Context or Setting

This discussion is an extension on the Lab, Field, and Survey post.

The place where we conduct research on organizations can have a significant impact not only on how we conduct research but also on the results of our studies and investigations. This means paying attention to methodological fit, and how we match the type of research question we wish to explore with the type of setting to use for it.

The first step to consider, is what the current state of theory is at.  Next, we will select a specific setting, which will have implications for the amount of control we have over extraneous variables.

  • Nascent Theory Research
    • Here,  little or no previous theory exists. Researchers do not know what issues might emerge from the data so they avoid hypothesizing specific relationships between variables.
  • Intermediate Theory Research
    • This draws from prior work to propose new constructs and/or provisional theoretical relationships.  Careful analysis of both quantitative and qualitative data increase confidence that the explanations are more plausible than alternatives.
  • Mature Theory Research
    • Encompasses precise models, supported by extensive research on a set of related questions in varied settings.  Research is elegant, complex and logically rigorous.  Questions tend to focus on elaborating, clarifying or challenging specific aspects of existing theories.

Research performed in organizations (i.e., in the field) differs from research performed in a lab. Some experiments can only be performed in the field, while others will benefit greatly from being studied in a lab where distractions are minimal and there is little chance of subjects discussing the experiment.

As Bouchard points out in his 1976 paper, field settings differ from lab settings in 3 major ways:

  • Boundary factors
    • Intensity, e.g. firings, layoffs, demotions, transfers in the workplace, etc.
    • Range, e.g. group size, span of control, time span, even physical spaces
    • Duration and frequency – ability to cross response system threshold.
  • Structural factors
    • Natural time constants – only field studies allow us to study natural temporal structures
    • Natural units – there is “intrinsic order” in every field environment that we can study
    • Complexity
  • Factors that broaden type of questions asked (not unique to the field)
    • Setting effects – field settings are very complex with a large number of forces at work in any given situation; they are dynamic and a relationship found at time T1 may not be found at time T2.
    • Representativeness – while lab studies are fairly strong on representativeness of subjects, they are weak on representativeness of treatments.

The instruments we use for conducting research in organizations will depend not only on the object of our study, but also on what is feasible within an organization. Some organizations may be completely open to an experimental setting, whereas others may only be willing to provide retrospective documentation and yet others will only be willing to administer surveys and questionnaires without participating in anything else.

  • Qualitative/Survey Research
    • Tools include Interviews and Participant Observation, as well as various Unobtrusive Measures (archival data, physical evidence).
  • Field Experiments
    • You can achieve better analysis using selection bias models and propensity score analysis. Useful also is the Ecological Momentary Assessment (EMA), which captures momentary behaviors and tracks them over time.
  • Laboratory Experiment
    • Different types of tools could include Standard Laboratory Experiments, Free Simulations and Experimental Simulations.

Depending on what is available within an organization, the budget, and project objectives researchers will decide what instrument is better to use. Bouchard specifies 5 main methods to use in a field setting:

  1. Interview – there are different types of interviews and the type we use will depend on our research objectives as well as the organization.
  2. Questionnaires – it’s a good idea to involve some of the respondents in the construction of the questionnaire (influential and most competent is a huge plus).
  3. Participant observation – based on theory that an interpretation of an event may be correct only when it is a composite of 2 points of view, inside and outside.
  4. Systematic observation – includes self-observation (self-reports, diaries, checklists), analysis of verbal material.
  5. Unobtrusive measures, i.e. archives, physical traces, simple observation, etc.
Overall, field research is considered the most realistic and “is where the generality, applicability, and utility of psychological knowledge are put to the test” (Bouchard 1976). Field research can provide invaluable insights that lab studies will not be able to cover. However, we need to remember that field research is often more difficult, ambiguous, and costly and may not be generalizable.  Methodological choices can enhance or diminish the ability to address particular research questions.  The appropriate choices will result in fit through the logical pairing between methods and the state of theory development when a study is conducted.
(Adapted from group and course notes)
(Flashcards and other resources here)
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