Using narrative in social research

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Traditionally, the management and organization field has been dominated by research based on quantitative techniques of data collection, analysis and interpretation. Quantitative research has overshadowed qualitative procedures and it is hence preferred to undertake organizational research. The main reason for the same is the influence of the researcher's personal disposition on the entire study while conducting qualitative research. It faces criticism on the grounds of credibility and authenticity as it "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) It takes a relatively long time to complete and appears to use unrepresentative samples. The pull of quantitative research for organizations is that it defines the research problems in a way that it makes immediate sense to practitioners and administrators. (Silverman, 2007:86)

But, in the more recent times there has been an increasing interest in the in-depth studies that are produced from qualitative work. It provides a comprehensive insight to the problem being researched which is not possible in quantitative techniques. In fact, it generates ideas and hypothesis which can further be used in quantitative research. Organizations have started recognizing these merits and thus accepting the vast concept of qualitative research as a method for organizational inquiry.

Different methods used to carry out qualitative research:

"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, poststrucuralism, and the many qualitative research perspectives, and/or methods connected to cultural and interpretive studies. " (Denzin and Lincoln, 2000:2 )

Qualitative research is an extensive field which consists of many methods and techniques used to cover various aspects like education, information, management, women, and disability studies to a name a few. One of the most popular methods to undertake qualitative research is ethnography. Rooted in "social anthropology" (Thorpe and Holt, 2009), it is "intensively studying a specific social group by observing the group in its natural setting" (Esterberg, 2002:8). The key challenge of ethnography is to observe, understand and interpret the complex networks of culture.

Grounded theory research, narrative methods, action research, discourse analysis, deconstruction, content analysis, (Humphreys, 2006), participatory enquiry, participant observation (Denzin and Lincoln, 2000), autoethnography and interviewing are just a few of the existing approaches of qualitative data collection and analysis. These methods are used appropriately in different organizational scenarios for research. This essay provides a justification for qualitative research in organizations and I will be focusing on autoethnography, critical discourse analysis, grounded theory research and narrative approach towards qualitative research and draw on their uses of performing organizational research.


Autoethnography is a reflexive account of one's own experiences situated in culture. It is when the researcher dons the role of the main actor or the subject of the research in the process of scripting personal stories and narratives. Rather than a description of others (person, group or culture), autoethnography is more of a portrait of the self. It is an emergent field of interest, with no single paradigmatic authority and places the relationship between the knower and the known at the centre of the knowledge created. ( Moore, pg 2 )

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)

According to Karra and Phillips, autoethnography is " the generation of theoretically relevant descriptions of a group to which one belongs based on a structured analysis of one's experiences and the experience of other's from one's group. It does not mean that the researcher studies only himself or herself, but that the researcher is an insider and has an upper hand over any outsider since he can draw on personal experience, cultural competence, and linguistic resources to frame and shape the research in a more authentic way. (Karra and Phillip, 2008:547)

In the article by Karra and Phillip, about international management researchers conducting studies in their own cultural context, autoethnography has been used efficiently and effectively to describe experiences.

Autoethnography not only provides a methodological frame for understanding and managing international research , it also acts to sensitize the researcher to the importance of carefully managing the complex dynamics of this form of cross-cultural research including controversial questions on authorial voice, role conflict and power. (Karra and Phillip, 2008:543)

The four strengths of autoethnographic research in international management are namely ease of access, reduced resource requirements, increased ability to establish trust and rapport, and reduced problems of translations. Yet, this approach faces a few major challenges like that of difficulty while maintaining critical distance, ongoing role conflict, and the limits of serendipity. (Karra and Phillip, 2008:557)

The strengths of this approach are significant and despite its shortcomings this mode of research can be used successfully in organizational research when focusing on personal experiences and one's own cultural context. 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).

The experience of a researcher plays a vital role in this approach as there is a need for careful consideration and willingness to explicitly deal with the challenges of the approach. Thus looking at the strengths and weaknesses of the approach, autoethnography can be termed as a "two-edged sword". In any particular situation, the benefits and costs of this approach need to be carefully weighed to achieve the best ramification of the research. (Karra and Phillip, 2008:556).


