Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Phenomenology: The Non-Positivist Approach - Dan Remenyi - Chapter Summary

The wheel of learning consists of question, theory, test and reflection.

Insight, untested and unsupported, is an insufficient guarantee of truth, in spite of the fact that much of the most important truth is first suggested by its means.

Phenomenology and Non-Positivism
To cope with the problems of people and organisations it is necessary to go beyond positivism and use a phenomenological approach to research.  It is increasingly accepted among business and management scholars that phenomenology is better suited to this type of research where the central issues concern people and their behavior.

Different Meaning to Different Researchers

Cohen and Manion (1987) provide the following definition of phenomenology: ’Phenomenology is a theoretical point of view that advocates the study of direct experience taken at face value; and one which sees behaviour as determined by the phenomena of experience rather than by external, objective and physically described reality.’

On the other hand Rudestein and Newton(1992) suggest that phenomenology ‘attempts to describe and elucidate the meanings of human experience’.

According to Camus (O’ Brien,1965, ‘phenomenology declines to explain the world, it wants to be merely a description of actual experience’.

Perhaps the essence of the subject was captured by Boland(1985), when he said that phenomenology is ‘a term that carries a great deal of ambiguity along with its sometimes confused and faddish use’.
Phenomenology- What? Why? And How?

The non-positivist searches for the embedded face in the picture rather than remaining content
with a description of the patterns, figures and outlines which define and describe the larger scale objects in the picture.
Medawar attributes to Popper the observation that positivism suggests that the world is all surface.  Thus the essence of phenomenology is an attempt to delve below the surface to understand the essence of what is happening.

The central premise of non-positivist research is that the researcher should be concerned to understand phenomenon in depth and that this understanding should result from attempting to find tentative answers to questions such as ‘what?’ ‘Why?’ and ‘How?’  Phenomenology contends that such an understanding can result from using methods other than measurements, unlike the assumption of positivism which is ultimately concerned with answering the questions of ‘How many?’ or ‘How much?’

The Context of the Research

In business and management studies it is essential to understand the context within which the research is being conducted by considering social or cultural factors that impinge on the research problem.

Some Philosophical Underpinnings

Philosophically the non-positivist position derives from phenomenology, which emphasises the primacy of unique experience without attempting to label or categorise these experiences.  It is important to distinguish between phenomenology itself and the range of different research methods that have developed out of this particular world view.

The term phenomenology essentially describes the philosophical approach that what is directly perceived and felt is considered more reliable than explanations or interpretations in communication.  It is a search for understanding based on what is apparent in the individual environment rather than on interpretations made by the observer.
The approach is often confused with the qualitative approach to research.

The primacy of Context
Phenomenology assumes that knowledge can be gained by concentating on phenomena as experienced by people.

At the heart of phenomenology is the relationship between self and society, as expressed in the work of Mead(1934), the originator of phenomenological psychology.  Mead accorded primacy to the process from which the ‘organism creates its environment’ ( Clegg and Dunkerley, 1980:267) which leads to the distinction between act and content, with the stress on the act and what that means to the actor(Yontef,1993).

The variables being manipulated could not be treated as independent of the meaning ‘which individuals assigned to them’.  Today this is one of the fundamental assumptions of phenomenological researchers (Collins and Young, 1988)

Phenomenology and Qualitative Methods
Researchers adopting phenomenology deliberately group their evidence-gathering technique in the theoretical tradition of phenomenology.  This results in a very specific method which the researcher must first attempt to remove all traces of personal involvement in the phenomena being researched.

Similarly the researcher has to limit any other influences from impinging on the evidence – collection exercise before finally gathering data around specific themes.  This process is clearly very different from the interviewing process that a feminist or a hermeneutic researcher would adopt.

Non-positivist research assumes that objects of enquiry in the social sciences are social issues – a key concern is that research should acknowledge and treat people as essentially human rather than as mere objects.

Central to this argument is the fact that people have the ability to think, argue, and experience the world or events in idiosyncratic ways and that positivistic research strategies are unable to deliver an understanding of these human dimensions.

Control and the Research Process
However, these assumptions about the use of controls are seldom relevant in non-positivist research, due to the difficulty of controlling variables in social settings.

Evidence Collection in a Natural Setting
Non- positivist research essentially relies on collecting evidence in as natural and non-controlled a setting as possible, rejecting the formalism imposed on research activity by a positivist approach.

Using Non-Positivist Methods
This serves to remind us that researchers are subject to prejudices, cultural beliefs and values that they bring into the research process with them.  These help to shape what Morgan(1980) calls the researcher’s ‘frame of reference or ‘mode of engagement’ which include socialisation, the nature of the object being investigated, the outcomes sought from research and who is funding the research.

The disciplines from which the researcher comes, as well as his or her work experiences, will have a strong influence upon the research strategy that is favoured.

Funding the Research
The agency or organisation that is funding the research often determines the nature of the object to be investigated and the methods that are to be used in undertaking that task.

Developing a Research Strategy
By research strategy is meant consideration by students as to which research community they feel they belong to, and that the researchers know the epistemological, ethical and ontological assumptions of their research.


