Researching and Writing

Researching and Writing

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ReseaRching and WRiting
a disseRtation
a guidebook foR business students
Colin Fisher
second edition
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Researching and Writing a Dissertation: A Guidebook for Business Students
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Researching and Writing a Dissertation: A Guidebook for Business Students
Second edition
Colin Fisher
with
John Buglear Diannah Lowry Alistair Mutch Carole Tansley
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Pearson Education Limited Edinburgh Gate Harlow Essex CM20 2JE England and Associated Companies throughout the world Visit us on the World Wide Web at: www.pearsoned.co.uk First published 2004 Second edition 2007 © Pearson Education Limited 2004 © Pearson Education Limited 2007 The right of Colin Fisher to be identified as author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without either the prior written permission of the publisher or a licence permitting restricted copying in the United Kingdom issued by the Copyright Licensing Agency Ltd, Saffron House, 6–10 Kirby Street, London, EC1N 8TS. All trademarks used herein are the property of their respective owners. The use of any trademark in this text does not vest in the author or publisher any trademark ownership rights in such trademarks, nor does the use of such trademarks imply any affiliation with or endorsement of this book by such owners. ISBN: 978-0-273-71007-3 British Library Cataloguing-in-Publication Data A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 11 10 09 08 07 Typeset in Sabon by 30 Printed and bound by Ashford Colour Press, Gosport The publisher’s policy is to use paper manufactured from sustainable forests.
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Contents
Acknowledgements
ix
0 Introduction
Who is this guide for? What does doing a dissertation involve? The process of doing a dissertation What does working at Master’s level mean? The assessment criteria The learning outcomes and assessment criteria Jargon, ‘isms’ and ‘ologies’ How to use this guide Suggested reading Other recommended books References
1 2 2 3 7 10 11 13 25 26 27 27 29 30 31 31 33 39 40 58 59 61 63 71 74 74 74
1 Choosing a topic and designing the project
Introduction Choosing a topic Criteria for choosing a topic A six-stage process for choosing your topic Designing your project Methodological stance The researcher’s role Breadth or depth Choice of research methods Ethical considerations Writing the research proposal Summary Suggested reading References
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2 Writing a critical literature review
Introduction The sources Searching for literature Mapping and describing the literature Describing the literature Assessing the quality of an article or book Forensic critique Soundness of arguments Evaluating arguments Radical critique The critical approach – Alistair Mutch Developing a radical critique Summary Suggested reading References
77 78 80 82 86 86 92 94 94 97 105 105 108 116 116 116 119 120 122 125 125 126 133 134 139 139 144 149 149 150 151 152 153 157
3 Concepts, conceptual frameworks and theories
Introduction The roles of theory and conceptual frameworks Developing conceptual frameworks Defining concepts Conceptual frameworks Theories Seeking inspiration: using your ‘intellectual baggage’ Examples of the use of conceptual frameworks An example of conceptualising and theorising in a study of organisational cultures Another example Summary Suggested reading References
4 Collecting and analysing research material
Introduction Discoverers Structure of the chapter
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Contents
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The range of research methods Interviews Panels Questionnaires Documentary research Observational research Deciding whether to use open or pre-structured methods Planning and setting milestones Exploratory research methods Collecting the material Interpretive approaches Analysing the material Survey research: pre-coded and structured research methods Collecting the material Analysing the material: basic statistical analysis of data – Diannah Lowry Software for analysing research material Using Minitab and SPSS to analyse survey results – John Buglear Software for analysing qualitative material – Carole Tansley Summary Suggested reading References
158 158 159 161 161 161 165 165 166 166 171 180 189 189 207 222 222 253 264 265 265 267 268 272 274 276 281 284 288 290 290 294 299 303 307
5 Interpreting the research material
Introduction Choosing an interpretive grid Styles of interpretive grid and the problem of ‘universals’ Realism Nominalism Critical realism Mixing interpretive grids The validity and authenticity of research material Saying what you mean Saying what is valid Improving the validity of research findings Dialectical critique Framing conclusions and recommendations
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Problems of implementation Accepting the limitations Summary Suggested reading References
311 312 313 313 313 315 316 317 319 321 323 325 336 336 338 347 347 348 349
6 Framing arguments and writing up
Introduction Structuring your dissertation Writing a thesis, not just a dissertation Constructing arguments Constructing dialectical arguments Supporting your arguments Style guide Dissertation, report and paper specifications Style hints Summary Suggested reading References
Index
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Acknowledgements
I tried the patience of my friends at Nottingham Business School by constant requests for feedback. They replied with good humour, useful feedback and new material. I wish to thank Alistair Mutch, Diannah Lowry, John Buglear and Carole Tansley especially for writing whole sections of this book. John and Carole have written completely new sections for this second edition. All the contributions by colleagues are acknowledged in the text. Among other colleagues, and ex-colleagues who have moved to other universities, I wish to thank are Jim Stewart, Tony Woodall, Val Caven, Denise Fletcher, Sue Kirk, Suzanne Tietze and John Leopold. Many thanks also to Christos Athanasoulis for his helpful advice. Tony Watson deserves particular thanks. It was only when I was writing the first edition of the book that I realised what an influence he has been on my thinking in the 20 and more years we had worked together at Nottingham Business School. Nevertheless, neither he nor any other colleague is responsible for errors or misunderstandings that might have found their way into this guide. Much of any practical wisdom to be found in this guide comes from the many postgraduate students I have worked with at Nottingham Business School when they were doing their dissertations. Many thanks are due to them. In particular I want to thank Alastair Allen who allowed me to use some of his research material to illustrate points about conceptual framework building. Publisher’s acknowledgements We are grateful to the following for permission to reproduce copyright material: Figure 0.3 Reprinted by permission of Sage Publications Ltd from Gill, J. and Johnson P. (2002) Research Methods for Managers, 3e © Paul Chapman Publishing, 2002, Exercise 1.3, Exhibits 2.2, 3.1 and 3.2 photographs by Raj Shirole; Table 1.2 reprinted by permission of Sage Publications Ltd from Silverman, D., Interpreting Qualitative Data: Methods for Analysing Talk, Text and Interaction, © Sage, 1993; Exhibit 1.9 from Managing, crafting and researching: words, skill and imagination in shaping management research, British Journal of Management, Vol. 5 (Special issue), pp. 77–97, Blackwell Publishing (Watson, T.J., 1994); Exhibit 2.6 image of Bentham’s Panopticon from Bentham Papers 115/44, University College London; Figures 3.1, 3.2 and 3.8 reproduced with the permission of T.J. Watson; Figure 3.3 from Bad apples in bad barrels: a causal analysis of ethical decision-making behaviour, Journal of Applied Psychology, Vol. 75, No. 4, pp. 378–385, American Psychological Association (Trevino, L.K. and Youngblood, S.A., 1990); Figure
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Acknowledgements
3.9 from Kabbalah: Traditions of Hidden Knowledge, Thames & Hudson Ltd (Z’ev ben Shimon Halevi, 1979); Figure 3.10 from Ethical stances: the perceptions of accountancy and RM specialists of ethical conundrums at work, Business Ethics: A European Review, Vol. 8, No. 4, p. 241, Blackwell Publishing Ltd (Fisher, C.M., 1999); Table 4.2 from Brouse, Suzannah H. (2002) J. Advanced Nursing, Vol. 37, No.6, 607 in: Silverman D. (1993) Interpreting Qualitative Data: Methods for Analyzing Talk, Text and Interaction, 2e David Silverman © Blackwell Publishing, Table 4.4 from Research Methods for Business Students, Financial Times Prentice Hall (Saunders, M., Lewis, P. and Thornhill, A., 2002); Figure 4.8 from Reason by Numbers, Pelican Books (Moore, P.G., 1980) copyright © Peter G. Moore, 1980; Figures 4.14, 4.15, 4.16 and 4.17 Screenshots from Minitab software, © Minitab Inc.; Figure 4.25 Screenshot from SPSS software; Figure 4.3 Interaction Process Analysis Bales, R.F. (1950) © University of Chicago Press; Exhibits 4.35, 4.36 and 4.37 Screenshots from NVIV07 software, NVIVO is designed and developed by QSR International Pty Ltd. NVIVO is a trademark or registered trademark of QSR International Patent pending; Table 4.5 from Statistics without Tears, Penguin Books (Rowntree, D., 1991), © Derek Rowntree, 1991. Figure 5.1 An Aztec map of Tenochtitlan, Bodleian Library, University of Oxford, MS. Arch. Seldon.A.1, fol.2r; Figure 5.2 A Spanish map of Tenochtitlan, from www.newberry.org/media/Azrecismages.html, The Newberry Library, Chicago; Figures 5.6 and 5.7 from Does Business Ethics Pay?, Institute of Business Ethics (Webley, S. and More, E. 2003), Exhibit 5.13 reproduced with the permission of J. De Mey. Figure 6.1 from Business Ethics and Values: Individual, Corporate and International Perspectives Fisher, C.M. and Lovell, A. (2006) © Pearson Education. The Quality Assurance Agency for the extract ‘The QAA’s Descriptor for a qualification at Masters (M) level’ from The Framework for Higher Education Qualifications in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, © The Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education, 2001; and The Times Literary Supplement for the extract ‘Why it’s fun to be smart’ by Eisaman Maus as published in The Times Literary Supplement 25 May 2001, © The Times Literary Supplement. Exercise 2.2 from Resource Allocation in the Public Sector: Values, Priorities and Markets in the Management of Public Services, Routledge (Fisher, C.M., 1998); Chapter 3 example of conceptualising and theorising in a study of organisational culture based on Organisation, Culture and the Management of Change in the National Health Service, PhD dissertation, the Nottingham Trent University (McNulty, T., 1990) reproduced with permission of T. McNulty; Chapter 3 extract from Transforming former state enterprises in the Czech Republic, Organisation Studies, Vol. 16, No. 2, p. 215, Walter de Gruyter (Clark, E. and Soulsby, A., 1995); Exercise 5.7 from A Handbook of Structured Experiences for Human Relations Training, Pfeiffer, J.W. and Jones, J.E., ©1975 John Wiley & Sons, Inc. This material is used by permission of John Wiley & Sons, Inc. In some instances we have been unable to trace the owners of copyright material, and we would appreciate any information that would enable us to do so.
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Chapter 0
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Introduction
Although this book is clearly a textbook, it is intended to be used more like a tourist guide; a book to be used by readers as a guidebook to researching and writing a dissertation. It is written in a rather more informal manner than many textbooks because it focuses on what the reader needs to know rather than on the debates in the academic literature. This introduction is Chapter 0. Such a quirky way of beginning the numbering of chapters needs to be explained. The guide is structured around six stages in the process of researching and writing a dissertation. These stages in turn reflect the six criteria that typify the standards that dissertations are marked against. The guide contains a chapter for each of these stages-cum-criteria. I wanted each of them to have the appropriate number, Chapter 1 for stage 1 and so on. This meant that the introduction that precedes the chapters had to be Chapter 0. Calling the introduction Chapter 0 does not mean it is empty of content. It is quite important to read this chapter if you are going to get full value from the guide, because it will achieve the following:
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identify the assessment targets you need to hit for the dissertation to be passed; introduce you to methodological issues that can cause students problems if they are not understood; explain the structure of the guide and introduce you to further resources.
Contents
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Who is this guide for? What does doing a dissertation involve? The process of doing a dissertation What does working at Master’s level mean? The assessment criteria The learning outcomes and assessment criteria Jargon, ‘isms’ and ‘ologies’ How to use this guide Suggested reading Other recommended books References
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Chapter 0 • Introduction
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Who is this guide for?
The first readership for the guide is all those doing an MBA, or an MSc or MA course in a management or business topic, and who have to write a dissertation as part of their studies. That said, many of the topics and skills the guide covers are relevant to anyone who has to research and write a dissertation or a long, research-based paper as part of their programme of study. The guide will be of use to undergraduates doing final-year dissertations and also to DBA and PhD students.
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What does doing a dissertation involve?
Most MBA and Master’s in management programmes include a major project in which the students identify an issue of managerial, organisational or business concern and research it. However, different business schools demand different things in the research component of their MBA and other Master’s programmes. Most commonly students will be required to write a dissertation, which is a report on a major piece of primary research (normally between 15,000 and 20,000 words long) which gives an account of a student’s investigation into a business or managerial issue, provides an analysis of the research and presents the conclusions that are drawn from it. In addition to, or instead of, the dissertation, students may be required to write one or more of the following:
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a proposal, which is a document that defines what the project is about, explains why it is important and describes how it is to be carried out; a paper, which is a short (normally around 4,000 to 6,000 words) document suitable for presentation to an academic conference or journal; a management report, which is a shorter document (2,000 to 4,000 words) that is suitable for presentation to managers and decision makers and that is designed to persuade them to adopt the recommendations you make.
This guide focuses on the proposal and the dissertation but it also gives some help on writing papers and reports. Some other key terms are used frequently in the guide and it will be useful to define them before we proceed:
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A project means all the activities that go towards completing a dissertation. A thesis is an argument or a proposition supported by evidence and literature.
A Master’s degree in a business or management subject brings together an academic concern for theory and understanding with a managerial
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What does doing a dissertation involve?
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concern for analysis, planning and action. A dissertation should be written primarily for an academic audience, and it will be marked by academics. However, it should also contain elements that address the concerns of those in the organisations whose problems were the subject of the dissertation. Getting this balance right is one of the skills needed to write a good dissertation. The aims of the dissertation, and of the proposal and the conference paper if you are required to do them, will vary from institution to institution and you will need to become very familiar with those that belong to your course. However, the following example would not be atypical. The objective of the dissertation is to give the student an opportunity: 1. to plan, research and write up a project that improves understanding of a significant managerial, business or organisational matter, and that, if appropriate, provides recommendations or findings upon which action can be determined; 2. to learn how to undertake a major project that requires you to: G be focused on a complex and important issue; G undertake effective and competent primary research; G integrate theory and practice; G incorporate understanding taken from a critical review of the appropriate literature; G base your dissertation on sound analysis and arguments; and G be sensitive to the requirements of the different audiences for the dissertation. The focus of the project is often a matter for you to decide. It may be on any of the following:
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a part of an organisation, or a comparison between parts of an organisation; a single organisation; a comparison between two or more organisations; a study of an industrial or commercial sector; a study of a managerial function or profession.
The process of doing a dissertation
In practice, doing a dissertation is not a sequential process in which the completion of one stage leads neatly to the next. There are often false starts and returns to earlier stages of the project to reconsider the focus and the aims. Many of the stages of doing a project will be pursued in parallel. While you are reading for the literature review you may also be setting up contacts for interviews or drafting a questionnaire. However, there is a basic logic to the process and this can be used to explain the
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Chapter 0 • Introduction
contents of this guide. This logic is shown, as a series of stages for convenience, in Figure 0.1. In addition to this introduction, the guide contains six chapters. Each of the chapters deals with one of the stages shown in Figure 0.1. Taken together, the chapters will lead you through the processes of researching and writing your dissertation. Figure 0.1 has three dimensions. The time dimension runs vertically. The height of the cube represents the length of time you have to complete your project and dissertation. The other two dimensions are as follows: thinking — finding out confusion — confidence. Here is a description of the progress of an average project using these dimensions. Phase 1 – Choosing a topic and designing the project At the start, students are confused about what they are going to study for the project and how they are going to do it. In the first phase, thinking about choice of topic and what approach to research is going to be adopted leads to finding out about possible topics and investigating the
Finish Interpreting the research material
Framing arguments and writing up
Researching and analysing Time Writing a critical literature review
Developing a conceptual framework Confidence
Choosing a topic Planning the project Start Finding out
Confusion
Thinking
Figure 0.1 The processes of researching and writing a Master’s dissertation
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What does doing a dissertation involve?
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range of research methods available. The combination of these activities increases students’ confidence, but not hugely. They are still a little fazed at the end of this first phase but they should have a clearer idea of what they want to research, why it is important and how they are going to do it. Phase 2 – Writing a critical literature review The next phase involves searching for books, academic papers and other materials that are relevant to the project, so quite a lot of energy at the early part of this phase goes into finding out what resources are available. Although finding materials is satisfying, there is a tendency to think that the information they contain can be transferred into one’s brain by some osmotic process that does not involve actually reading the stuff. This stage, of course, involves reading the material, making notes on it and thinking about it. In particular the various theories and frameworks drawn from the literature need to be criticised and evaluated to see which are academically robust enough to be used in your project. The reading and thinking normally mean that students have increased confidence in their project by the end of this phase. Phase 3 – Developing concepts, conceptual frameworks and theories As a result of their increasing confidence, students feel ready to move into the next phase, which is developing a conceptual framework. This is a ‘map’ that draws together the concepts that the students will use to guide their research and that suggests how they are related. Conceptual frameworks are normally modifications and developments of models and theories found in the literature. When a conceptual framework is decided upon it gives a great boost to students’ confidence. They feel in control of their project because they can see where it is going. However, once it is drafted, and they think about the framework some more, little doubts and worries creep in and the confidence begins to seep away. Then it is time to get into the next stage – of doing the research work. Phase 4 – Collecting and analysing research material Some thinking is needed at the start of the research phase of the project. Students have to decide in detail how they are going to conduct the research and organise the practical aspects of, for instance, conducting interviews or focus groups, identifying people to send questionnaires to and so on. But the bulk of this stage is about finding out. When students start to collect their research results it often boosts their confidence as they conclude that they will have enough material to write their dissertation. Phase 5 – Interpreting research material and drawing conclusions After a heap of research material has been collected it then remains to make sense of it – to interpret it. This can be a daunting task and initially
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Chapter 0 • Introduction
there can be an increase in confusion as students think about what the material means. But some hard thinking and interrogation of the research material usually result in students finding out more about their topic. The interpretation stage involves choosing an interpretive grid that will, most likely, be developed from the conceptual framework that was developed during an earlier stage of the project. Phase 6 – Forming arguments and writing up the dissertation In the final stage the students formulate their arguments arising from all their work and shape them into a written dissertation. The process therefore moves away from ‘finding out’ towards ‘thinking’ – although it is interesting to note that students often only find out what they mean when they start writing up the project. If all goes well, by the time they have finished writing up the students will have confidence in their project and their dissertation. The six chapters in this guide are designed to help you through each of these stages. Their contents are briefly summarised below.
Choosing a topic and designing the project G Identifying a topic G Drafting research objectives G Planning the research and the project ↓ Writing a critical literature review G Searching the literature G Summarising and précising the literature G Evaluating key concepts and theories ↓ Concepts, conceptual frameworks and theories G Identifying key concepts G Drafting conceptual frameworks G Theorising the material ↓ Collecting and analysing research material G Choosing and designing research methods G Conducting the research G Analysing, sorting and classifying the material ↓ Interpreting the research material G Honesty of argument and language G Interpreting research material G Drawing safe conclusions ↓ Framing arguments and writing up the dissertation G Arguing a thesis as well as writing a dissertation G Structuring the dissertation G Producing documents in accordance with the style guide
Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Chapter 6
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What does working at Master’s level mean?
Studying at Master’s level requires an extension of the academic skills you may have used when you were doing diploma-level studies, as well as the development of some new ones. In this section I identify these new skills and abilities and indicate which of the chapters in this guide are intended to help you develop them. Methodology Having a general familiarity with some of the philosophical issues and arguments about the process of research. The study of these philosophical aspects is known as methodology. It is not expected that you should become a philosopher. It is expected that you acquire sufficient knowledge of methodology to prevent yourself from making errors such as using inappropriate research methods that will be incapable of answering the research questions you have asked. See Jargon, ‘isms’ and ‘ologies’ in this chapter, Designing your project in Chapter 1 and Choosing an interpretive grid in Chapter 5. Theorising Attempting theoretical innovation. No one expects Master’s students to create new theories (although it is wonderful if they do). On the other hand, neither are they expected simply to take theories from the literature and use them uncritically. You should look for opportunities to develop, modify or adapt the theories you take from the literature. This is often necessary because you may take a theory that was developed in one field of study, or in one context, and try to use it in different circumstances. The theory may need adaptation, or at the least review, before it is relocated. Belbin’s (1981) theory of team effectiveness, for example, was derived from studies of managers, yet I have seen many people attempt to use it with production staff without checking the theory’s validity on the shop floor. See Chapter 2 and Framing conclusions and recommendations in Chapter 5. Dealing with complex and ambiguous matters Developing novel analyses and arguments. At diploma level, students face the task of understanding a management technique or approach so that they can apply it. At Master’s level the intention is that complex and intransigent issues and problems should be studied. This implies that existing management techniques will be inadequate for solving such problems. Therefore, you will have to develop your own ways of thinking through the problem. Techniques will be helpful but in addition you will have to use your own thinking skills to analyse the issues and present arguments as to how the problem should be studied. See Chapter 5 and Writing a thesis, not just a dissertation in Chapter 6.
