Monday, 6 December 2010

Research Methods and Pleonasms

Teaching research methodology is a very interesting occupation but it is also a rather scary one. Why scary you might ask? Because there is an almost limitless variety of research approaches and frameworks and every time I look at a new book or go exploring on the web there seems to be new ideas out there offering yet another way to approach your research. In addition, new ways of describing standard techniques are frequently used which can be confusing.

I received an e-mail recently about a couple of different approaches which were called Interpretive Phenomenological Analysis and Exploratory Factor Analysis. Now, I am well aware of phenomenology and factor analysis but I am not sure what is implied by Interpretive Phenomenological Analysis and I am not familiar with the use of the term exploratory with factor analysis. At first glance they look like pleonasms. Pleonasm is a word that is not well known outside the circles of grammarians. Of course, the only time I have seen the word grammarian itself used was in the film My Fair Lady (“though she may have studied with an expert dialectician and grammarian…”) so I am not sure whether that word has much currency in practical life either. Anyway the meaning of pleonasm is that the word suggests that there is redundancy in the expression. One of the best examples of this is he came at 0300 AM, the AM is unnecessary because 0300 means 3 o’clock in the morning. Phenomenological is essentially an interpretivist approach to research and Factor Analysis is fundamentally an exploratory method. So the use of the words Interpretive and Exploratory are really superfluous! Maybe I should coin a Law of Academic Research as ............Avoid Pleonasms!

But there is a more important point to be made here which follows on from the previous pieces which I have written for this blog, and that is there is too much effort expended by individuals in putting a personalised spin on their research and then giving their approach a new descriptor. I work with a number of doctoral degree candidates who can easily be distracted by the language of research. Far too little time is devoted to learning this language and in building up confidence in degree candidates. The previous blogs addressed the issue of Design Research and there is also the term Construction Research which causes problems.

I have come to realise that one of the central issues in the teaching of research methods is the building of confidence. And the problem with confidence building is that it takes time and it cannot be done on one’s own. Confidence building requires discourse in which ideas are chewed over several times. The pressure in universities and business schools today is such that few supervisors are prepared to give this time to doctoral candidates. Supervisors have heavy work loads, especially when one considers the increased pressure to publish and publish in high ranked journals.

Returning to the issues of new names for research techniques and new approaches to research, one of the most important pieces of advice one can give a newcomer to academic research is for him or her to build up their own glossary. Every time he or she hears a new word used it is essential to quickly establish its meaning and record it in one’s own glossary. This helps build the vocabulary alongside the confidence to use these words.

Any comments welcome.

Monday, 5 July 2010

Science, Art and what makes it good or bad perhaps?

Kit’s reply to my opening remarks for this discussion deserve a special note. He (I hope that my assumption of the gender of Kit is correct) talks about art and science and “pure” science and about scientific observation and practical experience. This language suggests that there are clear demarcations as to what is science and what is art and this can lead to the mistaken conclusion that there is a universally agreed scientific method which has to be applied if sound results are to be obtained. There is of course agreement that there are better and worse ways of “doing” science. Badly conducted science may lead to what Lakatos (undated) called pseudoscience which is to be avoided.
But the way to scientific discovery is not easy to prescribe (or even for that matter describe). Medawar (1986) pointed out that “There is indeed no such thing as “the” scientific method. A scientist uses a very great variety of exploratory stratagems”. Somewhat more amusingly Kaplan (1964) exclaimed that “(a) scientist has no other method than doing his damndest” and this is certainly supported by the type of thinking used by Feyeraband (1993).
Admittedly the views of Medawar and Kaplan are not universally held. Richard Dawkins is renowned for his television appearances where he belittles what he regards as phoney science. One of his main criteria for rejecting claims to knowledge is based on whether there was an experiment and a control group involved. it does not take any great analysis to conclude that there are many aspects of science which do not allow experiments nor the use of control groups and which we consider legitimate. For those who are interested, Hawthorn (2009) of Professor from Cambridge University dismisses Dawkins rather abruptly in an interview available on the web.
There are different ways of describing scientific activities and explorations and it is clear that every scientist, social scientist or otherwise, has to decide which is the more appropriate for him or herself. Although the methodology is important at the end of the day what really matters is that the research findings are accepted by the appropriate subset of the scientific community (Wittgenstein 1969).
Feyerabend P, 1993, Against Method, p18, 3rd Ed, Verso, London
Hawkins G, 2009, viewed 4 July 2010
Kaplan A, cited in Rosenthal R and R Rosnow, 1991, The Essentials of Behavioral Research: Methods and Data Analysis, McGraw Hill International series, Second Edition, New York.
Lakatos I, (undated), listened to 4 July 2010
Medawar P, 1986, The Limits of Science, p51, Oxford University Press, Oxford.
Wittgenstein L, 1969, On Certainty, sct. 378, ed. by Anscombe and von Wright.

