Postcolonialism and the Politics of Qualitative Research in International Business

Article excerpt


* This paper offers a re-configuration of international business research by subjecting it to a postcolonial critique. This critique sees international business research as exhibiting continuities with the colonial project in the way it appropriates the Other.

* Qualitative research in international business often reproduces a neopositivist separation of theory and method, which can marginalize discussion of the important ontological, epistemological and political issues inherent in any research process.

Key Results

* Merely calling for more qualitative research is not enough; research must become reflexive and aware of its ontological and epistemological assumptions, political positioning and ethical obligations.


Although international and comparative management and business (ICMB) research has been, and continues to be, dominated by the logic and methods of the natural sciences, and its instantiation in functionalist epistemology and neopositivist methodology, such an ideational hegemony has never gone completely unchallenged. The early ethnographic work of Abegglen (1958) and Dore (1973) on Japanese factory organization, Child's criticisms of the Aston School's culture-free thesis (1972), and Adler's (1984) methodological review represent "early" attempts to bring more qualitatively and ethnographically focused work into the field. The case for qualitative research in international business has been promoted more fully recently (Brannen 1996, Chapman 1997, Punnett/Shenkar 1996, Marschan-Piekkari/Welch 2004), focusing in particular on the challenges of the cultural, linguistic and institutional differences between researchers and respondents, and among researchers themselves.

A limitation, however, is that these challenges have been articulated with almost exclusive regard to the question of method. There is a tendency to restrict the agenda for opening up ICMB research to discussions of the need to more fully embed qualitative data collection methods in the discipline, with a concomitant presumption about enhancing academic rigor. The risk, though, is that research methods continue to be treated as merely neutral or technical solutions to data-gathering problems, derived from an abstractly determined theoretical position, in a manner that reinforces the neopositivist mainstream.

We challenge such a restrictive view since it occludes discussion of the wider ontological, epistemological and political issues inherent in any research process. Methodology, of any hue, is embedded in ontological and epistemological orientations and preferences, as well as the interests, motivations and values of the researcher, themselves situated in a historically, institutionally, culturally and ideologically informed context. (Qualitative) research methods are not innocent: they are political.

This paper, then, seeks to broaden the discussion of qualitative research in ICMB by addressing the issues of ontology, epistemology and methodology under the aegis of "qualitative methods". We suggest that, in the drive to discuss mere methods, the important political issues inherent in any discussion of epistemology and methodology are neglected. Such issues articulate the ideological and institutional conditions within which research takes place and affect what is considered legitimate and valuable research. In short, we suggest, approaches to research in international business, qualitative work included, often erase the political from the discursive arena.

In this paper, we use ideas from postcolonialism (1) to do two things. First, to draw attention to the neglected political aspects of qualitative research in ICMB. Second, to bring a new perspective to the debate on ICMB research. (2) Accordingly, we outline what is distinctive about postcolonialism, how it can be used to reinstate the political into qualitative research in the field, and what its methodological and practical implications might be for a reconfigured research process. …


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