Qualitative research approach



The purpose of this chapter is to present and discuss the methodology that will be employed in the examination of the ten characteristics of servant leadership as applied to the life of Dr. Jim Otten, a prominent leader in proprietary higher education. The objective of this study is to draw parallels and comparisons between acceptable theories on servant leader behaviors and the professional of Dr. Otten. In particular, this chapter details the methods and processes involved in this proposed interpretive biographical research including the research design, participant selection, instrumentation, data collection, data analysis, and ethical assurances.

Research Questions

This study aims to examine evidence that that supports the practice of servant leadership behaviors in the professional life of Dr. Otten. The purpose of this study is to contribute to the dearth of empirical literature on the phenomenon of servant leadership and in consequence, inform how the practice of servant leadership today can be incorporated in profit-driven proprietary higher education institutions. The overarching question for this study is:

How are the ten characteristics of servant leadership: (a) listening; (b) empathy; (c) healing; (d) awareness; (e) persuasion; (f) conceptualization; (g) foresight; (h) stewardship; (i) commitment to the growth of others, and; (j) building community, exemplified by Dr. Jim Otten, a prominent leader in proprietary higher education?

This central question is divided into sub-questions, to wit:

a. How do superiors and subordinates view Dr. Otten?

b. What organizational practices and experiences in working with or for Dr. Otten demonstrate the practice of servant leadership from the perspective of subordinates and colleagues?

Research Method and Design

This study follows the qualitative tradition as it deals with the need to “understand the meanings people have constructed… and the experiences they have in the world” (Merriam, 1998, p. 6). The qualitative approach to research makes a descriptive account of a setting, phenomenon, and people possible. Moreover, qualitative processes enable the interpretation of new insight regarding a phenomenon, a theoretical or conceptual perspective, and generates additional issues existing within a phenomenon or theory (Patton, 2002).

The qualitative research approach is said to be more effective than the quantitative approach depending on what the study intends to achieve (Shi, 1997). Among the research objective that suit qualitative research tradition include the study of the following:

1. complete events, phenomena, or programs;

2. developmental or transitional programs and events;

3. attitudes, feelings, motivations, behaviors, and factors associated with the changing process;

4. complex events with interrelated phenomena;

5. dynamic or rapidly changing situations;

6. relationships between research subjects and settings; and

7. processes or how things happen rather than outcomes or what things happen. (p. 126)

Creswell (1997) suggests that when you examine the various forms of qualitative inquiry, you will not arrive at one best form because qualitative research is inherent multi-method in focus. There are five general forms of qualitative inquiry presented by Creswell (1997) that will be examined before explaining this study's choice of qualitative method: ethnography, case study, grounded theory, phenomenology, and biography.

Ethnography aims to describe and interpret a cultural system or community through longitudinal field observations (Schram, 2006). Ethnography can be of three types: (a) classical; (b) critical; and (c) postmodern or poststructural (Grbich, 1999). This approach requires a research to immerse him or herself into the community or culture being studied.

Case study involves “…an intensive, holistic description and analysis of a bounded phenomenon” (Merriam, 1998, p. xiii). It may focus on an individual, place, phenomenon, group, culture, or country within a definite time. Yin (2003) presents the case study as an empirical inquiry that “1) investigates a contemporary phenomenon within its real-life context; and 2) copes with the technically distinctive situation in which there will be many more variables of interest than data points” (p. 13-14).

Grbich (1999) defines the phenomenological study as a description of the structures or process of experience as they present themselves without predetermined assumptions, theories, or deductions. It seeks to describe the meaning of lived experiences of a group of individuals pertaining to a concept or a particular phenomenon (Creswell, 1997).

Creswell (1997) defines grounded theory as a technique that uses analytic induction in order to develop theories that seek to explain the world. The end product is a theoretical model or law to guide action and is accomplished mainly from interviews, site visits, and analysis of information.

A biography is defined as an interpretive and analytic study of an individual analytic whose experiences are narrated to the researcher or discovered in documentary material or artifacts (Creswell, 1997). Biography can be employed to test theories regarding phenomena or events which can aid in explaining the present context. There are subgroups under biographical research namely. autobiography, oral history, life history, biographical study, classical biography, or interpretive biography.

According to Creswell (1997), choosing the most appropriate research design for qualitative research requires an alignment with the conceptual framework and the study's perceived goals and objectives. Because this study wants to examine the existence of servant leadership characteristics that are practiced by Dr. Otten and since behaviors are shaped and formed throughout the life stages, an exploration of Dr. Otten's servant leader behaviors requires an in-depth examination of his life experiences. To this end, a narrative approach specifically an interpretive biographical method is chosen as the study's research design.