Monday, 28 June 2010

Design Research Issues

There seems to be a tendency among academics to find many different ways of looking at research and thus create numerous categories and approaches to describing their research activities. At the European Conference on Research Methodology for Business and Management Studies at the IE Business School in Madrid last week a distinguished panel of academics discussed the importance of design research (DR) or design science research (DSR). All four speakers argued for the importance of design and it is not easy to disagree with such a proposition. But it was possible to interpret what they said in different ways as the term design can play more than one role in the way we describe research.

There seem to be at least 3 ways design becomes a research issue.

The first is that any research programme which is intended to lead to a degree or a publication needs to be planned and the options adopted in the plan may be referred to as the research design. If a research programme is undertaken without a carefully conceived research design then its success will be a question of serendipity – and sometimes some people are lucky. The meaning of the word design in this context is not problematic.

The second way in which design needs to be considered is described by Peffers et al. (2004) when they argue for the needs for a design science research methodology (DSRM) which they describe as an important “discipline oriented to the creation of successful artifacts (sic).” It is not difficult to see that research aimed at the creation of successful artefacts offers a different set of challenges to what researchers normally face in business and management studies. Hevner (2004) supports the view that design science research is different to information systems research and they call for collaboration between the two approaches.

This seems to be a reasonable use of the word design and it is worth noting that in certain cases the results of this type of research may not lead to a completed artefact but perhaps only to a detailed blueprint for its development. Again there is not cause for confusion here.

The third way the word design is used has roots in the work of Simon (1969) who wrote about the study of natural systems and the study of artificial ones. According to van Aken (2005) and based on the Simon distinction, there are two domains of study which are the explanatory sciences and the design sciences. Explanatory sciences include physics, biology, economics and sociology. Examples of design sciences are engineering and medicine. van Aken argues that there are differences in the core missions of these two groups of knowledge. van Aken argues that “The core mission of an explanatory science is to develop valid knowledge to understand the natural or social world, or – more specifically – to describe, explain and possibly predict. The core mission of a design science, on the other hand, is to develop knowledge that can be used by professionals in the field in question to design solutions to their field problems”.

This distinction is problematic.

I am not sure how useful this distinction between explanatory science and design science really is. Anything which bears the name science should be explanatory and therefore the expression explanatory science does not add any value. The term design science does not do much for us either mostly because the word design can be used in multiple ways as described above.

van Aken (2005) does not like the terms basic and applied sciences and I would agree that there is no room for these words, basic and applied, in the field of business and management studies. Business and management studies is primarily problem solving orientated. But there is more to this issue than just the objective of the paper. Academic research in business and management studies sometimes, if not often, written up in such a way as to be inaccessible to practitioners.

But this is not the main issue. Academic research for the purposes of degrees and/or publishing in peer reviewed journals need to make a contribution to the field of study. Some academics have trouble in defining what this means but it is relatively easily understood when it is pointed out that such research has to add something of value to the body of theoretical knowledge. In addition this research has to be conducted in a scholarly fashion which takes cognisance of what the academic community already knows about this topic. The results of this research will “describe, explain and possibly predict” as van Aken (2005) claims for explanatory research.

For many years this was all that was required of quality academic research. However in the past 10 to 15 years a new dimension has been introduced and that relates to the application of this new knowledge of management and/or business practice (Starkey 2001). To be assured of success in a degree or to have a paper published today the research ideally needs to point out how the addition to the body of theoretical knowledge can be used to solve practical problems. This does not in any way reduce the status of the research. It is not appropriate to regard this type of work as mere consulting because of its practical dimension. When developed in this way these research results “can be used by professionals in the field in question to design solutions to their field problems”. In fact the findings of the research orientated in this way will directly offer a solution to such problems. Of course not every academic in every university will agree with the need for the translation of the new theoretical contribution into practical guidelines for management but there is increasing support for this approach.

It therefore seems to me that the distinction between explanatory and design research is not of much value to researchers in business sand management studies. In fact new research distinctions, processes and methods should be named and recommended with care as they have the potential to complicate and confuse some researchers.

Any comments on the above will be gratefully received.


Hevner A S March J Park S Ram, March 2004, Design science in IS Research, MIS Quarterly Vol. 28 No. 1, pp. 75-105

Peffers K T Tuunanen M Rothenberger and S Chatterjee, Winter 2007–8, A Design Science Research Methodology for Information Systems Research, Journal of Management Information Systems, Vol. 24, No. 3, pp. 45–77.

Simon, H. A. (1969), The Sciences of the Artificial, MIT Press, Cambridge MA.

Starkey K, (2001), In defence of Modes One, Two and Three: A Response, British Journal of Management, Vol 12, Special Issue, S77-S80

van Aken Joan, (2005),Management Research as a Design Science: Articulating the Research Products of Mode 2 Knowledge Production in Management, British Journal of Management, Vol. 16, 19–36 (2005)