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My case for inductive research

I have started to immerse myself in what is a colourful history of research philosophy.  It hurts the old grey matter working through so many competing factions (thankfully I quite like it) from Plato and the rationalists; to Aristotle and the empiricists; to Comte, Bacon and the positivists; to the Vienna Circle Logical Positivists; to Husserl and the phenomenologist’s;  to Nietzsche and his critical hermeneutics, and onwards to the existentialists, and; to contemporaries like Popper on falsifiability, Kuhn’s history of paradigmatic science revolutions; Foucault on knowledge and power; one of my favourites – Feyerabend’s anything goes, let’s take on the Catholics; and finally leading through Social Constructivists to fully subjective Post Modernists (Kasser, 2006)!


There are some heavy hitters in that summary – but what have I learned that is of any use?  Sorry a bit of William James and John Dewey pragmatism coming out now :o)  I think that I have at least seen a hint of how some pretty important terms like ontology, epistemology, theoretical perspective, methodology, and methods hang together.   You would have thought after 2500 years of western science tradition we would have at least settled on some common terms – but it is truly annoying when the authors use a different set e.g. research strategies; research approaches etc.  From Crotty (2003, p3) I noted the following definitions for the key terms mentioned this far:


I. Ontology – ‘the nature of being’, ‘what is’, ‘reality’

II. Epistemology – ‘theory of knowledge’

III. Theoretical perspective – ‘a philosophical stance’, ‘a context  for the process and grounding its logic and criteria’

IV. Methodology – ‘strategy, a plan of action’, ‘design’, ‘linking method choices to desired outcomes’

V. Methods – ‘techniques and procedures used to gather and analyse data’


What still appears vague to me is how from top to bottom, or bottom to top; the researcher is required to not only link the choices together but explain their rationale.  The concepts are clear but not how the choices REALLY infer certain assumptions relevant for the research.


What has stood out is that the commonly spoken quantitative qualitative debates seem dramatically oversimplified (Morgan and Smircich, 1980).  Quantitative is not linked directly to positivism and neither is qualitative linked to subjectivism – even if they are commonly used that way.  Crotty argues that the researcher can deviate from the common practices, or exemplars using Kuhn’s terminology – and naturally I like that sort of thing.   That being said, it has been argued that taking a mixed method approach can get rather confused as you explain your thinking on route from your methods to your assumptions on reality.


The tensions that exist between the rationalists and the pragmatists; the objectivists, constructivists and the subjectivists; the falsifiability verse verifiability; normal science and paradigm revolutions etc. are without a doubt very deep and very real (Kasser, 2006)!   I am a person that can see that there are uses for objectivism in the natural sciences; and uses for the subjectivism in the social sciences, a case for pluralism – however, I would stretch to being a subjectivist in some cases.  My own MBA project used an auto-ethnographical research method and I know that the positivists might seriously consider this a pseudo-science at best.  I would reply, that perhaps it is more appropriate to find the method that best serves to answer your research question – and that project was a exploration on the coachee perspective of executive coaching.  How could I observe this, can I theorize without data, or depend simply on what others tell me as their experience?  No – I sincerely thought NO – let’s go from the inside out on this one.


In the end I did give in to an invisible hand of positivist pressure (wanting a seriously good mark and affirmation from the project committee), so I included some observations from other coachees.  This resulted in criticism from my advisor,  Paraphrasing her, she said, using other interviews alongside the auto-ethnographical method did not honour your research philosophy and may have undermined the result.  At the time I read this, I did not understand – now I do.  Of course, what seems important from all this is than in the end – one will have to defend one’s choices and the reality will be – anyone taking an opposing philosophical position can DESTROY your research from their point of view.  Kind of like Kuhn’s having different language and measures so that you end up talking passed each other (Kasser, 2006).


I hinted before that I am not naturally of the objectivist kind, and my preference is for the other end of this spectrum – constructivism, and even subjectivism.  Objectivists, Positivists and Post Positivists have through their obsession with: values ad politics free scientific methods like Popper’s hypothetico-deductive method (Popper, 1959); the search for objective single truths; attempting to come up with conceptualized theories without testing (sometimes at all) seems to me instinctively to be a blind way of doing science.


In the previous weeks I have felt some light pressure to align to a theory, to define my contribution, to conceptualize scientific experiments etc. In response to this I created last week’s blog titled ‘My first stab at a theory’.  To say the least I am a little embarrassed by a demonstration of such arrogance putting ‘theory’ in the title.   At best it was a brain dump of concepts, an even then only loosely put together without a serious systematic literature review.  This whole idea of first conceptualizing a theory, creating a hypothesis, testing it, falsifying or verifying it, modifying it, and then writing up a thesis that tidily demonstrates a kind of Popperian heroism – see, how efficiently deductive science works, hints of disingenuous science.  My MBA project advisor caught me once (I admit my mistake was accidental as started losing track of events not and not honouring the original order of things) by making out observations in a certain sequence – to which was not accurate.  Positivist do seem to demonstrate this in the limited dissertations I’ve read.


