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ASIA PACIFIC JOURNAL OF MANAGEMENT VOL 9, NO 1:87-94

QUANTITATIVE VERSUS QUALITATIVE


RESEARCH M E T H O D S TWO
APPROACHES TO ORGANISATION
STUDIES
Jean Lee S K*

Recently, due to increasing interest in cross-cultural management, many organisational researchers


are confronted with the issue of the adequacy of quantitative research methodology in cross-cultural
research. Qualitative research has been advocated by many people in organisational research. The
quantitative research method is seen as the conventional method in organisation studies and is
considered to be "'objective". The qualitative research method is seen as "'subjective" and "descrip-
tive" and its legitimacy often needs' to be proven in organisation studies. This paper argues that such
a dichotomy is oversimpl~'ed. Quantitative and qualitative research are two different approaches,
based on different paradigms and different assumptions about ontology and epistemology: two
human phenomena rather than two different sets of research techniques. What research discovers
and how it is discovered depends on how the researcher engages in the phenomena studied. Both
quantitative and qualitative approaches should be equally emphasised in organisational resealz'h.

1. INTRODUCTION
In recent years there has been a growing concern regarding the adequacy of research
methods in the field of organisation studies, especially as a result of the increasing interest
in cross-cultural management. We are experiencing a lot of ambiguities in interpreting and
utilising the results of organisationat research. Many organisational researchers are being
accused of producing scientific research studies that explain nothing about the real world.
This kind of research has often been criticised as "unreal", "useless" and "number-
crunching".
Organisational phenomena are often far more complex than we realise. The variables
we select as "independent" are themselves often highly intercorrelated and influenced by
the variables we are attempting to explain. Many of us are aware that there is a gap between
what we write in the scholarly journals and what we experience as members of organisa-
tions. However, when grants and articles are reviewed and when research is discussed in
seminars, we are often trapped in the "dominant language", which is based on the positivist
(Giddens, 1974) view that centres on the systematic test of explicit hypotheses.
The quantitative research methods derived from the natural sciences that emphasise
objectivity, measurement, reliability and validity, have come to be seen as increasingly

* Lecturer, Department of Organisational Behaviour, Faculty of Business Administration,National


University of Singapore.

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Quantitative Versus Qualitative Research Methods - - Two Approaches to Organisation Studies

inadequate especially in cross-cultural research. Attention has been devoted to a search for
effective alternatives, and this leads to the revitalisation of the qualitative approach which
emphasises the description of culture and meaning,
The distinction between quantitative and qualitative research methods in organisation
studies is generally perceived as being that while the quantitative approach is objective and
relies heavily on statistics and figures, the qualitative approach is subjective and utilises
language and description. Such a distinction is essentially correct but does not capture the
full significance of the different paradigms (Khun, 1970).
This paper attempts to contrast the two different research approaches - - quantitative
and qualitative - - in organisation studies. They both serve research purposes in different
ways and have different effects. My intent is to show the underlying differences of the two
modes of research approaches and to encourage the further development of the qualitative
approach as a way of increasing the diversity and thus the sources of insights and discovery
in the field of organisation studies.

2. TWO MODES OF RESEARCH APPROACH


Many books have been written on the methodology of both quantitative and qualita-
tive research designs. However, they tend to focus mainly on the mechanical procedures of
data collection and data analysis. There is a tendency to argue the case for quantitative and
qualitative approaches almost as ends in themselves, abstracted from deeper, ontological
and epistemological issues that need to be examined. The difference between the qualita-
tive approach and the quantitative approach is not simply the difference between multivariate
statistics and indepth interview, between Likert-scale questionnaire and open-ended ques-
tionnaire, or between survey and case study. They are two different approaches to organi-
sation studies. Research is not just a question of methodology. The selection of method
implies some view of the situation being studied. How it is being studied carries certain
assumptions and answers to what is being studied. It is like selecting a tennis racquet to
play tennis or a badminton racquet to play badminton because we have a preconception as
to what the game involves.
All research methods embody a variety of epistemological assumptions regarding the
nature of knowledge and the methods through which that knowledge can be obtained, as
well as a set of ontological assumptions about the nature of the phenomena to be investi-
gated. Quantitative and qualitative research methods are based upon different ontological
and epistemological assumptions which shape the aims of research inquiry, the roles of the
researcher, and the researcher-respondent relationship. Table 1 shows the fundamental
differences between the quantitative and qualitative research approaches.

