Humphrey 04 real life guide to acc reseasrchj.pdf

Humphrey 04 real life guide to acc reseasrchj.pdf - 66 QRAM...

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Unformatted text preview: 66 QRAM Vol I, No 1, 2004 THE REAL LIFE GUIDE TO ACCOUNTING RESEARCH: A STRATEGY FOR INCLUSION Christopher Humphrey* Bill Lee ABSTRACT Conventional texts on research methods research have a tendency to provide acontextual, prescriptive accounts of how research should be carried out. The authors of this paper have recently compiled an edited collection of accounts of how qualitative research was carried out in a variety of social and organizational contexts. This paper seeks to convey some of the real life stories behind actual research projects. It explains the motivations for the book, reviews its central themes and documents some of the authors’ personal experiences in compiling the collection. INTRODUCTION Qualitative research has added much to accounting. Its presence has served to challenge many of the assumptions of earlier quantitative work and provide the tools for making explicit — and assisting understanding of — the relationships between the researcher, his or her intellectual and moral predilections, the types of research questions that s/he frames, the methods that s/he adopts, the specific context in which the research takes place and the findings that are subsequently generated. The consequence has been an accounting discipline that is increasingly pluralistic in its acceptance of ontological, epistemological, theoretical and methodological diversity. Yet with plurality comes a new set of problems. Researchers may become increasingly uncertain about the ‘right’ way of addressing the problems that interest them. The concerns may be accentuated in certain situations, such as when Ph.D. students have got a limited timefiame in which to: define a problem; learn about the broad range of different methods that now exist and how to apply them; select the most appropriate method; conduct their work; and to report their findings in an appropriate intellectual framework. Even experienced researchers may opt for tried and trusted research approaches when faced with research assessment exercises that demand outputs in finite time periods, research boards who place increasing emphasis on the methods employed in a funded study and * Professor Christopher Humphrey is at the University of Manchester, and Bill Lee is at the University of Sheffield Management School. Humphrey and Lee 67 internal promotion boards that have had to place emphasis not just on the quality of contributions but also their quantity. Such environments are not conducive to the risk-taking that often plays a part in extending the frontiers of knowledge. In the management sciences more generally, there has been a range of different strategies adopted to help people overcome the uncertainty that they might experience when considering whether to use qualitative research methods. A number of writers have formulated ideal sets of criteria by which qualitative research might be assessed (Altheide and Johnson, 1994; Guba and Lincoln, 1989; Lincoln and Guba, 1985). More recently, the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC)1 has funded research into the best practices of qualitative research, from which might come standards for benchmarking subsequent research (Cassell, Symon and Johnson, 2003). While there may be much to recommend these strategies for those people whose work may be fitted easily into the criteria that is generated or the standards that are observed, there is the danger that any success that they achieve will reinforce existing orthodoxies and constrain innovation. An alternative strategy is suggested by the early sociological compilation edited by Bell and Newby (1977) that very much served to illustrate the human side of research and the ‘ordinariness’ of many research experiences. Our strategy for engendering confidence in people who attempt to use qualitative methods to research accounting phenomena was to build on the spirit of revelation suggested by the chapters in Bell and Newby’s book — in short, to ask people to explain their (accounting) research in terms of the ‘real life’ experiences. When conceiving The Real Life Guide to Accounting Research (RLGAR) (Humphrey and Lee, 2004), we intended to provide a structure that guided the reader through the overall research process. However, we asked all contributors to include in their chapters insights into their greatest achievements and mistakes, the fillips and obstacles that they had experienced and the joys and disappointments that they faced. We hoped that the book would add to researchers’ understanding of what is entailed in qualitative accounting research and build up confidence to deal with mishaps and the unexpected, as well as providing ideas for formulating successful research agendas, approaches and strategies. We particularly wanted the book to facilitate informed choice making about the full breadth of commitment involved in qualitative research and whether it was a process on which individual readers should embark. To help put the struggles and successes of qualitative researchers in the area of accounting in English—speaking countries into perspective, we also included contributions from a number of academics working in non-English speaking countries, in addition to a section on the experiences that researchers from other disciplines had had in their careers and in their attempts to establish and/or adopt qualitative research methods. The outcome is an edited collection that we believe helps to illuminate the research process — from choosing a research question all the way through to the 68 The Real Life Guide to Accounting Research publication and dissemination of findings. It combines the experience of a number of senior accounting academics with some unique insights from people who are either at earlier stages of their career or working in parts of the world where the research experience may be markedly different from the English- speaking ‘norm’. The respected contributors from other disciplines also help to demonstrate the character and extent of qualitative research in their respective fields of investigation. Embarking on qualitative research — from whatever intellectual framework is chosen — often entails engagement with a broad range of real life situations in their moral, social and organisational contexts. The purpose of this paper is to convey something about such engagements in the process of conducting qualitative research in accounting. In the first of the two substantive sections that follow, we draw from contributions in the book to discuss some of the issues that may arise