Choosing a Methodology for Entrepreneurial Success Factors: A
Case for Qualitative Research
B. Tim Lowder, PhD
Saint Leo University
Saint Leo, FL, US
The quantitative methodology and the qualitative methodology have both resulted in significant seminal
research and knowledge creation. Many researchers who adhere to the quantitative, positivist
methodology continue to debate the validity of the qualitative, post-positivist methodology and premise
that the quantitative method is the most accurate and reliable (Clark, 1998). Other quantitative
researchers premise that the qualitative method itself is composed of many methodologies and that there
is no one, clear definition of the qualitative method (Clark, 1998; Lund, 2005; Morgan & Smircich, 1980).
Conversely, qualitative researchers premise that a qualitative design adds tremendous potential for
added depth in the research topic and allows the researcher to explore the date more thoroughly
(Conger, 1998; Huberman & Miles, 1994; Morgan & Smircich, 1980; Morse, 2006; Onwuegbuzie & Leech,
2005; Rolfe, 2006). From a critical realist and post-positivist perspective, qualitative proponents believe
that their method allows the researcher to focus on the subject’s individual experience, which better
explain the subject’s reality (Conger, 1998; Huberman & Miles, 1994; Morgan & Smircich, 1980; Morse,
2006; Onwuegbuzie & Leech, 2005; Rolfe, 2006). However, the field of research on entrepreneurial
success factors is relatively new. This paper analyzes both the various research paradigms and the
research methods that are currently used by researchers and chooses one operative paradigm and one
research methodology that is best suited for the study of entrepreneurial success factors.
Keywords – Research, qualitative, quantitative, systems, actors, analytical, paradigm, methods,
entrepreneur, success, factors, variables, analysis
Both the quantitative methodology and the qualitative methodology have resulted in significant seminal
research and knowledge creation. Seminal researchers using the quantitative methodology have typically
exemplified a positivist approach while those using the qualitative methodology have exemplified a post-
positivist, interpretive approach (Clark, 1998; Gephart, 1999; Lacity & Janson, 1994). Many researchers
who adhere to the quantitative, positivist methodology continue to debate the validity of the qualitative,
post-positivist methodology and premise that the quantitative method is the most accurate and reliable
(Clark, 1998). Other quantitative researchers premise that the qualitative method itself is composed of
many methodologies and argue that there is not a single clear definition of the qualitative method (Clark,
1998; Lund, 2005; Morgan & Smircich, 1980).
Conversely, qualitative researchers premise that their method is in fact definitive and incorporates greater
flexibility into the research process while providing a greater opportunity for discovery compared to the
quantitative methodology. These qualitative researchers believe that the quantitative methodology is very
rigid and definitive which stifles discovery and is more appropriate for verification purposes. Qualitative
researchers stress the importance of their methodology by illustrating both its flexibility and its many
approaches that include ethnography, case study, grounded theory, and phenomenology. Consequently,
there is much discussion and debate as to which methodology is best suited for the study of
entrepreneurial success factors. This paper compares and contrasts the quantitative methodology and
the qualitative methodology to determine which methodology is best suited for the study of
entrepreneurial success factors.
QUANTITATIVE AND QUALITATIVE METHODS
The quantitative methodology and the qualitative methodology use different types of data gathering and
analytical techniques that provide advantages and/or disadvantages based upon the researcher’s
requirements and needs. The quantitative, or fixed approach, focuses on developing and gathering a
valid data set and then uses various descriptive statistical analysis techniques to test for significance
(Cooper & Schindler, 2006; Gephart, 1999; Kirchgassler, 1991; Robson, 2002; Shields & Twycross,
2003). Conversely, the qualitative, or flexible approach, focuses more on phenomenological,
ethnographic, and case studies that can include quasi-statistical techniques, template analysis, editing
approaches, and immersion approaches in which the researcher becomes the analytical tool as opposed
to the statistical analysis tools that are used in the quantitative approach (Cooper & Schindler, 2006;
Gephart, 1999; Kirchgassler, 1991; Robson, 2002; Shields & Twycross, 2003). Next, the quantitative
methodology is addressed.
When using the quantitative methodology, the researcher faces several key considerations. The
quantitative approach focuses on developing and gathering a valid data set and then using various
descriptive statistical analysis techniques to test for significance (Cooper & Schindler, 2006; Karami,
Rowley, & Analoui, 2006; Kirchgassler, 1991; Lund, 2005). To accomplish this task the researcher must
develop the right research question, hypothesis, and survey instrument. The researcher must focus on
the survey instrument’s design so it does not bias the responses and also ensure the validity of the data
set by attaining a sufficient sample size (Cooper & Schindler, 2006; Robson, 2002). Moreover, the
sample group must be appropriate for the statistical analysis techniques being used in order to ensure the
study’s validity (Cooper & Schindler, 2006; Robson, 2002) .
