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Hermeneutic Exploration, Analysis and Authority: Phenomenology

of Researchers Emotions and Organizational Trust

Caroline Cole, Oliver Couch, Steven Chase and Murray Clark
Sheffield Business School, Sheffield Hallam University, Sheffield, UK
Abstract: In this paper we focus on the design, data analysis and practical application of hermeneutic based organizational
research. There is much written about hermeneutics as a research approach but there is little written about the emotions
of the researcher as they analyse data in that fashion and present their conclusions to, often, a non-academic audience
grounded in a positivistic business environment. In this paper we highlight the importance of the emotions of the researcher
within hermeneutic design, data collection and analysis. We start from the position that hermeneutic research is emotion
and value laden and, as they are part of the research and not removed from it, researchers must acknowledge and be
reflexive about their emotions. We discuss the philosophical and practical considerations that emerge from this and how
these can be dealt with. Hermeneutic frameworks are gaining in popularity in organizational research however there are few
papers that consider the analytical processes in any detail. There are challenges for the hermeneutic researcher when seeking
to provide insight and make a difference to organizational practice where there are expectations of measureable,
reproducible results. We find that there are considerations around the trust, acceptance and authority of emergent insight
arising from undertaking this type of research in typically positivist business environments. We take the position that this is,
in part, because the approach taken to data analysis in qualitative research is often not visible, accessible or presented in
any detail. A reader seeking to access an approach taken can often be left to assume what a researcher has done. These
assumptions can become a taken for granted acceptance of what has been done or can become assumptions around what
has not been done. In this paper we demonstrate the contribution hermeneutic studies can make to organizational practice.
We suggest that there is a need for researchers to shine a light on their approach. In particular we highlight the importance
of practically presenting what has been done and why to provide visibility of the approach taken. We highlight how doing
this can provide greater authority to emerging insights and facilitate organisational trust and acceptance of results.
Keywords: Hermeneutic, emotions, reflexivity, analysis, organizational trust

1. Introduction
In this paper we consider the presentation of a hermeneutic research approach and the importance of providing
visibility to what has been done. Equally important we suggest are the deeper philosophical considerations and
the emotions of the researcher that are more tension orientated, in particular where researchers taking a
hermeneutic perspective are aiming to bring together academic research and business practice.
We suggest there is an opportunity for researchers to explore a phenomenology of emotions and trust as
features of their data analysis and outcomes and to discuss these in detail in the context of business research.
The statement visibility of data analysis has multiple interpretations. It can, for example, mean no more than
a lack of clarity over subjective analysis that can be rectified by a thorough writing up and detailed presentation
of what has practically been done. It can, however, be more subtle than this; it can, for example, be about the
philosophical or methodological position of the researcher (Wertz et al 2011). For us, providing visibility to what
has been done and why, embraces all of these considerations.
We start from the position that hermeneutic research is emotion and value laden and, as they are part of the
research and not removed from it, researchers must acknowledge and reflect on their emotions as they seek to
share their research journey. The problem with words like "emotions" is that they are multi-dimensional and, as
such, need careful handling, to provide the clarity and insight we are seeking.
We are also mindful that "phenomenology" is another multi-dimensional word. For us, it describes how
researchers through self-reflexion can bring insight to the structure of their research experience, design and
analysis. For example, where a researcher takes a subjective approach to providing insight, it is rooted in
complexity and potentially illusory power distortions and distorted communications, and no amount of effort
will remove them completely. The best we can do is to improve visibility of things as far as we can by clearly and


Caroline Cole et al.

comprehensively revealing the approach taken; by drawing on the elements of the phenomenology of
experience, hermeneutic interpretation and reflexivity, an approach can be presented for undertaking
authoritative research in organizations. We suggest that by taking a reflexive position the richness of research
discoveries can be enhanced and can facilitate a bridge between academic thinking and organizational
development. This is to be welcomed as, in our view, subjective voices have been quiet for too long in the rough
and tumble of organizational life.
In this paper we are not going to look at the position of subjectivity beyond an objective ontology. Asking a
commercial organization to buy into research that is epistemically subjective and not underpinned by positivist
principles is challenge enough for the moment without asking them to accept that reality is not an objective

