Management Qualitative Research Methods
Catherine Cassell
  • LAST REVIEWED: 12 November 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 January 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846740-0026


Qualitative research methods in the field of management typically rely on nonquantitative forms of data collection and nonstatistical forms of data analysis. A variety of methods are encompassed under this umbrella term, and because these methods are used in a diversity of philosophical approaches, they offer a complex and rich source of research techniques. Qualitative researchers are keen to generate rich data that focus on the meanings and interpretations that individuals or groups ascribe to a given concept or situation. Because research usually takes place in naturalistic settings, such as in organizations, researchers may be concerned with reflexivity or the researcher’s impact on the conduct of the research and the production of knowledge. Furthermore, qualitative researchers see the informants in their research as active participants in the research process rather than simply as subjects who are on the receiving end of various treatments. A number of different research strategies can focus entirely on qualitative methods, including Case Studies, Ethnography, and Action Research. Above all, the qualitative researcher seeks to use these methods to access the subjective experience of organizational life and behavior.


An increasing number of textbooks in this area seek to introduce the reader to qualitative research. Some authors provide their own scoping of the field and highlight some of the key qualitative research methods and their accompanying challenges, as in Lee 1999. Other texts present an overview of the various methods of data collection and analysis, such as Cassell and Symon 2004, Symon and Cassell 2012, and Eriksson and Kovalainen 2008.

Reference Resources

Few reference resources specifically cover qualitative research methods in the management and organizational fields. The one exception is The SAGE Dictionary of Qualitative Management and Research (Thorpe and Holt 2008). Other sources not specific to qualitative management research but still quite useful include Bryman and Buchanan 2009, which focuses on research methods in organizations and management more generally, and Denzin and Lincoln 2011, which provides general coverage of qualitative research.

  • Bryman, Alan, and David A. Buchanan, eds. The SAGE Handbook of Organizational Research Methods. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE, 2009.

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    An edited text that focuses on contemporary debates across organizational research more generally. Contains chapters about different methods of qualitative research and about the key issues surrounding the conduct of qualitative management research.

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  • Denzin, Norman, and Yvonna Lincoln, eds. The SAGE Handbook of Qualitative Research. 4th ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE, 2011.

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    This fourth edition provides an overview of critical debates around the use of qualitative methods in the social sciences more generally.

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  • Thorpe, Richard, and Robin Holt, eds. The SAGE Dictionary of Qualitative Management Research. London: SAGE, 2008.

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    The dictionary contains over one hundred entries, each around two to three pages long. Each entry focuses on a particular method or philosophical approach. A useful introductory guide for those who may be unfamiliar with some of the key terms of qualitative management research.

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Journals are a relatively new reference source in this field. Only one, Qualitative Research in Organizations and Management, focuses specifically on qualitative research in management, although Qualitative Research in Accounting and Management covers both management and accounting. The American Academy of Management also publishes Organizational Research Methods, which occasionally publishes papers about methodological developments in qualitative research. General qualitative journals include Qualitative Research and Qualitative Inquiry, which provide a range of interesting articles for the qualitative researcher; however, these provide more general coverage of qualitative methods as used within the social sciences.

Philosophies Underpinning Qualitative Research

One of the key defining features of qualitative management research is that it is informed by a variety of philosophical traditions. Whereas most of the quantitative studies reported in the management field are underpinned by a positivist or modernist paradigm, those who conduct qualitative research do so from a range of different epistemological positions. Some who seek to quantify the outputs of their qualitative research may be working within a positivist paradigm, whereas others may draw on other possible epistemological positions, such as postmodernism, interpretivism, critical theory, or social constructionism. This means that those choosing to use qualitative methods need to have some understanding of the different philosophical traditions within which research is conducted. Texts such as Johnson and Duberley 2000 seek to introduce students to some of the key philosophical issues that need to be addressed, including epistemology, ontology, and reflexivity. Prasad 2005 and Alvesson and Sköldberg 2009 focus on positioning the different philosophies that underpin qualitative management and organizational research.

  • Alvesson, Mats, and K. Kaj Sköldberg. Reflexive Methodology: New Vistas for Qualitative Research. London: SAGE, 2009.

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    Takes the reader through a number of different approaches with a particular focus on reflexivity. Critiques the different philosophical research traditions and addresses their impact on empirical work.

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  • Johnson, Phil, and Joanne Duberley. Understanding Management Research: An Introduction to Epistemology. London: SAGE, 2000.

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    Provides an overview of the principal epistemological debates in the social sciences and their effect on how management research is conducted.

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  • Prasad, Pushkala. Crafting Qualitative Research: Working in the Postpositivist Traditions. Armonk, NY: Sharpe, 2005.

