Academic journal article Management International Review

The Drunkard's Search: Looking for 'HRM' in All the Wrong Places

Academic journal article Management International Review

The Drunkard's Search: Looking for 'HRM' in All the Wrong Places

Article excerpt

Abstract and Key Results

* Specific concerns have been raised about the ontologies and epistemologies that have dominated HRM research and the concomitant ubiquity of positivistic research methodologies. These concerns have also given rise to calls for more pioneering research framed within alternative paradigms. This paper considers the theoretical and practical value of alternative approaches to the study of HRM.

* Results show, drawing on interpretive studies of HRM rooted in different epistemologies, ontologies, and methodologies that a composite body of HRM scholarship is needed, where dominant and emerging approaches to the study of HRM are mutually supportive.

Key Words

Human Resource Management * Performance Appraisal * Positivism * Interpretivism


The human resource management (HRM) field has experienced significant growth since its inception about a century ago (Dulebohn/Ferris/Stodd 1995, Jamrog/Overholt 2004). Commencing as a minor area of specialism and oftentimes regarded as a 'sub theme' of other fields such as industrial relations (Kaufman 2002, 1993), it is now very much a field in its own right. Its status in the academic community, for example, is reflected in dedicated journals, associations and undergraduate and postgraduate study. Yet, recent developments notwithstanding, the field continues to endure considerable growing pains as HRM scholars struggle to explain its parameters and objectives: what is its core focus? What are its unique characteristics? Is it a science? if so, how is it different from, or similar to, other sciences? What are the ontological and epistemological assumptions necessary for a science of HRM? Is there a grand theory of HRM? Is a grand theory needed? Clearly, these are broad ranging questions which merit serious attention. While we do not seek to answer all of them here, we identify them in order to acknowledge the evolving nature of HRM theory and practice.

The specific purpose of this paper is to identify the value of alternative research processes and techniques used to "discover" knowledge, i.e., those located outside dominant ontologies and epistemologies, and their potential contribution to a richer body of research and practice in HRM. To that extent, the paper builds on the work of Ferris et al. (2004) who suggest that the study of HRM is dominated by a limited ontology that would benefit from research conducted within alternative paradigms. The ubiquity of the dominant ontology is, arguably, due to the resistance to alternative paradigms that characterizes much of North American HRM scholarship. Yet, it is notable that such resistance is also evident in other parts of the scholarly world. Indeed, in referring to the general lack of acceptance of different paradigmatic approaches to HRM research, Brewster (1999, p. 49) states that "like the fish's knowledge of water, these researchers not only see no alternatives but do not consider the possibility that there could be any ... some of those who become aware of the alternative paradigm respond ... by denying the value of the alternative ...". Extending the debate further, this paper suggests ways in which theoretical, conceptual and empirical work conducted in different epistemologies, ontologies and methodologies, adds value to HRM scholarship. Yet, moving away from traditional debates about the superiority of one paradigm over another, the paper contends that the dominant positivist paradigm and emerging paradigms of interpretivism both offer valuable insights into HRM theory and practice. Thus, we argue for a more composite body of scholarship where different paradigms are used in a mutually supportive manner.

It is notable that historically much of the HRM research conducted in the United States is firmly embedded in a positivist paradigm, characterized by a focus on cause-effect relationships, statistical tests, and predominantly linear thinking (Brewster 1999, Mendenhall 1999). …

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