A quest for depth and breadth of insight through combination of positivism and phenomenology
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A quest for depth and breadth of insight through combination of positivism and phenomenology

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Dr. Awais e Siraj Managing Director Genzee Solutions, A Strategy, Balanced Scorecard, Scenario Planning, Competency Based Human Resource Management Consulting Company

Dr. Awais e Siraj Managing Director Genzee Solutions, A Strategy, Balanced Scorecard, Scenario Planning, Competency Based Human Resource Management Consulting Company

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A quest for depth and breadth of insight through combination of positivism and phenomenology A quest for depth and breadth of insight through combination of positivism and phenomenology Document Transcript

  • A Quest for Depth and Breadth of Insight through Combination of Positivism and Phenomenology By: Dr. Awais e Siraj, Managing Director and CEO Genzee Solutions, Islamabad, PakistanIntroduction and Framework Positivism and phenomenology are two extreme positions of epistemology.Positivism is objective information whereas phenomenology is subjective. Eachhas been argued as a great contrivance to knowledge creation by its enthusiasts.However, positivism or phenomenology is never sufficient in respective solitudeto provide enough depth and breadth required for reaching an optimumontological solution because of the ‘extreme’ position each one occupies on thespectrum. The argument put forward in this essay is that the end itself is far moreimportant than the means thus unnecessary deliberations concentrating onmethodology which can potentially distract and distort the core issue ofexploration must be avoided. It is argued that a better approach is to combine thetwo extreme methods somewhere close to the middle of spectrum to avoidunwarranted loss of energy and passion of researcher and get maximum outputin the form of information, data and knowledge. A combination of both will alsohelp in building the confidence of the researcher so as to make sure that nopossible stone has been left unturned to reach a conclusive line of reasoning.Therefore, only a research carried out using multiple methodologies, a variety ofsources, numerous observers and an assortment of theoretical perspectivesshould provide and the depth and breadth necessary.Discussion The Greek word epistemology consists of two parts: episteme – meaningknowledge and logy – meaning mind. In short it is the study of “how we can knowwhat we think we know”. (CLMS M1, U2: 10) Among many competing positionsof epistemology, positivism and phenomenology are at two extremes andtherefore a source of major debate. Positivism, as defined by Alan Bryman (2008: 697) is “an epistemologicalposition that advocates the application of the methods of natural sciences to thestudy of social reality and beyond”. Positivists stand for value – free and objectivescience free of personal, religious or political values and assume that social andcultural forces influencing human activity are independent of human cognitivethinking. The core concept revolves around systematic observation and rationalthinking in order to eliminate biases and prejudices. Positivism sees socialscience as an “organized method for combining deductive logic with preciseempirical observations of individual behavior in order to rediscover and confirm aset of probabilistic causal laws that can be used to predict general patterns ofhuman activity” (Neuman & Kreugar: 2003) Turner (1985) defends positivist 1
  • approach by saying that “social universe is amenable to the development ofabstract laws that can be tested through the careful collection of data”. Positivism is a “theory – testing” position and positivists believe that socialresearchers are scientists. Positivists hold the view that “what you measure iswhat you get” and “what gets measured is what gets done” and “what gets doneonce can be imitated over and over” or “if you cannot measure it, it does notexist”. The common word here is ‘measurement’. In order to collect credible and‘measurable’ information from a positivist perspective, the researcher has to workhard in the ‘designing’ stages of research and need to make all attempts to makeresearch tools (questionnaire etc.) as specific and measurable as possible. Thisstance of positivism results in a collection of impartial, objective and unprejudicedfindings in research. Positivists are at the advantage of collecting large amounts of data because oftheir clear, concise and simple tools. The data thus collected can be processedthrough sophisticated analytical tools. With a clear theoretical converge onresearch right from the inception, the researcher finds it easy to latch on to theundertaking till its completion. The data obtained is thus akin to an existingresearch or is itself comparable to ‘measurable’ indicators. This method mimicsnatural sciences research. However, by reducing people to numbers, positiviststend to disconnect lives of human beings through the use of abstract laws andformulas. Inflexibility is the core hindrance for positivism. Once the researcherhas started the process of data collection, it becomes almost impossible tochange the course en route. Another shortcoming of positivism that has receiveda lot of attention from philosophers is its inability to understand, record andincorporate the social and cognitive processes that continue to dominate themind of the subject under study. The core aim or a social researcher is to exploreand discover the ‘social phenomenon’ and positivism does not provide a goodsource for its investigation. Phenomenology is defined as “a philosophy that is concerned with thequestion of how individuals make sense of the world around them and how inparticular the philosopher should bracket out preconceptions concerning his ofher grasp of that world”. (Bryman: 2008: 697) Phenomenology is just theconverse of positivism. While the entire convergence of concentration inpositivism is objectivity, phenomenology takes human ‘values’ as their god.Given that values cannot be measured, a phenomenologist would study humansubjects as something more than the sum of its parts. Phenomenology is a“theory – building” proposition and phenomenologist take into account the humancapacity of thinking, cognition, perceptivity, and reasoning at different time –frames, stages of life and mental states being held by the humans. Phenomenology bolsters our empirical credence and know-how by making uscognizant of the fact that our consciousness also has to justify the evidenceavailable in objective form through justification. According to Husserl “The 2
  • critique of knowledge seeks to clarify, to bring to light, the essence of knowledgeand the legitimacy of its claim to validity, a claim that belongs to itsessence”.(Husserl 1931) From this perspective a phenomenologists task,therefore is to highlight and substantiate the authenticity if claims by knowledgerather than producing the knowledge per se. Phenomenology is a source of goodreason against cynic arguments not consisting of propositions of which we haveknowledge, rather in propositions about epistemological considerations andclassifications under which they are categorized. Phenomenology is notresponsible for deciding the knowledge that we have except what relates to ourperspicacity. The natural sciences produce knowledge, without knowing knowledge per sewhereas phenomenological inquiries contribute significantly to knowledge. It isnot required to be impregnable in our beliefs, but also understand why we areimpregnable. A similar set of question is relevant to our understanding ofepistemology and ontology. It is, in short, the desire to know the cognitiverelationship of the world around us. Phenomenology therefore is a discipline withits own subject matter which is of fundamental philosophical concern. It hasestablished its worth by proving its “scientificity” against criticism which is drivenpure philosophically thus making more sense because of the fact thatphilosophical explanations stand closely with our cultural heritage of theunderstanding of science and knowledge and helps in clarifying a host of unclearand unsolved enigmas. A phenomenologist would be at the advantage of gaining deeper insight ofthe inquisitive nature of sociological challenges. Malcolm Williams argues thatphenomenological process of research forms the basis of interpretavist researchand the data can help in understanding ‘bigger picture’ through the process ofgeneralization. “Moderatum” is the term used by Williams in this context as hebelieves that the foundation of interpretavist research is essentially ‘moderate’.Phenomenological studies are helpful in explaining the thoughts and ideas ofhuman attitude. They also safeguard the contemplations and contentions whichform an inherent way of thinking. Phenomenologists do not focus on objects withphysical existence and rather look at thoughts, familiarity or manifestations. It canbe argued that perception is not a limitation to knowledge creation. It is thereforeessential for the scientific methods to be all-embracing in order to embody thisknowledge. However, knowledge based purely on perception and beyondperception brings with it the danger of being fictitious about objects of reality andhence undermines the core objective of knowledge creation. All conjectures related to discernment focus strongly on measurable objectivesand objectivity. The activists of objectivity tend to focus strongly onindependence and neutrality of the objects under study. Hence it is imperative onphenomenology to provide us with ‘knowledge about knowledge’. This is requiredto make its philosophy rational and close to the understanding of nature andscience. It must protect its “naturality” and thus protect itself from distortions 3
  • resulting from philosophical debates. Moreover, it needs to protect and preserveits identity against counterfeit thinking and philosophy. Another flip side could bethat phenomenology, also referred to as ‘inductivism’ has serious consequencesat the analysis stage due to the ‘qualitative’ and extensive nature of collected andrecorded responses. Selection of a positivist or phenomenological approach for researchmethodology can have serious bearing on the epistemological foundation ofresearch design. The epistemological concerns can range from implications ofknowledge to limitations and biases. The fundamental question however is thatwhether this approach is going to get the desired outcomes of research or not. Ifyes, the approach (Whether positivist or phenomenological) does not matter. Ifno, the entire exercise may prove futile and useless. The perpetual debate of positivist and phenomenological, deductive andinductive, qualitative and qualitative is mystifying and perplexing. It is alwaysinteresting to take certain epistemological position on either of them tounderstand the underlying concepts better. In reality, however, none of thesepositions is nifty at its extreme. Throughout the entire process of research, it isalways to be kept in mind that using a certain methodology can have seriousinsinuation on the