in the course of the research processz. In the second substantive section, we consider some of our own ‘real life” experiences in compiling the collection. We conclude with some general remarks on the conduct of qualitative research. THE REAL LIFE GUIDE TO ACCOUNTING RESEARCH This section discusses some of the themes from the book around certain key areas of interest to qualitative researchers. These are: choosing a topic; conducting research; publishing findings; and managing a research project. Choosing a Topic When deciding to embark on qualitative research, researchers appear to have an infinite choice of potential research questions. Kevin Dowd (2004) captures some notion of the breadth of opportunities by explaining how the range of research questions for qualitative researchers is potentially limitless, because even quantitative research is based on assumptions and judgements that are essentially qualitative in nature. In this context, it may be expected that qualitative projects will be undertaken in, and across, a broad range of areas of accounting. Chapters in the book draw on experience of conducting qualitative research in the fields of, inter alia, Accounting History (Walker, 2004; Loft, 2004), Management Accounting (Ahrens, 2004; Burns, 2004; Marginson, 2004; Scapens, 2004), Public Sector Accounting (Broadbent and Laughlin, 2004; Lapsley, 2004), Financial Reporting (Horton et a1, 2004), Auditing and the Accounting Profession (Anderson-Gough, 2004; Bédard and Gendron, 2004; Komori, 2004; Turley, 2004), Social and Environmental Accounting (O’Dwyer, 2004; Owen 2004) and — perhaps surprisingly — Finance (Stoner and Holland, 2004). While others (Ryan et a], 2002) have pointed out that the main level of analysis for Finance researchers is the capital market, resulting in a predominantly quantitative research approach, it is particularly interesting to see Humphrey and Lee 69 finance researchers such as Stoner and Holland, and senior economists such as Dowd, highlighting the value of qualitative research in the finance arena. The selection of specific research questions to investigate in qualitative research may be derived from a range of sources. James Guthrie, Lee Parker and Rob Gray (2004) provide an outline of how existing academic work and practice can help to frame the specification of filture research questions. A number of the contributors to RLGAR followed this route. Their chapters show how they were stimulated either to apply existing research questions to new areas of accounting activity or to fill specific thematic gaps in the existing literature. For example, John Burns (2004) reports on his experiences of working as a research assistant on projects assessing whether Johnson and Kaplan’s (1987) seminal Relevance Lost thesis could also be applied to the relationship between financial reporting and management accounting systems in the UK (Joseph et a], 1996; Scapens et al, 1996). Similarly, Stephen Walker (2004) outlines how some of his research (Walker, 1995) arose from clear incongruities and potential omissions in competing explanations about the rise of the accounting profession. The development and pursuit of research questions can also come through quite different routes, often involving chance and good fortune. For example, Anne Loft (2004) describes how her PhD. thesis employed the work of Foucault to explain the increasing importance of cost accounting as a disciplinary technology in the period 1914—1925. However, this was arrived at through an elongated route that involved moving from the potential impact of accounting on research and development expenditure in the late 1970s/early 1980s to a study of the role of accounting in different historic periods and finally to the study of cost accounting in the specific period of 1914-25. This movement from one project to a completely different one also found some resonance in the section of RLGAR containing chapters by authors writing about qualitative research in other disciplines. For example, Harry Collins (2004) details how his first research project in the Sociology of Science (Collins, 1974) changed as a consequence of walking from one university laboratory to another and simply finding the work of the second department more interesting than the work of the former. Walker (2004) also emphasises how a casual observation at an exhibition revealed parts of the character of an accountant who had fallen from grace in the Victorian era and set in motion an investigation into the establishment of the disciplinary code of a professional institute (Walker, 1996). A number of authors also explained how research projects emerged out of non— academic interests. For example, Collins (2004) explains how his enjoyment of driving led to him choosing research (Collins, 1975) that allowed him to drive across America while Brendan McSweeney (2004) got invited to conduct the research that informed some of his publications (McSweeney, 1995) because he was seen as somebody who had been fair and reliable in his earlier work at the same organization as a Trade Union official. 70 The Real Life Guide to Accounting Research A point worth emphasising in an era increasingly dominated by formal processes of research assessment and quality monitoring is that a number of contributors stress that it is paramount for researchers to select a research question that is of personal interest and intrigue “to keep you at it even when you are not quite sure why” (Collins, 2004). As Guthrie et a] (2004) observe, work that draws on the personal motivations of the researcher is likely to end up being more original and offering far more satisfaction in the longer term. The importance of such intrinsic rewards of a project is perhaps best appreciated in the context of those chapters in RLGAR that comment on the politics of academe. Tom Lee (2004) discusses how the culture of doctoral training and employment in America — the home of some of the most highly rated journals — complements the predominance of quantitative research in the top American academic journals. This makes it difficult for qualitative researchers to publish in the journals that are most likely to deliver the extrinsic rewards of career progression. These difficulties are accentuated when researchers are employed in countries that have neither the same historical traditions of critical academic work, nor the benefits of having English — the language in which the majority of leading academic journals are published — as their native tongue. Maria Antonia Garcia-Benau and Jose Antonio Lainez Gadea (2004) discuss how the belated development of critical research in Spain, the concomitant tacit knowledge such as knowing the rank of research journals