Philosophical assumptions typically associated with qualitative research Introduction “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 results that benefit employees, the organisation and the wider economy. But how factual or true is this? Is it actually possible to say that a specific number of problems are generally caused by faulty communication? And what do we mean by “faulty communication?” In this paper, questions such as these are unpicked, using an epistemological background that 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 used interchangeably and positions can therefore be difficult to pin down (Bryman and Bell, 2007, p16). This is exacerbated by inconsistencies. As Easterby-Smith, Thorpe and Jackson observe (2008, p57), “even self-confessed extremists do not hold consistently to one position or the other.” Safety in an epistemological position, such as positivism, is precarious, with vigorous debate and argument from different paradigms that can sometimes “take the form of denigrating the other point of view, or of completely ignoring its 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, Thorpe and 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 the methodology 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 difference between the subject matter of the natural sciences and the social sciences and that an epistemology is required that will reflect and capitalize upon that difference” (Bryman and Bell, 2007, p20). It is this thinking that has led to the positivist/interpretivist and quantitative/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 philosophical assumption is that there is a social reality that is external and objective and “data, evidence, and rational considerations shape knowledge” (Cresswell, 2009, p7). This is associated 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 is loaded, as it may be used to imply more useful, “scientific” and therefore credible thinking. To investigate this point more fully, it is informative to briefly explore the philosophy 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 that simple 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 may not. As Audi points out (2003, p23), “not everything we see……demands or even evokes a cognitive response; one entailing belief formation.” This principle of knowledge generation has important consequences for positivism when applied to management research as a social science. Objectivity and laws in a world of human meaning that is the world of work may be illusionary. The claim that “60 per cent of management problems are due to faulty communication” needs to be re-evaluated in this context as an observable, measurable, truthful, analysis of a (or the) cause of management problems. There is also a more fundamental challenge to positivism, in that natural scientific laws themselves are not permanently fixed. They can take time to become accepted, usually through academic and political debate (Latour and Woolgar, 1979) cited in EasterbySmith, Thorpe and Jackson (2008, p61). A contemporary example of this is the debate about the science of climate change (Dessler and Parson, 2010). So, in both natural and social sciences, an alternative relativist (or realist) position allows for observers to have different viewpoints (unlike positivism); “what counts for the truth can vary from place to place and from time to time” (Collins, 1983) cited in EasterbySmith, 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 experimentation that removes alternative explanations. It does however, remain firm to the position that social science can be investigated in the same way as natural science and there is an external reality (Bell and Bryman, 2007, p 18). Relativism, therefore, together with positivism is grounded in the belief that knowledge is rooted in external reality and this sets both positions apart from interpretivism.

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Interpretivism (or social constructionism in Easterby-Smith, Thorpe and Jackson, 2008) is founded on knowledge generated through subjective meaning (Bell and Bryman, 2007, 19), based within social realms, from an internal perspective (Kemmis and McTaggart, 2003, p 336). The difference between a positivist and an interpretivist position is summarised by Bryman and Bell (2007, pp17-18) as a focus on explanation (in positivism) in contrast to understanding (in interpretivism). Interpretivism is therefore underpinned by a belief that the study of people and workplaces requires an entirely different approach to the study of natural sciences. The philosophical underpinning is drawn from a range of intellectual thinking, including phenomenology and symbolic interactionism (Bryman and Bell, 2007, pp18-21). There is no assumption as to any preexisting reality and a priority given to the use of language and the creation of meaning. This results in research methodologies that incorporate meanings, reflexivity, conversation, sense-making and understanding (Easterby-Smith, Thorpe and Jackson, 2008, p63). Potential relationship of paradigms to qualitative research According to Denzin and Linclon (2003, p 33), qualitative researchers “work within relativist ontologies (multiple constructed realities)” and “interpretive epistemologies (the knower and the known interact and shape one another).” Examples of qualitative research include an analysis of Richard Branson’s leadership through subjective meaning (Grint, 2000) cited in Bryman and Bell (2007, p19) and managerial behaviour (Dalton, 1959) cited in Easterby-Smith, Thorpe and Jackson (2008, p68-70). In the latter case, for example, there were no hypotheses or theories to check; the research was born purely out of personal confusions for the researcher.

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Kemmis and McTaggart, (2003, p 358) suggest that the relationship of paradigms to research can be summarised in a matrix based on individual/social and objective/subjective axes, as shown in figure 1.


The individual Quantitative, correlationalexperimental methods. Psychometric and observational techniques, tests, interaction schedules.

The social Quantitative, correlational-experimental methods. Observation techniques, sociometrics, systems analysis, social ecology.


Qualitative, interpretive methods. Clinical analysis, interview, report, introspection.

Qualitative, interpretive, historical methods. Discourse analysis, document

questionnaire, diaries, journals, self- analysis.

Figure 1 Methods and Techniques Characteristic of Different Approaches to the Study of Practice, Adapted from Kemmis and McTaggart, (2003, p 358).

This suggests that an objective (i.e. positivist) perspective is intrinsically linked to quantitative not qualitative research. However, at the social level, observation techniques are also associated with qualitative research. It is the epistemological basis for the research that differentiates how observation is used, either as the basis for verification of an external reality or as the basis for understanding the meanings created in the social situation under study. A subjective (i.e. interpretivist) perspective is intrinsically linked to qualitative research, with research techniques differing at the individual and social levels.

