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Institute of Management Sciences

Advanced Qualitative Research


This introductory session will:

1. Introduce the module.

2. Discuss the assessment.
3. Focus on planning and preparing qualitative research projects.

Why undertake qualitative research? What is it? What are the benefits of adopting a
qualitative approach? And what are the main limitations? What measures can we take to
minimise the impact of these limitations on the reception, impact and credibility of our

The foundations of qualitative research

How we approach research depends upon the philosophical lens through which we see the world;
this lens makes making sense of the world, of what is going on, possible. Our philosophical lens
helps us to work out the questions we need to ask, and what we might need to be able to answer
those questions. In other words, our perspective directs us to the kind of evidence we need and
suggests how best to interpret and explain the world around us. Research is always grounded in
philosophical questions therefore, questions that help us to understand what we know (and need to
know) about the world. Philosophical and theoretical considerations (ontological, epistemological)
guide us to methodological questions by suggesting the kinds of questions we should be asking
(phenomena in need of explanation, or change) and helping us to understand and evaluate what
count as convincing answers to our questions. The approach that we take to our research (our
research plan or design, our methodology) responds to two fundamental questions:

1. What is the nature of reality? (answers to this question are what we call ontologies
theories of existence).
2. How can we know about it? (answers to this question are what we call epistemologies
theories of knowledge).

An epistemology is a framework or theory for specifying the constitution and generation of

knowledge about the social world; that is, it concerns how to understand the nature of
reality. A given epistemological framework specifies not only what knowledge is and how
to recognise it, but who are knowers and by what means someone becomes one, and also
the means by which competing knowledge claims are adjudicated, and some are rejected in
favour of another/others (Stanley and Wise, 1993: 37).

Epistemological questions shaping qualitative research include: What is knowledge? Who decides?
Who can know? What kinds of things can be known? How can they be known? Ainsworth and

Hardy (2012) have recently argued, in their analysis of research on the problems facing older
workers in securing and maintaining employment, that

To establish their authority as a valid form of knowledge representing the subject of inquiry,
statistics and stories both [have] to be embedded in the appropriate discursive conventions.
In the case of statistics, knowledge [has] to be expressed through discursive conventions
that convey distance from the subject of inquiry, i.e. independent, objective research. In
contrast, stories produced knowledge through discursive conventions that established
proximity to the older worker by being or knowing an older worker (Ainsworth and Hardy,
2012: 1693, emphasis added).

When researchers develop theories, their epistemology or theory of knowledge is largely

determined by the ontological position they take; that is, their understanding of the nature of reality
(what exists). Whereas positivist approaches lend themselves to quantitative research, qualitative
research tends to be based more on social constructionist perspectives. Consider some examples ...

Qualitative methodologies emphasize the analysis of subjective accounts generated by getting

inside situations, getting involved in the everyday flow of organizational life. There is an emphasis
in qualitative research on theory grounded (Glaser and Strauss, 1967) in empirical observations,
based upon subjective meanings and interpretations. Grounded theory refers to the discovery of
theory from data (Glaser and Strauss, 1967: 1).


The most central characteristic of qualitative research is its emphasis on the perspective of
the individual [or group] being studied. Whereas quantitative research is propelled by a prior
set of concerns ... qualitative research tends to eschew the notion that the investigator
should be the source of what is relevant and important ... Rather, the researcher seeks to
elicit what is important to individuals as well as their interpretations of the environment in
which they work, through in-depth investigations of individuals and their milieu (Bryman,
1989: 19).

Before considering how this approach to research shapes the kind of questions we ask, take a few
moments to reflect on what we mean when we say that a particular research project is very
subjective ....

Research Questions:

The ontological and epistemological assumptions that underpin our work shape our methodological
approach to research. This approach helps us to formulate our research questions, and to consider
the kind of evidence (data, findings) that we would need to be able to answer these questions.
Qualitative researchers often also think about why they wish to study a particular topic early on the
research process consider this in relation to your own research interests.

