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Methodology: Perspectives and Assumptions

Methodology: Perspectives and Assumptions

by Patricia Marlette Black BA, MEd.

from Women’s Leadership in Community-Profit Organisations,
Doctoral Thesis , Queensland University of Technology, 1999, pp. 73-89.
Republished on our website with the necessary permissions

4.1 Introduction

The preceding chapter reviewed the literature that was relevant to this thesis and refined the research questions in the light of that review. What emerges is the need for research which explores leadership in a context that is on the edge of the traditional terrain of leadership studies, and which listens to voices that have hitherto been submerged in the malestream leadership literature. This research is situated in the community-profit sector as a context that is on the edge of the traditional terrain for leadership research, and has invited women in both positional and non-positional leadership in that sector to be the fresh voices sharing their understanding of leadership.

Section 1.4 of this thesis defined methodology as a social process which includes research design, data collection and analysis and theorising as well as political and ethical concerns and theoretical principles (Burgess 1984; Harding 1987a; Lather 1991). The same section of this thesis indicated that the methodology adopted in this research, appropriate because of the nature of the research problem described in Section I.2 of the thesis, is qualitative methodology, and explained why symbolic interactionism is appropriate as the particular mode or perspective of qualitative research adopted in the research. The purpose of this chapter is to present the methodology used here by explicitly identifying the perspective which frames this research and the assumptions which underpin the choice of methods used to conduct it.

The purpose of this research is to explore the social phenomenon of leadership from a perspective different from that of the dominant leadership theories. It seeks to discover how women understand their exercise of leadership in community-profit organisations, and to see whether those understandings go beyond a bureaucratic-managerial understanding of leadership. It seeks to explore the phenomenon of leadership in a context in which it has not been much investigated, that is, women’s (not necessarily feminist) community-profit organisations. It seeks to hear voices that have not often been given a chance to speak in the leadership literature - women who are both positional and non-positional leaders in the community-profit sector - in order to better understand the social reality of leadership. This research seeks, in short, to explore and to communicate the meaning perspectives of women’s experience of leadership in community-profit organisations. The focus is not on describing the social actions or behaviours of leaders (as has been the focus of much of the malestream research on leadership); rather, the focus is on exploring what the social action of leadership means to the participants. The challenge posed by the paradigm shift from a mechanistic to a holistic world view outlined in Chapter 2 of this thesis, because it concerns a transformation of consciousness, calls for the adoption of a research methodology that has the capacity to explore the meanings which underlie people’s definitions of reality.

4.2 Qualitative Methodology

The term methodology has a number of definitions. In the social sciences the term refers to how research is conducted (Taylor and Bogdan 1984, p. 1). Whereas theory is interpretation which gives insight into what can be observed, methodology ‘represents the principal ways in which sociologists act on their environment; their methods, be they experiments, surveys or life histories, lead to different features of this reality, and it is through their methods that they make their research public and reproducable by others’ (Denzin 1989b, pp. 4-5). A methodology provides theoretical principles, as well as a framework which guides how research is done.

Sarantokos (1993, p.32) identifies two main understandings of methodology. One identifies methodology with a research model, in which case there are as many methodologies as there are projects. The second ‘relates the nature of methodology to a theoretical and more abstract context, and perceives it in conjunction with distinctive, unidimensional and mutually exclusive theoretical principles’. It is this second understanding of methodology in terms of qualitative methodology and quantitative methodology that is adopted in this research. In this understanding, methodology is determined by research principles based on a particular paradigm, and not by the research model. Research methods refer to the tools or instruments used by researchers to gather empirical evidence (Sarantokos 1993, p. 30). They are techniques (Harding 1987a; Lather 1991; Stanley 1990), specific research practices such as surveys and interviews.

Qualitative research is interpretive; that is, social relations are the result of interaction based on interpretation (Miles & Huberman 1984). Qualitative research is also naturalistic and uses naturalistic methods that are familiar to people living in natural settings. These methods are mainly descriptive in nature, describing people and events in natural settings. Qualitative research is reflective in that it reflects critically the aspects of reality that are considered to be a problem of social research. Qualitative research tries to approach reality without preconceived ideas and pre-structured models, and uses flexible research designs and methods (Patton 1990). It uses inductive analysis in which the evaluator is immersed in the specifics of data to discover important categories, and it uses research procedures that produce descriptive data, presenting in the respondents’ own words their views and experiences (Patton 1990). For the qualitative researcher all settings, all people, and any aspect of social life, no matter how mundane it may be, are worthy of study (Taylor & Bogdan 1984). Qualitative research is systematic research conducted with demanding, though not necessarily standardised, procedures (Taylor & Bogdan 1984, p. 7).

