Quantitative and qualitative research in finance
Quantitative and qualitative research in finance

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Quantitative and qualitative research in finance

2 Three broad approaches in qualitative research

The qualitative approach to research is focused on the subjective assessment of attitudes, opinions and behaviour. This approach generates results either in non-quantitative form or in a form which is not subjected to rigorous quantitative analysis. Techniques such as focus group interviews, projective techniques and in-depth interviews are generally used. Qualitative research requires greater clarity of goals during the design stages. In order to make sense of the considerable diversity, and even division, to be found within the field of qualitative research, we will sketch three broad approaches, each of which has shaped a great deal of qualitative work. We will call these approaches:

  • investigating personal experience
  • penetrating official fronts or conscious motives
  • documenting discursive strategies.

While we will discuss them separately here, it should not be assumed that they are distinct in practice; in fact, researchers often combine them in various ways.

Activity 1

Timing: About 90 minutes

Watch the following videos and make notes on the basic characteristics of each qualitative research orientation.

Again, if you are finding the text in the videos too small to read, you can see the full text in the transcripts for each video.

Investigating Experience

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Investigating experience is strongly influenced by the methodological philosophy we called interpretivism. It emphasises the importance of understanding the perspectives of the people involved, whatever the issue or situation being studied. It is argued that the researcher must try to see and document the world from these people’s points of view; that only then will it be possible to understand what they were intending to do and why, how their actions fit into, and perhaps follow from, what they take to be the reality of their situation, their sense of identity and of past life. What is assumed here is a world in which people have complex inner perspectives that must be understood if their behaviour is to be properly explained. It is believed that through participation in everyday life people rarely gain access to one another’s perspectives in anything like a full way, and that a distinctive purpose of research is to achieve this; and thereby to produce much better explanations for people’s behaviour than the more superficial ones we are usually forced to rely on as practical actors in the world. Indeed, very often from this point of view, a primary aim of research is treated as overcoming what are viewed as the mis-perceptions generated by official accounts, established theories, popular stereotypes, and widespread myths and ideologies, especially those about low status or marginalised categories of person or group. Qualitative research often evaluates these myths and ideologies negatively against the complex reality of people’s actual views and practices. Examples of this kind of research might include studies of working class or ethnic minority communities that are marginalised by the wider society, of young offenders in correctional institutions, disruptive children in school classrooms, and so on.
Those who adopt this orientation assume that the task of understanding other people’s perspectives is difficult, not least because we must overcome, or at least suspend, our own personal and cultural assumptions, perhaps especially our conventional attitudes and evaluations. In fact, questions are sometimes raised about whether we can ever understand other people, especially those who belong to very different cultures or contexts. Much depends here, of course, on what we mean by ‘understand’. Is it required that we are able completely to take on or identify with others’ points of view, or merely that we are capable of reconstructing fairly accurately why they reacted in the way that they did to some situation, and perhaps also predicting to some extent how they will respond to other situations? At the very least, it is usually argued that understanding other people requires a process of learning, informal in character and necessarily open-ended, in which the influence of the researcher’s initial ideas and background assumptions must be prevented from operating as a strait-jacket.
This argument sometimes leads to an emphasis on the use of in-depth interviews, carried out in contexts where people feel able to reveal what are seen as their genuine perspectives, and with the researcher engaging in considerable efforts to build rapport. Equally, though, it may be argued that we need to observe people in their own natural contexts in order to get some sense of what they actually do, as well as what they say in interviews. It is also sometimes suggested that we must participate in these contexts ourselves in order to get first-hand experience, this participation involving an immersion in their world, perhaps even a temporary suspension of our orientation as researcher and of any other roles that may inhibit our capacity for understanding. Turned the other way round, this can be an argument for insider or practitioner inquiry – for research by those who are already participants in a situation – on the grounds that it is only through long-term participation in a setting that we can fully come to know it. Documents of certain kinds can also be used within this orientation, most obviously personal diaries, perhaps even eliciting imaginative writing through which we can attempt to decipher the beliefs and actions of the authors.
Some versions of this first approach recognise that, whatever precautions are taken, any understanding a researcher can gain of someone-else’s perspective is necessarily filtered through the researcher’s own distinctive view of the world, attitudes, feelings etc. Given this, it is sometimes argued, what is produced must necessarily reflect a transaction between the two perspectives, rather than a representation of the other person’s perspective purely in its own terms. This often motivates a requirement for what is sometimes called reflexivity: that the researcher seeks to explicate her or his own perspective before providing an account of those of the people being studied, so that readers can understand the interplay between the two.
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Penetrating fronts − Part 1