Critical Discourse Analysis was developed by Norman Fairclough and his colleagues. "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) Its manifold roots lie in rhetoric, text and applied linguistics, anthropology, philosophy, socio-psychology, cognitive science, literary studies and pragmatics. (Wodak and Meyer)

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 development on the other. This means that research of this type generally tends to favor in-depth scrutiny of and reflection on specific texts. (Marschan-Piekkari and Welch, 2004)

Critical discourse analysis has made the study of language into an interdisciplinary tool and can be used by scholars with various backgrounds especially media criticism. It offers the opportunity to adopt a social perspective in the cross-cultural study of media texts. (

There are three significant problems faced by researchers wisjing 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 activity there are few standard models available to follow. Developing innovative data analysis techniques for each study remains a final challenges facing researchers. (Phillips, Sewell and Jaynes, 2008)


Grounded theory can be best described as a powerful research approach in which the theory is developed from a corpus of data than the other way around. This makes it an inductive method, meaning it moves from the specific to the more general. This approach was originally developed by Glaser and Strauss in the 1960's. The self-defined purpose of grounded theory was to develop theory about phenomena of interest ( app.php).

This 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 thus, provides new insights into 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 an iterative process in which the research begins with raising generative questions which help to guide the research but are not intended to be static or confining. As the research begins to gather data, core theoretical concepts are identified and tentative linkages are developed between the core concepts and the data. The effort tends to evolve towards one core category that is central. There are several key analytic strategies like, coding - process of categorizing qualitative data and describes the implications and details of the same, memoing, which is the process of recording the thought and ideas of the researcher and integrative diagrams and sessions which are used to pull all of the details together, to help make sense of the data. It is a continuous process which can carry on indefinitely and thus does not have a clearly demarcated point for ending a study. (

Grounded theory should be used in a way that is logically consistent with key assumptions about social reality and how that 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 grounded theory approach appeared at a time when methods discourse was decidedly modernist, forty years of development reflect the paradigmatic plurality of current research. (Thorpe and Holt, 2008)

This approach of qualitative research has been gaining acceptance in recent times. It is mainly because organizational 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 organizational culture, growth, change, innovation, teamwork and interpersonal relationships to name a few. But it is still not widely used and understood by researchers in some industries or PhD students in some science disciplines. Grounded theory yields descriptions of organizational reality which bring forth positive discussion around important themes in an organization among employees and thus form a basis for positive organizational development trends. (Cassell and Symon, 2004)

However, as grounded theory is such a painstakingly precise method of study, it requires high levels of both experience and acumen on the part of the researcher. Thus, novice researchers should avoid this method until they have achieved the proper qualities needed to effectively implement the approach. (


According to Hinchman and Hinchman "Narratives in the human sciences should be defined provisionally as discourses with a clear sequential order that connect events in a meaningful way for a definite audience and thus offer insights about the world and/or people's experiences of it." (Elliott, 2006:3). This definition identifies three key elements of the approach - chronological, meaningful and social. Although this approach has various merits which are being recognized by researchers, it is a field still in its initial stages of development and thus 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)

In the article "An analysis of Corporate Social Responsibility at Credit Line: A Narrative Approach" by Humphrey and Brown (2008), the authors adopted a narrative approach towards the analysis of organizational processes, in order to explore how individuals in their chosen case of a financial institution dealt with comparatively novel issues of corporate social responsibility.

A narrative perspective is known to give access to and appreciation of context, or specific characters, events and relationships that yield sensitivity to salient situational particularities. It also permits researchers to render complexity with complexity and thus draws attention to the plurivocity of organizational life. (Humphrey and Brown, 2008)

Use of qualitative research for organizational research

Public sector organizations are state or government owned organizations. They are aimed towards social welfare and not profit maximization. Some of the main areas where the public sector dominates are transport, communication, health care, education and heavy industries. The government tries to undertake such above ventures as they are crucial for an economy's growth and development. But in order to increase efficiency and effectiveness, the government has started privatizing many of these public sector organizations.