Qualitative research methods give a rich and full understanding of social reality, and the data and interpretations thus provided are not accessible by other methods. Qualitative research studies social processes and actions in context and reflects the subjective reality of the participants (Finch 1986). Instead of having the world of the participants transmitted to the researcher from a distance, through surveys or questionnaires, qualitative research ‘attempts to study the social world directly and therefore provides contextualized data, although probably about a much smaller number of individuals than the average survey would cover’ (Finch 1986, p. 164). Qualitative research methodology is particularly appropriate for this research because the research investigates a little-known phenomenon: women’s leadership in community-profit organisations.

Many of the perceived weaknesses of qualitative research reflect the positivistic prejudice of assessment (Sarantokos 1993, p. 51). Perceived weaknesses would include problems of representativeness and generalisability of problems, problems concerning the lack of objectivity and detachment, the risk of collecting meaningless and useless information, and problems of reliability caused by extreme subjectivity. Such weaknesses are certainly no greater impediments to gaining an understanding of the social world than are the weaknesses of quantitative research as perceived from an interpretive perspective. Any research approach is a reflection of our beliefs and assumptions about the world we live in and would like to live in (Lather 1991, p. 51).

4.3 Symbolic Interactionism: Key Empases

Symbolic interactionism is the methodological perspective which underpins this research. Symbolic interactionism stems from the works of Charles Horton Cooley (1956), John Dewey (1930) and George Herbert Mead (1934). Historically, there have been two opposing schools of symbolic interactionism, one identified with Herbert Blumer and the University of Chicago and the other with Manfred Kuhn and the University of Iowa, but in reality symbolic interactionism is a pluralistic and diverse set of practices, especially in its contemporary forms when it is often associated with neither of the historical schools. One of the independent symbolic interactionists, Stryker, (1981, p. 26) emphasises that it is certainly ‘as true today as it was during the height of the Blumer-Kuhn “debate” that there is no symbolic interactionist orthodoxy, no single vision of what the framework “means”’. Because so many of symbolic interactionism’s assumptions have been absorbed into qualitative methodology in general, it has, perhaps, had less singular attention in the recent past than it once had. While there is some concern about the greying of symbolic interactionism (Saxton 1989), others are optimistic about the future of this research perspective (for example,, Fine 1987; Stryker 1987).

Symbolic interactionism is a perspective rather than a fully developed social theory. As a perspective, symbolic interactionism has three major emphases. The first emphasis is on the importance of subjectivity in social life. The symbolic interactionist is interested in how people make sense of their social world, a world where individual meanings are both central and yet negotiated with others as shared meanings are created (Berger & Luckman 1967; Berg 1989; Sarantokos 1993). The focus in this research, as in all research from a symbolic interactionist perspective, is on the individual participant’s experience of social realities ( in this instance, leadership) contextualised within socially negotiated meanings and a wider cultural and historical context ( Berger & Luckman 1967; Blumer 1969; Stryker 1980).

A second emphasis is on the centrality of meaning. Meanings are not inherent in reality but are social products formed through the activities of people interacting. The meaning of a thing for a person emerges from the ways in which other persons act toward the person with regard to the thing. According to Blumer (1969, p. 5) social actors attach meanings to situations, other things and themselves through a process of interpretation. He writes:

This process has two distinct steps. First, the actor indicates to himself (sic) the things toward which he (sic) is acting; he (sic) has to point out to himself (sic) the things that have meaning. Second, by virtue of this process of communicating with himself (sic), interpretation becomes a matter of handling meanings. The actor selects, checks, suspends, regroups, and transforms the meanings in the light of the situation in which he (sic) is placed and the direction of his (sic) action.

Those symbolic interactionists who adopt a social structural approach to interaction (for example, Stryker 1980) emphasise that social structures such as class, age and gender enter the system of meanings of the actors to the degree that these structures affect group formation and interactions. Lofland and Lofland (1984) suggest that the meanings created by people through interaction are fragile and precarious and are therefore treated tentatively by most people and defended when attacked. The purpose of this research is to explore the meanings that the participants attach to their experience of the leadership relationship in order to better understand leadership that is most appropriate in a postmodern world. Kay (1994) in questioning the traditional approach to the study of leadership, an approach that emphasises the objectivist position and focuses on leadership competencies, has suggested an interpretivist study of leadership which conceptualises leadership as a meaning-making and meaning-shaping process.