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Chapter 0 • Introduction
Learning to learn Reflecting on your learning. Often this means being willing, as part of doing the dissertation, to challenge the unthought-of assumptions and values that constrain our thoughts and actions. To use the current managerial jargon, you should think ‘out of the box’. Another way of learning how to learn is to provide a review and critique of how you tackled the Master’s project. It is generally reckoned a good idea to keep quiet about your mistakes when writing up your dissertation. This is itself a mistake. At Master’s level, errors are for learning from. If you made a mistake in good faith (as opposed to laziness or sloppiness) then report it in the dissertation and show how you have learnt from it. This should gain you extra marks. If, for example, after you have completed a questionnaire survey you decide it would have been better to do in-depth interviews, then explain, in the dissertation, why you have come to this view and how you would tackle such issues differently in the future. See Chapter 5. Undertaking a Master’s dissertation requires you to develop your skills of analysis and argument; abilities that C. Wright Mills, a sociologist, called intellectual craftsmanship (see Exhibit 0.1).
Exhibit 0.1
C. Wright Mills ‘On Intellectual Craftsmanship’
In 1959 C. Wright Mills added to his book The Sociological Imagination an appendix entitled ‘On Intellectual Craftmanship’ (in 1959 it was unexceptional to use sexist terms). The craft skills he identified are still those that underpin the ability to do academic work, at whatever level. Do not separate work from life This is especially important for people doing MBA or similar dissertations because they are likely to be researching the context they work within. His point is that ideas and insights from life can often provide the trigger or clue for theoretical understanding of the issues we are researching. He suggests, for example, that when we find ourselves feeling very emotional, perhaps angry, about something that happened at work; if we take the trouble to identify and analyse the cause of that anger then that effort can lead to thoughts that can become the basis of research. He recommends that all researchers keep research journals in which their occasional thoughts and ideas can be collected to be mulled over at a later time. Reasoning before emprical research Wright Mills took a stronger line on this than many Master’s supervisors could agree with. He thought empirical research a tedious necessity. ‘Now I do not like to do empirical work if I can possibly avoid it’ (Wright Mills, 1959). You will almost
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Exhibit 0.1 continued
certainly have to do empirical work to complete your dissertation but Wright Mills’ general point, that it is wise to do some reading, thinking and theorising before doing the empirical research, is still relevant. For him, reasoning consisted of:
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identifying elements and concepts; deciding the logical relationships between them, ‘building little models’; and then deciding what critical issues need to be tested by empirical research.
This process is referred to, in this book, as conceptual framework building and is explained in Chapter 3. Getting ideas Imagination, according to Wright Mills, was what distinguished the scientist from the technician. Imagination can be encouraged in a number of ways. Challenging common sense explanations is a good starting point. A second method is to consider very carefully the words that are used to discuss the topic of the research. The ‘learning organisation’ was a frequent topic of research (recently it has been superseded by knowledge management). A careful dissection of the meanings of the two words – learning and organsation – will raise questions to be researched. Is learning, for example, a tangible thing that can be stored or is it a process that cannot? The third way of releasing imagination is to throw all your ideas, which you have carefully classified and organised under neat labels, into the air, allow them to fall randomly, and then re-sort and re-classify them. Framing a thesis Wright Mills made an important distinction between topic and theme. A common problem among students doing a dissertation is that they settle upon the topic of their research (a hard enough task) but do not go on to identify the themes of their research. A theme is a big idea or line of argument that gives shape to a dissertation and helps to separate the important research material from the unimportant. A good conceptual framework should help you identify your themes – you may have several – and this may involve choosing an interpretive perspective or lens (this is explained in Chapter 5). Writing in a clear and simple language Wright Mills pointed out (which management and business students already know), that many academics in the field write in a deliberaely obscure manner that appears to be intended to make the book or article seem cleverer than it is. Students should not emulate this but should, instead, write in a straightforward manner. Be a good craftsman A good intellectual craftsman, according to Wright Mills, avoids rigid and set procedures. They realise that research is not a matter of simply following a recipe. In this book I do give rather a lot of recipes for doing this or that aspect of researching and writing a dissertation. This is because one has to start somewhere. But the recipes are just that – a start, a guide. Do not treat them as the final word on the matter. You have to make the methods your own and become your own methodologist and theorist.
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Chapter 0 • Introduction
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The assessment criteria
In formal terms Master’s students have to show, in their proposals, papers and dissertations, that they have achieved a number of learning outcomes in order to pass the module. You should adopt a degree of instrumentality (by assuming the objective of the exercise is to pass the dissertation and gain the Master’s degree) and study the learning outcomes and assessment criteria that your business school will use in marking your dissertation. There is an independent body, the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA), which, among other things, sets the qualification descriptors for academic degrees in the United Kingdom. All MBAs and Master’s in management programmes may base their learning outcomes for assessing dissertations on the descriptor, which is shown in Exhibit 0.2. The learning outcomes and assessment criteria used in the business school where I work are used here to illustrate what the demands of a dissertation are. They are probably not very different from those of your institution, but if they are you should obviously work towards those that will be used to mark your dissertation.
Exhibit 0.2
The Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education’s descriptor for a qualification at Master’s (M) level: Master’s degree
Master’s degrees are awarded to students who have demonstrated: 1. a systematic understanding of knowledge, and a critical awareness of current problems and/or new insights, much of which is at, or informed by, the forefront of their academic discipline, field of study, or area of professional practice; 2. a comprehensive understanding of techniques applicable to their own research or advanced scholarship; 3. originality in the application of knowledge, together with a practical understanding of how established techniques of research and enquiry are used to create and interpret knowledge in the discipline; 4. conceptual understanding that enables the student: G to evaluate critically current research and advanced scholarship in the discipline; and G to evaluate methodologies and develop critiques of them and, where appropriate, to propose new hypotheses. Typically, holders of the qualification will be able to: (a) deal with complex issues both systematically and creatively, make sound judgements in the absence of complete data, and communicate their conclusions clearly to specialist and non-specialist audiences;
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The assessment criteria
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Exhibit 0.2 continued
(b) demonstrate self-direction and originality in tackling and solving problems, and act autonomously in planning and implementing tasks at a professional or equivalent level; (c) continue to advance their knowledge and understanding, and to develop new skills to a high level; and will have: (d) the qualities and transferable skills necessary for employment requiring: G the exercise of initiative and personal responsibility; G decision making in complex and unpredictable situations; and G the independent learning ability required for continuing professional development.
Source: The Framework for Higher Education Qualifications in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. © The Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (2001).
The learning outcomes and assessment criteria
The following are the learning outcomes for a dissertation module.
At the completion of this module students will be able to: 1. define the objectives of a research project and plan a valid and practicable project to meet the objectives; 2. carry out a critical literature review that provides a structure and focus for the dissertation; 3. define concepts and structure them in ways that give a useful theoretical shape to the dissertation; 4. design and apply appropriate research methods and analyse the research material systematically; 5. frame, and argue for, a clear thesis in the documents and draw safe conclusions; 6. write a clearly structured, adequately expressed and well-presented dissertation.
This guide has been structured so that each of the six chapters deals with one of these learning outcomes. The learning outcomes set the standard for what students have to achieve. However, they do not define the criteria that markers will use to decide whether a student has reached an appropriate level of achievement against each of the learning outcomes. These criteria can be seen in Table 0.1, called the assessment matrix. A number of points need to be made about this table:
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Chapter 0 • Introduction
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The matrix is for assessing a complete dissertation. If you also have to submit a written research proposal or an academic paper for assessment, then probably only some of the criteria would apply. The matrix identifies a number of levels. Most are self-explanatory. The borderline fail level needs explanation, however. A student who is marked 46–49 per cent is classified, in some institutions, as a borderline fail. This indicates that the dissertation would only need relatively minor changes and improvements to bring it up to pass standard. In some programmes it may be possible to show this improvement at a viva voce examination.
Table 0.1 Assessment criteria for postgraduate dissertations in business, organisational and management studies Identify a research Write a critical question and design literature review a project to answer it Define working concepts and conceptual frameworks to give structure to the work Collect and Interpret findings analyse research sensitively as data efficiently a basis for and effectively making recommendations for action that are practicable and sound Write reports and dissertations that are persuasive, well structured and well written A work of art written with style and wit. Strong arguments that refer back to each other.
80–100% Excellent
An excellent proposal that would be awarded a grant if it were sent to a research funding body
The literature review is itself a significant contribution to the literature
Significant additions to the theoretical and conceptual understanding of the subject
Makes a contribution to the development of methods for collecting and analysing research material and/or methodological debate
Complex and sophisticated interpretation of the material. The conclusions are based on the findings but transcend them. Subtle understanding of action in organisations Interprets the findings in a sophisticated manner. Conclusions are firmly based in findings but show a creative spark. Implementation plans show an awareness of the interaction of understanding and action
70–79% Very good Distinction level
Clear and specific about research question, project design and research methods. These three elements are shown to be well coordinated and an appropriate admixture
The literature is cogently described and evaluated from novel or complex perspectives
An attempt, not necessarily wholly successful, is made to theorise beyond the current state of the literature
Modifies and develops methods for collecting and analysing research material in a way that reflects methodological understanding
Clear and persuasive arguments expressed in good plain English in a well-structured document
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Table 0.1 continued 60–69% Good Well-defined research question. Sensible project design and clear plans for conducting the research The literature is cogently evaluated using positions already available in the literature A conceptual framework is developed, or an existing one adapted, in context of an evaluated literature Uses methods of gathering and analysing research material well and shows an understanding of methodological issues Methods for gathering and analysing research material are used competently Uses techniques for interpretation but in a mechanical way. Conclusions based well on findings. Practical schemes for action Either expressed well or technically correct but not both. Clear structure adequately argued
50–59% Clear research Competent question. Explicit Pass level ideas on design and methods but there are some issues about the fit between question, design and methods
Good description of the appropriate field(s) of literature. Some general criticisms made but no close evaluation of concepts
Concepts are clearly defined and appropriate. They are set in the context of the literature
Treats the findings as straightforward and unproblematic. Conclusions have some connection with the findings. Action plans are general but prescriptive The occasional insight takes the place of interpretation. Conclusions have a tenuous link with findings. Action plans are simple exhortations or lacking Provides no evidence that they know what this outcome is about
Adequate expression but a noticeable number of mistakes. Argumentation is sometimes replaced by assumption or assertion
46–49% Identified an Borderline interesting topic fail but the research question is very broad and the details of the project are hazy
Inadequate or limited description of the appropriate field(s) of literature, and/or no criticism or evaluation
The definition and use of theoretical concepts is confused. No attempt at theoretical synthesis or evaluation
Methods for gathering and analysing research material are used in a confused and unsystematic way
Sentences often do not make sense. Uses bullet points to disguise a lack of arguments
45% Fail
The focus, purpose and method of the project are unclear
The author appears to have read little and understood less
No conceptual or theoretical discussion of any value
No primary research of any value
Scrappy presentation, illogical structure. No arguments or silly ones
GG GG
Jargon, ‘isms’ and ‘ologies’
If you are studying for a Master’s qualification you have to come to terms with the ‘isms’ and ‘ologies’ that are appropriate to your study. This means you will have to read and understand some books and articles that are relevant but difficult. To have a Master’s degree in a subject means that you have a mastery of that subject. You cannot have mastery if there
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Chapter 0 • Introduction
are some books and articles that are relevant to it that you declare out of bounds because you consider them too difficult. Consequently you will have to learn to understand some difficult jargon. Part of the purpose of this guide is to make that task a little easier when it comes to the jargon of doing research. To use a term that was mentioned earlier, an awareness of the methodological issues surrounding research is necessary. There are a number of methodological terms you may come across, and what follows is a brief introductory comment on some of the major ones. A dissertation is founded on research, which is an effort to find things out. Unfortunately there is a dispute between researchers about what it is possible to discover by research. The argument is not restricted to the business and management field. It is a general one about the nature of knowledge. The proper title for the study of the nature of knowledge is epistemology. The epistemological debate has a long history and it is unlikely that the matter will be resolved during your work on the dissertation. It thus remains a dangerous current that threatens to drag you off course as you try to steer your research efforts. This danger is the reason for having a sufficient knowledge of methodological and epistemological issues. An awareness of the currents and tides in this area will help you keep out of danger. The methodological argument affects all aspects of doing a dissertation and its impact can be seen in all six chapters of this guide. In this introduction an attempt is made to provide an understanding of the broad issues in the arguments about methodology so that the more careful arguments in the later chapters can be more easily understood. A number of different methodological approaches to research are shown in Figure 0.2. This is a slightly quirky analysis based on the way I have made sense of methodology. If you wish you can skip this and move on to Figure 0.3, which classifies methodological approaches using a framework based on the literature. In Figure 0.2 the research approaches are plotted using coordinates from two axes or dimensions. The first dimension concerns the relationship between the knowledge it is possible for us to have about the world external to us and that world itself. At one end of the spectrum it is thought that our knowledge is an exact reflection of the world. At the other end of the dimension the world is thought to be largely unknowable and that what we can know is patchy. There are two intermediate positions plotted between these two extremes. The terms ‘orthodox’ and ‘gnostic’ will be used to describe the other dimension in Figure 0.2. These are not terms you will find elsewhere in the literature on research methods. They are taken by analogy from early divisions in Christianity. However, the different views of the world taken by the orthodox and the gnostics can still be seen in modern perspectives on research. Some idea of the positions taken by the two sides can be gained from Exhibit 0.3.
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The nature of knowledge Orthodox Gnostic
Knowledge and reality We seek objective knowledge of the world, which reflects external reality We seek systematic knowledge of the world but recognise that it is influenced by subjectivity We seek knowledge of the processes by which people in groups and societies make sense of their world. The real world has to be seen through human thought and not seen as separate from it Knowledge is uncertain. The connection between reality and our knowledge of it is hidden
Positivism
Realist research
Critical realism Standpoint research
Managerial autobiography
Interpretivism and phenomenology Action research
Postmodernism
Hermeticism
Figure 0.2 The main forms of management research
Non-recognition of the relevance of human subjectivity Ontological realism Positivism
Recognition of the relevance of human subjectivity Methodological pluralism Realist research Critical realism Standpoint research Action research
Not a possible combination Ontological nominalism Interpretivism
Figure 0.3 Methodological choices
Source: adapted from Figure 10.2, Gill and Johnson (2002:196).
This distinction will be used to map out some of the major methodological disagreements in research. It is hoped this will give you a starting point for your methodological understanding. If you are not interested in the source of the analogy then ignore Exhibit 0.4.
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Chapter 0 • Introduction
Exhibit 0.3
The orthodox and the gnostic
Orthodox Gnostic There is an objective truth Truth is subjective Truth is simple and transparent Truth is hidden Truth is an agreed body of knowledge Truth is gained through personal struggle Conformance and obedience Challenge and diversity Language is transparent Language is ambiguous
Exhibit 0.4
Orthodoxy and Gnosticism
The Orthodox view of Christianity is to be found in the Bible. Orthodox in this sense refers to the position of all the institutional churches such as the Catholic, the Eastern Orthodox and the Anglican churches. It used to be thought that the books included in the Bible, the canon, were the main Christian texts. It was known that there were various heretical texts in the early years of the Church but that these were marginal. But in 1945 a peasant found pots buried in the Egyptian desert that contained ancient scrolls. These turned out to be early Christian gospels that in most cases had never been heard of before, such as the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Philip, the Gospel of the Egyptians. They were written in the second century AD. These gospels suggest that there were two early versions of Christianity and that each saw the world and the truth in very different ways. The Orthodox gospels see the world as a good place that has a real existence. The task of humankind is to use it well and live according to the rules and values preached in the gospels. Salvation comes from obedience to the rules of the Church; through obedience to rules that are clear and apply to everyone. The Gnostic gospels see the world differently. Gnosis is a word of Greek origin that means knowledge. But it is different from technical knowledge. It is insight into oneself or others gained through intuitive self-examination. The Gnostics cared little about the physical world. They saw it as a snare and an illusion. The important thing was for individuals to develop their own souls through reflecting upon their own subjective processes of thought and understanding. By increasing their inner perfection they could become close to God. Gnostic knowledge was hidden and not easily found. Acquiring this knowledge called for moral worth and intellectual effort. For Gnostics the world was dominated by chance and irrational forces. Individuals have to learn how to cope with an uncaring world. The Orthodox view was expressed through institutions, through churches, whereas the Gnostics approached religion from an individualist perspective. There were many different forms and sects of Gnosticism. Unsurprisingly, the Orthodox spent most of their time, in the early centuries of Christianity, fighting the Gnostics. The Gnostics spent most of their time squabbling among themselves. Historically the Orthodox prevailed over the Gnostics. Pagels (1982) provides a good introduction to Gnosticism.
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Figure 0.3 classifies the different methodological approaches in a more conventional manner by using a framework developed by Gill and Johnson (2002: 173). It is worth remembering that while innovation may be appreciated in a dissertation, it should be innovation that develops what is in the literature and not innovation that starts afresh with a clean sheet. In Gill and Johnson’s framework the two dimensions are:
G G
whether human subjectivity is recognized or ignored; whether what is being researched is thought to have an objective existence (realism) or focuses on the subjective meanings that individuals and societies use to make sense of their world (nominalism, see p. 281.)
The research approaches shown in Figures 0.2 and 0.3 are now discussed in more detail. Positivism Auguste Comte (1798–1857) coined the term ‘positivism’ in the nineteenth century. It was a statement about the power of science and of rational thought to comprehend and manipulate the world. It rejected the metaphysical and subjective ideas and was interested only in the tangible. Positivism holds that an accurate and value-free knowledge of things is possible. It holds out the possibility that human beings, their actions and institutions can be studied as objectively as the natural world. But positivism’s emphasis on tangible things is important in this regard. It may be possible to study scientifically the tangible aspects of human activity – behaviours, speech – but not of course the intangible – the internal interpretation or motivation of those externals. Behaviourism was an example of this approach from psychology. Its heyday was in the 1960s and 1970s, and behaviourists held that psychology should be the study of people’s observable and quantifiable behaviour and that no regard should be given to their internal processes of consciousness. The intention of positivism is to produce general (sometimes called ‘covering’) laws that can be used to predict behaviour, in terms of probability at least, if not with absolute certainty. These general laws would form an open and orthodox body of knowledge, and the positivist method would be the standard approach for all scientific endeavours. It has often been assumed that traditional social science is positivist; however, some (such as Tilley, 1980: 28) argued that it is possible to have an objective, scientific social science without taking a fully fledged positivist stance, a view that is discussed in the next section. There is no doubt that in some cases, such as mathematical models of crowd behaviour in shops and stadiums and models of market behaviour, a hard scientific approach can be invaluable. However, there are problems with these methods. They can, for example, predict only the average
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Chapter 0 • Introduction
behaviour, not the behaviour of individuals; and in many situations understanding particularities is as important as understanding the norm. Another issue is that many choices and assumptions have been made when developing such models, and these choices open the door for the researchers’ values and preferences to enter into the research process. Many researchers argue that research into the social and institutional world cannot be value-free, and that the aspiration for social researchers to become hard scientists such as chemists is not achievable (Robson, 2002: 22–23). Probably it would not be possible for MBA students working on their dissertations to adopt an extreme positivist stance, if for no other reason than that they are likely to be researching their own organisations and therefore are not the disinterested observers that scientists are supposed to be. We will not spend too much time on positivist approaches to research in this guide. Realist research Realist research is an approach that retains many of the ambitions of positivism but recognises, and comes to terms with, the subjective nature of research and the inevitable role of values in it. Realism still aims to be scientific but makes fewer claims to knowledge that perfectly mirrors the objects of study. Researchers with this stance recognise that things such as ‘strategy’ and ‘job satisfaction’ cannot be measured and studied in the same way as can chemical and physical processes. However, they do believe that a worthwhile attempt can be made to fix these subjects and treat them as if they are independent variables. Realist research has therefore been placed in the top right-hand quadrant of the framework in Figure 0.3. As an example, let us imagine someone is interested in human resource development (HRD) because they think it is an underrated function of management. They suspect that uncertainty about the values of HRD may contribute to its low status. They wish to rectify the situation by researching the core values of HRD. Taking a realist approach they know that there has been much argument over the definition of HRD but this does not prevent them from believing there is a thing called HRD that can be defined and measured. They send out questionnaires to HRD practitioners and use the responses to identify several core values that define the basis of HRD practice. While they recognise that individual HRD practitioners may have different reactions to these core values they believe that HRD has an existence separate from these individual reactions and that it is possible and sensible to talk about HRD’s values. Realist research puts things into categories and labels them, although it is possible to argue about whether the right categories (‘should we call it HRD?’) have been chosen.
