Behind the numbers: Questioning questionnaires

Katja Einola*, Mats Alvesson

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleScientificpeer-review

37 Citations (Scopus)


Is complex, ambiguous, and fluctuating social reality measurable? Sometimes yes, perhaps, but often not. At least not in the fairly straightforward way assumed by many researchers. This study is an ethnographic inquiry into data collection during a survey research project. Based on our observations of participants’ spontaneous thoughts and confusions as they filled in questionnaires on “leadership” and “teamwork”, we draw attention to hidden problems in much organizational research. Many respondents found measures ambiguous, irrelevant, or misleading. We (a) underline the inherently interpretative nature of research into complex organizational phenomena, (b) warn against lack of reflexivity and overreliance on existing survey instruments when we study complex social aspects of organizations, (c) identify five categories of possible problems, and (d) suggest paths towards better informed research that take context seriously.
Original languageEnglish
Peer-reviewed scientific journalJournal of Management Inquiry
Issue number1
Pages (from-to)102-114
Number of pages13
Publication statusPublished - 18.07.2020
MoE publication typeA1 Journal article - refereed


  • 512 Business and Management
  • survey studies
  • questionnaires
  • critical study
  • quality of research
  • qualitative study
  • quantitative study
  • leadership
  • teams
  • research methods
  • ethnography

Areas of Strength and Areas of High Potential (AoS and AoHP)

  • AoS: Leading for growth and well-being
  • AoS: Responsible organising


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