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Corporate Governance: An International Review, 2013, 21(2): 123126

Commentary
The Conduct of Qualitative Research in
Organizational Settings
Andrew M. Pettigrew*

R esearch methodologies are important but they should


always be thought of as means and not ends in
themselves. An influential scholarly contribution is rarely
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
explained by methodological appropriateness alone. Schol- dualities and much more comfortable with framing quali-
arly outputs which have a sustained impact normally tackle tative and quantitative research as a duality rather than a
issues and theoretical problems of substance. They may dichotomy.
also challenge or confirm a dominant theory or perspec- There is no space in this paper for a comprehensive review
tive; create a new lens or conversation; cross boundaries of the varieties of research practice in qualitative methods. I
and effect a conceptual transfer; and deliver novel empiri- have a more limited aim, to selectively acknowledge some of
cal findings in a high attention context. Scholarly impact the main contributors to the field; to give emphasis to the
can also arise from risk taking. Because most scholars codification of standards in qualitative research; and to high-
are risk averse, the odds favor the risk taker (Pettigrew, light some of those standards by focusing on the scholarship
2012). of Kathy Eisenhardt, who I believe to be one of the exem-
Having tried to put methodology in its place, may I also plary practitioners of qualitative research approaches.
assert that research methodology is too important to be left But let me start by signaling the mobilizing importance
to methodologists? There have been many valuable texts on of a special issue of a prestigious journal. In 1979 John Van
qualitative research methods (Denzin & Lincoln, 2000; Maanen, himself a distinguished ethnographer and evoca-
Glaser & Strauss, 1967; Lee, 1999), but as a practitioner tive writer, edited a special issue of the Administrative
myself, I am more persuaded by ardent research practitio- Science Quarterly on Qualitative Methods. At that time the
ners who reflect on the compromises in their practice as they Administrative Science Quarterly was the most important
struggle for impact. It is this emphasis on research practice scholarly journal in the field of organization and manage-
which has encouraged me to focus on the conduct of quali- ment. Subsequently this position has been challenged,
tative research. This task has been made considerably easier but the Administrative Science Quarterly still remains near
by the increased desire for qualitative researchers to write the top of journal hierarchies in management. The fron-
reflective practitioner articles on their research practice tispiece for the special issue has an imaginary seminar
(Eisenhardt, 1989a; Langley, 1999; Mintzberg, 2007; Petti- exchange between a qualitative and quantitative researcher.
grew, 1990, 1997a), and for journal editors to share their The tone and content of this exchange is still instructive
experience of trends in the assessment of qualitative articles and I repeat it here:
(Gephardt, 2004; Pratt, 2008; Suddaby, 2006).
I have always been uncomfortable with the label qualita- Qualitative Researcher Many people these days are bored
tive research. Labels perform many functions in social life. with their work and are . . .
They can offer zones of identity and comfort. They can be Quantitative Researcher What people, how many, when do
used as terms of reproach and abuse. They may also be (interrupting) they feel this way, where do they
genuine attempts to codify and explain. The problem with work, what do they do, why are they
the term qualitative research has been its very indefinite- bored . . . how long have they felt this
ness as a construct and label and its unhappy juxtaposition way, what are their needs, when do
they feel excited, where did they come
from, what parts of their work bother
*Address for correspondence: Andrew M. Pettigrew, Sad Business School, University
of Oxford, Park End Street, Oxford OX1 1HP, UK. E-mail: andrew.pettigrew@ them most, which . . .
sbs.ox.ac.uk Qualitative Researcher Never mind

