Human Arenas

, Volume 1, Issue 2, pp 167–190 | Cite as

Dialogic Introspection—a Method of Investigating Experience

  • Thomas Burkart


Dialogic introspection is a research method that makes introspection, which was increasingly frowned upon after the emergence of behaviourism, usable again in a systematic and scientifically based form. It is a method used for the exploration of experience—of conscious inner processes (feelings, thoughts, intentions and ideas), regardless of whether they are current or remembered. The method is used not only for psychological, but also for socio-psychological and sociological issues, since social phenomena are also experienced. The method is based on the research methodology of Karl Bühler of the Würzburg School, and in addition to this, a group situation with 4–15 participants is used to explore more effectively the content and form of individual experiences. Dialogic introspection is anchored in Gerhard Kleining’s qualitative-heuristic methodology. The advantages are that it can be carried out in a way that is uncomplicated and close to everyday life, and that it takes about 90–120 min for the data to be collected. The disadvantages are that it is language-heavy and that it presupposes an ability to introspect. After an explication of the concept of introspection and an overview of the history of scientific introspection, the method and the methodology on which it is based are presented and illustrated using the example of an investigation into people’s experience of cars. Possible ways of testing using dialogic introspection are presented.


Introspection Dialogic introspection Qualitative heuristics Qualitative method 


In the early days of psychology—between 1880 and 1920—introspection was considered to be the royal road of psychology. With the rise of behaviourism and the increasing dominance of positivist psychology oriented towards the natural sciences, introspection as a research method was increasingly spurned until it almost completely disappeared from the canon of psychological methods in the 1950s. With the cognitive revolution of the 1960s, the method of thinking aloud founded by Duncker (1935/1966), in which thought processes are put into language “automatically” (without thinking), was once again approved as an essential method for obtaining data on thought processes. Introspection itself—which includes a conscious perception and engagement with inner processes—remained, on the other hand, excluded from the accepted canon of scientific methods in psychology.

While introspection was frowned upon as a research method in academic psychology, it continued to play an essential role in psychotherapy as a practical psychological method—both in psychoanalysis and in behavioural therapy, albeit with different names (cf. Burkart 2010a).

The Hamburg group for qualitative-heuristic social research—a project of psychologists, sociologists and social scientists founded by Gerhard Kleining and Harald Witt at the University of Hamburg in 1997—was the first to reactivate and re-test the old research traditions. Various research structures for introspection were put to the test. The most interesting and productive method proved to be one that combines individual introspection with a group arrangement. The method of dialogic introspection (Burkart et al. 2010) translates the often spontaneous and subjective introspection of everyday life into intersubjective, scientifically usable messages using systematic methods and record-keeping. The group situation is used for a better exploration of the content and types of experience. It stimulates the individual group members to deal with their conscious inner processes in a variety of dialogues.

The method is connected with qualitative heuristics, the methodology founded by Gerhard Kleining (1982), which uses heuristic methods in a systematic form to discover something new about the research object in the course of a dialogue.

Dialogic introspection, which was introduced at national and international conferences, proved to be suitable for the investigation of very different psychological phenomena such as the experience of architecture, media reception, everyday feelings or considerations.

The advantage of this method is that it can be carried out easily in everyday situations. Data collection takes relatively little time (90–120 min) and, with a heterogeneous group composition, allows a diverse (varied) exploration of the object. The method does, however, like other research methods, have its limits. They result from the fact that it may be language-heavy, from the ability of subjects to engage in the necessary introspection, which may be reduced in children or psychologically unstable persons, and also from possible cultural barriers, such as in the case of the Innuits, which can make communicating internal processes more difficult (Burkart et al. 2010, p. 16).

After an explication of the concept of introspection and its differentiation from other related terms (On the everyday basis and delimitation of the terms introspection, retrospection and related terms), the history of scientific introspection will be outlined below (History of scientific introspection). Dialogic Introspection describes the method. Qualitative heuristics describes qualitative heuristics as the methodological basis of dialogic introspection. The method is then exemplified using the example of an investigation into car experience (Example of investigation: From freedom to lack of freedom, from protection to threat – for analysing the car experience). The seventh and final chapter presents different forms of investigation and research designs using dialogic introspection (Forms of Investigation and Research Designs Using Dialogic Introspection).

On the Everyday Basis and Delimitation of the Terms Introspection, Retrospection and Related Terms

Introspection refers to the self-observation of internal processes. It presupposes conscious inner perception and can refer to feelings, thoughts, ideas, memories, sensations and perceptions. It can arise unintentionally or spontaneously or be brought about arbitrarily (Witt 2010). It can include short moments or longer phases of inner experience, such as mindfulness and/or meditative states.

Introspection is a human everyday phenomenon that can be found in many people. It often arises spontaneously in everyday life but can also result from a certain system (e.g. meditation or mindfulness exercises several times a day). It can be purely mental or additionally documented (e.g. by writing a diary).

Introspection seems to occur more frequently in times of crisis and can then be part of burdensome internal processes, for example in the self-observations of people who fear illness, who harbour social fears or have compulsive thoughts, especially if connected with fearful, negative (“catastrophising”) evaluations, as in the brooding of depressive people.

It can also have positive psychological effects and contribute to satisfaction with life and to reducing psychological stress, for example in meditation, which has found its way into psychotherapy under the term mindfulness, as a result of the work of Kabat-Zinn (1982; cf. Khoury et al. 2013; Ospina et al. 2007). Mindfulness involves an unbiased and open (“receptive”) perception of inner processes.

Decisive for its positive psychological effect seems to be the person’s attitude towards the object of introspection and the type of attention focus. While this attitude is non-judgemental in mindfulness, it is negative in the case of brooding. The focus of attention in mindfulness is open, wide and not restricted to certain sensations, contents, thoughts and feelings, in contrast to anxious or depressive self-observation, which is restricted to certain psychological content—for example the anxious search for signs of panic.

While introspection refers to self-perception of current internal processes, retrospection refers to the recapitulation of past experiences. Since the events remembered in this way are relived to a certain extent internally and are thus transformed into current experiences, retrospection and introspection overlap.

In contrast to thinking aloud, in which thought processes are spoken aloud, introspection requires a conscious attention to the inner processes (cf. Witt 2010, p. 294).

Introspection and retrospection can change into self-reflection if the experiences are not only perceived internally, but also analysed or evaluated (cf. Witt 2010, p. 294).

The subjects of introspection are subjectively perceived inner processes (sensations, feelings, thoughts, ideas, memories—experiences that often have a greater or lesser degree of emotion1), and in addition, more processed elements (“experience”2) and adopted mental structures (“knowledge”).

History of Scientific Introspection

Introspection played an important role as an academic discipline in the early days of psychology. Some researchers even considered it to be the central psychological method (cf. Brentano 1874/2008 p. 58). The following phases can be distinguished:
  • individual introspection in classical psychology between 1880 and 1920,

  • introspection in an experimental setting by Wilhelm Wundt and students (1879–1920),

  • introspection in the Würzburg School with Oswald Külpe (1896–1909),

  • dialogic introspection in the Hamburg group for qualitative-heuristic social research (since 1997).