The third emphasis in symbolic interactionism is on the social construction of reality. People ‘create shared meanings through their interactions, and those meanings become their reality’ (Patton 1990). Meanings are not just situated within individuals, but are constructed and reconstructed in social interactions with others in a dynamic process of constructing social realities which are temporary and constantly negotiated (Berger & Luckman 1967; Blumer 1969; Burrell & Morgan 1979; Patton 1990). Reality is not fixed, because the situations of living are constantly changing and new meanings are constantly being generated to cope with a contingent reality; people define their contingent situations in a variety of different ways, all of which are ‘real’ to them (Mead 1934; Lofland & Lofland 1984; Denzin 1989a).

This emphasis in symbolic interactionism is also central to understanding the postmodern world described in Chapter 2 of this thesis, a world which is evoked, not discovered, because things cannot exist without us in the quantum world and whatever we call reality is revealed to us through an active construction in which we participate (Prigogine & Stengers 1984, p. 293; Wheatley 1992, pp. 36 & 68). The task of this researcher who has adopted the symbolic interactionist perspective is to uncover the meanings of the social reality called leadership, based upon understanding the lived experience of that social reality from the point of view of the participants.

4.4 Symbolic Interactionism: The assumptions that Underpin this Research

As indicated in Section 1.4 of this thesis, the epistemological underpinning of this research is interpretive. The research is underpinned by a way of knowing derived from a symbolic interactionism perspective and, therefore, based on experience, empathy and interaction. The emphasis on experience, empathy and interaction places this research within epistemological arguments that challenge positivistic claims for research as being neutral and value-free.


The emphases on subjectivity and interpretation in the creation of meaning which are central to the symbolic interactionism perspective mean that the participants’ own understandings, viewed from their own experience of social realities, become the subject matter for research. The social reality of women in leadership is best understood through their own construction of the meaning of that reality. This research places emphasis on women’s experiences as a significant indicator of reality, a view that is consistent with feminist methodology as well as with symbolic interactionism. Because the participant’s construction of the social reality of leadership is lived out and negotiated in interaction with others, including interaction with the researcher during the research process, the researcher’s experience and preconceived understandings are also important and a degree of intersubjectivity is achieved.

A fundamental assumption of symbolic interactionism is that the human being does not simply respond to stimuli occurring outside him/herself, but that the world is produced by the very people who examine it. Both the participant and the researcher are able to modify or change the meanings they use in interaction on the basis of their interpretation of the situation (their experience). Both the participants and the researcher have the ability to be proactive subjects. This research looks at how some women involved in the exercise of leadership in community-profit organisations construct, perceive and interpret the social reality called leadership. Their perceptions of the meanings they attach to their experience of leadership is central to this research.

Because the experience of the participants is central, the research is viewed as a partnership between the researcher and the research participants and the research participants with each other as they interpret the exercise of leadership out of their own experiences. In order to highlight the active role of the women who participate in the research and the importance of their experiences, the term participants is used to describe them because it implies an equality and active participation that terms such as subject, informant, researched, and interviewee do not. Use of in-depth interviewing as a research method gives these women a voice in an area where until recently they have not had the opportunity to create and relate their experiences. The researcher’s own voice communicates the research participants’ experiences and yet is distinct from them, because her own experiences are also an essential part of the research process.

Because different people have different experiences and have created different social meanings in leadership interactions, it is important that the researcher explore a variety of perspectives on the same social reality in order to get a more holistic understanding of that reality. Therefore, while this research is set in the particular organisational context of women’s community-profit organisations, an attempt has been made to explore women’s experiences of leadership from a number of perspectives within that context by choosing sites from different categories of community-profit organisations. The sites chosen are not necessarily a representative sample in order to ensure that some objective truth is arrived at; the scope of sites is chosen in order to provide understandings from a variety of leadership experiences so that a more rounded picture of women’s leadership in community-profit organisations is achieved. This research has also included participants with both positional and non-positional leadership perspectives on the leadership relationship in order to explore a range of experiences and interpretations of the social reality called leadership.


