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Methodological Challenges to Management Research

Using Qualitative Research Methods

One important methodological option in conducting management research is the use of qualitative methods for data collection and analysis. Qualitative research, with its emphasis on understanding complex, interrelated and/or changing phenomena, is particularly relevant to the challenges of conducting management research. Qualitative methods combined with quantitative ones can provide particularly rich and robust inquiries. Either alone or in combination, qualitative research must be conducted with methodological rigor.

This section does not attempt to provide a primer on qualitative methods. The role, benefits and appropriate use of qualitative research have been discussed extensively in the literature. Several references to excellent articles can be found in the references section and links to references.

Our more limited aims here are:

  • To offer, for those who are not familiar with qualitative methods, a brief overview of how they are used and what value they offer, drawing heavily from articles by Shoshanna Sofaer. 6

  • To propose the use of qualitative methods in hypothesis testing. Qualitative methods are often used inductively, for exploration, theory building and description. Less attention has been given to their use in deductive hypothesis testing. The white paper, prepared by Brian Mittman 7 discussed in this section explores those potential uses.

Specially this section addresses four questions:

What are the uses and value of qualitative research?

Qualitative research is characterized by an emphasis on describing, understanding, and explaining complex phenomena - on studying, for example, the relationships, patterns and configurations among factors; or the context in which activities occur. The focus is on understanding the full multi-dimensional, dynamic picture of the subject of study.

Its approaches contrast with quantitative methods that aim to divide phenomena into manageable, clearly defined pieces, or variables. Quantification is good for separating phenomena into distinct and workable elements of a well-defined conceptual framework. But when we focus research on what we already know how to quantify, (e.g., what can be reliably quantified), we may miss factors that are key to a real understanding of the phenomena being studied. The downside of quantification is that it does not always support (as well as qualitative methods) understanding of complex, dynamic, and multi-dimensional wholes.

Qualitative methods are useful, not only in providing rich descriptions of complex phenomena, but in constructing or developing theories or conceptual frameworks, and in generating hypotheses to explain those phenomena.


What are the methodological challenges in qualitative research techniques?

Key challenges to conducting rigorous qualitative research range from instrument development through data collection to data analysis. In addition, results need to be documented and reported using formal accepted methods.

For example, typical deficiencies are unfocused instrument development and lack of supporting theory. Rigor related to instrument protocol development requires attention to validity, intrusiveness (the Hawthorne effect) and triangulation. In addition, attention must be paid to distinguishing between collecting subjective and objective data, information on the formal vs. the informal organizational structures and processes and the differences between collecting facts vs. opinions vs. interpretations.

Planned, systematic, comprehensive data collection requires variable definitions and measures, document coding form protocols, administrative database specifications and survey instrument question libraries. In the data collection phase, problems can be minimized through pilot-testing and pretesting, validity/quality checks, triangulation and monitored flexibility. Sole reliance on subjective data, self-reports, etc. can reduce validity. Some tips to insure rigor in data collection management include training of all data collection staff and conducting immediate post-collection coding for time/memory sensitive data. Other methods to ensure the validity of data include tape recording interviews, performing real time data entry and editing, using paired interviewers, and implementing quality assurance fo each instrument. And, to avoid further problems, incomplete, missing or unusable data should be corrected immediately.

Pitfalls related to data analysis include using ad hoc, emergent, exploratory, informal analyses that may lead to inappropriate conclusions and unpublishable results. Rigorous analysis requires an a priori theoretical model and hypothesis, a formal framework guiding data collection and analysis and adherence to the formal framework and research best practices.

Finally, reporting requires results structured by hypotheses and an analysis plan. Reports need to include data syntheses and summaries with a focused analysis of the data. Conclusions must have a documented basis and systematic formal analysis methods, and validity must be documented.

What are some key qualitative research methods?

A wide range of tested qualitative research methods are available to address these challenges. The selection of method, or combination of methods, will be tailored to the questions being studied and the setting for research. Typical methods include:

Naturalistic inquiry, or ethnography, has its roots in anthropology and sociology and involves long-term exposure to a setting or a group of people. Extensive use of unstructured observations and conversations documented by detailed field notes form the basis for this type of research, often considered the purest form of qualitative research. Naturalistic inquiry is used when situations are unique or complex, when the level of uncertainty about the questions to ask is high and when there is little or no theory to direct the investigator.