Biography is considered as a “social creation or construction” constituting “both social reality and the subjects' worlds of knowledge and experience… constantly affirmed and transformed within the dialectical relationship between life history knowledge and experiences and patterns presented by society” (Fischer-Rosenthal, as cited in Rosenthal, 1993, p. 145). Atkinson and Delamont (2006) suggest that narratives give powerful insight into the organization of human experiences and enable us to structure understanding of ourselves, other people, and events. The research goals fit the objectives of interpretive biography, because my purpose is to “explain why a person behaves in a certain way [as a servant leader] and examine patterns developing in his or her life” (Atkinson & Delamont, 2006, p. 85). In so doing, the internal and external events that occur in a subject's life are given meaning.

Interpretive Biography

Biographical research is generally subdivided into three approaches: a) classical; b) objective hermeneutics or biographical narrative; or c) interpretive (Atkinson & Belmont, 2006). Interpretive biography and classical biography are dissimilar because the former seeks not to “unravel lived experiences but to find meaning in lived experiences” (Rosenthal, 1993, p. 19) and analyze servant leadership through life stories where “narrative segments and categories are isolated and patterns are sought” (Polkinghome, 1995). An interpretive biographical approach will be the most appropriate research design for this analysis of servant leadership.

An interpretive biography is a qualitative research design that provides information on the behavior, beliefs, attitudes, motives, collective discourses, and the development of perceptions on social moralities (Duncan, 2000). According to Norman K. Denzin (1989), a foremost authority on the interpretive biographical method, the life story of a person is not that person's exclusive property. It can be used to give meaning to behaviors in larger social contexts and collectivities, such as societies, institutions, corporations, and academic communities.

Through an interpretive biographical research design, an examination of presence of the ten characteristics of servant leadership will be drawn with Dr. Otten, a leader in proprietary higher education, as subject. In so doing, the study's objective of examining the development of servant leaders in higher education institutions that could corroborate or dismiss commonly held theoretical beliefs about the nature and applicability of servant leadership will be met.


The participants of this study will consist of persons who are in the best position to relate the life story of Dr. Otten. The participants will be individuals who have a current or former professional relationship with Dr. Otten. This will include his (a) superiors; (b) subordinates; and (c) peers or colleagues.

The study will use the “snowball sampling” technique which employs a referral method from initial respondents in order to find more participants for the study (Patton, 2002). The first “key informant” for this study will be Dr. Otten who will in turn recommend potential participants who can provide information about the subject. As a sampling technique, snowball sampling is predominant in interview studies and uses referrals as the primary means of attracting more participants who can contribute knowledge regarding the study's focus (Lindlof & Taylor, 2002). Because the study intends to use this technique, the number of respondents estimated to participate in this study is uncertain. However, the study will ensure that there will be an adequate number of participants to achieve saturation or an “informational redundancy in the data-collection process” (Norwood, 2000, p. 15).



The primary instrument to be employed for this interpretive biographical research is a semi-structured interview guide containing open-ended questions. The semi-structured interview provides flexibility so that I can be free to engage the participant in conversation in a natural and casual manner and in so doing, gain more insight into the experiences and characteristics of Dr. Otten. Fontana and Frey (1994) express that the semi-structured interview is “more honest, morally sound, and reliable, because it treats the respondent as an equal, allows him or her to express personal feelings, and therefore presents a more realistic picture than can be uncovered using traditional interview methods” (p. 371). Conversely, the highly-structured interview is rigid and vulnerable to the possibility of extracting information and reaction based on the interviewer's worldview (Merriam, 1998). The instrument will cover the skills, leadership style, and characteristics of Dr. Otten. Participant's demographic profiles will be collected.


Aside from the interviews, documents and archival information will be gathered to substantiate the information provided on Dr. Otten. Documents such as curriculum vita, academic records, correspondence, and public and private documents will aid in establishing significant aspects of Dr. Otten's personality and life. These documents will ultimately aid in answering the research question of whether or not Dr. Otten possesses the ten behavioral characteristics of a servant leader.


Several types of materials will be used in order to produce a chain of evidence for the purposes of cross-referencing data (Yin, 1994). I will use the following materials during the course of the study: (a) Tape recorder featuring a multidirectional microphone; (b) Pencil and pen; (c) Highlighters for manual coding purposes; (d) Coding sheet for content analysis; (e) Software for compilation, organization, and analysis of data; (f) World Wide Web for e-mailing purposes; (g) Interview protocol; and (i) Coding protocol.


Before data collection can proceed, approval from the Institutional Review Board (IRB) will be sought to establish the study's adherence to ethical guidelines in research work. Primary data will be obtained from interviews which will be conducted. Secondary data will be obtained from field notes and other documents which are germane to the proposed investigation.