2012 Blackwell Publishing Ltd


doi:10.1111/j.1467-8683.2012.00925.x
124 CORPORATE GOVERNANCE

The purported exchange does, of course, communicate a merely a posit of particular conceptual schemes are increas-
stereotype but a stereotype which is still meaningful. In a ingly being seen to be breeding grounds for helplessness
recent article by Bartunek, Rynes, and Ireland (2006), and self-doubt. The constructivist orientation that there is no
posing the question What makes management research reality beyond the constructs we imply when we talk of
interesting?, the authors conclude that in their estimate reality still has its supporters. I have always favored the
the most interesting research articles in top US journals mediativist position, which contends that social circum-
often featured the use of qualitative research methods. stances intervene by mediating between nature and accounts
In his own introductory article, Van Maanen (1979) noted of nature, but do not eliminate the effects of nature. The
the power of qualitative research methods to observe every- process scholar interested in how context and action shape
day life through interpretative frameworks, to get close to processes and outcomes is likely to be a devotee of the
the context of the study, and to reveal unfolding social pro- mediativist position on knowing in social science (Pettigrew,
cesses. Van Maanen noted the tendency in organization 1997a, 1997b, 2012). Although he does not use the language
theory at that time for theoretical constructs to be distant of mediativism, it is interesting to note that Lees (1999)
from data, for a reductionist tendency in social science and at treatment of qualitative research incorporates an assumption
the same time the absence of guidelines to follow in assess- of a patterned objective reality and an ongoing process of
ing the soundness of qualitative research techniques. The interpretation and sensing of organizational phenomena. I
special issue contained notable articles by Jick, Mintzberg, emphasize this point to make clear how important philo-
Pettigrew, and Webb and Weick. There is no doubt the sophical assumptions are in shaping awareness of standards
special issue published at that time in the Administrative in the conduct of qualitative research.
Science Quarterly had a significant consciousness raising and But what of the changing standards over time in the
legitimating impact. Since then, the range of articles pub- assessment of qualitative research by authors and journal
lished in top United States and European journals using reviewers? This is a large and complex subject which I can
qualitative methods has significantly increased and with only elude here. Fortunately, this brief meta-level apprecia-
benefit to scholarship and management practice (Bartunek tion has been made both easier and more evidence based by
et al., 2006; Pratt, 2008). two recent articles which between them offer appreciations
It is a measure of the quality of the publication that some of criteria for journal publishing of qualitative work in
13 years later Lees 1999 book Using qualitative research selected North American and European management jour-
methods in organizational research is still one of the clearest nals. I am referring to Pratts 2008 article on tensions in
and most comprehensive treatments of the subject. One of evaluating and publishing qualitative research in top-tier
the first observations Lee makes is that qualitative research- North American journals and an equivalent but more longi-
ers should be very explicit about their biases and personal tudinal and comprehensive article by Bluhm, Harman, Lee,
views. Lees positivist training is evident throughout the and Mitchell (2011), which compares published qualitative
book, and is seen most clearly in his commitment to com- work in selected North American and European journals.
bining qualitative and quantitative approaches. Unusually in Pratts 2008 article draws on original and empirical data
the domain of qualitative research, Lee also takes the view collected by survey methods on the criteria-in-use adopted
that qualitative research can go beyond theory generation by qualitative researchers as they sought to publish or
and elaboration to theory testing. Lee notes the power and review research in four top North American journals:
significance of interpretation, of personal investment in data Academy of Management Journal, Administrative Science Quar-
collection, and the customized and flexible character of data terly, Organization Science, and Strategic Management Journal.
collection in qualitative work. He also argues that the best Qualitative was broadly defined to include a range of
qualitative work is contextually grounded and seeks to qualitative methodologies. Pratt found three major tensions
understand process dynamics and not just outcomes. Above in such publishing (Pratt, 2008: 485).
all, the qualitative researcher is the carrier and interpreter of
the lived meanings of the key people in the study. Whereas (i) The need to both break away from and be firmly embed-
the quantitative researcher may lean towards prevalence, ded in existing theory.
generalizability, and calibration, the qualitative researcher (ii) The need to provide such data so that the reader can
gives greater emphasis to narration, description, interpreta- draw conclusions while also providing enough inter-
tion, and explanation. pretation of that data.
Commentators on research methods of whatever charac- (iii) The need to be both detached and transparent with
ter are fond of signaling the ontological, epistemological, regard to ones methods while also fitting ones
axiological, rhetorical, and methodological assumptions of research into the format of a top-tier North American
each. These distinctions can be tiresome to research practi- journal.
tioners, but it is important for us also to be aware of the
assumptions which may be underpinning and limiting our Interestingly, there was considerable overlap in the criteria
practice. The realist view of knowing that reality is indepen- of worth as articulated by authors and reviewers. The three
dent of our conceptions of it remains under pressure from central criteria were Qualitative research should contribute
the combined assaults of postmodernists, relativists, con- to theory, be well written, and have well articulated method
structivists, and mediativists. Postmodernism can take the (Pratt, 2008: 488). However, Pratts work also noted that
view that there can be no overarching reason, no one best alongside this apparent consensus around core criteria,
way of looking at things; truth is undecidable and unobtain- there was also evidence of a lack of common evaluation
able. That view and the relativist position that reality is standards or a boilerplate for communicating its methods.