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Realist researchers claim to be orthodox. They want to discover the mechanisms that bring about events and they are concerned that their theories should be verifiable and have some generalisability. Miles and Huberman (1994: 5) expressed this position well:
We think that social phenomena exist not only in the mind but also in the objective world – and that some lawful and reasonably stable relationships are to be found between them. The lawfulness comes from the regularities and sequences that link together phenomena. From these patterns we can derive constructs that underlie individual and social life … [we] do not use ‘covering laws’ or the [ ] logic of classical positivism.
Realist researchers often seek to offer generalisable explanations but they are less likely (than positivists) to offer predictions. Realists like Miles and Huberman often use qualitative methods although if they can then add some quantification to their qualitative material (for example, counting the frequencies with which findings can be classified under different headings) they have no objection to doing so. However, because the realists recognise the role of subjectivity, all theories have to come with a health warning because different researchers with different values will propose competing theories. The existence of competing, or even of complementary, explanations is one of the features of realist research. Tilley (1980: 33) argued (based on the writings of Karl Popper (see p. 44)) that such disagreements are inevitable and they may even be based on bias or prejudice. Nevertheless, it is still possible to have an objective social science. This is because the explanations that researchers propose are only ever provisional and they become the subject of scrutiny and testing by other researchers. In the long run this critical debate will drive out the inadequate explanations. The dangers of researchers’ subjectivity are counterbalanced by debate and review. Many MBA students will take a realist approach when doing their dissertations. Critical realism Critical realism, as its name implies, shares the ambitions of realism and so, in Figure 0.3., it is placed in the same quadrant as realism. However, in the terms used in Figure 0.2 it takes a more gnostic than orthodox tack. This is because it adds the notion of layers or stratification into our understanding of knowledge. Critical realists argue that there is a level of reality below the everyday levels of events and our experiences of them (see p. 285). It is at this level that the mechanisms that drive events in the world exist. Unfortunately our knowledge of this level is not direct; it can only be inferred. So, as with the gnostics, there is a claim that there is a level of reality that is not easily accessible because it is hidden from common view. As Miles and Huberman (1994: 5) expressed it:
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Chapter 0 • Introduction
We look for a [ ] process or mechanism, a structure at the core of events that can be captured to provide a causal description of the forces at work … The fact that most of these constructs are invisible to the naked eye does not make them invalid. After all, we all are surrounded by lawful physical mechanisms of which we’re, at most, remotely aware.
To discover this level of reality requires honest and intelligent people to work hard at the problems and to become adept at discovering these mechanisms. The need for honesty arises because those who do critical realist research into business and management may discover bad things that ought to be made known and have action taken to correct them. There can be a moral component to the critical realist approach. Managers doing dissertations as part of their management education may not feel it is their role to provide such a moral critique of the market and institutional context within which they make their living. Nevertheless, it is a valid approach to management and business research and suggestions for (and examples of) its application are provided in this guide. Managerial autobiography This is not really a research approach at all, and so it is marked out with a dotted line in Figure 0.2. However, it is a common body of literature that MBA students are often drawn to. The category is constituted of all those books in which a successful entrepreneur’s or chief executive officer’s work experience is written down and presented as a clear orthodoxy for those who wish to achieve business success. As this knowledge has not been discovered by an objective type of research, but unashamedly bases its claim to be heard on its very subjectivity, it has been placed at that point on the vertical scale of Figure 0.2 where knowledge is seen through the prism of subjectivity. My experience of supervising MBA students suggests that this is not a good route for them to take in their dissertation. The student who announces that they wish to use the dissertation as a vehicle for distilling their wisdom, drawn from their experience over many years of a certain industry, often struggles. Their research becomes an apologia or a justification of their actions and a chance to do down those who have opposed them. Interpretivism and phenomenology There are many terms for this approach to research. ‘Interpretivism’ is the one that will be used in this guide, although ‘phenomenology’ is the preferred term of many textbooks. Other terms used are ‘constructionism’ and ‘naturalistic research’. (Concerning the spelling of interpretive, the Oxford English Dictionary also allows interpretative.) This approach is placed near the bottom of the vertical scale because researchers who take this position believe that reality is socially con-
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21
structed. This means that our understanding of ‘reality’ is not a simple account of what is; rather, it is something that people in societies and groups form from the following:
G
G G
their interpretation of reality, which is influenced by their values and their way of seeing the world; other people’s interpretation; the compromises and agreements that arise out of the negotiations between the first two.
Imagine you work in the procurement division of a large multinational and you are invited to an evening at a casino and dinner at a very expensive restaurant by a senior manager of an overseas company that wants you to give it a large contract. The casino is real and so are the restaurant and the food and wine, although the wine makes the other things seem a little less real. But there is another level of reality, which is – what do you think is really going on? Is the evening’s entertainment just a friendly gesture, is it seen as a social obligation because it is what is expected in the senior manager’s home country, is it a blatant bribe or is it a mixture of all these things and more? An interpretivist researcher would also be interested in the clues and process by which you decided what the ‘reality’ of this situation was. Interpretivist researchers are interested in the particularities of a situation, although they will categorise and label the processes for dealing with particulars (‘how can we generalise about how people decide what to do in such situations?’). As researchers cannot claim to be studying an objective reality (which exists but is less interesting than the way people make sense of it), they study the following:
G G
the different accounts people give of issues and topics; people’s accounts of the process by which they make sense of the world.
Interpretive research has been classified as gnostic in Figure 0.2 because it does not accept the existence of an orthodox or standard interpretation of any particular topic. Rather, it emphasises plurality, relativism and complexity. It is an attempt to understand the processes by which we gain knowledge and so it has affinity with the original gnostic search for one’s true self. A feature of interpretive research is that you cannot understand how others may make sense of things unless you have an insightful knowledge of your own values and thinking processes. In research terms, this knowledge is known as reflexivity (see p. 299). Interpretive research is not as common as realist research in MBA dissertations but it can be the basis of fascinating projects. It is discussed in some detail in this guide.
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Chapter 0 • Introduction
Action research Action research is a further development of interpretive research that goes further towards the gnostic. I have to be careful with this claim, though, because there are different forms of action research and not all would fit my categorisation. Nevertheless, one major theme of action research is to seek to understand things by changing them, by experimenting with something new, and then by studying the consequences of the action and using them to reflect on one’s values and preconceptions (that is the gnostic bit) before then taking new action. Although there are practical problems in choosing action research as the basis for a project (not least being whether the year that students typically have to complete their dissertation is sufficient to have a few cycles of action and reflection), it can lead to very worthwhile projects and is discussed in this guide. Standpoint research In Figure 0.2 standpoint research fits between critical realism and action research and in Figure 0.3 it is placed in the top right-hand quadrant of the framework. Standpoint research starts from the position that there is injustice in the world and that particular groups (the most commonly focused on are women, gays and ethnic minorities) are most likely to be the subjects of such injustice. The point of research is not to understand the injustice but to stop it. This approach to research takes its inspiration from Marx’s (1968: 30) 11th thesis on Feuerbach: ‘The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways: the point, however, is to change it’. Morwenna Griffiths (1998), who is an educational researcher, puts a similar point of view more simply in the title of one of her books, Educational Research for Social Justice: Getting off the Fence. Standpoint research has some of the characteristics of critical realism because researchers seek to identify the deep structural causes of social injustice. It shares with action research the intention of making the world a fairer place by changing it through the process of raising people’s consciousnesses. One feature of standpoint research is that it believes that the standard techniques and approaches to research are part of the problem. The standard methods of research, from a feminist perspective, for example, can be seen as marginalising women, by treating them as a separate category. Mirchandani (1999) studied female entrepreneurs and noted that whether their behaviour was entrepreneurial was defined by comparison with male entrepreneurs. This type of analysis might make female entrepreneurship appear to be a subsidiary, or even odd, form. Some feminist researchers have also rejected many of the traditional forms of research because they do not allow women to speak in their own authentic voice and so reinforce the injustices that beset them.
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Postmodernism The postmodern stance sees nothing in the social and intellectual world as tangible or fixed. At this vantage point fragmentation is accepted as part of the human condition. In Lyotard’s (1988: 46) famous phrase there is ‘incredulity towards metanarratives’. This means that the large ideological schemes, such as capitalism and communism that used to dominate people’s thinking, no longer have credibility. In the postmodern view there are no eternal truths or values. What we think of as objectively true emerges through discourses that are embedded in power and knowledge relationships where some have more influence on the outcomes of the discourses than others. But what emerges is in any case uncertain because the language we use is opaque and carries no single, clear messages (Legge, 1995: 306). For this reason postmodernism is shown in Figure 0.2 at the end of the ‘knowledge and reality’ spectrum that represents the belief that our knowledge of reality is uncertain. The words we use to express our values have no fixed meaning. Statements have to be treated as texts and deconstructed. Différance is Derrida’s device for exploring the limitless instability of language. One aspect of différance is that no word has a positive meaning attributed to it; it has meaning only to the extent that it is different from other words. Another aspect is deferral because the meaning of one word is always explained by reference to another and the search for meaning can involve a complex chain of cross-references as one chases a word through a vast thesaurus. Let us take an innocuous statement about public management:
The first steps to achieving accountability for performance must be to clarify objectives and develop a recognised approach to measuring and reporting performance.
(Dallas, 1996: 13)
This is enough to cause a deconstructionist to salivate. Postmodern researchers seek to decode dialogue to show that it can only lead to aporia. This is a term from classical rhetoric that is often used in postmodern writing. It means being in a state of bewilderment and confusion as to what it is right and good to say or do. Such a concern for getting underneath the surface meaning of words is the reason why postmodernism is shown on the gnostic end of the ‘orthodox/gnostic’ scale in Figure 0.2. Most of the words in the sentence do not have an unambiguous or uncontested meaning. Accountability, for example, can only be defined by relating it to other words such as hierarchy, responsiveness, transparency and so on. Accountability may be viewed from different discourses such as political accountability, audit and accounting, consumer rights and investigative journalism. If we had the time to explore this sentence in detail and to plot its webs of signification we would find that the sentence could
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Chapter 0 • Introduction
mean almost anything. The search for meaning may not be endless; but the end will be terminal confusion rather than clear understanding. The function of deconstruction is to reach a final impasse. Deconstruction is not intended to overcome fragmentation but simply to map the instabilities, paradoxes and aporetic states that define it. From this position there is no hope that the fragmented values can be put back together again. As Harvey (1989) expressed it, disapprovingly, postmodernism
swims and even wallows in the fragmentary and chaotic current of change as if that was all there was.
(Harvey, 1989: 116)
Hermeticism Hermeticism takes its name from Hermes Trismegistus, an apocryphal preChristian Egyptian priest whose books were probably actually written in Alexandria in the third century AD. It is often linked with the cabbala (see p. 134) with which it shares a belief that all things in heaven and earth are linked in a harmonious whole but that the knowledge of these connections is secret and esoteric and can only be accessed by a few adepts. Everyday knowledge, by contrast, is seen as fragmented and confused. You do not often find hermeticism in writing on business and management but Gibson Burrell’s (1997) book is an example. Burrell (1997: 101) alludes to his text as a cabbalistic one. In hermetic thought, connections between things are seen as symbolic and spiritual rather than rational and analytical. The idea of overlapping concentric circles replaces the linear form that we associate with rational analysis. The orthodox model of industrial development, for example, sees economic growth as happening in a linear fashion as one stage inevitably leads to a further, and higher, stage. Hermetic thought could see these stages being leapfrogged as, in an actual instance, old cottage-industry forms of work are allied to modern information technology and communication methods to bring products and services to a post-Fordist international market (Burrell 1997: 101–1001). This might be small craft producers using the Internet to sell their products globally. In this process the old and the new are intermingled. The modern does not replace the old. Hermeticism focuses on symbolic relationships between things that seem or look alike (see p. 134). This probably is reflected in the liking of many modern management thinkers for metaphor. A metaphor is a judgement that one thing is equivalent to another, which is a symbolic link. It
1
The page numbers are in reverse order because this part of Burrell’s book is to be read from back to front.
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How to use this guide
25
follows that if machines are metaphors for organisations, then organisations should be treated in the same way as machines because, in some nonrational way, a machine is a microcosm of the organisational macrocosm. However, in this guide we will ignore the two extremes of positivism and hermeticism and focus on the intermediate approaches to research. The descriptions of the various approaches to research are something of a caricature, and specialists will take exception to many of its claims. It will be necessary in later chapters to take a more sophisticated view of these matters. But understanding has to start somewhere, and an overgeneralisation is as good a point as any. This problem is a version of the hermeneutic circle. Hermeneutics is the theory of interpretation concerned with the meaning of texts. The hermeneutic circle is a claim that you cannot understand the entirety of a thing until you understand its details; but you cannot understand the details until you understand the entirety. This is certainly true of research methodology. If it is of any comfort, I have been studying this subject for some time but my understanding of it is still developing!
GG GG
How to use this guide
This guide covers all the main areas relevant to doing a dissertation and associated pieces of work. It is divided into six chapters. They are intended to form a sequence but they can be used in any order. There are many themes that appear in several if not all chapters. This guide is only a guide, however, and should not be seen as a set of dogmatic rules that you break at your peril. It is also an informal guide, and so its tone is often relaxed. Good guides often reflect their author’s prejudices. Whether this guide is good is up to others to decide – but it is certainly opinionated. A certain sceptical or ironical tone also creeps into the text. This is normally at places in the guide where the subject matter is one on which there is no consensus. At these points the irony is a signal to the reader. You, the reader, will be unsure whether my text is to be taken seriously or not. You will have to think through the issue and come to your own conclusion. The guide offers many examples of how to tackle problems when doing a dissertation. It also provides many ‘five easy steps’ instructions on how to do things. These illustrations and recipes are mostly designed to stimulate your own thought processes and are not to be followed slavishly. Try to avoid falling into the trap shown in the box.
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Chapter 0 • Introduction
The role-modelling vicious circle Supervisor: ‘You need to develop a conceptual framework.’ Student: ‘How do I do that?’ Supervisor: ‘Well, a conceptual framework means [etc. …]’ Student: ‘Uh?! Give me an example …’ Supervisor: ‘For example, take this concept and that concept and put them in this 2 × 2 table and …’ Student: ‘That’s good. Can I use it?’
The guide is also a collection of materials that were to hand. The postmodernists would call such a collage by the French term bricolage. This is not a problem. Room is left for you to develop your own approach by following the leads you find in the research literature. To the extent that the guide is a collage, it will resemble your own project, in which you have to make a convincing assemblage – of the pieces of research you have done, the material from the literature, the stuff you learnt on other courses or at school years ago and the ideas and the bees in bonnets collected over the years – as you write your dissertation. It is possible to take the work seriously while also taking a wry sidelong look at its nature. Taking things seriously is often no more than taking oneself too seriously. For these reasons you need to supplement your study of the guide with reading in the literature on research methods in business, management and organisational studies. In particular it will be necessary for you to read further on the specific research techniques you plan to use in your project.
Suggested reading
Each of the chapters in the guide includes suggestions for further reading in its particular specialist area. There are a number of general textbooks for people researching in managerial, organisational or business topics. The main recommendation is Alan Bryman and Emma Bell, Business Research Methods (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003). It is authoritative and detailed and provides many examples from published research studies. Other useful general textbooks are: Easterby-Smith, M., Thorpe, R. and Lowe, A. (2002) Management Research: An Introduction, 2nd edn, London: Sage. Gill, J. and Johnson, P. (2002) Research Methods for Managers, 3rd edn., London: Paul Chapman. Saunders, M., Lewis, P. and Thornhill, A. (2006) Research Methods for Business Students, 4th edn, Harlow: FT Prentice Hall.
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Other recommended books
Bell, J. (1999) Doing Your Research Project: A Guide for First-time Researchers in Education and Social Science, 3rd edn, Buckingham: Open University Press. Blaxter, L., Hughes, C. and Tight, M. (2002) How to Research, 2nd edn, Buckingham: Open University Press. Jankowicz, A.D. (2000) Business Research Projects, 3rd edn, London: Paul Chapman. Remenyi, D., Williams, B., Money, A. and Swartz, E. (1998) Doing Research in Business and Management: An Introduction to Process and Method, London: Sage.
References
Belbin, R.M. (1981) Management Teams: Why They Succeed or Fail, London: Heinemann. Burrell, G. (1997) Pandemonium: Towards a Retro Organisational Theory, London: Sage. Dallas, M. (1996) ‘Accountability for Performance – Does Audit have a Role?’, in Adding Value? Audit and Accountability in the Public Services, London: Public Finance Foundation and Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (CIPFA). Griffiths, M. (1998) Educational Research for Social Justice: Getting off the Fence, Buckingham: Open University Press. Harvey, D. (1989) The Condition of Postmodernity, Oxford: Blackwell. Legge, K. (1995) Human Resource Management: Rhetoric and Realities, London: Macmillan. Lyotard, J-F. (1988) Le Postmodernisme Expliqué aux Enfants, Correspondance 1982–85, Paris: Editions Galilée. Marx, K. (1968) ‘Theses on Feuerbach’, in K. Marx and F. Engels, Marx and Engels Selected Works, London: Lawrence & Wishart. Mirchandani, K. (1999) ‘Feminist insight on gendered work: new directions in research on women and entrepreneurship’, Gender, Work and Organisation, vol. 6, no. 4: 224–235. Miles, M.B. and Huberman, A.M. (1994) Qualitative Data Analysis: An Expanded Sourcebook, London: Sage. Pagels, E. (1982) The Gnostic Gospels, Harmondsworth: Penguin. Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) (2001) The Framework for Higher Education Qualifications in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Annex 1: Qualification Descriptors. Available online at: http://www.qaa. ac.uk/crntwork/nqf/ewni/2001/annex1.htm#4 (accessed 20 July 2003). Robson, C. (2002) Real World Research, 2nd edn, Oxford: Blackwell. Tilley, N. (1980) ‘Popper, positivism and ethnomethodology’, British Journal of Sociology, vol. 31, no. 1: 28–45. Wright Mills, C. (2000) The Sociological Imagination, Oxford: Oxford University Press (first published 1959).
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Chapter 1
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Choosing a topic and designing the project
Contents
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Introduction Choosing a topic Criteria for choosing a topic A six-stage process for choosing your topic Designing your project Methodological stance The researcher’s role Breadth or depth Choice of research methods Ethical considerations Writing the research proposal Summary Suggested reading References
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Chapter 1 • Choosing a topic and designing the project
G GG G
Introduction
Finish Interpreting the research material
Framing arguments and writing up
Researching and analysing Time Writing a critical literature review
Developing a conceptual framework Confidence
Choosing a topic Planning the project Start Finding out
Confusion
Thinking
The processes of researching and writing a Master’s dissertation
If a man begins with certainties, he shall end in doubts; but if he will be content to begin with doubts, he shall end in certainties.
Francis Bacon (1561–1626), quoted in Schott (2002: 115)
This first chapter is designed to get you started on your Master’s research and, if this is needed on your course, to help you write a project proposal. It is divided into three parts: 1. Choosing a topic to research and framing the research questions or objectives. 2. Designing the project. Deciding the style of research you are going to use and making the broad-brush decisions about how the project will be tackled. 3. Writing a proposal document.
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Learning outcomes for the chapter
1 Students will be able to choose and define an appropriate topic for their dissertation. 2 Students will be able to frame practicable and feasible research objectives or questions. 3 Students will be able to make choices appropriate to their research objectives when designing the broad outline of their project and research methods. 4 Students will be able to recognise and respond to ethical issues that may be anticipated in their research project. 5 Students will be able to write a research proposal that defines the research topic clearly and specifies the research plan.