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A second approach that sometimes underpins qualitative research is concerned with finding out what actually happens in some situation, as against what people say happens, what people actually do rather than what they report they do, what they actually believe as against what they claim to believe. It operates on the assumption that in many contexts people set up a variety of fronts, consciously or unconsciously, to hide what they are doing, believe, or feel. This is often assumed to be particularly true of those in powerful positions, but the argument can be extended more widely. This orientation is sometimes strongly influenced by the methodological philosophy referred to as ‘critical’ research, though it need not be. One example of research shaped by this approach would be that concerning the documentation of racism, for instance among police officers, schoolteachers, or those in charge of admission procedures at colleges and universities. In such work, it is often claimed that many who do not display overtly racist attitudes nonetheless engage in racist practices, perhaps without even being aware of it.
In one of its versions, this argument places particular emphasis on the importance of researchers carrying out observations in natural settings, going to ‘where the action is’, and studying everyday behaviour that is unaffected, or only minimally affected, by research process. Interviews are also an important supplement. They can be the source of evidence about the fronts that are to be penetrated, and may also provide inside information about what goes on behind the scenes; though in this latter role interviews generally come second in value to direct observation, even if in practice they are sometimes the only source of data available. Furthermore, interviews may take on quite a different character from under the first approach. Gaining inside information can sometimes require a concern with building rapport, providing a context where the other person can relax and trust the researcher, but on other occasions the interview tactics may need to be quite confrontational, forcing people to face contradictions, or to explain themselves fully rather than just putting up superficial justifications or excuses.
Documents can also be used within this second orientation, where we are concerned with finding out what really happens or what people actually believe. Their most obvious function is as a source of data about official fronts. However, documents, especially those that were only produced for private purposes, can also be used to get behind these fronts. Personal diaries or letters may reveal people’s real attitudes and behaviour rather than the front they present in more public situations. This is also sometimes true of politicians’ published memoirs.
Equally useful may be documents produced within organisations for internal consumption that are made public through legal prosecution, via unofficial leaks, or which can be obtained by the researcher through negotiation with those who have access to them. These may offer very different accounts of what is being done and why from those that are presented in the official accounts, where the aim was to portray the organisation in the best public light and to promote its interests. At the same time, even official documents intended for publication can sometimes prove inadvertently revealing: people do not always succeed in maintaining fronts.
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Penetrating fronts − Part 2

There are reasons why, from the point of view of this second approach, interviews may not give us access to the data we require. Can you think of any? Write down your thoughts and then compare with the feedback provided.

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Discussion

First, and most obviously, people will not necessarily tell us the truth in interviews about how they feel, what they think, or what they do.

Second, they may not know these things. One reason for this is that, as indicated earlier, much of our everyday behaviour is below the level of consciousness, we are not aware of key aspects of it, because we do not have to concentrate on these in order to carry it out. There are also some arguments to the effect that many aspects of our feelings and behaviour are obscured from us by psychodynamic processes, that these prevent us from recognising important facts about ourselves because doing so would be painful. These processes may be particularly powerful where we are asking people to describe their past lives, or events in the past, since we know that memory is selective and reconstructs our experience rather than simply re-presenting it. Furthermore, where informants provide accounts of other people’s behaviour, these are likely to be filtered through pragmatic concerns that will only take account of a small part of what those other people do or feel, and which may well be very crude or even inaccurate representations of their attitudes, beliefs, and behaviour.

Third, people may not be aware of the remoter causes or consequences of what they do. It is sometimes argued that only a researcher who places someone’s behaviour within a broader context, in both historical and social terms, will be able to reveal these. Moreover, many arguments about human social behaviour link remote causes and consequences in functional relationships: it is argued that particular social practices become established because of the consequences they typically have, these feeding back to reinforce the practices they serve. The people involved in such functional social processes may not be aware of them. For example, patterns of social inequality may be reproduced in this way.

Finally, those adopting a constructionist orientation would point out that the accounts that informants provide in interviews are produced to serve particular discursive functions in the course of the interview, that they reflect the role of the interviewer (what questions were asked, how, and so on), and the particular way in which the interview developed as an interactional situation. From this they often draw the conclusion that to expect that interview accounts could ever represent some independent reality existing beyond the interview situation is an illusion.

