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Advanced Qualitative Research Methodologies: Ethnography, Case Studies, Grounded Theory and Action Research

Associate Prof. Frances Jørgensen & Prof. Helle Neergaard, Aarhus University, School of Business and Social Sciences.

The faculty is comprised of experts within their respective fields.

Purpose and content
The aim of this course is to help participants build in-depth specific competences within specific qualitative research strategies appropriate for business and management studies including how to tailor one or more of these strategies to their own projects. The course provides a short introduction to qualitative research design in general in order to contextualize the strategies. Over a period of five days, Advanced Qualitative Research Methodologies (AQRM) provides an in-depth account of four selected qualitative strategies within the social sciences: ethnography, grounded theory, case studies and action research.

While qualitative research is well-recognized as a valid form of systematic empirical inquiry (Shaw, 2002) that is used increasingly to build new or extend existing theory, the arguments young researchers make for the choices of a research strategy lack often rigour and structure. The course therefore addresses the theoretical arguments and rationale for adopting each of these approaches and will focus on distinguishing characteristics and similarities, the practical advantages and limitations of using these strategies, ethical considerations, as well as what forms of generalization these strategies may give rise to. The course thus facilitates sound argumentation and assists participants in reflecting critically upon their own choices. Most importantly, the participants gain hands on experience with applying the course content to their own projects while receiving critical feedback from the faculty and their peers.

Course Outline
The course is designed to work with selected qualitative research approaches during five full days. The distinguishing characteristic of this course is that its pedagogy relies heavily on experiential learning, with all lectures aimed at active participant involvement anchored in participants’ own projects and experiences. Further, students will work in groups to practice applying the approaches presented during each of the lectures and the all groups will prepare presentations of their arguments to the other participants. The faculty member responsible for each of the lectures will mentor the groups and provide feedback on the presentations and facilitate group discussion regarding challenges experienced by the groups.

Module 1: Contextual overview of the general features of the four methodologies (Helle Neergaard)
Introduction of faculty and participants’ research projects and progress as they relate to qualitative research and group formation. In order to ensure that all participants start from the same slate, the introduction provides a contextual overview and situates the four selected approaches in the overall realm of qualitative research.

Module 2: Ethnography (Sarah Robinson)
Ethnography starts from the assumption that human activities are socially organised and so, from the outset, is committed to inquiring into patterns of interaction and collaboration. Unlike many other quantitative and qualitative methods in the social sciences, which tend to use more formal instruments of data capture and analysis, the ethnographic method relies on an observer going into the field and ‘learning the ropes’ through questioning, listening, watching, talking, etc., with practitioners. The task of the fieldworker is to immerse him/herself into the work and its activities with a view to describing these as the skilful and socially organised accomplishment of parties to the work.  One obvious consequence of this is that in the first instance, at least, data collected will be of the 'messy' and unstructured variety. It may include interviews, observations of work sequences, anecdotes, speculations, and so on. Among other issues, this module addresses myths and truths in participant observation; ethical considerations and research strategies in sensitive situations where confidentiality and impartiality are fundamental to the participant, the organization and not least the research project, as well as considerations and strategies for accessing and establishing relationships with people in power.

Module 3: Case Studies (Helle Neergaard)
Case studies are widely used in organizational studies and across the social sciences. Case studies are analyses of persons, events, decisions, periods, projects, policies, institutions, or other systems that are studied holistically by one or more methods. The case that is the subject of the inquiry will be an instance of a class of phenomena that provides an analytical frame — an object — within which the study is conducted and which the case illuminates and explicates (Thomas 2011). Case studies are also empirical inquiries that investigate a phenomenon within its real-life context. Case study research can mean single and multiple case studies, can include quantitative evidence, relies on multiple sources of evidence, and benefits from the prior development of theoretical propositions. Case studies should not be confused with qualitative research as they can be based on any mix of quantitative and qualitative evidence. This module deals with the various types of case studies contrasting Yin’s (Yin 1989) original approach with more recent developments within this field. It commences with a historical overview of the origin of case studies and proceeds to discuss precisely what constitutes a case study (distinguishing it from a case), when to use a case study, advantages and challenges of using case studies, what is required to build a rigorous and solid case study, how to build a case study plan, how to select cases, what type of data the case study can involve and how to collect and analyze these data, using e.g. chunking and diachronicity. Finally, it addresses how to write up a convincing case study.