Several procedures will be undertaken to ensure the validity of the study.

Member checking. This is a method that could help in providing credibility and critique to a research investigation (Lincoln & Guba, 1985). Member checking involves the review of the interview transcripts by the participant so that when irregularities and errors are detected, clarifications can be made and changes done.

Triangulation. Triangulation is the comparison of multiple forms of evidence related to the focus of a research investigation. Triangulation establishes convergence of meaning and diminishes the bias borne out of “individual methods,” which are cancelled out in the process (Lindlof & Taylor, 2002. This study will use handwritten field notes aside from the transcripts of the interviews to note significant points that could be of use for further investigation. To corroborate data from informant interviews, other sources such as document and artifacts related to the personal history and professional life of the subject will be used to enhance the validity of the results.

Peer debriefing. Another procedure useful to establish inter-rater reliability is peer debriefing. Qualitative research experts encourage the use of debriefing to “enhance truth value, credibility, or validity of qualitative research” (Merriam, 1998, p. 56). At the beginning of data collection and data analysis, I will meet regularly with two (2) impartial colleagues who will critically review the interview protocol and coding protocol for content analysis and review the methods employed in my dissertation.

Data Collection, Processing, and Analysis

Data Collection

The primary data collection method was audiotape recorded interviews. Interviews will be pre-scheduled to account for the constraints in the schedule of participants. Participants will be requested to read and indicate their signature and date on an “Informed Consent Form” and a “Consent to be Recorded Form” before the interview can commence. A recording system featuring a multidirectional microphone and a telephone handset recording control device will be used to record the interviews. Issues on confidentiality and privacy will be resolved prior to the interview proper. Using the interview protocol as guide, participants will be asked on the same core questions. In order to reduce bias, no mention will be made of the leadership style Dr. Otten is being evaluated on. Participants will be given a copy of the core questions to help them prepare and provide the researcher with substantial information and insight about Dr. Otten. This will greatly reduce the probability of arranging follow-up interviews to fill missing gaps in information. If possible, the actual interviews will be one-time sessions but in the event additional interviews are necessary, this will be scheduled accordingly. Interviews will be conducted at a comfortable and pre-arranged location proximate to the interviewee's location.

Data Processing

Since qualitative research amasses huge amounts of raw data, there is a need to preserve it in an organized and timely fashion (Denzin & Lincoln, 2005; Merriam, 1998). Merriam (1998) recommends doing the analysis simultaneously with data collection in order to save time. It is anticipated a single interview will last for one hour at the minimum while the transcription process could entail two full days in a single interview. Time-consuming data collection processes are expected and accepted in this study to guarantee high quality. Time will be allotted for reflective processes for the researcher in “pondering the impressions, deliberating recollections and records....data [is] sometimes precoded but continuously interpreted, on first sighting and again and again” (p. 242). Data will be organized to aid data analysis. The transcribed interviews, summaries, field notes, and excerpts from artifacts and documents will be kept in a research journal.

Data Analysis

Data will be subjected to content analysis, which is “a deductive process that involves looking for specific instances of narrative data to fit or illustrate a predetermined content areas or themes” (Norwood, 2002, p. 45). A theme is a phrase which captures the fundamental significance or meaning of a select component of the narrative text (Krippendorf, 2004). The theme serves as backbone to the interpretation of the phenomenon that a researcher tries to understand (Krippendorf, 2004). Following the content analysis guide by Neuendorf (2002), this study follows the nine-step process of content analysis:

1. Theory and Rationale. This study will use Spears' (1998) Ten Characteristics of Servant Leaders Model to indicate the important content of interest for this study.

2. Conceptualization. There will be ten (10) variables to be used for this study: a) listening; (b) empathy; (c) healing; (d) awareness; (e) persuasion; (f) conceptualization; (g) foresight; (h) stewardship; (i) commitment to the growth of others, and; (j) building community (Spears, 1998). Definitions will be established using relevant literature from Spears and Greenleaf.

3. Operationalization. The researcher will use an a priori coding scheme. There will be predetermined categories based on identified theory to be used for analysis. Two (2) colleagues will critique and agree on the categories before coding can be applied to the data (Weber, 1990).

4. Coding. Human coding will be used for this study. Hence, a coding protocol that contains a full explanation of the variables measured (10 characteristics of servant leaders) will be used. A coding sheet will also be needed.

5. Sampling. Recording units for coding will be defined syntactically, that is, transcripts of the interviews will be coded by sentences, phrases or paragraphs (Weber, 1990). For this study, sampling units will be defined by sentences.