Individual introspection was used in classical psychology, which emerged from philosophy. The researchers took themselves as the subject, without explicitly subjecting themselves to methodological controls (Mayer 2010a, p. 168). The objects they observed in themselves were complex and close to everyday life and affected the entire psyche. The observation itself took place impartially and openly.

Brentano (1874/2008)—an important proponent of this psychology—regarded internal perception of one’s own mental processes as the most important basis of experience in psychology (p. 58). It takes place incidentally in the course of one’s own psychological processes and can never be an inner observation itself, since close attention to the psychological object would disturb it or make it disappear (p. 44).3

As a second basis of experience, Brentano mentions the “observation of earlier mental states in memory” (p. 49), which has the disadvantage, however, that memory is subject to deceptions that must to be taken into account but do not deny the value of this method (p. 50–51). Since the introspective explorer with the self-perception of current mental processes and the self-observation of experiences stored in the memory can only ever grasp his or her own inner life and because there is therefore the risk of confusing individual features with general mental characteristics, the method must be expanded by the use of “foreign psychological phenomena” (p. 53) through the use of personal biographies (p. 54) as well as observations and experiments with children, indigenous peoples, people who are blind from birth, animals (p. 55) and “the scrutiny of pathological states of mind” (p. 56).

With this very open but also subjective methodology, Brentano achieved important insights, such as that all psychological content is intentional and therefore always has a reference, a fact that was taken up in Husserl’s phenomenology and had far-reaching effects in philosophy.

In the experimental psychology of Wilhelm Wundt, a different introspective approach was chosen. Wundt wanted to establish psychology scientifically with a psychology of direct experience based on objective foundations (Lyons 1986, pp. 4–6). He founded the first psychological laboratory for the experimental investigation of elementary psychological phenomena. Wundt drew on the psychophysics of Gustav Theodor Fechner and the physiology of Herrmann von Hemholtz (Mayer 2010a, p. 169). He attracted students from Germany and beyond, who later became important representatives of their subject, such as James M. Cattell, Emil Kraepelin, Oswald Külpe, Edward Scripture and Edward B. Titchener.

Elementary perceptions and the psychological processes (ideas and feelings) following them were measured as objectively as possible and without disruptions, using apparatus and equipment. The subjects—students in the higher years and Wundt’s PhD students—were trained to standardise and clarify their self-observation. They were guided by a test supervisor and confronted with a short visual, acoustic or tactile stimulus lasting about 4 s while sitting in a darkened box. They were then asked to report on what they had experienced, some of their reactions being made to fit a certain response pattern. Complex internal processes relevant to everyday life were not permitted. They were presented in a reduced form in the experiment, not only in terms of the conditions of perception, but also in terms of the unified internal processes. The experiments were repeated multiple times with one person and replicated with other subjects in order to obtain the most stable results possible.

Wundt’s experimental introspective method is characterised by the fact that it takes place in a natural science experimental framework that is committed to an exact reproduction of the experimental conditions and results through high methodical control and a low openness to everyday psychological processes.

Introspection at the Würzburg School (1896–1909) was the brief heyday of qualitative psychology. Külpe was a student of Wundt, who was perturbed by the latter’s elemental psychology and who later, with his own students in Würzburg, went his own way in terms of methodology, increasingly detaching himself from natural scientific methodology. In the Würzburg School, there was a basic experimental configuration with a test supervisor leading the experiment and selecting the tasks and an introspecting test person concentrating on the task and later describing his or her introspections. As in Leibzig, the researchers were employees of the institute but, in contrast to Leipzig, they included Külpe himself. The test person was now presented with complex and everyday tasks. Moreover, he or she was neither trained in self-observation nor in any way restricted in the verbal representation of his or her introspections.

In a famous study by Karl Bühler (1907/1999), the participants were initially supposed to deal silently with thinking tasks that the research director had given them.

Examples are:
  • “Can you get to Berlin in seven hours from here?” (p. 163)

  • “Can you calculate the speed of a free-falling body?” (p. 163)

  • “Can we grasp the essence of thought with our thinking?” (p. 163)

The thinking tasks set were extremely varied. In addition to historical, logical and philosophical topics, scientific questions were set.

The participant tried to solve the problem and then described his or her process of understanding. These statements were recorded and subsequently analysed by Bühler for commonalities.

With his open and heuristic methodology that allowed for inner processes in their complex diversity, Bühler recognised essential characteristics of thinking, for example that thoughts are indistinct and that a person’s problems are often solved spontaneously with an “aha” experience.

Bühler’s methodology uses complex, everyday tasks and data, without restricting the subjectivity of the researchers and the diversity of their inner processes. Intersubjectivity is established through methodological rules—the separation of the participant and the research director, the variation of the given tasks and the analysis of the data for commonalities.

Dialogic Introspection

Dialogic introspection (Burkart et al. 2010; Qualitative-heuristic Psychology and Social Research Hamburg 2018a) refers to the methodology of the Würzburg School—especially to the form in which Bühler substantiated it in his thought experiments, while additionally introducing the group to improve the quality of introspective data.

Characteristics of the method are:
  • It is a method for exploring the content of experience, i.e. of conscious inner processes, of feelings, thoughts, intentions and ideas, irrespective of whether they are current, remembered or imagined. The internal processes can be either fleeting or consolidated, currently experienced or in the recent or more distant past.

  • The method may be used not only for psychological, but also for social-psychological and sociological questions, since social phenomena are also experienced.

  • It is carried out in a group situation, generally with between four and 15 participants.

  • The method is based on everyday introspection and makes it scientifically accessible.

The typical test set-up is shown in the overview as follows (implementation alternatives, cf. Forms of investigation and research designs using dialogic introspection). About 4–15 participants concentrate on an object, e.g. on how a film showed to them in the group situation is received, and pay attention to their inner processes. After the introspection, they record the experiences they observed in themselves and then give a final report, whereby certain rules within the group apply.

During the exploration, they are guided by a research director. He or she informs them in advance about the research method, the research procedure, the type of documentation, the use of the data and about data protection regulations (such as not being mentioned by name in the research report, confidentiality outside the research setting, and the voluntary nature of and own control over participation and provision of data).

Participants receive instructions for their introspection. It would be as follows for an introspection on how a film is received:

Be open and attentive to everything that goes on inside you during the film, your thoughts, fantasies and memories, your sensations and feelings. Permit all feelings and ideas. You may take notes during the film.

If possible, the participants should record their inner processes in key points while the film is being shown, so that they are not forgotten. After the introspection (after the film), a detailed record of the experience should be made.

The recording phase only ends when no one wants to take any more notes. Usually it takes 5–20 min.

This is followed by the so-called introspection report in the group to which the following rules, introduced by the research director, apply:
  • Participants report in turn and normally without restriction, using their notes.