Easter by-Smith et al.  (1994:27) used the above analysis of philosophical positions to generate a useful classification of the key features of positivist and phenomenological paradigms.  This is shown in Table 6.1, which, together with the continuum, can be used to explore the orientation of the researcher in order that strategies and tactics can be consciously selected.

Key features of positivist and phenomenological paradigms

Beginning the Research
Howard and Sharp(1983) outline a process model that is useful in identifying the phases that form part of the research process.  They distinguish between the ‘planning’ and effectuation’ stages and these in turn can be broken down into the activities set out below :

Planning :
Identify a broad area of study
Select the research topic
Decide the approach
Formulate a plan of action
Collect the evidence
Analyse or interpret the evidence
Present the findings.

Ideographic methods to collect evidence is potentially more fraught with pitfalls.

As Marshall and Rossman (1995) argue, the planning stage is fundamental to the consideration of issues such as developing an argument that is convincing, showing how the particular case being investigated fits with the bigger picture, and that the design of the research is sound.  It is through this planning that the competence of the researcher is demonstrated.

Area of study and Topic
In this respect, creativity and immersion in a topic area are therefore important ingredients

However, within a non-positivist paradigm, it is acceptable for the generation of a research topic or question to come from experience rather than reflection on theory and concepts.  In other words, an inductive process to generate the research question is entirely acceptable.  Intuitive notions about phenomena often from part of the practice of researchers.   The most creative theories are often imaginative visions imposed upon facts.

Alternatively the student might well start from a deductive position and then seek to use the methods suggested by Howard and Sharp(1983) to generate research topics. These range from looking for ideas in text (theses, journal articles, books and reviews, the media) to communication with others (experts in the field, colleagues, potential users of the research outputs.)

By this is meant that the researcher has to be able to see how the specific instance fits into the wider whole.

Importance of the Literature
Non-positivist researchers will use real-life problems that emerge from experience as the inspiration for research (Marshall and Rossman,1995:17).  It is important that this is done in tandem with at least an emerging understanding of the literature.

Formulating the research problem is the next important step in which intuitive notions should be more fully investigated and narrowed down into a researchable, informal hypothesis or statement

Feasibility of the Research
Once the research problem has been formulated, it is important to think about the feasibility of the research and to be satisfied that there is sufficient material (published literature, secondary and primary evidence ) to work with

Plan the Research
The main challenge in planning the research is for the student to consider, and explicitly state, the overall design of the study.  A feminist researcher will specifically set out to exploit personal involvement, whereas phenomenological interviewing might stress the removal of ‘all traces of personal involvement in the phenomena being studied’, such that all preconceptions are removed and do not interface with the research process (Marshall and Rossman,1995:82).  On the other hand, a researcher wishing to undertake hermeneutical research will attempt to generate high –quality textual material for examination.

Questions and Strategies
Marshall and Rossman (1995:41) have developed a table matching research questions with strategies.  The table uses the purpose of the study and the research question as the starting point for determining specific research strategy and evidence-collection techniques.

Silverman (1994) would  support the theory-building potentiality of qualitative research and suggests that qualitative researchers need to be bolder in the horizons that they envisage for non-positivist research

Research Proposal
The final outcome of the above process will be a research proposal convering the following:
What :    outline of research problem, tracing historical roots and
                linking specific to general; conceptual framework and
                literature review; purpose of study and specific research
How :     description of research strategy and design which will
                yield specific evidence required to answer questions;
                methods justified and linked back to research question
                and research site.
Where :  where the research will be conducted                                                                                                                                                        
When :   ideally a time line to spell out major phases of
                research process

Gaining Access
Gummesson (1991:21) describes access( the ability to get close to the object of study, to really be able to find out what is happening) as the researcher’s biggest problem.
The choice of site should be clearly justified and a good research site will have the following properties:

Entry should be possible;
The site will present the possibility of collecting pertinent evidence;
Trust can be established with respondents;
Evidence quality and credibility of the research can be assured.

      The researcher can best ensure that conditions 1 and 3 are met by developing good relationships with gatekeepers and/or informants(Gummesson,1991).

Collecting Evidence
It is now well accepted that where a non- positivist approach is adopted, it is difficult to separate evidence collection from hypothesis construction and theory building.

Evidence collection can usefully be divided into three types: observation, interviews, textual analysis.

The main aim of observation in research is to gain an understanding of other cultures by sharing the space of the research site at least for some part of the duration of the research.   The argument for adopting observation as an evidence-collection strategy is that real understanding will come about through extended observation as this enables an understanding of both the context and process of behaviour.

This is a method commonly used in non-positivist research. Open-ended interviews and semi-structured interviews.

The schedule could for example be sent to academic and practitioner referees who can provide feedback on how they understood and responded to questions.

Advice that the key to getting on with evidence collection is that the researcher should really (and appear to) ‘have a sincere curiosity about the lives and experiences of others.  In our experience the best way to break the ice is to discuss informally an issue (mutual friends or interests, important recent news which relate to the company, etc.) unrelated to the research per se, which will allow both the researcher and the respondent too relax.

