The “Singular View” In Management Case Studies

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The main objective of this paper is to make a critical review of an academic article by Llewellyn and Northcott (2007) “The “singular view” in management case studies”. This article generally challenges the general belief that the results generated from qualitative research methods of a case study are dependent on the likeness of similar themes across the statements of various respondents. This article mainly deals with emergent transformation that is politically and socially sensitive within the management of organizations. According to the article, during these transformations, the individuals who are involved are not aware of the direction that the organization is heading and therefore trying to gather information from them is rarely a fruitful research tactic. As a result of this, the findings of a research may have to depend on the insight of one person. This is what is referred to as the ‘singular view’ and it is usually an exclusive idea from an individual who has a keen understanding as to the significance of the research (Wittgenstein, 1953).

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In this article, the author uses a published academic work to present their argument. The validity of the information or evidence collected from a single respondent is often challenged as it does not seem to represent wholly. Therefore the authors in this article have set to explore the possibility of the singular view being valid even when it is not supported by other facts. In most cases, researchers prefer to trust the widely-held views as compared to those held by the minority. The authors talk about why researchers place more reliance on the majority observations and dispute that by discussing why it may be more prudent to favor the singular view rather than the majority view in most management research circumstances (Winch, 1990).

In most cases, qualitative management case studies use many rather than a single respondent when seeking to find out what is happening within an organization. The researchers, more often than not, also use multiple sources of documented material as the most applicable option. However due to other concerns such as the different perspectives from stakeholders, the diverse abilities of judging or the access to information that is not always at the same level with all involved persons, this method can prove to be less productive in gathering information on what is going on or how it should be dealt with. Wainwright (1997) has therefore tackled two issues that have inclined researchers to take a risk on using the singular view and both have played an important role in their own way (Silverman, 2001).

The development of qualitative research

Those who supported qualitative management case study research struggled to ascertain its authenticity through the positive beliefs that have been derived from scientific work while the critics dismissed by saying that it was subjective, anecdotal and unsubstantiated and therefore unscientific as well. The major issue however was that the case study was a new research method and the researchers began trying to meet the standards set by the scientific community for proper scientific research. They chose to develop their technique from what had already been set before in the already dominant model of scientific research rather than come up with new methods that would include coming up with new linguistic expressions as well as new conditions for judging. However, in relation to case studies, there was concern about the how case studies were representative of data and if it was able to generalize rather than be specialized and concentrated on certain subjects (Sayer, 1992).

According to researchers, if the goal of a qualitative research was to find out the characteristics of a situation, then these concerns were justifiable unlike if the goal was in figuring out the implications and the sense in a situation. In that case, such concerns were irrelevant and could even end up obstructing the research rather than being of assistance (Scapens, 1990).

Researchers who mainly rely on observing regular behavior to get their findings find representativeness to be of key significance. This is because without enough exposure to the behavior under observations, then it becomes hard to establish a pattern. This concern for regularity led to the change from observation-based research to an interview-based research where one was able to keep track of data more easily and the commonality of certain information in an interview was compared to the regularity of behavior. When data was irregular, it was considered to be random and thus useless (Sayer, 1992).

The case study then developed from the belief that understanding social phenomena begins by appreciating the environment from which this phenomena comes from. This went on to challenge the notion of using observation as it is next to impossible to understand an environment without grasping the context from which the person sees his/her behavior. Therefore, the case study method emphasizes on contextual understanding but is still concerned with the representativeness of data.

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According to Yin (1989) “A case study is an empirical inquiry that:

  • investigates a contemporary phenomenon within its real-life context; when
  • the boundaries between phenomenon and context are not clearly evident; and in which
  • Multiple sources of evidence are used.”