When the quantitative methodology is properly used, the results are highly effective in determining the
significance of relationships between variables. While performing the design and implementation of the
study, the researcher must focus on ensuring the validity of the measurement instrument. According to
Cooper and Schindler (2006), the researcher must meet several components of validity that include
“internal validity, content validity, criterion-related validity, and construct validity” (pp. 318-321). Cooper
and Schindler also emphasize that in addition to the validity factor, other test that must be met include
“reliability, stability, equivalence, internal consistency, practicality, economy, convenience, and
interpretability” (pp. 321-324).
In addition, the quantitative research design provides the researcher with an objective framework by
which to identify specific patterns through statistical analysis (Cooper & Schindler, 2006; Shields &
Twycross, 2003). The use of quantitative statistical analysis allows the researcher to establish a
hypothesis and either validate or disprove the hypothesis. The use of statistical analysis also provides
conclusions that are unambiguous, concrete, reliable, objective, and independent of the researcher
provided he or she followed the method’s fixed, concrete requirements (Arbnor & Bjerke, 1997; Cooper &
Schindler, 2006; Robson, 2002). It is the very nature and rigor of quantitative, fixed research that adds
validity and creditability to the research model (Robson, 2002). Next, the qualitative methodology is
The qualitative methodology requires that the researcher perform a complete self-analysis to ensure they
are firmly committed to the endeavor. Qualitative research is very demanding on the researcher and
entails a tremendous amount of data gathering and cataloging of data because the researcher is actually
documenting human experience (Hannah, 2006; Huberman & Miles, 1994; Robson, 2002). Within the
large amount of data gathered during qualitative research, the researcher seeks to use techniques that
are centered in content analysis, matrix analysis, grounded theory which often times requires insight,
intuition, and creativity (Clark, 1998; Conger, 1998; Huberman & Miles, 1994; Robson, 2002).
When properly used, qualitative research provides measurement and meaning through a data analysis of
patterns, themes, trends, plausibility, clustering, metaphors, counting, contrast, comparisons, partitioning,
factoring, relationships, evidence, logic, and theoretical coherence to name a few (Huberman & Miles,
2002; Robson, 2002). The qualitative research design provides the researcher with more varied options
concerning research question development and study implementation including how to gather and
analyze the data (Huberman & Miles, 1994; Morgan & Smircich, 1980; Morse, 2006; Onwuegbuzie &
Leech, 2005). The qualitative design adds a tremendous potential for added depth in the research topic
and allows the researcher to explore the date more thoroughly (Conger, 1998; Huberman & Miles, 1994;
Morgan & Smircich, 1980; Morse, 2006; Onwuegbuzie & Leech, 2005; Rolfe, 2006). From a critical
realist and post-positivist perspective, the qualitative method allows the researcher to focus on the
subject’s individual experience, which better explain the subject’s reality (Conger, 1998; Huberman &
Miles, 1994; Morgan & Smircich, 1980; Morse, 2006; Onwuegbuzie & Leech, 2005; Rolfe, 2006).
One of the greatest benefits of the qualitative methodology is that it affords the researcher more flexibility
in how to gather, arrange, and display research data. However, the qualitative approach is very
demanding on the researcher and this fact must be considered in the research plan (Huberman & Miles,
1994; Robson, 2002). Hence, when the qualitative, flexible approach is chosen the researcher is
required to adapt to observed changes as data is gathered and then redesign the matrices and coding
processes several times as new themes emerge (Robson, 2002). In summary, the qualitative approach
provides the design flexibility that is needed for categorizing data in a manner wherein the researcher is
“in control” of the process (Robson, 2002). Next, the research question is addressed.
A researcher’s initial research question is much like a baby’s first steps as they are learning to walk. The
infant, like the researcher, will stumble and fall many times. Hence, the researcher often reinvents and
alters their research question many times before deciding to proceed to the next stage of the research
process. Never the less, it is essential to develop a concrete research question that guides the
researcher through the critical research process. This research process includes establishing the
research question, choosing an operative paradigm and research methodology, designing the research
instrument, and then deciding on the analytical techniques to be employed (Cooper & Schindler, 2006;
The research question must be clear, concise, answerable, and relevant to the researcher’s purpose in
the study. This is because the research question directs and leads the researcher to an operative
paradigm (Smeyers, 2001). In addition, it is the operative paradigm that leads the researcher to the
appropriate research methodology, research instrument design, and analytical techniques (Clark, 1998;
Shields & Twycross, 2003; Smeyers, 2001). Thus, the research question is the stimulus that leads to the
operative paradigm which leads to the research method. The quantitative research question is addressed
in the next section.
