Qualitative Research

Qualitative research is an approach to inquiry that refers to a broad umbrella domain of various research traditions and investigative and analytic practices employed by researchers in a wide range of subject disciplines. One way of understanding the variety is to understand qualitative inquiry from the perspective of three broad philosophical paradigms that represent various worldviews composed of values, beliefs, and methodological assumptions and that bring into focus different domains of study. These can be characterized as modernist, interpretive, and postmodern. Practiced from within the modernist paradigm, qualitative inquiry identifies the facts and causes of particular phenomena to test or develop theory in the context of the real world of work; for example, collecting accounts of the circumstances under which people choose to leave their jobs to theorize voluntary turnover. From the perspective of the interpretive paradigm, however, researchers are interested in understanding the relationship between people’s subjective reality and their work-related behaviors—that is, what do objects and events mean to people, how do they perceive what happens to them, and how do they adapt their behavior in light of these understandings and perceptions. For example, researchers may explore people’s subjective interpretation of competence at work, developing an understanding of how those subjective interpretations affect performance. From the perspective of a postmodern worldview, qualitative inquiry offers the possibility to examine and challenge the realities in which people live and work and the things they take for granted, including the assumptions of the researcher. For example, researchers may surface implicit gendering reflected in research and theorizing about leadership.

In addition to the variety generated by paradigmatic orientations, qualitative research is also practiced from many different traditions. Within these, research takes a slightly different shape and pursues different outcomes. Consider just a few. For example, researchers doing ethnographic research focus on the detailed examination of social phenomena in a small number of settings; typically, ethnography is carried out in just one social setting. Within that setting the ethnographic researcher simultaneously participates in and observes daily life to learn about its mundane and routine habits of mind and behavior. Action researchers, by comparison, aim to both provide practical advice and acquire knowledge about the dynamics of change in organizations; their research subjects are active participants in the research process. Case study researchers typically gather a variety of data, which can include both qualitative and numerical observations; and they write up a case history of the social systems studied.

Although there is considerable variety in the orientations and traditions of qualitative research, its operational practices are relatively consistent. As a set of operational practices, qualitative inquiry is distinguished by the following conditions in the practice of sampling, the practice of gathering observations, and the practice of analysis. Regardless of data-gathering modes chosen, sampling in qualitative research follows a distinct logic. Generally speaking, qualitative inquiry focuses in depth on relatively small samples that are selected purposefully. The logic and power of purposeful sampling is founded on deliberately searching out and selecting settings, people, and events that will provide rich and detailed information regarding the research question. For example, a researcher interested in understanding how ethically pioneering decisions are made might seek out research sites where such decisions are common, perhaps a biotechnology firm, and within that setting focus on the decisions surrounding the development and marketing of a new product, perhaps a genetic profiling product, whose ethical implications are unclear. In its selective pursuit of information-rich settings and subjects, purposeful sampling is distinct from probabilistic sampling.

In terms of observation, qualitative inquiry typically takes place in natural settings where researchers are present to the social situations and phenomena they are studying. They focus their attention on ordinary situations, events, and experiences; this access to life at work as it unfolds and as it is experienced by organization members allows researchers to gain an understanding of and theorize everyday realities in the workplace. This is achieved through various data-gathering techniques, which are intensive and time-consuming.

Gathering data through participant observation, researchers enter and become a part of the actual context in which people pursue their work, learning firsthand how they accomplish their work on a daily basis; how they talk, behave, and interact; and how they understand and experience their work. Prolonged engagement with the research site is typical, because researchers often remain present for an annual cycle within the social system they are studying, spending sufficient time there to understand and learn how to conduct themselves according to the norms of the setting. Observations are logged and converted into field notes on a daily basis. Interviews provide another avenue for gaining observations, and these vary in the extent to which they are structured and formalized. For example, interviews can be organized through highly structured and standard interview protocols or semiformal conversation guides; or they can be free-flowing, informal exchanges. Interviews can be one-off events, or subjects can be interviewed multiple times to gain their stable and changing perspectives on events as they unfold. Through interviews, researchers collect people’s accounts of their work lives, actions, experiences, perceptions, opinions, and feelings. As a matter of practice, interviews are usually tape-recorded and transcribed verbatim. Documents of various types, such as e-mails, memos, policy statements, reports, photographs, drawings, and audio and video materials, are also important data sources to understand how work is organized. Within any particular study, researchers often incorporate a number of data-gathering modes to gain a better understanding of the phenomena in which they are interested. For example, although a researcher’s primary data-gathering strategy may be participant observation, such as being a participant observer to an organization’s product development process, they are also likely interviewing people to gain their perspective on the events observed in, say, a product development meeting, and they may collect any organizational documents relevant to that product’s development.

In the act of analysis, qualitative researchers typically work with verbal language (and occasionally visual images) rather than quantitative language as indicators of the phenomenon of interest. Consistent with the outlined data gathering modes, these verbal language texts include field notes, verbatim interview transcripts, diaries, conversation records, and organizational documents of various types. It is not usual for a data set for a given study to amount to more than 1,000 pages of unstructured text to be analyzed. With the involvement of the computer in qualitative research, researchers are able to draw on a number of software packages that aid in the management and organization of their data.

Data analysis typically overlaps with data gathering, and analysis strategies roughly fall into two main groups: categorizing strategies such as coding and thematic analysis and contextualizing strategies such as narrative analysis and case studies. Coding is the main categorizing strategy; through this strategy the data set is fractured and arranged into categories so that similarities and differences between data fragments can be recognized and identified. Through these categories, data are conceptualized, and the conceptual categories are integrated into a theoretical framework. Another form of categorizing analysis progresses by sorting data into broader themes and issues. Coding categories vary in the extent to which they draw on existing theory. In contextualizing strategies, instead of fracturing the data set into discrete elements and developing categories for them, researchers attempt to understand the data in context using various procedures to identify different relationships among elements in the text. For example, through narrative analysis researchers examine the data for relationships that organize statements and events into a coherent whole. In addition, practices such as displaying data and memoing are central to and support analysis regardless of whether researchers follow categorizing or contextualizing strategies.

A majority of qualitative studies are open-ended in their initial design, and they place minimum theoretical constraint on their data analysis and the expected outcomes of the research. This results in a research process characterized by emergence and flexibility. The term funnel shaped is often used to characterize this approach to design in which researchers begin with a general research question and then narrow and refine their paths of inquiry in the course of their study. This means that the activities of collecting and analyzing data, conceptualizing it, and refining research questions are in play simultaneously, influencing each other. Accordingly, data analysis is pursued in a nontheoretically constrained way; this is typical, for example, in the grounded theory approach in which data are analyzed and codes are developed by researchers through the analytic process. This process is challenging because researchers can be overwhelmed by the ambiguities and uncertainties associated with assigning meaning to hundreds of pages of words.

By contrast, some qualitative studies are more deductive in their orientation. Studies are designed and researchers pursue data collection and analysis with predetermined theoretical questions in mind and conceptual categories that they plan to elaborate and refine. For example, the form of analysis practiced in content analysis relies on existing theory to derive coding categories; these preestablished defined categories are applied to the data, and frequency counts of data fragments representing these defined categories can form the basis for quantitative analysis.

Generally speaking, qualitative inquiry results in the development of dynamic process-oriented models explaining how and why things happen as they do. Qualitative researchers’ ability to be present to action as it unfolds, whether to developing work team norms or changing team behaviors, allows them to identify precisely how organization members understand their situations; the actions that flow from this understanding; what events lead to what consequences; and to the underlying contextual influences on behavior and events.


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