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Case 1a: Isabelle’s research dilemma
Michael Savvas, Aberystwyth University
Isabelle was very thoughtful. She had a puzzled look on her face. The dilemma she had was
one experienced by many students in conducting research for a dissertation. Her research
was concerned with managers and how they coped with pressure in the workplace. She
particularly wanted to find out the coping strategies they used. This required consideration of
theory and method and whether the research would have practical relevance. After her
preliminary reading around the topic she decided that it was necessary to engage in both the
world of theory and the world of practice and that the problems addressed would develop out
of the interaction between these two worlds.
Theory in management could be seen as problematic, because for some researchers
management is not a discipline. It is perceived as multidisciplinary with many of its early
practitioners receiving their training in the social sciences (Pettigrew, 2001). Isabelle thought
this could be advantageous in that it enables management research to gain new insights that
may not be obtained through a number of disciplines separately. She also considered that a
topic on pressure and coping could be understood at a number of levels of analysis from an
individual to a structural level. In doing this she would be considering theoretical ideas and
attempting to perceive them in a pragmatic way. It also meant looking at them anew which
would provide some imaginative and original insights for her dissertation.
Isabelle found that more traditional research on managing pressure focused on positivistic
approaches with an emphasis on being scientific and rigorous. This approach often uses
quantitative methods with an emphasis on measuring and the use of factor analysis.
Researchers hope this allows them to find statistical correlations between two variables and
demonstrate some relationship between sources of pressure and possible physical,
psychological or even physiological outcomes, if coping strategies were not successful.
Research of this kind can be found in the work of Sadri and Marcoulides (1997) and
Isabelle decided she would not use this approach. She felt that a number of students’
dissertations had already used this approach and she wanted to get away from statistical
analysis and examining pressure on managers using a positivistic approach. She also
thought that this traditional research ignored the manager’s biography which could prove to
be important in understanding how the manager coped with pressure. The more traditional
approach seems to perceive the individual as passive and playing little part in making and
constructing his/her reality. It was as if the researcher via questions asked in the
questionnaire had already structured the reality. However, people working in organisations
do have histories, futures and expectations and pursue their individual goals. For example,
long-term sources of a person’s distress may be traced back to experiences at work many
years before. To study this would require Isabelle to use a different method. She decided to
adopt in-depth interviews as primary sources so that she could study the turning-points in
the lives of her participants over a period of time. This may indicate why they took particular
decisions and the consequences of making those decisions.
In terms of method Isabelle decided that the approach she would adopt would be qualitative
rather than quantitative. This would involve using in-depth interviews. She would also use life
stories and family histories because this kind of biographical approach was more holistic
(Miller, 2007).This holistic viewpoint manifested itself in two ways. Firstly, biographical data
range across time. Hence, ‘a biographical approach is indicated where the area of interest is
either the effect of change across time, historical events as these events have impinged
upon the individual, or his or her movement along their life course’ (Miller, 2007:74).
Secondly, the biographical approach is a bridge between social structure and the individual.
Social structure is a complex concept in which there was some disagreement among social
scientists. But it can be understood to mean a relative enduring pattern of social
arrangements within a particular society, group or social organisation. Thus social structures
may constrain the individual’s behaviour and expectations. Discussing your biography
means telling about the constraints and opportunities, and turning-points that were available
in the past and how one dealt with them. The biographical approach is about the intersection
between the individual and social structure.
In conducting such research Isabelle knew she had to deal with complex issues with the
subject-matter and the method she wanted to adopt. The relationship between the
interviewee and interviewer is central to this type of research. She felt she had the emotional
maturity to manage the process. Most importantly she felt that the research was rigorous,
systematic and relevant to managers in the workplace.
1. How do you think Isabelle’s understanding of theory and method changed in adopting
the approach she chose?
2. What particular knowledge and skills did she develop in preparing this research?
3. What problems do you think she would have anticipated in conducting research into
pressure and coping among managers that her literature review may not have
Miller, R.L. (2007). Researching Life Stories and Family Histories. London: Sage
Pettigrew, A.M. (2001). Management Research after Modernism. British Journal of
Management.Vol.12, pp. 61–70.
Sadri, G. and Marcoulides, G.A. (1997).An Examination of Academic and Occupational
Stress in the USA. International Journal of Educational Management, Vol. 11, No. 1, pp. 32–
Wheatley, R. (2000). Taking the Strain. A Survey of Managers and Workplace Stress.
London: Institute of Management.