The Conduct of Qualitative Research in Organizational Settings
Article first published online: 29 JUL 2012
© 2012 Blackwell Publishing Ltd
Corporate Governance: An International Review
Special Issue: Qualitative Research
Volume 21, Issue 2, pages 123–126, March 2013
How to Cite
Pettigrew, A. M. (2013), The Conduct of Qualitative Research in Organizational Settings. Corporate Governance: An International Review, 21: 123–126. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-8683.2012.00925.x
- Issue published online: 4 FEB 2013
- Article first published online: 29 JUL 2012
Research methodologies are important but they should always be thought of as means and not ends in themselves. An influential scholarly contribution is rarely explained by methodological appropriateness alone. Scholarly outputs which have a sustained impact normally tackle issues and theoretical problems of substance. They may also challenge or confirm a dominant theory or perspective; create a new lens or conversation; cross boundaries and effect a conceptual transfer; and deliver novel empirical findings in a high attention context. Scholarly impact can also arise from risk taking. Because most scholars are risk averse, the odds favor the risk taker (Pettigrew, 2012).
Having tried to put methodology in its place, may I also assert that research methodology is too important to be left to methodologists? There have been many valuable texts on qualitative research methods (Denzin & Lincoln, 2000; Glaser & Strauss, 1967; Lee, 1999), but as a practitioner myself, I am more persuaded by ardent research practitioners who reflect on the compromises in their practice as they struggle for impact. It is this emphasis on research practice which has encouraged me to focus on the conduct of qualitative research. This task has been made considerably easier by the increased desire for qualitative researchers to write reflective practitioner articles on their research practice (Eisenhardt, 1989a; Langley, 1999; Mintzberg, 2007; Pettigrew, 1990, 1997a), and for journal editors to share their experience of trends in the assessment of qualitative articles (Gephardt, 2004; Pratt, 2008; Suddaby, 2006).
I have always been uncomfortable with the label qualitative research. Labels perform many functions in social life. They can offer zones of identity and comfort. They can be used as terms of reproach and abuse. They may also be genuine attempts to codify and explain. The problem with the term qualitative research has been its very indefiniteness as a construct and label and its unhappy juxtaposition with the term quantitative research. The problem with dichotomies is that they conceal as much as they reveal. I have always been much more convinced by the power of dualities and much more comfortable with framing qualitative and quantitative research as a duality rather than a dichotomy.
There is no space in this paper for a comprehensive review of the varieties of research practice in qualitative methods. I have a more limited aim, to selectively acknowledge some of the main contributors to the field; to give emphasis to the codification of standards in qualitative research; and to highlight some of those standards by focusing on the scholarship of Kathy Eisenhardt, who I believe to be one of the exemplary practitioners of qualitative research approaches.
But let me start by signaling the mobilizing importance of a special issue of a prestigious journal. In 1979 John Van Maanen, himself a distinguished ethnographer and evocative writer, edited a special issue of the Administrative Science Quarterly on Qualitative Methods. At that time the Administrative Science Quarterly was the most important scholarly journal in the field of organization and management. Subsequently this position has been challenged, but the Administrative Science Quarterly still remains near the top of journal hierarchies in management. The frontispiece for the special issue has an imaginary seminar exchange between a qualitative and quantitative researcher. The tone and content of this exchange is still instructive and I repeat it here:
- Qualitative Researcher
Many people these days are bored with their work and are …
- Quantitative Researcher (interrupting)
What people, how many, when do they feel this way, where do they work, what do they do, why are they bored … how long have they felt this way, what are their needs, when do they feel excited, where did they come from, what parts of their work bother them most, which …
- Qualitative Researcher
The purported exchange does, of course, communicate a stereotype but a stereotype which is still meaningful. In a recent article by Bartunek, Rynes, and Ireland (2006), posing the question “What makes management research interesting?,” the authors conclude that in their estimate the most interesting research articles in top US journals often featured the use of qualitative research methods.
In his own introductory article, Van Maanen (1979) noted the power of qualitative research methods to observe everyday life through interpretative frameworks, to get close to the context of the study, and to reveal unfolding social processes. Van Maanen noted the tendency in organization theory at that time for theoretical constructs to be distant from data, for a reductionist tendency in social science and at the same time the absence of guidelines to follow in assessing the soundness of qualitative research techniques. The special issue contained notable articles by Jick, Mintzberg, Pettigrew, and Webb and Weick. There is no doubt the special issue published at that time in the Administrative Science Quarterly had a significant consciousness raising and legitimating impact. Since then, the range of articles published in top United States and European journals using qualitative methods has significantly increased and with benefit to scholarship and management practice (Bartunek et al., 2006; Pratt, 2008).
