Research Methods

It is reasonable to assume that any academic subject needs a methodology when trying to reach a conclusion. Thus it must have ways of producing and analysing data so that theories can be tested, accepted or rejected. In other words, without a systematic way of producing knowledge, the findings of a subject may be dismissed as either being guesswork or just plain common sense made to sound more complicated than necessary (Haralambos 19952). When producing research papers, the methodology employed is concerned then with both the research methods and more general philosophies upon which the collection and analysis of data are based, and it arguably combines both a positivist and interpretivist approach. This is the philosophy of this essay, to identify whether a journal article can neatly fit into one approach or the other, or if indeed it combines the beliefs of both above approaches.

Before any assumptions are made, it is first necessary to identify the main differences between the two approaches, so that we have a foundation for any conclusion that we make. Firstly positivists, usually employ the use of scientific quantitative methods, before drawing to any conclusions, and the second approach adopts a more humanistic, qualitative manner when seeking conclusions from theories. Those who criticise the research methods of positivists believe that positivists reject philosophical study, it is a bourgeois philosophy and it is only based on scientific fact, which is how a methodology is reached6. Founded by Auguste Comte, and was a direct result of the need to solve philosophical problems, that without proof was only based on assumptions and beliefs, ideas that were only interpretative in nature. Therefore, those ideas that can not be resolved by experience are based on substance and causes, are according to positivist writers, inaccurate and invalid8.

So what is the philosophical bases of the journal article, titled, “career management practices: an empirical survey and implications”(Baruch and Peiperl1)? Based on my own interpretation, the writers wanted to identify different methods of career development within British companies to understand them and establish how they are used in different situations, and if they are associated with different organisational characteristics. The foundation for any assumptions and conclusions made are based on the surmise that careers are shaped by an organisation, which is based on fact gained from other studies undertaken. The final outcome is a model, which is the first empirical model of its kind and therefore the philosophical basis is one that is concerned with matters of fact. At hindsight, then it is a positivist article, as it identifies different methods, attempts to justify why they are used and devises a model to explain how groups of practices can be understood and applied.

This is both scientific and logical, an alternative writer would for example, firstly devise the model and attempt to apply it using meaning and subjective reasoning9. This claim is supported by how the writers, identify their sources to establish a comprehensive view on which they were to base their findings. For instance, they first considered several sources so that they may reach an established list of 17 OCM practices (organisational career management). To test that this list covered a whole range of OCM practices, they undertook a pilot study. Thus scientific reasoning supports all assumptions. However, it could be argued that because some of the views associated within this article are said to be based on a number of different social sciences, it suggests, for instance, the kind of career management practices could be based on both theoretical thinking (interpretivist) and empirical evidence (positivist)7.

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A positivist writer would also identify objectives before they begin their research, this is the approach the writers took in this journal article. There are two proposals, which I can identify.

Firstly the wide range of OCM practices will naturally cluster into groups, according to their common use and inter-correlations among the practices. Secondly, the groups of practices will be associated with certain characteristics of organizations such as size, age, unionism and climate.

According to Comte, scientific study should be confined to collecting information about phenomena – which can objectively be observed and classified. Then by using statistics, it is possible to classify the social world in an objective way, by counting sets of observable facts. From this any correlation’s between the different facts can be identified, searching for causal connections (Comte 19863), if there is a strong correlation then a positivist will suspect that one of these phenomena was causing the other to take place9. For instance, in the paper, the writers suggest that perhaps larger organisations will use more formal and highly structured OCM practices than smaller ones. Thus it is an inductive methodology, by creating an applied model, the writers nicely fit into this category. In addition, they stipulate clearly that they are approaching the philosophical basis “purely inductively”(Baruch and Peiperl 20001) by arguing that it is impossible to develop a specific hypothesis, without evidence. In other words, this paper begins with collecting a vast amount of qualitative data, the data is analysed, theories are developed from analysis, then the theory is tested against other sets of data to see if it is confirmed or not.