ONTOLOGICAL ASSUMPTIONS: OBJECTIVITY VERSUS SUBJECTIVITY


To discuss the paradigms of quantitative and qualitative research approaches we have
to trace their intellectual origins. These go back at least to the philosophical debates of the
seventeenth century concerning the nature of human knowledge and its relationship to the
world. It has been suggested that assumptions about the nature of reality can be thought of
in terms Of the subjective-objective dimension (Burrell and Morgan, 1979).

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TABLE 1
DIFFERENCES IN QUANTITATIVE AND QUALITATIVE APPROACHES

Quantitative Qualitative

Ontological Assumption Objectivity Subjectivity


Epistemological Assumption Positivism Phenomenology
Aims of Inquiry Universality Particularity
Role of Researcher Outsider Insider
Researcher-Respondent Relationship Detachment Involvement
Research Methods Statistics Description

"An objectivist view revolves around the ontological assumption that the social world
external to individual cognition is a real world made up of hard, tangible and relatively
immutable structures. In other words, the social world exists independently of an individu-
al's appreciation of it" (Burrell and Morgan, 1979). This objective view of reality as a
concrete structure encourages an epistemological stance that emphasises the importance of
studying the nature of relationships among the elements constituting that structure. Knowl-
edge of organisation from this point of view implies a need to understand and map out the
causal relationships among the elements of the structure. It encourages a concern for an
"objective" form of knowledge that specifies the precise nature of laws, regularities, and
relationships among phenomena measured in terms of social "facts" (Pugh & Hickson,
1976). For example, in Derek Pugh's (1981) study on the Aston Program of organisational
research, starting from the assumption that organisations and behaviour in organisations
can be understood as symptoms of observable regularities characterised by multiple cau-
sality, he argued that the aim of the organisational researcher should be to produce
generalisable knowledge based on systematic, comparative, and replicative observation
and measurement.
In contrast, the subjective view revolves around the assumption that "the social world
external to individual cognition is made up of nothing more than names, concepts and
labels which are used as artificial creations whose utility is based upon their convenience
as tools for describing, making sense of, and negotiating the external world" (Burrell and
Morgan, 1979). Social action occurs when a social actor assigns a meaning to his or her
conduct and/or environment and, through this meaning, relates it to the actions of others.
Actions, then, are reciprocally oriented to each other not in any mechanistic fashion of
stimulus and response but through an interpretative process. Accordingly, to grasp the
meaning and significance of social phenomena it is necessary to understand this interpre-
tative process and discover the motives, the reasons, and the goals which lead people to act
in the ways they do. Thus, for the subjectivist, understanding and interpretation logically
precede causal explanation.
This phenomenologically-oriented perspective challenges the idea that there can be
any form of"objective" knowledge that can be specified and transmitted in a tangible form,
because the knowledge thus created is often no more than an expression of the manner in
which the researcher as a human being has arbitrarily imposed a personal frame of

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reference on the world, which is mistakenly perceived as lying in an external and separate
realm (Husserl, 1929). For example, Smircich (1985) approaches the study of social
organisation by focusing on how individuals create and use shared modes of interpretation
as a basis for unified action. Adopting a phenomenological approach to symbolic interac-
tion, she was interested in studying the interpretative processes through which individuals
frame and construct the significance of actions, events, words, concepts and facts in ways
that are always context specific. Thus, the phenomenological tradition drew a firm distinc-
tion between natural and human phenomena and, further, claimed that each realm required
different methods of study.

EPISTEMOLOGICAL ASSUMPTIONS: POSITIVISM VERSUS


PHENOMENOLOGY
The objectivist encourages the epistemologies that follow the tradition of positivism,
which seek to explain and predict what happens in the social world by searching for
regularities and causal relationships between its constituent elements. Research methodol-
ogy is influenced by the logic of experimental designs derived largely from biological
science. Research methods like survey and questionnaire are used to investigate a wide
range of topics. The use of statistical measures of association and the development of
measurement models are significant in this approach. For example, quasi-experimentation
(Campbell and Stanley, 1963) is a research strategy designed to investigate causal relation-
ships in situations in which the methods of classical experimentation are inappropriate or
difficult to apply. It has, for the most part, developed on the basis of an ontology which
presumes that we live in a world of real objects and relationships that are lawfully
interrelated by a force called causation. We researchers can use experiments and quasi-
experiments to discover these lawful relationships. The research of human behaviour in
organisations has to conform to the scientifically accredited methods in the experiment.
The language of organisational behaviour research becomes the language of variables. The
use of such experimentation, traditionally based on models and methods derived from
physics and chemistry, has been criticised because of its "closed" nature and is not
appropriate for studying the "open system" found in organisational life.
As Wilden (1972) suggested, there are always causes that cause causes to cause
causes. The positivist epistemology was challenged by the phenomenologist. The argu-
ment boils down to the thesis as to whether human behaviour is a fundamentally different
kind of phenomenon, one that cannot be studied by scientific means or by any approach
that attempts to break a totality down into parts and variables which can be analysed
separately. "The whole is greater than the sum of its parts." The phenomenologist argues
that human behaviour must be seen in its totality and must be experienced firsthand to be
understood. If the researchers attempt an analysis, which almost by definition requires
some effort to decompose a phenomenon, they miss the true essence of human life. The
subjectivist claims that human behaviour can only be understood in terms of meaning and
not in the causal relationships of natural sciences. The causal, mechanistic and measure-
ment-oriented models of explanation, typical of the positivist approach, are inappropriate
for the understanding of human behaviour. Researchers should gain understanding of the
meanings and the ways in which the members of society shape and create their social roles
through their subjective interpretation.