The controversy stated clearly is that rather than choose a theory to improve, rather than set deductive hypothesizes or propositions to verify/falsify, I would rather take the advantages that come with running my research project in an inductive manner.  I have identified a problem that Education of Sustainable Development (ESD) is scarce, complex, hard to measure, can be surrounded by a level of pessimism, and results that are variable at best.  Note, I accept that Social Learning in the community is bringing good results in younger age groups so this not a position in all ESD cases.  


So what’s the deal?  I simply have a hunch that using new 3D Virtual Worlds (3DVW) and educational innovation may bring some optimism to the problem at hand.  As Edwin Locke says, initial theories, prepositions, or hypotheses and large justifications for the research are simply not required, so as long it is “made clear that something new was being done” (Locke, 2007, p. 887).   Yes, there are arguments against induction – my favourite is where the chicken after receiving food every morning from the farmer, induces that the farmer will come in again tomorrow with food – but instead next time it will be an axe!   Here is what Locke suggests when it comes to planning an inductive research project:

1. Start with you philosophical axioms!

2. Develop a substantial set of data and observations!

3. Formulate concepts that arise from the dataset!

4. Look for causality!

5. Integrate/Synthesize

6. Identify domain boundaries!


The caveat Locke offers is that the findings or corroborated theory is one of contextualized truth, one that is open for further research, and open that it may not be generalizable in all cases, perhaps not at all.  He states with conviction that he refrained from issuing his formal theory of goals until he had completed a massive 400 studies over a 25 year period!


Locke describes his own understanding of the inductive debate suggesting that science would never have made the progress without induction.  He names many of the great scientists such as Galileo, Newton, Einstein, and many more.  This seems pretty compelling to me.  Now, not for a minute will I suggest I am a great scientist, or even a scientist :o) – nevertheless, does it make any sense to be guided down a philosophical approach by institutions, departments or advisor preferences that does not sit well with you the researcher?   Sounds like a battle of the minds and wills that will last for 4-5 years – NO THANKS!  So with growing but limited knowledge of these affairs, I will lay my cards the on table (As one goes down the list it gets less certain!).


  1. Approach: Induction first!
  2. Ontology: Pragmatism, Pluralism, Relativism
  3. Epistemology: Social Constructivism and Subjectivism
  4. Theoretical Perspective: Interpretivism (although sub-disciplines need more thought)
  5. Methodology: Ethnography, Discourse Analysis, perhaps Survey Research
  6. Methods: Narrative, Participant Observation, Questionnaire, and Interview
  7. Time Horizon: Cross Sectional


I am stating a case for a research philosophy that will not yet try to predict my contribution to knowledge or to theory in specifics, but a promise to explore the literature and research observations with passion.  To search for ways contribute to the knowledge on innovative ways to educate managers on sustainability using new technology – a project with potentially useful outcomes for educators, HR professionals and Management.


So, does that put the nail in the coffin of deduction in this project – well not yet.  Being a professed fallibilist (if there were not enough -ists or -isms in this blog already!), I strongly believe in what I believe, but I am open to being wrong.


Could it even be possible that behind the heated science wars there is a pragmatism that supports a quiet collaboration?  I never said that I would stop reading the literature – so could there be a kind of a dance between the two camps?  I might start with experimentation – but quietly deduce concepts (not theories – I won’t stretch that far), then return to experimentation, and loop around in the shape of a wonderful waltz instead, 1-2-3, 1-2-3….


The reason why I like this idea comes back to Feyerabend’s anything goes mentality – experiment, innovate, create, and don’t be afraid of the consequences – there might be something pretty special where others have not dared to look in strange places nor in such a disrespectful manner towards one’s domain history!  For me though, for the time being – I say let’s settle the research philosophy debate for the project – and start planning the first exploration.


Welcome your own thoughts on my musing this week – leave me a comment.


Crotty, M., 2003. The Foundations of Social Research: Meaning and Perspective in the Research Process 2nd., SAGE Publications Ltd.


Easterby-Smith, M., Thorpe, R. & Jackson, P., 2008. Management Research 3rd Editio., SAGE Publications Ltd.


Kasser, J.L., 2006. Philosophy of Science. Philosophy of Science.


Locke, E.A., 2007. The Case for Inductive Theory Building . Journal of Management, 33(6), 867-890. Available at: http://jom.sagepub.com/cgi/content/abstract/33/6/867.


Morgan, G. & Smircich, L., 1986. The case for qualitative research Reproduced with permission of the copyright owner . Further reproduction prohibited without permission . Academy of Management Review.


Popper, K., 1959. The Logic of Scientific Discovery First Engl., Routledge Classics. Available at: http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=9219121.







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