A second potential problem can arise from covering everything on the interview schedule or guide.  If there is an interview schedule to cover the researcher should be able to use questions as prompts to steer conversation in the desired direction or, indeed, to use  these to probe particular issues.

Researchers may supply informants with a copy of the interview transcripts.  This is done to ensure that the transcription is an accurate portrayal of the proceeding, which is an essential check on the validity of the evidence, but also to sustain the relationship with respondents.

Analysis of Texts
This is the most demanding aspect of non-positivist research.  In practice this means that the evidence has to be read, re-read, and such themes or concepts have to be catalogued.  It is vital that this process is based on the evidence itself and that these themes emerge from the bottom up, rather than being the result of selecting a theory by convenience and then dipping into fragments that support such a theory.

Evidence Analysis Software
Most qualitative researchers do not make use of computers in analysis, except for producing and keeping a record of interview transcripts.  Today, however, the situation is different and for those researchers who feel comfortable with using a computer-based approach to analysis there is a wide choice of software available -  from simple text retrievers through to conceptual network builders.

For instance, Silverman(1994) advocates the use of such analysis software to assist with analysis of field notes such that the researcher can more easily file and index text into several different categories. Alternatively, NUD.IST might be used to facilitate searching by indexes and to generate new categories and relationships.

In non positivist research validity concerns whether the researcher has gained full access to knowledge and meanings of respondents.  Hence the importance of good-quality access to enable such contact to be made within the research site.  There is also the need to feed research field notes or interview transcripts back to respondents for verification to ensure that it reflects their understanding of the phenomenon (Collins and Young,1988).  Access therefore becomes one of the criteria against which the research will be evaluated.

Collins and Young(1988) further contribute ideas regarding validity in hermeneutical research.   The authors argue that a positive response to the questions, together with an internally consistent argument, would place a particular research account in line to have validity conferred by readers and users of that research.

The distinguishing characteristic here is that similar observations should be made by researchers on different occasions (Easterby - smith et al.,1994) and the concern is therefore with how replicable the study is.   Marshall and Rossman (1995) advocate that, rather than pretend that research conditions can be replicable, it is much better to accept the particularist nature of the research and to follow good practice guidelines such as establishing an audit trail.

This can be achieved by keeping the evidence collected in an easily retrievable form to enable others to investigate it should doubts regarding the research ever be raised.  Second, the researcher should keep a log or journal cataloguing research design decisions and justifications for these.  In this way the methods used become transparent and the parameters regarding the research questions, setting, assumptions and theoretical frameworks are open to scrutiny.

Here the researcher is essentially concerned with the applicability of theories that were generated in one setting to other settings.   Gummesson(1991:79) argues that qualitative research is less concerned with making statements about the commonality of particular findings than with the fact that good qualitative research should enable one to attain an understanding of organisational processes.  He argues that generalisation can be understood in two ways:

Quantitative studies based on a large number of observations are required in order to determine how much, how often and how many.  The other… involves the use of in-depth studies based on exhaustive investigations and analyses to identify certain phenomena, for example the effects of change in corporate strategy, and lay bare mechanisms that one suspects will also exist in other companies.

There is no one best way to demonstrate or evaluate the quality of research.  The list was constructed by drawing on the work of LincoIn and Guba(1995),quoted in Marshall and Rossman(1995) and Gummesson (1991).

The issue of credibility refers to being able to demonstrate that the research was designed in a manner that accurately identified and described the phenomenon to be investigated.  Here the credibility (rather than internal validity) will derive from an in-depth description of the complexities of the research setting, drawing on empirical evidence.  Such a representation of the phenomenon will therefore be valid for that particular study.  This does mean that the research should explicitly state the parameters of the study in terms of the population, setting and theoretical framework used.

This refers to external validity and is dependent upon the researcher stating the theoretical parameters of the research explicitly.  Here it would be important to specify how the specific phenomenon or research setting being investigated ties into a broader case, making clear the specific organisational processes about which generalisations will be made.

The positivist construct of reliability assumes unchanging conditions that enable replication of the study.  This assumption does not hold for non-positivist research and it is more appropriate for the researcher to account for changes in the conditions of the phenomenon being investigated, as well as research design changes which are made because of a better understanding of the research setting.

With phenomenological research the concept of confirmability is used instead of objectivity.  The question to pose is: does the research confirm general findings or not?  The test is whether the findings of the research can be confirmed by another similar study.

Additional Resources

An Introduction to Phenomenological Research
(A good reference to read - This article may be focusing on using phenomenology in educational research)

Nomothetic Approach to Science - Idiographic Approach to Science by KVSSNRao

Five Qualitative Approaches to Enquiry (Cresswell Book?)
Narrative Research, Phenomenological Research, Grounded Theory Research, Ethnographic Research, Case Study Research  (Interesting descriptions of each approach is given in this chapter)

1 comment:

  1. Thanks a lot Maite, this is an excellent literature!! Really appreciate your help.