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Philosophical assumptions typically associated with qualitative research

Philosophical assumptions typically associated with qualitative research

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Published by Kevin Ruck
This paper explores the philosophical assumptions associated with qualitative research in an internal communication context.
This paper explores the philosophical assumptions associated with qualitative research in an internal communication context.

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Published by: Kevin Ruck on Jan 06, 2011
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03/25/2013

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Philosophical assumptions typically associated with qualitative researchIntroduction
60 per cent of management problems are due to faulty communication” 
Peter Drucker (cited in Quirke, 2008, p14)This is a shocking fact. If only managers could communicate more effectively,organisations would immediately be transformed, presumably with very significant resultsthat benefit employees, the organisation and the wider economy. But how factual or trueis this? Is it actually possible to say that a specific number of problems are generallycaused by faulty communication? And what do we mean by “faulty communication?” Inthis paper, questions such as these are unpicked, using an epistemological backgroundthat leads on to a discussion of the use a qualitative approach to management research.At the outset, is worth noting that an investigation into philosophical assumptions for research can be likened to entering a semantic minefield. Terms are fluid, for example,social constructionist/interpretivist and realist/relativist. They are sometimes usedinterchangeably and positions can therefore be difficult to pin down (Bryman and Bell,2007, p16). This is exacerbated by inconsistencies. As Easterby-Smith, Thorpe andJackson observe (2008, p57), “even self-confessed extremists do not hold consistently toone position or the other.” Safety in an epistemological position, such as positivism, isprecarious, with vigorous debate and argument from different paradigms that cansometimes “take the form of denigrating the other point of view, or of completely ignoringits existence” (Easterby-Smith, Thorpe and Jackson, 2008, p56).
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Epistemological underpinnings of positivist, realist and interpretivist paradigms
The epistemological approach to research reflects a researcher’s beliefs or “worldview”(Cresswell, 2009, p6) though this may not always be explicit (Easterby-Smith, Thorpeand Jackson, 2008, p63). According to Crotty (1998, p4), epistemology drives research;it is the starting point that leads on to the theoretical perspective, which leads to themethodology and then the methods used. Research methods are consequently“characteristic” of the epistemological position (Easterby-Smith, Thorpe and Jackson,2008, p62). This is most evident in the assertion that “there is a fundamental differencebetween the subject matter of the natural sciences and the social sciences and that anepistemology is required that will reflect and capitalize upon that difference” (Bryman andBell, 2007, p20). It is this thinking that has led to the positivist/interpretivist andquantitative/qualitative divide.The positivist position is associated with natural science based upon discovery,hypotheses, experiments, measurement, verification/falsification, and causality(Easterby-Smith, Thorpe and Jackson, 2008, p63). In effect, the philosophicalassumption is that there is a social reality that is external and objective and “data,evidence, and rational considerations shape knowledge” (Cresswell, 2009, p7). This isassociated primarily with a quantitative research methodology. However, data,evidence, and rational considerations are also intrinsic to a qualitative methodology,albeit from a more reflective than objective perspective. The term “rational” here isloaded, as it may be used to imply more useful, “scientificand therefore crediblethinking. To investigate this point more fully, it is informative to briefly explore thephilosophy of knowledge itself.Audi (2003) sets out the primary sources of knowledge as perception, memory,consciousness, reason and testimony. Taking perception as one facet, seeing, however,is not always believing, as Audi highlights (2003, p22), “there is reason to doubt thatsimple perceiving
must 
produce any belief at all.” Clearly some “seeing” can and does
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inform belief (for example, that grass is green), however, other instances of seeing maynot. As Audi points out (2003, p23), “not everything we see……demands or even evokesa cognitive response; one entailing belief formation.” This principle of knowledgegeneration has important consequences for positivism when applied to managementresearch as a social science. Objectivity and laws in a world of human meaning that isthe world of work may be illusionary. The claim that “60 per cent of managementproblems are due to faulty communication” needs to be re-evaluated in this context as anobservable, measurable, truthful, analysis of a (or the) cause of management problems.There is also a more fundamental challenge to positivism, in that natural scientific lawsthemselves are not permanently fixed. They can take time to become accepted, usuallythrough academic and political debate (Latour and Woolgar, 1979) cited in Easterby-Smith, Thorpe and Jackson (2008, p61). A contemporary example of this is the debateabout the science of climate change (Dessler and Parson, 2010).So, in both natural and social sciences, an alternative relativist (or realist) position allowsfor observers to have different viewpoints (unlike positivism); “what counts for the truthcan vary from place to place and from time to time” (Collins, 1983) cited in Easterby-Smith, Thorpe and Jackson (2008, p62). Relativism is linked to exposure, propositions,triangulation, survey, probability, and correlation (Easterby-Smith, Thorpe and Jackson,2008, pp62-3). This sets it apart from positivism, with its allegiance to experimentationthat removes alternative explanations. It does however, remain firm to the position thatsocial science can be investigated in the same way as natural science and there is anexternal reality (Bell and Bryman, 2007, p 18). Relativism, therefore, together withpositivism is grounded in the belief that knowledge is rooted in external reality and thissets both positions apart from interpretivism.
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