Qualitative Inquiry in Management: Methodological Dilemmas and Concerns in Meta‐Analysis

AuthorKarsten Jonsen, Sébastien Point, Jacqueline Fendt
Publication Date01 Jun 2017
Qualitative Inquiry in Management:
Methodological Dilemmas and Concerns
in Meta-Analysis
EM Strasbourg BusinessSchool, Université de Strasbourg, Strasbourg, France
ESCP Europe, Paris, France
IMD, Lausanne, Switzerland
We positthat qualitative inquiry is essential to managementscience but is insufficiently capitalized on and that, if
aggregated through meta-studies, such research could yield rich insight on emergent properties and enable the
development of higher-order knowledge and theory. We introduce a pragmatic approach along four ontological
perspectives to conducting meta-studies from qualitative inquiries. We identify principal epistemological, ethical
and methodologicalconcerns and dilemmas that occur in the understanding, review and aggregation of qualitative
studies and propose concrete remedying heuristics.
Keywords: qualitative inquiry; meta-analysis; ontology; epistemology; interpretivism; grounded theory
Qualitative inquiry is the rigorous attempt to identify
knowledge by uncovering, analyzing, interpreting and
explaining qualitative patterns in terms of words,
numbers, matrices, pictures, sounds or other forms of
representation(Chenail, 2011,pp.1176). It is particularly
adapted to naturalistic inquiries, discovery-oriented
research, learningperspectives and the inquiryof complex
socially laden phenomena. Qualitative inquiry is essential
to management research (Denzin and Lincoln, 2008),
since management realities are complex. However,
qualitative inquiry is difficult to perform. It is essentially
about investigating discrete human agency and/or
experience across situations and contexts. It is about
listening, watching and asking, about observing and
making sense of complex situations, language, concepts,
practices, beliefs and relationships with, within and
between target groups. Researchers invariably find
themselves gathering large amounts of exciting but
unstructured data, and the choice of how to analyze and
synthesize it can be difficult. Ever since Glaser and
Strausss (1967) discovery of grounded theory,scholars
have developedtechniques and methods to do creditto the
richness of such data and to inductively generate
knowledge from it, applying scientific rigor in new ways,
since positivist criteria, such as validity and replicability,
cannot be applied at least not in the same manner to
such approaches.
Complex and challenging management problems are
approached today in a qualitative way by researchers
from diverse academic fields, professional contexts and
cultural origins. They apply a portfolio of inductive
and abductive approaches, and as the positivist
dominance of management research slowly gives way
to a more pluralist landscape of inquiry qualitative
studies find their way to publication and are increasingly
respected (Bluhm et al., 2011). Their inductive nature
and potential ability to handle extreme complexity make
them appropriate for generating integrated, often
boundary-spanning understanding and framing of
management phenomena, and sometimes help to
develop strategies and processes. Indeed, a different set
of criteria for validity and reliability has long been
defined to allow and validate such research for academic
rigor (Bansal and Corley, 2011; Bluhm et al., 2011;
Gioia et al., 2013).
Qualitativemethodological orientationsto study human
agency in management are included in the following
Correspondence: Karsten Jonsen, IMD, 2123 ch de Bellerive, 1001
Lausanne, Switzerland. Tel: +41792171626. E-mail karsten.
European Management Review, Vol. 14, 185204, (2017)
DOI: 10.1111/emre.12097
©2016 European Academy of Management
Descriptive qualitative research (Merriam, 2009)
Generic methods, principally interviews, observations,
video and audio recordings, but also open coding
techniques and some iterative comparison between data
and theory, are used according to a myriad of eclectic
designs (e.g., non-experimental studies, group
observation, non-intrusive behavior observation) to
describe phenomena and/or offer accounts of particular
events. The interpretation and transformation of original
data remains minimal.