GG GG
Choosing a topic
This is a critical stage in doing a Master’s dissertation. If you fail to think about a topic in a systematic manner then you will be frustrated by your indecision and you will risk running out of time to complete the dissertation on schedule. If you make a poor choice then it may be difficult to score well against the marking criteria. The suggestions made in this section are designed to minimise the chance of either of these things happening. As this stage is so critical it is important to discuss your shopping list of possible topics with your tutor and to use your tutor as a sounding board to help you formulate your proposal. Some of you, depending on what course you are doing, will have to make choices of two topics – a topic for your conference paper and a topic for the dissertation.
Criteria for choosing a topic
There are a number of factors you need to take into account when choosing the subject of your Master’s project. Interest and relevance You should choose a topic that interests and even possibly excites you, otherwise you will have trouble sustaining the motivation and commitment necessary to complete the project. It should also be of interest to some external audience as well. This might be your own department or organisation, it could be a profession or it could be the wider business and
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Chapter 1 • Choosing a topic and designing the project
management community. Problems are sometimes met when the student’s boss or organisation wants them to research a topic they can raise no enthusiasm for. Should this happen, you need to discuss the situation with your tutor. Durability Will the project last the length of the course? Organisations are capable of making very rapid changes in direction and policy. It may be that the topic you choose could become obsolete because of a change in organisational strategy, ownership or other events. Try to choose a subject that will still be relevant in a year’s time. Breadth of research questions Is there enough substance to your topic? A primary school head teacher, who was doing a Master’s in education management, told me the following:
I have been listening to what you said about choosing a relevant topic. The most important issue in my school, the thing that is limiting the effectiveness of the teaching we do, is the chaos and confusion that is our teaching resources storeroom. Therefore, I am going to do the sorting out of the resources room for my dissertation.
Important though it may have been, the issue was simply not broad enough to sustain the work needed for a Master’s dissertation. A more likely problem is that the chosen topic is too broad and you will find yourself flailing around and unable to get a purchase on it. It is important to consider whether the topic is too big for the time and energy available to be spent on the project. Topic adequacy Check the assessment criteria used on your course, against which your work will be marked, and ask yourself whether the topic you have in mind will enable you to do well against the criteria. Access You may have an excellent topic in mind, but unless you can get access to the people who can answer your research questions, whether by questionnaire, interview or whatever, then the project will be a non-starter. Even if you think the people to whom you need access will agree in principle, the time and effort necessary to secure the access may be too much. If your research is going to take place in the organisation in which you work, the problem may not be too great. But if you need to research third-party organisations, you should assure yourself that you can get the access. Even if you want to send out questionnaires to a general sample of managers
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you may have trouble getting a list of names and addresses to which you can send the questionnaire. Mailing lists are valuable and you may have to pay for them. Micro-politics Whenever you research a business issue there is a danger that you may become a partisan in the management debates and politics that surround it. This will be a more important matter if you are studying a topic within your own organisation. You need to be sure that pursuing the project will not get you into political hot water with those in the organisation who can do you harm. Sometimes people choose to do a project that involves organisations other than the one they work for because the political situation in their own organisation (imminent takeover, boardroom battles and so on) is too dangerous. Risk and security Bearing in mind the previous criterion, you cannot avoid all risk. If you choose a topic that is totally safe it will probably be so bland that neither you nor anyone else will be interested in the outcomes. You need to strike a balance between risk and safety that you can live with. Resources Literature – make sure there is enough written about your topic, or about the general academic field in which it is located, for you to be able to do the critical literature review. This should not be a problem. A common difficulty these days is too much literature, not too little. IT, software and skills – your topic may require access to, and skill in, various software packages. These may include NVivo, SPSS, Minitab and Snap for Windows. You may be able to access the software through the computer network of the institution you are studying at. If you do not know how to use the software, make sure you have time to learn. Brief introductions to some of these software packages are given in Chapter 4.
A six-stage process for choosing your topic
What follows is a six-stage process for you to follow when choosing your topic. Even if you have a topic in mind, it will probably be helpful to lay out your idea using these steps. 1. Identify broad topic and academic discipline(s) The starting point is to decide your broad area of interest. It might be, to give some examples:
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Chapter 1 • Choosing a topic and designing the project
G
G
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implementation of mission statements and strategy in multinational companies; the problems caused by a lack of cooperation between GPs and other health professionals in primary care; performance-related pay and flexible benefits.
It is quite likely that your interest in the topic will be driven by a need to come up with some answers to problems or difficulties that you or others in the organisation are troubled by. These are strategic questions that concern what ought to be done in a particular situation. An example would be: ‘What should we do to improve the company’s competitive position in international markets?’ It is important not to confuse such questions with research questions. Strategic questions are not research questions. Research questions can be answered by doing research; strategic questions cannot be answered by doing research. Strategic questions can only be answered by an act of judgement and will. A manager faced with a strategic question has to use all they know to help them make a judgement about what it is best to do. No matter how much research has been done, it will not of itself identify the correct answer. Some issues require no research at all; they simply need someone to take action. These issues make poor subjects for dissertations. It is worth considering in more detail why strategic questions are different in nature from research questions. Strategic questions concern the future – what should be done? This is why they are not research questions. You cannot research something that has not yet happened. You can only research things that are or have been. (Although you can, of course, research what people think might happen in the future; see p. 160.) The reason this is so can be found in the general philosophical rule that you cannot derive an ought from an is. Put in more practical terms, no matter how much analysis of the current situation you do, it cannot logically tell you what ought to be done next. Peters and Waterman (1982) reported that some companies thought analysis could determine right action and fell into the trap of ‘paralysis by analysis’. However, at this early stage of the topic-identification process, strategic questions are important because they often provide the managerial motivation for the project. At the end of the project and the dissertation the student should return to these questions and, on the basis of the new knowledge and understanding they have acquired through their research, exercise their judgement and decide what the best way forward would be in relation to the strategic questions they identified at the start. 2. Determine the scope This is very often a practical matter of where you can get access. You need to decide whether you will be:
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G G G G G
studying one part of an organisation; making a comparison of several parts of an organisation; studying one organisation; making a comparison of two or more organisations; studying a sector.
Clearly the scope of the study will have an impact on the sorts of research questions you can ask and answer. You will not be able to discover whether performance-related pay generally increases organisations’ financial performance if you only study one company. You could, however, explore staff’s response to performance-related pay by studying a single organisation. As a general rule it is sensible to have a comparative element in your study. It makes it easier to find things to write about. Comparing one thing with another trebles the amount of your material. Instead of just discussing one thing, you can describe two things and then discuss their similarities and differences. More importantly, comparison creates contrasts that make it easier to see things clearly. 3. Brainstorm issues, puzzles and questions Now go into brainstorming mode and list as many different issues, problems and questions that arise from the broad topic area as you possibly can. Do not evaluate them by saying, ‘No, that’s not important.’ Just make the list as long as possible. For reasons that will become obvious in the next section I recommend that you write the issues on Post-its™ – one issue per Post-it (see Exhibit 1.1). At this stage you will find you should be asking research questions rather than strategic questions. Research questions are those to which it is possible, in theory at least, to go out and find answers. Research questions mostly refer to what is happening or what has happened. They are concerned with describing and explaining what is, not with proposing what should be done. So, although you cannot research what should be done to improve international competitiveness (to use the example given earlier), you could research:
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G
what other companies in similar positions have done to improve their international competitiveness and what the outcomes were; and what the company has tried in the past and how well it worked.
However, while you may not be able to research what ought to be done, you could research what people at the present moment think should be done. You can research respondents’ views about the future.
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Chapter 1 • Choosing a topic and designing the project
Exhibit 1.1
Doing it with Post-its
I find using Post-its very helpful for the sorting and sifting stage because they can be easily moved around as you decide how best to cluster them. Write all your issues and questions on Post-its, making sure to put only one issue or idea on each. Find a flat surface and stick your Post-its on it in random order. When that is done consider them and begin to move them around so that you can cluster together all those issues that seem similar or related. Then put the clusters in order by showing one cluster as a sub-set of another, for example. You need time and space for this task. In the photograph I was doing the task in a dingy flat in Azerbaijan on a wet weekend while working on a university project. The lack of distraction made thinking easier.
4. Map and structure the issues Now you have a pile of issues, they need structuring and organising. Sort and cluster all your research issues and questions in a relevance tree or hierarchical diagram. The relevance tree provides a map of all the issues and questions you could research under your broad area of interest. Note that in Figure 1.1 the question at the top of the tree is a strategic question, whereas all those beneath it are research questions. You can then decide which of the issues you are going to research. The two circled areas in Figure 1.1 represent two of the many possible projects. One would concentrate on how the different regional offices of the organisation (China and the Far East, Central Europe, India and SouthEast Asia and so on) respond to corporate strategy and research how such differences are handled. The other project would emphasise the different regional management cultures that may exist within the multinational company and study how this can lead to different understandings about what strategy is and what its role is. This form of analysis is particularly useful if you have to choose a topic for a conference paper as well as a topic for a dissertation. Using the tree diagram you can circle the two topics and use the tree to help you define the connections between the two projects.
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How should we try to find a balance between the need for a global strategy and the need to respond to local contexts?
How do multinational companies balance the need for a worldwide corporate strategy with the demands from the divisions in different countries for variations that meet local circumstances?
To what extent does corporate strategy making take regional needs into account?
Do the regional divisions interpret and implement corporate strategy differently?
To other issues and questions
What examples are there (if any) of regional divisions adapting strategy to what they perceive as particular local conditions?
Do the managers in the regional divisions have a different view on the role of strategy from that of those in corporate HQ?
Do expatriate and host country managers in regional divisions interpret corporate strategy differently? If so, then how?
If such examples lead to conflicts between divisions or between divisions and corporate HQ, how are the tensions managed?
Do the managers in regional divisions have different management cultures and values from those of the corporate HQ? If so, what are they?
Figure 1.1 A relevance tree for a research project
5. Conduct a reconnaissance Having arrived at a clear view about what your research topic is going to be, it is sensible to discuss it with others. Discuss it with tutors, colleagues and other managers to see whether they agree that the issue is important and coherent. You should also do an initial trawl of the literature, if you have not already done so, to see what work others have done on the issues that concern you. 6. Frame your research question(s) The final stage is to ensure that you are clear in what you are doing by framing your research question in plain English. The suspicion is that if you cannot ask your research question without using management jargon, then you are probably not clear what you are asking and you need to think about it some more. If your research question resembles this – I am addressing the issues relevant to leveraging human resource competency to produce turnaround to world-class status
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Chapter 1 • Choosing a topic and designing the project
and to diagonally integrate professional functionalities – you probably do not know what you are talking about (see Exhibit 1.2). Once you have found answers to such questions, then you will be in a position to draw conclusions and make recommendations about what should be done in the future. The answers to the research questions cannot dictate what action should be taken but they should provide a firmer basis for judgement and decision making.
Exhibit 1.2
Framing research questions
G G
?
Exercise 1.1
G G G
Express them in plain English as a question. ‘There is clearly a need to investigate how tourists This is is [on escorted cultural tours] how not to do it! it! develop an understanding of transient destination images.’ They must intrigue and interest you. They must be open. Avoid assumptions – unless you are researching them.
Your research question
Identify a topic for your project and dissertation by working through the six stages recommended above. Within the general topic chosen, identify:
G
G
a broad ‘what should we do about x?’ strategic type of question that responds to managerial or organisational issues and concerns; and one or more research questions that say what you want to find out;
and frame them in language that would be understandable to an interested lay person in a pub who has asked about your research.
If you have tried all of the above but are still having trouble choosing the topic for your dissertation, then try morphological analysis. Exhibit 1.3 is a series of lists. The first list can be updated or changed to suit your personal preferences. Just enter a series of current business and management topics that interest you. Then step back, shut your eyes and stick a pin at random in each of the lists. You can then read off a description of a project you
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might do. For example, you could do an ethnographic account of the implementation of BPR in a number of organisations. If you do not like that idea, put the pin in again until you arrive at an acceptable project.
Exhibit 1.3
Morphological analysis
Topic Business process re-engineering (BPR) Globalisation Internal markets Business excellence model Business ethics Aim Classification Explanation Technique development Forcasting Evaluation Design Action research Ethnographic accounts Mathematical models Comparative analysis Case study Focus Professional or interest group Single organisation Several organisations Industrial sector Single project
Exercise 1.2
Construct your own morphological analysis chart. Most of the items in the second, third and fourth columns will probably be reusable. It is the first column that will have to be remade to suit your particular interests and situation. Once the chart is complete, choose items at random from each list to identify possible projects.
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Designing your project
A research proposal is not just a document in which you identify the purpose and focus of your research. It is also a place where you describe the broad nature and style of the project you are going to undertake. You will need to make decisions on the following matters, each of which will be discussed in some detail:
G G G G G
methodological stance – understanding, action or both; your role as researcher; breadth or depth – survey or case study; main research methods to be used; ethical considerations.
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Chapter 1 • Choosing a topic and designing the project
Methodological stance
This is a difficult issue because there are many explanatory grids that can be superimposed on methodological matters in an attempt to understand them. The grids share many common features but they also have their own peculiarities. This confusion, which you will discover readily enough in the literature, makes the subject a difficult one – for tutors as well as for students! In this chapter a particular framework will be used to discuss the issues but we will return to the matter in later chapters where other perspectives will be used to clarify the problems of methodology. Methods and methodology A brief word of warning is necessary before we go any further. Many tutors, but not all, take exception to the use of the word ‘methodology’ when the word ‘methods’ would be quite sufficient. They believe, and they are probably correct, that people merely use the word because it is big and sounds impressive. Mostly, when you are discussing such things as how you used a questionnaire and why this was more suitable than interviews, you are discussing methods. So you do not need to call it methodology. Methodology has a particular meaning. An ‘ology’ of course is the study of a whole academic field. It is a stepping-back from a subject and a consideration of it at a broader and deeper level. Methodology is the study of methods and it raises all sorts of philosophical questions about what it is possible for researchers to know and how valid their claims to knowledge might be. What we are about to discuss is indubitably methodology. Methods are considered later in this chapter and in Chapter 4. Understanding and action Management and business research is different from research in many other subjects because it has both an academic and a practical purpose. Academically such research should contribute to knowledge and understanding about management. Practically it should help managers do their jobs. Management research is about both knowledge and action. The relationship between knowledge and action, however, is not straightforward. There are at least five ways in which people envisage the relationship, as shown in Table 1.1. Ivory tower research This probably has little place in management and business research but it is here for the sake of completeness. From this perspective it is argued that there is no connection between knowledge and action. Knowledge is of value in itself and it does not have to be justified by practical application. It is enough that research adds to the body of knowledge. It can lead to antiquarianism, which is a name for what happens when collectors of
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Table 1.1 Five ways of understanding the relationship between understanding and action in management research
The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways: the point, however, is to change it.
(Marx, 1970: 30)
Type of research Ivory tower
Understanding and action Knowledge is valuable in itself; it does not necessarily lead to action The research identifies and evaluates options for action
Characteristics Antiquarianism Intellectual elegance Structured variables Reductionism Cause and effect Statistical analysis Dialogic structures Participant observation Explores meaning Deals with complexity Gnosis and reflection Small-scale projects Deals with personal relationships and values Radical action Raising mass consciousness
Realist research
Interpretive ethnographic research
Understanding provides a context for thinking about action but does not specify it
Action research
Changing our knowledge and understanding constitutes action
Critical social research
Changing the mass’s knowledge of their position to bring about social change
intriguing facts and trivia build up a cabinet of curiosities that amuses and appalls in turns but that is devoid of practical use. It can also lead to an emphasis on intellectual elegance as an end in itself. I have a susceptibility for this weakness and you may find one or two examples of antiquarianism in this guide. Typical ivory tower project Although not many students would do such a project for their MBA or Master’s in management dissertation, an example might be Marketing Strategies in the Airline Industry 1972–1995. It would probably not do for an MBA dissertation because its focus is entirely historical. Something like The Use of Rhetorical Figures of Speech in Board Meetings would be borderline. It could be made appropriate to an MBA or Master’s in management dissertation, but it would probably have insufficient practical relevance to be suitable. Realist research The case was made in the introductory chapter that realism and positivism, although they are often claimed to be the same, should be treated as separate approaches (Johnson and Duberley, 2000: 149). Many text-
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Chapter 1 • Choosing a topic and designing the project
books treat the two as the same thing. This is not necessarily a problem. I am not arguing that they are completely different, merely that it is helpful to draw a distinction between the two. The realist researchers into management believe, with the positivists, that the knowledge we gain through research can accurately mirror reality itself, although they think the mirror image may be distorted by the intrusion of subjectivity into the process of knowing. It has been argued in the introduction that decisions about what ought to be done in any situation cannot be logically derived from what we know about the situation. Only human judgement and determination can make the link between knowledge and action. However, the realists tend to believe that the knowledge we acquire can give good indications of what should be done. This is because such research looks for associations between variables, and where possible tries to establish chains of cause and effect. Typically, research in this mode would involve structuring a problem by breaking it into its constituent parts. The relationship between these parts would then be studied, looking for recurrent patterns and associations. These patterns would then be used to establish principles or laws that could be used to select among a series of possible solutions to the problem. If the research indicates, for example, that outsourcing IT operations tends to be associated with reduced costs and improved quality of services, and it is probable that there are no other factors that might explain the changes, then it would be sensible to use this knowledge as a basis for future decision making. Measurement and statistical methods are often sensible ways of establishing whether there are associations between variables. But it is not the case that all realist research must be statistical. In practice much realist research is based upon a comparison of qualitative case studies, which are analysed to see whether there are any connections between variables. This approach has one advantage over purely statistical approaches. Statistics can show that some variables are associated, and that changes in one are associated with predictable changes in the other. It can even give the probability that the association is a true one and that it is not caused by chance or by the unseen intervention of other variables. But it cannot prove cause and effect. It cannot define the mechanism by which one variable brings about a change in another. Qualitative case studies that provide a broader and deeper understanding of processes may give an opportunity to work out the ways in which one variable is causally linked to others. The disadvantage of a case-based approach is that there is often too small a sample of cases to claim that the links of cause and effect identified apply generally. The realist approach to research is probably best understood through an illustration. Let us say that the problem to be researched concerns increasing rates of sickness and absenteeism in an organisation. The problem has to be structured by breaking it down into parts. This is often done
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by identifying variables. The researcher will try to identify dependent variables, which move in regular ways as other, independent variables change. The statistics on sickness and absenteeism are studied to look for patterns and associations between the many variables involved. It might be that the figures go up at times when the organisation is busy. One possible cause of increasing absenteeism might therefore be stress. There are other possible causes – the tendency to take Fridays off might suggest that people are getting more satisfaction from their social life than they are from their work. Questionnaires might then be sent to staff to measure their levels of stress and job satisfaction. These statistics can then be compared with the absenteeism figures and correlations and associations noted. These statistical models tell the researcher whether the patterns are significant or merely the result of chance. A relationship between the variables can be used to predict whether certain actions will reduce absenteeism and sickness. If there is a stronger relationship between absenteeism and stress levels than between absenteeism and job satisfaction then the obvious answer to the problem is to do things that will decrease stress at work. A number of options will be devised and evaluated to see which ones would work best. Management research, within this understanding of it, leads directly to clear recommendations for action. This example illustrates one of the worries that researchers have about realist research. It takes complex things such as the experience of stress and reduces it, simplifies it, to an index number. In a similar manner, realist researchers will use questionnaires to ‘measure’ people’s attitudes towards a thing. Whether such measures are valid is a matter of debate. It can be argued that they miss the point, which is to explore the complex and dynamic ways in which people form and modify their opinions within the developing social contexts they find themselves in. In plainer language, people’s attitudes may be flexible and change according to whom they are talking. It is for this reason that those who take a purist positivist approach, such as the behaviourists (see p. 17), avoid dealing with internal processes, for example motivation, satisfaction and attitudes. Realist researchers form and test hypotheses about patterns of association between selected data. Hypotheses are treated as possible explanations rather than as fixed laws, as positivists sometimes claim scientific laws to be. An example of this process can be taken from Northcote Parkinson (1961: 90), who hypothesised, perhaps with his tongue in his cheek, that just before organisations collapse they spend a fortune on upgrading the reception areas of the office block or, in extreme cases, building a palatial new corporate HQ: ‘It is now known that a perfection of planned layout is achieved only by organisations on the point of collapse.’ He gives the British Empire in India as one illustration of this particular Parkinson’s law. The British built an entire imperial capital city at New Delhi and completed it just as the campaign for Indian independence was
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fulfilling its aims. Northcote Parkinson identifies cases in which this association can be seen, and explains why he thinks there is a causal connection between the two sets of observed facts. However, a hypothesis can only ever be tentative because the realist researcher seeks evidence that would disprove the hypothesis. Once this is found, a new hypothesis has to be developed and tested to destruction in its turn. This is the hypotheticodeductive method, as described by Karl Popper (2002a, 2002b). He pointed out in a famous example (Popper, 2002a: 27) that if the hypothesis is that all swans are white, then merely counting white swans does not prove the hypothesis, because no matter how many white swans you find there is always the possibility that the very next swan you see will be black. The problem is the common one that you cannot prove a negative, and the hypothesis that all swans are white presupposes that no swans are black. Of course the danger is that if you believe the hypothesis, you might not believe that the black swan you see can really be a swan. The intention of holding tentative explanations only until they are disproved chimes well with the cautiousness of realist research (see Exhibit 1.4).
