Academic journal article The Qualitative Report

Dialectical Inquiry: A Structured Qualitative Research Method

Academic journal article The Qualitative Report

Dialectical Inquiry: A Structured Qualitative Research Method

Article excerpt

This paper presents Dialectical Inquiry (DI) as a structured qualitative research method for studying participant models of organizational processes. The method is applied to rich secondary anecdotal data on technology transfer, gathered by subject-matter experts in a large firm. DI assumes that the imposition of a dialectical structure will produce emergent theories in tacit use by organizational actors. As such, it serves as a meta-structure for grounded research. Three competing models were discovered in the data. Each model was analyzed in the context of other models to reveal governing assumptions and counter assumptions. It is demonstrated that each model grasps essential truths, but is necessarily incomplete, and would fail due to internal contradictions. The internal and external validity of the results were tested in a manner consistent with qualitative research.

Key Words: Technology Transfer, Dialectic, Organizational Sensemaking, and Metastructure


The purpose of this paper is to present and exemplify Dialectical Inquiry (DI) as a useful structured qualitative research method for studying organizational sense making processes as they are understood by participants. The paper will develop DI as a research method and link it to other qualitative methodologies. The particular research setting and challenges will be described. In this particular case, the challenge was to understand internal processes of technology transfer. Subject matter experts in the organization conducted interviews and experienced great difficulty interpreting their data. The research challenge was to "make sense" of this secondary data (McNabb, 2004).

The research process will be described and exemplified with data from the case. The findings will be presented as they emerged in the research process within an imposed dialectical framework. At critical points, we will pause to reflect upon the method. Tests of internal and external validity are presented as well as conclusions from the research. It is hoped that the relationship between emerging findings, the imposed dialectical framework, and the process will demonstrate the advantages of DI as a qualitative research method.

The first author was engaged in executing the research. The second author reviewed the research, contributed the literature review, and structured much of the paper. He was not directly involved with the company research process. He had the foresight to insist that the work be published.

Organizational Sense Making

Organizational sense making presents a challenge to the researcher. Gareth Morgan (1986) has classified the multiple models, metaphors, and constructs we impose on organizational phenomena in our efforts to gain valid scientific understandings. Taken together, our models and theories are inconsistent, incommensurate, and paradoxical. They seek to answer the question, "How are we to understand, as scientists, organizational phenomena?" A related question is to ask how organizational actors understand the same phenomena. Kaplan (1964) argues that we must distinguish between the meaning of an act to the actor and it's meaning to scientists taking that act as subject matter. We presume that those understandings are similar, but that is only a presumption. "Observational data have no more validity than attaches to that presumption" (Kaplan, 139). That suggests that the relationship between our models and theories, and those in use by organizational actors, are problematic. We should not impose our constructs as valid representations of the understandings of organizational actors.

Managerial understandings about organizational functioning must make sense, even if such functioning appears unreasonable and irrational at times. There must be "method to the madness." Ethnomethodology (Garfinkel, 1968, pp.16-17) assumes as much, referring to "the availability ... of common sense knowledge of . …

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