Free Imaginative Variation

Dan Lukiv, M.Ed.
English and Creative Writing

McNaughton Centre, Quesnel, BC, Canada

What change or changes to a circle make it into something else? In other words, when is a circle not a circle (Circle, 2003)? When is an ellipse not an ellipse (Ellipse, 1999)? A hyperbola not a hyperbola (Hyperbola, 1999)? A line not a line (Kline, 1967)? An elliptic (or hyperbolic) paraboloid not an elliptic (or hyperbolic) paraboloid (Paraboloid, 2005)? Is a chair still a chair if it has only three legs instead of the usual four? Polt (n.d.) discusses the form of "a triangle [that] makes it be a triangle, rather than any other sort of thing--its triangleness" (para. 3; see, also, Boeree, n.d.a, n.d.b). Polt speaks about free imaginative variation in terms of a technique, a way to "imaginatively subtract one feature, then another, discovering in the process which features are essential and which are not [i.e., which are incidental]" (para. 6). Some know about this technique through their studies of Husserl, the mathematician and phenomenologist (see, e.g., van Manen, 1990).

Mathematicians describe the essential features of circles, ellipses, hyperbolas, lines, elliptic and hyperbolic paraboloids, and other geometric figures in their one, two, or three dimensional domains. Mathematicians even describe the essential features of figments of their imaginations, such as n-dimensional hyper-spheres defined by formulas of the form x12 + x22 + x32 + ... + xn2 = r2. I invite the reader to begin listing the essential features of a chair. Phenomenologists describe essential features that define phenomenon (van Manen, 1990). In the arena called hermeneutic phenomenology, as a research methodology, researchers often use free imaginative variation to help them determine essential versus incidental themes (1990).

I am an education researcher, and I recently completed three hermeneutic phenomenological studies into what lived experiences [1] in school had encouraged three different individuals to become creative writers. Free imaginative variation helped me and my participants establish "what to disregard" (Polt, n.d., para. 28). Through hermeneutic phenomenology as a research methodology (van Manen, 1990), which included the analysis of taped interviews, the drawing up of themes, and then participant review to alter and/or verify wording of those themes, Study I (2002) produced eight themes, Study II (2004b) seven, and Study III (in peer review) seven; however, I was not able during the interpretation stage of free imaginative variation--a specialized form of participant review--to label all the themes of all three studies essential.

Only essential themes (Boeree, n.d.a, n.d.b; and Steiner, 1986) defined the essence of the phenomenon (Phenomenology as Method, n.d.) of what experiences in school had encouraged my participants to become creative writers. The reader unfamiliar with free imaginative variation may wonder how it helped participants and myself disregard themes, deeming them incidental, yet deeming others essential. I will show how I used it as an explicit (n.d.) and fundamental tool.

Study I

In Study I, Arthur (a pseudonym, in the interest of confidentiality/anonymity [McMillan & Schumacher, 1997]; a poet) helped me hone eight themes through several participant review sessions. They became: 1) Events in school that promoted the joy and wonder of silent reading of poetry and fiction encouraged Arthur to become a creative writer. 2) Events that promoted the joy and wonder of listening to poetry and fiction fluently read aloud and of listening to songs encouraged him. 3) Events that promoted the wonder of uninterrupted language experiences and 4) that promoted the intrigue and wonder of flights of imagination fuelled by the connotative and imagistic value of words encouraged him. 5) Events that promoted the excitement of verbally punning and joking and of informing others about what he had read and learned encouraged him, and 6) so did events that promoted the joy and exhilarating freedom of writing down his thoughts and feelings based on poetry and fiction read and having those thoughts and feelings valued by teachers. 7) Events that promoted the exhilarating freedom of choice of reading material and 8) that promoted the satisfaction and excitement of receiving sound direction about how to write well from compassionate teachers encouraged Arthur to become a creative writer.