A central premise of symbolic interactionism is empathetic role-taking between human beings. In order to acquire knowledge about the social world, a person must take on the role of the other and participate in the mind of the other. The researcher identifies with participants in order to understand their interpretation of a social reality such as leadership. Blumer (1972, p. 152) describes this premise thus:

To try to catch the interpretive process by remaining aloof as a so-called ‘objective’ observer and refusing to take the role of the acting unit is to risk the worst kind of subjectivism - the objective observer is likely to fill in the process of interpretation with his (sic) own surmises in place of catching the process as it occurs in the experience of the acting unit which uses it.

Marshall’s (1992, p. 281) comment in the context of feminist methodology that personal involvement is not a burden, ‘a source of unwanted bias; rather it provides the energy for research and heightens [the researcher’s] potential as a sense-maker’, is equally applicable with regard to empathy in the context of a symbolic interactionism perspective. This premise is one which validates symbolic interactionism as a perspective that is suitable for carrying out research in a postmodern world which is always subjective and shaped by personal interaction with it. Wheatley (1992, p. 36) states:

No longer in this relational universe can we study anything as separate from ourselves. Our acts of observation are part of the process that brings forth the manifestation of what we are observing.

Disengagement from the interpretive process reflects a masculinist perspective of research which is at odds with the feminist methodological principles on which this research is based.

An assumption in symbolic interactionism is that research is a two-way process in which the researcher operates between ‘multiple worlds when engaging in research - the everyday worlds of the subjects and the world of his (sic)own sociological perspective’ (Denzin 1989b, p. 10). May (1993, p. 14) emphasises that the researcher’s biography becomes a fundamental part of the research process, a process which Humm (1989, p. 50) calls ‘dialogic retrospection’ involving an active exchange between the researcher and the participant as partners in the research. The researcher’s role in this exchange is shaped by her social, historical and philosophical positioning (Harding 1987c). This positioning cannot be denied, neutralised or transcended; rather, from the symbolic interactionist perspective, it becomes a vital part of interpretation in the research act by contributing to the social construction of reality through the creation of shared meaning (Blumer 1972; Denzin 1989b). Unless the researcher is able to clearly identify her assumptions and the biases which inform the research, ‘an invisible hand directs inquiry and forecloses the range and the kind of things the investigator can observe and understand’ (McCracken 1988, p. 22). The researcher, in identifying her biases and her own particular version of reality, consciously attempts not to impose that version of reality on the participants.

This researcher engages in the research process as a woman, and therefore offers a perspective that is distinctly different from that of a man (Scutt 1992b). The researcher’s experience as a woman has hopefully allowed for a less exploitative relationship between the researcher and the female participants than is sometimes the case in positivistic research. As a woman, I have a particular stance and a particular voice as a white, middle-class, able-bodied, middle-aged, Euro-centric, professional woman whose experiences of leadership have been in the community-profit sector, and more particularly in community-profit organisations with a religious history, ethos and mission. My particular positioning as someone who had been in leadership positions in community-profit organisations and had shared many of the experiences of the participants gave me credibility in the research process. This, together with the professional skills that I utilised to organise and conduct the research, gave me ease of access to the participants and the opportunity to engage in interviews that were more conversational than interrogational.

As an educator and administrator in a Catholic secondary school for girls, I became aware of the gendered nature of educational structures and of the need to liberate young women from masculinised social and cultural mores that kept them dependent and passive. As an adult educator, I have extensive experience in working with a variety of women’s groups and have come to value women’s stories and shared experiences as clues to meaning that cannot be found in traditional positivistic research methods. As a member and a leader of a congregation of Catholic religious sisters, I became very aware of both the potential for independent and creative action as a company of women and of the weight of patriarchy and masculine hierarchy in the Catholic Church and the wider society which is the social context for the mission of justice and transformation which is the congregation’s raison d’etre. Such positioning led to the adoption of a woman-centred perspective in the research and this influenced the choice of the research topic and the methodology adopted. Because of this positioning, this research is characterised by some of the concerns and assumptions of feminist research which overlap, extend or complement the concerns and assumptions of the symbolic interactionist perspective out of which the research is conducted. For example, the focus on subjectivity and the importance of experience in symbolic interactionism is reflected in the emphasis of feminist research methodology on the dialectic relationship between the subject and object of research (Fonow & Cook 1991; Stanley & Wise 1983). The emphasis on empathy in the symbolic interactionist perspective is extended by feminist research methodology in its adoption of participative or collaborative research.