  • There is no time limit for the report.

  • Participants are free to decide what they want to share—in extreme cases, they could say nothing.

  • Comments or assessments by other participants are not allowed, and there must be no discussion.

In a second round, it is possible to make additions to one’s own introspection report. Participants are encouraged to use the reports by others to re-examine their own experiences. They often remember things they had forgotten, or they are encouraged by the reports of others to express banal or embarrassing details.

The research director ensures that these rules are observed within the group, which is as democratic and free of hierarchy as possible. Their purpose is as follows:
  • To make statements in the group easy to make, since the participant does not expect evaluations from the other group members.

  • To reduce the selection of experiences according to social desirability.

  • To minimise undesirable group dynamic processes that could easily arise if participants feel disparaged or attacked by criticism or judgmental comments

  • To weaken any sense of hierarchy, since each participant has the same opportunity to speak.

The introspection reports are recorded, transcribed and individually analysed outside the group. The aim of the analysis is to find commonalities in the data. The analysis is carried out according to the rules of qualitative-heuristic methodology (cf. 5.).

Advantages of the method are:
  • It enables systematic and controlled introspection with a varied documentation of the experience (in notes, in detailed writing and orally in the group). This variety is important because each of these forms of documentation has its advantages and can contribute to reducing losses that occur during the transformation of inner experience into verbal messages.

  • Undesirable group influences are controlled, in contrast to the commercial research method of group discussion (focus group), where they can strongly determine what happens in the group. Dialogic introspection does not therefore require a moderator to control the group dynamics (cf. Kleining 2016).

  • Intersubjective aspects of experience are recognised when the data is examined for commonalities.

  • Compared to individual interviews and individual introspection in the Würzburg School, this method facilitates economical research and time- and cost-efficient data collection.

  • The method invalidates the main objections raised against introspection as a scientific method, such as subjectivity and lack of reliability (cf. Burkart 2010b). The method produces intersubjectivity, to which the systemic and varied documentation, the separation of self-observation and analysis and the analysis for commonalities all contribute.

Compared to individual introspective studies, the group approach has the following advantages:
  • Fleeting impressions can be reported in a more differentiated and complete way because the participants are encouraged to focus repeatedly on their introspection.

  • There are resonance phenomena, since the reports of the other group members can remind one of one’s own similar experiences that have been forgotten.

  • The repression-free group situation encourages reporting of banal or embarrassing details.

  • Considerable variation in the data can be achieved with the first study if the group composition is heterogeneous; additional groups can expand the data basis.

Qualitative Heuristics

Dialogic introspection is anchored in qualitative heuristics (Cox 1995; Kleining 1982, 1994, 1995, 2010a; Qualitative-heuristic Psychology and Social Research Hamburg 2018b). This general methodology, which can be used for both socio-scientific and psychological objects, conceives of the research process as a dialogue between a researcher and a research subject. The researcher uses his methods to ask the subject questions and to receive answers in the form of data. The research process is dialectic. It leads from the particular—the concrete data—to the general—the structure recognised through analysis. This structure contains the particular as an element that is now better understood.

The basic methods are the active, invasive experiment and the more receptive observation. All other methods can be traced back to these basic methods. For example, introspection has both receptive and active moments—receptive when the introspective subject registers his or her experience; active when he or she asks him- or herself questions about the experience.

Qualitative heuristics is a heuristic methodology, which, unlike hermeneutic methodologies, is aimed at the discovery of something new and not at a new interpretation based on established knowledge. It is based on heuristic methods from philosophy, psychology, social sciences and the natural sciences.

In natural scientific heuristics, qualitative heuristics relates in particular to Ernst Mach (1905/1991). Mach emphasises the importance of experiments for gaining insights and the principle of variation.

Philosophical heuristics refers back to Jacob Friedrich Fries (1773–1842) who developed observational heuristics that recommends observing the subject from all sides, under different conditions and using several senses (Kleining 1995, p. 341). Qualitative heuristics is also associated with Kant, who emphasises the discovery of homogeneities or similarities, of seeing similarity in diversity (Kleining 1995, p. 342).

Based on philosophical heuristics, qualitative heuristics refers to the dialectic of Hegel and Marx/Engels (Kleining 1995, pp. 344–347). Hegel captures the whole of reality in its many manifestations, including its historical development, with the dialectic as driving force. In their materialistic dialectic, Marx and Engels depicted social development in its context, its movement, its emergence and decay. They emphasised the importance of contradictions, conflicts, the reversal of opposites and the movement caused by negating the given.

Based on psychological heuristics, and in addition to the Würzburg School, reference is made to Gestalt psychology, which investigated structural connections (“shapes”) of psychological processes in highly varied qualitative experiments and discovered their laws. Qualitative heuristics is also associated with Sigmund Freud (1856–1939), who worked more heuristically than interpretatively, leading to significant discoveries (including the unconscious and the defensive mechanisms of the ego). Finally, there are points of contact with the methodology of Jean Piaget (1896–1980), who researched the mental development of children through qualitative experiments and heuristic observation and achieved important insights (cf. Kleining 1995, pp. 347–350).

In social science heuristics, there is a proximity to symbolic interaction and its methodology, as well as to the Grounded Theory developed later by Glaser and Strauss, in particular theory formation on an empirical rather than a deductive basis. There is also a degree of proximity to the cultural anthropological methods of Warner and those of Social Research Inc. in Chicago (cf. Kleining 1995, pp. 350–352).

The methodology is characterised by four rules:
  • The openness of the researcher, who must be willing to overcome his or her preconception about the subject, even if there are always preconceptions and the researcher is not a tabula rasa. To find out something new about a research subject, however, one must be prepared to overcome one’s preconceptions, which can be difficult.

  • The openness of the research subject, who is only fully known at the end of the research, since it is the intention to discover new things. This can lead to difficulties in investigations funded by third parties if the sponsor expects the research to be processed in accordance with the application.

  • The maximum structural variation of perspectives, which demands that the research subject is examined from as many different angles as possible in order to overcome one-sidedness. In concrete terms, this means striving to vary the persons examined and the research methods used. One should start on a small scale with a few variations and expand them if the analysis reveals indications for other factors that are important for the subject of research and that influence it.

  • The analysis should be looking for common features4 in the data. The aim is to find a structure that integrates all data.

The methodology uses three research strategies:
  • Maximisation or minimisation to sound out the extremes of the subject and thus reveal its structural characteristics.

  • The testing of limits, to explore the boundaries of found structures.

  • Adaptation which involves the researcher, on the one hand, adapting his or her ideas to the data which becomes known in the course of the research into the research subject. On the other hand, it calls for research techniques to be adapted to the subject. The techniques must do justice to the subject and must not impair or damage it.

In contrast to deductive-nomological investigations, the sample strategy is not random selection but the extreme group sample according to the rule of maximum structural variation. Extreme groups are formed into factors which are believed to have a considerable influence on the subject or to characterise the subject in a significant way.

