Handbooks of Research Methods in Management series
Edited by Keith Townsend, Rebecca Loudoun and David Lewin
Chapter 13: Free verbal associations: measuring what people think about employee participation
How can we gauge a person’s attitudes towards a particular topic, what she or he thinks about it and how she or he values it? Osgood et al. (1971) speak about the “measurement of meaning”. This question has huge practical relevance to human resources management (HRM) research. For example, measuring organisational citizenship behaviour (OCB), work satisfaction and motivation, alongside perceived corporate image, leadership style or incentive systems, entails establishing the subject’s cognitive thoughts and feelings about that particular topic. An attitude construct is often used for this purpose. This chapter outlines the free verbal associations (FVA) technique and highlights the pros and cons as well as problems associated with this method, using as an example a study on the attitudes of the German public towards codetermination and employee participation. The basic concept behind the FVA method is that spontaneously verbalised associations (written or spoken) occurring to an individual in response to a stimulus word allow us to measure the respondent’s attitudes to the object described by the stimulus word. The technique works like this. First, the subjects are presented with a sequence of words or images (stimuli) (such as employee participation, works council). The stimulus may be presented either verbally in an interview or in the form of a written questionnaire. Occasionally, a stimulus object may also be presented visually, for example, as a picture of a product or person. Respondents are asked to spontaneously verbalise their associations (responses), that is, whatever crosses their mind in that moment. They are usually asked to verbalise their association in the form of a single word. Each subject may associate up to ten words with each stimulus object. (Another option is to limit the time available and ask the subjects to associate as many words as possible in that time.) Next, the subjects are asked to rate each of the associated terms as positive, neutral or negative. If required, the importance of each association can also be graded on a scale.
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