All of these considerations can lead to scepticism about the accounts people provide in interviews; though in our view they by no means rule out the use of interviews entirely.

Documenting Discursive Strategies

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A third approach that can be found underpinning qualitative research today focuses on how the accounts that people give (whether in interviews, in interacting with others in ordinary situations, or in documents) are discursively constructed, and often formulated to serve particular purposes or to fulfil certain functions. The influence of constructionism should be clear here. The term ‘accounts’ in this context usually means what people say or write, but it need not be restricted in this way. Some researchers argue that the whole of human behaviour is designed to be accountable, in the sense of being intelligible to others; indeed, that it must have this character if people are to make sense of one another’s behaviour and if action is to be coordinated and social order maintained.
The core argument in this third approach is that what generally appears to us as simply given, as just how things are ‘in reality’, is actually a product of accounting practices, notably but not exclusively our ways of talking and writing. Often, this orientation draws on an older linguistic determinism: the idea that we cannot but experience the world through the linguistic resources that we use to make sense of it. However, ‘language’ is usually interpreted here in a broader sense than words and grammatical rules. This is why it is often glossed as ‘discourse’; and, indeed, what is meant is often closer to the notion of ‘culture’. The implication is that different discourses or cultures constitute reality in divergent ways. In short, this third argument claims that, in effect, what we are studying is always language-in-use, always discourse or text, never some pristine non-linguistic, non-discursive reality lying beyond these.
An equally important element of this third orientation is the idea of language use as performative: that speech or writing embodies forms of action, and that we should study it in these terms. As a result of this ‘discursive turn’, the emphasis is on how language can be persuasive, how it can lead us to believe things without question, how it can result in our ‘seeing’ the world as having some essential character, ruling out other possibilities as effectively unthinkable, and so on. Also relevant here is the study of narrative, which derives from literary investigations of imaginative literature and how this creates believable worlds for readers. This third qualitative approach has motivated work of various kinds across many fields: studying ‘myths’ that organisations propagate about themselves, how turns are sequenced in everyday conversation, studies of policy documents for the rhetorical strategies they employ, and the collection and analysis of personal narratives, including autobiographies.
There are different views about what sort of data is required by this third orientation. Some researchers focus their analysis upon transcriptions of speech recorded in ‘natural’ situations (in which the researcher may or may not have been present), or on the use of written documents (paper-based or electronic); and they may specifically rule out the use of data from research interviews because these are heavily shaped by the researcher. What is almost always ruled out from the point of view of this third approach is reliance on fieldnotes, for the same reason. Also, in some of the work inspired by this orientation there is an insistence that there should be minimal use of any information the researcher has about the external ‘context’ of the material being studied. Instead, genuine context may be seen as restricted to what is displayed as contextually relevant in the recorded interaction or document itself.
There is a wide range of foci inspired by this third orientation, but in general the interest is in interactional, discursive, or narrative strategies that are designed to generate a particular sense of what is going on, of who is involved, of why things are being done, and so on. There is a parallel here with the second orientation, since one might say that this third one is exclusively interested in how fronts are constructed and maintained. The important difference between the two orientations is that this third one does not assume, indeed it usually specifically denies, that there is any ‘reality’ behind the fronts. All that there could be behind a front are the practices that generated it; and even the metaphor of front is likely to be seen as misleading. Furthermore, there is sometimes a reluctance to ascribe motives to those who employ the discursive strategies documented. Instead, the focus is often a formal one on the strategies themselves and how they function. To ascribe motives would amount to the researcher engaging in reality construction herself or himself, rather than simply describing the processes, procedures, or strategies through which particular social realities are constructed and sustained.
Nevertheless, some of those adopting this position recognise that the analyst cannot avoid engaging in reality construction, that any claim to be simply representing the discursive practices people employ must be spurious – that there can be no world that somehow lies behind or beyond the discursive practices that the analyst employs. The most that can be hoped for here is that somehow through their very use the analyst can reflexively display the practices that everyone employs. Alternatively, the rationale could be simply to offer continual reminders of the constructed nature of reality by repeatedly subverting the veracity of one’s own account. Finally, in some versions, often drawing on post-structuralism, there may be the idea that by subverting currently influential dominant constitutions of reality the way is opened up for the emergence of other quite different forms of life. However, by no means all of those who use this third approach adopt this extreme constructionist position.
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