The fact that I have adopted a women-centred approach to research rather than a specifically feminist approach provided easy access to a range of women’s community-profit organisations, all of which adopted a woman-centred approach, some a more explicit feminist ideology. A woman-centred perspective led to my viewing women as the focus of inquiry, and to the exploration of the social reality called leadership through a ‘female prism’ (Fonow & Cook 1991, p. 71).

A woman-centred perspective also led to a concern with the dynamics of power between the participants and the researcher, a dynamic which concerns all those who carry out research using a feminist methodology (Oakley 1981a; Truman 1994). In exploring issues of power and difference in the context of the interface between the participants and the researcher, Oakley (1981a) emphasises the importance of diffusing power relations within that part of the research process by identifying similarities between the researcher and the participants. Certainly, this researcher found many similarities between herself and the participants. May (1993, p. 96) also supports what he calls ‘blending in’, that is, a match of characteristics between the researcher and the participants in order to guard against the substitution of the researcher’s views for those of the participants. Because of this researcher’s positioning as a white, middle-class, professional woman, it is not surprising that her networks led her to choose a sample that is largely white, middle-class, professional women in positional and non-positional leadership in community-profit organisations; a sample which reflects the totality of women’s experience in the wider economic, social and political context where class, race and educational factors differentiate the experiences of women in the community-profit sector as in the women’s movement as a whole. Gender was a major factor uniting the participants and the researcher. The participants brought a variety of experience in terms of age, ideology and organisational involvement to the researcher. The researcher was more in tune with those who were middle-aged and older than she was than with the experiences of the younger participants, especially in their articulation of a particular understanding of what it meant to be a feminist. The researcher found it easier to understand the organisational climate and dilemmas of those organisations that adopted a woman-centred approach rather than those that adopted an explicit feminist ideology.

In terms of power differentials, biases in terms of race and disability must be acknowledged in the research. The researcher deliberately tried to include in her sample disabled women and aboriginal and migrant women, but during the cultural review interviews and in conversation with the gatekeepers of the organisations where the researcher had identified these potential participants she was told that their organisations were in crisis and thus they did not have the time to participate in the research. It was inferred from conversations with these women that the research problem was not of as much interest to them as it was to the white, middle-class, able-bodied women who responded so positively and enthusiastically to the invitation to be participants. Whilst the women in leadership who participated in this research are marginalised and to some extent oppressed in the sense that their experiences and understandings of leadership have not been heard and debated in mainstream leadership research and theories nor their contributions fully or fairly recognised, it must be acknowledged that there are women who may be even more marginalised and who have little or no voice in the research process in general or this research in particular.

Although power differentials are an inevitable part of the relationship between researcher and participants and the control of this research process was basically in the hands of the researcher, every effort was made to ensure that the participants were respected and empowered in the research process in the attempt to achieve mutuality if not full equality. The signing of the Consent Form (Appendix B(i)) by both the participants and the researcher was a way of formalising and protecting this respect and mutuality. The researcher firmly believed that the participants’ information was essential to exploring the research problem. She was also aware of the feminist criticism (Oakley 1981a, p. 41) of interview practice that is unidirectional and based on a hierarchical relationship between the researcher and the participant. In-depth interviews were chosen as the key research method because, compared with standardised interviews, they encourage the subjectivity discussed above as a key assumption of symbolic interactionism, and they offer the possibility of a conversational style interview which attends to the individual’s interpretation of social realities (Minichiello, Aroni, Timewell & Alexander 1990) even when the interview is focused through the use of an interview guide. An attempt was made to develop the research questions and the interview guide interactively by asking the participants in the cultural review interviews to identify what they saw as important questions or issues to be discussed with regard to the research problem.

The participants were given information about the goals and significance of the research (Appendix B (ii)) as well as a copy of the interview guide (Appendix E) as background to enable them to freely choose whether or not they wished to participate in the research. They were free to withdraw from the research process at any time. They were also given the freedom to choose the time of the interviews, where the interviews were to be held and what information they wished to disclose in the interviews. Although the researcher stated a minimum time of one hour for the interview, participants were free to extend the interview conversation as long as they thought useful. The participants were also able to change the data given in the interview by adapting the interview transcript if they so desired, and many participants took advantage of the opportunity to further reflect on and to develop the responses they made in the interview. A majority of the participants influenced the research process to the extent that they were reluctant for the researcher to become involved in participant observation because they would find it artificial and intrusive. The researcher did, however, join two organisations as a member in order to observe at close quarters how they operated, was guest speaker at the official functions of two other organisations and an inservice presenter at the staff inservice gatherings of another two organisations.