Module 4: Grounded Theory (Anne Bøllingtoft)
Grounded theory is a research method, which operates almost in a reverse fashion from traditional social science research. Rather than beginning with a proposition or a hypothesis, the first step is data collection, through a variety of methods. From the data collected, the key points are marked with a series of codes, which are extracted from the text and then grouped into similar concepts in order to make them more workable. From these concepts, categories are formed, which are the basis for the creation of a theory, or a form of reverse-engineered hypothesis. This contradicts the traditional model of research, where the researcher chooses a theoretical framework, and only then applies this model to the phenomenon to be studied. This module will give a short introduction to the history of grounded theory. Then it will discuss what grounded theory is and what grounded theory is not. This discussion also brings participants to discuss different approaches to grounded theory, as well as the unique characteristics related to grounded theory. Grounded Theory is a method that is more appropriate for some research questions than others. Different examples will be introduced and discussed in terms of their research questions, data collection, coding strategies as well as data analysis. Finally, criticisms and dangers related to applying a grounded theory approach will be addressed.

Module 5: Action Research (Frances Jørgensen)
Action research distinguishes itself from the other methods in that it seeks to satisfy two aims, namely addressing or solving a “real world issue” or problem and contributing to the development of theory (Lewin, 1944). In practice, action researchers are integrally involved with members of the host organization in designing, planning, implementing, measuring, and recording change initiatives. Because the action researcher contributes to the solving of actual problems the organization is experiencing, such research is especially relevant to industrial PhD projects. While providing opportunities to collect extremely rich data on changes as they occur in real time, the dual role of the action researcher presents some unique challenges. Specifically, action researchers must carefully balance the needs of the organization with their obligations to developing theory (i.e. their research interests). This module addresses this dual role and provides specific examples of how participants can contribute to both theory and practice in their projects.

Module 6: Quality standards for each of the four strategies; comparing and contrasting the four traditions (Frances Jørgensen)
Quality standards for qualitative research are very different from quantitative standards. However, even within qualitative research there are differences depending on whether the researcher has a social constructivists or a critical realist worldview. The course will, therefore, address these differences in the last module. Further, on the basis of the participants’ own experiences throughout the week, similarities and differences between the four approaches will be discussed.

Caine, V. & Estefan, A. (2011) The experience of waiting: Inquiry into the long-term relational responsibilities in narrative inquiry Qualitative Inquiry 17 (10): 965-971

Corbin, J & Strauss, A (1990) Grounded Theory Research: Procedures, Canons, and Evaluative Criteria. Qualitative Sociology, 13 (1)

Davis, C. (2008) Critical action research. In L. M. Given (Ed.), The SAGE Encyclopedia of Qualitative Research Methods (pp. 139–142). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

Edwards A, Elwyn G, Hood K, Rollnick S (2000). Judging the 'weight of evidence' in systematic reviews: introducing rigour into the qualitative overview stage by assessing Signal and Noise. J Eval Clin Pract. 6(2):177-84.

Eisenhardt, K. (1989) Building Theories from Case Study Research, Academy of Management Review, 14:4, 532-550

Flyvbjerg, B (2006) Five misunderstandings about case study research. Qualitative Inquiry

Goulding, C (2001): Grounded Theory: A Magical Formula or a Potential Nightmare. The Marketing Review, 2, 2001

Healy, M., & Perry, C. (2000). Comprehensive criteria to judge validity and reliability of qualitative research within the realism paradigm. Qualitative Market Research – An International Journal, 3(3), 118-126.

