Leveraging Comparative Field Data for Theory Generation
Qualitative field methods are a long-standing, reliable, and generative tool in the organization theory building repertoire. They include an array of “interpretative techniques which seek to describe, decode, translate, and otherwise come to terms with the meaning, not the frequency, of certain more or less naturally occurring phenomena in the social world” (Van Maanen, 1979: 520). In 1979, Van Maanen observed “a quiet reconstruction going on in the social sciences . . . a renewed interest in and felt need for qualitative research.” He argued that in response to social science methods that weakened the relationship between measures and concepts,
there has come of age the significant realization that the people we study (and often seek to assist) have a form of life, a culture that is their own and if we wish to understand the behavior of these people and the groups and the organizations of which they are a part, we must first be able to both appreciate and describe their culture. (1979: 522)
More than 35 years later, this promise has only been partially met. The creation of this book is a sign of resurgence guided by data that show how qualitative research is uniquely able to produce “cool ideas and interesting papers,” at least as analyzed by the editors at the Academy of Management Journal (Bartunek, Ireland, & Rynes, 2006). The unanswered question and the reason why Van Maanen’s promise is only partially met is that if it is true that qualitative research is particularly apt at producing innovative research ideas, why is there still so little of it? As Ragin (2006) points out, social science remains in the methodological doldrums due to a reliance on linear, additive models that ignore causal complexity. Innovating qualitative methods to increase our understanding of when and where causes have effects can enliven our theorizing.