Qualitative Research in Business Communication: A Review and Analysis

By Tucker, Mary L.; Powell, Karen Sterkel et al. | The Journal of Business Communication, October 1995 | Go to article overview

Qualitative Research in Business Communication: A Review and Analysis


Tucker, Mary L., Powell, Karen Sterkel, Meyer, G. Dale, The Journal of Business Communication


Communication has been studied for over 2,500 years and has been recognized as increasingly more important during the last 30 years (Hickson & Jennings, 1993). In fact, Tucker, Meyer, and Westerman (1994) propose that effective business communication should be researched as the key strategic advantage in today's successful firms.

Communication researchers, concerned with gathering complete, valid, and reproducible results, are being encouraged to use a group of qualitative research methods for studying business communication (Kreps, Herndon, & Arneson, 1993). According to Kreps, et al., "Qualitative research in the field of communications has emerged since the 1970s as a legitimate and widely recognized phenomenon in two ways:

1. it has produced a growing body of literature, and

2. it has developed a significant group of methods by which to study the process of communication" (p. 1).

The question that intuitively arises, then, is whether these significant qualitative methods are increasingly used in published business communication research.

This paper will (1) address the call for qualitative research in business communication, (2) describe qualitative research methods and provide examples of business communication articles in which qualitative and qualitative/quantitative methods were used effectively, and (3) present an analysis of research methods used in articles published in three business communication journals during the last four years. The paper concludes with recommendations for business communication research.

Call for Qualitative Research in Business Communication

A decade ago, Cochran and Dolan (1984) challenged business communication researchers to seek new approaches to their research, stressing the need for research that is diverse and uses multiple sources of data. They proposed that the use of limited and conventional research methodologies has led to studies that generally support specific, narrow research paradigms on repetitive topics. To generate new research topics, they suggested that researchers conduct more qualitative research to focus on the context of discovery rather than the context of justification.

Likewise, Moran and Moran (1985) criticized the redundancy in business communication research topics from 1960 to 1985. As recently as 1993, Yates stated that researchers have continued to examine repetitive questions that can be answered by using quantitative methods, hindering the research efforts in business communications.

According to Halpern (1988), the business communication literature does not lack empirical research as a whole, but it lacks research that discovers what and how students and business professionals write. Halpern believes that the neglect of qualitative research by business communication professionals has limited the kinds of questions that are asked and answered, hindered the discovery of sound theoretical approaches to teaching and practicing business communication, and encouraged researchers from related disciplines to explore the field and use strong qualitative methods to answer questions that are not being addressed. Halpern believes business communication researchers need to commit themselves to learning and using qualitative research methods so that they learn more about their discipline and grow professionally. Likewise, Forman (1991) believes qualitative field work should be the first phase of research in the 1990s for the many unexplained communication issues, such as collaborative writing.

Smeltzer (1993) reiterates Halpern's and Forman's recommendation to use both quantitative and qualitative research methods, stating that little is known about the true nature of business communication and the needs of business practitioners. Smeltzer urges communication academicians to understand and to "feel" the needs of business practitioners, and to understand the context of the "real world" and the problems people face in it (p.

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