2. Background
There has always been a part of academia that favours pure research, not just for itself but for its often
unforeseen practical contributions to many areas of social and business life. The demands of non-academia for
practical benefits from research are increasing with the result there is a growing focusing on this aspect of
research. There are considerations of bringing academic research and diverse non-academic businesses much
closer together in a dynamic inter-relationship, as each must try to understand and learn from the other, in some
cases without a shared language underpinning this.
We consider that the establishment of the professional doctorate has proved one arena where this challenge is
laid bare. It is important to recognise the contribution to academic research and also the improvement of
business practice in the workplace that has been informed by degrees, such as, the DBA, with its twin aims of
providing a contribution to both academic knowledge and business practice. Within this, the notion of real
practical benefits to business is a requirement up front, and not just a possible downstream consequence of the
research when results are presented or the consequences of research discussed. The inter-face between
academia and non-academia has been brought much closer to the inception and design of research. Thought
must be given not only to meeting academic requirements but also to explaining to a non-academic audience,
the choice of methodology and authority of the research conclusions and how the emergent insights have arisen.
This may not be a significant problem in positivist work, but it can be if the researcher takes, for example, an
interpretive approach (Silverman 2011).
Our paper does not seek to force a subjective view into an objective environment. Indeed, we consider here that
for many researching in organizations, positivism is the natural stance to take, for positivism is the dominant
philosophical stance in a great deal of organization theory (McAuley et al 2007 pp.33), and, as such, can be
regarded as the default position for research designed to influence and improve organizational and management
practice. It is also seen as pivotal to management (ibid) since it provides truths that can be used to
control, with the authority to do the controlling.
With this consideration, any other approach both attacks the primacy of positivism, and thus the traditional way
of managing, and brings with it a demand to show why it is justified, or authoritative. Such a position is likely to
be ill-understood, certainly outside academia but perhaps inside as well and may even, as we have seen, be
resented. Positivism, albeit often not presented under that name, is, as McAuley et al (2007) observes, the
dominant stance and brings with it clarity, certainty, and the tools to manage. We seek here to illustrate why
there is space to consider other approaches, such as, hermeneutics and why, if they are given a space, the
requirement to provide clarity and authority should not be discarded but should be embraced as fundamental
aspects of the research process.

3. Philosophical considerations
Philosophical assumptions and commitments to specific ideologies and methodologies will, by necessity, feed
into the manner in which concepts are theorised and hence the way in which research questions are framed and
the way research is conducted. Easterby-Smith et al highlights what can be a demanding challenge for
researchers; "It is unwise to conduct research without an awareness of the philosophical and political issues that
lie in the background"(2002 pp.3). It is not intended here to explore the concepts of organizational learning or
to discuss learning methods or styles of doing this; what we do advocate, however, is that matters, such as these,


Caroline Cole et al.

are considered when they come up during research and that they are presented to facilitate understanding of
research design and activity.
In this paper we also encourage researchers critically and reflexively to evaluate how philosophical issues and
their own emotions and feelings about the research affect the relationship between data and theory, the overall
design of research, the visibility of this and hence the authenticity and trustworthiness of research outcomes.
We seek to encourage researchers to clearly present the skills and approach they have applied in doing this
(Seale, 1999). Of key consideration here is the reflexive stance of the researcher (Johnson and Duberley 2003;
Cole et al 2011), and how this links with their research philosophy as well as the methodology and methods, and
the extent to which conclusions drawn from interpretivist research can be said to be authoritative. We
encourage an emphasis always on approaches that are practical and pragmatic as well as academically sound in
order to produce results that are of value to business practice.
To do this, we suggest that it is worth looking at one aspect of personal interaction, because it may help us
understand how we can seek to develop and encourage reflexivity and the visibility of this in research design
and research proper. The example here is found in the writing of Paulo Freire and his problem-posing approach
that involves a constant unveiling of reality and the emergence of consciousness and critical
intervention in reality (Freire 1999 pp.62). Freire firmly concludes that this education as the practice of
freedom denies that the world exists as a reality apart from people (ibid). As Darwin et al (2002 pp.138)
conclude Freires aim is to free people from the domination of distorted communications through the
development of self-reflective understandings which allow them to participate in the social construction of new
This fits well with a hermeneutic study, which similarly involves peeling back the layer of understanding to get
closer to a reality that lies beneath, in part by confronting ones own taken-for-granted assumptions (McAuley:
1985). On the other hand, this approach works for researchers following any research path. A subjectivist might
drop into the appropriate mind-set quite easily, and since the approach depends as much on the researcher for
content and progress, the discussion will be dictated by them and not by any philosophical theory. Similarly we
suggest, an objectivist discussion is both possible and fruitful with this approach.
Johnson and Duberley take this a stage further by suggesting that Freires work amounted to an educative role
of facilitating democratic agreement (2009 pp.354) but for us the perspectives normally silenced by the
discursive hegemony of the powerful (ibid) lie not only in society in general but also in the researchers own
From our experience of working, in particular with mature students, who are often senior in their organisations
and new to research, we regularly witness a wrestling with new philosophical ideas that rest uneasily with
perhaps twenty years of work experience; moving to an acknowledgement of the tension and attempt to resolve
it, sometimes by questioning and challenging their own professional work place experience and their own pre
conceptions; equally though by acknowledging, inspecting and providing visibility to the part they are
themselves playing in their research design, application and analysis and their emotions and emerging insight
that arise from doing this.
Jeffrey Pfeffer (1993) observed that some researchers may not be aware of the paradigm they are working in
and, or they do not make their position explicit and clear in their writings. Hassard et al (2008), however,
questioned Pfeffer and his attempt to resolve the paradigm debate by proposing an overarching, integrated
paradigm for organizational analysis.
The academic paradigm debate has continued for many years. Burrell and Morgan (1979) differed in their
consideration from Kuhn, for example, in that they envisaged a number of paradigms existing alongside each
other, rather than Kuhns earlier suggestion that there is one dominant paradigm that will eventually be replaced
by a new dominant paradigm. Burrell and Morgan considered that, To be located in a particular paradigm is to
view the world in a particular way (1979 pp.24), and whilst they suggest that the paradigms can exist
simultaneously, they also emphasised the incommensurability of paradigms especially when seeking to debate
across paradigms and analyse social theory.


