Crafting Qualitative Research

Ann L. Cunliffe, University of New Mexico, published “Crafting Qualitative Research: Morgan and Smircich 30 Years On” in the October 2011 issue of Organizational Research Methods. Dr. Cunliffe kindly provided some background about  her article.

What inspired you to be interested in this topic?

My interest in this topic stems from two sources: challenges in my own work, which utilizes narrative, dialogic and poetic ‘methods’, and the curiosity and urging of PhD students at the University of Hull where I taught qualitative research methods and non-traditional qualitative research methods courses. My aim was to encourage students to consider the various approaches to research and the wide range of methods available to them. Many students were interested in non-positivist qualitative methods, but were using surveys and structured coded interviews because they were ‘safer’. I wanted to encourage my students to expand their horizons, but common concerns included: “How can narrative research or discourse analysis be considered rigorous and valid?” and “I’ll never get that type of work published.”

We discussed the various ways of thinking about the nature of social reality and how they influence research design.  We also talked about how important it was to be consistent in research – to ‘walk the talk’: If you are claiming to take a subjectivist perspective or a social constructionist approach, then what does that mean for the way you do your research? The only article I could find that really addressed this issue head-on was Morgan and Smircich’s 1980 paper.

The students asked why there had not been a more recent paper and urged me to write one to help them understand the issues involved in crafting qualitative research and to justify the approach they wanted taking.  So I did, and this article is the result.

How do you see this study influencing future research and/or practice?

My hope is that the ideas in the article will encourage PhD students and early career researchers to recognize the extent, depth and richness of our field.  We can explore a whole range of methods, various sources of ‘data’, and different ways of theorizing – each being valid in it’s own right if our research is crafted carefully and consistently.  In other words, we should not feel pressured into carrying out a particular type of research because we feel there are no other options.  One of my favourite quotes on this issue is from John Van Maanen, who in his defense of pluralism in organization studies says,

“I am appalled at much of organization theory for its technocratic unimaginativeness. Our generalizations often display a mind-numbing banality and an inexplicable readiness to reduce the field to a set of unexamined, turgid, hypothetical thrusts designed to render organizations systematic and organization theory safe for science (1995, p. 139).

I agree!  And the article offers some of the many possibilities for doing interesting research.

The article may also be useful to reviewers and journal editors, who sometimes find it all too easy to reject non-positivist empirical papers because they are ‘not rigorous or valid’.  One key point in the article is that the way we judge rigor and validity should not be based on universal criteria (usually positivist), but depend on the problematic one is working within. Evaluating an intersubjective study from an objectivist problematic (to paraphrase an editor commenting on a desk reject of a now-published paper ‘this does not contribute to theory because you are not testing propositions’) does not make sense and excludes a whole range of interesting and thought-provoking research that can help us to see something differently.

What, if anything, would you do differently if you could go back and do this study again?

As with any paper, this one changed and developed as it went through the review process.  The Editor, Bob Gephart, challenged me to better articulate the intersubjective problematic. In response to reviewer comments, two Tables became one, and a continuum became clouds after one reviewer asked if the lines in the Table implied fixed boundaries.  All of these comments helped shape the paper.

In terms of future changes, the three problematics and my placing of methods etc in the Table will, I am sure, be contested and are by no means exhaustive.  New methods, approaches and ways of theorizing will emerge and the ‘clouds’ may change. Which brings me to a concrete change … If I could do something differently then I would hire a graphic designer to come up with a more creative way of portraying the characteristics of each problematic!

Van Maanen, J. (1995). Style as theory. Organization Science, 6, 133-143

To view the other articles in this issue, please click here. More information about Organizational Research Methods can be found here.

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