knowledge we engender. These methods are dissonant to oneanother and hence this trepidation needs to be acknowledged in order to reachthe desired destination yet using different approaches. Researchers do normally make an attempt to find a middle ground. They maytry to find a ‘deeper’ meaning in a heavily numerical data. On the other hand, it isquite possible to look for ‘similar’ or ‘comparable’ responses from therespondents in qualitative data and some statistical analysis of the same iscarried out and conclusions drawn. The critique for such departure from theposition could be arduous from the intransigent positivist or phenomenologist butthere is no straightforward riposte to this. However there are possibilities thatboth positivist and phenomenologists would be open to listening and entertainingarguments as to why these positions were conflated provided the underpinningepistemological debate is handled astutely. The argument between positivism and relativism (phenomenology) would notmake sense unless it has its underpinning on Ontology or “what exists in socialreality”? If accurate knowledge about how the world operates has already beencreated, the impact of this on positivism and relativism during conduct ofresearch will only emanate when negative influences of both begin to peeve theprocess itself. Too much muse on epistemological issues of positivism andrelativism will push ontological considerations in the nether. It is thereforeimperative that epistemology and ontology go hand in hand in order to produce‘valid knowledge’ of a ‘valid world’ and not ‘valid knowledge’ of an ‘invalid world’. 4
  • The argument of realists that positivists and relativists while focusing too muchon knowledge creation, tend to move far away from reality. The empiricalcogitation of positivism can discover knowledge which is ‘measurable’ whileleaving out what cannot be measured. On the other hand, in the absence of‘external objective measure’, relativism falls into ensnare though in such a caseboth positivism and relativism are valid. Beginning with ‘nature of existence’ andthen trying to understand the world and look for better and valid knowledge is thefirst step towards accurate and unembellished results in a research, arguerealists. It was because of these enigmas (described above) that the concept oftriangulation was coined at the outset with the core objective of enhancing theauthenticity of quantitative data of a study. The initial idea was to search foroverlapping areas of conformity in the inquiry result using a variety of techniquesand measuring processes. “Greater confidence in research findings” is theultimate objective of any researcher and therefore the concept of triangulationwas preferred where more than one method could be deployed to measure theresearch outcome. Triangulation is “The use of more than one method or sourceof data in the study of a social phenomenon so that findings may be crosschecked”.(Bryman 2008: 700) Denzin (1989) refers to triangulation as a method using “multiple observers,theoretical perspectives, sources of data and methodologies”. Triangulation is notlimited in its capacity and can be incorporated in any research to counter – checkfindings from both qualitative and quantitative research. However, it needs to beremembered that triangulation though is not the only methodology for usingmixed methods research. Triangulation is considerably helpful in collating and consummating dataobtained from disparate, methodical and dissimilar methods obtained by differentresearchers, sources and theories. However this concept of substantiation oftriangulation was vehemently criticized recently. Leading among them wasBlaikie (1991) who argues that different epistemological and ontologicalassumptions are underpinning empirical data collection procedures and thereforein order for different procedures and a variety of methods to converge, they haveto be associated to similar methodology. A non – conformist group (Denzin andLincoln, 2000; Fielding and Fielding 1986) is of the view that deepness ofunderstanding and span of any study is augmented through the use of a varietyof techniques. Therefore, triangulation is a substitute to authentication but not anauthentication stratagem. Contemporary elucidation of triangulation considers it as an apposite mode ofexploring divergence in research conclusion (Flick, 2004; Seale 1999).Triangulation also earned respect through its ability to bridge the gap betweenpositivism and phenomenology (Flick 2002; Kelle & Erzberger, 2004). In itsexpanded role, triangulation is now seen as a source of authentication of 5
  • congregating research findings. Moreover, its competence to inculcate differingviewpoints to develop a more comprehensive understanding of the matter beinginvestigated can never by underrated. Akin to the misapprehended classicist contemplation on qualitative andquantitative methods in social and educational research literature, triangulation isnow seen as methodical use of numerous and diversified techniques to reach abetter comprehension of issue at hand. (Pring 2000; Smith 1994). In thebeginning, the predicament of impediments in both positivist andphenomenological position led to the emergence of triangulation where it becamepossible to analyze the same problem by means of three incongruent methods.This can possibly help to differentiate between false positive and false negativeresults emanating out of each method disjointedly applied. The philosophy oftriangulation is to settle and remove the discrepancies caused by methodselection. It is sometimes possible that application of both positivism