Quantitative Research Question
Research questions developed by the quantitative researcher typically establish one or more hypothesis
for testing. The quantitative researcher develops the hypothesis and uses a survey instrument to attain
data in order to determine a relationship between a dependent variable and one or more independent
variables. The researcher then analyzes the raw data attained during the data gathering process to
determine if there is a significant relationship between the variables. The results of the statistical analysis
either proves or disproves the hypothesis. Hence, the quantitative research question verifies a
relationship between variables in order to prove or disprove the original hypothesis.
A researcher can certainly use the quantitative method to measure the significance of an entrepreneur’s
level of success and compare this with specific attributes or variables that may, or may not, have
contributed to the entrepreneur’s success. The difficulty in establishing this particular research question
and hypothesis involves determining a relevant independent variable that defines success. Choosing this
variable is difficult because entrepreneurial success is a multi-faceted construct. Next, the qualitative
research question is addressed.
Qualitative Research Question
In the qualitative methodology, there exists a direct relationship between the study’s variables and the
broad realm of human experience. Initially in the qualitative method there is no clear cut, definitive
hypothesis. Instead, the qualitative researcher forms a postulate that they believe exist in the situation
that is being studied. In this qualitative method, this initial postulate forms the initial research question,
which in turn, evolves during the process. Hence, there are both observed relationships and perceived
relationships, or factors, within the realm of human experience that the researcher believes influences an
entrepreneur’s success. Thus, the researcher may use the qualitative method when there is a lack of
definitive variables that are required for a significant statistical analysis. As previously mentioned, the
qualitative approach provides the design flexibility that is needed for categorizing data in a manner
wherein the researcher is in control of the process (Robson, 2002). This added flexibility enhances the
researcher’s ability to address the data more thoroughly and attain richer conclusions (Huberman & Miles,
2002; Robson, 2002).
As previously mentioned, the research question is the beginning point for the research plan regardless of
the methodology used and is the glue that holds the research process together (Robson, 2002). The
research question in the quantitative method focuses on the verification of relationships between
variables that have been identified with entrepreneurial success. Whereas, in a qualitative study the
research question involving entrepreneurial success factors is based on a postulate which is centered on
the entrepreneur’s human experience and cognitive dimension. A good analogy is that the quantitative
study focuses on verification and correlation while the qualitative study focuses on observation and
Thus far, the evidence suggests that a researcher can choose either the quantitative method or the
qualitative method to study entrepreneurial success factors. Before making a decision concerning the
research method to use, the researcher must evaluate the study’s requirements by performing a solid
literature review. This literature review is used to determine the specific entrepreneurial success factors
to study and assist in establishing a preliminary research question. At this point an operative paradigm
must be chosen to use in the study. Hence, the research question guides the researcher in choosing an
operative paradigm and a research methodology (Morgan & Smircich, 1980). However, before choosing
an operative paradigm the researcher must evaluate the scope of the research question and the study’s
objectives. Next, the paper will address the scope of entrepreneurial success factors.
ENTREPRENEURIAL SUCCESS FACTORS
Entrepreneurial organizations operate in a complex, open systems environment and experience a
constant state of entropy (Bailey, 1994; Bertalanffy & Rapoport, 1956; Scott, 2003). Traditional, systems
theorist premise that entropy causes the organization’s sub-systems to deteriorate, disorganize, and
progress toward a maximum disorder and chaos. A problem occurs within the entrepreneurial firm when
excess energy from the environment cannot be turned into work or output which results in decay within
the whole organizational structure (Bailey, 1994; Scott, 2003; Scott, Dornbusch, Busching, & Laing,
1967). Thus, the entrepreneurial leader possesses many traits, attributes, skills, and behaviors that help
diminish the negative effects of uncertainty and mitigate the impact of entropy.
Another key issue affecting entrepreneurial success factors is the entrepreneur’s personal experiences
and the personal decisions they have made throughout their life. These life experiences and decisions
play a significant role in shaping and influencing the entrepreneur’s individual level of traits, attributes,
skills, and behaviors. The developmental level of traits, attributes, skills, and behaviors in turn, influence
the entrepreneur’s current decision-making. As mentioned earlier in the paper, these cognitive issues are
specific to human experience which makes them difficult to measure.
