This essay will start by defining qualitative research, it will then continue to discuss Creswells five types of qualitative research. Each type of study will be discussed and an argument will be made supporting these qualitative research technique in an organisational context (over quantitative methods). The essay puts much emphasis on justifying qualitative research in organisations to positivists. It will conclude with a short summary of the provided arguments that justify qualitative research in organisations.
Qualitative research can be defined as, “any kind of research that produces findings not arrived at by means of statistical procedures or other means of quantification” (Strauss and Corbin p.17). One might argue that in today’s business world there is no room for qualitative research, but only for solid proven statistics. However, organisations are not just numbers and numeric devices it is important to realise that the most important asset of organisations are its people. The aim of qualitative research is to find out more about the ‘human element’ within organisations, and looks for meaning behind the numbers.
The definition of qualitative research by Strauss and Corbin (2007) is very broad. Creswell (2009) defines qualitative research as “a means for exploring and understanding the meaning individuals or groups ascribe to a social or human problem”. This definition narrows down qualitative research. Creswell also states that qualitative researchers can choose from a wide range of researching methods such as; open-ended questions, interview data, observation data, document data, audio-visual data, text and image analysis, emerging methods, and themes patterns and interpretations. He (2009) goes even further and puts forward five types of qualitative research; narrative research, phenomenology, ethnography, grounded theory studies and case studies.
The narrative approach or the story telling approach is an account or a history of something. Storytelling is an effective tool in making sense of change; identifying who we are, and where we come from. According to Rouse and Boff (2005), “human culture itself…, rests to a large extent on our ability to capture real and imagined events as sequences of cause and effect (i.e. stories) and share these sequences” (pg. 300). The need to “share these experiences” is crucial in the process of collective sense-making, which we can find all around us. Newspapers for example, were referred to by Philip Graham, are “the first draft of history”. We tell each other stories to make sense of our social environment, and these stories keep developing. In the ‘cultural web’ of organisations proposed by Johnson, Scholes and Whittington (2006), they argue that stories are a key proponent to the organisation’s culture. “They are devices for telling people what is important in the organisation” (pg. 203). A narrative approach to understanding organisational theory is crucial as Zukier (1986) argues that most people think in a narrative fashion as opposed to paradigmatically or argumentatively (in Weick, 1995). Through a subjective, collective storytelling effort, an objective reality is created. Positivists however, seek the “rational pursuit of factual truth” (Thorpe and Holt, 2008: pg. 155), and criticise the narrative approach as being unreliable due to its subjective nature. However as Czarniawska (1998) explains, “the perceived coherence of the sequence of events rather than the truth or falsity of story elements determines the plot and thus the power of the narrative as a story” (pg. 5). When examining organisational culture, the validity of the stories told is not what is of essence, seeing as whether true or false, the story plays a hand in creating the culture. In the Laskarina case study by Brown, Humphreys and Gurney (2005) for example, employees were all familiar with the story of how the founding couple of the company fell in love with Laskarina on their honeymoon. Whether this story is true or not, it is clearly a key aspect of the company’s culture and as such is relevant to understanding the organisation’s identity. A positivist would fail to recognise this, as the subjectivity of respondents is replaced by the objectivity of the researcher whose “voice is that of a disinterested scientist [who] is simply an informer of decision makers” (Lincoln and Guba, 1994: pg. 112). We find in the Humphreys and Brown (2008) Credit Line case-study, storytelling efforts made by managers and others regarding their corporate social responsibility (CSR). Boonstra and Caluwe (2007) explain that, “[As an organisation] you process what you find difficult, but you comment on the things that people are proud of” (pg. 49). We find that at Credit Line, CSR is a top-down approach, where managers heavily promote social responsibility through storytelling. Again, regardless of the story’s validity, the narrative approach provides insight into the corporate culture. Not only are crucial points overlooked with a positivistic framework, but a “disinterested scientist” is unlikely to engage the reader very well.