andphenomenology produces weak and statistically insignificant data. In such a caseHammond (2005: 240) suggests that “each approach has its own limitations or‘imperfections’ which can be compensated for by using an alternate method.Using an amalgamation of methods minimizes the prejudices of each methodand thus help in better understanding and interpretation of data. Another group ofresearchers (Harkness et al.) suggest that in order to get as close to reality aspossible, it is good to use as many tools as possible as all tools are deficient intheir capacity in one way or the other. Using more than one tool can help bridgethe gaps. When dealing with social subjects (humans) it is necessary to considerthe dynamism of life while not forgetting the inert. While qualitative researchincorporates dynamism, quantitative research tends to register and incorporateunvarying constants. Since life is a mixture of both, it helps to combine bothresearch methods. Phenomenology helps in gaining profound insights in socialcontexts. Researchers would use this information and process to develop theirquestions and questionnaires for quantitative data collection in order to develop amore informed in insightful tool. Likewise, responses from quantitative tools canbe used to develop to qualitative instruments and questions. In a quantitative research, where sometimes the findings are misleading orflabbergasting, a qualitative analysis can definitely help in understanding theframework and perspectives better. Likewise researchers may some collect loadsof quantitative data but find it hard to explain in terms understandable by readers.In such cases, qualitative data collected from the subjects can not only help insubstantiating the findings but also give appropriate words and explanations totrends and correlations emerging out of it. Research data is not for the use of researchers alone. It is sometimes used bypolicy makers and decision makers on a regional, national or international levelto plead cases relating to formulate strategy, guiding principles and procedures. 6
  • A set of hard core data in such cases may not provide enough elucidation andenlightenment to bolster a line of reasoning. In such a case, qualitative data willenhance the insight of readers and help them understanding the underpinningphenomenon of behavior, demonstrated actions and conduct. Such a treatise islike showing the way to a deeper understanding of sensitive social issues. Triangulation is not a one way traffic i.e. substantiating quantitative data withqualitative research. It can be the other way round as well. Findings derived froma qualitative research can be put to test through a quantitative study orexperimentation. Tripp et al (2002) conducted a study on 88 students of MBAwho were required to give details of a revenge event they experienced orobserved lately. In their qualitative study, they found out that the in most of thecases, revenge did similar amount of damage as the original act of vengeanceand the means to revenge were of a similar nature as the original act. On thebasis of this, they designed a follow – up study using an experiment model. Inone aspect, the results substantiated the original claim by showing a positiverelationship. However, in the other part, they showed a negative relationship(Symmetry of vengeful acts with original harmful act). Thus application of twomethods of research helped in testing their findings. With the purpose of ensuring veracity of data, researchers are expected to useboth positivism and phenomenology in their research. This could be for a varietyof reasons. At some organizations it may be mandatory to collect only data whichcan be verified and scrutinized by the senior management. In this case, anintelligent researcher would like to develop a quantitative tool though it may notform part of the original research but in order to ‘get through; to the realrespondents, this is deemed necessary. The interest and preference of theassessors like supervisors, external and internal examiners, policy makers andresearch funding agencies may tend to believe that true and credible informationis only collectible through the use of both the methods. In this case, it is crucialfor the researcher to subjugate to such requirements. Skeptics of social science and research per se are sometimes vocal in arguingthat researchers can always find what they want to find and reach a conclusionthat they already have in mind. In real life, this many not be true. There could bemany reasons for this. One possibility is that the methodology adopted was notsuitable and therefore the results came out surprising. If this is the case, the mostsuitable alternate would be use the mixed method approach in order to recoupwith minimal damage. Triangulation, whether intentional or unintentional, tend to end up in findingsthat may not corroborate with one another. When faced with such a dilemma,one approach is to regard one set of findings as eventual. (Newby 1977: 127)Newby also argued that in case of conflicting set of data, findings from aqualitative finding combined with researcher’s experience and insight can be 7