The analysis can be described as a kind of mental dialogue between the researcher and the data, in which similarities are looked for. The researcher starts at any point in the data—preferably where it is easy—and asks what the similarity is between data A and data B. In this process, small local commonalities that connect parts of the data are gradually detected. By discovering the common elements of these local structures, gradually larger structures become visible and in the end the commonality, the structure, that connects all data. The “100% rule” applies to the analysis. As with a puzzle that has been solved, every piece of data must have its place in it.

The quality criteria are self-evident if the investigation is performed correctly (Kleining 1995, pp. 273–277). The research process leads from subjectivity to intersubjectivity. At the beginning of the research process, the results are often unreliable. For example, a survey of women can produce different results than a survey of men on the same topic. If the dimensions in which these gender differences exist are included in the analysis, reliability is established.

The validity of the results arises from the fact that the research subject is varied structurally to the maximum and that data is analysed for commonalities according to the 100% rule.

The application of the results is generally limited. Social subjects are always anchored in a spatiotemporal and historical way and are therefore changeable. The scope of validity depends on how widely the research subject is represented in the data.

Many qualitative methods can be used heuristically, provided that the methodological principles of qualitative heuristics are observed. This is possible during qualitative interviews, for example, provided that the following rules are considered:
  • Open, not closed, questions should be used.

  • The questions should vary, i.e. represent the subject in its different aspects. These different aspects are familiar from the literature or from practice.

  • The survey should be interesting. A variation of the question form is to be aimed for: e.g. factual and projective questions (“What would you think, feel, do if x were a given?”).

  • Semi-structured interviews make analysis easier. A specific sequence of questions is defined. All respondents receive the same questions, although it is acceptable to adapt the question formulation to the situation.

  • Spontaneous enquiries are largely avoided since they have the disadvantage that the course of conversation can be completely different with different people. This complicates the analysis, since the data must first be put in order. Enquiries are often based on an ad-hoc understanding or a lack of understanding. Things that may not be understood during questioning may very well be revealed in a careful analysis later...

Special heuristic research methods that were developed in the context of qualitative heuristics are, in addition to dialogic introspection, heuristic text analysis (Kleining 1990), the qualitative experiment (cf. Kleining 1986; Burkart 2010c) and the receptive interview (Kleining 1987).

Kleining (2018) shows how theory can emerge within the framework of qualitative heuristics from a study on trust carried out with dialogic introspection.

Example of Investigation: from Freedom to Lack of Freedom, from Protection to Threat—for Analysing the Car Experience

The study was started at the fifth Berlin Methods Conference (Methodentreffen) 2009 on 27.06.2009 as part of a workshop on dialogic introspection, in which the method was demonstrated to the 11 participants—social scientists, psychologists, health scientists and educationalists. In order to expand the database, another introspection on the same topic was carried out privately on 02.08.2010. Further data (observations, data from receptive interviews; Kleining 1987) was also used.

Investigation Procedure

Four women and one man introspected the topic of “experiences with the car” according to the rules of dialogic introspection. The other six participants were given the choice of either conducting introspection on this topic as well or concentrating on observing the process. After an explanation of the procedure, the research director gave the following instruction:

Bring to mind some experiences with cars. Close your eyes if you prefer. Bring to mind what you experienced, your feelings, thoughts, sensations and memories. Make notes on your experience.

After about 20 min, the research director made sure that none of the participants needed more time for his or her introspection and note-taking.

The five participants then gave a detailed report in turn on their introspections, without any questions or discussion being allowed. In a second round, participants were allowed to add to their introspection report, and all the subjects made use of this opportunity. Afterwards, the remaining participants had the opportunity to express themselves in the group. All these participants also contributed their introspections to the topic, so that a total of 11 introspection reports were available (hereinafter referred to as Pc 1–11). These introspection reports were digitally recorded after the test supervisor had verified that each participant was in agreement. The introspection reports in the group lasted 60.5 min, including those of the group of observers. The digitally recorded reports were transcribed and comprised 17.5 type-written pages (47,697 characters).

In order to vary the age of the participants, the second introspection on the same topic took place on 01.08.2010 within the author’s family and using three participants (an 83-year-old woman, a 50-year-old woman and a 10-year-old boy, hereinafter referred to as Pc 1b–3b). At 9.5 min, the duration of the introspection reports is considerably shorter than in the first introspection.

To complete the study, reports by two other people that were registered by me as receptive interviews, an informal private survey of two people and some everyday observations were included.

The analysis of the data was done on an individual basis according to the rules of qualitative heuristics.


The car associated with diverse risks and dangers is seen as an instrument for expanding one’s own mobility in a personal sphere created by the car. The car-related experience—whether as a driver, passenger or other road user—is accompanied by conflicting feelings and perceptions that are connected to the car by a conflict-laden relationship. The relationship with the car, whose technology is only partially understood, but which can be used properly after the right amount of practice, is in keeping with one’s own life story where development is characterised by the dichotomy of impotence and power, as well as stress and relief.

Change in Mobility and Personal Space

The car is perceived as an instrument that increases mobility options. Distances can be covered more quickly than by using the strength of the human body. It is used, for example, for journeys to work; it can even be the thing that makes work accessible (Pc 5); it can be used for visits to important people such as parents, friends or acquaintances but also for other journeys and outings.

And then it’s somehow extremely important for me to have the car, because many of my friends and my parents live a long way away, and I use it to visit them. ... My boyfriend lives two hours’ drive away, so I can use it to visit him. (Pc 2)

The mobility created by the car is characterised by two features—the act of self-determination that it makes possible and the speed that it provides for quickly changing location. Pc 2 emphasises the first aspect, the autonomy that the car provides: she can decide at any time where she wants to go and with whom. For Pc 4, it was important to visit her seriously ill grandmother whenever necessary.

In the perception of the participants, the car provides a kind of mobile “microcosm” (Pc 3)—a personal space that extends the private sphere into the wider world. It makes it possible to move, protected and undisturbed, through the wider world and to transport things, not only on long journeys but also on short trips (Pc 2b) and to “take a bit of your own world with you” (Pc 9).

Well, my first memory was of my own car, which I got as a present after passing my driving test. It was an old Polo .... And I liked to drive it through town in the evenings to get to wherever I was going. And that was my space in which I drove through the town at night. (Pc 9)

This microcosm has the following qualities as an enclosed but partially transparent space:
  • It offers protection from the elements such as rain and thunderstorms.

  • It offers protection from unpleasant social factors, for example, nasty smells (Pc 3).

  • It produces a private space in which to make phone calls undisturbed, for example (Pc 3), to talk to one’s family without being interrupted, to listen to one’s own music loudly or to sing loudly or to be able to swear, supposedly without disturbing anyone (Pc 4, 8 and 9) or to have as a “love nest” (Pc 4) for intimate encounters with other young people.

