Research methods in business and management

Introduction

The most common classification splits the methods used in organisational and business research into two large groups, namely quantitative and qualitative research methods. Quantitative methodology incorporates methods that have been designed to facilitate research in the field of natural (physical) sciences. Therefore, the main mission of quantitative research is to ensure validity and reliability of study results (Dingwall et al, 1998). Examples of quantitative methods widely used in the social sciences and business and management research are survey methods, formal methods (e.g. econometrics), laboratory experiments and several numerical methods (e.g. mathematical modelling) (Myers, 1997).

Quantitative stance offers a variety of tools including standardized questionnaires and survey, experiments, etc (Wainer and Braun, 1998). The concepts of reliability and validity have traditionally been considered the cornerstones of quantitative approach. On the other hand, poor applicability to examination of poorly quantifiable issues is a serious shortcoming of quantitative methods and techniques. This effect is known as ‘decontextualization’ of study results: models built on the basis of quantitative results fail to cover certain essential variables that come into play in the real world context (Patton, 2002).

By contrast, qualitative methodology seeks to explore phenomena in the “real world setting [where] the researcher does not attempt to manipulate the phenomenon of interest” (Patton, 2002: 39). Qualitative stance can be defined as follows: “…any kind of research that produces findings not arrived at by means of statistical procedures or other means of quantification” (Strauss and Corbin, 1990: 17). Qualitative research reveals findings observed in the real world context where the phenomena being studied unfold naturally (Patton, 2002).

As a result, qualitative perspective incorporates a different set of validation criteria than quantitative stance does (Kirk and Miller, 1986). For example, the replicability criterion can not be used to evaluate validity and legitimacy of a qualitative study. Instead, credibility, transferability and precision play very important role in determining validity of qualitative findings (Hoepfl, 1997). Some researchers argue that the concept of validity as it is defined within the quantitative paradigm is also not applicable to qualitative research (Creswell and Miller, 2000). Instead, they tend to develop their own concepts of validity or adopt other assessment criteria that depend upon each particular case. The examples of such criteria are quality, trustworthiness, rigor and some others (Dingwall et al, 1998).

The distinctions between quantitative and qualitative research methodologies are determined by the underlying philosophical principles. The choice of epistemology, which guides the research, is admittedly the most important of these principles (Hirschheim, 1992).

Epistemology

Over the last years many experts have expressed concerns regarding the use of positivist paradigm and methods associated with it in the area of business and organisational research. The underlying assumption of positivist perspective, which is existence of an objective world that can be measured and quantified through the use of traditional scientific methods of inquiry – has been vigorously attacked. A number of organisational theorists started to claim that the positivist approach “…strips contexts from meanings in the process of developing quantified measures of phenomena” (Guba and Lincoln, 1994: 106). Other concerns about the applicability of quantitative methodologies to in-dept examination of complex social phenomena include taking the collected data out of the real-world setting, poor representativeness and generalisation of data, exclusion of discovery from the realm of scientific inquiry, etc

The positivist perspective rests upon the founding principles of realism – a broad philosophical term denoting several theoretical stances that share a common feature, namely denounce the impractical and imaginative approaches in scientific research. Although the form of this denouncement varies, realism relies on the assumption that objects do not depend on human perception and thinking (Guba and Lincoln, 1994). Positivist approach in scientific research is “…concerned with the empirical testability of theories in order to discover the general principles or laws which govern the natural and social world” (Darke et al, 1998: 276). From positivist stance the researcher maintains neutrality and the inquiry is value-free and objective.

By contrast, interpretivist stance originated from the idealist philosophy that relied on a different set of founding principles. Advocates of the interpretivist approach believe that there the reality is not mind-independent and objects that surround us directly depend on human perception and exist only in the form of beliefs, ideas, notions concepts, and social constructs. The antirealist perspective also rejects the key idea underlying idealism: existence of a universal reality or truth that can be directly accessed by the researcher and remains independent of the research process taken (Guba and Lincoln, 1994). As a result, interpretivist epistemology is not concerned with replicability and generalisability of research results.

Qualitative Research Methods

Qualitative study designs frequently used in business research and organisational studies include ethnography, case study, action research, phenomenology, and grounded theory. These designs share a common set of data collection methods and techniques including interviewing, participant observation, fieldwork, analysis of written data and focus groups. Other qualitative data collection techniques are historical research, mapping cultural settings and events, biographies, audio and visual techniques, and even genograms (Denzing and Lincoln, 1994). Each of these data gathering techniques has certain advantages and specific drawbacks, but the most important factor to consider is whether the chosen method is congruent with the purposes of a study and corresponding study design.