During my internship, whilst trying to better understand cultural differences, I interviewed some of my colleagues to learn how they felt about the need to be secluded from the rest of the bank. I was surprised to receive a variety of responses; some felt it was unnecessary, while others were quite adamant. This plays to an advantage of narrative analysis; representing the organisation as encompassing a variety of viewpoints that coexist as polyphony.
Phenomenology is a philosophical school of thought which aims to recognise the association between human consciousness and the social environment. Developed in the early twentieth century by Edmund Husserl, its existence is a result of the shortcomings of positivist mentality (Orleans, 2001). Husserl felt the predominant school of thought at the time “precluded an adequate apprehension of the world” (Husserl, 1931 in Orleans, 2001: pg. 1). The main issue is that positivists do not recognise the importance of the process of thought and the direct impact this has on one’s environment, which is the essence of phenomenology. In an organisation (as in any other social setting), in order to understand its way of life, we must first understand the mindset of its members. Understanding the individual and collective ‘sphere of human consciousness’ allows a level of intimate comprehension, far greater than would be possible with positivist methodology. Unlike positivism and other scientific methods, phenomenology does not produce propositions that can be empirically tested. Human consciousness and thought process is too complex for quantitative analysis. Furthermore the transferability of findings from one social environment to another is not possible. Organisational culture is a subject that can benefit from this type of qualitative analysis. The concept of culture is in itself a human construct. It is a shared experience between members of a particular society. According to Connor (2000), when studying organisational culture it is important the researcher enters the field without any predetermined problems or hypotheses that require solving or testing. Such a positivist approach can lead to an “inadequate apprehension of the world” (or at least of the organisation). An interesting aspect of social behaviour is that of common sense. This constitutes what the ‘norm’ is in the organisation. Orleans (2001) claims, “common sense serves as an ever present resource to assure actors that the reality that is projected from human subjectivity is an objective reality” (pg. 4). Hence we find that through sense making an objective reality is created. This is because the organisational social environment and its culture are human constructs. A positivist approach in defining ‘common sense’ would be inappropriate. A positivist researcher would take the process of thought for granted, as subjectivity in not encouraged. This would lead to a tainted view of the “life-world”.
Upon starting my internship in Islamic banking during the summer, and entering the field, the most challenging aspect was the culture change (perhaps even culture shock) involved with being a western, non-Muslim working in Islamic banking. This became evident on my very first day, when I tried to introduce myself to a female colleague with a handshake. What I did not realise, was that her culture prohibited such physical contact with a stranger. Interestingly, their organisational culture was that of their religion, Islam. It governed their subjective thought processes and determined ‘common sense’, providing an objective social reality. The purpose of my project was to determine whether due to their cultural difference, if Islamic banking and conventional banking were compatible (i.e. ability to exist under a single corporate umbrella). If I were to have approached this study as a phenomenological researcher, I would be more interested in the thought processes of the employees. As such, I may seek to understand what the notion of “cultural difference” means to those working in Islamic Banking but for a Western organisation. The key theme of phenomenology is understanding how consciousness of the self affects reality. This is important not only for the members of the society (the subjects), but also for the researcher. Introspection is necessary to determine any effects the researcher’s presence may have on the social environment. Reflexivity is the chief aspect of Watson’s (1995) study. Watson provides us his subjective sense-making process involved with how to write his paper, in the form of a dialogue with himself. In my case, as an outsider in Islamic Banking, it is possible my interpretation of the data can be wrong, as I am attempting to analyse the situation through a familiar (western) lens. As Levinas states, “western ontology…is [the] reduction of the other to the categories of the same” (Levinas in Kearney, 1995: pg. 183).
