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What is meant by an Interpretive Approach in Organisational Psychology

Interpretive Approaches

An interpretive approach focuses on the processes by which meanings are created and negotiated (Schwandt, 1998). However there are a range of interpretive approaches each with different views on epistemology and ontology (Alvesson & Skoldberg, 2000; Lindlof, 1995). Even if you restrict it to those that fall into the ‘interpretive’ umbrella, as outlined in the subject guide, there is still a broad choice.

Furthermore, there is some confusion because all of the other approaches use interpretation in some way – we are always interpreting!

Within the ‘interpretive’ umbrella (or paradigm), there are some particularly important approaches to research, I will briefly outline them here:

Phenomenological approaches try to avoid researcher interpretation and describe only what is evident in the data, and there is a tendency to isolate and de-contextualise during analysis. Phenomenologists argue that it is possible to remain objective and outline data findings in a more objective way by removing the researcher’s bias and the additional scope for error that is involved in interpreting. However, the concept of bracketing, (removing all ones own prejudices and pre-understanding), is questioned by others (e.g. Lowes & Prowse, 2001).

Interpretive Phenomenological Analysis (Smith, 1996) is more of an analysis method based on phenomenology. It aims to go one step further than phenomenology, by describing the data first in a similar way, but then interpreting it, particularly in the light of psychological theory. This focuses primarily on theory to aid analysis, which means individual meaning can be lost. However, as with all methods, it may well depend somewhat on how well the analysis is done.

Grounded theory in many of its forms is arguably rather ‘rational’ and positivistic, and generally has a tendency to break-apart rather than maintain context (Tesch, 1990). There are more constructivist approaches to grounded theory, and it does have the benefit of very clear processes for students to follow, but some still argue that it is restrictive and fails to acknowledge the biases of the researcher. Some suggest it is an analytical method rather than an approach, but like many of these things, the two go very close together, and I don’t think you could do a grounded theory analysis without taking on board all the other ideas behind it.

Hermeneutics you will meet in another other mini ‘lecture’. It has been put forward as a move ‘beyond’ both scientism and social constructionism, accepting the self-interpreting nature of humans within their social-cultural context, but not reducing them completely to these origins (Martin & Sugarman, 2001). In particular, hermeneutics has been proposed as a useful approach when one wishes to gain insight into meaning (Alvesson & Skoldberg, 2000).

Psychodynamics – The concept of a hidden unconscious drives underpins all psychodynamic theories and forms a major area of difference between this and other perspectives. Confusingly, there is a range of different approaches within this grouping, but they all share a focus on the importance of the unconscious, and childhood experiences. Most psychodynamic theories suggest the ‘self’ is generated by fantasy and phantasy, rather than real events. Psychodynamic theories could be framed from relativism or new realism, (Wetherell & Still, 1996) although the object relations school tend to take a more realist view, (real events influence the self). Although psychodynamics tend to focus on the individual, there are also group level versions (some of you may have heard of Bion?)

Sense making (Weick, 1995) has been classed as an interpretive approach, but others argue that it is more postmodern, being based partly on social constructionism. That is why it is placed on its own in the subject guide, we are not sure ourselves where it fits! Personally I would put it into interpretive because it has a rather functionalist and cognitivist flavour to it and is not relativistic enough to slot into a postmodern/social constructionist framework.

Now, I mentioned that many other approaches include some level of interpretation (well actually, all do, as even statistics have to be interpreted). Discursive and critical approaches focus on critique of the social and power situation of those researched, rather than understanding individual meanings, and critical in particular assume the power of the researcher in their interpretation. Although these clearly use interpretation in the research process, they are not classed as fitting in the interpretive paradigm because they have different views on epistemology and ontology. I think I have said elsewhere that the postmodern approaches tend to take a mutualist view and focus more on the social construction of the self, and fragmentation rather than cohesion. If you can get hold of books there is an interesting one by Heracleous (2006) that covers interpretive and discursive approaches.