Scope of Entrepreneurial Success Factors
When addressing entrepreneurial success factors within the context of a research study, the analysis
needs to encompass four specific areas of understanding that include contextual, diagnostic, evaluative,
and strategic (Ritchie & Spencer, 1994). First, the contextual aspect of entrepreneurial success seeks to
identify factors that are essential to personal success, factors that are critical to positive business
outcomes, and factors acquired through experience and training (Lowder, 2009). Second, diagnostic
questions focus on identifying factors that influence the success of the company, factors most important
to the entrepreneur, factors most predominate for success, factors most difficult to attain, factors attained
prior to starting the venture, and how the factors are attained (Lowder, 2009). Third, the evaluative
question includes identifying the importance of specific factors including most important factors, factors
leading to positive business outcomes, factors leading to negative business outcomes, and factors
needed prior to business start-up (Lowder, 2009). Fourth and last, the strategic question seek to identify
factors to develop through training, factors essential to business start-up, and factors enhancing the
likelihood of attaining business success (Lowder, 2009).
The contextual scope of the aforementioned factors is very broad and the data requirements can vary
based on the study’s objectives. It is essential to note that many of the aforementioned factors address
the complexity of the entrepreneur’s “human experience factor” which favors the qualitative method. In
addition, the contextual, diagnostic, evaluative, and strategic areas contain entrepreneurial success
factors specifically related to an entrepreneur’s cognitive dimension. Because the choice of research
methodology is contingent on what is to be studied, the qualitative method is ideal for the study of human
experience (Morgan & Smircich, 1980). Next, having considered the research question’s scope, an
operative paradigm will be chosen.
After attaining an understanding of the research question’s scope, the researcher chooses an appropriate
paradigmatic framework for studying entrepreneurial success factors (Morgan & Smircich, 1980; Rolfe,
2006; Smeyers, 2001). The operative paradigm chosen by the researcher has a direct affect on the
research methodology used in a study (Kuhn, 1962). The seminal research of Thomas Kuhn illustrates
the relevance of paradigms in the study of entrepreneurial success factors. Kuhn, the father of paradigm
research, stressed the role they play in the development of scientific knowledge. Kuhn (1967) states that,
“normal science means research firmly based upon one or more past scientific achievements that some
particular scientific community acknowledges for a time as supplying the foundation for its further study”
(p. 10). A paradigm becomes distinct component of normal science as practitioners come to a consensus
through validation and accept a theory as being dominate over other existing explanations (Kuhn, 1962).
Kuhn (1967) goes on to say that “By focusing attention upon a small range of relatively esoteric problems,
the paradigm forces scientist to investigate some part of nature in a detail and depth that would otherwise
be unimaginable” (p. 24).
Widely accepted paradigms tend to place an emphasis on the quantitative method as a means of
validation and enhancement of past scientific developments. The qualitative method provides the
framework for the discovery of new, unknown paradigms or perhaps an acknowledgement of new
dimensions of existing paradigms. As previously mentioned, the study of entrepreneurial success factors
is relatively new in the field of scientific knowledge. Consequently, there is much potential for new
discovery in the relatively young field of entrepreneurship. This fact supports the premise that the
qualitative method may be appropriate because it is more oriented toward discovery. Thus, it may be the
most productive considering the limited amount of research is the field.
Having thoroughly analyzed the importance of the research question and addressing the scope of
entrepreneurial success factors, the analysis will now focus on selecting the operative paradigm. Next,
the paper will present three potential paradigmatic constructs and their relationship to the both the
quantitative method and the qualitative method. The three paradigmatic constructs addressed in the
analysis include the analytical, the systems, and the actors approach.
Firmly grounded in the quantitative, positivistic theory, the analytical, rational operative paradigm includes
the quantitative methodology (Arbnor & Bjerke, 1997; Scott, 2003). This paradigm has produced the
greatest amount of research and knowledge in the field of business and much of the entrepreneurial
research completed thus far has used this approach (Arbnor & Bjerke, 1997). Quantitative research
using the analytical approach is the oldest method, is deeply rooted in western thinking, and dominates
bureaucratic management theory because it is strongly focused on cause and effect relationships (Arbnor
& Bjerke, 1997; Gephart, 1999). In addition, administrative management styles have historically held the
belief that the whole of the organization can be explained by the sum of its individual parts and hence, the
quantitative method provides an extremely valuable tool for analyzing data in cause and effect situations
(Cooper & Schindler, 2006).
