"There are many versions of reality"

Farewell lecture by Prof Dr Edward Groenland

March 25 2021

Does one’s perception of reality influence a social scientist’s choice for his or her research method? What role do language and mathematics play in reality perception and what types of reality perception are there? These are the questions Prof Dr Edward Groenland asked during his farewell lecture today. Groenland says farewell as Professor of Business Research Methodology at Nyenrode Business University, where he has worked on education and research in the broadest sense for many years. In his lecture he explains how different conceptions or reality lead to different research methods.

Everyone experiences a certain reality. Social scientists describe these and try to explain human behavior through means of empirical research. To understand behavior, you have to understand how people perceive reality, since human behavior is influenced by one’s perception of reality. But what exactly is ‘reality’? Does an objective reality exist, or is there only such thing as an individual subjective reality depending on time, place and context?

During his lecture, Groenland looks back at his working life as a researcher, lecturer and as a person. At his farewell he reflects on different types of realities, philosophical ideas, human development and the role language plays in reality perception. Finally he compares the qualitative and quantitative research design and the role reality perception plays in this.

Language versus mathematics

Every social scientist has his or her own view on reality, a so-called paradigm. This determines what you can research and how. And to what type of scientific knowledge and insights this leads. The two dominant paradigms in the world of research are qualitative and quantitative research. The so-called linguistic and mathematical types.

Qualitative research misses the number dimension, because everything is done through language. The other way around one may wonder what role language plays in reality perception. For the choice of research method this is a relevant question to ask. Because if reality perception is built from aspects that are either primary in language or primarily in numbers, then there will be other and different research results.

Take for example research about ‘happiness’ that people do or do not experience. A quantitative research approach can lead to reasoned forms of happiness. A qualitative research approach however, focuses on the dimensions of feelings expressed in language. As a result, the gathered knowledge does not lead to absolute truths or realities. “Because”, explains Groenland, “it has a validity domain in terms of space and time that fits within the chosen paradigm.”

Consciousness? And choosing?

Groenland has three recommendations for social scientists. Firstly, he advises them to consciously choose for a paradigm, since the quantitative reality is incompatible with the qualitative reality, as experienced by individuals. For example, is ‘happiness’ the result of a rational, social comparison, or is ‘happiness’ a holistic emotional experience as a whole? If a government wants to improve the happiness of its civilians, it will lead to different types of measures or interventions, based on the type of research that was conducted.

Then, Groenland points out the importance of one’s own reality conceptions as a researcher (and as a human being). “Ask yourself whether these conceptions have come to be by accident, through life experience, upbringing, education or zeitgeist?” This effects your reality perception, which makes that you cannot claim this as being ‘correct’. Finally, he recommends taking into account the time, place and circumstances in order to experience the actual reality of respondents completely, maximally and without distortions.


The 1970’s are known for the rise of main frame computers. With the help of punch cards back then, young scientists learned how to analyze blocks of numbers statistically. The data were retrieved from questionnaires. Linguistic data transformed into numbers. As an economic psychologist, working at a government financed university at the time, you learned to research those aspects of the realities from the respondents that could be expressed in numbers.

From the 1980’s / -90’s on, qualitative research was slowly taken seriously by quantitative researchers as well. They acknowledged that also that type of research was scientific. Today we see many examples in which both types of researchers, with mutual respect for the paradigm of the other party, work together in harmony while conducting scientific research.

That is also how it works at Nyenrode. Earlier, the focus was on quantitative research for the business community. Companies primarily asked for level estimators and causal relations. And partly based on that information they made their business decisions. But nowadays, the same business community wants to gain insights in the work experience of employees and the dynamics of cooperation within their organization, or the conflicts that can arise from it. Qualitative research is essential here: it offers the insights that give direction to the consequential actions of an organization’s management.

And that is how Nyenrode, as a private university, is willing and capable of serving the business community at its best. Even in the current time frame. And that is a good thing. 

Download the booklet below (in Dutch).

March 24 2021

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