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    Takes the reader through all of the different “post” traditions and usefully highlights the similarities and differences between and within some of these traditions. Provides a helpful list of exemplary or indicative work at the end of each chapter.

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Organizational Research Strategies

A number of different strategies can be used for conducting research in organizations. These approaches can draw on both qualitative and quantitative research methods, although the focus here is on purely qualitative research. A range of textbooks, such as Bryman and Bell 2011; Easterby-Smith, et al. 2008; and Gill and Johnson 2010, concentrate on the different research strategies available to the qualitative management researcher and highlight the factors that influence why one strategy should be chosen over another. Useful sections about research strategy can be found in all these books, which are widely used research methods textbooks in the business and management field.

Case Studies

Case studies are a popular research strategy for qualitative management research. The key attraction of case studies lies in the richness of the data they generate about a specific company or organizational context. There is considerable debate in the literature about what specifically forms the basis of a case study and the different approaches that can be used. Those who research and write case studies have widely varying views that are heavily influenced by their philosophical assumptions about research and what makes good research. Examples of different approaches include those in Yin 2003, Eisenhardt 1989, Stake 1995, and Stake 2006. A discussion about the early 21st-century debates around case-study design is in Lee, et al. 2007.

  • Eisenhardt, Kathleen M. “Building Theories from Case Study Research.” Academy of Management Review 14 (1989): 532–550.

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    This account of how theory is developed through the use of multiple cases has become a standard reference for those working in this form of case-study tradition. Available online by subscription.

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  • Lee, Bill, Paul M. Collier, and John Cullen. “Reflections on the Use of Case Studies in the Accounting, Management, and Organizational Disciplines.” In Special Issue: Special Issue on Case Studies. Edited by Bill Lee, Paul M. Collier, and John Cullen. Qualitative Research in Organizations and Management 2.3 (2007): 169–178.

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    This introductory article for a special issue provides a useful overview of some of the ways qualitative researchers use case studies. The authors outline some of the key issues associated with conducting case studies in this way. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

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  • Stake, Robert E. The Art of Case Study Research. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE, 1995.

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    This provides an account of conducting qualitative case-study research and therefore provides a different approach from those presented in Eisenhardt 1989 and Yin 2003.

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  • Stake, Robert E. Multiple Case Study Analysis. New York: Guilford, 2006.

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    This book focuses explicitly on qualitative case-study research but concentrates on the use of multiple case studies.

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  • Yin, Robert K. Case Study Research: Design and Methods. 3d ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE, 2003.

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    One of the most heavily cited books about case studies, now in its third edition. Yin is a key exponent of the realist approach to case studies. In the text he therefore suggests a structured approach to case selection and analysis to enable the appropriate testing of theory and generalization.

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The methods associated with ethnography stem from the social sciences tradition of social anthropology. Organizational researchers have sought to apply anthropology methods to organizational settings. Ethnographers therefore immerse themselves in a particular organization or culture and, through observation and other methods, seek to gain access to an insider’s perspective of those cultures. Classic examples of this approach are in Lupton 1963 and Beynon 1975. Classic texts with more recent examples are Watson 1994 and Samra-Fredericks 2003. In business and management research there has been a long tradition of ethnographic studies that provide rich data about organizational life. John Van Maanen is the key writer on ethnographic experiences in the management field and is renowned for bringing ethnographic methods into business and management research (see Van Maanen 2011). Ybema, et al. 2009 has continued this tradition.

Action Research

Action research has a long history in organizational research. It is usually traced back to Kurt Lewin’s application of experimental logic and social psychological theory to practical social problems during World War II. Lewin 1948 asserts that research should have an impact on the practical social problems of the day and therefore coined the term “action research” to highlight an iterative process of research and action. Since then the term has been used in increasingly diverse ways, and different views of action research abound in the literature. Action research is usually seen as an iterative cycle of problem identification, diagnosis, planning, intervention, and evaluation of the results of action to learn and plan subsequent interventions. Various examples of how this works in different areas of the social sciences are in Reason and Bradbury 2001. There is also an emphasis on collaboration with managers and organization members, as Eden and Huxham 1996 highlights. This may involve the joint identification of a problem that needs solving and the participation of a range of different organization members at various stages of the research and action processes. Cassell and Johnson 2006 highlights how action research can also take place in a range of different philosophical traditions.

Data Collection Methods

There are many different ways of collecting qualitative data; therefore the researcher has to make a choice regarding the most appropriate method for a given research question or area of interest. This choice may be influenced by a number of issues, such as access to individuals and organizations, time constraints, and ethical issues. An overview of the different methods of data collection available can be found in each of the works outlined under Textbooks.