  • ‘instinctively trusted’. However, preferring one set of data over the other withoutrhyme or reason may not prove healthy for a triangulation approach. Triangulation is a formula for convergence. This shift underscores the input ofphilosophical and theoretical disparities in techniques leading to empiricalfindings. Another dilemma of triangulation is the question of how to distinguishbetween genuine differences in research findings and anomalies caused by useof a specific research method. Moreover, what strategy is to be adapted if thedifferences are found true? All researchers do not necessarily have the skills and training to undertakequalitative and quantitative training simultaneously and with same degree ofproficiency. The incapacities of researchers may act as impediment toassimilation. However, a researcher may take this incapacity into a challengeand make serious attempts to become adroit at all methods of research. A common – sense belief is that too much information from a variety ofmethod will lead to better results. This may not, however be true in research. It isworth noting that the ascendancy of triangulation or mixed methods research hasnot yet been established over a single method. Like any single method research,the mixed method research has to be competently and comprehensivelysketched and carried out. The quality of findings would depend on the quality ofdesign and not on the number of methods deployed to embark on research.Summary and Conclusion The emergent acceptance of mixed methods research has paved way topractical considerations instead of unnecessary debates. These debates, thoughgive consideration, are far from over. It seems that intransigent positivists andphenomenologists have compromised on deliberations of qualitative andquantitative research methods in substitution of ‘systematic’ reviews of literature.The debate in now turned in a different direction. Supporters of quantitativeresearch are delighted that systematic (a replicable, scientific and transparentprocess as described by Tranfield et al 2003:209) review of literature promotesand supports a positivist approach. This does not glee the phenomenologistswho now tend to believe that traditional narrative reviews of literature serves theirpurpose better. Positivists remain exultant in ‘meta – analysis’ andphenomenologists find all their gratification in ‘meta – ethnography”. Lately, the social science philosophers have lifted the overbearing ofepistemology and ontology from research methods by understanding the fact thatresearch methods are mere tools and techniques of data collection and analysisrather. They are a means to an end rather than an end itself. Simultaneously,social scientists who were previously very rigid on qualitative data (or feminists)have been flexible about accepting the fact that quantitative data is also of useand relevance in social research. 8
  • The research questions and instruments of all methods deployed have to beseamlessly amalgamated into each other with great degree of sagacity andprudence. Mixed methods must not be adopted because ‘more is better’ as thismay lead to ‘paralysis by analysis’. It must also be remembered that mixedmethods would require all-embracing utilization of resources and there is a greatdanger that this will dilute the research effort and spread them too wide and toothin. Research carried out using mixed methods must aim at reaching a sum ofmore than its parts. (O’Cathain et al. 2007) The greatest tribulation in mixedmethod research is to assimilate statistics and findings from both qualitative andquantitative components of research. (Bryman 2007) The sine qua non is thatmixed methods should be applied only at appropriate place and time e.g. toenhance credibility of research or to secure buy – in from decision makers ofresearch funding or to learn different techniques of research per se. While thereis increasing fondness for this approach, critics are still rampant. Unfortunatelycriticism has to be dealt with extreme degree of caution owing to underpinningepistemological and ontological concerns. As there was no right or wrong answer to choosing between positivism andphenomenology, triangulation or mixed methods seem to provide the mostadvantageous position. The core issue still is an understanding ofepistemological and ontological issues. Whatever method leads the researcher tothe creation of knowledge of what exists in reality should be adopted to provideboth depth and breadth of insight. 9
  • ANNEXURE:Hammersley’s Classification of Approaches to Mixed Methods Research:Hammersley (1996) has proposed three approaches to mixed methods research: 1. Triangulation: This refers to the use of quantitative research to corroborate qualitative research findings or vice versa. 2. Facilitation: This approach arises when one research strategy in employed in order to aid research using the other research strategy. 3. Complimentarity: This approach occurs when two research strategies are employed in order that different aspects of an investigation can be dovetailed. Adapted from Bryman Alan: Social Research Methods, 3rd Edition, Oxford Press, pp 607.Morgan’s Classification of Approaches to Mixed Methods Research:Morgan (1998b) has proposed 4 approaches to mixed methods research. Hisclassification is based on two criteria: 1. The Priority Decision: How far is a qualitative or a quantitiative method the principal data gathering tool? 2. The Sequence Decision: Which method precedes which? In other words, does the qualitative method precede the quantitative one or vice versa? The criteria yield 4 possible types: Priority Quantitative Qualitative M1 M2 Preliminary Sequence Follow - Up M3 M4 10
  • This is an interesting approach to take, but the chief difficulty with this schemeis that it relies upon being able to identify both (a) that either quantitative orqualitative research had priority in research and (b) that one was preliminaryto the other.Adapted from Bryman Alan: Social Research Methods, 3rd Edition, OxfordPress, pp 607. 11
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