What is research?

The aim of your dissertation experience is to develop the skills, knowledge and confidence needed to conduct research into business and management issues. But what does this really mean? Over the next 4 weeks, you will explore the idea of management research as the process through which you will set out to develop or extend knowledge on a particular problem or topic. The challenge, of course, is that there are many different ways in which this ‘knowledge’ is defined, gathered, interpreted, confirmed and understood within the research community. In other words, you must be concerned from the start about epistemology in management research. Epistemology refers to the philosophy of knowledge, addressing questions about how we know what we think we know, what we regard as evidence and how one goes about claiming that something is true.
As a field that draws heavily upon the social sciences, management research can address diverse goals, involve a variety of stakeholders and be conducted using a wide range of approaches (Easterby-Smith, et al., 2008). Faced with these choices, the management researcher must be clear about what he or she is trying to accomplish and for whom.

The focus this week is on considering the epistemological choices before you, as a management researcher, and clarifying your own epistemological perspective. This is an important first step in the research process. Crotty (1998) proposes a four-part model of the research process that defines the series of choices a researcher must make:

  1. Epistemology
  2. Theoretical perspective
  3. Methodology
  4. Method

In Crotty’s model, both epistemology and theoretical perspective have to do with the nature of the knowledge to be gained from the research process, while methodology and method have to do with the approach taken to the research, and how it is designed and conducted. Crotty acknowledges that many scholars use different names for the same aspect of the research process, while others co-opt the same name for different elements, leading to confusion and disagreement (1998, p.3). In fact, Easterby-Smith, et al. (2008) propose a similar four-part model, but include ontology (the nature of reality), epistemology, methodology and method (p.60). This frequent use of different terminology for similar ideas makes it important for the new researcher to approach research with a clear and critical view. You should be able to ask questions about the epistemological, theoretical and methodological underpinnings of published studies you read, and to be clear about your own definitions and choices as you proceed with your research.

In this Research Methods module, Week 1 focuses on epistemological perspectives, while Weeks 2-4 focus, respectively, on theoretical foundations, methodologies and methods. These Weekly Notes provide a closer look at epistemological perspectives, ways of knowing and the philosophy of knowledge in management research, and then a brief overview of the other three elements of Crotty’s framework.

Ways of knowing in management research

In your first module, Being a Leader, you were introduced to the differences between a positivist and a constructionist view of leadership. The positivist view focuses on dissecting the skills, attitudes and strategies of leadership, while a constructionist view sees leadership as a socially constructed, negotiated phenomenon (Smircich& Morgan, 1982). These distinctions can be made for almost any social phenomenon that can be studied, including others important in management research. Your philosophy of knowledge—your starting assumptions about the nature of knowledge and what counts as ‘truth’—impacts the way you go about studying any phenomenon.

In their discussion of the philosophy of management research, Easterby-Smith, et al. (2008) begin by contrasting positivism and social constructionism. The positivist perspective assumes that there is a ‘real world’ out there that can be understood apart from our values, beliefs and interpretations. This perspective aims to explain phenomena in generalisable, universal terms, and it employs a logic of falsification and rigorous testing to determine objective truths. The social-constructionist perspective, on the other hand, assumes that our understanding of the ‘real world’ is inseparable from our values, beliefs and interpretations. It aims to describe or understand the particular contextual aspects of phenomena and seeks to interpret events and phenomena to uncover their meaning and implications for the actors or participants involved. Researchers working from a constructionist stance embrace the notion that the researcher is part of the study environment, and brings a plethora of prior knowledge, including beliefs that will inevitably colour the way the study is conducted and conclusions are drawn. Similarly, social constructionists hold that one should not strive to separate the phenomena under study from their context, since what is important in much of this type of research are the meanings and interpretations that the study’s ‘subjects’ (a word that constructionists often disdain) ascribe to their experiences, which are naturally highly contextual.

