Why philosophy matters to your research project

This Slavoj Zizek video illustrates very well why and for what we need philosophy in our research design. Simply because philosophy helps us to formulate the right research question. Because there are not only wrong answers but also wrong questions.

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How to use theory in research

You should have clear whether your research will adopt a deductive or inductive approach. The basic difference between both is regarding its relation to theory. Deductive approach aims to take a theory on your topic as a reference, develop an hypothesis based on such theory and then, after the collection on data, this hypothesis is tested; while inductive approach aims to collect data and develop theory as a result of your data analysis.

Perhaps it is worthy remember what is exactly theory. In the previous post Working at theory level when #formulatingaresearch ? it was underlined that theory consists of a relationship between cause and effect that it is not only present in the research world but also in our daily life. We all attempt to solve the daily problems that we have to face up in a similar way as scientist. We all constantly make hypotheses and check them according to our experience. Why do you usually take the bus number 3 if the 12, 22 and 48 also go to your destination?. Perhaps because according to your experience, the bus 12 is the least crowded. This schemata that you have in your mind derive in a theory, in your own theory. In doing your own research it works in much the same way.

In our Thurday 22th of November 2012 lecture we saw a frivolous but very illustrative example of theory to understand what theory means. In the right side of this post you can see a number of picutres describing the feeling of cats according to the position of the tail. Despite how reliable the conclusions are, the truth is that the author of such “research” have develop a theory consisting of relating cause and effects.

We tend to think that construction of theory is something exclusive for experieced reseachers. It is somehow true if you consider theory just “Grand theory”, i.e., the one that such researchers as Einstain, Newton have developed and that have somehow changed the way we think about the wold. You, as undergradute, will unlike develop this kind of theories. Equally, you are rather unprobably to develop the so called Middle-range theories, those that despite not having changed the way we think about the world, have changed prominently a specific field of knowledge, i.e. theories made by the authors that you will be dealing with in your literature of review. However, Creswell (2002) also suggests the existence of a third type of theories, known as substantive theories, which are restricted to a “particular time, research setting, group of population or problem”. For example, the evolution of luxury products demand in China last decade, the evolution of SMs companies in Greece or the Talent management strategy of SMs companies in China, as well as many other research topic suggested.

Coming back to the focus of this post, difference between deduction and induction, the former one refers to a research process consisting of testing a theory about our research question. I do not think that any of you, as Bachelor in Management student wants to research on how cats behave, but it is going to be pretty clear what deductive approach means following this example. You might test the different tail position of your cat at home just by observing and taking notes and finally conclude whether the theory is right or not. It does not apply for animals, but observation is, together with in-depth interviews and focus group, one of the most representative qualitative methods which is used, by the way, in research projects that has adopted a “interpretativist” or “feeling” philosophy.

What about inductive approach? The process would be precisely the opposite, i.e., it would consist of developing a theory after the collection of information. If you spend hours observing the behaviour of customer in a supermarket and taking notes about them, perhaps it enables you to develop a theory, neither “Grand theory”, nor a “middle-range theory” but a “substantive theory”. The same may occured after analysing the results of a survey or the collection of secondary data. If, for example, your research aims to understand the relation between evolution of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and unemployment rate in the world, you could develop, after collecting data from United Nations statistic division, a theory consisting of classify countries according both variables.

World map showing countries by nominal GDP per...

World map showing countries by nominal GDP per capita in 2008, IMF estimates as of April 2009. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

At this point you may be wondering whether your research will be deductive or inductive. Perhaps the most important criteria is the topic of your research. Some research topics lends itself for deduction and other for induction. It is going to depend basicly in the existing literature. A topic on which there is a wealth of literature from which you can define a theoretical framework and a hypothesis lends itself more to deduction. With research into a topic which is new and there is a little existing literature, it maybe more appropiate to work inductively.
Finally, despite the division of both approache made in this post, the truth is that not only they are compatible but often their combination is an advantage.

References

Becker, H. S. (2007). Writing for social scientists: How to start and finish your thesis, book, or article University of Chicago Press.

Camino, J. R. (2011). Cómo escribir y publicar una tesis doctoral ESIC Editorial.

Lewis, P., Saunders, M. N. K., & Thornhill, A. (2009). Research methods for business students Pearson.