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QUALITATIVE RESEARCH IN ORGANIZATIONAL SETTINGS 125

So the criteria may be evident at the level of theory but much work encapsulates and illustrates transparency across-the-
less so at the level of theory in use. Although Pratts 2008 board and not just the transparency of data sources and
article uses quantitative survey data to good effect, it is also analysis mentioned by Bluhm et al. (2011). Thus we see
notable that his most interesting findings are from the more in Eisenhardts published work evidence of transparency
expressive data collected from the open-ended questions in of theoretical and empirical positioning, transparency of
his survey. Unfortunately, there is no space here to elucidate research questions, of appropriate theory, of where the theo-
these more subtle and meaningful observations and patterns retical and empirical gaps are to be filled, of choice of cases,
in his data. of data display and evidence, of transparency of method and
The 2011 paper by Bluhm, Harman, Lee, and Mitchell is forms of analysis, and evidence of substantiation of claims of
more ambitious than Pratts 2008 paper. Bluhm et al. offer a scholarly contribution.
10-year review of 198 qualitative articles published in three Kathy Eisenhardts research focus has been on theoretical
US journals over the period 19992008. The journal sample and managerial issues of relevance to technology-based
included Academy of Management Journal, Administrative companies in nascent and rapidly changing markets.
Science Quarterly, and Journal of Vocational Behavior. Articles To Eisenhardt, scholarly positioning is of the essence:
were also examined from two European journals, Journal of Sound empirical work begins with a strong grounding in
Management Studies and Organizational Studies. The con- relevant literature, identifies a research gap and proposes
structs used in the Bluhm et al. paper for evaluating the research questions that address that gap (Eisenhardt &
qualitative papers were taken largely from Lees 1999 book Graebner, 2007: 26). She avoids the term qualitative
and the similar paper by Lee, Mitchell, and Sablynski (1999). research: rather clarify the research strategy being used
The Bluhm et al. (2011) article offers a range of valuable and contrast it with qualitative approaches with different
insights about the distinctive characteristics of qualitative epistemological assumptions. Specifically, when inducting
research and how its understanding and use has changed in theory from cases, be explicit about the theory building
management research over the period 19982008. Key find- goal (2007: 20). Also, avoid the term grounded theory
ings include the confirmation that most published qualita- unless precisely following the Glaser and Strauss proce-
tive research concerns itself with theory generation and dures, which are stringent. For a similar argument, see
elaboration rather than theory testing. Like Pratt (2008), Suddaby (2006). Use a clearly articulated and justified
Bluhm et al. (2011) show how crucial transparency of dependent variable legitimated against the existing litera-
methods and analysis are in convincing skeptical reviewers ture and the focal research question. With Eisenhardt, there
of the validity of qualitative research. In their USEuropean is great clarity about what is being studied and why. There is
journal comparison, Bluhm et al. (2011) are able to demon- precise language and thoughtful research design, including
strate how US journals give greater emphasis to this form of some a priori constructs. This is all part of the strong deduc-
transparency. Apparently, European journals are more likely tive element and framework in which inductive case analy-
to sacrifice documenting details of methods for perhaps a sis and theory development occur.
greater focus on displaying research findings. However, the Eisenhardt is also transparent about the rationale for case
clear trend over time is for both sets of journals to require study choice and prefers theoretical sampling in relation
higher standards of methodological codification of qualita- to her dependent variable and not convenience sampling.
tive research methods. She uses multiple data methods and more often than not
Bluhm et al. (2011) used citation data to infer scholarly attempts to combine qualitative and quantitative methods.
impact and were also able to link realized theory generation She is also flexible and opportunistic in data collection, with
and the use of multiple data collection methods to differen- ongoing development of key theoretical constructs that fit
tial scholarly impact. Studies that used less common research the emerging substantive theory and the emerging data set.
designs also seemed to contribute more to the progressive She practices pluralistic interviewing and other tactics to
development of qualitative research, and the European jour- limit informant bias. She also uses explicit within-case and
nals were more likely than their US counterparts to publish cross-case analysis and there is transparency in data display
articles using less common methods. and data analysis. Appendices are used to reveal any chro-
Bluhm et al. (2011) are also able to show how important nologies and there is a liberal use of tables and figures for
transparency of methods and data analysis are to the suc- data display. There is explicit pattern recognition in data
cessful publishing of qualitative research. Their time series display and direct comparison with conflicting and compat-
data in both US and European journals show conclusively ible literatures. She is also an artful influencer, regularly
how increasingly transparent published qualitative research pointing out to the reader this or that question has been
has become in the last decade. In order to contextualize and answered and this puzzle now resolved. All this exemplary
give greater meaning and significance to these broad obser- practice emphasizes the special character and special contri-
vations, I would like to embed them in a case study of an butions of her work. Effective publishing must always be
exemplary practitioner of qualitative research. Although underpinned by effective influence strategies.
Kathy Eisenhardts published research and methods are not
unique, they offer in her empirical publishing (Brown &
Eisenhardt, 1997; Davis & Eisenhardt, 2011; Eisenhardt, REFERENCES
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Eisenhardt and Graebner, 2007) clear manifestations of management research interesting and why does it matter?
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2012 Blackwell Publishing Ltd Volume 21 Number 2 March 2013