Caroline Cole et al.

Whilst the contradictory nature of the different perspectives continue to be subject to academic debate that
has yet to be resolved, we consider these perspectives to be useful frameworks in helping researchers to locate
the theoretical perspectives of their studies.
Johnson et al (2006) also recognised the diversity of philosophical assumptions within qualitative research and
they set out a contingent criteriology to distinguish the alternative forms of evaluation, that, if embraced within
the context of organizational research can, we suggest, facilitate and enrich our insight and understanding.
We suggest, however, that a significant share of the advice available to the enthusiastic researcher around this
provides ample opportunity to shelter under broad philosophical banners; critical approaches, for example, and
claims to be undertaking research in a critical manner. What this means a researcher is actually doing, is often
unclear and there is a need to distinguish between, for example, a broad canvas of critical thinking and a more
pragmatically and tightly defined approach (Johnson and Duberley, 2000). We are interested in this discussion
particularly as we are concerned with understanding restrictive influences and seeking to posit alternative
considerations. In other words, we seek to promote change and provide an escape route from such restrictive
influences; not necessarily by revising practices, but by encouraging reflexive activity amongst those involved.

4. Hermeneutic research design

Within the context of the enduring paradigm debate we now seek to locate a suggested approach to
organizational research that is based on a philosophical position grounded in critical interpretation, drawing on
aspects of the phenomenology of experience, hermeneutic interpretation and understanding and reflexive
thinking. We seek also to encourage a broader approach by adding in our interest in the researcher and
participant activity within organizational settings.
In attempting to relate these theoretical perspectives, we acknowledge from the outset that we are seeking to
establish a pluralist position, not only in respect of theory, but also by drawing together organizational and
research disciplines. We suggest that with the appropriate translation facilities in place, especially for the
business practitioner, it is both possible and productive to adopt such a secular approach to organizational
We consider that one aspect of bridging the gap between research and business is the need to find arguments
that carry weight with both. And one aspect of that is the need to adopt a philosophical stance and research
methodology and design that works in both fields, that satisfies academic scrutiny and makes sense to business
practitioners. We suggest that a business understanding of research findings emerges from their understanding
and insight into the purpose and design of a study, how the research was conducted, the role of the researcher
in this and what they consider can and cannot be drawn as conclusions.
In this paper we suggest that a focus on hermeneutics with its focus on truth as an act of disclosure is one
approach to achieve this (Alvesson and Skldberg 2001 pp.52). Foster (1994), also suggests that, any science
of social life must be a hermeneutic one, which is concerned to make sense of objects of study as text,
where this requires the researcher to immerse themselves in the data and reading of meanings, although as
Foster acknowledges, This process is invariably confused, cloudy, often contradictory and always incomplete
(1994 pp.149150).
For us, this apparent complexity for a researcher undertaking organizational research might be managed as, at
its core, hermeneutics is about the notion of interacting with research data (text) so that lost meaning can be
recovered. In doing this, understanding and insight can be presented and accepted wisdom can be challenged.
We also suggest that a researcher can go further (as do Alvesson and Deetz 2000 pp.142) and present the
research process as one that introduces conflict and choice through which established dominant organizational
discourses that have no present organizational relevance, can be unsettled and informed.
The hermeneutic researcher can be positioned somewhere on a continuum between making on one hand an
avuncular intervention to bring illumination to a particular topic, and on the other hand having a revolutionary
mind set leading to the emancipation of workers from their existing oppression. These extremes, we suggest,
are avoidable. McAuley (1985, pp. 297-298) strikes a pragmatic balance, saying, what we would do is get data
from (participants to the research process) and then get them to explore for themselves the implications of


