The sage dictionary of qualitative management research

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Provide a justification for qualitative research in organisations

"Qualitative research is a field of inquiry in its own right. It crosscuts disciplines, fields and subject matters. A complex, interconnected family of terms, concepts, and assumptions surround the term qualitative research. These include the traditions associated with foundationalism, positivism, postfoundationalism, postpositivism, poststructuralism, and the many qualitative research perspectives, and/or methods connected to cultural and interpretive studies."

(Denzin and Lincoln, 2000:2)

"...qualitative researchers can access fascinating data by observing mundane settings or by finding everyday features in extraordinary settings."

(Silverman, 2007:37)

This essay provides a justification for the use of qualitative research methods in organisations. In the past, qualitative research methods have always been sidelined and quantitative research methods have been preferred for undertaking organisational research. One of the reasons for this is that qualitative research is always influenced by the researcher's personal disposition. According to Creswell, "Qualitative Research is a form of interpretive inquiry in which researchers make an interpretation of what they see, hear, and understand. Their interpretations cannot be separated from their own backgrounds, history, contexts, and prior understandings." (Creswell, 2009:176) Another reason for this is given by Silverman when he says that "Policy makers and managers have been pushed away from ethnographic research because it takes a relatively long time to complete and appears to use unrepresentative samples. Even though some ethnographers are able to produce powerful arguments about what can be read from a single, well researched, case, others muddy the waters by political posturing and by suggesting that they want no truck with conventional scientific standards." (Silverman, 2007:86) "The 'pull' of quantitative research for organisations is that it tends to define its research problems in a way that makes immediate sense to practitioners and administrators." (Silverman, 2007:86)

More recently many organisations have started recognising the merits of using qualitative research methods to undertake research in the organisation. Qualitative research methods enable a thorough scrutiny of the researched topic which is not possible in quantitative research. Even within qualitative research, the researcher is provided with a vast range of options and opportunities for exploring diverse issues within the area of organisational research.

What are the different methods used to adopt qualitative research?

The most commonly known and most used method of qualitative research is ethnography which had its origins in social anthropology, with particular reference to the study of the culture of social groups and societies. The culture of a social group is made up of these complex networks of meaning and the key task of ethnography is to develop an interpretation and understanding of culture. (Thorpe and Holt, 2008) Ethnography can be described as a longitudinal research method that is often associated with participant observation, but can also draw on other research approaches such as contextual and historic analysis of secondary data published by or on the group being studied. The ethnographic approach to developing an in-depth understanding of people's behaviour makes it well suited to studying organisations. (Marshan-Piekkari and Welch, 2004) But "It bends reality considerably to imply that ethnography is today the main method of qualitative research and that observational material is the main data source. This is hardly surprising given the plethora of materials that invite our attention. These extend beyond what we can observe with our own eyes to what we can hear and see on recordings, what we can read in paper documents and electronically download on the internet, to what we can derive by asking questions in interviews or by providing various stimuli to focus groups." (Silverman, 2007:37) Grounded theory research, discourse analysis, deconstruction, content analysis, narrative method, action research (Humphreys, 2006), participatory enquiry, participant observation (Denzin and Lincoln, 2000), autoethnography, interviewing are just a few of the current approaches to qualitative data collection and analysis. All these methods are appropriately used in different forms of organisational research. I will be looking at autoethnography, grounded theory research, critical discourse analysis and the narrative approach towards qualitative research and will study the use of these methods in conducting organisational research.


Ethnographers have started undertaking "the observation of participation" where they reflect on and critically engage with their own participation within the ethnographic frame thus giving birth to autoethnography. (Denzin and Lincoln, 2005:467) Karra and Philips have defined autoethnography as, "the generation of theoretically relevant descriptions of a group to which one belongs based on a structured analysis of one's experiences and the experiences of other's from one's group...It is an attempt to produce sense from one's experience of a group that can be set down in a text and shared with interested others. It does not mean that the researcher studies only himself or herself, but that the researcher is an insider who can draw upon personal experience, cultural competence, and linguistic resources to frame and shape research in a way that an outsider cannot." (Karra and Phillips, 2008:547) Autoethnography has been very efficiently used by Karra and Phillips, in their article about international management researchers conducting studies in their own cultural context. They say that, "...autoethnography provides a methodological frame for understanding and managing their research. Even more importantly, it acts to sensitize the researcher to the importance of carefully managing the complex dynamics of this form of cross-cultural research including questions of authorial voice, role conflict, and power." (Karra and Phillips, 2008:543)

Autoethnographic approaches have four important strengths- ease of access, reduced resource requirements, ease of establishing trust and rapport, and reduced problems with translation- but at the same time pose three important challenges- lack of critical distance, role conflict, and the limits of serendipity. (Karra and Phillips, 2008:541) The strengths of this mode of research are considerable and despite all the criticisms this method of qualitative research has acquired it can be used very successfully in organisational research where the need is to draw upon personal experiences. One of the uses of autoethnography is to allow another person's world of experience to inspire critical reflection on your own. (Ellis and Bochner, 1996:22) Experience is given a lot of importance in organisations and autoethnography enables the researcher and the organisation to use this experience in a positive manner and in a way which can be very beneficial to the organisation and its employees.

