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CHAPTER 3 The research process
This chapter deals with some conceptual (theoretical) foundations of research.
Practical business research is often thought of as collecting data from various
statistical publications, constructing questionnaires and analysing data by using
computers. Research, however, also comprises a variety of important, nonempirical tasks, such as finding/‘constructing’ a precise problem, and developing
perspectives or models to represent the problem under scrutiny. In fact, such
aspects of research are often the most crucial and skill demanding. The quality of
the work done at the conceptual (theoretical) level largely determines the quality of
the final empirical research. This is also the case in practical business research.
Important topics focused on in this chapter are the research process and the role of
concepts and theory.
3.1 The process perspective
Research is often thought of as a process, that is a set of activities unfolding over
time. A main reason for considering it so is that research takes time and
consideration. Insights may be gained gradually, and may also be modified and/or
changed over time. It is also useful to look at it as a process with distinct stages, as
different stages entail different tasks. This can help researchers to perform these
tasks systematically and to understand what is to be done at a particular stage. For
example, we first have to clearly define our research problem and objectives
before starting to collect information/data. Also, we first have to think and state
which type of data is needed and how best it can be collected before actually doing
it.
Figure 3.1 illustrates a prototypical research process or cycle. The illustrated
process is a simplified one. In reality, however, the process is not so orderly and
sequential and is rather messy (see e.g. Morgan, 1983; Pettigrew, 1985; Bryman,
1988; Watson, 1994). Researchers should therefore not be surprised/worried if
their research process is not as systematic as presented in Figure 3.1, and if in
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practice they have to go back and forth in the process all the time. For example, at
one stage, such as when doing observations, something unexpected may be
discovered resulting in a return to an earlier stage, such as modifying the research
problem. Thus feedback loops between the various stages are more common.
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Figure 3.1 The research process
It should also be noted that the starting point could be some observation triggering
off theorizing about the actual problem (see section 2.6). Research may also lead to
new questions, which is why research seemingly never stops (see section 2.7).
The starting point in Figure 3.1 is the research topic, that is the phenomenon or
theme to be studied (1). For example, you may be interested in how firms organize
their activities, how business firms conduct R&D, or how firms enter foreign
markets. Choice of research topic is important for several reasons. For example, is
the topic worth pursuing, and is it practicable? A research topic is not a research
problem. It is usually broader and more general than a (good) research problem,
such as, what organization structure is most efficient.
When moving from the more general research topic to a research problem (2) a
more specific question is addressed. For example, you may ask (after having
reviewed the literature): Are firms organized in a bureaucratic way less innovative
than firms organized in an ‘organic’ way?1 The relationship between research topic
and a research problem is illustrated in Figure 3.2.
From the above discussion we see that a research problem is a question. When we
have really established what we want to know, and how this relates to present
insights, we have a clear research problem. This is the point of departure for
further research activities.
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Figure 3.2 From research topic to research problem
Any problem must be captured or represented. This is done by a set of interrelated
concepts, or a ‘model’, implicitly or explicitly (2a in Figure 3.1). The way the
problem is captured influences how the problem is framed and understood. How
the research problem is captured influences:
?
choice of research design
?
measurements
?
data collection
?
sample
?
data analysis, and
?
recommendations.
In Chapter 4 we discuss more fully how to define and capture research problems.
Research design relates to the choice of strategy to collect the data needed to
‘answer’ the stated research problem. As will be discussed later, research problems
are multiple, and they come in many forms. In some cases the purpose is to
understand a specific phenomenon. This will often be the case in ‘qualitative’
research. In other cases the purpose can be to determine the most adequate action,
best mode of market entry and so on. Research designs are dealt with in Chapter 5.
Inspection of Figure 3.1 shows that after the choice of the overall strategy to cope
with the research problem empirically, the choice of research design follows a
series of activities. Data are carriers of information. A variety of data sources will
often be available (Chapter 7). The various sources have both advantages and
disadvantages. One can also use several data sources, that is ‘triangulation’. More
recently, modern information technology, for example the Internet, has become an
important source for gathering the data needed (wanted). Choice of data and how
to collect them, from whom, and in what way, are important. Such choices are
dependent on type of problem, information needed and, not least, data
possibilities.
Empirical measurements relate to theoretical, unobservable constructs (concepts).
For example, ‘power-game’ is a concept. How can/should this be captured?
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Another example is the concept of ‘friend’. How do we recognize that a person
is/has become a friend? Good measurements are a prerequisite for high-quality
empirical research. It is a demanding task to develop good measures. Measurement
problems will be dealt with more fully in Chapter 6.