Phenomenology (Smith et al., 2009)
This term regroups relational meaning-making
methodologies that originate in philosophy (Kusch,
1989). The essential research question is, what happened,
and how did people make sense of this occurrence for
themselves? Techniques include long interviews,
reduction, imaginative variation, structural descriptions,
textural descriptions, meaning development and varying,
and horizontalizing. Quality criteria include member and
peer checking (Moustakas, 1994).
Grounded theory
Developed almost 50years ago, grounded theory (i.e.,
classic grounded theory see Glaser and Strauss, 1967; or
constructivist grounded theory, see Charmaz, 2006,
2014) claims to be a qualitative methodology to
inductively generate theory. Glaser (1992, pp.16) defines
grounded theory as a general methodology of analysis
linked with data collection that uses a systematically
applied set of methods to generate an inductive theory
about a substantive area. It was developed at a point in
the history of science when the prevalent opinion was that
only quantitative or deductive studies could provide
systematic scientific research. Streams of thought such
as American Pragmatism (Dewey, 1910, 1938) and
symbolic interactionism (Mead, 1932), and the rigorous
use of ethnography and data-collecting methods of later
researchers from the Chicago School of Sociology
founded by John Dewey were somehow out of fashion
then, and linear regression and structural functionalism
(Alvesson and Skoldberg, 2000) were going strong.
Glaser and Strauss have revived these earlier important
influences in their conception of grounded theory. In
reality, the process is alternately inductive and deductive,
and canonicalforms of the method are so objectivized that
many hesitate to count them among qualitative methods.
As the term indicates, theory is gathered and built from
the ground up in an iterative process. Coding (in vivo,
focused, open, axial, selective) and memoing are
characteristic techniques. To minimize bias, researchers
are encouraged to enter the field without a previous
literatureanalysis on a blank slate. This lattercondition
is relativized in more recent versions where it is argued
that an open mind does not mean an empty head.
Ethnography (Van Maanen, 1979, 1988; Murchison,
Rooted in anthropology and in sociology, this act of
writing about people(Chenail, 2011: 1182) regroups a
set of methods that focus on cultural description
(orientation, knowledge, beliefs), commentary and
critique. The idea is to enter the field and to live with the
tribe to be observed, and to immerge into this reality so
fully that one is no longer noticed as a foreign body and
can thus observe the tribe fairly neutrally. The method is
usually longitudinal, intensive and extensive; thick
description,taxonomies and typologies are applied.Many
distinct approaches are available, such as the classical,
realist, confessional, impressionist, critical,
ethnomethodological, and autoethnographic style, to
name just some.
Narrative inquiry (Czarniawska, 2004; Riessman, 2007;
Schütze, 1977)
Narrativeinquiry is of literary, linguistic,existentialist and
psychological origin. A narrative is a discourse, or an
example of it, designed to represent a connected
succession of happenings(Webster, 1966: 1503).
Narratives are verbal acts consisting of someone telling
someone else that something happened(Smith, 1981).
Polkinghorne (1988) focuses on the story form as he
describes the process of creating a story, the internal logic
of the story (its plotand theme), and also the product the
story, tale or poem as a unit. Sarbin (1986) also stresses
the organizational aspect of narrative. The narrative is
understood as a psychological root metaphor, the story
teller is the expert. Contextual andrelational perspectives,
time, plot, identity and culture play a key role. The
researcher applies thematic and structural analyses.
Ethnographic immersion (Geertz, 1973; Van Maanen,
1979, 1988)
Action researchsettings (Clark, 1980; Argyris and Schön,
1991; Eden and Huxham, 1996; Dickens and Watkins
1999), and various grounded theory designs (Glaser and
Strauss, 1967;Gioia et al., 2013) are most frequently used
as an organizational framework to embed these eclectic
methods and techniques. Such research is rich and
particularly appropriate when the research goal is to
understand and explain the interplay of diverse, organic
and functional relation between parts and an increasingly
uncertain, fast-changing whole (Reeves and Deimler,
2011). However, the very complexity and rich diversity
of such inquiries, often situated in one particular,
sometimes extreme context and aimed at studying not
186 S. Point et al.

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