Huxham, C., & Vangen, S. (2003) Researching organizational practice through action research: case studies and design choices', Organizational Research Methods, 6(3): 383‐403.

Kagan, C., Burton, M., & Siddiquee, A. (2008) Action research. In C. Willig & W. Stainton‐Rogers (Eds.), The SAGE Handbook of Qualitative Research in Psychology (pp. 32–53).

Lynn, I.A. (1990) Evolving Interpretations as a Change Unfolds: How managers construe key organizational events. Academy of Management Journal, 33 (1)

Morse J.M., Barrett M., Mayan M., Olson K. & Spiers J. (2002) Verification strategies for establishing reliability and validity in qualitative research.

International Journal of Qualitative Methods 1(2) 1–19.

Mikecz, R. (2012) Interviewing elites: addressing methodological issues Qualitative Inquiry 18 (6): 482-493

Neergaard, H (2007) Sampling in entrepreneurial settings. In Neergaard & Ulhøi (eds) Handbook of Qualitative Research Methods in Entrepreneurship. Chpt 10

Robinson, S. (2008) Trusting the method: an ethnographic search for policy in practice in an Australian primary school Ethnography and Education 3(3): 243-252

Thomas, G. (2011) How to Do Your Case Study. A Guide for Students and Researchers, Sage

Yin (2008) Case Study Research: Design and Method, SAGE

Further recommended literature
Herr, K. G. & Anderson, G. L. (2005) The Action Research Dissertation: A Guide for Students and Faculty. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Lincoln, Y. S., & Guba, E. G. (1985). Naturalistic inquiry. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.

McNiff, J., & Whitehead, J. (2009) Doing and Writing Action Research. London: SAGE.

Miles, M.B. & Huberman, A.M. (1994) Qualitative Data Analysis – an Expanded Sourcebook, Sage

Patton, M.P. (1990) Qualitative Evaluation and Research Methods, Sage

Reason, P. & Bradbury, H. (Eds.) (2008) The SAGE Handbook of Action Research: Participative Inquiry and Practice (2nd edn.). London: SAGE.

Wengraf, T (2001) Qualitative Research Interviewing, SAGE

NOTE: Course participants should currently be in the process of determining whether a qualitative research strategy would be applicable to their projects. If students have already chosen a quantitative approach, then we will explore how the study would look if a qualitative strategy were employed.

Time and place
New dates: 9-13 September 2013
Please note: Those that were accepted in the course for the April dates will need to re-apply if they still wish to participate in the course in the autumn.

The course will take place at Aarhus University, School of Business and Social Sciences, Department of Business Administration, Bartholins Allé 10, DK-8000 Aarhus C, room: 1325-242.

Teaching language

Participants are required to read the literature prior to the course and prepare for discussing the relevance in relation to their own project.

Students should possess a basic understanding of philosophy of science traditions and research design in organization and management research. 

Max number of students

No later than 8 July 2013 to Lisbeth Widahl, Aarhus University, School of Business and Social Sciences, Dept. of Business Administration (preferably by email). Application form can be downloaded from the right-hand side of this web page.
Please note that registration to the course is binding. Applicants from the Department of Business Administration (BADM) will be given priority over applicants from other departments/universities.

We require that applicants provide a one-page description of the considerations made so far with regard to their choice of a qualitative research strategy to assist us in group formation.

A fee that covers meals during the course will be charged. Students are required to find their own accommodation.

Participants are to submit a 5-page written report, in which they show that they can argue rigorously for their choices at all the various stages of the research. Thus, the paper needs to address a) choice of methodology; b) how they intend to collect data; c) how they intend to sample research units at all levels and stages; d) how they are going to analyse the collected data. The report should include more theory than the required readings for the chosen methodology.

Certificates of completion will be issued only to those successfully completing all requirements of the course (including full attendance and submission of required assignment).

Schedule (pdf)

Further information
Please contact Helle Neergaard, Frances Jørgensen or Lisbeth Widahl.

Comments on content: 
Revised 2014.01.17

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