126 CORPORATE GOVERNANCE

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Andrew M. Pettigrew is a Professor of Strategy and Organi-
Journal, 47: 454462. zation, Sad Business School, University of Oxford and Senior
Glaser, B. G. & Strauss, A. L. 1967. The discovery of grounded Golding Fellow, Brasenose College, Oxford. He has held
theory. Chicago, IL: Aldine. previous academic appointments at Yale University, London
Langley, A. 1999. Strategies for theorizing from process data. Business School, University of Warwick, University of Bath
Academy of Management Review, 24: 691710. and Harvard Business School. His long term research inter-
Lee, T. W. 1999. Using qualitative methods in organizational ests have been in the study of decision making, strategy
research. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. making and change and corporate governance in organiza-
Lee, T. W., Mitchell, T. R., & Sablynski, C. J. 1999. Qualitative tions in the private and public sectors. He has received many
research in organizational and vocational psychology, 19791999. distinctions as a scholar. These include Distinguished Scholar
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Martin, J. A. & Eisenhardt, K. M. 2010. Rewiring: Cross-business
of the Academy of Management, Fellow of the British
unit collaborations in multi-business organizations. Academy of Academy, Fellow of the Academy of Management and the
Management Journal, 53: 265301. British Academy of Management. He was co-founder and
Mintzberg, H. 2007. Appendix: Steps in research on strategy for- President of the British Academy of Management. In 2009, he
mation. In Tracking strategies: Toward a general theory: 380 was awarded an OBE in the Queens New Years Honours list
390. Oxford: Oxford University Press. for services to higher education.

Volume 21 Number 2 March 2013 2012 Blackwell Publishing Ltd