These are, approximately, the eight themes that I had found in the interview data. Arthur found these themes valid products of his interviews, but he changed, during participant review, a word here, and phrase or clause there, to make sure each theme correctly--or as accurately/reliably as possible--reflected his experiences in school. Words in these themes such as "joy," "wonder," "intrigue," "excitement," "exhilarating," and "satisfaction" describe feelings Arthur had had. He found these themes valid and reliable. My peer debriefers found them valid and free (or as reasonably free as possible) of my bias (see, e.g., Lukiv, 2003). [2]

Then, during an interpretive, specialized form of participant review, I helped Arthur through free imaginative variation to think about the significance of each of his eight themes. I began with Theme One. "Arthur, can you remove this theme from the set of themes of all school experiences that encouraged you to become a creative writer--in the sense that this theme is not all that important?" In the case of each theme, he felt he absolutely could not. He felt in each case that doing so altered the phenomenon. He could not imagine the phenomenon intact with any of the eight themes removed, i.e., he could not label any of the eight incidental. What school experiences had encouraged him to become a creative writer defined, for him, eight essential themes. Not seven. Not six. If the phenomenon is defined by a set of circles, then no theme is an ellipse, triangle, square, or anything but a circle.

Study II

This afore-discussion of Study I helps to show that essential themes remain unremoveable from the phenomenon, but a discussion of Study II helps to show why some themes, although valid products of a researcher's analysis of interview data, stand as incidental. I found seven themes in the data in Study II. My peer debriefer found them unbiased products of my analysis. [3] Thomas (a pseudonym; a poet), through participant review, considered them valid in terms of the data (interview), but changed words here and there to ensure the themes reliably reflected his experiences; however, through another participant review session, using free imaginative variation as an interpretive tool, Thomas did not say those themes were all essential. On the contrary, he found six incidental, leaving only one essential. Then he felt he needed to further alter that theme over succeeding participant review sessions to ensure it, to an even greater degree, reliably reflected his experiences. Call the final draft of that theme a parallelogram. The six incidental themes, then, are of different "geometric" categories.

For example, consider teachers who expressly appreciated Thomas' efforts to write encouraged him to become a creative writer (Incidental Theme One). This theme is not essential because Thomas felt that it had not mattered much what people had thought about his writing. During his school years, he decided to write whether or not people appreciated his efforts. If the essence of the phenomenon of what school experiences encouraged Thomas is a set of parallelograms, then Incidental Theme One is not one; it is simply something else.

Incidental Theme Two, which says opportunities to hear his own written words spoken aloud encouraged him to become a creative writer, is not essential because although he enjoyed hearing his own words spoken aloud, he did not need them to be. This theme is not a parallelogram. Likewise, Incidental Theme Three, exposure to great literature encouraged Thomas to become a creative writer, is not essential (not a parallelogram). Thomas would have found great literature to read if none had been presented at school. He had access to great literature at home, and through that exposure he would have found more and more and more.

Incidental Theme Four states: Opportunities to write, under most circumstances, even as a punishment, encouraged Thomas to become a creative writer. This is not essential because he found his own opportunities to write without looking for them in school. The irony for Thomas, however, was that writing as a punishment was in reality a reward; he loved to write! Incidental Theme Four, in short, is not a parallelogram. Neither is Incidental Theme Five: Opportunities to show off his writing ability to peers encouraged Thomas to become a creative writer. This theme is not essential because as much fun as showing off his talent to his peers was, Thomas did not require peer approval of his writing. Incidental Theme Six, Opportunities to express himself freely through the use of literary techniques of his choice encouraged Thomas to become a creative writer, is also not essential because although he deeply enjoyed expressing himself freely through his choice of literary techniques, he did not require these opportunities at school. He made his own opportunities outside of school. Incidental Theme six is not a parallelogram.

One essential theme remains. Originally, in the first participant review session, I presented a thematic statement that eventually became Essential Theme One (as already mentioned). Through repeated participant review sessions the theme transformed into the following: One teacher (English 9, 10, and 11) who demanded the best of Thomas as a human being, and who more than valued, but loved, saw Thomas as a unique person, encouraged him to be the best that he could be, and since he had always, going back as far he can remember, wanted to write, that encouragement translated into his wanting to be the best writer that he could be. The fact that she was a high school English teacher is not relevant. If she had been a math teacher, he feels the effect would have been the same. Her interest in him, her demanding nature, and her more than just valuing Thomas as a person made such a deep impression on him that to this day his memories of her classes remain a source of joy and motivation. This theme, established as essential through free imaginative variation, and modified through participant review, could not, as far as Thomas was concerned, be removed from the phenomenon. This theme stands as a parallelogram--the only one, in fact, that the study discovered.