So, I enjoy it when I can swear and curse when I’m driving, when I’m having a bad time and feel harassed, when I know I’m not disturbing anybody except myself. (Pc 8)

On journeys, it can be used to take everything you need, and may even be used to live in. It transports objects and people.

This microcosm also creates a meeting place with specific qualities. It makes outings possible with family, friends and acquaintances and can also lead to getting to know new people if, for example, you offer people a lift (Pc 5). In this meeting place, a special closeness can develop with intense communication.

There can also be the opposite effect to increased mobility. The advantage of the car for getting around quickly can be turned on its head in the context of a city. Here, public transport or bikes prove superior to the car (Pc 10). Finding a parking space and finding the car again afterwards can be time-consuming. The journey can be hindered by heavy traffic and traffic jams, so that you reach your destination not faster, but more slowly:

I [live] in a big city... and I think that a car’s completely unnecessary there. I can get to where I’m going much faster on public transport than by car and I can save myself the search for a parking space and all the temper tantrums or similar that go with it. (Pc 10)

All positive aspects of mobility are ambivalent from the point of view of the participants. For example, the special closeness with other passengers that the car sometimes creates can prove to be too intensive and stressful on long journeys (Pc 9). On the one hand, the car offers protection from social factors and the elements and creates a sphere that extends one’s personal space into the wider world. On the other hand, however, this protection can become just the opposite if, in the case of an accident, the space becomes a prison from which one cannot escape or only with great difficulty, possibly with the help of other people or the fire brigade.

What the phenomena described have in common is that the car is seen as an instrument that changes people’s methods of locomotion. These changes are conflicting, in that positive changes, depending on the context—the situation itself, the relationship one has to the car and to the “traffic roles” of driver, passenger, pedestrian or cyclist—can easily turn into negative ones. In free-flowing traffic, the car can expand options for locomotion in a positive way, or it can limit them in a negative way in traffic jams or with large numbers of cars, as is often the case in big cities. The change in one’s private space that the car creates can also be positive if it extends the personal space into the wider world and creates a protective microcosm with a degree of privacy. The same microcosm can, however, become a prison in the case of an accident, with the occupants of the car unable to leave it or only with the help of others. It can also be an unpleasant experience if people feel confined on a journey and unable to escape from their travelling companions. Its use as a “noise box” for listening to loud music or noisily expressing one’s emotions can irritate pedestrians or cyclists.

The Technology of the Instrument

The car is perceived by the participants as a complicated instrument, the technology of which they do not understand or only understand in a limited way. Because the technology is becoming more and more complicated and they can repair less and less of it themselves (Pc 8), they enter into a dependency on the car and on garages to maintain and repair it.

Even the perception that the technology has become more complicated, that I can no longer fix a car myself, is an additional perception about the car. It also makes me realise how much dependency I'm willing to put up with elsewhere, where I can't fix anything anymore, where it’s sometimes hard for me to even understand how things work. (Pc 8)

This can become a problem if the cars are old or unsafe and it’s not possible to pay a garage (Pc 4 and 11).

Although most people gain only a rudimentary understanding of the car’s technology, they become proficient in using it after a certain amount of time, and this can be combined with a feeling of safety (Pc 9) and a funktionslust. There is a difference between being able to drive, which involves a certain proficiency in using the technology and the actual understanding of car technology, which is often only at a very basic level that enables the driver to use but not repair the car. Some participants are under the impression that they can drive well, where quality is determined by certain difficult aspects of driving that have been well mastered, such as parking (Pc 3 and 9).

The skill of driving must be learned, and is one in which important figures such as the father or mother can provide instruction and play a part in the initial stages (Pc 3 and 8). Learning is a fairly lengthy process of acquiring driving experience (Pc 5), during which the skill of driving becomes automatic and therefore leads to a situation in which the driver needs to pay little conscious attention in normal driving situations and is able to think about other things.

The Rules of Use

The use of the car is determined by traffic regulations. At least a rough observance of these is a prerequisite for other road users, a fact that becomes obvious if these rules are infringed and the driver feels that his rights have been eroded, that he is restricted in the way he drives or even that he is personally threatened or involved in an accident as a result. Such violations of the rules can trigger strong feelings.

Traffic rules can also be perceived as a limitation and may be connected with the attraction of breaking the rules (Pc 3 and 9).

I sometimes feel like doing something with the car that’s not allowed and not getting caught, like speeding without getting a ticket or parking badly in a car park, in the disabled parking without getting found out. (Pc 3)

They can lead to conflicts with other road users who do not observe traffic regulations (Pc 4) and can carry the risk of reprimand. In addition to informal reprimands, as in the case of participant 10 who gets annoyed with his sister who always points out traffic rules when they travel together, participants also report levels of formal punishment with penalty tickets and temporary loss of their driving licence when the police are involved.

The Nature of the Machine as a Commodity

In a capitalist society, cars are a commodity that is advertised, that has a price, that incurs costs for maintenance and that is bought and then sold again. Some participants perceive this as a burden.

The first, the first association I had with a car was actually a burden, a financial burden. I see my car as a financial burden because it involves me in lots of costs that I have to bear myself, like taxes and insurance and so on and which I can’t really afford. (Pc 5)

Another participant is glad not to need a car and not to have to spend any money on one (Pc 11). One participant sees himself in a relationship of dependence with the car:

On the other hand, it’s a commodity I need to get to work. And I have to work so that I can afford the car. In other words, I work to have my car, and that means that I need a car to get to work. (Pc 5)

The high financial risks associated with the car make the car a “cause for concern” (Pc 8), at risk of damage or loss, something that has to be attended to, maintained and repaired. This “concern” may mean that attention is paid to certain risks when using the car, such as when parking it safely (Pc 8).

The Dangers and Risks

The downside of what the car can provide is the dangers and risks associated with it. The car is considered a danger both to humans and to the environment that it pollutes with its exhaust fumes (Pc 1 and 2). Cars are seen as a particular threat to more vulnerable road users. This includes cyclists and children.

And the last thing that occurred to me is that I think my worst nightmare is a child running in front of my car and me being to blame for a child dying or being hurt, on the one hand through no fault of my own because I can’t always predict what’s going to happen, and on the other hand because I wasn’t concentrating or paying attention or was driving too fast. I think that’s my most terrible, the worst thing that could happen to me, I think. (Pc 3)

If the risks for the drivers become too great, the control that they had over the car ceases to exist, with consequences that have varying degrees of seriousness or that sometimes may even be fatal.