Grounded Theory

Grounded theory, developed by Glaser and Strauss, is a kind of theory generated from the data collected. The methodology refers to a style of conducting qualitative data analysis whose aim is to discover what kinds of concepts and hypotheses are relevant to the area one wishes to understand. Grounded theory, therefore, provides new insights into the understanding of social processes emerging from the context in which they occur, without forcing and adjusting the data to previous theoretical frameworks. (Cassell and Symon, 2004:242) Grounded theory is a method that is more appropriate for some questions than others. It is most suited to efforts to understand the process by which actors construct meaning out of intersubjective experience. Grounded theory should be used in a way that is logically consistent with key assumptions about social reality and how the reality is known. It is less appropriate to use grounded theory when you seek to make knowledge claims about an objective reality, and more appropriate to do so when you want to make knowledge claims about how individuals interpret reality. (Suddaby, 2006:634) While the grounded theory approach appeared at a time when methods discourse was decidedly modernist, forty years of development reflect he paradigmatic plurality of current qualitative research. (Thorpe and Holt, 2008)

The application of grounded theory in organisational research has been gaining popularity in recent times. This is because organisational psychology has been marked by a trend of moving from an individualistic point of view towards a more collective view. Grounded theory has been applied in studies focusing on organisational culture, organisational growth, change and innovation, team work and company survival to name a few. Grounded theory produces descriptions of organisational reality which elicit positive discussions around important themes in the organisation among the employees and, thus, form a basis for positive organisational development trends. (Cassell and Symon, 2004)

Critical Discourse Analysis

According to Cunliffe, "Discourse analysis is a term covering a number of approaches to research that analyze language use. These approaches range from a focus on language itself, to a broader examination of the relationship between language use, social action and social theory." (Thorpe and Holt, 2008:81) Discourse analysis provides a theoretical and methodological framework for exploring the social production of organizational and interorganizational phenomena. (Phillips, Sewell and Jaynes, 2008:1) As a methodology, critical discourse analysis allows for the use of different kinds of methods in specific research projects. However, this kind of research in particular demands the ability to make sense of the linkages between specific textual characteristics and particular discourses on the one hand, and between the discourses and the relevant socio-cultural practices and historical developments on the other. This means that research of this type generally tends to favour in-depth scrutiny of and reflection on specific texts. (Marschan-Piekkari and Welch, 2004)

Discourse analysis has become an increasingly popular method for examining the linguistic elements in the construction of social phenomena. It has been increasingly adopted by organization and management scholars interested in the social construction of specific organizational ideas or practices. (Varra, Kleymann and Seristo, 2004:3) There are three important problems facing researchers wishing to adopt a critical discourse perspective in their work. First, like ethnography, discourse analysis results in quite lengthy analyses that are often a poor fit with the requirements of journal editors. Second, discourse analysis often involves major data-management issues because of the volume of data that is often available. Finally, as this is a fairly new are of activity, there are few standard models available to follow. Developing innovative data analysis techniques for each study thus remains a final challenge facing researchers. (Phillips, Sewell and Jaynes, 2008)

Narrative Approach

According to Oswick, "Narratives are an inevitable and unavoidable aspect of social life and, as such, are integral to the processes of managing and organizing." (Thorpe and Holt, 2008:141) Although the narrative approach is one with many merits which are being acknowledged by researchers, it is still a field in the making and is not very commonly used. "Researchers new to this field will find a rich but diffuse tradition, multiple methodologies in various stages of development, and plenty of opportunities for exploring new ideas, methods and questions." (Denzin and Lincoln, 2005:651)

A recognition that discourse is the principle means by which organization members create a coherent social reality that frames their sense of who they are has led to an increased interest in narrative approaches in organization studies. A narrative approach explicitly recognizes that, in organizations, language is the primary medium of social control and power, and that the analysis of linguistic practices is key to an understanding of how existing social and power relations are reproduced or transformed. (Humphreys and Brown, 2007) In the article, "An Analysis of Corporate Social Responsibility at Credit Line: A Narrative Approach" by Humphreys and Brown (2008), the authors adopted a narrative approach to the analysis of organizational processes in a bank, Credit Line, in order to explore how individuals in a financial institution dealt with relatively novel issues of corporate social responsibility. The authors used narratives to successfully draw attention to the plurivocity of organisational life.

Use of qualitative research methods to undertake organisational research in a public sector organisation

Public sector organisations are those organisations which are managed by the government. The main aim of these organisations is not to make a profit but to provide a service to the people under the government. Some example of public sector organisations are airports, public hospitals, railway stations, government run schools and colleges. Governments nowadays are looking to privatize most of the public sector organisations in order to increase their efficiency and effectiveness. Thus most of the above given examples have now been partially or completely privatised in most countries.