In view of Thomas' discovery that little in elementary and high school had encouraged his to take up creative writing later in life, I was not surprised, during one participant review, that he fully agreed with Birney (1966) who says school can discourage some potential creative writers. In some cases they feel forced, Birney says, to drop out of high school to learn elsewhere the art and craft of creative writing. Another study could explore events that discourage students from taking up writing seriously. This study, however, explored the opposite, and as I said, six incidental and one essential theme emerged from the data.

Study III

In Study III, Elizabeth (a pseudonym; a fiction writer) helped me finalize seven themes. I had analyzed the interview, discovering seven themes, which my peer debriefer deemed unbiased. Elizabeth considered them valid products of the interview. She tinkered with these themes during participant review, to ensure they were, in the final draft, reliable products of her experiences in school. Through free imaginative variation, Elizabeth labelled two of the themes incidental. As in all three studies, my peer debriefer considered the themes after each participant review and even after my use of free imaginative variation, to make sure that my biases were not driving researcher-participant discussions.

Not surprisingly, her themes listed alongside Arthur and Thomas' reveal Elizabeth's distinctiveness. Arthur is unique. So is Thomas. So is Elizabeth, in terms of what psychological, sociological, biological, spiritual, educational, physical, genetic, economic, and other forces drove her (Zunker, 1998). Like Thomas, however, she did not believe that all the themes I discovered were essential, whereas Arthur remained convinced that all eight of his themes were definitely essential. She discarded this theme: Several teachers encouraged her to enter Federal- and Provincial-level writing contests, which she sometimes won (Incidental Theme One). She did not feel, through free imaginative variation, that this theme warranted essential status because her father, not any teacher, had been the first adult to encourage her to enter these contests. If, on the other hand, my research question had been, What, if any, experiences in school or outside of school encouraged [her] to become an adult creative writer?, likely her Incidental Theme One, modified to reflect her father's influence, would have ranked as essential. This study, however, remained objective, as did Studies I and II, by remaining bounded by its single research question. If the essence of the phenomenon of what school experiences had encouraged Elizabeth is a set of spheres, then Incidental Theme One is not a sphere.

She discarded another theme as incidental: Teachers frequently asked her to help other students with writing assignments, and also asked students to approach her about writing problems they were encountering (Incidental Theme Two). Through free imaginative variation, she believed that this theme could be removed from the "school" phenomenon. Although the theme, through my analysis, came out of the interview data, Elizabeth saw it as nonessential. Incidental Theme Two is not a sphere.

With Incidental Themes One and Two discarded, the essence of Elizabeth's lived school experiences, with regard to the research question, is five themes: 1) Several teachers encouraged Elizabeth to write, giving her lots of opportunities to write poetry and stories, even to write plays that were performed at Christmas concerts for the community. 2) Several teachers read her writing--even non-assigned work that she brought to school that she'd written at home--aloud, to provide students with examples of good writing, and sometimes those teachers had Elizabeth read her own work aloud, to provide the same. 3) Memories of special events--for example, Christmas concerts--encouraged her by providing a child's (her) perspective as resource material for later writing. 4) One teacher sent her writing to author and feminist Nellie McClung, who praised her work, and later in life, when Elizabeth realized the noteworthy stature of this individual in Canadian history, she felt greatly encouraged. 5) A variety of reading experiences (poems, stories, non-fiction), which included encyclopaedias that her humble one-room school was able to inherit from an estate, helped instil a love of stories and a quest for knowledge, which gave her subjects to write about. These themes are five spheres.