  • Ethnography
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Ethnography is a form of qualitative research that is frequently employed to study complex issues related to management, organisational structures and values, etc. Initially ethnographic designs were used in social and cultural research. The basic goal of ethnographic research is to provide the reader with the story of life of the group being studied and also to identify the cultural beliefs and meanings members of that group attach to their behaviours and lifestyle (Patton, 2002). The ethnographic approach requires from the researcher to spend much time in the field immersing him in the setting of the phenomenon being studied. The first rigorous ethnographic studies in business and management were published in the mid-1980s (Cross, 1994). Typically the data gathering and analysis methods used within the ethnographic design include participant observation, unstructured interview, studying documents and photographs (Creswell, 1997).

  • Case Study

Yin (1994) defines case study as “…an empirical enquiry that investigates a contemporary phenomenon within its real-life context, especially when the boundaries between phenomenon and context are not clearly evident’ and it `relies on multiple sources of evidence” (p.13). This method is perhaps the most popular type of qualitative inquiry in business and management research. Case study has two distinguishing characteristics:

  • the focus on in-depth understanding of a phenomenon and its context;
  • the boundaries between the phenomenon and the context are not clearly evident (Yin, 1994).

Two types of case study must be distinguished from each other, namely: the instrumental case study and the intrinsic case study. The former are used as teaching devices, while the latter aim to develop or test theory or hypothesis.

  • Action Research

The most widely accepted definition of action research is proposed by Rapoport (1970): “Action research aims to contribute both to the practical concerns of people in an immediate problematic situation and to the goals of social science by joint collaboration within a mutually acceptable ethical framework” (Rapoport, 1970: 499). Although action research has been widely recognized as a valid and reliable research method in the field of social sciences, in business and management-related studies this study design has been largely ignored. Only in the mid-1990s several studies were published highlighting value of action research for theory building in the fields of organization behaviour and management information systems. Thus, Westbrook (1995) defends applicability of action research design to exploration of business and management-related issues, and claims that “…a properly conducted action research project can be as rigorous as other [traditionally used] methods” (Westbrook, 1995:17). Recently, action research design has received increasing attention from the researchers in the field of business and management.

  • Phenomenology

Phenomenology as a method of inquiry attempts to understand the phenomenon of a lived experience, which may be related to either to emotions, or to relationships, or to being part of a group or organization. The core assumption underlying the phenomenological approach is that there is an essence to shared experience. This assumption is rooted in the social sciences and requires a researcher to immerse into the life world of participants and draw a parallel between the researcher’s own experiences and experiences of the target groups/individuals (Patton, 2002).

Hein and Austin (2001) argue that there is no one way to carry out a phenomenological research because “…the specific method used depends … on the purposes of the researcher, his or her specific skills … and the nature of the research question and data collected” (p.2). Appropriate methods of data collection and analysis include in-depth interviewing, philosophy, poetry, or art, while the direction of the study is determined by the experience (Creswell, 1997). In many ways, the potential of phenomenology in business and management studies still have to be demonstrated. However, in some recent publications phenomenology is already described as a highly valuable methodology particularly applicable to exploring human experiences in management-related research (Ehrich, 2005).

  • Grounded Theory

Grounded theory is a research method that focuses on the task of developing and verifying a theory which is grounded in systematically collected and analysed data. This qualitative study design is widely defined as “…an inductive, theory discovery methodology that allows the researcher to develop a theoretical account of the general features of a topic while simultaneously grounding the account in empirical observations or data” (Martin and Turner, 1986:143). As Myers (1997) argues “the major difference between grounded theory and other methods is its specific approach to theory development – grounded theory suggests that there should be a continuous interplay between data collection and analysis” (p.241).

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Appropriate methods of data collection and analysis for this qualitative study design are participant observation, interviewing, focus groups, and diaries. Grounded theory method is gradually becoming common in business and management research: this approach is particularly valuable in developing context-based, process-oriented descriptions and explanations of the phenomenon (Myers, 1997).

Quantitative Research Methods

Quantitative methods have dominated the area of professional research, including organizational and management research, for decades, and the dominance continues despite the recent surge of attention toward the qualitative perspective. The debate over legitimacy of qualitative research is still on with qualitative methods being characterized as having “…had a rough time gaining acceptance in the mainstream social and behavioural science research” (Boyatzis, 1998: vi). Continuous attempts of qualitative researchers to justify their stance by criticizing the quantitative research paradigm and the philosophy of positivism underlying it have not led to any notable results. These reciprocal criticisms and endless debates are often addressed as ‘the wars of paradigms’ (Miles and Huberman, 1994).