A subset of this type of inquiry involves participant observation in which the investigator becomes a part of the setting or the process being studied. (Sofaer) reports that she was able to learn more from attending a few group meetings in a particular setting than she could have by using more structured qualitative methods such as interviews or surveys.

Case studies are the preferred strategy when 'how' or 'why' questions are being posed, when the investigator has little control over events, and when the focus is on a contemporary phenomenon within some real-life context. The case study is especially appropriate when the boundaries between phenomenon and context are not clearly evident. The case study copes with the technically distinctive situation in which there will be many more variables of interest than data points, and as one result relies on multiple sources of evidence, with data needing to converge in a triangulating fashion.

The case study approach can involve a single event or multiple cases and can be short or long term. However, rather than requiring total immersion in the setting or culture, sampling of sites, experiences and/or informants is typical. The methods used in case study research is similar to those of naturalistic inquiry. However the data collection is often more structured, using key informant interviews, structured observations of events and interactions and the collection and content analysis of relevant documents (e.g., to help establish the facts, the assumptions, values and priorities, or to illuminate differences in perceptions). Case studies often also include quantitative data for background or to help generate questions to ask informants (e.g., data on demographics, heath status, utilization, finances, etc.).

Structured Observations of meetings
This involves attending meetings of the group that you wish to research. This can also be extended to observation of individuals in their daily work routine or on special tasks. The purpose of observing is to learn what is going on at the meeting and witness the group dynamic in process. This can be a rich information source as it can give researchers insight into the group.

Content analysis of documents
This is a non-intrusive form of research. This involves reviewing documents, memos or other pieces of written information for content and themes. By examining written word, the researcher is studying one type of communication that occurs in the selected sample.

Collection and analysis of other archival, administrative and performance data
This method also is non-intrusive. Information that has been previously collected, or secondary data, is reviewed to gain a better understanding into the topic. This information is part of the organization’s history and can be a valuable key to understanding the past.

Focus groups usually explore specific issues. The focus group brings together individuals chosen to meet a specific profile. They may be homogenous along some dimensions and heterogeneous along others and a structured, yet informal, setting is used to explore a limited number of questions. Focus groups, unlike individual interviews, provide the added dimension of the interactions among members. Focus groups are often combined with more quantitative approaches such as surveys that can be administered at different points in the group discussion and even used as grist for additional discussion.

Cognitive interviews are typically used in survey development. One-to-one interviews are conducted (with people meeting the criteria for completing a particular survey) as the individuals complete the instrument being tested. This method helps investigators understand how people perceive and interpret language and their own experiences as they refine the survey instruments.

Mail and telephone surveys are a method of collecting information by sending surveys via email or postal mail. Participants return completed forms to the researcher or an outside vendor. Surveys may ask respondents to rate items on a scale (e.g., Likert scale of 1-5). Some surveys also allow respondents to write their feelings or attitudes about a particular event or to elaborate in more detail on an item, or to express suggestions, etc.

What is the role of qualitative research in hypothesis testing?

The origins and development of qualitative research methods and their close association with inductive, interpretive and historical research have led many researchers to associate these methods exclusively with these forms of research and to fail to recognize their value in conventional deductive empirical research.

Some investigators, however, contend that hypothesis-testing, deductive research can benefit from the use of qualitative research methods - and that these methods can be used in a manner consistent with accepted standards of rigor and validity. In particular they believe that the acknowledged strength and unique contribution of qualitative methods in developing insights into actors' values, beliefs, understandings and interpretations of events and other phenomena, or in explaining historical occurrences, can enhance "conventional" forms of empirical research.

Brian Mittman, in a white paper prepared for the MDRC workshop on Management Research in VA, argues for the use of qualitative methods in hypothesis testing, and outlines the key components of the rigorous approach needed to use these methods successfully. His paper is motivated by two interests: first, convincing researchers not experienced in qualitative methods that they can enhance their empirical, deductive work, and, second, minimizing the misuse of qualitative methods in ways that threaten the validity of studies. Dr. Mittman's paper is linked here.

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