I once had a serious accident where I’d taken out a life insurance policy a week before, then I came really close to not making it. ... And with the accident taking place against the direction of travel. I had spun round, practically on the last day, the last winter day when it was still icy. When I changed lanes and came to a stop against the direction of travel, there was an articulated lorry coming straight for me. And for some miraculous reason, my car was practically tipped to one side by the lorry. I was probably in shock or had slight concussion. I was lying there on my side. It was a Toyota, a really big Toyota. And from above me, someone opens the door and looks in and asks me “Is everything okay?” “It was kind of fascinating that he was checking if everything was okay and I didn’t really know what was going on.” (Pc 6)

Various sources of danger are mentioned. These include extreme weather conditions (heavy snowfall, Pc 3), faulty technology such as a defective windscreen wiper in heavy rain (Pc 3), but also carelessness on the part of the driver or other road users, e.g. playing children (Pc 2). Caution on the part of the driver (e.g. Pc 3) with anticipation of certain hazard types and safe driving behaviour that may have been acquired during safety training (Pc 1) can help to reduce the risks.

Conflicting Feelings, Sensations and Judgements

The characteristics of the car trigger conflicting feelings. The high-speed locomotion over which the driver has control and which can make him feel that he is going beyond human boundaries (Pc 7), the control over the machine and the influence of the driver on fellow passengers are all associated with feelings of freedom, autonomy and power.

My basic attitude towards cars is to do with. .., can best be described as the freedom aspect. You sometimes get the feeling of going beyond certain boundaries, whether that's to do with the speed when you’re driving for a period of time or whether it’s do with listening to and singing along with loud music if you want to, and of course it’s also to do with the mobility it allows you. (Pc 7)

So, driving gives me a sense of power, of independence, of autonomy, of freedom. The driver gets to decide which radio channel is played, whether the windows are open or closed, how high the air conditioning is turned up etc. (Pc 2)

I also hate driving on the motorway, but somehow I find driving gives me a sense of freedom. (Pc 1)

Being completely in control of the car in different driving situations is a sensuous experience (Pc 1 and 3)—an experience that is accompanied by pleasant feelings:

And at the same time I also like to drive, driving’s fun, I also like to drive long distances or on the motorway or to other countries. (Pc 2)

As already mentioned, these feelings can invert. In dangerous or unfamiliar situations, these positive feelings soon become feelings of fear (Pc 11 and 8) or of stress when the demands of driving are strenuous (Pc 8 when driving children around) or of anger and aggression if other road users do not live up to your expectations (Pc 10) or if you feel that your aims are being thwarted by them.

Owning a car, especially if it is a “dream car”, can make you proud.

That was my dream car. An “Espace” – a big car, in the right colour and the whole family fitted nicely into it. And that gave me this paternal and manly feeling of success. The whole family fits into it in an organised way. I was very proud back then. (Pc 8)

For passengers, cyclists or pedestrians on the other hand, the car can be associated with the opposite feelings and perceptions, among which anxiety predominates. The control and sway that the driver has over his vehicle can be experienced by passengers, cyclists or pedestrians as feelings of impotence. These can sometimes become so unbearable for front-seat passengers that they “brake” too in dangerous situations, by imitating the braking action or trying to verbally influence the driver’s behaviour.

Then I remembered that I was the passenger. I find it harder to be a front-seat passenger since I passed my driving test ... and then, when things get too hairy for me, I “brake” too. (Pc 4)

Nausea can also occur, particularly in children, but also with adults in the passenger seat. Smells can be deemed unpleasant (“stinking Lada”, Pc 4). Long trips may be experienced as boring, monotonous or damaging (Pc 1 and 1b). My son finds them so unpleasant that he has asked on more than one occasion to be allowed to travel on his own to the south of Germany by train instead of by car.

Cars are linked to conflicting aesthetic judgements. They can be seen as beautiful objects (Pc 1b, Pc 8: “dream car”) or as an upsetting “burden on the senses” (Pc 8). They may be seen as a complete scourge on account of their number, their noise and their stench.

Cars can be great, fantastic, beautiful. (Pc 1b)

Cars are a very real scourge to me, just the number, the stench, the noise. (Pc 8)

Cars are loud. Cars can be very intrusive when someone has their music on loud. (Pc 1b)

The Car as a Personal Entity

Perhaps on account of the strong feelings that the car is capable of triggering, it can become a personal entity with which the subjects develop a bond. Two participants reported that they stroked their car if they made a mistake changing gear, and that their father stroked his car when it had done 50,000 km (Pc 4 and 5). Another participant sometimes thanks his car.

And, ahm, the last thing I do when I change into the wrong gear, for example, though it doesn’t happen often now, but sometimes it does and then there’s a wonderful grinding of gears, then I always apologise to my car and stroke the steering wheel. (Pc 5)

And on the same subject, I remembered we were on holiday once and the car hadn’t done 50,000 km or something and then it hung in there and managed it, and my dad really stroked the car and I remember so clearly this grown man stroking the car and saying it had done well. (Pc 4)

Participant 5 also reports great attachment. This means that the sale of the car can be experienced as a loss.

And also the experience of loss – just an old car at the end of the day, when we had to part, but it was connected somehow with the children and we had to give this “container” up and let someone else have it, and there was nothing family-related left and we were giving this up as well. (Pc 8)

The car as a personal entity or quasi-person can have a function that reflects the owner:

On the one hand, to address yet another level that has just occurred to me, is that I somehow personify my car, or somehow identify with it and that I sometimes see myself in it. ... Yes, and I also believe that the way my car looks, in a way, the world of my car also reflects a part of myself. (Pc 5)

Whereas cars that work can increase one’s sense of self with feelings of pride and potency, cars that don’t work can bring about feelings of shame, as in the case of the frequently broken-down Trabi, reported on by participant 11, which caused feelings of embarrassment and shame.

Some people make the car the central focus of their lives—a “demonstration object”, an “embodiment of themselves” that observers may find distasteful (Pc 5 and Pc 8).

In connection with the nature of the car as a commodity, its different prices and the different image that different brands of car have, the car can become a status symbol—like the Mercedes belonging to the father of participant 9, a kind of symbol to which people react with recognition or rejection, and which caused her embarrassment because she didn’t identify with the values associated with it.


The car is associated with various conflicts that push the person towards seeking solutions to the conflicts.

For some participants, the practical value of the car and the associated “funktionslust” are in conflict with the environmental pollution caused by car exhaust fumes, and this conflict is worsened by the large number of cars (Pc 2). Participant 2, who would not be prepared to forego her car, reduces this sense of conflict by only driving long distances.

The financial burden of the car can also be experienced as a conflict, which only becomes more acute when the person is dependent on the car. Solutions mentioned by the participants are to do without the car completely or to share it with others, which can again lead to conflicts.

Conflicts also result from driving styles, from different opinions regarding traffic rules and from their violation in the case of accidents or dangerous situations, when one sees oneself adversely affected in the pursuit of one’s own interests by other road users. Given as reactions to the conflicts and attempts at resolution are dissociation (Pc 4), anger (Pc 2, Pc 3 and 4 and others) and dominance (asserting oneself in one’s driving behaviour, Pc 3).

The dangers associated with cars due to accidents can be seen as a source of conflict, in connection with the practical value and the emotional meaning that the car has for the participants. To achieve a solution, the participants say that they try to achieve a safe driving style through a high level of concentration, a driving style that anticipates accidents or a safety training course.