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UNIVERSALITY VERSUS PARTICULARITY

The positivist believes that research is a neutral, technical process through which
researchers simply reveal or discover knowledge. Researchers have access to methods and
techniques which enable them to answer their questions precisely, systematically and
theoretically: in short, scientifically. An essential requirement of any scientific answer to
a question is an adequate empirical database, which includes statistical adequacy, repre-
sentativeness, random selection, and so on. Another essential requirement is theoretical
knowledge, which is derived from the systematic application of a warrantably scientific
method upon the phenomena of the world, and which distinguishes the social scientist's
account from that of the ordinary member of society. It is believed that through scientific
methods, research findings can be generalised from the particular to construct a set of
theoretical statements that are universally applicable. For example, Maslow's Hierarchy of
Needs (Maslow, 1954) is perceived to be universally applicable.
The subjectivist challenges the objectivist view on the fundamental issue of whether
or not human beings can ever achieve any form of knowledge that is independent of their
own subjective construction; whether they can ever achieve a true sense of objectivity,
since they are the agents through which knowledge is perceived or experienced. The
researcher's values, assumptions, interests, and purposes shape which methods or tech-
niques they choose. Therefore, the subjectivists claim that knowledge of methods or
techniques needs to be complemented by an appreciation of the nature of research as a
distinctively human process through which researchers make knowledge. They want to
focus on a particular unique here-and-now situation - - the situation relevance. The di-
chotomy was described by Geertz (1973) as "thick and thin description". Qualitative
investigators tend to describe the unfolding of social processes, the meaning of social life,
rather than the social structures that are often the focus of quantitative researchers.

OUTSIDER VERSUS INSIDER

The positivist believes that knowledge is validated by methodological procedure and


logic. The researcher is guided by the belief in an external reality constituted of facts that
are Structured in a law-like manner. Therefore, the "inquiry from the outside" (Evered and
Louis, 1981) calls for detachment on the part of the researcher, who typically gathers data
according to a priori analytical categories and aims to uncover knowledge that can be
generalised to many situations. The researcher usually preselects a set of variables, which
are based on the researcher's frame of reference and are phased in hypotheses - - the
researcher's language - - and only data pertaining to them are collected. In contrast, the
phenomenologist views human behaviour, what people say and do, as a product of how
people define and construct their world. The task of the researcher is to capture this process
of interpretation. The "inqui D, from the inside" (Evered and Louis, 1981) calls for the
experiential involvement of the researcher, the absence of a priori analytical categories,
and an intent to understand a particular situation. It attempts to understand the world from
the respondents' frame of reference and believes that the researcher can best come to know
the reality by being there, by becoming immersed in the stream of events and activities and
by becoming part of the phenomena of study. "Being there" is essential because knowledge
is validated experientially.

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INVOLVEMENT VERSUS DETACHMENT


Moreover, no matter what the topic of study, qualitative researchers in contrast to their
quantitative colleagues claim forcefully to know relatively little about a given piece of
observed behaviour until they have developed a description of the context in which the
behaviour takes place and attempted to see that behaviour from the position of its origina-
tor. Such contextual understanding and empathetic objectives are unlikely to be achieved
without direct, firsthand, and more or less intimate knowledge of the research setting.
Therefore, the qualitative researchers recognise and believe that the research process itself
is a form of social interaction in which the researcher "converses" with, and learns about,
the phenomenon being studied, especially when the object of inquiry is another human
being (respondent). One cannot abandon one's own humanity in the research process.
Moreover, it is the presence of interactivity that makes it possible for the researcher to be
a "smart" instrument, using his/her sensitivity, responsiveness and adaptability to gain
relevant information and ideas. However, in the quantitative approach, it is critical for the
researcher to maintain a discreet distance between himself/herself and the object of study,
especially when the object is another human being. Special methodological safeguards
have to be taken to guard against reactivity, because it will influence the research outcome.

