Phenomenological-Descriptive vs. Statistical Approaches
Empirical phenomenology is a type of qualitative analysis that has had a long and distinguished history in psychological research (most notably used by Freud) and is particularly well suited for new areas of study or areas such as sexual murder that are difficult to research. This approach enables psychologists to categorize and classify their observations in order to study certain conditions that cannot otherwise easily be quantitatively assessed. Skrapec (2001), for example, has used the phenomenological approach from an existential perspective in her study of the personal meanings of the experiences of sexual murderers. Milsom, Beech, and Webster (2003) have used qualitative analysis in a study of sexual murderers, and others have recognized the value of this approach (Safarik and Jarvis, 2005) with certain areas of crime research. Hein and Austin (2001) note that
there is no single so-called correct way to conduct phenomenological research. Rather, the specific method used depends, to a large extent, on the purposes of the researcher, his or her specific skills and talents, the nature of the research question, and data collected, (p. 3)
Hein and Austin also note that the specific phenomenological method chosen may need to be modified and adapted to meet the needs and characteristics of the particular investigation.
Phenomenological-psychological research has also been called “descriptive” research (Giorgi, 1977; Valle, King, and Hailing, 1989) or “qualitative” methodology (Camie, Rhodes, and Yardley, 2003; Silverman, 2011) which includes the case study approach. Morgan and Morgan (2001) have reported the history and advantages of the “single-participant research design,” a type of phenomenological research for use in clinical settings. They argue that such an approach is flexible enough to satisfy the requirements of basic science and also enables investigators to study events in a nonlaboratory difficult-to-control environment.
Some psychologists (e.g., Pallone and Hennessey, 1994) advocate a more traditional statistical approach as a means of securing empirical validation. However, that type of analysis, with which most behavioral scientists are familiar, has been questioned in the contemporary methodological literature. Those who have questioned it (e.g., Abelson, 1997; Chow, 1998; Cohen, 1994; Estes, 1997; Loftus, 1996) argue that traditional statistical methodological types of analysis using traditional statistical inference may not be appropriate in many areas of study. The traditional statistical study still, nevertheless, seems to be favored among behavioral scientists. However, the American Psychological Association’s new journal Qualitative Psychology indicates an increasing appreciation for this approach. We agree with Litwack’s (2002, p. 175, 176) observation:
If descriptive studies ... were done, even with some reasonable assurance of the veridicality of the descriptions involved, would our [leading journals] publish them? Or is our field still somewhat trapped in what I believe to be the erroneous and harmful illusion that, in social science, only what can be quantified is worth studying—or publishing?
In the study of sexual murder, we are not yet at the point where highly quantified validation studies are always appropriate. Since researchers can hardly agree on what constitutes a sexual murder, it seems preposterous to only accept as credible a detailed empirical analysis of its nature. Moreover, highly quantified results tend to lend an aura of scientific respectability, which, in some instances, may be actually pseudo-science (Rozeboom, 1970). Empirical statistical validation is certainly a goal, but we first need to agree on the behavior we are attempting to validate.
There is also the risk that premature quantification could actually impede rather than enhance understanding. For example, reliance on a strict definition could potentially limit one’s ability to see new relationships, especially at an early stage in the development or understanding of a disorder. The phenomenological-descriptive approach, although it lacks quantitative precision, does allow a certain degree of freedom to reframe and reorganize observations and rethink the meaning of unique cases, whereas a strict definition might exclude such possibilities.
Accordingly, the approach of this book is largely phenomenological-descriptive; it is an attempt to take a fresh look at sexual homicide by categorization and classification of observations. Thus, we will rely heavily on case studies with analysis, but not to the exclusion of empirical studies where appropriate.