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Defining Qualitative Management Research an Empirical Investigation

Defining Qualitative Management Research an Empirical Investigation

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Defining qualitative managementresearch: an empiricalinvestigation
Phil Johnson
Sheffield University Management School, Sheffield, UK 
Anna Buehring
 Manchester Metropolitan University, Manchester, UK 
Catherine Cassell
 Manchester Business School, Manchester, UK, and 
Gillian Symon
 Department of Organizational Psychology, Birkbeck College,University of London, London, UK 
– The purpose of this paper is to report the findings of research which explores how theconcept qualitative management research is variably constructed and defined by those who have adirect interest in, and influence upon, important aspects of qualitative management research.
– Information was gathered through the use of semi-structuredinterviews conducted with 44 individuals who were drawn from four observer-identified types of “expert” informant who were taken to generally represent key groups of stakeholders in the conduct,evaluation and dissemination of qualitative management research. Interview data from theseindividuals were analysed though an iterative process using the NVivo software package toinductively generate definitional categories and explore aspects of their interrelationships.
– From data analysis it was apparent that there are eight different, but often interrelated,ways in which interviewees define qualitative management research. The philosophical dimensions of each of these variable definitions are outlined and their relationships to the methodological literatureare explored. The variety identified amongst informants, indicates how there is a potential dissensuspossible regarding what qualitative management research might entail, as well as regardingits provenance and its academic status. This dissensus potentially can create problems with regard toits evaluation.
– So whist there is little evidence to suggest any systematic relationship betweenthe variable institutional backgrounds of informants and how they variably define and perceivequalitative management research, philosophical influences upon this contested terrain are exploredand the implications of the identified dissensus for how qualitative management research is perceivedand evaluated is discussed. The implications of this evidently contested terrain are discussed withparticular reference to the future constitution of qualitative management research and its evaluation.
Qualitative methods, Qualitative research, Management research, Epistemology
Paper type
Research paper
The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available at
This work was sponsored by the Economic and Social Research Council’s Research MethodsProgramme: Grant No. H33250006. The authors would like to thank two anonymous referees andthe associate editor for their helpful feedback during the development of this paper.
Qualitative Research inOrganizationsand Management: An International JournalVol. 2 No. 1, 2007pp. 23-42
Emerald Group Publishing Limited1746-5648DOI 10.1108/17465640710749108
Recently, there seems to have been an increasing interest in the use of qualitativeresearch in the various disciplinary sub-fields that make-up management research. Forsome commentators it would seem that qualitative research has attained an oftenbegrudging acceptance as a legitimate, yet usually subordinate, form of research inmost management disciplines (Boje, 2001; Goulding, 2002; Symon
et al.
, 2000).In different ways, these developments have posed challenges to the experimental andsurvey (i.e. quantitative) methodologies that have tended to dominate mainstreammanagement research (Gephart, 1999; Johnson and Duberley, 2000; Van Maanen, 1998).Nevertheless, any mention of qualitative management research often seems toconjure-up an array of competing definitions and perspectives some that aresupportive of these apparent developments, others that are resolutely critical. Theresearch reported here derives from a larger project which examined perceptions of qualitative management research regarding what it is, what its purposes are, its statusand credibility, its skills deficits and modes of evaluation. The specific aspect of thisresearch which is presented here focuses exclusively upon a key element of the project.This was to investigate how qualitative management research was conceptualized byimportant stakeholders who have a direct interest in the conduct, evaluation, anddissemination of qualitative management research, identify the parameters of anyidentified variability in those constructs, and explore the implications of anyvariability.The term qualitative management research is a conceptual device that peopleregularly use to make sense of their worlds by signifying particular forms of management research: an abstraction that enables us to give order to our impressionsby enabling the categorization of certain aspects of lived experience. However, how thisabstract concept is construed, used, and ultimately defined in everyday sense makingmay vary. Here, we do not use the term definition