STATISTICS VERSUS DESCRIPTION


The large scale empirical surveys that dominate much organisational research stand as
a good example of the classical type of method operating on assumptions characteristic of
the objectivist approach. They are appropriate for capturing a view of reality as a concrete
structure. In analysing "data" through sophisticated quantitative instruments, such as
multivariate statistical analysis, researchers are in effect attempting to freeze the social
world into a structure of causality and to neutralise the role of human effect. Furthermore,
for the purpose of accurate definition and measurement, "data" has to be abstracted from
its context.
Many people in our field, including quantitative and qualitative researchers, have
realised that the people we study (and often seek to assist) have a form of life and a culture
that is their own, and if we wish to understand the behaviour of these people and the groups
and organisations of which they are a part, we must first be able both to appreciate and to
describe their culture. Morgan and Smircich (1980) argued that organisationat researchers
can no longer remain as external observers, measuring what they see; they have to move
into the world to investigate from within the subject of study and to employ research
techniques which are appropriate to that approach. To operate in a qualitative mode is to
trade in linguistic symbols and, by so doing, to attempt to reduce the distance between the
indicated and the indicator, between theory and data, between context and action. It uses
the interpretative techniques that seek to describe, decode, translate, and come to terms
with the meaning, not the frequency, of certain more or less naturally occurring phenomena
in the social world. Doing description is then the fundamental act of data collection in a
qualitative study.
Among the qualitative methodologies currently in use, the ethnographic method has a
long and distinguished history. As practised by anthropologists, ethnography involves a
particular set of methodological and interpretative procedures that evolved primarily in the

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twentieth century. There are also two major theoretical approaches - - symbolic
interactionism (Mead, 1932) and ethnomethodology (Garfinkel, 1967) - - that have be-
come dominant forces in the qualitative approach. Different techniques such as participant
observation, content analysis, indepth interviewing, biography, linguistic analysis, and
psychotherapy all have their roles to play.

3. CONCLUSIONS
Organisational researchers constitute one of the many groups of persons whose busi-
ness it is to construct belief systems about their reality. An interesting question we might
ask ourselves would be how we go about legitimising these beliefs. We usually do it by the
production and display of "data". We usually present the data in written form, with tables,
path diagrams, regression graphs and excerpts, etc, in standardised notation systems as a
special part of a text with its own unique format, labels, and explanation. They constitute
highly stylised descriptions of the particulars of our organisational life. We might want to
ask ourselves whether there are alternatives.
Qualitative methodology and quantitative methodology, based on different paradigms,
are mutually exclusive. A "mixed" approach may cause "ontological oscillation" (Burrell
and Morgan, 1979), although a researcher can choose to operate in different paradigms at
different times. The different research approaches are like "holography", presenting reality
in different lights and offering alternative paths to understanding reality. They serve
research purposes by different means with different results. Differences between the two
approaches are located in the overall assumption, form, focus, and emphasis of study. The
precise nature of the two different research modes ultimately depends on the stance of the
researcher, and how the researcher chooses to use them. The virtues of techniques and
methods cannot be determined and categorised in the abstract, because their precise nature
and significance is shaped within the context of the assumptions on which the researcher
acts (Morgan, 1983). We can, for example, engage an apple by looking at it, feeling it, or
eating it.
We can view different research approaches as but different "voices" in a conversation
about a human phenomenon. If we choose to use either one approach, we could do so with
a bit more appreciation for the diversity of different research approaches. This helps to
explore diversity as fully and critically as possible without prejudging what should be right
or wrong. In order to understand alternative points of view, it is important that we, the
researchers, be fully aware of the assumptions upon which our own perspective is based.
Such an appreciation involves an intellectual journey which takes us outside the realm of
our own familiar domain. It requires that we become aware of the boundaries which define
our perspective.
We have been attracted to our disciplines for a variety of reasons, but it is essential in
this connection to realise that most of us are something of a cross between scientists and
humanists. Perhaps this is the root cause of our dilemma. "Social sciences, lodged as they
are between the natural sciences and humanities, have almost inevitably become a battle-
ground over the suitability of natural science models and approaches to the study of human
behaviours and social processes" (Blalock, 1984). We are caught in our need to be
"scientific" in our approach on the one hand, and to be "human" on the other.

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No single approach has a total view of reality. In fact, even added together, the various
approaches do not possess the true view. This paper may be oversimplified in contrasting
the different approaches in research. My intent is to encourage additionally a more
penetrating and reflective approach to the study of organisations than has been the case to
date, and to help create an increased awareness of the methodological options available to
us in the field of organisation studies.

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