section. If the report of Cycle 2 is long, as is often the case, Cycles 2 and 3 may be reported as separate Results sections. Cycles 4 and 5 are always reported in the Discussion section, thereby honoring the interpretative nature of these interpretive cycles.

Contact Rosemarie Anderson at rosemarie@wellknowingconsulting.org for information, fees, and appointments.

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