Academic journal article IBAR

The Craft of Case-Based Qualitative Research

Academic journal article IBAR

The Craft of Case-Based Qualitative Research

Article excerpt

For many years qualitative research in the business studies field remained a minor tradition. It is only relatively recently that the whole debate about whether qualitative methods in general, and the case method in particular, are legitimate 'scientific' approaches to the generation of conceptual insights has begun to abate. It is little more than a decade ago that Van Maanen (1979) and his co-contributors to a special issue of the Administrative Science Quarterly still felt the need to "reclaim" qualitative methods for the social sciences generally and that Yin (1981, p 58) sought anxiously to "reaffirm the role of the case study as a systematic research tool" and to "show that an acceptable craft had already emerged". In the intervening period some of the most influential research in the business studies area in general, and in the strategy field in particular, has been primarily qualitative and case-based in approach. Porter's (1980, 1985, 1990) work on competition, Burgleman's (1983) study of internal corporate venturing, the research of Kanter (1983) and Pettigrew (1985a) on the management of strategic change, the Bradford studies (Hickson et al 1986) on strategic decision processes, and Hamel' s (1991) work on strategic alliances are among the more prominent examples.

Case-based qualitative research in the 1990s now has a strongly established pedigree in the business field. It has shown itself to be both flexible and inventive in the study of strategy and other processes of interest to business researchers (Leavy 1992a). In particular it offers great potential to students of Irish business, where the scope for large-scale extensive cross-sectional research designs is often limited by the relatively small pool of Irish business organizations of any reasonable size and complexity. The purpose of this article is to share with other Irish researchers, particularly those who might be setting out on their first major piece of independent research, the practical reflections of a "working student" of the type that Mills (1970, p 215) points out can often be more valuable and interesting to other practitioners than "a dozen codifications of procedures" by methodological specialists. The rest of the paper begins by taking a closer look at the question of what qualitative research is and the variety of approaches that the category covers. It then moves on to consider the questions of why choose a case-based qualitative approach and how does such an approach go about making a value-added contribution to the field of interest. The paper ends with some discussion of the skills involved and the difficulties presented in this type of research. The author draws on his own experience with the case-based qualitative approach (Leavy 1991a, 1991b, 1992b, 1993; Leavy and Wilson, 1994) and on his exposure, sometimes directly but more often through the literature, to some of the best known exponents of the genre.

What is Qualitative Research?

The label qualitative research has "no precise meaning" and is "at best an umbrella term covering an array of interpretive techniques" in the social sciences (Van Maanen 1979, p 520). The term therefore applies to a whole spectrum of possibilities. By way of illustration let us look at the contrast between the Bradford (Hickson et al 1986) study of strategic decision processes and the Pettigrew (1985a) research on strategic change, two fairly recent high profile examples from the strategy field. These two studies can be compared and contrasted in terms of research description, world view (ontology) and beliefs about how knowledge is generated (epistemology), as illustrated in Table 1. (Table 1 omitted)

As can be readily seen from the Table these two case-based qualitative studies represent quite a contrast in research design and philosophical outlook. However, a common characteristic of both was the primary role played by descriptive data. "Doing description" is the "fundamental act of data collection in a qualitative study" (Van Maanen 1979, p 520). …

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