Public sector organizations are considered a popular ground for qualitative research by scholars. Qualitative researchers find it easier to access public sector organizations than the private ones since they are less commercial and more transparent in nature. Various public sector organizations have started having their own research and development department for organizational research.

In my opinion, the most ideal of all the approaches of qualitative research to carry out organizational research would be a combination of participant observation and interviewing. These two methods would yield great results together as they complement each other perfectly.


"Participant observation involves immersing yourself in the culture and learning to remove yourself every day from that immersion so you can intellectualize what you've seen and heard, put it into perspective, and write about it convincingly." (Bernard, 2006)

Participant observation is considered an essential element of conducting fieldwork while researching an organization. The researchers get involved in the daily routine of the participants and thus gather valuable information which they cannot access in a more formal scenario, like that of an interview.

There are two commonly used forms of participant observation- covert and overt. Overt participant observation is when the researcher is being open about the reason for his or her presence in the field of study and has the choice of establishing relationships with the subjects or to stand back and examine. This type is regarded ethical in nature. But at the same time the researcher's personal disposition and background may manipulate the research material gathered. In covert participant observation the researcher participates fully without revealing his or her identity. The intention to observe the setting is concealed and thus the research is carried out secretly. Criticism surrounds this form as it appears to have substantial ethical issues and thus the overt form is believed to be better.

Participant observation requires the researcher to balance a good personal and professional rapport with the subjects. The danger here is that the researcher at times may get extremely embedded and sympathetic towards the group being studied that interpreting events objectively becomes difficult. Another shortcoming of this method is that the research often doesn't get done as it is time consuming and open ended in nature. 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)


Interviewing is one of the most popular and convenient methods of collecting data for qualitative research, used either as a main method or a part of a broader approach. 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. For successful interviews, intelligent decisions need to be taken by the researcher regarding the structuring of the interview (structured, semi structured, unstructured), the number of people involved (individual or group) and the media of communication (face-to-face conversation, telephone, e-mail). (Thorpe and Holt, 2008)

This method of collecting data has major merits. Interview based research may be optimal when there is a small population of respondents to be interviewed as this way the interviewers offer an opportunity to acquire a richness of information from each respondent. Interviews may allow the researchers to develop a deeper rapport with the informants which is necessary to gain honest and accurate responses. (Marschan-Piekkari and Welch, 2004) Interviews are generally easier for respondents as well especially if what is sought is impressions or opinions. Interviewer has the opportunity to probe and ask follow up questions for complete data. However, the interviewing method suffers from various disadvantages. Interviews are time consuming for both the researcher and the participants. Developing an interview guide, carrying out interviews and then analyzing their transcripts, are all highly time consuming activities for the researchers. While time consumption may be an issue with the interviewees and thus this may cause problems in recruiting participants in some organizations and occupations. Qualitative interviews are also tiring to carry out as they involve considerable concentration from the interviewer. The data collected may be biased due to the presence of the researcher.

The latest trends in interviewing have a come a long way from structured questions. Researchers are no longer invisible neutral entities; they are infact a part of the interaction we seek to study. Interviewers are increasingly seen as active participants in an interaction with respondents, and interviews 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 qualitative research required by an organization in accordance with its goals and objectives, the right combination of participant observation and interviewing should be used in acquiring the required research material.


Qualitative research has been gaining popularity among researchers and scholars. With its growing importance and acceptance, qualitative methods will soon form a large part by organizational research.

In this essay I began with introducing the concept of qualitative research and its increasing importance in today's era. I followed it by looking at various methods namely autoethnography, critical discourse analysis, grounded theory approach and narrative methods and critically analyzed their application in organizational research. I then concentrated on participant observation and interviewing as the most appropriate forms of data collection and interpretation for organizational research, specifically in the public sector.

Thus in my opinion, qualitative methods have formed a niche for themselves n organizational research.


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