However, in practice, the distinction between a positivist and interpretivist philosophy often breaks down when a research design is established (Burrell and Morgan, 1979)
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cited in Easterby-Smith, Thorpe and Jackson (2008, p70). This leads some academics to highlight the potential of mixed methods (Cresswell, 2003). However, as Easterby-Smith, Thorpe and Jackson, (2008, p71) point out, there are “reservations about mixing methods when they represent very distinct ontologies” and “there are difficulties when different kinds of data say contradictory things about the same phenomena”. Others (Jackson and Carter, 1991) cited in Bryman and Bell (2007, p 26) go further and argue that a “synthesis between paradigms cannot be achieved.” Objectivity is often used to support an interpretivist approach to research. Koester (2006, pp16-20) argues that quantitative corpus linguistic methods can be used effectively alongside discourse analysis within a qualitative research design. The rationale is that a quantitative approach is useful to process large collections of texts with literally hundreds of millions of words. In Dalton’s research into managerial behaviour, highlighted earlier, quantitative data such as salaries of managers was also included. So, despite the epistemological differences between positivism and interpretivism, researchers are employing research methods associated with both paradigms. Indeed, Cresswell (2009, p203) argues that mixed methods on social and human sciences are gaining popularity and “there is more insight to be gained from the combination of both qualitative and quantitative research than either form by itself”. This does not, however, address the issue of competing epistemologies.

Appropriate circumstances for using a qualitative research design

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The question, “what are the appropriate circumstances for using a qualitative research design?” is directly linked to the epistemological dichotomy between objectivity and subjectivity as the basis for knowledge. It can, perhaps, be simply argued that positivism is appropriate for natural science (though that can be contested) and interpretivism is appropriate for human and social science (though practice suggests that quantitative methods are very much used in these fields). Kemmis and McTaggart, (2003, p379) state that, “the competition between these positions has become fruitless; it is clear that they are incommensurable, and that “Truth” sides with no one view”. Others suggest that different paradigms can be used to focus on different aspects of research. For example, Hassard (1991) cited in Bryman and Bell (2003, p27) links a functionalist paradigm with job motivation and an interpretive paradigm with work routines. It is, though, not clear why a positivist approach is “right” and an interpretivist approach “wrong” when it comes to exploring job motivation. Indeed, it could be argued that motivation is more appropriately investigated from a subjective understanding perspective, given the multiple factors that contribute to it. Attempts to “pigeon-hole” aspects of management as being legitimately researched by either a positivist or an interpretivist paradigm are missing the point. Academics working from an interpretivist epistemology argue that motivation as a human activity is not an “external reality” that can be tested in an experimental way. This also applies to the original statement posited at the outset of this paper that, “60 per cent of management problems are due to faulty communication”. The assertion, couched as it is in positivist terms, is not a verifiable reality, more one insight into communication and management problems that is one way of understanding management alongside many other ways of understanding.

Easterby-Smith, Thorpe and Jackson, (2008, p 63) argue that social constructivism is a self-reflexive epistemology and as such this approach is “particularly relevant when studies are considering power and cultural differences.” Though they acknowledge that
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the philosophical positions discussed are “pure” versions, this again falls into the trap that some aspects of management are more appropriate for an interpretivist epistemology than others. This raises the philosophical possibility of “impure” versions of epistemologies and begs the question about which aspects of management can be treated more as positivist (i.e. have an external reality that can be verified) than others. By implication, any aspect of management that is not related to power and cultural difference is, according to this line of thought, less appropriately researched from an interpretivist paradigm and that is a very large field of inquiry. This narrow view of aspects of management that are best researched from an interpretivist approach is perhaps why Daymon and Holloway (2002, p9) reveal that “mainstream research on managed communication is essentially realist in its tenor, appropriating primarily quantitative methods of investigation.” If there is one area of management that would clearly lend itself to an interpretivist epistemology and a qualitative research approach, it is managed communication, based as it is on language and meaning. Yet, it seems that a quantitative approach is used. Daymon and Holloway (2002, p9) do, however, acknowledge that “qualitative studies appear to be gaining a foothold in the communication, marketing and management literature.” In conclusion, Easterby-Smith, Thorpe and Jackson (2008, p63) state that, “although the basic beliefs may be quite incompatible, when one comes down to the actual research methods and techniques used by researchers the differences are by no means so clear and distinct.” The reasons for this are unclear and in themselves are worthy of exploration.

Summary This paper has briefly explored the epistemologies related to positivism, realism and interpretivism and their relevance to management research. It sets out associations between positivism and realism and the differences in these positions with interpretivism,
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based on objectivity/subjectivity and explanation/understanding dichotomies. The assumptions that are often typically associated with a qualitative research design originate from an interpretivist epistemology, focused on meaning established in language and conversation, where there is a recognition that there are no pre-existing realities and the observer can never be removed from the sense-making process. In theory, an interpretivist epistemology and a qualitative research is the appropriate method of enquiry for all human and social sciences, as they are, as some argue, uniquely different from natural science. However, academics also argue that specific topics of management research are more appropriate for a qualitative research design than others, and in practice quantitative research, or a mixed approach, is often used. This suggests that the competing epistemologies underpinning positivism and interpretivisim are either hard and fast, but simply not adhered to when it comes to conducting research; the seduction of different techniques overrides epistemological drivers. Or, alternatively, the epistemologies themselves are not mutually exclusive; they are “impure”, contested, and blur. However, given the very distinct nature of each this is a difficult philosophical position to maintain.

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