Karen Nichols. Aug 29th 2009. The Telltale Tail. Catster. Retrieved from http://www.catster.com/lifestyle/the-telltale-tail

World map showing countries by nominal GDP per capita in 2008. IMF. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Ontology in research

Imagine all managers in a given organization leave and are replaced by new ones. Would such alteration have an important impact on the organization itself? Would the organization keep being the same? If you as researcher consider that such change is irrelevant to understand the organization itself, it means that your ontological position is rather objectivist. You would tend to think that changing managers doesn’t affect the object of your research purpose. Hence you think that the organization is defined by its formal structure regardless who is a member. In other words, you would focus on procedures, policies and resources and all those things that are independent from people within the organization. This is actually a perspective that comes from the natural science.

On the contrary, if you think that such changes would have a high impact on the organization to the extent that it is possible to consider it a different organization, then your ontological position would rather be subjectivist. In that case, it is the human perspective of those who compose the organization what inform about its proper existence.

Once said this, we can now purpose a more theoretical definition of ontology. It is a branch of the so called metaphysic that study the nature or being, becoming, existence or reality. In other words the study of what may be seen as existent or not. Actually, many traditional questions of the philosophy can be understood as ontological questions: does God exist? Do mental entities as ideas or thoughts exist? Do abstract entities as numbers exist?

What are the implications or one or another ontological position in terms of one´s research project. Every research project always deals with some kind of organization: neighborhoods, companies, cities, etc. They may be more or less abstract, but organizations after all. The point here is that assuming its existence or not will largely determine the rest of the research process in terms of, for instance, the way we collect information. Assuming an objectivist philosophy your research will focus on the formal structure of the organization, i.e. countable things like in which parts are divided, how many people, how many, let´s say, computers, etc. You would not consider any information coming from those people involved. Hence you will be more prone to use a more quantitative approach, meaning applying more quantitative methods like questionnaires, content analysis or secondary data.

What if you apply a more subjectivist point of view? Logically the opposite, you will omit any information coming from the formal structure of the organization and move on the informal one. What is it exactly? Those things that are not written anywhere but still exist. Those things that one can’t measure (or at least at a first glance) but one think they are still important. They way organization’s members see each other, the way they interact, the hidden hierarchies among them and many other details of human situations. As well as objectivism lead you apply more quantitative methods, subjectivism lead you to do the same with more qualitative ones like in-depth interviews, observation, mass-observation, focus group, etc.

Choosing one of another ontological position normally depends on the researcher’s way of thinking. Should you are more kind of human observer; you will tend to adopt a subjectivist position. Should you are a more number-centered person; objectivism is going to fit you better. However, it must be said that there is a tendency to consider ontology as a continuum, that is, to avoid radical positions as far as both may provide with rich and complementary information.

According to my personal experience, one may avoid the “ontological dilemma” and go ahead with the rest of the research design. However, considering the ontology of one’s research project contributes to better understand the universe under study, as well as organize one´s idea at the always difficult beginning of the research process. With regard to PhD dissertations, it’s also recommendable to raise this issue both in the research proposal and the submitted document. In the research proposal because it informs the supervisor about one’s decision. This may also give way to a helpful feedback. In the final document because it informs the readers about one’s philosophical alignment. This will both orient them throughout the whole reading of the document, and will also alert him/her in case they want to do some critiques in future works on the same topic.

Are you forced to assume a philosophy for your research?

If after reading the previous post on positivism and interpretativism philosophy you think that choicing one or another is still unrealistic in practice you might be interesting on adopting the view of pragmatism. This view argues that more important than the research philosophy is the research question. The pragmatism view also argues that is perfectly possible to work with combination of “resources” and “feeling” researchers´ views, as well as the combination of both objectivist and subjectivist philosophy. Consequently, it mixes methods, both qualitative and quantitative, something which is, actually, very recomendable.

Tashakkori and Teddlie (1998) suggest that it is more appropiate for the researcher in a particular study to think of the philosophy adopted as a continuum rather than opposite positions.

References

Lewis, Philip, Mark NK Saunders, and Adrian Thornhill. Research methods for business students. Pearson, 2009.
Tashakkori, Abbas, and Charles Teddlie. Mixed methodology: Combining qualitative and quantitative approaches. Vol. 46. Sage Publications, Incorporated, 1998.

Understanding research philosophies

The point of this post is not about choosing one or another philosophy for your research. Actually, you could skip this topic and begin thinking about whether you will use questionnaire or secondary data method. The point here is enhancing your understanding of the way in which we approach the study of a particular field. Bear in mind that the philosophy you assume will influence the way you answer your research question.

Although philosophy might sound very profound, this term just refers to the development of knowledge and the nature of such knowledge.

Three questions you must answer for a major understanding of the process of developing knowledge and its nature:

  1. Is your organization independent of its members? (Ontology)
  2. Are you a “resources” or “feeling” researcher? (Epistemology)
  3. What roles do our values play in our research? (Axiology)