6. Reliability. This study will use inter-rater reliability or the measurement of percentage of agreement among raters. The number of cases coded similarly by the two raters will be added and then divided by the total number of coded cases.

7. Coding: A qualitative analysis computer software called nVivo will be used in coding themes embedded in transcripts.

8. Final reliability. Pearson r values will be computed for each variable to establish final reliability figures.

9. Tabulation and reporting. A Pareto chart will be used in order to display the coding occurrence for each of the ten (10) variables analyzed in the study. A Pareto chart will allow the researcher to view individual and cumulative frequencies of coding occurrences (Veney, 2003).

As earlier stated, a number of procedures will be undertaken to establish validity and reliability of the results namely member checking, triangulation, and peer debriefing.

Methodological Assumptions, Limitations and Delimitations

This interpretive biography makes several assumptions. First, I assume that subjective information derived from the participants is linked to reality. Second, there are several assumptions inherent in the nature of biographical research. Biographies assume the following: “(1) the existence of others, (2) the influence and importance of gender and class, (3) family beginnings, (4) starting points, (5) know and knowing authors and observers, (6) objective life markers, (7) real persons with real lives, (8) turning point experiences, and (9) truthful statements distinguished from fiction” (Denzin, 1989, p. 17). Third, participants of this study are assumed to have presented information voluntarily.

Ethical Assurances

Prior to data collection, approval will be obtained from the University's Institutional Review Board (IRB). Confidentiality concerns and anxiety over disclosure of information revealed will be considered. The study will not use any names or any identifying information during the audiotaping and transcription process. Names inadvertently revealed during the interview will be edited out of interview transcripts. In place of real names, pseudonyms will be used. Recorded audiotapes will be kept by the researcher and after the publication of the dissertation, chain of evidence will be erased. Further, participants will be assured that they can terminate their participation in the study any moment they wish.


This study proposes a qualitative interpretive biographical method to examine the practice of servant leadership as exemplified by Dr. Jim Otten, a prominent leader in higher education. Interviews will serve as primary data to be triangulated with other pertinent documents related to the personal and professional history of the subject. Participants of the study will include Dr. Otten's close professional associates and will be selected via the sampling method. Content analysis will be used to evaluate and interpret data using nine strategies outlined by Neuendorf (2002). Ethical considerations are outlined and given highest regard.


Atkinson P. & Belamont, S. (2006). Narrative methods. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Creswell, J. (1997). Qualitative inquiry and research design. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Denzin, N. (1989). Interpretive biography. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications.

General Accounting Office [GAO]. (1996). Content analysis: a methodology of structuring and analyzing written material. Retrieved from http://archive.gao.gov/f0102/157490.pdf

Gillespie, G. W. (1986). Using word processor macros for computer-assisted qualitative analysis. Qualitative Sociology, 9, 283-293.

Grbich, C. (1999). Qualitative research in health. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications. Greenleaf, R. K. (1970). The servant as leader. Indianapolis, IN: Greenleaf Center.

Krippendorf, K. (2004). Content analysis: an introduction to its methodology. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Lindlof, T. & Taylor, B. (2002). Qualitative communication research methods (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Lincoln, Y. S., & Guba, E. A. (1985). Naturalistic inquiry. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.

Lipsey, M. W. & Wilson, D. B. (2001). Practical meta-analysis. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Merriam, S. B. (1998). Qualitative Research and Case Study Applications in Education. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Neuendorf, K. A. (2002). The content analysis guidebook. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Norwood, S. (2000). Research strategies for advanced practice nurses. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall Health.

Patton, M. Q. (2001). Qualitative evaluation and research methods (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Rosenthal, G. (1993). ‘Reconstruction of Life Stories. Principles of Selection in Generating Stories for Narrative Biographical Interviews.' In R Josselsen & A. Lieblich (Eds.) The Narrative Study of Lives. London: Sage.

Shi, L. (1997). Health services research methods. Albany, NY: Delmar. Yin, R. (1994). Case study research: Design and methods. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Weber, R. P. (1990). Basic Content Analysis, 2nd ed. Newbury Park, CA. Patton, M. Q. (2002). Qualitative research and evaluation methods. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Schram. T. (2006). Conceptualizing qualitative inquiry. New York: Allyn & Bacon.

Shank, G. (2002). Qualitative research: a personal skills approach. Eaglewood, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Spears, L. (Ed.) (1998). The power of servant-leadership. San Francisco: Berrett Kochler.

Veney, J. E. (2003). Statistics for health policy and administration using Microsoft excel. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Please be aware that the free essay that you were just reading was not written by us. This essay, and all of the others available to view on the website, were provided to us by students in exchange for services that we offer. This relationship helps our students to get an even better deal while also contributing to the biggest free essay resource in the UK!