Data must be handled, analysed and interpreted to become meaningful
information (7 in Figure 3.1) that can influence subsequent actions. Various
aspects and methods of analysing data are dealt with in Chapters 10 and 11. Also in
qualitative research, data must be analysed and interpreted (see Chapter 12 for
further discussion). Most research efforts are reported in written form (8), for
example as research reports, but also as theses. Craftsmanship is needed to write a
good research report (thesis). This is dealt with in Chapter 14. In business the
outcome of research efforts often results in or influences actions (9). This, however,
is beyond the scope of this book, and thus is not dealt with here.
3.2 Levels of research
Going back to Figure 3.1, a distinction can be drawn between activities at the
theoretical (conceptual) level (2, 2a) and the measurement (empirical) level (4, 5, 6
and 7). Choice of research design may be seen as the ‘bridge’ between activities at
the conceptual and empirical levels.
The following should be noted: all research – irrespective of discipline – requires
activities at the conceptual level. So-called ‘theoretical studies’ deal only with this
level. For example, studies in mathematics and pure (theoretical) economics
primarily relate to specific problems without seeking empirical evidence. Also, in
business studies important contributions have been made that are primarily
‘theoretical’ (even though inspired by empirical observations) such as the
influential contributions by J.D. Thompson (1967) and J.G. March and H.A. Simon
(1958), which have shaped very much the thinking of and research in business
administration disciplines. Theoretical studies correspond to Circle 1 in Figure 3.3.
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Figure 3.3 Two levels of research
However, an empirical study – even a study for practical business purposes –
requires efforts at the conceptual level. See Circle 2 in Figure 3.3. Surpassing such
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activities and jumping to the ‘raw empirical data’ is seldom or ever very successful.
The fact that this is often done in business does not mean that such research is
good; rather it reflects lack of insight.
3.3 Research and knowledge
Even if it is not the prime purpose of doing particular research, the main purpose
of research is to produce insights or knowledge. Knowledge implies that we ‘know’
something, and that what we know ‘holds true’, that is the produced knowledge is
valid. Doing research also implies that we add to present knowledge that exists:
that is, research is done to create new insights. For example, if a business firm
conducts a study to examine what buyers emphasize, while buying a particular
product, this is done to create new insights believed to be important to the firm, so
that it can improve its marketing efforts. Knowledge can be classified in various
ways (Naegel, 1961):
?
theories/models
?
concepts
?
methods/techniques
?
facts.
New insights can be acquired in any of the above categories. For example, the
researcher may develop a new theory to describe and explain how buyers behave.
New methods or techniques can be developed to assist business managers in their
decision making, and new facts may be uncovered. For example, before entering a
new market, the firm needs knowledge to assess the size of the market and the
competitive situation in it; these are prerequisites to developing a marketing plan
for the new market.
New insights may be acquired by demonstrating new practical implications of a
theory as well: by testing hypotheses derived from theory, and by applying a
method to a new problem. The important point is that any research should have an
intended contribution, that is to bring or add something new.
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3.4 What comes first: theory or research?
In the research literature, a distinction is often made between the following two
strategies:
1. theory before research, and
2. research before theory.
In the first case, present knowledge allows for structuring the research problem so
that the researcher knows what to look for, what factors are relevant and what
hypotheses should be tested empirically. From the above discussion it
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follows that, when wrestling with problems, the researcher also makes (or at least
should make) use of available knowledge (earlier studies on the topic and its
related areas).
Figure 3.4 Production and use of theory
Figure 3.4 illustrates the two research strategies. In the first case (1), important
tasks are to identify relevant concepts, theories and so on, and to adjust the
concepts (theory) to the problem under scrutiny (which also requires a clear
understanding of the research problem). In the second case (2), the prime task is to
identify relevant factors and construct explanations (theory). This relates to
different contexts of research, that is the ‘context of justification’ (1) and the
‘context of discovery’ (2) (see Popper, 1961 for a lucid discussion). An interesting
observation is that route 1 also corresponds to the use of ‘theoretical’ knowledge
for practical problems. The user must select adequate theories and methods and
adjust them to the actual problem, which is a demanding task.
Figure 3.4 shows a broken line between the two strategies, indicating that when
applying present insights to specific problems, new observations and new
questions may give rise to a search for new explanations, methods or techniques.
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3.5 Some important issues
3.5.1 Concepts
Concepts are the building blocks of any theory or model (see also Chapter 4). A
concept is an abstraction representing an object, a property of an object, or a
certain phenomenon. ‘Cost’, ‘income’, ‘market share’ and ‘business strategy’ are all
examples of common concepts in business administration disciplines.
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Concepts are crucial in the researcher’s tool bag. They serve a number of important
functions:
?
Concepts are the foundation of communication. Without a set of agreed
concepts, meaningful communication is impossible.
?
Concepts introduce a perspective – a way of looking at the empirical world.