So interpretive approaches are all those that approach research in an idiographic way (focusing on the individual). They will always use some form of qualitative data collection and analysis process. Some might use content analysis and counting, but more often they will try to retain some of the richness of the data. In general they will tend to take a realist approach to their ontology (but not always!) They do tend to take a very neutral approach to their subject, rarely considering power relations or the influence of societal norms – they focus on the individual experience primarily or on how groups develop meaning, without considering the broader issues in much depth (this is viewed by some as a key weakness).

Although questionnaires could be argued to be looking at the individual and to be subjective (indeed they are of course tapping into subjective self-reports). They tend to be used in an aggregate way and some form of objectivity is assumed. You will discuss issues with running different types of statistics on questionnaires in OR. The key reason why they are not used within the interpretive paradigm is that they force the reply upon the participant, and do not allow the participant to express the things that they think are important about the subject.

Taking an interpretive approach also influences your form of analysis. Choice of analytical method should be based on the research questions, but inevitably these very questions will be driven by your own philosophical background and preferences.

The analysis method will be influenced by which overall interpretive approach you prefer. Even with some general interpretive approaches, the richness of meaning is often lost, with a tendency towards narrative positivism (Pentland, 1999), where coding processes remove much of meaning. However, for some, this is quite sufficient, so using content analysis and even counting the number of times words are used by the participants, is considered useful (this is a post-positivist approach I guess, still has some normative overtimes even though using qualitative methods.

An interpretive approach will never use discourse analysis as we know it because that looks at language and not the individual. However there is still a broad range of analytical techniques available to them.

You will sometimes find normative/post-positivist researchers will use a qualitative data collection method, like interviews, to help inform their research. However it is usually only to help them design a questionnaire, and you will find that the qualitative data is treated very superficially, often hardly mentioned at all. Some would argue they cannot possibly have understood the depth of meaning offered by participants due to their tendency to just scan the qualitative data (rather than study it in depth), indeed often transcripts are not taken, just a few notes of key words during the interview sessions.

Do get the Cassell & Symon ‘Essential Guide to Qualitative Methods in Organizational Research’ (2004) if you can – you will even see an article from me in there – the book includes many different ways of both collecting and analysing qualitative data.

Of course, researchers sometimes use a mix of paradigms anyway, so it is not always easy to spot what is going on (less frequent I think with the normative). Good news is, some are very clearly within one paradigm, and by the end of this module at least you will know roughly what they are on about if they say they took, for example, a phenomenological approach!

Stephanie (from BizFace)

References (for information only, you don’t have to read them):

Alvesson, M., and Skoldberg, K. (2000). Reflexive Methodology: new vistas for qualitative research, Sage, London.

Heracleous, Loizos (2006) Discourse, Interpretation, Organization. Cambridge University Press.

Lindlof, T. R. (1995). Qualitative communication research methods, Sage Publications Inc., Thousand Oaks.

Lowes, L., and Prowse, M. A. (2001). “Standing outside the interview process? The illusion of objectivity in phenomenological data generation.” International Journal of Nursing Studies, 38, 471-480.

Martin, J., and Sugarman, J. (2001). “Interpreting Human Kinds: Beginnings of a Hermeneutic Psychology.” Theory & Psychology, 11(2), 193-207.

Schwandt, T. A. (1998). “Constructivist, Interpretivist Approaches to Human Inquiry.” The landscape of qualitative research: Theories and issues, N. K. Denzin and Y. S. Lincoln, eds., Sage Publication Inc., Thousand Oaks.

Smith, J. (1996). “Beyond the divide between cognition and discourse: using interpretative phenomenological analysis in health psychology.” Psychology and Health, 11, 261-271.

Tesch, R. (1990). Qualitative Research: analysis types and software tools, The Falmer Press, Basingstoke.

Weick, K. E. (1995). Sensemaking in Organizations, Sage, Thousand Oaks.

Wetherell, M., and Still, A., (1996) Realism and Relativism, in Sapsford, R., (Ed.) (1996) Issues for Social Psychology, Open University.

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