May (2011) suggests that central to the process of social research is an explicit account not just of the data produced but how that is understood and interpreted. Burrell and Morgan (1979) suggest that it is possible to classify philosophical assumptions underpinning different approaches to research into defined categories. First, ontological assumptions relate to whether the phenomenon under investigation is understood as being external to an individual or is a product of their consciousness (Burrell and Morgan, 1979). Second, an epistemological assumption is concerned with how the researcher understands the world and communicates that knowledge to others. Third, assumptions about human nature address the relationship between human beings and their environment and address whether human behaviour is a product of the environment or whether the environment is created by human behaviour. The methodologies that are then developed by researchers are influenced by the different ontologies, epistemologies and models of human nature that occur (Burrell and Morgan, 1979). In essence, the philosophical assumptions are the modus operandi or paradigms that researchers use to gather, analyse and interpret data within their research. Walsham (1995) argues that it is important for a researcher to define their philosophical position clearly as a means of reflecting on the basis, conduct and reporting of their work. He further suggests that there is a need to adopt multiple perspectives but to reflect periodically on their philosophical position when writing up their work. Alvesson and Skoldberg (2000) suggest that researchers are required to operate on a least two levels paying attention to both the research material and how it is being interpreted by the researcher. Therefore, reflexive objectivity (Kvale and Brinkmann, 2009) is key in the production of knowledge to make judgements on the basis of our understanding (Gadamer, 1975).
Within this research project, the researcher has adopted a critical realism paradigm within which to interpret and analyse the data. Critical realism is a philosophy that believes there is a reality independent of our thinking about it. Consequently, there is an acknowledgement that all observations (or measurement) are fallible and our ability to know meaning with certainty is critically questioned:
Because all measurement is fallible, the critical realist emphasises the importance of multiple measures and observations, each of which may possess different types of error, and the need to use triangulation [Triangulation is the means of using different sources of information to validate findings] across these multiple errorful sources to try to get the better bead on what’s happing in reality.
Social Research Methods (2013)
In summary, therefore, a critical realism approach provides a framework for discussing the direct impact of the ageing population on a Scottish local authority’s care at home service by explaining the causal mechanisms that have influenced the phenomenon (Danemark et al, 1997). Further, through the researcher’s knowledge of the services and close working relationships with the staff group, the application of retroduction has been important to establish the basic conditions for the existence of the phenomenon studied (Danemark, 1997).
In LA, data is held in a number of different places and in various formats thus making it difficult to interpret and analyse. In making decisions around current and future service commitments, it is important to recognise the importance of the information that is available. By adopting a quantitative approach emphasis is placed on the collection of data that can be measured. From these measurements, conclusions can then be drawn that provides the service with evidence that can support and inform decisions. Measures need to make sense within context and it is the context that gives meaning to the numbers. Consequently, a case study approach has been adapted as a methodological tool to investigate the impact of the ageing population phenomenon within a real-life context of delivering front-line social care services. A mixed method of quantitative and qualitative analysis has been used as an approach to gather the data for this research project thereby providing the basis for a thematic analysis (Bryman and Burgess, 2002). The quantitative analysis provides context for the subsequent interviews and the resulting rich data is then useful for understanding the operational challenges faced by LA.
The formal evaluation consisted of two integral components: (i) the scrutiny of the quantitative data gathered, and; (ii) nine interviews with Social Care Organisers (SCOs).