The participants recall experiences from childhood and later stages of life which illustrate developments relating both to relationships with the car and its significance in the biographical development and to the development of automotive technology and the social changes associated with it.

The following societal trends become clear:
  • An increase in cars from relatively rare single objects in the 1950s to a mass-produced item in recent decades. This development is associated with an increase in land usage due to car parks and roads.

  • Accessibility/availability of cars that were relatively rare and coveted objects in the GDR and for which the waiting time was sometimes more than a decade, whereas in West Germany, they were already readily available in the 1950s, providing that the purchase price could be paid.

  • Development towards increasingly costly and complicated automotive technology, making understanding and own repairs difficult and perhaps creating a sense of dependency.

In retrospect, the car is seen by the participants as an important tool for familial interaction. Family outings, travel experiences shared by the family and particular experiences with the car are recalled.

The car itself produces mixed feelings during childhood. On the one hand, the car is an attractive object for boys in particular, though initially for girls too—conveyed via gender stereotypes—which they can play with and, by identifying with it, understand its fascinating and dangerous characteristics. Such was the case with my 10-year-old son who said, when asked about his experiences of playing with cars:

I used to think that cars were so good because they’re fast. I copied the noises they make [imitates sound of a car]. I had a lot of cars when I was little. I tried to find out which one was the fastest and which one could go the furthest. Then I had my favourite car. The more I knew, the more I built into my game, e.g. accidents, police chases. Eventually, I lost interest in the cars because I could play better with Duplo and Lego. That was when I was two.

My wife made the correction that our son was still playing with cars at the age of four.

I believe that girls also like playing with cars initially. But since they get other things given to them by their parents, like dolls for example, they play with other things.

On the other hand, their concrete experience of cars is only partially positive. It can be enjoyable and fascinating to go impressively fast (“Daddy, drive faster”), especially if they are allowed to steer it themselves for a while on their mother or father’s lap or sit next to their parents with the bulldog next to them (Pc 9). The sensual experience as a child passenger is, however, often negative and damaging, associated with restricted movement, boredom, feelings of nausea and a less comfortable position on the back seat.

The increase in numbers of cars and the associated land usage by roads and car parks can be perceived negatively as a threat and as a removal of space.

As a child, our territory was big, and then I grew up at a time when cars were multiplying incredibly quickly. They’ve gone from being an individual object to becoming a kind of threat. On the one hand, they’ve taken space away from us with the kind of car parks they’ve built and the roads they’ve constructed, and in a very concrete way when it comes to cycling. (Pc 8)

The child’s urge to move is threatened by accidents involving cars: “I almost had an accident, with me sitting on the bonnet of a car on the way to school” (Pc 8).

In a further development, which was described by one participant as “preparatory work from the back seat” (Pc 8), an important step in driving lessons is to get closer to driving yourself and thus to the “right” position on the front seat. Being able to drive oneself and pass one’s driving test can be perceived retrospectively as a significant step in personal development, comparable to an initiation into adulthood. “As an eighteen year-old, passing your driving test was like an initiation rite: if you had your licence, you were an adult.” (Pc 3).

Another important developmental step, described by participant 8 in the words, “Now at last the world belongs to me, it’s my world” is owning one’s first car. It expands one’s own radius of action, creates a new space for meeting friends and strangers and makes it possible to conquer the world in a new, self-determined and “adult” way.

In further stages of development, attitudes to the car diverge:
  • The car as the central focus of one’s life for revaluation of oneself.

  • The car as a prestige object, as a status symbol that provokes conflicting reactions (e.g. “fat cat’s” car).

  • The lover of fast cars, like the father of participant 9:

    “Then I remembered that my father liked very fast cars, and bought cars that were fast but not necessarily safe, even at times when he didn’t have much money.” (Pc 9)

  • The functional attitude towards the car that is chosen for a specific purpose, e.g. the family car or the motor home.

In old age, the relationship to the car can become one of fear and insecurity, both for the driver and for pedestrians or cyclists. The radius of action for driving the car may be reduced to familiar and shorter routes.

Cars go too fast when I’m walking. They get too near to me as a cyclist. I’m anxious because I’m insecure, even when driving. I don’t want to drive long distances and unknown routes anymore. But I couldn’t imagine not having a car. (Pc 3b)

Summary and Discussion

The analysis revealed as a central common feature that the car is seen as an instrument with a technology that is difficult to understand, but that can be used appropriately with practice to expand one’s private space and to provide more autonomous locomotion. The car creates a private space in which to move around the wider world in a protected, undisturbed and potentially fast way. It dynamises and expands one’s private space, not only by enabling a rapid change of location but also by making it possible to “take a bit of your own world with you”, including people and personal possessions, into the world at large.

Whether these functions of the car are, in fact, seen to be positive depends on the context—on the situation in question, and on the “traffic roles” of driver, passenger, pedestrian or cyclist. Under real driving conditions, the positive aspects of driving—fast locomotion inside a personal space, protection, a degree of privacy but with the chance of meeting someone—can soon become just the opposite, due to traffic jams, a high volume of traffic, conflicts with other road users, limited parking spots and the risk of an accident, even for the driver. For pedestrians and cyclists, on the other hand, the negative, upsetting, dangerous and potentially lethal aspects of the car are at the forefront.

Experiencing these positive and negative aspects and the often conflictual relationship to the car associated with them is accompanied by opposing (and also ambivalent) feelings and perceptions that revolve around dialectic of freedom/lack of freedom, autonomy/dependence, power/impotence, protection/threat and self-elevation/humiliation of self. Predominantly, positive feelings can lead to the car becoming a personal entity with which the subjects develop a bond and which brings about an increase in self-esteem.

The relationship to the car runs in parallel to one’s own life story, where the development is characterised by the dichotomy between impotence and power, and stress and relief, with a fluctuation between the experience of stress and impotence and an identificational experience of power in childhood play, to the power and freedom-laden symbol of adulthood, which is subdivided into multiple attitudes towards the car that can change again in old age when cars increasingly trigger feelings of insecurity and impotence.

The relationship to the car is firstly determined on a societal level by the traffic rules that are sometimes perceived to be restrictive and a cause for conflict; secondly by the nature of the car as a commodity, which can be a burden and lead to dependencies; and thirdly by development trends—such as the development of automotive technology, the increase in the number of cars and the associated land usage which the participants experience with ambivalence—both as a source of fascination and as a burden.

The results of this study are only valid for the groups analysed. In order to expand the range of validity, a greater variety of research subjects would be needed (other professions, variations in social class, age, type of car use, etc.).

