The Evolution of Personal Frames of Reference: Metaphors as Potential Space

Aden-Paul Flotman, Antoni Barnard
International Journal of Doctoral Studies  •  Volume 17  •  2022  •  pp. 067-086

The aim of this study was to explore the value of metaphors as part of a reflexive practice in the context of the evolving frame of reference journey of PhD students in a consulting psychology programme.

This study reports on the journey of how the personal frames of reference of PhD students in consulting psychology had evolved at a large open-distance and e-learning university in South Africa. As their respective journeys of becoming consulting psychologists unfolded, participants’ evolutionary journeys were viewed through metaphors. Few studies have investigated how metaphors could be used as a powerful evocative tool to go beyond the rational, conscious and sanitized responses of participants, to explore their underlying frames of reference by surfacing and eliciting implicit meaning.

This study was based on a hermeneutic phenomenological methodological stance and congruently employed principles of socio-analytic inquiry. The context of this inquiry was a PhD programme in consulting psychology presented at a large open-distance e-learning tertiary institution. Participants comprised ten PhD students. These students were required to engage in various self-reflective exercises throughout their first year, such as journaling and self-reflective essays. Their final exercise was to present their evolving frame of reference as a consulting psychologist, in the form of a visual or tangible metaphor. These final presentations became the protocols for hermeneutic phenomenological analysis in this study. Metaphors were selected through purposive sampling, and they became the “data sources” of the study.

The study contributes to the teaching of reflexivity in consulting practice. It has implications for the training of doctoral students by making a process available through which students and consultants could access and develop their personal frames of reference. The study shares valuable pedagogical and growth experiences from the perspective of the student in consulting psychology. The research advances the field of consulting psychology by introducing the notion of metaphors as potential space and stimulates further engagement in art-based qualitative inquiry from a socio-analytic stance.

The findings suggest that metaphors have value because they create a connection to emotions, emotional processes and emotional work, facilitate the professional identity construction and reconstruction process and enable a shift from self-reflection to self-reflexivity. It is proposed that metaphors have the inherent capacity to act as potential space.

Identity tensions could be alleviated through conscious identity work, when psychologists from different categories transition into consulting psychologists. We pose questions for practitioners to consider.

Doctoral programmes and research on doctoral studies should explicitly engage with both conscious and unconscious dynamics. This could relate to identity work, relationships and the power of reflexive practices.

Dropout rates of doctoral students are high. The time to complete the degree is also long. This comes at a price for the student, the institution and society. Aspects related to frame of reference, philosophical assumptions, and identity work to be done by the doctoral student should be considered as critical to doctoral programmes and doctoral education.

Future studies could investigate how consulting frames of reference relate to anxiety, identity and the well-being of doctoral students. Studies could also be conducted to see how the participants’ frames of reference in this study have further evolved over their consulting careers.

consulting psychology, hermeneutics, metaphors, potential space, reflexivity
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