Explanations in the analytical approach tend to take the form of casual relationships between variables
which can be proved or disproved with statistical analysis methods (Cooper & Schindler, 2006; Robson,
2002). This is why statistical analysis fits well within the framework of the analytical approach and
provides a sound framework for hypothesis testing (Cooper & Schindler, 2006; Robson, 2002). If the
researcher chooses to validate or disprove existing and identifiable theoretical relationships between
variables related to entrepreneurial success factors, this operative paradigm combined with the
quantitative method is definitely the most viable choice.
Grounded in post-positivistic, qualitative research, the actors approach includes the qualitative method.
This approach consist of information that is dependent on the individual perceptions and interpretations of
a subjective reality they have created (Arbnor & Bjerke, 1997). Thus, the actors paradigm perceives
reality as a manifestation of human intentionality and can’t be quantified to the extent of data that is
attained in the quantitative methodology (Arbnor & Bjerke, 1997). As mentioned earlier, the qualitative
method fits into this operative paradigm (Gephart, 1999; Robson, 2002). Thus, when considering
entrepreneurial success factors, the researcher may choose to go beyond the cause and effect construct
to discover observed or perceived relationships involving the cognitive dimensions within the nature of
human experience that are related to entrepreneurial success.
The systems approach lies between the analytical approach and the actors approach. It is explained by
Arbnor and Bjerke (1997) as “Systems reality is assumed to consist of components that are often mutually
dependent on each other-which means they cannot be summed up…the constitution of these
components brings about synergistic effects” (p. 65). Because the systems approach falls in the middle
of the paradigm spectrum, researchers often use both the quantitative method or the qualitative method,
or a combination of both which is a mixed methodology (Cooper & Schindler, 2006; Robson, 2002). This
paradigmatic framework provides the greatest flexibility of choices and allows the researcher to choose a
combination of methodologies to use in a study.
The three paradigmatic approaches previously discussed provide the focus, or lens, that a researcher
uses in their study. The evaluation of entrepreneurial success factors revealed that many of the factors
identified in the contextual, diagnostic, evaluative, and strategic analysis are related to the cognitive
dimension and human experience factors (Ritchie & Spencer, 1994). As was previously mentioned, the
actors approach, which includes the qualitative method, consist of information that is dependent on the
individual perceptions and interpretations of a subjective reality they have created (Arbnor & Bjerke,
1997). Of the three operative paradigms discussed above, the actors approach achieves the closest
alignment with the research subject matter.
The purpose of this paper is to choose whether the quantitative method or the qualitative method is most
appropriate for studying entrepreneurial success factors. When choosing a research methodology, the
choice must be based on the needs and demands of the particular study and thus, the researcher must
not become consumed with the choice of methods in and of itself (Morgan & Smircich, 1980). The first
phase of the analysis addressed the importance of the research question in establishing a study of
entrepreneurial success factors. The second phase of the analysis presented a comparison and contrast
of the quantitative and qualitative research methodologies. At his point, the analysis concluded either
method was appropriate for studying entrepreneurial success factors. The third phase of the analysis
evaluated the scope of entrepreneurial success factors within a framework that included contextual,
diagnostic, evaluative, and strategic analysis (Ritchie & Spencer, 1994). This phase determined that the
majority of the entrepreneurial success factors are specifically related to the entrepreneur’s human
experiences and cognitive dimensions.
The fourth phase of the analysis evaluated three potential operative paradigms including the analytical
approach, the actors approach, and the systems approach that can be used in the study of
entrepreneurial success factors. This phase of the analysis indicated that each of the three operative
paradigms is better aligned with a particular research methodology. Because most entrepreneurial
success factors relate to the cognitive dimension of human experience, the actors operative paradigm
was selected as being the most appropriate. The actors paradigm is selected because it is dependent on
individual perceptions and interpretations of a subjective reality that they have created (Arbnor & Bjerke,
1997; Conger, 1998; Hignett & Wilson, 2004; Huberman & Miles, 1994; Ritchie & Spencer, 1994; Rolfe,
The actors operative paradigm and the qualitative methodology afford the researcher the greatest
potential to generate rich and more viable data. In addition, this combination affords the greatest
potential to produce significant research outcomes particularly those involving observation and discovery.
Moreover, the qualitative method provides the researcher with greater flexibility in attaining data that
provides an opportunity for developing substantial conclusions based on real world entrepreneurial
experiences (Clark, 1998; Conger, 1998; Huberman & Miles, 1994; Morgan & Smircich, 1980; Munck,
1998). In conclusion, when the research question involves the study of entrepreneurial success factors,
the actors paradigmatic approach combined with the qualitative methodology provides the best research
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