The results show that the car is seen as a way of extending self-determined locomotion and are consistent with known evaluations of the car (Automobil 2018). The participants’ experiences also reflect the much-discussed critical aspects of car traffic, which is linked to one of the most important branches of the economy in Germany and has led to vigorous growth over the last 60 years and a simultaneous disregard for the environmental consequences. These include the environmental damage caused by exhaust fumes with their adverse effect on health, the increasing use of land for cars which impacts on the habitat of humans, animals and plants, the parking problems, the problems caused by traffic jams and the consequences of traffic accidents. On the other hand, other problematic and critical factors such as the high consumption of energy, raw materials and water in car production, the problematic combustion engine, with its use of petroleum—a fossil fuel of limited availability—and its high level of polluting CO emissions, did not play a role in the experiences described by the participants.

The possible solutions suggested by the participants to the environmental problems caused by cars—completely forgoing the car and using alternative means of transport such as bicycle, bus and train, forgoing the car some of the time when alternative means of transport are widely available as in cities, and car-sharing—reflect many of the potential solutions currently under discussion, though no mention was made of using cars with lower pollutant emission levels.

Forms of Investigation and Research Designs Using Dialogic Introspection

The object of introspection can be anything that forms part of experience and exists as a conscious inner experience: reception of media such as films, texts or images, the experience of one’s own actions or those observed in others, inner processes such as daydreams, fantasies, decision-making or emotional processes and knowledge that the subject can refresh and bring to mind.

These can be short or long-lasting experiences (e.g. a shock lasting a fraction of a second vs. a traffic jam lasting several hours), trivial or significant events (e.g. reception of the news vs. experiencing a life-threatening situation), lasting or fleeting experiences (e.g. the experience of mundane shopping vs. life-changing decisions). They can be current experiences, or ones from the distant past that the subject remembers and are therefore available for the current experience.

Examples of objects for introspection in the Hamburg group for qualitative-heuristic social research—which we have often performed in our circle in different roles (research director, participants who have done the introspection)—are:
  • The experience of a shock caused by a sudden event (the ringing of an alarm clock; Witt and Kleining 2010).

  • The reception of varied media formats: an artistic short film, various news programmes, a nature film and an Internet chat on the daily soap GZSZ (cf. Burkart 2006, 2010d).

  • Emotional experience: the starting point was an investigation into the introspection of current feelings of anger and a different feeling of the participants’ choice, which they were asked to observe in their everyday lives. The investigation formed the starting point for a larger heuristic investigation on feelings using a variety of methods, which led to devising a theory of feelings (cf. Burkart 2005, 2010e).

  • The experience during processes of consideration: the task was to register several considerations and then to document them. The investigation included both short, banal considerations (“do I empty the dishwasher now or later”) and very complex scientific considerations (Burkart 2008).

  • The experience of public buildings and of a room in which an academic event took place. The public spaces were railway stations, both large and small (Kleining 2008, 2010b).

  • The experience was examined in a socio-pedagogical discussion. This study focused on the question of whether the method can be used in supervision (Mayer 2010b).

  • In studies on conceptual understanding, the internal processes should be registered when thinking about terms such as the term “whiteboard” (Kleining 2010c)

  • Studies on the experience of everyday objects: in addition to experiencing the car (cf. Example of investigation: From freedom to lack of freedom, from protection to threat – for analysing the car experience), a study was conducted on experiencing the PC (Burkart 2009).

  • The experience of dreams: the task was to record dreams as soon as possible after waking. These studies formed the starting point of a larger investigation into dreaming, which is not yet complete. Other methods are used in addition to dialogic introspection (psychotherapy patients’ descriptions of dreams, and spontaneous reports of everyday dreams).

The structures of investigation vary, depending on the type of object to be introspected and the conduct of the investigation.
  • Confronting the object of introspection can be carried out together in a group or by each participant on an individual basis. Examples of joint introspection in a group setting are the reception of a news programme or a film watched together. An example of individual implementation is introspection about a visit to a public building which each participant undertakes alone.

  • The introspection can be performed once or repeatedly.

  • The object of investigation can either be deliberately brought about or observed (“waited for”) as it occurs “naturally” in the participants’ everyday lives. Examples of it being brought about deliberately are the screening of a film or the confrontation with a sudden surprising stimulus. Examples of observing the object of introspection in the participants’ everyday lives are the observation of one’s own feelings (e.g. a current feeling of anger) or other internal phenomena such as dreams or considerations.

  • The object of introspection can be a specific, currently occurring inner phenomenon (feeling, sensation, thought, dream, etc.) or the introspection can refer rather unspecifically to the entire experience that occurs, for example, with certain events in the participants’ everyday lives, regardless of what the occurring inner processes are.

With these different objects of introspection, the following three types of investigation are possible (Burkart and Weggen 2015, pp. 103–105):
  • Experimental investigations: certain aspects of the object of investigation are deliberately produced and the participants are confronted with it. An example would be the confrontation with different media formats to investigate the process of reception.

  • Retrospective investigations: participants are asked to remember their experience of the object of investigation (“Think of specific events and recall what you experienced”).

  • Ethnographic investigations: participants are asked to observe the experience in their everyday life that is the focus of the investigation, e.g. an investigation that we conducted on everyday annoyance (“Wait for a current feeling of anger in your everyday life and then record your experience”).

With dialogic introspection, very different forms of experience can be examined in a variety of forms adapted to a particular set of research interests.


  1. 1.

    In German “Erleben”.

  2. 2.

    In German “Erfahrung”. In English, there does not seem to be a distinction between immediate and often emotional “experience” and processed experience with less emotional content (in German “Erfahrung”).

  3. 3.

    “Die Grundlage der Psychologie wie der Naturwissenschaft bilden Wahrnehmung und Erfahrung. Und zwar ist es vor Allem [sic] die innere Wahrnehmung der eigenen psychischen Phänomene, welche für sie eine Quelle wird. ... Man merke aber wohl, wir sagten innere Wahrnehmung, nicht innere Beobachtung sei diese erste und unentbehrliche Quelle. Beides ist wohl zu unterscheiden. Ja die innere Wahrnehmung hat das Eigenthümliche [sic], dass sie nie innere Beobachtung werden kann. Gegenstände, die man, wie man zu sagen pflegt, äußerlich wahrnimmt, kann man beobachten; man wendet, um die Erscheinung genau aufzufassen, ihr seine volle Aufmerksamkeit zu. Bei Gegenständen, die man innerlich wahrnimmt, ist dies aber vollständig unmöglich. Dies ist insbesondere bei gewissen psychischen Phänomenen, wie z. B. beim Zorne unverkennbar. Denn wer den Zorn, der in ihm glüht, beobachten wollte, bei dem wäre er offenbar bereits gekühlt, und der Gegenstand der Bobachtung verschwunden. Dieselbe Unmöglichkeit besteht aber auch in allen andern Fällen. Es ist ein allgemein gültiges psychologisches Gesetz, dass wir niemals dem Gegenstande der inneren Wahrnehmung unsere Aufmerksamkeit zuzuwenden vermögen.“Brentano (1874/2008, p. 44)

  4. 4.

    In German “Gemeinsamkeit”.


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© Springer International Publishing AG, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Psychologischer Psychotherapeut, Praxis für PsychotherapieHamburgGermany

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