Reflexivity understanding how the role/identity of the researcher shapes the research process is
an important concern of qualitative researchers throughout the process. Reflexivity involves
reflecting on the ways in which qualitative research involves not simply the collection of data (as if
the researcher were detached from something that exists separately to him/her), but rather the

construction of the research findings through a process in which the researcher plays an active,
formative role (e.g. the researcher decides from the very early stages of the process what is
important to consider, what counts as data).

In this sense, qualitative research is often more dialogical than qualitative research, based on the
premise that (for ethical and methodological reasons), the researcher and the research participants
are part of a process that constitutes a discussion or dialogue (more in Week on Ethnographic

Consider your own research interests, focusing on a topic you would like to research for your
Describe the topic, and why it is important and interesting (to you and others).
Reflect on the perspective and assumptions you bring to the research.
Try to list 2-3 research questions that help you to understand the precise focus of your own

What is qualitative research? Why undertake it?

Qualitative research is primarily concerned with meaning, with lived experience and the sense that
people make of it. In this sense, quality refers to the basic character or nature of a given
phenomenon (to the characteristic qualities of a particular phenomenon), rather than to its
excellence, or to how good it is. In organizational and management research, qualitative studies
enable researchers to understand the meaning of particular phenomena in considerable depth,
focusing on how people actually live and experience relatively intangible organizational
phenomena such as structure, strategy, policy and so on.

Qualitative researchers try to dig beneath the surface of organizational life to understand meaning.
An interesting example of this digging can be found in research on humour at work:

Unearthing workers humour requires the researcher to dig beneath the organizational
surface ... Researchers must acquire an intimate knowledge of an organizations underlife
and gain a high degree of trust (Taylor and Bain, 2003: 1489 and 1491).

(Are organizational researchers just journalists, then?) Reflect on what differentiates academic
research from journalism ...

At its heart, qualitative research involves making the strange familiar and the familiar strange.

Think about the sense we might make as researchers of the following example:

Woolworths Plc R.I.P. Take One:

F.W. Woolworth and Co. began trading in Liverpool in 1909, selling household goods,
childrens clothes, toys and stationery. It expanded in the 1920s, opening a new store every
2-3 weeks. By 2008, there were 807 Woolworths stores across the UK. Following a period of
financial decline, Woolworths went into administration at the end of 2008, closing its last
store on 5th January 2009, with a loss of 30,000 jobs.

Woolworths Plc R.I.P Take Two:

Questions for discussion:

What can we learn from these two different examples of evidence?

What are the main advantages associated with undertaking qualitative research?

What are the main disadvantages?

What techniques can we use to minimise the impact of any limitations?

The Qualitative Research Process

The qualitative research process can be mapped out as a series of stages, but these are rarely linear
or as structured as they appear (often the process is iterative and improvisational):

1. Outline the topic/focus of the research, and being to map out a series of questions or aims.
2. Review relevant literature and begin to identity gaps, questions and avenues for research.
3. Devise a methodology (drawing on previous research and relevant methodological
literature) that is appropriate to the topic and research questions.
4. Begin to select the research site, setting or sample.
5. Negotiate access (and recognize that this is an on-going process).
6. Collect data, begin to undertake interim data analysis and discussion/dissemination.
7. Collect data and undertake analysis until reading saturation point.
8. Undertake data immersion and analysis.
9. Possibly return to stage 1 and 2.
10. Begin thinking, writing, disseminating the research findings and begin the whole process

Data collection, analysis and dissemination should be seen as part of an interactive and iterative
process in qualitative research, not a series of linear stages


Ainsworth, S. and Hardy, C. Subjects of Inquiry: Statistics, Stories and the Production of Knowledge,
Organization Studies. 33(12): 1693-1714.

Bryman, A. (1989) Research Methods and Organization Studies. London: Unwin Hyman.

Glaser, B. And Strauss, A. (1967) The Discovery of Grounded Theory. Chicago: Aldine.

Stanley, L. And Wise, S. (1993) Breaking Out Again. London: Routledge.

Taylor, P. and Bain, P. (2003) Subterranean Worksick Blues: Humour as Subversion in Two Call
Centres, Organization Studies. 24(9): 1487-1509.