To collect the data, they developed a survey, referring to the set of OCM practices, asking the HR manager for each company to state on a scale of 1 to 7 which practices they used the most. They also asked a series of questions about the demographics of the firm. The 194 sample itself was identified from the personnel managers’ yearbook, of which they undertook a two-layered random sample of 524 companies that employed 500 people or more. The questionnaire was also pre-tested on a sub-sample of 20 HR directors, and out of the 524 targeted they received a 37% return. The research unit of analysis was, therefore, the organisation, and positivism is the view that all genuine knowledge is based on experience, and therefore, can only be advanced by means of observation or experiment on a tangible object (Haralambos 19952). The writers clearly were attempting to be empirical in their techniques, by seeking comprehension on a philosophical idea, as said previously, positivists are empiricists.

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From the returned questionnaires, a frequency distribution of OCM practices was used to determine which were used most and least frequently and whether additional practices should have been included. Then they used factor analysis (varimax rotation) to see whether the OCM practices clustered together, (this method was also applied in the former studies successfully, which not only eradicated any inconsistencies, it allowed for comparison). Finally, they ran a correlation analysis of the resulting factors with the organisational characteristics, to determine whether there were any strong links between these and the OCM practice. In each of the above stages, they summarised the information into individual data tables so that they may systematically analyse the data.

Karl Popper (interpretivist) in his book “logic of scientific discovery” (Popper 19594) talks about reversing the process of inductivity and tests it against the evidence rather than developing a theory as a result of examining data, this is also a major difference between the two approaches. As interpretivist would start with a hypothesis or statement that is to be tested, so on the bases of hypothesis, it is possible to deduce predictions about future, an example of this is Newton’s law of gravity. It’s fair to say that sometimes positivist approaches are just not appropriate. However, in this case, by identifying that the use of statistical tools in trying to apprehend a meaning has its limitations. As there is not grounded theory of OCM practice, so they set themselves the task of identifying one.

By believing that substance is more important than significance, the writers evaluated and interpreted a meaning for the individual clusters, they then sought a reason that might explain the pattern of relationship amongst them. Interpretivists however, see the world in terms of meanings, arguing that people do not react automatically to stimuli as positivists claim. Instead, they interpret the meaning of stimuli before responding to it, for example, motorists’ response to a red light is not an automatic response as they firstly attach a meaning to it10. It’s also impossible to arrive at conclusions, without some degree of influencing findings and research, however, so interpretivists are concerned with the situation, not the disposition.

The writers tried to construct a hierarchical model that might suggest which practices were used in a kind of sequence of sophistication from least to most; however, they were convinced with evaluation that no such linear hierarchy existed. So they developed a descriptive model, which comprises of two dimensions, the level of sophistication of the OCM practices and the level of involvement on the part of the organisation necessary to put them to use. They found that a larger number of organisations’ activities centred on one or two of the OCM clusters. By applying their model to two companies, HSBC and Unilever, they are also once more stepping into the positivist approach.

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Arguably, the approach is not that far from deductive, as it does consider other elements before it uses a scientific approach, but the substance and causes are established as a result of the scientific reasoning, which is why it’s essentially a positivist paper. It argues that most of the other research is based on unchecked experience, which is also why it’s a positivist approach, as it aims was to remove all speculative attempts and provide the reader with more solid evidence. Those who use scientific methods believe it is highly desirably and are critical of those who study subjective and unobservable statistics. This is why it is often called objectivism and the main criticisms are that it assumes humans and social systems are objective and predictable, which is very rarely the case, according to interpretivists.

So at one end of the scale sits empiricism with extreme logical consequences, as it aims to bring knowledge and “no amount of speculation can be deemed as knowledge”(Haralambos 19952). Then on the opposite end, sits those who believe that it is not possible to objectively measure and classify the world, as there is “no objective reality beyond the subjective meaning”, which is why the term phenomenology is often attributed to interpretivism (Haralambos 19952). It is fair to say, therefore, that there are two types of knowledge: matters of fact, how things are though observation and experiment, and knowledge of logic and mathematics – not about the world at all. I maintain that interpretative and qualitative approaches should be used to supplement positivist methodology, as suggested initially, a view also held by Popper (Popper 19594) who believes that research should be scientific, but deductive as opposed to inductive. The two approaches work well together, as positivism is useful for elaborating whether and how strongly phenomena may be connected to each other, and interpretivists are more concerned with why. Although the journal article in this instance takes largely a positivist stance, there are some trace elements of interpretivism associated with the research undertaken, therefore, I conclude that no viable empirical research can neatly fit into a positivist or interpretivist view of the world.

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