Exhibit 1.4
Nullifying a hypothesis
There may be a black swan hiding somewhere. The proper research strategy is to hunt for black swans, and until you find one your hypothesis holds.
The hypothetico-deductive approach is at the heart of realist research and deserves a little more explanation. I will simplify it into a number of steps: 1. Identify your research question. What is it that you are interested in? 2. Generate some ideas. From the literature and/or your own experience, identify the key concepts or variables that are involved in the subject of your research. Begin to speculate about how they relate to each other. Do changes in one variable cause changes in others? Are the variables related by being different points on the same dimension? This stage is closely related to developing a conceptual framework, a process that is discussed in detail in Chapter 3.
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3. Develop testable hypotheses. A hypothesis is a speculation about one or more variables that can be tested to see if it holds true. If I am interested in what affects whether managers make ethical or unethical decisions in difficult circumstances, I might develop a series of hypotheses such as: G younger managers are more ethical than older managers in their decisions; G managers with religious convictions choose ethical options more often than those without such convictions. However, these hypotheses will be useless unless I can find a way of testing them. It is also probably a good idea not to have too many hypotheses. Too many often lead to a confused and ill-focused dissertation. 4. You then have to choose some measures for the variables in the hypothesis. If I take the hypothesis mentioned above about the relationship between age and the ethicalness of a person’s decisions, then I need to identify a measure for each variable. Age is easy enough but ethicalness of decisions is tricky. I would probably look to see whether anyone has already developed a questionnaire or inventory that assesses a person’s propensity to take an ethical decision. There are several such tools mentioned in the literature, although I would have to seek their authors’ permission to use them. The persistent question when choosing a measure is whether it actually measures the thing I am interested in. Often we have to choose proxy measures. These do not measure a thing directly but measure a property associated with the thing. We might choose to measure an organisation’s tendency to act in a corporately responsible manner by whether it has a published policy on corporate responsibility and whether it is regarded as responsible by its peers (see p. 279). Neither of these measures is a direct measure of corporate social responsibility, because it is possible to have a policy and yet not abide by it, and the perceptions of the organisation’s peers may be wrong. Nevertheless, these measures may be acceptable in the absence of anything better. 5. The next stage is to collect data to test the hypothesis. This may by done by taking data from existing databases, by conducting fieldwork, by sending out questionnaires or by preparing some case studies. In principle, data could be collected by longitudinal studies or quasiexperiments. This would normally involve collecting data before and after a significant event in an organisation. This is often difficult for students to do in the timescale of their projects. 6. The next stage is to analyse the data to see whether they support or refute the hypothesis. This may involve the use of some statistical technique. These are discussed in Chapter 4. 7. If the analysis shows that the hypothesis is not true then, although negative results are generally less enthralling than positive ones, the finding is
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still worthwhile. In this case the researcher should return to the beginning and develop a new hypothesis to explain the phenomenon he or she is researching. Of course there may not be time to do this within the typical MBA or Master’s project, and the task is simply identified as one to be done at some unspecified future date. If the hypothesis is supported then it would probably still be worthwhile to see how it compares with other explanations that other researchers have developed. Sometimes a false negative result can be thrown up. This is technically known as a type 1 error. (Type 2 errors are when a false hypothesis is accepted.) In the management field this can happen because the relationships between variables are more complicated than the statistical techniques being used can cope with. The research into whether there is a relationship between job satisfaction and job performance may be a case in point. Many of the studies into the matter were done in the 1960s and 1970s and they generally showed a lack of a relationship. Iaffaldano and Muchinsky (1985), who conducted a study of studies, found an average correlation coefficient of only 0.17 (see p. 217 for help in interpreting correlation coefficients). Researchers generally concluded that levels of performance were not much affected by job satisfaction. More recent work has indicated that the lack of a linear relationship does not mean there is no relationship between the two variables. Katzell et al. (1992: 210–212) argued that both job performance and job satisfaction were determined by a large number of variables and that the lack of a linear relationship between them did not mean that there were not important relationships between them that were moderated by other factors. They tested this proposal using a path analysis technique and argued that intervening factors (such as goal setting and job involvement) create indirect causal links between job satisfaction and performance. Somers et al. (2001) used a different technique (neural nets) but also found non-linear relationships between work attitudes and job performance. They concluded that the relationship between satisfaction and performance might be higher than previously claimed but only under optimal conditions, when all the other factors impinging on performance were right. This discussion suggests that, certainly at the Master’s dissertation level, some hypotheses should not be followed up, not because they are uninteresting but because they would involve more statistical firepower than is available to the average Master’s student. This may not necessarily be a bad thing because it is at least arguable that if you need excessively fancy statistics to prove your hypothesis, then it may be a little ‘iffy’ anyway. I was once sitting in the shade of a large striped umbrella on a Welsh lakeside. It was a hot day and there were many flies in the area. I noted casually to my companion, who was a hard-bitten scientist and positivist,
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‘Have you noticed how all the flies settle on the red stripes in the umbrella and not on any of the other coloured stripes? You don’t need higher mathematics to prove that hypothesis.’ He replied: ‘If you need sophisticated statistics to prove your hypothesis, it probably isn’t true anyway.’ Realist research proceeds by elimination, by rejecting hypotheses. If you were applying this approach to decision making, for example selecting a new software system to buy, you would form a list of options. You would then compare the options against your requirements (cost, quality, reliability and so on) and eliminate the options one by one. The last remaining option would be the best one. The realist approach can therefore also be used in that part of your project where you are choosing recommendations. Each possible recommendation becomes a hypothesis, which can be checked out. Typical realist research projects A typical project might centre on identifying factors that encouraged or constrained the introduction of teamworking and quality circle methods in a manufacturing plant. The research might be based on case studies of three or four companies that had tried to make these changes. In such a project, much of the research material may be qualitative, based on interviews and participant observation, although some statistical and documentary sources might also be used. Other realist projects might be more determinedly statistical. A questionnaire might be used, for example, to provide data on whether respondents’ perceptions of the degree of fairness with which they are treated by their employer is associated with their ethnic origin, their age or their sex. The completed questionnaires would be analysed to see whether people in any of the demographic categories said they were discriminated against more often than the average for all respondents. A number of statistical techniques would be used to decide whether any variations in respondents’ answers were significant or were merely random. Interpretive research People who take an interpretive approach to research see the link between understanding and action as an indirect one. Improving understanding and knowledge does not reveal the best actions to take. The link between understanding and action is mediated through people’s thinking, values and relationships with each other. The role of capricious human understanding and will, in formulating understanding and in constraining the translation of understanding into action, means that knowledge cannot provide clear prescriptions for action. However, understanding a situation should help us to use our judgement to arrive at a better, if not necessarily the best, choice of action.
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The link between understanding and action is seen as indirect because the world is complex and options for action are not always clear. The complexity emerges in two particular ways in an interpretive approach to research. The first is a concern for meanings and interpretations. While structure may be just as important to this form of research as it is to realist research approaches, it is of a different kind. The realist forms structures out of variables; the interpretivist forms structures out of interpretations. These are used to explore how people’s sense of their world both influences, and is influenced by, that of others. In realist research the links between variables are cause and effect relationships. In interpretive research the links between interpretations are dialogic. That is to say, people develop their ideas through debate and conversation with themselves, in their heads, and with others. The researcher tries to map the range and complexity of views and positions that people take on the topic of the research. If I were researching staff appraisal I would try to explore the range of views that people took. It might be anticipated that managers and staff might have different views. It might also be the case that both groups have conflicting views. Some things about appraisal might fill them with expectation; other things about it would fill them with anxiety. People may have different views according to the context in which the question was being asked. If I asked a manager about their views on appraisal when they were doing the appraising, the answer might be different from the views they might express about appraisal when they were the one being appraised. Interpretive research seeks people’s accounts of how they make sense of the world and the structures and processes within it. Ernest Gellner was a positivist by temperament but he had a sufficient understanding of interpretive approaches to be able to parody it. The following quotation is taken from a book review he wrote.
A layman observing a member of his own society might say ‘John sat down’. Trite, banal you may say. But how wrong you are. Wait till a good interpretivist gets to work. For a human being, a member of a culture sitting down is not just an account of a physical condition … According to the interpretivist a man knows he is sitting down, which means that he has the concept of sitting down, which he has acquired by taking part in a community with a certain culture. [ ] To sit is to place one’s bum on a chair. [ ] It is not just a physical object, it has a meaning, linked to a whole range of related meanings: chairs are not to be sat on in the presence of certain superiors without permission, or, in certain circumstances before grace being said. Some chairs are thrones, others reserved for members of religious hierarchies, others, without existing
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physically, define their nominal possessors as professors. You cannot think of a chair without tacitly associating yourself with the political, religious and academic ranking of your social order. Only by understanding the chair you sit on as one specimen of all these others, can you understand a culture. The same operation can be done on bum. You cannot sit without such a concept, but you cannot possess such a concept without immediately also knowing that this is a part of the anatomy which must in most contexts remain covered. [ ] To be a member of a culture says the interpretivist is to internalise its taboos. Every time you sit down, you tacitly invoke the ultimate binary oppositions of your culture. You probably did not realise this; but now you know. As a matter of fact, I don’t think that this bit of interpretive anthropology is untrue, though I somehow don’t expect that it will be acclaimed as an outstanding specimen of the genre.
(Gellner, 1993: 4)
Interpretive researchers often take a processual perspective. This is the second way in which interpretive research recognises complexity in the subjects of research. It is an attempt to generalise about how meaning is developed through human interactions. The approach has been used to discuss the managerial role (Watson, 1994a), the management of change (Dawson, 1994) and strategic planning (Mintzberg, 1994). I have used it in a study of business ethics (Fisher and Lovell, 2000: Ch. 5). From the processual viewpoint the world is seen as an ambiguous place that people have to struggle to make sense of (Watson, 1994a: Ch. 1). A processual study of a subject necessarily emphasises uncertainty and complexity. In his description of a processual analysis of the management of change, for example, Dawson (1994: 3) characterised the approach as follows:
G
G G
G
Processes are not linear and sequential; rather they are ‘complex and dynamic’. There are competing ‘histories’ or interpretations of events and issues. Processes cannot be viewed synoptically because random events ‘during the process of change may serve to impede, hasten or redirect the route to change’ (Dawson, 1994: 170). Politics and political processes are integral to an understanding of issues.
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Exercise 1.3
The park bench
You can try this for yourself. Focus on the picture of the park bench. What range of images and associations does it conjure up for you? When you have thought of some, consider them and identify the messages park benches give out about the people who sit on them. Do these messages tell us anything about the culture of the society in which the bench is sited?
Suggested answer
Let us think about the park bench. Most people think of contrary images. On the one hand, drunks and derelicts dossing on the park bench. On the other hand, young mothers with their children in buggies in the park (nannies and prams if you are oldfashioned). Here we have images of endings and beginnings. Here we have the eternal contradiction between the promise of life and its dire reality. From a park bench we can induce the wider dilemmas of being human – well, almost!
A complex understanding of a subject can only be achieved through a close involvement with the subject of research. Interpretive researchers are often participants in the processes they are studying. They sometimes approach their research topics in as open a manner as they can manage and try to let theories emerge from their research material, in what is known as the grounded approach to research, rather than begin the study with a ready prepared set of theories. Others bring a toolkit of theories that they dip into to find frameworks to help them explain what their research has discovered, as illustrated in Exercise 1.4 and discussed on p. 123.
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Exercise 1.4
Group formation – using theory to explain research material
1 Imagine you are doing research into group behaviour at work. 2 Read up on the theory of group formation. Buchanan and Huczynski (2001: 297–300) is a good text. 3 Next time you are at a group event consciously make yourself alert to the behaviour that the group exhibits. 4 After the event write down your account and impressions of what happened. 5 Use the theory of group formation to explain what was happening at the group event. 6 Does the use of theory enable you to provide a more systematic account of your experience? Did it give you any new insights?
When you read up on these matters in the literature you will find this approach to research, or aspects of it, described by different names. Other names you are most likely to come across are ‘phenomenology’ and the ‘hermeneutic tradition’.
G
G
Phenomenology is a particularly difficult term because people give it many different definitions that share some common features but that also express many nuanced differences (Remenyi et al., 1998: 95). The term is now used loosely but in its original formulation, by Schütz (1967), it was the study of how things appear to people – how people experience the world. In particular it was the study of how these common-sense intuitions and knowledge of society feed back into social action and so contribute to the moulding of society. The phenomenologists’ approach is to urge people to forget (or bracket) their acquired ways of understanding the world and to look at phenomenon afresh, as themselves. It is therefore a critical and a subjective approach. As used by Schütz, phenomenology originally meant identifying how much of a person’s understanding of an object came from the object itself and how much came from the person’s subjectivity. However, the term phenomenology has acquired a wider meaning ‘… at least in the English speaking world. Here phenomenology is generally seen as a study of people’s subjective and everyday experience’ (Crotty, 2003: 83). In this sense it is very close to the definition we have given to interpretivism. Hermeneutics is a general term for the process of interpreting human actions, utterances, products and institutions. In past times it referred to the glossing of biblical texts. In modern social science use the term has been expanded to include a wide variety of texts.
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Sociology has generated many specialist approaches to this type of research. Here are a few:
G
G
G
G
Ethnographers try to explain cultures, including organisational cultures, by writing accounts of their subjective experiences of living and working in the culture being studied over a considerable period of time. Grounded theorists suggest that people’s subjective understanding of their worlds should be theorised by studying the themes that people use in giving accounts of their lives and world. Researchers look for these themes and categories in the interviews and observations collected during the research. The researcher then develops theories based upon these themes. Academic understanding, they argue, should not be based on theories chosen in advance of the research (see Chapter 3). Ethnomethodologists are a sub-variety of phenomenologists. They study how, in everyday trivial interactions, people give rational accounts of what are essentially practical actions in their attempts to understand social interactions (Reed, 1992: 150–155). Reflective practitioners are professionals who systematically improve their understanding of their professional worlds through reflection, with the support of their professional peers, on their professional activities (Schön, 1983).
Typical interpretivist projects Many dissertations that focus on an aspect of organisational or occupational culture adopt an interpretivist approach. If a student worked in a transnational company, for example, they might be interested in how local managers, in the different countries in which the company traded, perceived and managed commercial risk taking. In a UK context, in the public sector modernisation is a major item in the government’s agenda. An interpretivist might try to explain how different stakeholder groups within a public service might interpret and value the idea of modernisation. The analysis of the research material, which could include both qualitative material from focus groups and interviews as well as statistical data from questionnaires, would focus on the differences in the views of the various groups and the processes by which these issues were debated and views changed. They might draw upon the work of Weick (1996) (see p. 282) and his concept of enactment to understand the processes of sense making that surround the issue of modernisation. Enactment is part of the process of making sense from equivocal information by selecting and editing information through discussion and interaction with others.
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Action research Action research is different from the processual, the positivist and, to a lesser extent, the realist approaches to research. It focuses on the individual researcher’s understanding and values relating to the research issue. It further proposes that the only way the researcher can improve and challenge their understanding is by taking action and by learning from experience. From this perspective the belief is that action, or behaviour, can only be changed by changing a person’s values and beliefs, and that values and beliefs can only be changed by testing them in action. Action and understanding become enmeshed together in a cycle of learning in which there is a constant movement between reflection and action. Action research therefore combines a focus on action and experimentation with a concern for challenging and developing personal values. In action research the cycle might begin with a researcher using their experience (values) to decide on a course of action designed to solve a problem. The action is tried out and the researcher monitors and studies the consequences of the action, particularly the consequences as seen by other people who are affected by the change. They then reflect on their findings and this may cause them to change or develop their values and beliefs. Because they now see things differently when they next use their experience to decide on a course of action, they inevitably decide to act differently. Action research tends to focus on small-scale but important issues such as the ways in which a team implements a policy or an individual’s professional or managerial practice. It becomes risky to apply this approach to large-scale change projects. A major information system could not be implemented using an action research approach because mistakes would be too costly, and action research involves learning from mistakes. The nature of action research is a matter of debate. Those who write about it from a background in teaching and education often take a different view from those who write about it in the context of management studies. Most educationalists share many points of view with the interpretivists. Reg Revans (1983), however, who initiated action learning in a management context, often proclaimed himself a positivist. The sensible conclusion is that, in terms of action research’s view of the relationship between understanding and action, action research is developing its own unique approach to research methodology that has the following characteristics:
G G G G G G
confronting data from different perspectives; closely and iteratively linking reflection and action; incorporating reflection and development of values; involving holistic and inclusive reflection; developing the researcher’s competency; testing of individual findings through critical professional discussion.
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Exhibit 1.5
Definitions of action research
The linking of the terms action and research highlights the essential feature of the method: trying out ideas in practice as a means of improvement and as a means of increasing knowledge.
(Kemmis and McTaggart, 1982)
Action research is about improving practice rather than about producing knowledge.
(Elliott, 1991)
Both of these definitions are quoted in McNiff et al. (1996: 9, 10), which is a useful and practical guide to doing action research for management students, despite being set in an educational context.
Typical action research projects Occasionally an action researcher focuses on their own managerial practice. A manager or team leader, for instance, might develop their leadership practice through action research. They would change their leadership style, perhaps following the precepts of a particular theory, and use the feedback from their staff to adapt and further develop their leadership values and behaviours. More commonly, an action research project would be concerned with wider changes. For example, an organisation may have decided to provide mentors in support of a major new ICT implementation. Action research could be used to develop the method and values that would be appropriate for mentors in that particular context. Critical social research Researchers who profess the critical social research approach believe that the purpose of research should be to change society for the better. Central to this approach is the idea of false consciousness. This is a Marxist notion that describes the tendency of the proletariat to fail to recognise the nature of its self-interest. More generally it is any form of ideology or selfimagery that is held to be inappropriate to the real or objective situation of an actor. Crudely expressed it means that in organisations, employees are being exploited but are oblivious to their situation. The task of critical social research, therefore, is to reveal the deep and hidden structures at work behind the façade of false consciousness. Once the proletariat becomes aware that they are oppressed, that they are not so much being empowered as being exploited by such things as business process reengineering and just-in-time production methods, for example, then they will rise in revolt. This is not a form of research that would necessarily find favour with people on management courses but, if used in moderation, in a dissertation it adds piquancy to the analysis.