This researcher was gratified and humbled by the positive and enthusiastic response of the women who were invited to be part of the research; no one from the list of names provided by the gatekeepers in each organisation refused to accept the invitation to take part in an interview and, indeed, many returned their transcripts with notes of thanks for the opportunity to engage in such interesting and challenging reflection and conversation. The researcher’s experience was that each interview was characterised by an interesting and stimulating exchange of ideas, an exchange that was facilitated by the taping of the interviews which obviated the distraction of note-taking and highlighted the conversational nature of the interview. It was noted that because the researcher was able to adopt a variety of roles in her interviews with the participants, the collaborative nature of the dialogue was not threatened and she and the participants were on the ‘same critical plane’ (Stanley 1990, p. 9). The criteria for participative research outlined by Reinharz (1983) were met in this research: namely, that the research problem and questions are of interest to the participants (even though chosen by the researcher), and the research outcome is relevant and applicable to the interests and needs of the participants, because it increases their understanding of the leadership process in which they are engaged and has a consciousness-raising impact on them which is essential in bringing about social change (Fonow & Cook 1991; Stanley 1990).

The emphasis in symbolic interactionism on empathetic role-taking between persons - reading and interpreting the gestures of others so as to assume their perspective - means that the researcher attempted to identify with the participants in order to understand their interpretation of social reality. Because this identification assumes that the research process is a mutual if not an equal partnership every effort was made to ensure that the participants were respected and their perspectives valued, and the researcher consciously engaged in a dialogue between her own perspective on the research problem and those of the participants.


According to symbolic interactionism, social realities such as leadership are formed, maintained and changed by the basic meanings attached to them by people who interact on the basis of meanings they assign to their worlds. These meanings are established in and through social interaction; they arise during interaction and they are learned, managed and changed in interaction. Therefore human interactions form the central source of data and the interaction process is an emergent event that is studied in natural settings (Stryker 1981). Patton (1990, p. 76) explains that it is only through close contact and direct interaction with people in open-minded, naturalistic enquiry that the symbolic interactionist comes to understand the symbolic world of the participants.

In-depth interviewing is the main research method chosen in this research because it offers the possibility of face-to-face interaction between the researcher and the participants as a way of exploring the participants’ interpretations of the leadership relationship or interaction and the meanings that they attach to it. The interaction involved in in-depth interviewing is an effective way of gaining access to meanings and interpretations of the particular social reality of leadership from the perspective of women in community-profit organisations. The total research process can be regarded as an interactional production (Denzin 1989b, p. 6) and the very act of engaging in social research is a process of symbolic interaction in which there is a search for shared meaning between the researcher and the participants individually and in groups.

Central to the symbolic interactionist’s view of research is naturalistic interactionism. Research conducted from the perspective of symbolic interactionism centres on the self-reflective, acting individual in ongoing, emergent interaction with a particular environment (Saxton 1989, p. 14). The primary interaction environment for the participants in this research is the community-profit organisational environment. There were, however, several interaction settings which influenced the participants’ understandings of leadership in the community-profit sector. Many of the participants, especially those in leadership positions on management committees in a voluntary capacity and many of those who were professional, full-time workers in leadership positions in the community-profit sector had had experiences of leadership in the for-profit private sector and in the public sector, and were able to attach meanings to the exercise of leadership in community-profit organisations based on experiences in several sectors. When given the choice of where the interviews were to take place the majority of participants chose their natural settings, that is, either their homes or their organisational ‘homes’ (Figure 5.8). As a result, the interaction between the researcher and the participants took place in natural settings where the researcher was part of the participants’ environments. A small number preferred to meet on neutral ground, such as a cafe or at the researcher’s home because of its central location.