Caroline Cole et al.

what they are saying . He goes on to say that what is crucial from a hermeneutic point of view, is the
emphasis on drawing and shaping their data, and being able to confront our own common sense assumptions
as they confront theirs . McAuley (1985, pp. 296) describes this as the qualitative end of Action
Research . This implies that some form of intervention by the researcher is required to promote change
where the intervention must go beyond just sharing a new understanding if the practical aspects of research for
an organization are to be realised.
A common challenge for a hermeneutic researcher, indeed for all interpretive research, is that the allowed
subjective position of the researcher influences their research design, intervention, and analysis to the extent
that their research material (data) and emerging insights are often not trusted or seen not to have organizational
legitimacy. The hermeneutic researcher must not forget that their epistemological commitment in the search
for understanding is underpinned by their bias and subjectivity. In order therefore, to promote authority and
acceptance of their work, a researcher must admit to their bias and account openly for it.
We suggest, however, that researchers need to go further than this by shining a light on, and discussing in detail,
the steps they have taken to design their research and carry out analysis of their research material. This in our
experience is often overlooked and it is this absence of insight for the reader that fosters doubt to the authority
of the research and emerging insights.
Whilst hermeneutic research is not about looking for and finding absolute truths, it does require careful
interpretation and understanding of research material. As McAuley observes, the researcher is not looking
at the experience of the subject alone; there is also the position of the interpreter as the scene unfolds, and in
the process of interpretation (2004 pp.194). As Alvesson and Deetz also note, recognising the interpretive
nature of research means that no data, except possibly those on trivial matters, are viewed as unaffected by the
construction of the researcher (2000 pp.113).
A potential layering of subjectivity here can give rise, we suggest, to multiple re-interpretation of material which,
if taken to extremes, leads to the problem of never ending deconstruction. The process must be visibly
moderated by the researcher if useful outcomes are to be found and the mechanism for this is reflexivity
throughout the research process. This requires the researcher to go beyond often used simplified statements
that they have been reflexive and clearly articulate what they have done and how and why they have done this.
Alvesson and Skldberg define this as, reflection in conjunction with interpretation at several levels
(2001 pp.238), by which, they mean that context, collection and analysis of data, representation and authority
of results, and the ways each of these levels interact with the others emerges from the researchers awareness
of their self-reflection and interpretive actions. They emphasise what we consider to be the essential
characteristics of this when they say that reflexive interpretation implies there are no self-evident, simple or
unambiguous rules or procedures, and that crucial ingredients are the researchers judgment, intuition, ability
to see and point something out not only with the data but also the researcher outside the research role and
with the reader (Alvesson and Skldberg 2001 pp.248). We add to this, a requirement for the researcher to
explain what this means they have done practically so their actions are accessible to anyone. The intention being
that a business practitioner can draw sensible and useful conclusions from research they consider to be
authoritative and actionable in their organization.
Cole (2007) suggests that a pragmatic approach to achieving this starts with an initial exploration, reflexion and
consideration of the qualitative research material collected, say for example, from life histories or interviews
that have been transcribed, to elicit the researchers initial reflexions, emotions and interpretations. A clear,
detailed presentation on what has been done is then required. As a hermeneutic exploration can be considered
similar to other interpretative approaches, for example, analytical induction or grounded theory, and to provide
clarity of insight, the researcher is encouraged to clearly describe what they are doing to remove as best they
can the scope for assumptions and to facilitate trust in the process adopted.
Here, in this paper, we do not seek to favour a hermeneutic approach specifically over others but we encourage
adopting an approach that complements the researchers own epistemological and ontological perspectives so
the rationale for selection can be clearly articulated. It is beholden, we suggest, on the researcher to understand
the affinity they have with their chosen approach and the unique features of this. For example, core
underpinning features of a hermeneutic approach explicitly recognise a researchers intuition, interpretation,
understanding and a researchers relationship between the research subject and the reader (McAuley, 2004, pp.