and the difficulties experienced by researchers in writing when English is their second (or third) language, places them at an initial disadvantage vis-c‘z-vis other researchers when seeking to publish in leading, English—speaking, journals. Conducting Research A clear strength of qualitative research is its accommodation of a wide range of both methods for researching and analysing data and intellectual frameworks for explaining the resultant research findings. Qualitative researchers in accounting — as in other disciplines — tend to be catholic in their selection of methods for research. One important criterion for selecting a particular method is suggested by Collins (2004) when highlighting how the research question can drive the choice of appropriate methods. Given the potentially infinite range of research questions that exist, it is, therefore, not surprising to find the existence of a wide range of qualitative research methods. Catherine Cassell and Gillian Symon (2004), who have edited a number of collections on research methods used for management research and analysis, explain how they have avoided seeking to put any constraint on what counts as a qualitative method and have ended up with collections that detail twenty-four methods of data collection and eleven methods of data analysis. Humphrey and Lee 71 What is clear from many chapters in RLGAR is that mechanical selection and employment of the ‘correct’ qualitative method will not necessarily result in the generation of data to answer the chosen research question. First, the information may not be in a form that is most useful for qualitative researchers. Walker (2004), for instance, reports how the cataloguing of historical documents, if they are catalogued at all, tends not to be organised in ways that relate easily to the research questions being asked by present day researchers. Alan Sangster and David Tyrall (2004) describe how the scale of the coverage of the World Wide Web (WWW) and the power of search engines have led to researchers, using the WWW to gather information, becoming inundated with data. Secondly, the information required may be surrounded by other data that proves an easy distraction. Both Walker (2004) and Loft (2004) comment on how easy it is to be sidetracked by stories that appear in newspapers and magazines when searching them for relevant information — for example, in Loft’s case, this included a story about the marvels of The Titanic before it sank. Thirdly, contemporary research will often have to be conducted at times and in environments that suit the respondent rather than the researcher. Joanne Horton, Richard Macve and Geert Struyven (2004) document how they had to conduct some interviews at rather odd times, including while a respondent was getting changed prior to heading out for a night at the opera. Finally — and perhaps the greatest fear for every new researcher — is that the evidence that is required, may either not be available, or that access to it is blocked. Irvine Lapsley (2004) reports on how one of his Ph.D. students who sought to use participant observation to understand investment processes, was not notified of key meetings when investment decisions were being considered because some of the respondents appeared opposed to the research. Walker describes how documents that he had been informed were readily available, had actually been destroyed in an air raid decades earlier. Loft discusses how one of the people whom she wanted to interview was actually in such a poor state of health that she would never be able to get through an interview, while another potential interviewee died a week before the interview was due to take place. Such difficulties in the process of data collection need not prove terminal for a qualitative research project. Sometimes, these problems may be overcome by a researcher’s simple persistence. Thomas Ahrens (2004) explains how qualitative researchers have to learn in the field, recognise when potential gatekeepers are providing obstacles, establish other contacts and refine their research questions as they progress. Other contributors to RLGAR indicate that the emphasis on theory development in the course of fieldwork in qualitative research, coupled with a capacity to recognise the significance of unexpected situations, provides a means to overcome problems when the route to some data is blocked — with the researcher building from events that offered opportunities for new insights into the researched phenomena. Walker quotes Pasteur to remind us that: “chance favours only the prepared mind”. A practical example 72 The Real Life Guide to Accounting Research of this is provided by Collins (2004) who only noticed a long way into his fieldwork that he had failed to collect evidence on one particularly central issue. This forced him to redefine his research question to reflect the events that he had observed and this question “turned out to be a lot more interesting than the original idea”. He suggests that researchers should put themselves “in the way of lucky accidents”, partly by being light on their feet and being prepared to change what they do. What is clear from the contributions to the book is that successful research projects will require many days, weeks and months of routine, hard work. Loft (2004) reports how conducting historical research will involve long days of reading in different libraries and archives. Burns (2004) reports the stresses and strains of motorway travel to visit and interview respondents and the difficulty of juggling that research with other demands on academics” time. Fiona Anderson-Gough (2004) reports on how coding involves lengthy initial reading of interview transcripts and — where computerised programs are used — the difficult task of looking at codes on the screen. Similarly, Brendan O’Dwyer (2004) reports the need to continually interrogate the data that has been collected, in a way that is “laborious and at times tedious” in order to develop themes at the analysis stage. However, the multitude of different research situations means that qualitative researchers are often able to draw on other skills and qualities to sustain their research. Walker identifies how his training as an auditor and diligence in attention to the detail of paperwork complements the academic role that he has developed as an accounting historian, searching through archives and evaluating the worth of evidence about the past. Similarly, David Marginson (2004) stresses the importance of interviewers having a capacity to listen and suggests that “researchers probably do not give sufficient weight to the potential social value of their research, ...
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