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Exhibit 1.6
The Humanities Curriculum project
This illustration provides a good example of the link between action and challenging personal beliefs. The Humanities Curriculum project was an approach to teaching secondary school children. It was designed to expose students to controversial issues. The teacher was to be relieved of the task of giving facts and allowed to concentrate on chairing students’ discussions on the issues. Short ‘provocative’ documents would be used as handouts to provide students with the basic facts and materials. One teacher reported he was having trouble with the project. The students read the materials but no discussion started. The teacher assumed that the students were having problems understanding the materials. So, using his best judgement and having discussed it with the project researcher, he reverted to giving mini-lectures to explain the content of the documents. However, in the spirit of action learning, the researcher (R) decided to talk to the students (S). R: S: R: S: R: S: R: S: R: S: R: S: R: S: R: S: R: S: ‘Well, what do you think of this new approach?’ ‘I don’t like it.’ ‘What don’t you like about it?’ ‘We don’t like these documents, these materials, we don’t like them.’ ‘So what don’t you like about them? Are they too difficult to read?’ ‘Oh no! Oh no! We can read them.’ ‘Can you all?’ ‘Of course we can read them.’ ‘So what’s the problem then?’ ‘The problem is we disagree with what they say.’ ‘Oh! Good. You actually disagree with what they say?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Well, then you can express your disagreement in class.’ ‘The teacher wouldn’t like it.’ ‘Well, why wouldn’t the teacher like it?’ ‘Because the teacher agrees with what the documents say.’ ‘How do you know that the teacher agrees with what these documents say?’ [Looking very surprised at the stupidity of the question] ‘The teacher wouldn’t give you the documents in the first place if he didn’t agree with them, would he?’
(Altrichter, 1993)
The researcher had his assumptions and beliefs challenged by the feedback he received from the students. When he discussed the situation with the teacher, this new perspective would cause the teacher to try a new action in the next cycle of implementation. The teacher’s and the researcher’s beliefs about the pupils had changed, and so consequently would their actions. Action research is about gnosis – the Greek word for knowing oneself through self-criticism and reflection.
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Critical social research can take other radical perspectives, such as feminism, rather than a Marxist one. A more careful review of this approach is provided in Chapter 5. Critical social researchers object to positivism (but not so much to realist research, of which it is a variant), the interpretive approach and action research. From a critical perspective, interpretivism is seen as giving more importance to understanding the world than changing it. Positivism is viewed as a tool for reinforcing oppressive structures and action research is rejected because it ignores the need for big, radical changes and concentrates on small-scale and individual change. Typical critical research projects These are fairly rare in MBA and Master’s in management programmes but they are by no means precluded. A radical critique approach might be used to study executive pay and remuneration in large public companies. The possibility could be explored that the differentials in pay between the top managers and others in such companies could arise from deep-seated and structural class conflicts. This would be in opposition to the opinion that such differences are simply the result of competition in the market for scarce entrepreneurial competency. An example of a radical critique approach can be found in Porter (2002). Methodological pluralism The FAQ at this stage is: ‘Can you mix and match these approaches to research?’ It is often easiest if you choose just one. It reduces the complexity of the chapter in your dissertation on methods and methodology. It also keeps you out of the line of sight of academic snipers, from all camps, which are in a state of constant low-level warfare with each other. While tutors and lecturers may take different methodological positions, you may be encouraged to adopt whichever approach you wish as long as you show it to be a sensible approach for answering the research question you have set yourself. It is possible, however, with care, to combine some of the approaches. It has already been suggested that a dash of social criticism might add some spice to an otherwise standard piece of realist research. The big question is whether it is possible to combine realist research and an interpretive approach. Gill and Johnson’s (1997: 135–136) line on this debate is persuasive. They argue that if you take a realist stance, then aspects of an interpretivist approach could be brought in as a useful adjunct to the research. But they also claim that the reverse is not true. If you are doing interpretivist research, then there is no way that an element of realism (or even more seriously an element of positivism) can add to it. This is because taking a positivist perspective would undermine the methodological basis of the interpretivist approach. The realist position – that what is
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observed is real and can be, more or less, directly studied and measured – flatly contradicts the interpretivists’ belief that our knowledge of the world is socially constructed – which means that understanding derives from the social processes of debate and power that take place between people. How is it possible for realist research to find a place for interpretivist styles of investigation? Gill and Johnson (1997) argue that positivist (and realist) research identifies associations between variables, between antecedent variables and consequences. They might find, for example, that there is a relationship between people’s stress levels and their absenteeism levels. But having identified the pattern positivism can say little more. It does not explain why the pattern is there or how the antecedent factor exerts influence on people’s actions. This is because the link between the two variables, in this example stress and absenteeism, is the way in which people make the link in their own minds, in their subjective processes. Realism has no way of studying people’s accounts of these processes, but interpretive approaches do. Interpretivist approaches can be used to create a quasi-causal account of how the two variables interact. In brief, interpretivist research can convert the pattern of associations found by positivist work into a quasi-causal connection. Realist research shows there is a connection; interpretivism gives a possible description of how the connection may work. There are at least two ways in which interpretivism may be called in to aid realist research: 1. As described above, a researcher may start off with a piece of realist research that identifies an association between two variables, then use an interpretive approach to understand the causal connection, the mechanism, which shows in all complexity how the different aspects interact. 2. The other possibility uses the ease with which interpretivist research generates hypotheses about the associations between variables. In this case interpretivist research is a ground-clearing operation that precedes a piece of realist research. A researcher might start with a piece of interpretive research that, say, creates all sorts of hypotheses about the causes of absenteeism and then do a piece of realist research to see whether these hypotheses hold true in general.
Exercise 1.5
Deciding on your research approach
When you are designing your project you will need to decide which of these approaches to research is going to be the dominant one in your project. What approach would be the most appropriate one for your chosen project topic, and why?
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The remaining decisions you have to make when designing your project all relate to the big decision about methodological approach that has just been considered.
The researcher’s role
The roles that a researcher may take in relation to the people and the organisations they are researching will depend on whether they are a member of the organisation they are researching and on the research approach they have adopted. Figure 1.2 identifies four research roles, each of which has its own advantages and disadvantages.
Visible Involved Non-involved Previleged observer – judge Academic – a harmless drudge
Invisible Covert participant observer – spy Fly on the wall
Figure 1.2 Researchers’ roles
The judge This is a researcher who is studying an organisation in which they are involved and they have told those being researched that they are being studied. This role has the advantage of being open and honest and therefore giving those being studied a chance to put their point of view to the researcher if they fear they are being misinterpreted. The disadvantage is that those being studied may become uneasy and modify what they say and how they behave. They may even become annoyed that the researcher appears to be putting themselves in the privileged position of someone who has the right to judge, to express opinions about, their doings. The academic – a harmless drudge The academic is a researcher who is studying an organisation in which they have no involvement except as someone who has been kindly allowed access so that they can gather information for their dissertation. The advantage is that the academic is seen as someone with no axe to grind; but there is the danger that those being studied may try to use the researcher to support them and their projects in the organisation’s politics. The main disadvantage is that your project may well be low in the organisation’s priorities and you may not be given the access and the time you need.
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The covert participant observer This is someone who works in an organisation so that they can study it, but the people they are studying do not know they are being researched. There has been a long line of such ethnographic studies, as nice middleclass researchers get jobs in fish-gutting factories to report on life in the lower depths. The research can be rich and fascinating. The question is whether it is ethical to study people who have not given informed consent. There is a danger that the researcher might foment situations just to increase the ‘human interest’ quality of their research material. The fly on the wall These researchers try to be invisible but are not necessarily secretive. They might, for example, have permission to observe a meeting. Although their physical presence will be unmistakable, by their demeanour and their quietness, they hope those at the meeting will forget they are there. As they cannot affect what they are observing, the ethical problem, while still important, is of a lesser degree. The fly on the wall can use secretive methods of course. A researcher studying consumers’ behaviour in a supermarket might use video recordings of shoppers taken without their consent by video cameras that also have a security function.
Breadth or depth
The issue is whether the researcher is trying to obtain a broad and representative overview of a situation, in which case a survey approach would be appropriate, or an in-depth understanding of particular situations, in which event case studies would be appropriate. Random surveys of a suitably large sample allow you to determine what is average and what the variations around the average are, to a definable level of statistical confidence. They also allow you to examine the relationships between the things you measure in the survey and to establish whether any associations or correlations are significant or just random effects. Surveys require the researcher to distinguish, in advance of the study, the phenomena that are to be studied from the contexts that influence or affect the phenomena. Surveys therefore are not efficient means of studying the complexity of things in particular. Case studies enable you to give a holistic account of the subject of your research. In particular, they help the researcher to focus on the interrelationships between all the factors, such as people, groups, policies and technology, that make up the case studies. As Yin (1994: 13) points out, at first it may not be apparent which things are the phenomena and which are the contexts. Yin identifies the following characteristics of a case study.
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G
G G
G
It investigates a contemporary phenomenon within its real-life context, especially when the boundaries between phenomenon and its contexts are not clearly evident. It has a single site, such as a team or an organisation, but many variables. A case study uses a variety of research methods and can happily accommodate quantitative data and qualitative material. Case study researchers tend to use theoretical propositions developed prior to the study to guide the data collection.
A case study is written up as an account or a narrative. In other words, you are required in a case study to tell the story of what happened from as broad a perspective as is necessary. The case study form is also very adaptable. You could write up case studies of any of the following:
G
G G
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individual events in a manager’s working life (when a case study would more likely be called a critical incident); a process, such as the development and launch of a new product; an organisation or part of an organisation in relation to some particular issue, such as use of the Internet; the making of a decision (sometimes called decision tracing).
There are many other variations and possibilities. Case studies inevitably lack representativeness. It cannot be claimed that what happened in one case is typical of all cases. In many instances the power of the case study lies in its capacity to provide insights and resonance for the reader. However, it is not true to claim that case studies lack generalisability. Tony Watson (1994b) argues that case studies do enable generalisations to be made about organisational processes. A case study approach could be used to show, to use an invented example, that power struggles between senior managers influences the extent to which a company acts in a socially responsible manner. It could not be used to show whether this factor increases or diminishes responsible behaviour; it could work either way. Yin (1994: 10, 30–32) makes a distinction between statistical generalisations and theoretical generalisations, and points out that the first type cannot be derived from case studies but the second type can. So, if you have researched a case study in which managers who are tall behave in a particular manner, and refer to their stature as something that explains their behaviour, you cannot make a statistical generalisation that all tall managers behave in a particular manner. But you might make the theoretical generalisation that height is a factor that should be considered when generalising about managerial behaviour. If you were to undertake multiple case studies, and they also showed height to be a factor, then your theoretical proposition would become stronger. You might also be able to use the case studies in the same way as a scientist uses experiments; to check out whether tall managers do have similar behaviours as leaders or
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whether any similarities of behaviour could be equally well explained by other theories, for example that tall managers are more likely to be male and that the effect being observed is about sex and not about height. You need to be as systematic and rigorous when doing case study research as you are for all other types of research. In particular, you should pay attention to the following:
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Do not rely on one particular type of evidence but use a mixture. Research the substance of the case study from the different perspectives of the various interested parties or stakeholders. Develop a formal procedure or protocol for use in gathering information so that your material is collected in a uniform manner. Keep systematic records of your material that could be reviewed by someone wishing to double-check your work. Find a way of creating an audit trail that links your findings and conclusions about the case study to your raw research material. Allow your thinking about the case study to be influenced and changed by the material you gather and record your changing views. Be aware of bias in the information you obtain from interviewees or from documents and questionnaires. Documents can be slanted and interviewees might give you selected titbits in the hope of settling old scores, for example. Do not allow the delights of telling a good human-interest story get in the way of telling the truth as you see it.
Choice of research methods
When designing your project you have to make some general decisions about the research methods you are going to use. These are the most commonly used methods:
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interviews questionnaires panels, including focus groups observation, including participant observation documents databases.
Detailed descriptions and accounts of their advantages and disadvantages are given in Chapter 4. It is tempting, but wrong, to make an easy connection between research methodology and particular methods. It is often assumed that realist research means using quantitative research methods and materials (questionnaire surveys and databases) and interpretive research uses qualitative material and methods (interviews, documentary exegesis). These
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assumptions are wrong: first, because it is possible to use any of the research methods to produce either quantitative material (numbers) or qualitative material (words) and, second, because you can use qualitative material as part of a realist project and you can certainly use numbers to illuminate interpretive research. In practice you can use any of the research methods in any of the approaches. This is not to deny that realist researchers and interpretivists may prefer to use the same research methods in different ways. Silverman (1993) has explained some of the possibilities by comparing qualitative and quantitative forms of research (see Table 1.2).
Table 1.2 Approaches and methods of research Method Observation Documentary Interview Questionnaire Positivist Preliminary work Content analysis Large random samples, fixed-choice questions Large random samples, fixed-choice questions Interpretivist A major component of the research Understanding categories Small samples, open-ended and unstructured questions Used for initial mapping, openended questions
Source: Silverman (1993: 9).
Let us take a couple of examples. Someone doing a realist piece of work may well use interviews. But it will be the sort of interview where the interviewer has to read the questions from a pre-prepared script without deviation. The questions will be pre-coded so that the interviewee will be given a number of possible answers to choose between. An interpretive researcher using interviews, however, would begin the interview with only the broadest view about how the conversation might develop and may indeed encourage the interviewee to determine the direction in which the discussion flows. Sometimes realist and interpretively inclined researchers use the same combinations of research methods but in different sequences. An interpretive researcher writing a case study in an organisation might well use a questionnaire at the start of the project to get an overall ‘feel’ for the subject they are studying. But the questionnaire would remain a preliminary and a subsidiary method. A realist researcher might well start a study with open-ended interviews that will be useful to them when they design their highly structured questionnaire to be used with a large sample of respondents. When we consider documentary methods, an interpretive researcher might study the use of metaphor in an organisation’s documents whereas a positivist might count the relative frequency with which the words ‘customer’ and ‘profit’ are used.
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Ethical considerations
When you are doing your research you should not treat people unfairly or badly. You should not harm people, or use the information you discover in you research to harm them, or allow it to be used to do harm. This may sound alarmist and you should not assume that you will be beset by such problems when you are doing research. Nevertheless, it is sensible to anticipate whether any such difficulties might occur. Indeed, most universities now have research ethics codes and research ethics committees and it may be that you have to apply for formal ethical approval for your project before you start the research. It is best to go to the website of the institution where you are enrolled and find its code or policy on research ethics and governance and the details of the approval procedure you may need to go through. When you are planning your project it will be sensible to schedule in the time needed to obtain ethical approval. One practical problem is deciding the stage of the project at which ethical approval should be sought. It rather depends on whether the approval is in principle (to determine whether there is something about the project that is inherently unethical) or concerns the conduct of the research (is it being conducted in an ethical manner?). If it is in principle then the approval can be sought at the beginning of the project. If, as I think will be more likely, the approval concerns research practice then approval can only sensibly be sought after the literature review has been started and the research instruments (questionnaires, interview schedules, case study protocols and so on) have been drafted. The following points rehearse some of the ethical issues and dilemmas you may come across. Negotiating access Negotiating terms of reference with organisations If you are doing the project in a particular organisation it is often necessary to agree terms of reference for the project. Managements tend to have preferred solutions to the problems you are asking to research (or that they are asking you to research) and you need to ensure that the terms of reference give you scope to investigate the issues from a wide range of perspectives and come to your own independent conclusions. Right to privacy There is no obligation on anyone to assist you in your research. This raises the question of just how much pressure (‘Oh! Come on – do it to help out an old friend!’) it is proper to put on someone to cooperate. I once, many years ago, arranged a research interview with a key informant as part of a consultancy project I was doing for a large company. His first words were:
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I don’t think it’s right that they should have brought some outsider academic like you in to do this project. I have already done much of the preliminary work for this project and I should have been allowed to take the project forward. I do not wish to cooperate but I did want you to know how I felt about the situation.
I admit that I blagged an interview from him largely by probing why he was so angry and nowadays I would probably just thank him politely for his time and leave. What would you have done in this situation? Access to personnel or case records It may be that you think that the data you need for you project can be found in the personal files that organisations may keep about its staff or its clients, for example hospital patients. It would only be ethical, and legal, to use such information if you have the approval of both the organisation that holds it and, more importantly, of the individuals that it relates to. Confidentiality agreements A principle of all academic research, including that done by students, is that the research is published, or otherwise made available to the public, so that others can learn from and criticise the work. As Master’s students often research organisations, often the one they work within, this might involve organisationally or commercially confidential information being made public. In such situations organisations might insist that the university for which a student is writing the dissertation should sign a confidentiality agreement. Most universities have standard agreements that can be used. These normally state that the dissertation will not be openly available to any member of the public who asks to see it for a number of years. During that time the dissertation will only be made available with the written agreement of the organisation. Informed consent Informed consent is perhaps the key issue in research ethics. No one should be a participant or a source of information in a research project unless they have agreed to be so on the basis of a complete understanding of what their participation will involve and the purpose and use of the research. Sometimes informed consent is implicit, as when someone takes the trouble to complete and return a questionnaire. However, even in these cases it is sensible to make consent explicit by including on the face of the questionnaire a statement such as the following:
By completing and returning this questionnaire you are giving your consent for the information it contains to be used in the research project. The
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information will be stored anonymously and securely. When the information is used in any publication produced during the research project no individual or organisations involved in the project will be identified.
In other projects, which are ethnographical, or based on participant observation, the issue of informed consent may be tricky. If the subjects of the research know they are being studied they may change their behaviour and so defeat the purpose of the research. In these cases it may not be sensible to obtain explicit consent before the research begins. Some codes of research ethics, such as that of the British Sociological Association (2002), do in such situations approve of research done without prior informed consent. If this is so it is important that consent should be obtained after the research has been conducted but before it is analysed or written up. The easiest way to obtain informed consent is to prepare a participant observation sheet that you can give to each participant as you seek their consent and a consent form that the participants can sign and that you can keep as a record. Exhibit 1.7 gives an example of a participant information sheet and a consent form.
Exhibit 1.7
Example of a participant information sheet and a consent form
PARTICIPANT INFORMATION SHEET PERFORMANCE MEASUREMENT AND MANAGEMENT: GOOD GOVERNANCE AND ACCOUNTING BASED REWARDS SYSTEMS
Principal researcher: [contact details of researcher] Invitation You are being invited to take part in a research study. Participation in the project is entirely voluntary. Before you decide it is important for you to understand why the research is being done and what it will involve. Please take time to read the following information carefully and discuss it with others if you wish. Ask us if there is anything that is not clear or if you would like more information. Take time to decide whether or not you wish to take part. Thank you for reading this. What is the purpose of the study? To find out whether the use of performance measurement and performance related pay systems in the public sector may lead to problems in managers’ and professionals’ use and presentation of information; and to identify the systems and contexts that minimise these problems.
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Exhibit 1.7 continued
Why I have been chosen You have been chosen because you are a senior and experienced manager within the public sector with experience of working with performance measurement and/or performance related pay systems. About 50 managers will be asked to complete a questionnaire and a further 30 managers will be interviewed. Do I have to take part? It is up to you to decide whether or not to take part. There are two ways of participating. If you do decide to: 1 be interviewed you will be given a copy of this information sheet to keep. You will also be asked to sign two copies of a consent form, one of these will be for you to keep and the other will be kept by the research team. If you decide to take part you are still free to withdraw at any time and without giving a reason. 2 complete a questionnaire you will be given a copy of this information sheet to keep. You will give your consent to participation in the research project by completing the questionnaire and returning it to the research team. You will normally only be asked to take part in one of the two aspects of the research (interview or questionnaire). Which one you will be asked to take part in will be chosen randomly. If you decide not to take part in the aspect of the research you have been invited to, you may be asked if you would participate in the other aspect. If you volunteer to take part in more than one aspect that will be fine. What will be my involvement if I take part? Your involvement will differ according to whether you
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are interviewed; complete a questionnaire
The research interview will normally last about an hour. It will be in two parts. In the first part you will be asked about the performance measurement systems used in the part of the public sector you are working in and whether any performance related pay systems apply. In the second part you will be asked to give examples of any incidents you have observed or been involved in at work:
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where these systems have led to problems in managers’ and professionals use and presentation of information; and where these problems have been effectively dealt with; and where they have not.
You will be asked if you agree to the interview being audio-recorded. If you do not agree to this the researcher will take written notes during the interview. If you do agree you may still ask for the tape recorder to be turned off at any point during the interview. The questionnaire survey involves you filling in a questionnaire about managerial behaviours in relation to performance management systems, using your knowledge, experience and expertise. The questionnaire you complete will be analysed, along with those of other experts, to obtain an initial, average view of all the experts. You will be sent a further questionnaire that gives these results from all of the experts (who will be anonymous) and you will be invited to complete the questionnaire again, taking into account the views of your fellow experts. This process may be repeated but you will not be asked to review your thoughts in response to the views of the other experts more than twice.