The dominance of quantitative methods in business and management is largely due to the fact that business and management research have traditionally drawn upon traditional sciences such as economics, psychology or sociology. These sciences have long history of utilising quantitative methods. Besides, the expectations of government funding agencies are more in line with quantitative research approaches than qualitative (Hill and McGowan, 1999:5). Another explanation of ‘quantitative domination’ is the alleged “lack the rigor and objectivity of the quantitative approach” often associated with qualitative methodology (Patton and Appelbaum, 2003: 60).

  • Experiments

Experiment is a typical quantitative research method that aims to provide a better understanding of the relationship between a causal hypothesis and a specific phenomenon which represents either theoretical or practical interest for the researcher. True experimental study design or random experimental design is the preferred method in quantitative research, especially in evaluation studies for it is the best option to ensure as great amount of control as possible and thus allow close examination of causal relationship (Kaplan, 2004).

Three major features characterize the experimental design:

  • Manipulation: The researcher manipulates at least some of the participants involved in the study;
  • Control: The experimenter introduces one or more controls over the experimental situation;
  • Randomisation: The researcher assigns participants to different groups randomly (Clark-Carter, 2004)

Although experimental studies have been traditionally viewed as superior to other non-experimental designs, this view is repeatedly challenged these days. Thus, Heckman and Smith (1995) identify some serious drawbacks of the experimental method, namely:

  • Randomisation is likely to alter the pool of participants or change their behaviour which results in the so-called ‘randomization bias’;
  • Availability of close substitutes for the experimental setting may lead to the so-called ‘substitution bias’;
  • Limited potential of the experimental data in answering some questions which may be of certain interest to the researcher. Thus, no parameters that depend on the joint distribution of outcomes in the control and treatment groups can be estimated: “Only if the evaluation problem is defined exclusively in terms of means can it be said that experiments provide a precise answer” (Heckman and Smith, 1995: 22).
  • Experimental studies only help evaluate and assess, but provide no explanation why some or other results have been revealed.

However, these shortcomings are largely associated with the quantitative paradigm in general, and it will be misleading to state that other methods, such as quasi-experiments or descriptive designs do not share some of them.

  • Quasi-experimental Design

Quasi-experimental studies bear much resemblance to the true experimental design with only one difference: in a quasi-experiment the researcher assign participants to different groups non-randomly. This research method has been developed as an alternative tool for examining causal relationship in situations which, for some reason, are poorly conducive to experimental control. The most common characteristics of quasi-experiments are the following:

  • Use of matching instead of randomisation;
  • Use of interrupted or uninterrupted time series analysis (a type of longitudinal research);
  • Quasi-experiments is more effective that the true experiment in analysing such contextual concepts as quality of life, morale, etc (Cook and Campbell, 1979).

Although a quasi-experimental design is commonly used in many disciplines and fields, including business and management research, many scholars are concerned about multiple interpretation problems associated with quasi-experiments. For example, the validity of quasi-experimental design for assessing the impact of employment and training programs was questioned. Besides, there is an opinion that economists using quasi-experimental methods “…have had little success in isolating program effects i.e., removing the “selection bias” (Heckman and Smith, 1995). Bias due to non-randomised sampling is the most commonly cited drawback of the quasi-experimental method as compared with the true experiment.

Conclusion

The war of paradigms continues with much criticism being levelled at both qualitative and quantitative perspective, but the answer to the question whether there are any better ways of knowing the world and, consequently, better research methods and paradigms than those available these days has not been found yet. Qualitative and quantitative perspectives each has its own unique strengths and limitations, and comparison which one is better per se is not appropriate. Abundant literature on advantages and disadvantages of various methods “…does not prove which technique is better; it simply provides evidence relating to the potential strengths and limitations of each approach” (Howard, 1985: 20). Therefore, the biggest challenge for the researcher is not simply to choose the best research method available, but to decide which research method or technique is the most suitable in regard to the purposes of research.

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Quantitative research methods widely used in many various disciplines such as biology, physics, sociology, economics, etc, is a better alternative in examination of quantitative properties and various relationships between the phenomena. This methodology provides the connection between empirical observation and mathematical expression of quantitative relationships. Qualitative methods are better suited for examination of complex social phenomena within the natural settings, and provide the researcher with holistic image of the phenomenon being studied.

The epistemologies underlying both these approaches are not mutually exclusive: if approached correctly they may effectively complement each other. Consequently, the methodologies themselves should not be perceived as conflicting. Integrating these paradigms into an integrated highly effective scheme is perhaps the next methodological challenge facing qualitative and quantitative researchers.

References

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