Public sector organisations are common grounds for research amongst qualitative researchers. This could be due to the fact that public sector organisations are more easily accessible than the private sector organisations.

Many public sector organisations have also started coming up with their own research and development department which undertakes the organisational research. In my opinion participant observation and interviewing together make an ideal combination to undertake organisational research within a public sector organisation or for that matter any organisation. The shortcomings of participant observations are covered by interviewing and vice versa. Thus, the two methods complement each other perfectly.

Participant Observation

"The methodology of participant observation is appropriate for studies of almost every aspect of human existence. Through participant observation, it is possible to describe what goes on, who or what is involved, when and where things happen, how they occur, and why - at least from the standpoint of participants - things happen as they do in particular situations." (Jorgensen, 1989) Participant observation is one of the most popular ways of conducting fieldwork in an organisation. This is because through observation of the participants going through their daily routine researchers pick up information which they might not have access to in a more formal setting, an example of which is interviews. Participant observation can be of two types. In the first, the identity of the researcher is known to all and the researcher has a choice of forming relationships with the participants or to stand back and eavesdrop. This form of participant observation is ethically correct but the researcher's personal disposition and identity may influence the participant's behaviour and this may have an effect on the research material gathered. The second type of participant observation is covert participant observation where the identity of the researcher is hidden. This form of participant observation raises many ethical questions and is just another form of deception. Thus, covert participant observation should be avoided. The researcher's ability to build relationships and develop rapport with subjects is crucial in participant observation. The danger here is that the researcher may feel so embedded and sympathetic to the group being studied that interpreting events objectively becomes difficult. Another demerit of participant observation is the time-consuming and open-ended nature of this kind of research which means it often doesn't get done. In a cost-conscious research climate in which specific and often short-term, definitive objectives are required to secure funding, sustained participation is a risky strategy. (Thorpe and Holt, 2008)


"The qualitative interview can be seen as a conversation with a purpose, where the interviewer's aim is to obtain knowledge about the respondent's world." (Thorpe and Holt, 2008:118) The goal of any qualitative research interview is to see the research topic from the perspective of the interviewee and to understand how and why they came to have this particular perspective. (Cassell and Symon, 2004) Interviewing is the most popular method of conducting organisational research. The method has three important advantages. Firstly, interviewers allow the researcher to discover new relationships or situations not previously conceived. Secondly, interview based research may be optimal when there is a small population of possible respondents as interviewers offer an opportunity to acquire a richness of information from each respondent. Finally, interviews may allow researchers to develop a deeper rapport with informants which is necessary to gain honest and accurate responses and to add insights that lay the groundwork for larger or follow-up studies. (Marschan-Piekkari and Welch, 2004) But the interviewing method also suffers from three disadvantages. Firstly, developing an interview guide, carrying out interviews and analysing their transcripts, are all highly time-consuming activities for the researchers. Secondly, qualitative interviews are also tiring to carry out as they involve considerable concentration from the interviewer. Thus, no more than three interviews, each of the duration of one hour, should be carried out in a day. Finally, interviews are also time-consuming for the interviewees and this may cause problems in recruiting participants in some organizations and occupations.

The latest trends in interviewing have come some distance from structured questions; we have reached the point of the interview as negotiated text. Researchers are not invisible neutral entities; they are a part of the interaction we seek to study. Interviewers are increasingly seen as active participants in an interaction with respondents, and interviewers are seen as negotiated accomplishments of both interviewers and respondents that are shaped by the contexts and situations in which they take place. (Denzin and Lincoln, 2005)

Depending on the type of organisational research which the public sector organisation needs to carry out and its goals and aims, either participant observation or interviewing or a combination of both the methods can be used appropriately in acquiring the required research material.


Thus, I conclude by saying that qualitative research methods have formed a niche for themselves in organisational research. The importance of organisational research is growing day by day and qualitative research methods are now an important part of organisational research. Although many forms of qualitative research make the use of figures and numbers to support a point of discussion, thus incorporating a characteristic of quantitative research methods, they also provide an in depth analysis on the topic of research and use one or more of the methodologies of qualitative research which include participant observation, interviewing, autoethnography, use of secondary data, grounded theory, ethnography, discourse analysis, narratives and rhetorical analysis.

In this essay I introduced qualitative research and outlined its increasing importance in organisational research. I followed this up by describing approaches to qualitative research specifically concentrating on autoethnography, grounded theory, critical discourse analysis and the narrative approach, and critically analysing their use in organisational research. Finally, I concentrated on public sector organisations and why I think that participant observation and interviews are the best methods of qualitative research to undertake organisational research in public sector organisations. In doing this I feel that I have justified the use of qualitative research in organisations.


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