to refer to a “statement of the precisenature of a thing or meaning of a word” (Oxford English Dictionary). Rather we use theterm definition to refer to how people construct a particular phenomenon in terms of itsperceived common features and its differences with other phenomena thereby allowingusers to convey a sense of meaning during communication with others. Indeed, comingto a precise definition of a phenomenon as complex as qualitative managementresearch can be precarious perhaps because the definitions in-use are often tacit, andemergent, rather than explicitly formulated (Van Maanen, 1998). Nevertheless, suchdefinitions, no matter how precarious and tacit, often play a pivotal role in how peoplemake sense of, and how they communicate, their experiences. Moreover, identifyingwhat generally constitutes qualitative research as a distinct social sciencemethodology and what constitutes qualitative management research are endeavoursfraught with difficulty because of the variety of forms any qualitative research mighttake which derive from diverse, and sometimes competing, philosophical stances(Guba and Lincoln, 1994; Gubrium and Holstein, 1997; Prasad and Prasad, 2002).For instance, such variety is not so evident in quantitative research where,according to Schwandt (1996), philosophical consensus prevails which enables somedegree of procedural uniformity and emphasizes a primary concern with theeradication of technically problematic methodological lapses. Although qualitativeresearchers may appear to be united by their overt rejection of methodological monism(Ross, 1991), due to their rejection of erklaren in favour of a commitment to verstehen
(Schwandt, 1994; Prasad and Prasad, 2002), it has also long been noted that there arevarying interpretations of what qualitative research is and should be (Morgan andSmircich, 1980). In part this dissensus is fuelled by epistemological disputes amongstqualitative researchers about whether or not it is possible to access actorsintersubjectively derived meanings and interpretations in an objective manner(Gergen, 1994; Dachler, 1997) which has important implications for how qualitativeresearch might be undertaken and evaluated (Seale, 1999a, b). Indeed, the apparentlydiverse nature of qualitative research in practice may be exacerbated by themulti-disciplinary (Brown, 1997) and inter-disciplinary (Watson, 1997) nature of management research: a situation which, according to Patton (1990, p. 143), is likely toencourage a further proliferation of research questions and perspectives.Hence, what is meant by the term “qualitative research” especially in the complexmanagement domain, is neither self-evident nor clear-cut. Given that qualitativeresearchers themselves seem to be unable to agreed upon a shared definition of theirresearch praxis it is only to be expected that other stakeholders in the conduct,evaluation and dissemination of management research generally are likely adoptvarying definitions and perspectives. There is always the possibility that differenttaken-for-granted meanings and interpretations, which articulate philosophical andprocedural differences, underlie the use of what might seem to be the same conceptualdevice by different people in different social contexts. Such a potentiality couldundermine the possibility of meaningful dialogue between those who have an interestin how management research is undertaken and its outcomes. Therefore, the focus of this paper is to explore if, and how, this phenomenon is variably constructed by thosewho have an interest in, and influence upon, important aspects of qualitativemanagement research. Simultaneously, possible influences upon any observedvariability and the implications of that variability are explored.In pursuing these aims the paper is structured in the following fashion: first weoutline the methodology employed; second we outline the different ways in whichinformants defined qualitative research generally and, where articulated, the mannerin which qualitative management research was presented; third we integratethroughout an exploration of the relationship between the various definitionsarticulated by informants and the orientations evident in the methodological literature;we conclude the paper by summarizing the findings and by discussing the implicationsof the diverse ways in which informants defined qualitative management research forhow it is judged and evaluated.
Given the above focus it was necessary to use what Gummesson (1991) has calledpurposive sampling where the aim is not to establish a representative sample butrather to identify key informants whose context-specific knowledge and expertiseregarding the issues relevant to the research are significant and information-rich(Patton, 1990). In pursuing this aim, information was gathered through semi-structuredinterviews with 44 individuals who were drawn from four stakeholder groups whowere identified by the research team as having significant interest in, and influenceupon, various aspects of the conduct, evaluation and dissemination of qualitativemanagement research. The membership of each stakeholder group is outlined below:

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