Among the class terms learned in interaction are ‘the symbols that are used to designate “positions” which are the relatively stable, morphological components of social structure’ (Stryker 1980, p. 54). These positions carry the shared behavioural expectations that are conventionally labelled ‘roles’. Conscious of this aspect of interaction, the researcher was particularly aware of the importance of identifying at least for herself the different roles that she had in the research process. At times she presented herself as student, at times as expert, and at other times as colleague of the person being interviewed, in order to meet the differing expectations of participants in such a way that participants would be at ease in communicating their interpretations of leadership and the meanings they attached to their experiences of leadership in community-profit settings. The researcher adopted these roles in order to be enough of an ‘insider’ to be able to be empathetic but at the same time sufficiently ‘outside’ the particular organisational context to allow participants the relative anonymity required for candour. Because of the designation of positions in interactions such as the leadership relationship, the researcher also explicitly interviewed women who were non-positional leaders as well as those in designated leadership roles, and conversed with participants about how they perceived the leadership role and how they experienced interaction between those in the designated leadership role and active followers in their organisations.

The emphasis on interaction in symbolic interactionism places relationships and human interaction at the centre of the research process, as it is from these interactions that the data and the analysis of data emerge. For the researcher, the act of engaging in the research process is a process of symbolic interaction in which she is challenged to bring her own particular experiences to a variety of interactions in the search for shared meanings.

4.5 Patterns, Parallels and Pointers

This research sets out neither to verify theory nor to create theory which attempts to describe objective reality. Such an objective is inappropriate in this research, which is concerned to explore the issue of women’s leadership in community-profit organisations in a way that leads to greater understanding of the meanings women in such contexts attach to their experiences of leadership. This understanding is not a functional one based on cause and effect, but rather an understanding which refers to meanings constructed at the subjective level and shared and reconstructed in interaction with others.

Although many qualitative researchers use the method of grounded theory to discover the theory that is in the data, Minichiello et al (1990, p. 9) stress that because different qualitative researchers have different purposes in mind, not all qualitative studies result in theory building. Qualitative methodology from a symbolic interaction perspective allows several different forms of theorising which include not only grounded theory but also analytic induction, sensitizing concepts, existential theory and hermeneutic or interpretive theory (Jorgensen 1989, pp. 111-116). The view of theorising adopted in this research is that of theory as hermeneutics, which focuses on hermeneutic or interpretive understanding (Geertz 1973; Goffman 1974; Clifford & Marcus 1986). Interpretive generalisations about women’s leadership in community-profit organisations are formed as a result of posing questions about the meanings women attach to their experiences of leadership in such an organisational context, and by placing this particular leadership text in a continuous and cyclical interaction with other leadership texts within the relevant literature and within the researcher’s own experiences of leadership. Jorgensen (1989, p. 115) explains that because the researcher and the researched text are historically situated:

no statement of universal patterns, regularities or laws is possible. Every generalization is an interpretation aimed at understanding, but interpretation never is absolute or complete. Interpretation is a never-ending search for understanding and enlightenment.

Shakespeare, Atkinson and French (1993) say that it is impossible to search for objective truth in an intellectual climate characterised by a holistic world view.

The analysis of women’s leadership in community-profit organisations proceeds by asking questions about the social, cultural and organisational contexts in which leadership in general and women’s leadership in particular occurs, about the women who are engaged in the leadership interaction or relationship in the community-profit sector, and about the human interaction that constitutes leadership as a social reality. The purpose of the research is to produce an understanding of women’s leadership in community-profit organisations that will provide a basis for the development of the leadership interaction in ways that are consonant with a holistic world view.

4.6 Conclusion

The assumptions underpinning this research are located in a symbolic interactionist perspective which highlights a way of knowing based on experience, empathy and interaction. The emphasis on experience and subjectivity means that the researcher views the research problem from the point of view of the participants. Because of the emphasis on naturalistic interaction, the researcher interacts with participants in as natural and as unobtrusive a manner as possible. Empathetic role-taking demands that the researcher take the view of the acting other in concrete situations in order to escape the fallacy of objectivism. Because of the variety of settings in which interaction can occur, the researcher attempts to consider the situated aspects of the participants’ experience.

The research does not attempt to develop theory beyond the provision of a hermeneutic understanding which is capable of illuminating the leadership interaction or relationship needed as the Western world makes the transition from a mechanistic to a holistic world view. When we change the level of our understanding then we start attracting a new reality. From the symbolic interactionist perspective, this researcher does not seek to come to closure on the research problem outlined in Section 1.2 of the research, but is ‘satisfied with the search for new insights and the hope for better understanding’ (Saxton 1989, p.9).

Methodology as the perspective and assumptions that guide the research has been the content of this chapter. In the following chapter (Chapter 5) the research design and method are outlined, including data collection procedures, analysis of data and the researcher’s role management.

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