PhD Research Methodology

Selected methods of research should originate from a clear philosophical position.

I enjoyed a 25-year career in business and technology before embarking on my doctoral research, and my personal experience has confirmed the importance of meanings and motivations in human interactions. Among a real world of physical actions and phenomena, what gives meaning to human experience are the relationships, intentions and emotions of people, how they interact with the physical world and each other. This may be regarded as an “internal realist” perspective and provides a basis for a phenomenological approach to research, where the research purpose is to understand how and why entrepreneurs respond, act and relate to the world around them.

Jason Cope examines the phenomenological perspective at length (Cope 2003), including the supporting philosophical tradition dating back to Husserl. At an epistemological level, phenomenology seeks to explore and reveal the essential types and structures of experiences (Burrell and Morgan 1979), and to do so without any preconceptions or assumptions. In some ways, Husserl sees “science as a second-order knowledge system, which depends on first-order personal experience” (Smith et al. 2009: 15), and this establishes the importance of examining the lived experience (lifeworld) in detail to scrutinize the meaning of human activities, motivations and relationships. Husserl was a natural scientist, but in regard to the social sciences it can be argued that this philosophical position favours a research approach that interprets human behaviour – an interpretative approach – and this is echoed by later exponents of this position. “The aim of phenomenological inquiry is to understand the subjective nature of ‘lived experience’ from the perspective of those who experience it, by exploring the subjective meanings and explanations that individuals attribute to their experiences.” (Cope 2003). The examination of ‘attitudes’ as part of this exploration makes this phenomenological approach compelling when dealing with complex situations such as entrepreneurial failure.

Further philosophical context is provided by hermeneutics, the theory of interpretation. In the examination of meaning enabled by Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (IPA), the researcher is making sense of (interpreting) the attitudes, behaviours and actions of the entrepreneur. Indeed the researcher is making sense of the interviewee, who is in turn making sense of his own experience – a ‘double hermeneutic’. Arguably, the ultimate examination of this doctoral thesis represents a ‘triple hermeneutic’, when an examiner is making sense of this research, which is making sense of his interviewee, who is making sense of their own behaviour. This multi-level analysis points out the importance of detailed examination of perspectives, viewpoints and the lived experience of others. In this way, IPA involves a combination of phenomenology and hermeneutics.

Phenomenological research examines the lived world of individuals, their detailed experiences often told through narrative. As Patton writes: “If you want to know how much people weigh, use a scale… If you want to know what their weight means to them, how it affects them, how they think about it, you need to ask them questions, find out about their experiences, and hear their stories.” (Patton 1990: 13). This is echoed by Smith: “The aim of IPA is to explore the participant’s view of the world and to adopt, as far as is possible, an ‘insider’s perspective.” (Smith 1996: 264). There is strong alignment between my research objectives and a methodology based upon Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (IPA) techniques.

The subjective, personal experiences of entrepreneurs and situations in which their ventures have failed will be explored using IPA methods: the views arising will be documented and evaluated using IPA content analysis, supported by discourse analysis. Given the individual and idiosyncratic personalities within the cohort of habitual entrepreneurs, and the objective of revealing and evaluating attitudes, I believe this qualitative approach is the most appropriate.

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About Keith Cotterill

After 25 years in finance and technology, I have returned to university to read for a doctorate at Cambridge. I am an active technology entrepreneur and investor as well as a researcher and divide my time between the UK and Silicon Valley.

Posted on June 3, 2011, in Methodology, Philosophy and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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