It is a measure of the quality of the publication that some 13 years later Lee's 1999 book Using qualitative research methods in organizational research is still one of the clearest and most comprehensive treatments of the subject. One of the first observations Lee makes is that qualitative researchers should be very explicit about their biases and personal views. Lee's positivist training is evident throughout the book, and is seen most clearly in his commitment to combining qualitative and quantitative approaches. Unusually in the domain of qualitative research, Lee also takes the view that qualitative research can go beyond theory generation and elaboration to theory testing. Lee notes the power and significance of interpretation, of personal investment in data collection, and the customized and flexible character of data collection in qualitative work. He also argues that the best qualitative work is contextually grounded and seeks to understand process dynamics and not just outcomes. Above all, the qualitative researcher is the carrier and interpreter of the lived meanings of the key people in the study. Whereas the quantitative researcher may lean towards prevalence, generalizability, and calibration, the qualitative researcher gives greater emphasis to narration, description, interpretation, and explanation.
Commentators on research methods of whatever character are fond of signaling the ontological, epistemological, axiological, rhetorical, and methodological assumptions of each. These distinctions can be tiresome to research practitioners, but it is important for us also to be aware of the assumptions which may be underpinning and limiting our practice. The realist view of knowing that reality is independent of our conceptions of it remains under pressure from the combined assaults of postmodernists, relativists, constructivists, and mediativists. Postmodernism can take the view that there can be no overarching reason, no one best way of looking at things; truth is undecidable and unobtainable. That view and the relativist position that reality is merely a posit of particular conceptual schemes are increasingly being seen to be breeding grounds for helplessness and self-doubt. The constructivist orientation that there is no reality beyond the constructs we imply when we talk of reality still has its supporters. I have always favored the mediativist position, which contends that social circumstances intervene by mediating between nature and accounts of nature, but do not eliminate the effects of nature. The process scholar interested in how context and action shape processes and outcomes is likely to be a devotee of the mediativist position on knowing in social science (Pettigrew, 1997a, 1997b, 2012). Although he does not use the language of mediativism, it is interesting to note that Lee's (1999) treatment of qualitative research incorporates an assumption of a patterned objective reality and an ongoing process of interpretation and sensing of organizational phenomena. I emphasize this point to make clear how important philosophical assumptions are in shaping awareness of standards in the conduct of qualitative research.
But what of the changing standards over time in the assessment of qualitative research by authors and journal reviewers? This is a large and complex subject which I can only elude here. Fortunately, this brief meta-level appreciation has been made both easier and more evidence based by two recent articles which between them offer appreciations of criteria for journal publishing of qualitative work in selected North American and European management journals. I am referring to Pratt's 2008 article on tensions in evaluating and publishing qualitative research in top-tier North American journals and an equivalent but more longitudinal and comprehensive article by Bluhm, Harman, Lee, and Mitchell (2011), which compares published qualitative work in selected North American and European journals.
Pratt's 2008 article draws on original and empirical data collected by survey methods on the criteria-in-use adopted by qualitative researchers as they sought to publish or review research in four top North American journals: Academy of Management Journal, Administrative Science Quarterly, Organization Science, and Strategic Management Journal. “Qualitative” was broadly defined to include a range of qualitative methodologies. Pratt found three major tensions in such publishing (Pratt, 2008: 485).
- The need to both break away from and be firmly embedded in existing theory.
- The need to provide such data so that the reader can draw conclusions while also providing enough interpretation of that data.
- The need to be both detached and transparent with regard to one's methods while also fitting one's research into the format of a top-tier North American journal.
Interestingly, there was considerable overlap in the criteria of worth as articulated by authors and reviewers. The three central criteria were “Qualitative research should contribute to theory, be well written, and have well articulated method” (Pratt, 2008: 488). However, Pratt's work also noted that alongside this apparent consensus around core criteria, there was also evidence of a lack of common evaluation standards or a “boilerplate” for communicating its methods. So the criteria may be evident at the level of theory but much less so at the level of theory in use. Although Pratt's 2008 article uses quantitative survey data to good effect, it is also notable that his most interesting findings are from the more expressive data collected from the open-ended questions in his survey. Unfortunately, there is no space here to elucidate these more subtle and meaningful observations and patterns in his data.
