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In my previous posts I’ve been writing about the different thinking styles that are used in organizational research and development. Namely the positivism, relativism and realism. By understanding the weaknesses of a given approach it is possible to avoid falling into typical traps. However, in organizations we have usually both people and technology that we need to worry about. The question about whether the same approach is suitable for both is then very relevant.

Should people be studied differently from technology?

A view that human sciences aren’t any different from natural sciences is called “methodological monism“. An opposite view is then called “methodological dualism“. Both have their advocates. In the post about positivism and lazy SW designers I introduced the positivist approach, which clearly falls into the category of methodological monism – behaviorist theory assumes people to be “conditioned stimulus-response mechanisms”. However, the question isn’t quite so easy when talking about relativism and realism.

In the post about realism and motivated employees we were using following example:

Company’s HR division has heard about a research that says a company’s productivity is increased when the employees motivation level is improved. Thus the HR is making a plan to increase the motivation level of employees. They conduct a survey and interviews to find out the current level of motivation and actions to increase it.

Then we talked about whether there could be something called “motivation” that could be studied and even increased. The realist viewpoint said we might assume so. If we accept the theoretical concept of “motivation”, the question becomes how should we study that then? There are four different viewpoints that we can separate when studying humans:

  1. Positivism, which says that only empirical perceptions should be studied. Anything else is nonsense (metaphysics).
  2. Antipositivism, which says also the viewpoint of the studied subject can be included in the research, if needed.
  3. Understanding (interpretive) social sciences, which say that you should always take the viewpoint of the studied subject into account.
  4. Steep understanding social sciences, which says you should only study the viewpoints of the studied subjects.

We already covered the weaknesses of positivism. Antipositivism is quite sober-minded viewpoint. It simply adds the possibility of taking into account also the subjective viewpoints of the studied subjects, but it doesn’t make it mandatory in every case. In practice this means that in our example case we should consider studying, not just the behavior of employees as positivism suggests, but also how they think about their motivation. The only danger with antipositivist approach is that somebody could use it as an excuse to not to even consider subjective viewpoints of the employees about what motivates them and that those thoughts might affect concretely their motivation.

However, if we would prevent this excuse by making it mandatory to always look at the viewpoints of the subjects, like the understanding social sciences say, or to even constrict the study only to the subjective experiences, like the steep form suggests, we would have some clear pitfalls in our philosophy:

  • Danger of relativism: If the truth is considered relative, also the contradictory viewpoints of the employees have to be all true. Jack says that motivation would be greater if everybody would come to work 8 am sharp, and Joe thinks everybody should work from home. (We already went through the weaknesses of this thinking more in depth in the post about relativism and stupid(?) management decisions.)
  • Constricting to the subjects’ viewpoints: There might be also some things that people are not aware of. These might include some unconscious subjects (e.g. learned helplessness from being under Draconian dictatorship for many years) as well as wrong interpretations (e.g. thinking it would be more motivating to work from home – even though it might not be in practice).
  • Focusing on inner viewpoint: Even though the subjective viewpoint might be very relevant, there might be also some outer aspects that are relevant. (E.g. how the whole team works together or how the different teams work together. There might also be structural things like working processes affecting the motivation.)

So, in practice it is safer to assume the antipositivist viewpoint than the viewpoint of understanding social sciences. It might be important to study not only the subjective viewpoints of the employees but also their behavior as well as some empirical facts such as the physical work environment. In this particular case of studying employee motivation it is very important to study also the subjective experiences. It means that also the sober-minded understanding viewpoint is applicable. But clearly it would be dangerous to study only the subjective experiences as the steep form of understanding social sciences would argue.

Different research philosophies in practice

Most common method used in organizations is the survey (+optional interviews) that was mentioned in the example. It is easy solution and doesn’t need much expertise or lots of effort from people to conduct. It is also “scientific sounding” method as it gathers a big quantity of answers. This is related to the positivist thinking, as it now seems that if we have e.g. 300 answers we can use statistical mathematics in a positivist way to analyze the “organizational reality”. (Well, the feasibility of that thinking would be a topic for another post, let’s leave it for now. Let’s just agree that quantity of answerers isn’t a proof of better accuracy when studying subjects like “motivation”.)

So, what are the research methodologies our HR division could use in practice?

Hermeneutics is the traditional methodology for studying human beings. It was originally a method for studying classical texts, but then Friedrich Schleiermacher introduced an idea that people’s thoughts could be understood as “text”. The idea of hermeneutics is to study the parts of the text in relation to the whole bookand the whole book in relation to the parts of it. This is the basic idea of hermeneutic circle. For Wilhelm Dilthey this was the higher form of understanding, in contrary to the spontaneous, basic understanding that we usually use. He thought that in addition to the inductive & deductive reasoning we should use “understanding”. Martin Heidegger and Hans-Georg Gadamer added that human experience is always pre-interpreted. To understand something needs dialectics between the subject and the object.