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Exhibit 1.7 continued
Will my taking part in this study be kept confidential? Yes. At no point will your identity, or indeed the identity of the Trust or other organisation you work for, be revealed to anyone other than the academic supervisors and examiners of the project. Your name will not be recorded on any of the research notes that are made and kept as part of the research. All notes, tape-recordings and any other materials will be kept in secure storage. There will be nothing in any materials they may have access to that could identify the participants in the study or the organisation they work for. What will happen to the results of the research study? The research will be written up as an academic dissertation. It will be stored in the archives at [name of institution] and will be available for inspection on request [state what the arrangements are at the institution at which you are studying]. Who is organising and funding the research? The research is being undertaken as part of a programme of academic study at [name of institution] leading to the award of [title of degree]. Who has reviewed this study? This study has been reviewed by the Research Ethics Committee of [name of institution]. Contact for further information [contact details]
CONSENT FORM THE GOOD GOVERNANCE OF PERFORMANCE MEASUREMENT AND MANAGEMENT SYSTEMS
Principal researcher: [contact details of researcher] Please initial box 1 I confirm that I have read and understand the information sheet dated [date] for the above study and have had the opportunity to ask questions. 2 I understand that my participation is voluntary and that I am free to withdraw at any time, without giving any reason. 3 I agree to take part in the above study. –––––––––––––––––––– Name of participant –––––––––––––––––––– Name of researcher ––––––––––––––– Date ––––––––––––––– Date –––––––––––––––––––– Signature –––––––––––––––––––– Signature
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Data collection stage Objectivity and disinterestedness This may be impossible but you have at least to make a pretence of trying – unless of course you are acting as an action researcher or a social critic researcher. Deception Some very famous psychological and sociological research has involved deceiving the research subjects. They were not told the truth about the purpose of the research. Deception is of course unethical. Some research, such as Milgram’s (1963), has used deception in that the people being researched were told that the subject of the research was one thing when it was in fact something quite different. Milgram’s experiments discovered things, in this case about people’s willingness to subject themselves to authority, that otherwise would not have been known and it can be argued that this addition to psychological knowledge justified the deception. Such a justification rests on one particular ethical perspective: that actions are justified if their beneficial results outweigh their negative consequences. Other ethical perspectives could be used to argue that such research demeans the dignity of the people being studied and reduces them simply to the status of means to someone else’s ends, and that this is wrong. Most Master’s students, however, are unlikely to need to use outright deception. It is more probable they may be tempted by the lesser ethical offence of being economical with the truth. One of my students, for example, set up an experiment to study the impact of different styles of screen warning page that told employees to use the Internet only for work purposes, and not to misuse the facility. Different employees were presented with different warnings every time they logged on. What they did not know was that their subsequent use of the Internet was being monitored (to see whether they were visiting eBay, for example) so that the effectiveness of the different warnings could be measured. This economy with the truth raised questions of invasion of privacy, informed consent and deception. It is also an aspect of a wider ethical debate about the extent to which organisations are entitled to monitor possible misuse (employees using the Web for private purposes when they are at work) or illegal use (downloading paedophile pornographic images on to computers at work). There are not necessarily straightforward answers to the ethical issues raised by research activities but they should be thoroughly considered in the dissertation.
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Confidentiality and anonymity Anonymity means changing the names and locations (but not, I think, the sex) of informants. Confidentiality means not revealing your sources. You need to make it clear that confidentiality does not mean that the material will not be used. You need to make it clear to participants in your research what you mean by anonymity and confidentiality. Normally these issues do not cause problems; but what if, in the course of your research, you unearth unprofessional practice in a social services department, say, or illegality in an international business operation? Would it be right for you to break your promise of anonymity and confidentiality and report the matter? Permission to use video or voice reorders If you are doing interviews, especially exploratory or semi-structured ones, you will normally want to record the interview so that you have a complete record of both what is said and the tone and manner in which it is said. You must ask the interviewee for permission to record. You should also say that you will turn off the recorder at any point during the interview if the interviewee asks you to do so. Storage of data All researchers must comply with the requirements of the Data Protection Act (1998) that can be found at: http://www.opsi.gov.uk/acts/acts 1998/19980029.htm. It sets down some principles concerning the collection and use of personal information, which includes information about people’s opinions as well as more factual material such as age and sex. The principles are:
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Personal data shall be processed fairly and lawfully. Personal data shall be obtained only for one or more specified and lawful purposes, and shall not be further processed in any manner incompatible with that purpose or those purposes. Personal data shall be adequate, relevant and not excessive in relation to the purpose or purposes for which they are processed. Personal data shall be accurate and, where necessary, kept up to date. Personal data processed for any purpose or purposes shall not be kept for longer than is necessary for that purpose or those purposes. Personal data shall be processed in accordance with the rights of data subjects under this Act. This entitles a person to see any information that is held about them.
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Appropriate technical and organisational measures shall be taken against unauthorised or unlawful processing of personal data and against accidental loss or destruction of, or damage to, personal data. Personal data shall not be transferred to a country or territory outside the European Economic Area unless that country or territory ensures an adequate level of protection for the rights and freedoms of data subjects in relation to the processing of personal data.
The Act limits the amount of time that organisations can retain personal information and it gives people the right to access any information that is kept on them. The Act makes some exemptions in the case of research; data may be stored indefinitely and if the data are anonymous the research respondents do not have a right of access to it. It is good research practice in any case to be meticulous in recording and storing research data. You should not only keep the raw data appropriately; you should also keep any analysis documents so that it would be possible to create an ‘audit’ trail between the data and the findings and conclusions. Practitioner/researcher What precautions or mechanisms may be necessary to prevent you exploiting the privilege that this role gives you? You might want to consider some of the options discussed in Chapter 5 (pp. 299–301). The reporting stage Misuse of research One possible ethical difficulty is that the research could be used to do harm to those who cooperated with it. A frequent issue is when the managers, who gave access permission for students to conduct research in their organisations, try to influence the content or tone of the dissertation. A more invidious form of this problem is when researchers write up the research in a way that will please the sponsors because they expect it will be required of them. A less common possibility is that the sponsors may try to use the research to support positions that the researcher thinks may be harmful to others. Homan (1991) is a useful guide to the ethics of research.
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Exhibit 1.8
Ethical approval procedures for researchers conducting studies within the National Health Service (NHS)
Some organisations, notably the NHS, require researchers, and students doing a dissertation as part of an academic programme, who wish to do a project that involves their staff or patients as research participants to obtain ethical research approval in addition to any ethical approval that might be obtained from the participating university. This is a time-consuming process. It involves the following stages: 1 Completion of an online application form. The form, and online guidance, can be found at the website of the Central Office for Research Ethics Committees (COREC) at http://www.corec.org.uk/applicants/index.htm. This form requires full details of all the research methods that will be used. 2 Attend at the appropriate Local Research Ethics Committee (LREC) to discuss and defend the application. They may require changes to the proposal before they give a favourable ethical opinion. 3 Having obtained LREC approval, the researcher must then apply for Research & Development approval from all NHS Trusts within which research is to be conducted. This involves completing a form. There is a national form (available at https://www.rdform.org.uk/) but some Trusts also have a local form. 4 When R&D approval has been obtained, the researcher needs to obtain an honorary contract with the Trust where the research will be conducted unless they are already an employee of the Trust. 5 It is normally required that before potential research participants (i.e. the people whom the researcher wishes to interview or send questionnaires to) can be approached and asked for their consent, permission must be obtained from their line managers to ask them to take part in the research.
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Writing the research proposal
When you have been through the six-step process and thought about the design of your project, it might be helpful to summarise your research project. The Watson Box can be used for this purpose. It provides a useful framework for structuring your written research proposal. The assessment criteria, which can be seen in the introductory chapter, identify a number of features that markers will be looking for in a proposal document:
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The ‘what’ and the ‘why’ of the proposal are clear and specific. The three elements of: – the research questions; – the research design; and
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– the research methods are well integrated. The proposals for the research methods are sensible and practicable.
The Watson Box helps you ensure that you have met these criteria.
Exhibit 1.9
The Watson Box
What? What puzzles and intrigues me? What do I want to know more about or better understand? What are my key research questions? Why? Why will this be of enough interest to put it on the library shelves or present to my organisation? Is it a guide to practitioners or policy makers? Is it a contribution to knowledge? How – practically? What research methods and techniques shall I use to apply my conceptual framework (to both gather and analyse evidence)? How shall I gain and maintain access to information sources?
Source: Watson (1994b)
How – conceptually? What models, concepts and theories can I draw upon? How can I develop my own research questions and create a conceptual framework to guide my investigation?
Exercise 1.6
Completing the Watson Box
Use the blank Watson Box provided to write a summary of your research proposal.
What? Why?
How – conceptually?
How – practically?
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You have, of course, freedom to structure your research proposal (if you have to write one) as you please, but should you need guidance, the following structure covers most of the issues.
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Introduction The objectives and purpose of the project (what?): – A brief overall description of the project’s context. – The strategic question that guides the project. – The objectives of the project. The justification for the project (why?). The research questions (what? – again, but in more detail): – Identify and discuss the research questions that you will answer in the project. – If you are taking a realist research approach you might frame your research question as a hypothesis. A hypothesis is a speculation about an association between two or more variables. It is important that the hypothesis can be tested by research to see whether it can be disproved. An overview of the appropriate literature: – Mapping the main writers in the field and their arguments. – Definition of key concepts and outlining of conceptual framework if necessary and possible. (This is the how – conceptually? quadrant of the Watson Box.) Research design: – What methodological approach are you going to adopt? – Research methods, samples, methods for analysing research material. Practical and ethical issues: – Does the research raise any ethical concerns that need to be resolved? – Are there any potential problems of research access? – Are there any resource issues such as access to specialist databases or particular research software? – Are there issues of commercial confidentially or intellectual property rights? A plan or timetable: – Consider drafting a Gantt chart (as shown in Exhibit 1.10) that plots against a timeline when the major elements of the project will be done.
Exhibit 1.10
A Gantt chart for a research project
Task Define topic area, strategic questions and research questions Literature search Read literature Draft and pilot interview schedule Obtain ethical approval from the university Conduct interviews etc. Sept. Oct. Nov. Dec. Etc.
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If your research is going to adopt a grounded approach, then it will not be possible for you to predict what the key concepts and the conceptual framework might be.
Summary
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Use the six-stage process to think through your selection of a dissertation topic. Try to express your central research question as a simple and plain sentence without using academic or business jargon. Choose a research approach that is appropriate for your research question. You can mix and match your research approaches, but it is risky and you need to be sure that you understand the methodological implications of what you are doing. Think about how, practically, you will carry out the project so that you can write the dissertation. Use the Watson Box to summarise your proposal. Use the suggested list of headings to help you structure the research proposal.
Suggested reading
The standard textbooks recommended in the introductory chapter are the best places to start an exploration of research methodology. If you are considering using case studies as a main vehicle for your research then a look at Yin (1994) is recommended.
References
Altrichter, H. (1993) ‘The concept of quality in action research: giving the practitioners a voice in educational research’, in M. Schratz (ed.) Qualitative Voices in Educational Research, London: Falmer Press. British Sociological Association (2002) Statement of Ethical Practice for the British Sociological Association, available at http://www.britsoc.co.uk/ equality/63#Relationships%20with%20research% 20participants (site visited 24 May 2006). Buchanan, D. and Huczynski, A. (2001) Organisational Behaviour: An Introductory Text, 4th edn, Harlow: Prentice Hall. Crotty, M. (2003) The Foundations of Social Research. Meaning and Perspective in the Research Process, London: Sage. Dawson, P. (1994) Organisational Change: A Processual Approach, London: Paul Chapman. Elliott, J. (1991) Action Research for Educational Change, Buckingham: Open University Press.
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Fisher, C. and Lovell, A. (2000) Accountants’ Responses to Ethical Issues at Work, London: Chartered Institute of Management Accountants (CIMA). Gellner, E. (1995) ‘Anything goes’, Times Literary Supplement, 16 July: 3–4. Gill, J. and Johnson, P. (1997) Research Methods for Managers, 2nd edn, London: Paul Chapman. Homan, J. (1991) The Ethics of Social Research, Harlow: Longman. Iaffaldano, M. and Muchinsky, P. (1985) ‘Job satisfaction and job performance: a meta-analysis’, Psychological Bulletin, vol. 97: 251–273. Johnson, P. and Duberley, J. (2000) Understanding Management Research: An Introduction to Epistemology, London: Sage. Katzell, R.A., Thompson, D.E. and Guzzo, R.A. (1992) ‘How job satisfaction and job performance are and are not linked’, in C.J. Cranny, P.C. Smith and E.F. Stone (eds) Job Satisfaction: How People Feel about Their Jobs and how it Affects Their Performance, Oxford: Lexington Books. Kemmis, S. and McTaggart, R. (1982) The Action Research Planner, Geelong, Australia: Deakin University Press. Locke, L.F., Spirduso, W.W. and Wilverman, S.J. (1993) Proposals that Work: A Guide for Planning Dissertations and Research Proposals, London: Sage. McNiff, J., Lomax, P. and Whitehead, J. (1996) You and Your Action Research Project, London: Routledge and Hyde Publications. Marx, K. (1970) ‘Theses on Feuerbach’, in K. Marx and F. Engels, Selected Works in One Volume, London: Lawrence & Wishart. Milgram, S. (1963) ‘A behavioural study of obedience’, Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, vol. 67: 371–378. Mintzberg, H. (1994) The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning, Hemel Hempstead: Prentice Hall. Northcote Parkinson, C. (1961) Parkinson’s Law or the Pursuit of Progress, London: John Murray. Peters, T.J. and Waterman Jr, R. (1982) In Search of Excellence, New York: Harper & Row.
Popper, K. (2002a) Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge, London: Routledge. Popper. K. (2002b) The Logic of Scientific Discovery, London: Routledge. Porter, S. (2002) ‘Critical realist ethnography’, in T. May (ed.) Qualitative Research in Action, London: Sage. Reed, M. (1992) The Sociology of Organisations: Themes, Perspectives and Prospects, London: Harvester Wheatsheaf. Remenyi, D., Williams, B., Money, A. and Swartz, E. (1998) Doing Research in Business and Management: An Introduction to Process and Method, London: Sage. Revans, R. (1983) The ABC of Action Learning, Bromley: Chartwell-Bratt. Schön, D. (1983) The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action, New York: Basic Books. Schott, B. (2002) Schott’s Original Miscellany, London: Bloomsbury. Schütz, A. (1967) The Phenomenology of the Social World, trans. G. Walsh and F. Lehnert, Evanston, Ill.: North Western University Press. Silverman, D. (1993) Interpreting Qualitative Data, London: Sage. Somers, M.J., Dormann, C., Janssen, P.P.M., Dollard, M.F., Landeweerd, J.A. and Nijhuis, F.J.N. (2001) ‘Thinking differently: assessing nonlinearities in the relationship between work attitudes and job performance using a Bayesian neural net’, Journal of Occupational and Organisational Psychology, vol. 74, no. 1: 47–62. Watson, T.J. (1994a) In Search of Management: Culture, Chaos and Control in Management, London: Routledge. Watson, T.J. (1994b) ‘Managing, crafting and researching: words, skill and imagination in shaping management research’, British Journal of Management, vol. 5 (special issue): 77–87. Weick, K.E. (1996) Sensemaking in Organisations, Newbury Park, Calif.: Sage. Yin, R.K. (1994) Case Study Research and Design and Methods, 2nd edn, London: Sage.
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Chapter 2
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Writing a critical literature review
Contents
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Introduction The sources Searching for literature Mapping and describing the literature Describing the literature Assessing the quality of an article or book Forensic critique Soundness of arguments Evaluating arguments Radical critique The critical approach – Alistair Mutch Developing a radical critique Summary Suggested reading References
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Introduction
Finish Interpreting the research material
Framing arguments and writing up
Researching and analysing Time Writing a critical literature review
Developing a conceptual framework Confidence
Choosing a topic Planning the project Start Finding out
Confusion
Thinking
The process of researching and writing a Master’s dissertation
Your manuscript is both good and original, but the part that is good is not original and the part that is original is not good.
Attributed to Dr Samuel Johnson1
A dissertation should include a chapter in which the literature relevant to the topic is reviewed (see Chapter 6 for a suggested list of chapters for a dissertation). It should be a critical literature review. It is the purpose of this chapter to explain what a critical review is. The criticism of the literature does not have to be as hurtful as that given by Dr Johnson in the quotation above. The purpose of criticism is not to wound but to ensure that the concepts, theories and arguments that you take from the literature to help you with the dissertation are robust. The purpose of the literature review, to take a broader perspective, is to remove the need to rediscover knowledge that has already been reported. The literature review helps you
1 The quote, although often attributed to him, cannot be found in any of Johnson’s published works. See http://www.samueljohnson.com/apocryph.html.
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to build upon the work that has already been done in the field you are researching. To ensure that things have not been missed in the search it is important to show that you have searched the literature thoroughly and have identified most of the material that could be useful in the project. However, having found material in the literature does not mean that it is fit for use. It is necessary to subject the key materials you are going to use to a critical examination to make sure they are strong enough to sustain the use you are going to put them to in the dissertation. If you base the dissertation on invalid and poorly thought-through concepts and theories, then the whole dissertation will be weak. This does not mean that you must take on the most renowned authors and declare their arguments unsound. That might be a little arrogant. However, it may be necessary to identify the weaknesses and limitations of a writer’s theories and arguments or identify their inappropriateness to the particular circumstances of your project. It would be a good idea to look carefully at the marking scheme for dissertations that is provided in the introductory chapter and to review the benchmarks for the ‘literature review’ criterion. Treat this carefully, however, because the specific criteria used to mark your dissertation may be different. If you are content to be marked in the 50–59 per cent range, then it is only necessary to identify the appropriate literatures and to describe them competently. To achieve a mark in the 60–69 per cent range, a critical review of the literature is necessary. It is sufficient for this level of mark to base your criticism on those made by other writers. Even at this level, however, it would be sensible to try to form your own criticism of the work being considered. In many cases it may be that other authors have not yet written critiques of a work, in which case you will have to rely on your own resources. If the target is to be marked at a distinction level, then it is essential that you make your own evaluation of the core literature that you are using. This chapter is divided into five parts: 1. 2. 3. 4. Finding material and literature relevant to your project. Guidelines for summarising and describing the literature. Assessing the quality of an article or book. Carrying out a forensic critique of the theories and arguments in the chosen literature. A forensic critique is an evaluation of the strength of the arguments proposed in a journal article or book. 5. Critical theory (or radical critique as it is alternatively known). This makes fundamental criticisms of management and business and is another form of evaluation of theories and arguments. It often takes a moral stance and identifies the ways in which business and management can reinforce tendencies in society to exploit and discriminate against sections of the population. The use of radical critiques in management Master’s dissertations is not obligatory.
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Learning outcomes for the chapter
1 Readers will be able to search library and other information resources to find appropriate literatures for their dissertation. 2 Readers will be able to map out the literatures and identify the key concepts, theories and arguments that are necessary for their project. 3 Readers will be able to make an overall assessment of the critical quality of a book or article. 4 Readers will be able to carry out a forensic critique of the core theories, concepts and arguments that they have drawn from the literature. 5 Readers will have an awareness of radical critical perspectives and be able to make radical critiques of key themes and topics presented in the literature.
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The sources
The first task in doing a literature review is to find some literature. You need a mixture of materials, but the precise combinations will vary from topic to topic. Try to find some material from most of the categories listed below. Students often ask: ‘How many books and articles should I cite in my dissertation?’ It is impossible to give a number in answer, although it can be tempting to quote a very large number to scare them and to encourage them not to ask silly questions in future. It all depends on what literature is available and how you use the ideas, material and theory it contains. It is possible to suggest that a list of references with less than 20 items is probably too short.