Caroline Cole et al.

192). Bringing visibility to these matters is a key consideration for the researcher seeking authority, legitimacy
and business acceptance, (Johnson et al 2006).

5. Data analysis and the emotions of the researcher

Hermeneutic research is by its nature, emotion and value laden and, as researchers are part of the research,
they must acknowledge and reflect on their own emotions throughout their research and especially as they
analyse their research material.
Fineman (2005) suggests that individuals must be open in expressing their feelings and emotions and must
understand what lies behind their emotions to be able to do this. Whilst Fineman was writing from an
organizational context, the considerations are the same for researchers, in particular the need to understand
how their experience and philosophy informs the research. A researcher may experience emotions during the
collection of research material that might be both expected and unexpected and may, as Cole (2007) describes
fluctuate wildly during interpretation. It is here that self-reflexivity becomes crucial. To probe and expose
meaning in the data, a researcher must always be suspicious of their data and their influence on it. If, as Alvesson
and Deetz say language does not stand in a one-to-one relationship to (partially) non-linguistic phenomena
such as behaviours, thoughts and feelings (2000 pp.112), then it is crucial to ensure that the researcher
responds to the idea that reflexivity involves the self-critical consideration of ones own assumptions and
consistent considerations of alternative interpretive lines (Alvesson and Deetz 2000 pp.112). We also add the
requirement to avoid jumping to what may initially seem to be obvious conclusions and to look for
contradictions, that may reveal alternative meanings.
A route here can be facilitated by considering how the data supports the researchers interpretation of emerging
themes and if these themes are consistent with the research purpose, accessible and seen as authoritative by
readers. Consider here, a people populated emotional work environment (Fineman, 2005); a context in which
an authoritative claim based on consensus of research participants is more likely to be acceptable and useful to
business practitioners than a researchers academic assertion that they have found a definitive truth.
There are, however, some dilemmas that we believe are inescapable. Consider, for example, research conducted
in a researchers own workplace where the researcher is known to their research participants. This, as Couch
(2007) suggests, might provide easy and perhaps privileged access to these individuals. It might put them at ease
so they are franker than they would have been with someone they may not have met before. Would that,
however, encourage them to spice up their comments, to exaggerate points they wanted to make, or drop their
guard against making suggestions that could barely be substantiated? This, may be considered welcome but
might also create an environment where data and resultant analysis can be easily challenged as limited and, or
This can be managed if the researcher has set out the ontological and epistemological basis of the research and
has acknowledged the subjectivity in it; the data then must be allowed to stand for itself and be analysed and
interpreted in this context. Here, the feelings and emotions of the researcher requires continued self-reflection
during the analysis process to facilitate confidence in the findings; a researchers growing confidence in their
findings though reinforces the need to be mindful of not becoming complacent, to seek supporting academic
authority and to constantly remain suspicious of the data. It is beholden on the researcher to repeat this process
many times as clarity of understanding on further reflection and analysis can often become more ambiguous
and complex. We encourage the researcher to write up and share their self-reflexions, insights, feelings and
emotions to inform the reader how the research has evolved and to provide insight into the researchers
experience during each stages of the research journey.

6. Closing observations
A major consideration for hermeneutic research is to be clear about the status of the outputs and how these
can be legitimised. As McAuley (2003 pp.196) puts it, one (legitimising factor) lies in the professionalism of
the hermeneutic researcher; the other is the methodic processes through which hermeneutic work is
In this paper we have illustrated the considerations around the authority, trust and acceptance of emergent
insight arising from hermeneutic research in typically positivist business environments.


Caroline Cole et al.

We take the position that hermeneutic studies have a contribution to make in informing organizational practice.
We emphasise the importance of researchers reflexivity, feelings and emotions during data analysis. To achieve
this, there is a need for researchers to practically present what they have done and why to provide visibility and
accessibility of the approach taken and to remove assumptions about what a researcher might or might not have
Doing this, we conclude, can bring authority to analysis and outcomes and facilitate academic and business trust
and acceptance of results.

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