The interview is perhaps the most often used technique for gathering qualitative data. It comes in many shapes and sizes and has had a long history in management research. Used in a variety of epistemological traditions, the widespread popularity of the interview is in part due to the common currency of the term. Indeed, research participants know what to expect when they are invited to take part in an interview. The term itself covers a multitude of research encounters, ranging from a structured schedule of questions where the aim is to standardize data collection to the unstructured conversations that characterize some discourse analysis approaches. Some of the different types of interviews used in the management research field include repertory grid interviews, critical incident technique interviews, life histories, and narrative interviews. A range of sources can assist the management researcher interested in designing and conducting interviews. In terms of how to do interviews and deal with some of the practical issues that might arise, King and Horrocks 2010 and Kvale 2010 should be useful. Electronic interviews are addressed in Morgan and Symon 2004, and more critical approaches to interviewing in the management field are in Alvesson 2011 and Cassell 2009.

  • Alvesson, Mats. Interpreting Interviews. London: SAGE, 2011.

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    Presents a critical approach examining the different ways interviews have been interpreted in organizational research. Alvesson draws on a series of different metaphors to convey the various approaches taken and their implications for reflexivity.

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  • Cassell, Catherine. “Interviews in Organizational Research.” In The SAGE Handbook of Organizational Research Methods. Edited by Alan Bryman and David Buchanan, 500–515. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE, 2009.

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    A general overview of the role of interviews in organization and management research.

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  • King, Nigel, and Christina Horrocks. Interviews in Qualitative Research. London: SAGE, 2010.

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    Provides a useful framework for approaching interviews from the planning stage right through the analysis.

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  • Kvale, Steinar. Doing Interviews. London: SAGE, 2010.

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    Presents a similarly thorough and useful account of the varied issues one might encounter in the management research interview, including chapters on ethical issues and how to report the knowledge gained from the interview process.

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  • Morgan, Stephanie J., and Gillian Symon. “Electronic Interviews in Organizational Research.” In Essential Guide to Qualitative Methods in Organizational Research. Edited by Catherine Cassell and Gillian Symon, 23–33. London: SAGE, 2004.

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    The increased use of information, communication, and social technologies raises particular issues for how qualitative researchers may conduct interviews electronically. This chapter presents an overview of these issues.

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Focus Groups

Qualitative research with groups has had a long history in management and organizational research. The method most used to collect qualitative data from groups, specifically the focus group, is also used extensively in other areas, such as market research. Whereas there are many sources that provide advice about interviewing, little is written about how to successfully conduct focus groups. Krueger and Casey 2009; Stewart, et al. 2007; and Morgan 1997 all provide practical advice.


Observation is a key method of qualitative data collection, and it fits particularly well with ethnographic research strategies. Gold 1958 discusses the two dimensions in which observation can be categorized. The first is whether the observer is a participant or a nonparticipant—that is, whether researchers take part in the setting or activity they are observing. The second is the extent to which observation is overt, so that other participants know it is happening, or covert, where the observer remains hidden from those being observed. An interesting commentary on these dimensions is provided by the use of dramaturgical metaphor in Goffman 1959. The advantages and disadvantages of these different approaches have been discussed extensively, particularly in the literature on ethnography, such as Jorgensen 1989 and Brewer 2000.

Visual Methods

There has been an increasing interest in the use of visual methods in qualitative management and organizational research in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, as Stiles 2004 and Warren 2009 highlight. Examples of visual methods include the use of photographs, drawings, and pictures, as outlined in Broussaine 2008 and Margolis and Pauwels 2011. New developments in technology, such as digital photography and disposable cameras, have also made these methods more accessible to researchers and the researched. In the early 21st century such methods are still in their infancy in this field, but a number of sources have emerged that provide useful background and context to the use of visual methodologies and advice for researchers who wish to use them.

Data Analysis Methods

Qualitative research produces large amounts of textual data that need to be analyzed. A variety of techniques can be used to analyze qualitative data, and competing arguments abound concerning the best methods to use. Some writers see data analysis as an art form, whereas others suggest it should be highly structured to enable the application of validity criteria and the highlighting of audit trails. These contested viewpoints tie in with different philosophical positions and different debates about epistemology and ontology. There are numerous sources available, such as Miles and Huberman 1994 and Dey 1993, that provide more general advice for the researcher about how to approach analysis. Other sources can be found under Textbooks and also under Content Analysis, Thematic/Template Analysis, Grounded Theory, and Language-Based Approaches, which focus on specific forms of data analysis. Additionally, there are chapters and texts, such as Sinkovics and Alfoldi 2012 and Weitzman and Miles 1995, that advise the qualitative researcher on how to use computer software packages to aid the analysis of qualitative data.