In our example this could mean an iterative approach. First we would have some hypotheses that we would study with survey and interviews. Then we would form a “big picture” through the individual answers and also try to understand the individual answers in relation to that big picture. We might also have another round of interviews / survey after this first step of analysis. This process would give us answers on the employee motivation levels and how to possibly improve them.

Phenomenological approach would be quite similar. (Although Husserl would say we need to use our reason a priori”, using phenomenological reduction in order not to have any prejudices.) Alfred Schutz said our “lifeworld” is the experience where we always start with. This means that our perceptions in social sciences are always pre-interpreted by the subjects. This is why the theory should always be understandable for the subject with his own concepts. (Principle of subjective interpretation.) Ethnomethodology is quite close to this viewpoint of Schutz. The accounts our subjects give about their situation are the focus of research. Any phenomenon is real only if it is real for the subjects. So this can be actually quite steep form of understanding social sciences.

In our example the HR could still utilize the survey and interviews. Only now it would be important to understand how the questions are pre-interpreted by the employees. How their “lifeworld” affects the interpretation. In the interviews we could study the “accounts” people give for different phenomena. E.g. What kind of explanations they give for things that seem to affect motivation. This research style would outscope everything that was not said and brought up in the interviews. One possible aspect to study would be the different categories that people use in their language – how they categorize themselves and other people. E.g. how the power seems to be distributed amongst people. The focus would be on the interviews and the analysis would give us understanding of what are the different elements that people seem to think are affecting their motivation.

Analytic hermeneutics would use some of the elements from the phenomenological tradition as well as from hermeneutics. Peter Winch would study the “rules of the life-form”. The meaning that people give to their actions can be understood by understanding those rules. If the action follows the rules it is meaningful and rational for the people. Georg Henrik von Wright also formulated some sophisticated rules for explanations. He thought human action isn’t causal, but intentional. In order to understand it we need to study the function of it. This is the Aristotelian view of causality.

In our example Peter Winch would study the rules of the life-form at our workplace. He could use surveys and interviews but also observe people to find out those rules. When the rules would be found, the actions of people would become meaningful. In a sense the motivation would be integrated in those rules. Von Wright could use similar methods to find out what people are trying to achieve. For him the motivation wouldn’t be cause for anything, motivation would be deeply related to the intention. So, in practice it would be misleading to talk about increasing motivation, instead we should try to understand the rules of the life-form and the goals of the people.

Understanding science of history has also some methodologies for studying social phenomena. Collingwood thought we must know what the historical figures were thinking and literally re-think those thoughts. We could then correct them also with our own understanding. William Dray on the other hand though this was a mistake. We should take the standpoint of the subject but not think his thoughts literally. Instead we should make rational explanations about the phenomena. Interpretive antropology (Geertz) took quite similar approach to hermeneutics, studying the narratives people are forming and forming new narratives about them. However, for him these narratives wouldn’t be any more scientific than fictitious books.

For our example these approaches would mean that the surveys themselves wouldn’t be very interesting. Instead we should somehow try to get inside of the employees head and try to understand them from their viewpoint. Anthropological research would typically mean some form of participative observation. With this understanding of people’s thoughts and narratives we might then make some conclusions on how to possibly increase the motivation.


We agreed that antipositivist approach would be the safest bet in our organizational research. In order to make sure also subjective experiences are studied when applicable, also the understanding social sciences could be a viable option too.

Actually there are no big differences between natural sciences and social sciences. Both can use experiments to study something, both can predict only simple phenomena – more complex phenomena like revolution of hurricane can only be studied in retrospect via the causes. Both include both repetitive and unique events. So actually the antipositivist approach is viable for both natural and social sciences.

Still there are clear differences in social sciences. The social reality is accessible only through our interpretations, whereas natural sciences can sometimes be quite accessible without much interpretation. Also, social phenomena are always pre-interpreted, people have always a history behind that affects them. This is why people should be studied as rational, intentional beings – not just as conditioned stimulus-responses series.

Hopefully this gives you some ideas about how one could approach organizational/social studies. There are always lots of depth in social processes and studying them with quantitative surveys is very superficial method. Even if surveys are used, there are lot more one can do with them than just excel sheets with numbers. The above mentioned things and viewpoints should be carefully considered already when designing surveys or other methods of study.