Grounded theory, in comparison to scientific methodology, is a reverse style research system developed by Barney Glaser and Anselm Strauss. The basic process involves; coding the key points in a data set, using ‘theoretic sensitivity’ to group codes into categories by looking for links, and formulating theories from these categories. The purpose being, that if completed correctly, the formulated theory is ‘grounded’ in the data, and should perfectly fit the dataset. Glaser and Strauss realised at the time, sociological practice relied exclusively on quantitative analysis. Goulding (1999) refers to the research of the time as “extreme empiricism” or “grand theory” (Mills, 1959). According to Glaser and Strauss, the result was that theory had restricted empirical relevance, and grounded theory was their solution to “shut this embarrassing gap between theory and empirical research” (Glaser and Strauss, 1967: pg. vii). Their main objective was to derive theory from the data that could “provide predictions, explanations, interpretations and applications” (Glaser and Strauss, 1967, pg. 1). A positivistic quantitative method of data derived theory is the ANOVA process. However ANOVA is a simplistic additive model that fails to explain the complexities of the manner in which variables interact. Furthermore, unlike grounded theory, the ANOVA process does not necessarily take into account the entire dataset. Outlying data variables are deleted and not accounted for in the theory. Though grounded theory (if performed correctly) can better represent the dataset than quantitative methods, according to Strauss the theoretic development process determines the quality of the theory. Glaser and Strauss (1967), proposed that theory is never a finished product. Instead it is a ‘work in progress’ that requires continuous updating. Theoretic development as a sustaining concept is relevant to organisational theory (e.g. culture). This is because an organisation is a ‘work in progress’ as well. Market conditions change, competitors come and go, and organisational culture needs to adapt. Unlike positivistic methodology, a grounded theorist enters the field without preconceived hypotheses that need to be tested, resulting in a better understanding of the organisation’s true naturalistic situation (Douglas, 2003). Positivists such as Haig (1995) argue that constructing hypotheses prior to entering the field is necessary because a researcher must identify a specific question that needs to be researched. A grounded theorist can enter the field having a general reason for undertaking the specific research. This does require the formulation of hypotheses and hypothetical problems. In Jeffery’s (1979) study ‘Normal Rubbish’, he identified the casualty department at the NHS had problems, and that it was an undesirable place to work, before entering the field. Formulating hypotheses as to why this was the case at this stage would not have been fruitful. Through conducting qualitative research (interviews, participant observation, etc) Jefferey was able to identify links through the language used by doctors and staff (good patients, rubbish, etc). By adopting such an emergent theory development process, Jefferey discovered the culture that was associated with the casualty staff at the NHS. Douglas (2003) found that when grounded theory is applied in the organisational context, “theory emerged from empathising the ways in which respondents construct their reality, their world” (pg. 53). That is, grounded theory enables understanding of how the organisation views itself in the context of its environment. Through appreciation of the interactions and processes of the organisation in its natural setting, its culture can be understood.
Grounded theory is a complex process, which if fulfilled, provides many benefits. Due to its advantages, many researchers claim to have fully undertaken the process, but few actually do (i.e. “cook the carrot for the full nine hours”). While conducting my study on the culture of Islamic banking I did not use a grounded theory approach due to my lack of experience and understanding. Van Maanen (1979) emphasises the importance of recognising the issues in their natural context. This is especially important in the case of understanding organisational culture. By formulating a theory, without forming prior hypotheses and being purely ‘grounded’ in the data, we can appreciate the organisation’s true nature.