Essential themes define the essence of the phenomenon I explored in my three studies. In a sense, discarding incidental themes is hermeneutic phenomenology's method of dealing with what some researchers call rival hypotheses (Miles & Huberman, 1994), negative or discrepant results (Project Methodology, n.d.), or disconfirming evidence (Lesson: Qualitative Research, 1998); however, incidental themes are discarded only if the participant, through the free imaginative variation process, labels them as nonessential to the phenomenon, whereas rival hypotheses, negative or discrepant results, or disconfirming evidence challenges conclusions or other insights a researcher comes up with, or, in terms of a specific example, modifies or extends grounded theory (Glaser, 1992; and Glaser & Strauss, 1967).

The process of free imaginative variation within a context of participant review ensures that the essential themes exist as a valid and reliable interpretation of the participant's lived experience. In a nutshell, during the process, each of my participants thought about this question: If he or she erased [theme x] from the list of themes, would the phenomenon of what encouraged him or her be altered? If the answer is yes, the theme stands as essential. If the answer is no, the theme is discarded as incidental. Critics of free imaginative variation might say, "But the researcher may have discarded an essential theme because the participant couldn't engage his or her powers of concentration concretely enough to see the theme's importance in the phenomenon." Other critics might make an opposite argument: "The participant could have concluded that theme x is essential, when in fact, it isn't."

Van Manen (1990) himself admits controversy over free imaginative variation exists. My reply: 1) The researcher must exercise patience, giving the participant every opportunity to evaluate each theme's essential or incidental relevance to the phenomenon and every opportunity to change his or her mind; and 2) No research is perfect. Every methodology has limitations (McMillan & Schumacher, 1997). At the end of the free imaginative variation session, however, the participant should feel 100% convinced, in the name of internal validity, or credibility (Siegle, n.d.), that the essential themes are indeed valid and reliable, that they define the essence of the phenomenon (van Manen, 1990). That's the best a researcher can do.


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[1] I defined lived experiences concretely through establishing an interview guide, which kept me objectively focused on my research question and the nature of the participants' lived experiences (van Manen, 1990). Answers to the questions in this guide helped define experiences in terms of where (spatiality) and when (temporality) they happened, how they emotionally affected participants (I could call this emotionality), and who was present (relationality) (1990).

Patton (1987) provides examples of questions that seek concreteness in an event: (a) "When did that happen?", (b) "Who else was involved?", (c) "Where were you during that time?", (d) "What was your involvement in that situation?", (e) "How did that come about?", and (f) "Where did that happen?" (p. 125). Sensory questions, if necessary, probe into what the participant saw, heard, tasted, smelled, and touched (Patton, 1987). Examples of sensory probes could be: (a) "As you reflect on that experience, do you 'see' anything in particular?", (b) "Do you 'hear' anything?", (c) "Do you 'taste' anything?", (e) "Do you 'smell' anything?", and (f) "Do you physically 'feel' anything?"

Feeling questions, in the Carl Rogerian tradition (Egan, 1998), if necessary, would probe "to understand the respondent's emotional reactions" (Patton, 1987, p. 118). At times I would ask Rogerian-style questions such as, (a) "How did you feel during that experience?", (b) "Do you mean that you felt (_______) about that experience?", and (c) "It appears to me that you felt (_______): Is that true, or did you feel another emotion?"

Answers to these question describe a concrete sense of "what happened" in events relative to my research question. For the reader unfamiliar with phenomenological inquiry, I hope this footnote satisfies any curiosity over what a lived experience means (see, also, Lukiv, 2004a).<Back>

[2] My peer debriefers (the three members of my MEd research supervisory committee), I should add, looked for bias in my interview questions and comments. None were found, but if any had been, all participant's statements arising from such questions and comments would have been deleted.<Back>

[3] My peer debriefer holds an MEd. He understands how a researcher's bias can "skew" interviews and "muddy" the analysis and interpretation of qualitative data. In Studies II and III, he searched for my biases in the interviews, and in the analysis and interpretation of the interview data. He did not find any.<Back>

Academic Exchange Extra invites reader response to any writings in this issue--especially articles advancing the scholarly debate of issues raised.

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