Research Paradigms for Business Researchers

As a lecturer in a UK university business school I often find myself called upon to advise PhD students about how to design, conduct and write up their research. There are several areas which cause them a lot of grief and I won’t attempt to list them here – I’ll save that for another posting. What I want to deal with here is that part of the methodology chapter in the thesis where the student must explain their research philosophy or paradigm. Often, they leave this to be done towards the end of the writing up and very often it is something that they fail to grasp successfully.

Many studies are conceived in the positivist paradigm.

For the positivist, scientific theories consist of sets of highly general universal statements, whose truth or falsity can be assessed by means of systematic observation and experiment. … The universal statements of scientific theories are usually referred to as ‘laws’ …
Keat and Urry, 1982, p.13-14

For a positivist an explanation concerns only cause and effect. I observe that when a moving billiard ball hits another stationary billiard ball, the second one moves in a predictable way. This observation has been repeated many times, so it is now reasonable to believe that this will always be the case. Early positivists thought that laws derived like this could be regarded as proved – that is, eternally and universally applicable – whereas more recent positivists (eg. Popper, 1962) accept that no law is ever proved but is subject to being disproved.

However, positivism carries with it a whole lot of assumptions that positivists rarely discuss. One of these assumptions is that science is value free – see how long that one stands up when research funding is being allocated. Another is that everyone perceives the world in the same way.

In fact, though a positivist approach is entirely appropriate in many contexts, for example it is almost always appropriate in engineering, but when there is a social science context, as there often is in business research, it begins to be apparent that the explanations provided by positivism are inadequate.

For example, there are phenomena that I can label ‘cultural’ and most people would agree that they are cultural, yet culture is such a loose and elusive term that it is fruitless to define it. If I want to investigate culture, I might begin by saying that I have noticed that the citizens’ attitude towards police officers varies from country to country. Hofstede (1980) devised some measures of national culture based on a questionnaire survey and one of these measures is power distance which measures people’s acceptance of authority. So, I might reach for Hofstede’s notion of power distance and use it to predict the way that people might think of the police in different countries. It seems that the Hofstede score on power distance for each country does predict the way the citizens of those countries perceive police officers but what does this tell me? You could say that you have explained something, but you are equally likely to find this kind of cause and effect explanation unsatisfactory. Somehow, we feel, we must dig deeper.

Now, most business researchers, both putative and practising, are not well schooled in philosophy and do not give much consideration to matters like ontology – how the world is – or epistemology – how we know about the world – unless they are forced to. This is why, for example, PhD students do not think about their research philosophy before doing anything else but usually leave it as late as possible in the process. Often, they try to justify their research philosophy with reference to the nature of the research when, in truth, it is exactly the other way around: their research philosophy (usually unconscious) determines the nature of their research.

There are quite lot of research philosophies that researchers could explore. I recommend finding out about a few of them and understanding them well enough to see the world from each of those points-of-view. This process broadens the mind and opens up whole new vistas the existence of which were previously unexpected. However, few researchers are open-minded enough to do this. As Burrell and Morgan (1979) have pointed out, researchers tend to stick with a research paradigm and that is the one they always live and work with. Sometimes they feel threatened when someone suggest an alternative and they can become emotional and lash out with righteous indignation.

I have made a study of research paradigms but the one I feel most at home with is postmodernism. Unfortunately, many of my colleagues, article reviewers and students do not understand this paradigm. They do not have a philosophical training and it is a hard one to grasp without. It is where I am comfortable, but it is not one that I generally recommend to students.

Much of the research that takes place in the business school requires a philosophy that allows the researcher to look under the surface, to find the hidden patterns, look further than the simplistic cause and effect explanations of positivism. So, increasingly, I find myself recommending critical realism for business research. It has a layered ontology that calls for us to look further than the appearance of cause and effect (the empirical layer) for the hidden reality beneath. But it is realism, that is, it is concerned with a real world that exists ‘out there’, independent of our perceptions of it, and this makes it congenial to those who like to stay practical and close to the data.

The task of understanding the critical realist ontology and epistemology should be an early one for all PhD students. It enables them to think more clearly and deeply about the research project they are about to undertake and, who knows, may lead them to think even more deeply and adopt another paradigm like pragmatism or postmodernism.

If you want to know about critical realism, I recommend these books:

Bhaskar, Roy (2017). The Order of Natural Necessity – a kind of introduction to critical realism ed. Gary Hawke.

Edwards, P.K., O’Mahoney, J. and Vincent, S. (2014). Studying Organizations Using Critical Realism – a practical guide, Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.


Burrell, G. and Morgan, G. (1979). Sociological Paradigms and Organisational Analysis, Aldershot, UK: Arena.

Keat, R. and Urry, J. (1982). Social Theory as Science, London: RKP.

Popper, K. (1962). Conjectures and Refutations – the growth of scientific knowledge, New York: Basic Books.


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