Ethnography is a descriptive style of study on human society. In terms of studying organisational culture (or any culture), ethnography is arguably the most relevant methodology that can be utilised. ‘Ethno’-‘graph’ literally translates to, ‘culture’- ‘writing’. Ethnography has its roots in colonialism, in the quest to learn about “the other” and their culture. It is of little surprise that ethnography was developed outside the United States (Kenya, Samoa, Bali, Brazil) (Schwartzman, 1993: pg. 1). Ethnography is a reality-based research system which is placed in the context of the subject’s life. This is more effective than quantitative methodology as the research is grounded in the respondent’s natural setting, and does not require the participant to place themselves in hypothetical situations (such as when answering questionnaires). This is crucial as there can be a difference between what participants do as opposed to what they say. Mariampolski (2005) points out that participant observation is an advantage since a respondent’s “self disclosure can be idealised, obscured and poorly recalled” (pg. 10). As such, ethnography provides an insight into the organisation’s social setting through understanding the respondents’ interactions with it. Positivistic methodology however, lacks engagement of the ‘natural setting’. For example, by defining variables such as ‘gender’, ‘expectations’, and ‘pay-level’ of participants, positivists can determine the level of correlation. However this is not helpful in explaining the social world as experienced by its social actors. We need to ask, ‘what is the meaning behind the numbers’? Mariampolski (2005) points out that ethnography is the “closest” a researcher can get to the respondent. Given this, she questions why it has taken “over one hundred years” for qualitative research to become popular in organisations (such as marketing firms conducting consumer brand research). Similar to the findings of Glaser and Strauss (1967) and Edmund Husserl (1931), positivist mentality used to be the ‘norm’. In such a world anything can be objectively perceived and counted. This makes life easier for managers, who need to worry about consumer targets and budget reports. However Mariampolski (2005) points out that the positivistic methodology is “a fantasy”. “It fails to understand the complexities of human behaviour and fails as a predictive tool” (Mariampolski, 2005: pg. 13). Spradley (1979) defines culture as, “the acquired knowledge that people use to interpret experience and generate social behaviour” (pg. 5). In essence, it is a group of peoples’ way of life, and cannot be measured through quantitative techniques. As mentioned earlier ethnography aims to understand “the other” in our terms (i.e. ‘by us, for us’). However auto-ethnography is an autobiographical style of writing, where the researcher investigates a familiar culture for non-members of that society. The benefit of this is that the reader is provided with a genuine account of a social environment by a member of that culture. Hence the concern of misinterpreting data by “viewing it through a familiar lens” is overcome. Positivist methodology does not benefit from such valuable insight, as the researcher’s role in minimised in the outcome of the study.
The study I compiled while doing my internship in Islamic banking was definitely of an ethnographic nature. I was the first non-Muslim to work in that division at the bank, and that made me feel as though I were back in the days of colonialism, setting off to learn about “the other” and their culture, so that I could bring my findings back to the West and report them (to my university). In order to understand a society, entering the field is necessary. For example, prior to arriving in Dubai, one of the aspects of Islamic banking I did not understand was their need for segregation from all other operations of their own organisation. However upon entering the field, I learned that according to Shariah law (the Islamic law), the Islamic banking division of an organisation cannot have any affiliation with any conventional banking operations. Other than having to be physically separated, Islamic banking earnings and funds cannot be reported along with conventional banking earnings. In fact within the organisation, the Islamic banking division operated like an independent sub-organisation, which included its own name. As Mariampolski (2005) explains, ethnography is holistic in that one needs to piece together the respondent’s world, through utilising inner and outer-world elements that can only be identified upon entering the field.
The colonial days of travelling to unchartered territories to research an unknown tribe of people in their local setting may be over. Today, organisations provide the perfect social environment. Corporate culture varies not only across national boundaries but from organisation to organisation. Quantitative methods, though useful in understanding certain aspects of organisational theory, is unable to explicate the “human dimension” of organisations. Through the use of the mentioned qualitative research techniques, valuable insight can be gained into many aspects of an organisation, not just culture. Which qualitative technique to choose, depends on the nature of the study at hand. It has been shown that there is a definite benefit (if not requirement) of using qualitative analysis in an organisational context.
This is because positivists are usually sceptical of qualitative methods and undergo technical and quantitative training. The disadvantages of positivistic methodology in organisational research will be emphasised. The purpose of this is not to prove one is better than the other. But to justify the need for qualitative research, the shortcomings of positivistic, quantitative methodology must be emphasised.
As a student of Corporate Strategy and Governance, I understand the significance of corporate culture. It is an organisation’s identity and has been described by some as its soul. For the purpose of this study understanding an organisation’s culture will be the focus of the justification of qualitative research in organisational studies. This is because quantitative research is unable to explain organisational culture. My interest in corporate culture also arises because I have undertaken field research in the area before. In the summer of 2007, I applied for an internship in Islamic banking with a large English multinational bank in Dubai. Other than gaining practical exposure to the field, my primary motivation was to conduct research for a strategy based assignment I had been given for university. As a westerner I was looking forward to understanding the cultural differences between Islamic banking and conventional banking. Wherever appropriate, I try to relate my experiences.
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