While individual researchers may naturally gravitate towards one particular epistemological perspective, Moses and Knutsen (2007) advocate for ‘methodological pluralism’ (p.288), the ability to understand, appreciate and even adopt multiple perspectives in one’s work. Although these authors use the term ‘methodology’, in fact they are referring to the same kinds of epistemological perspectives you have been examining so far, including positivism and constructivism. Without this pluralistic view, the danger is that emerging researchers will unconsciously adopt the epistemological perspectives of their knowledge community, making them unable to talk with or work with those holding other viewpoints, and causing them to dismiss out of hand research that is done from other perspectives. This situation would be particularly problematic for management researchers, who are typically working to accomplish something within naturally diverse environments, and who may need to apply and build upon the work of scholars in a variety of disciplines.

Theoretical perspectives

The second element of Crotty’s (1998) research process framework is theoretical perspective. Easterby-Smith, et al. (2008) conclude their discussion of management research philosophy with a look at a number of other philosophies, such as critical theory, hermeneutics and pragmatism. Crotty would categorise many of these under his header of ‘theoretical perspective’, while Easterby-Smith, et al. consider them to be epistemologies. Regardless of terminology, an understanding of the role of theory and theoretical perspectives in management research is an important next step in conceptualising and planning research.

Theories are logical and self-consistent models or frameworks explaining certain natural or social phenomena. Easterby-Smith, et al. (2008) make the distinction between using theory in research, an appropriate goal for master’s dissertations, and contributing to theory, a goal more appropriate for doctoral theses (p.107). In using theory, the researcher takes a theoretical model or framework as a starting point and applies it to the study of a particular problem. The management researcher who aims to better understand, for example, human motivation in the workplace may choose a particular motivational theory to use in studying a practical workplace problem or may conduct a study to determine which theory of motivation is most explanatory in certain circumstances. In contributing to theory, a researcher can generate propositions or predictions from theory that can be tested and confirm or cast doubt upon the theory. You will have an opportunity next week to explore the role of theory in management research in greater depth.

Research methodology and methods

Methodology is the set of principles and beliefs that guide one’s choice of methods (Crotty, 1998). Methods, on the other hand, are the distinct activities one engages in to gather information about phenomena. Many researchers use the terms interchangeably, and there is much disagreement over whether research approaches such as case study, survey research or action research represent methods or methodologies. It may be easier to think about methods as what the researcher actually does—for example, conducting interviews, administering surveys, or observing actual workplaces. These methods may be deployed as part of a research design that was developed from the standpoint of a particular methodology, which is in turn informed by one’s epistemological perspective. Easterby-Smith, et al. (1998) provide a useful analysis of the relationship between epistemologies and methodologies (p.63). For example, an ethnographic methodology might be best pursued using methods such as in-depth interviews and participant-observation.
A useful metaphor from everyday life for the methodology-method distinction might be that of a highly trained and experienced cook or chef. A particular chef might use a methodology that represents a particular cuisine—Szechuan Chinese, Provencal French—or a particular dietary regimen—vegan, macrobiotic. Any chef from any of these traditions may use a variety of cooking methods—grilling, baking or sautéing, for example. An expert chef should be able to prepare foods from a variety of traditions, for a variety of purposes, and select the appropriate cooking method for the occasion.
Continuing the analogy, while the expert chef may be able to choose from a variety of traditions and methods, it would be unfortunate for the chef to arrive at a wedding ready to barbecue when elegant hors d’oeuvres are called for. The researcher must be clear about his or her methodological perspective before embarking on a research project, and use that understanding to select appropriate methods and approaches and use them in appropriate ways. You will have the opportunity in Weeks 3 and 4 to further explore the methodological options available to you as a management researcher.

Cited References and Links:

Crotty, M. (1998) The foundations of social research: meaning and perspective in the research process. London, UK: Sage Publications.

Easterby-Smith, M., Thorpe, R. & Jackson, P. (2008) Management research. 3rd edition. London: SAGE Publications.

Moses, J. &Knutsen, T. (2007) Ways of knowing: competing methodologies in social and political research. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

Smircich, L. & Morgan, G. (1982). ‘Leadership: management of meaning’, Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 18 (3), pp.257-27

 

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