The 2011 paper by Bluhm, Harman, Lee, and Mitchell is more ambitious than Pratt's 2008 paper. Bluhm et al. offer a 10-year review of 198 qualitative articles published in three US journals over the period 1999–2008. The journal sample included Academy of Management Journal, Administrative Science Quarterly, and Journal of Vocational Behavior. Articles were also examined from two European journals, Journal of Management Studies and Organizational Studies. The constructs used in the Bluhm et al. paper for evaluating the qualitative papers were taken largely from Lee's 1999 book and the similar paper by Lee, Mitchell, and Sablynski (1999).
The Bluhm et al. (2011) article offers a range of valuable insights about the distinctive characteristics of qualitative research and how its understanding and use has changed in management research over the period 1998–2008. Key findings include the confirmation that most published qualitative research concerns itself with theory generation and elaboration rather than theory testing. Like Pratt (2008), Bluhm et al. (2011) show how crucial transparency of methods and analysis are in convincing skeptical reviewers of the validity of qualitative research. In their US–European journal comparison, Bluhm et al. (2011) are able to demonstrate how US journals give greater emphasis to this form of transparency. Apparently, European journals are more likely to sacrifice documenting details of methods for perhaps a greater focus on displaying research findings. However, the clear trend over time is for both sets of journals to require higher standards of methodological codification of qualitative research methods.
Bluhm et al. (2011) used citation data to infer scholarly impact and were also able to link realized theory generation and the use of multiple data collection methods to differential scholarly impact. Studies that used less common research designs also seemed to contribute more to the progressive development of qualitative research, and the European journals were more likely than their US counterparts to publish articles using less common methods.
Bluhm et al. (2011) are also able to show how important transparency of methods and data analysis are to the successful publishing of qualitative research. Their time series data in both US and European journals show conclusively how increasingly transparent published qualitative research has become in the last decade. In order to contextualize and give greater meaning and significance to these broad observations, I would like to embed them in a case study of an exemplary practitioner of qualitative research. Although Kathy Eisenhardt's published research and methods are not unique, they offer in her empirical publishing (Brown & Eisenhardt, 1997; Davis & Eisenhardt, 2011; Eisenhardt, 1989b; Martin & Eisenhardt, 2010) and in her writing reflective of her research practice (for example, Eisenhardt, 1989a; Eisenhardt and Graebner, 2007) clear manifestations of exemplary practice in all stages of qualitative research. Her work encapsulates and illustrates transparency across-the-board and not just the transparency of data sources and analysis mentioned by Bluhm et al. (2011). Thus we see in Eisenhardt's published work evidence of transparency of theoretical and empirical positioning, transparency of research questions, of appropriate theory, of where the theoretical and empirical gaps are to be filled, of choice of cases, of data display and evidence, of transparency of method and forms of analysis, and evidence of substantiation of claims of scholarly contribution.
Kathy Eisenhardt's research focus has been on theoretical and managerial issues of relevance to technology-based companies in nascent and rapidly changing markets.
To Eisenhardt, scholarly positioning is of the essence: “Sound empirical work begins with a strong grounding in relevant literature, identifies a research gap and proposes research questions that address that gap” (Eisenhardt & Graebner, 2007: 26). She avoids the term “qualitative research”: “rather clarify the research strategy being used and contrast it with qualitative approaches with different epistemological assumptions. Specifically, when inducting theory from cases, be explicit about the theory building goal” (2007: 20). Also, avoid the term “grounded theory” unless precisely following the Glaser and Strauss procedures, which are stringent. For a similar argument, see Suddaby (2006). Use a clearly articulated and justified dependent variable legitimated against the existing literature and the focal research question. With Eisenhardt, there is great clarity about what is being studied and why. There is precise language and thoughtful research design, including some a priori constructs. This is all part of the strong deductive element and framework in which inductive case analysis and theory development occur.
Eisenhardt is also transparent about the rationale for case study choice and prefers theoretical sampling in relation to her dependent variable and not convenience sampling. She uses multiple data methods and more often than not attempts to combine qualitative and quantitative methods. She is also flexible and opportunistic in data collection, with ongoing development of key theoretical constructs that fit the emerging substantive theory and the emerging data set. She practices pluralistic interviewing and other tactics to limit informant bias. She also uses explicit within-case and cross-case analysis and there is transparency in data display and data analysis. Appendices are used to reveal any chronologies and there is a liberal use of tables and figures for data display. There is explicit pattern recognition in data display and direct comparison with conflicting and compatible literatures. She is also an artful influencer, regularly pointing out to the reader this or that question has been answered and this puzzle now resolved. All this exemplary practice emphasizes the special character and special contributions of her work. Effective publishing must always be underpinned by effective influence strategies.
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