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Books There are three sorts of management books as far as researchers are concerned: – textbooks – academic monographs and – ‘airport bookstall’ books. Textbooks are useful to help you orient yourself in a field of literature and as a source of references that can be followed up. They may be recognised from their characteristic use of learning devices such as learning objectives, summaries, exercises and text boxes containing illustrative material. They should not be relied upon too heavily. Academic monographs are often difficult to read, but they do alert the reader to developments arising from recent research. These books should be used selectively. ‘Airport bookstall’ books are mostly written
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in an accessible style and have attractive jackets. When they are not based on the biographies or experiences of successful managers, they are often distillations of more academic work. They are mostly presented in a ‘can do’ format, offering practical guidance for business success. Normally they have attention-grabbing titles that appear to offer solutions to all business problems. They can be assimilated within the duration of a transatlantic flight. They can be useful materials, but they should not be used uncritically because they often oversimplify and contain uncorroborated assumptions. Journals Journals fall into two main categories and you should use both. Academic journals contain articles that have been peer reviewed. This means that two or more expert referees approved the papers before they were accepted for publication. The general information or style pages, often on the inside of the front or back cover of a journal, should say whether it is peer reviewed. Non-peer-reviewed journals are often professional or trade journals. The articles in these journals are commonly simpler and shorter than those in the peer-reviewed journals. They can be useful for identifying trends, fashions and current concerns within business, but many are derivative and of questionable quality. Non-peer-reviewed journals should not be used exclusively. Managers doing MBAs and other Master’s courses in management often look at the more academic papers in horror and declare, ‘We are managers, we cannot be expected to cope with this hugely complex academic writing style.’ Well, I have some sympathy because many papers do appear to be written in a style designed to fool, impress or confuse. Nevertheless, there will be much pertinent and good material in such papers and you will need to make the effort to understand them. There are some journals, such as the Harvard Business Review, that are academically prestigious but are designedly accessible to managers as well as to academics. Journals will most likely be your main source for a research dissertation, probably being more important than books. This is because the most up-to-date research and debates will be found in journals. The World Wide Web The World Wide Web is a very useful source of material. The better search engines can be valuable in tracking down material. The Web has to be used with care, however, because it includes both high-quality material and utter tosh. Distinguishing between the two is not always easy. In preparing for writing this guide, I found a web page on semantic differential questionnaires (see p. 197). The first few pages read very sensibly and then the web page slowly became an obsessive polemic in which semantic differentials were presented as diabolic devices that bureaucrats were using to remove the liberties of the individual.
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Exhibit 2.1
The dangers of cutting and pasting from the World Wide Web
Francis Robinson (2006) reviewed a new edition of a book that describes an Indian traveller’s journey through England and Ireland in the early nineteenth century. To help the reader the publisher provided an appendix describing all the key places mentioned in the book. Unfortunately the task of compiling the appendix appears to have been given to some research assistants who did all their research using search engines and the Web. This led to some unfortunate mistakes.
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St Paul’s Cathedral, London, is mistaken for the Catholic Cathedral of St Pauls in Minneapolis in the USA. Windsor Great Park, which is to the west of London in the UK, is said to be on the south bank of the Detroit River. Windsor, Ontario, is indeed ‘noted for its several large parks and gardens found on its waterfront’ (Wikipedia, 2006). Phoenix park, which the traveller visited in Dublin, is said to be in Phoenix, the capital of Arizona.
Use of Web search engines can have the effect of undermining common sense and can give a false sense of confidence in one’s knowledge.
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In the public sector, where much of the material is in the form of official publications and reports, the Web can be the most convenient means of access to material. The DirectGov government website at http://www.direct.gov.uk/Homepage/fs/en is a good starting point. Dissertations Business schools keep copies of past Master’s dissertations produced by their students. Some are commercially confidential and cannot be consulted without the author’s permission. Many students find it comforting to see others’ efforts, and it may be worth asking to see some. Try to make sure that you are given ones that passed comfortably, otherwise you may gain a dangerously low impression of the standard you need to reach.
Searching for literature
Looking for literature these days is mostly an electronic activity of searching through a virtual library. Using a library’s online catalogue of books and other materials makes searching for books a lot easier. It is possible to access the online catalogues of academic libraries across the country. NISS (National Information Services and Systems) provides a website of links to online library catalogues at http://www.niss.ac.uk/lis/opacs.html. The
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advantages of searching for journal articles and papers by using electronic library resources is that it takes much less time, you are more likely to find what you need and, if you are lucky, the papers may be available online and you can download them or print them off.
Exhibit 2.2
An electronic library
Source: Photo by Raj Shirole
You should spend some time becoming familiar with all the services that your university or institutional library can provide by exploring both the physical library and the virtual library. You may need various user names and passwords to access the latter, and the library staff will be able to help you with these. Do not become so carried away with online searching that you forget about bibliographic serendipity, by which I mean wandering around the library shelves and current journal stands, flicking through books and reading the contents lists on the back pages of journals. It is surprising how often you chance upon useful material that you would otherwise have missed. Many academic libraries have joined a cooperative scheme so that students who live or work at a distance from their university can use libraries closer to them. A website listing the universities in the scheme can be found at http://uklibrariesplus.ac.uk/. Electronic resources There is a range of electronic resources that might be of help. These can be searched one at a time but, increasingly, electronic libraries provide metasearch facilities that allow many databases to be searched at the same time. If you want to do a search using advanced search facilities it is often best to search databases individually and not to use meta-search engines.
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Electronic journals Most libraries will subscribe to journals that are published and/or are available online. Check out which relevant publications are provided by your library.
Exhibit 2.3
A more traditional library
Full-text databases These are databases that allow you to make searches for materials using key words. They provide all the bibliographic details such as authors, titles, journal titles, date of publication, volume, issue and page numbers. They will also include abstracts of papers’ and articles’ contents. In addition, in many but not all cases they give you access to an html or pdf copy of the article itself that you can read on screen, download, print off or email to yourself. The full-text databases that you are mostly likely to use are listed below: Business Source Premier – a good all-round database. Emerald – includes all the journals published by MCB Press. European Business ASAP – covers finance, acquisitions and mergers, new technologies and products, HRM, marketing and management generally. Ingenta – a general database of papers from a number of publishers.
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Universities have to buy licences to give students access to databases. Which databases universities choose to buy licences for will, of course, vary from institution to institution. You need to explore your institution’s list of electronic resources to see what is available to you. Bibliographic databases These databases can be searched in the same way as full-text databases and provide you with all the bibliographic information and with abstracts, but they do not provide full copies of the papers and articles. If you want them you will have to find the hard copy of the journal in the library, and if the library does not have a copy you will have to order the item on interlibrary loan. Some databases you might want to use are listed below: Zetoc – provides bibliographic information on journals held by the British Library. PsycINFO – covers the field of psychology, but there are many articles that are relevant to management topics. Econlit – covers the field of economics, and again there are many relevant references especially for people working on finance topics. If you are interested in management in health care and medicine, then Medline may be worth consulting. If you are working in the public sector, especially in the social services, then ASSIA would be worth a look. Newspapers in electronic formats Newspapers are a valuable source of up-to-date information on many management topics. A number of newspapers are available as searchable databases in libraries. Newspapers, including the Financial Times, are also available as online editions on the World Wide Web. Financial and marketing databases Strictly speaking these are primary resources rather than secondary materials and so would find their place in the ‘results and analysis’ part of the dissertation rather than in the literature review. Nevertheless, here is a convenient place to mention them. FAME is the main financial database. It provides updated financial information on 130,000 companies in the United Kingdom and Ireland. Mintel is one of the main marketing databases. These or other databases will be available at your university library. Building up your list of references It might be worthwhile to check up on the Harvard system of referencing (see p. 343) before you start collecting material. Then you can be sure to
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record all the necessary bibliographic details as you identify the books and papers. This will save you much time. As I have discovered to my cost, it can take hours, after you have finished writing the dissertation, to track down the missing details (year of publication, page numbers for quotations) of material you have cited but that you forgot to record properly. This is time you can ill afford when you are struggling to get the dissertation finished by the deadline. It is much easier to be conscientious about the detail from the start. It is also worth considering whether you are going to use some specialist citation software (see p. 255) to help you with building up your bibliography.
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Mapping and describing the literature
In most cases the literature search identifies a lot of material – probably more than can be sensibly dealt with in a Master’s dissertation. So the next step in conducting a literature review is to map out and identify the key works and material in the literature. This exercise has two purposes. It is necessary for you to show the person who marks your dissertation that you are aware of the breadth of literature relating to your topic. But it is also necessary, for your sanity, as well as to meet the marker’s expectations, to show that you can prioritise the literature and identify the key works, theories or concepts that will be of value in the conduct of your project.
Describing the literature
Describing and mapping the literature relevant to your research project is a step-by-step process that moves from the general to the specific. It is an editing process. 1. Prepare a ‘map’ showing the location of all the appropriate literatures The first step involves identifying the different fields of literature that may be appropriate to the study without, at this stage, looking at any of it in detail. By literature I mean a collection of books and papers that deal with the same issues and that respond to each other in the developing debates about a topic. It follows from this definition that there will be many literatures rather than one solitary and unified literature. But it is up to you to draw the boundaries between them. This can be done by skimming through textbooks and following up the references they give, and by dipping into the journal literature via the abstracts in the bibliographic databases. Figure 2.1 shows a ‘map’ of the literatures that I thought were relevant when I was planning some research into the fates and attitudes of the sur-
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vivors of downsizing. The main theme of the dissertation is shown in the middle of the map in bold font. There are a number of key researchers who have written research papers specifically on the subject. There is also a large literature, mostly in journals, that focuses on downsizing as a strategy and on its financial consequences for companies. This literature suggests that the demoralisation of survivors may be a contributory factor to the poor performance of organisations post-downsizing. This link makes the downsizing literature relevant to the project. The literature on redundancy concentrates on the managerial processes involved in choosing people for redundancy. The organisational justice literature assesses such processes and evaluates them for fairness. As it is likely that people’s judgements about the fairness of redundancy processes will be a factor in their reactions to it, this literature is also relevant. The literature on emotion in organisation is not directly relevant to downsizing; but because downsizing is an emotional issue there may be some insights from the literature that will be helpful in the study. Finally, in psychology there is a well-established literature on people’s reactions to trauma. It suggests a sequence of reactions beginning with disbelief, moving through shock and anger and culminating with readjustment. As being a survivor of downsizing may be as much a trauma as being a victim of it, this literature might provide some helpful frameworks.
Downsizing literature Literature on redundancy
Literature on emotion in organisations
Literature on survivors Pyschology of grieving
Organisational justice literature
Figure 2.1 Mapping the literature
In the literature review it is important to identify the major literatures relevant to a project, without going into detail, and to explain why they might be significant. The important skill at this stage is to be able to condense or précis large volumes of literature so that the essential views or arguments they contain can be presented in a small number of words.
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2. Present an argument about which literatures you are going to concentrate on Normally the map of the literatures will contain more fields than can be managed in the literature review. It is important to reduce it to two or three. In the first step of the literature review, credit may be scored for showing an awareness of the broad scope of the literature. In this phase credit may gained by choosing the key literatures that will be helpful to the particular study being conducted. In the example of the ‘survivors of downsizing study’, I chose the literature on survival and the psychology of grieving and emotion in organisation as the key ones for the study I wished to do. The choice of literature will reflect the angle or perspective you wish to take on a topic. 3. Provide an overview of the chosen literature At this stage it is necessary to give a more detailed description of the literature chosen. When you come to write up this chapter, the overview will provide the bulk of the material. It is important to think carefully about how you will structure it. The way not to structure an account of the literature is to work through a list of works one at a time. Exhibit 2.4, as a caricature, shows how not to do it. Reading an annotated list such as that shown in Exhibit 2.4 is very boring, especially as the first sentence of each paragraph has exactly the same structure. The citations are technically correct but padded out. Do we really need to have the title of the work or the magazine spelt out in the text? The writer telling us whether they enjoyed a work does not constitute a critique, although it may be a criticism. But most importantly, there is no account given of the ideas, theories and material that are presented in the works cited.
Exhibit 2.4
How not to write a literature review
Wood (1965) wrote an article in the Journal of Panopticon Studies that argued that the metaphor of the panopticon was very important. The article is hard to read and uses big words. Smith (1966) wrote a book called Jeremy Bentham’s Lessons for Modern Managers. This is a very enjoyable read and contains many practical lessons for managers. He claims that the panopticon would be a good basis for modern office layout planning. Jones (1967) in an article for the Bored Accountant magazine mentions the panopticon. Etc. ad nauseam (i.e. until you feel sick).
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Your account of the literature should be structured thematically. You should draw out of the works you are using the main themes, questions or issues that are discussed. These should become the sub-headings within the chapter. Under each sub-heading it is necessary to give an account of the relevant theories and the evidence provided in support of them. The discussion should be comparative, weighing one writer’s views and evidence against those presented by others. Similarities and differences should be identified and their significance, if any, explained. One way of thematically structuring an account of the literature is shown below: 1. Identify the main ‘camps’, ‘waves’, ‘schools’, ideological stances or positions. There are always arguments and debates within a field of literature. It is necessary to describe the nature of these arguments. Identify the dominant or loudest voices in the debates. 2. Compare and contrast them. Decide the depth of the disagreement between the parties and their arguments. Sometimes the differences are great and significant. On other occasions the differences are trivial to all except those involved in the argument. 3. Evaluate their strengths and weaknesses. If the differences are significant, decide which side of the argument you believe to be stronger. Literature reviews can often become detached from the project they are in support of. The discussion of theories and authors may develop its own momentum, and no links are made to the research questions that the dissertation is seeking to answer. The way to overcome this is to state the relevance of each piece of theory to the topic of the dissertation by using sentences similar to the following:
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Mintzberg’s theory of structure in fives provides a means of analysing the organisational changes that are the subject of this dissertation. … this quotation mirrors the situation that has motivated the research project. Hamel and Prahalad’s work identifies a number of factors that should be considered when researching … An insight into employees’ responses to downsizing in my case study organisations can be gained from Broeckner’s work on … Socio-technical theory integrates the two key aspects of this study into …
It is important to follow up these statements with an account of their significance for your project. There is nothing more frustrating to the reader than to be informed that something is ‘critical’ and then left without an explanation why.
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If you cannot think of a way in which a piece of theory or literature aids your thinking and research into your topic, then it is likely you need not include it. A dissertation is not a place to display your encyclopaedic knowledge of a topic, unless it is relevant to your theme. 4. Provide an argument to explain and justify the shortlist of theories, concepts, frameworks or techniques that you have chosen for use in your project By this stage a small part of the literature will have been identified that will be useful to the project. It may be down to a handful of concepts, theories and arguments. These will provide basic working materials for the project. At this stage the literature review merges into the process of developing a conceptual framework that will be considered in the next chapter. 5. Provide a critical account of the chosen concepts, theories or arguments This is a detailed review of particular theories designed to test their fitness of purpose for use in the project. One student was researching the introduction of teamworking at his place of work. This sentence could be found in his draft literature review chapter:
Dunphy and Bryant (1996), for example, identify three forms of team, each of which is most suited to the pursuit of a particular aspect of performance. While simple, multi-skilled teams are thus most likely to impact most heavily on an organisation’s costs, self-managed teams will have their main effects on value, and self-led teams on innovation.
At face value it appears that this piece of theory might be very helpful in understanding the introduction of teamworking into a particular organisation. It would allow questions to be asked such as whether the organisation had chosen the most appropriate form of teamworking for introduction. However, this sentence was all that was said; and it was inadequate. A more critical and extensive account needed to be given (assuming that the theory was going to be helpful) by answering some of the following questions:
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How were the three types of teams defined? In particular, what is the difference between self-led and self-managed teams? At first glance these last two seem similar. How does this threefold analysis of team types differ from other writers’ classifications? Is the claim that each type of team delivers a different strategic outcome (cost reduction, value and innovation) based on sound research?
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How well supported is it by other researchers and writers? Are these claims logically and consistently argued for in the work? How useful might this theory be to the student’s own project?
The best literature reviews are those where themes and ideas are taken from the literature, evaluated, and then woven into a coherent argument about the subject matter of the dissertation. There are three main aspects of criticising the literature: 1. assessing the quality of a article or book 2. forensic analysis 3. radical critique. Methods and techniques that may help you with these three tasks are explained in the rest of this chapter. It is perhaps worth pointing out that the first two aspects are obligatory for all dissertations; the third, radical critique, is not necessarily expected by your markers but may still be a sensible and useful addition to your critique of the literature. Note taking Describing the content of the books and articles you find in your literature search means you will have to take notes. Unfortunately, simply using a highlighter pen on the book or article you are reading will not be sufficient. (It can actually be a problem in note taking if, as I have often seen, nearly all the sentences in a work are highlighted.) Highlighting is a very helpful stage in making notes but the passages highlighted need to be thought about and transferred into one’s own notes using one’s own words for learning to take place. Note taking is a process of editing or ‘gutting’ a work to identify the key material and involves looking for the following things in the work:
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How does the work being annotated fit into the wider academic debate on the subject? What are the main findings, conclusions or arguments presented in the work? For each of the above: – What arguments are presented to support the finding or conclusion? – What evidence is presented? – What authorities (i.e. well-established authors) are quoted as supporting the finding or conclusion? Are there any particular data, arguments and/or quotations that might be useful and should be noted? Are there any books, articles, electronic resources cited in the list of references that might be worth chasing up?
These headings could be used to write your notes.
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Assessing the quality of an article or book
This first aspect of critiquing a book or article involves making an overall judgement of its worth so as to be able to decide whether it deserves a more detailed forensic critique. You need to decide whether the piece is of good quality and ought to be included in your literature review. This can be done by skim reading the piece and considering the following issues and questions. The provenance Some journals, and some publishers of academic books, have more prestige than others. We have already seen that some journals are peer reviewed and others are not. In general, articles in peer-reviewed journals should be more reliable than those in non-peer-reviewed publications. This is not an infallible rule, however. It would be foolish to ignore a paper just because it was published by an unregarded journal. The status of the journal is just one piece of information you have to consider. If you wish you can further establish the credentials of a journal by looking at one of the league tables of academic journals that are available. These league tables claim to rank academic journals according to their quality. The list published by Bristol Business School can be found on the World Wide Web at http://www.uwe.ac.uk/bbs/research/jlists.shtml#top. References The next step is to turn to the back of the book or article and look at the list of references. This will give a rough and ready guide to how well the author(s) have used the literature.
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Are there many references? But bear in mind that too many can be as much of a weakness as too few. Check the ratio of books to journal articles. Generally the higher the proportion of articles, the more up to date and embedded in the literature the piece will be. Are the journal references to well-established and regarded journals?
Precision of the writing When you skim read the book or article consider the care that the authors take in expressing their arguments. Are there many sweeping statements or many unsubstantiated assumptions? Statements such as ‘corporate real estate management is the critical factor in organisational success’, especially if it comes near the beginning of a piece, is probably both sweeping and unsubstantiated; and does not suggest that great care is being taken in developing arguments. Also consider whether the key concepts used in the work have been carefully defined. For example, if someone is writing
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about virtual teams in organisations and claims that they can be of any size, indeed they can have an almost infinite number of members, and can be formed of anonymous participants, then the definition is so all-encompassing that the term ‘virtual teams’ loses most of its value. It becomes impossible to make any useful generalisations about such an amorphous concept. The more precise and careful writers are with their language, the better the quality of their work. Description or analysis A good piece of academic writing will have a mixture of description and analysis. Descriptive writing tells us what is but does not attempt to classify and organise the material; nor does it seek to draw any theoretical inferences from the material. A book or article that is purely descriptive is likely to be of lesser quality than one which adds analysis to description. If a researcher has conducted many interviews we do not simply want to be told what the interviewees said, although of course that is of interest, we also want to be told what is significant and what is trivial in what they said. We also need to know what insights and generalisations might be drawn from their testimonies. This often requires that the findings are discussed in the light of the theories available in the literature. One should not be too prim about this matter. Sometimes we use an article or a book not because of its analysis or theorising but because it provides raw material, research findings, that we can use to strengthen the analysis of our own research material. Quite often we will cite a book or article because of a single fact or insight it contains and we will ignore the bulk of its contents. Research evidence Check whether the book or article contains research evidence that is used to support its arguments and contentions. It is perfectly proper, of course, to write a purely theoretical piece that is based on the literature. Indeed, C Wright Mills (1959: 205) in the appendix on ‘intellectual craftsmanship’ wrote:
Now I do not like to do empirical work if I can possibly avoid it … there is no more virtue in empirical enquiry as such than reading as such.
Nevertheless, research has to be conducted to resolve the matters of fact that the preliminary reading and reasoning have identified. In general terms a piece of work that includes some appropriate and well-conducted research will be more u

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