Content Analysis

There is some debate about the extent to which content analysis is actually a form of qualitative data analysis, given that the aim of content analysis is to count the occurrence of phenomena so that the qualitative data can then be subjected to quantitative analysis using statistics. This requires that the content analytic process be standardized so the constructs and codes to be identified can be developed before the analysis starts. The data are then coded with the aim of achieving an objective and systematic analytic process. Classic texts are Krippendorff 2004 and Holsti 1969. A review of the use of content analysis in the field is in Duriau, et al. 2007.

Thematic/Template Analysis

One of the most common ways to analyze qualitative data is to conduct a thematic analysis, as in Silverman 2007 and Flick 2009. The researcher looks for different themes in the data and codes excerpts of the data accordingly into those themes. These themes can constitute some form of codebook or template, which then allows a structured approach to data analysis. Techniques based on thematic analysis tend to be fairly flexible in that they fit with most research questions, any textual data, and most philosophical stances. One of the most widely referenced is Template Analysis. Researchers can amend the eventual template to meet their own requirements, so a coding template can be defined a priori or developed a posteriori depending on how inductive the researcher wishes the data analytic process to be. King 2004, Crabtree and Miller 1999, and Nadin and Cassell 2004 focus on the use of codebooks or templates.

Grounded Theory

Grounded theory is probably the most well-recognized form of qualitative data analysis. Originally developed in Glaser and Strauss 1967 and reformulated in Strauss and Corbin 2008, the aim of grounded theory analysis is to derive theory inductively through the systematic gathering and analysis of data. Data collection, analysis, and theory stand in a reciprocal relationship with each other. Key principles of grounded theory include minimization of subjectivity, constant comparison, and theoretical saturation. Others works, such as Locke 2001, apply grounded theory to the management research context, whereas Charmaz 2006 presents a constructivist reformulation of the approach. There is some concern in the literature that “grounded theory” as a term is used somewhat inappropriately. This argument is outlined in Suddaby 2006.

Language-Based Approaches

The arrival of postmodernism and the linguistic turn in management and organizational research in the 1980s opened the door for a plurality of new forms of qualitative research methods where the focus was on talk and language use, including discourse, stories, and narrative. These approaches drew on the work of European philosophers, such as Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and Jacques Lacan. There are a range of different approaches to discourse analysis. Some are influenced by social-psychological perspectives and focus on the detailed analysis of talk similar to the ways conversation analysts might approach text, whereas others focus on discourse at a broader level and are interested in its constitutive and ideological effects, such as critical discourse analysis. Alvesson and Karreman 2000 addresses this variety, whereas Fairclough 2003 and Wodak and Meyer 2009 focus on critical discourse analysis. There has also been an increased interest in story and narrative analysis, and there is a burgeoning literature in this area. There is some dispute among works such as Boje 1995, Boje 2001, Czarniawska-Joerges 1998, and Gabriel 2000 about what constitutes a story and what constitutes a narrative. Different perspectives on this issue are represented in these sources.


Writers in the field of qualitative research have drawn attention to some key issues that the qualitative researcher should use to critique his or her own research. Examples are the debates in the literature about Reflexivity and Assessing Quality and Criteriology.


Reflexivity has been defined in different ways in the literature but can be summarized as the critical appraisal of the researcher’s taken-for-granted assumptions about their research and their own role in the production of knowledge. Reflexivity is seen as an ongoing part of the qualitative research process, which is important to the production of high-quality work (see Cunliffe 2003). Johnson and Duberley 2003 argues that reflexivity is interpreted differently in a range of epistemological traditions. Alvesson and Sköldberg 2009 considers how reflexive research can be developed. Humphrey and Lee 2004 considers examples of reflexive practice in the accounting field.

Assessing Quality and Criteriology

Although there is near consensus about what makes good quantitative research, assessment is a far more problematic question in relation to qualitative research, as Easterby-Smith, et al. 2008 suggests. In the literature it is apparent that there is no exclusive, accepted definition of what is meant by high-quality qualitative research. Rather, it is a contested terrain, and a variety of “criteria in use” exists. These may be influenced by pragmatic or philosophical considerations, as Johnson, et al. 2006 suggests. The lack of agreed criteria for good qualitative management research has led to some qualitative researchers generating alternative sets of criteria through which the quality of qualitative research can be assessed. For example, Pratt 2009 offers boilerplate tips for qualitative researchers. These debates about what makes good qualitative research and the appropriate criteria for its assessment are known as debates about criteriology.

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