Mixed-methods approach - 'an obvious' choice when investigating sustainability within SMEs

SMEs are known for their unique features such as being highly social entities (Morsing and Spence, 2019) and the strong interrelation between management and ownership (Spence and Rutherfoord, 2003; Schaefer et al., 2020). Thus, scholars researching within the field of SMEs may require a more ‘creative and nuanced understanding’ when designing their research approach which aims to contribute to the advancement of knowledge and theories in the specificity of SMEs. Then MMR can play a relevant role. For this purpose, it provides the research with the complete ‘tool-kit’ which may stimulate the researcher to search for more in-depth interpretations of his/her research questions.

The author’s specialisation and interest towards MMR began during his doctoral research. During this period, he came to the realisation that, different data gathering techniques could offer significant potential for exploring new and relevant dimensions of sustainability within SMEs. The purpose of his PhD research was to extend knowledge towards SMEs and sustainability, especially what motivated SME owners/managers to become involved in socially and environmentally responsible practices. For example, the position of the owner/manager being central in all decisions and functioning of the organisation is completely different when compared to larger organisations.

Using MMR research unlocks key information both around the owner/ manager’s decision-making process and her/his influence over physical and human organisational resources. MMR supported the author, in capturing insights about owner/manager’s perceptions of sustainability through participants’ actions, decisions, values and social behaviours; while also addressing the limitations of taking an approach based only on one method. For example, reaching a greater number of participants and minimising the use of human and financial resources. Furthermore, the MMR approach contributed to the discovery of interesting, relevant and innovative research questions, which supported the author in the advancement of the knowledge and understanding of intertwined and innovative topics such as social and environmental issues within SMEs.

Integrating both qualitative and quantitative methods when studying sustainability within SMEs can contribute to enhancing knowledge in this field of research. Indeed, while the qualitative component explores perceptions and the personal experience of participants, the quantitative component can support the researcher to achieve a greater number of respondents by using a pre-coded quantitative survey, thus overcoming the limitations of the experiential worldview of one person: the qualitative researcher (Creswell, 2013). For instance, Factor et al. (2010) noted that in the specific area of environmental responsibility, MMR was usually applied where it was necessary to draw on multiple data sources to understand complex concepts. Similarly, Seuring (2011), in studying sustainability in the context of supply change management, points out, for example, that the benefit of mixing qualitative and quantitative methods offers potential to gain insights and it also facilitates the conceptualisation of the research in the field of study. In this regard, sustainability is a complex concept and research into the field can benefit from the coherent integration of qualitative and quantitative approaches.

MMR offers the potential, therefore, to explore new and relevant research dimensions and allows researchers to think and discover interesting, essential and innovative research questions (Mason, 2006, 2017; Scheyvens, 2014). All in all, the implementation of MMR enables the broadening, and further development, of methodological scope, as well as strengthening methodological skills; especially in the context of sustainability and SMEs where researchers may face challenges in accessing data. In particular, Greene et al. (1989) identify five purposes for MMR, namely: triangulation, complementarity, development, initiation and expansion.

The triangulation design is known as the most common approach in mixing methods (Creswell and Plano Clark, 2017). Triangulation is used when a researcher wants to directly compare and contrast quantitative statistical results with qualitative finding or to validate or expand quantitative results with qualitative data. Researchers can take benefit from triangulation by seeking convergence, corroboration and correspondence of results from different methods with the result of yielding an enriched, elaborated understanding of the investigated phenomenon (Denzin, 1970; Jick, 1979). The aim of this design is to best understand the research problem by obtaining different but ‘complementary data on the same topic’ (Morse, 1991, p. 122).

Complementarity further allows for more robust analysis and for taking advantage of the strengths of both approaches. The quantitative and qualitative methods can be used sequentially, whereby the first method helps inform the development of the second one. This is the case when one type of data provides a supportive, secondary role in a study based primarily on the other type (Creswell and Plano Clark, 2017). At the base of this approach, a single data set is not sufficient. For example, different questions need to be answered, and each type of question also requires different types of data. Researchers use this design approach when they need to include qualitative or quantitative data to answer a research question within a largely quantitative or qualitative study. This is the approach taken by the author in his doctoral research where the qualitative method is dominant.

Furthermore, Greene et al. (1989) explain how an MMR can be pur- posively selected for the initiation, which involves the discovery of paradox and fresh perspectives rather than constituting a planned intent. The rationale for this approach is to increase the depth of enquiry, research results and interpretation by analysing through the lenses of different methods and paradigms. In this sense, MMR can provide the researcher with an approach that can better inform the researcher and offer a more solid understanding and explanation of the topic. Finally, the purpose of Greene’s (1989) expansion relates to the opportunity of using a diverse set of research tools to increase the scope of inquiry across a broader range of research phenomena. The extension of research techniques allows different approaches to collecting, analysing and applying both qualitative and quantitative data and it is likely to strengthen research on topics such as sustainability and SMEs which requires more complete and robust data sets to produce a more detailed understanding of the issues under investigation.

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