?
Concepts are means of classification and generalization.
?
Concepts serve as components of theories (models) and thus of explanations
and predictions.
Concepts are the most critical element in any theory, because they direct what is
captured. For example the concepts ‘cognitive’ and ‘dissonance’ direct the theory of
cognitive dissonance, and ‘supply’ and ‘demand’ are key concepts in economic
theory. Even though many concepts used in everyday life are ambiguous (e.g.
‘democracy’ and ‘influence’), they must be clear and agreed upon to be useful in
research.
3.5.2 Definitions
Clarification and precision of concepts are achieved through definitions. Here we
will distinguish between two types of definitions, conceptual and operational.
1. Definitions that describe concepts by using other concepts are conceptual
definitions.
Examples
The concept of ‘market’ as defined in marketing literature, that is:
all the potential customers sharing a need or want who might be willing and
able to engage in exchange to satisfy that need or want.
In this definition ‘customers’ and ‘need/want’ are among the concepts used to
define the concept of market (Kotler, 1997).
Another example is the concept of ‘industry’ defined in strategy literature as:
the group of firms producing products that are close substitutes for each other.
Here ‘firms’, ‘products’ and ‘substitutes’ are key concepts to explain industry
(Porter, 1980).
A useful definition is that concepts should:
?
point out unique attributes or qualities of whatever is defined;
?
not be circular, i.e. must not contain any part of the thing being defined;
defining ‘market exchange’ as ‘exchange taking place in the market’ does not
enhance communication;
?
be stated positively, i.e. contain the properties of the concept defined;
?
use clear terms.
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2. An operational definition is a set of procedures that describe the activities to be
performed to establish empirically the existence or degree of existence of what is
described by a concept. Operational definitions are crucial in measurement. They
tell what to do and what to observe in order to bring the phenomenon defined
within the range of the researcher’s experience.
Examples
‘Market share’ may be defined operationally as:
A company’s sales of products in category X in area A during time t/Total sales
of product category X in area A during time t, which also requires
specifications of ‘sales’, product category X, area and time period.
In accounting, ‘sales’ during a specific time interval is often defined operationally
as:
Or:
Sales = Inventory at t0 + Purchases during the period (t0 – t1) – Inventory at t1.
This definition gives sales as measured in cost (purchase) prices or in terms of
volume (quantity). If measured in sales prices, profit will hopefully be present.
Note that the value defined differs depending on whether it is measured in volume
or value and, if it is based on value, whether the cost or sales value is used for
‘sales’. Operational definitions will be dealt with in more detail when discussing
measurements (see Chapter 6).
When we move from the conceptual to the empirical level in research, concepts are
converted into variables by mapping them into a set of values. For example,
assigning numbers to objects involves the mapping of a set of objects into a set of
numbers. A variable is a property that takes two or more values and is subject to
change, while a constant has only one value.
Example
Construct (concept)
Variable
height
. . . 150, …, 180, …cm
gender
1 (= women), 0 (= men)
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3.5.3 Theory
Theory may be viewed as a system for ordering concepts in a way that produces
understanding or insights (Zaltman et al., 1977). A theory includes more than one
concept and how these concepts are linked together. A theory is:
a set of interrelated concepts, definitions and propositions that present a
systematic view of specifying relations among variables with the purpose of
explaining and predicting phenomena.
It is important to note the purposes of theory, that is to explain whether it is related
to understanding or prediction. For example, a researcher holds a theory of how
‘advertising works’, and uses this theory to allocate the firm’s advertising budget
based on a prediction of an outcome resulting from the spending of the advertising
money. Also note the notion of ‘proposition’, that is an assumed relationship
between two concepts, such as between ‘performance’ and ‘satisfaction’.
The above definition of theory also claims it should present a systematic view, to
enhance explanation and prediction, meaning that the concepts and relationships
involved should represent a coherent ‘whole’.
It is important to notice that theories focus on specific aspects of the phenomena or
problems studied. This is done to capture the actual problem, and (hopefully)
understand (solve) it better. On the other hand, some aspects are left out. This is
done because human beings have limited cognitive capacity, making it almost
impossible to take everything into account at the same time.
3.5.4 Methods
Research methods are rules and procedures, and can be seen as ‘tools or ways of
proceeding to solve problems’. Research methods play several roles, such as:
?
‘logic’ or ways of reasoning to arrive at solutions;
?
rules for communication, i.e. to explain how the findings have been achieved;
?
rules of intersubjectivity, i.e. outsiders should be able to examine and evaluate
research findings.
Figure 3.5 illustrates the role of methods for arriving at solutions. An important
aspect is that there must be a valid reason (or ‘theory’) underlying the actual
method so that it will result in the ‘correct’ solu …
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