This quotation heavily implies that a researcher should be more assured of their results if most of the information and data point to the same conclusions than when the answers from the different respondents are conflicting. It also implies that the more a researcher has a lot of evidence all pointing to the same direction, the more reassurance of being on the right path he should have. Most researchers who believe in the gathering of multiple sources of evidence, also referred to as triangulation by some authors, whereby their belief is that in the process “inconsistencies have been resolved, mis-specifications erased and omissions avoided” Polkinghorne (1988). This belief nonetheless makes more sense in the case of making out the characteristics of a situation and not in determining its meaning (Mehan 1979).

Another concept that is closely associated to representativeness is that of generalization. This is because when a researcher is confident of the representativeness of information in a case study then he is more certain when generalizing his/her findings to other case studies that have the same circumstances (Yin, 1989) shows the difference between statistical and theoretical generalization as he sets out to make others understand what generalization in relation to case studies entails. He states that “In statistical generalization, an inference is made about a population (or universe) on the basis of empirical data collected about a sample… [He warns] Afatal flaw in doing case studies is to conceive of statistical generalization as the method of generalizing the results of the case… [He asserts]… the method of generalization [in case studies] is “analytic generalization” in which a previously developed theory is used as a template with which to compare the empirical results of the case study. If two or more cases support the same theory, replication may be claimed.” (Llewellyn, 2003). In this case, Yin’s inference is that when different researchers have studied case studies that have similar circumstances, and their conclusions happen to support the same theory, then more confidence is put on that theory (Latour, 1993).

The role of theory in qualitative work

Theories are important in case studies in that, even though a researcher’s prime objective is to concentrate on the case participants’ point of view, sometimes the understanding and judgment abilities of the respondents are not meticulous especially when the case study concerns complex issues that are beyond the understanding of the participants. To achieve this broader opinions and views, the theories come in and frame the case in a theoretical approach. Proper theorization involves pulling out simple data from a case study and then turning it into valuable information. This fusion of academic theories and participants opinions is neither easily achieved nor impervious to challenges (Glaser & Strauss, 1967).

An example is in interview-based studies whereby an edgy balance has been created between only using ethnographic data, which only uses the limited viewpoint of the respondents, and reproducing and legitimizing an already existing theory. However, when a respondent’s views are taken into account and further challenged, this would validate an addition of value to the view and thus the emphasis on the common view.

The data collection process in qualitative research is seen as systematic as it is seen as logical and planned. This is useful as it sometimes helps in generating inductive theories. Strauss and Corbin (1967) implied that it was possible and desirable to take a scientific advance in the sighting of common themes that are found in qualitative information. Basically, if the theorization of the case can be proven to be interconnected with the majority view then the suspicions of the theory being imposed on the case study through the bias of the researcher can be easily disapproved (Llewellyn, 1992).

The authors have also dealt with a case study so as to demonstrate the significance of qualitative management research. They explore an interview- based empirical project that focuses on the introduction of a compulsory form of pricing in English hospitals known as the National Reference Costing Exercise (Llewellyn, 2001). The UK New Labor Government introduced a new requirement for all NHS hospitals in 1998. The hospitals were required to give an account of their costs in regard to all the clinical activities that were undertaken within the hospital. Despite the process being complicated and having a vast data cost, an index that ranked the hospitals on their relative cost efficiency was put together and the information was available to the public (Fielding, & Fielding, 1986).

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The research project set out to examine the sense and significance of this exercise by asking the members of the stakeholder groups about what they thought was happening and in the course of this, a total of 38 interviews that involved personnel within the NRCE were performed. In the beginning, stakeholders’ claims varied greatly when asked to assess the importance of the NRCE process. Clinicians were especially dismissive in the hope that the process would die out while the politicians who had initiated the NRCE were taking it very seriously. In regard to this assessment, it was obvious that the clinicians were likely to loose power over practices if the NRCE would succeed and thus this gave them the motivation to argue that it would be useless in the long term (Department of Health, 1997).

On the contrary, politicians were determined to make the process a significant intervention in the world of health care. However, the hospital managers were put in the most compromising positions as they were expected to confront clinical practices on the basis of the NRCE and this was likely to bring conflict between them and the clinicians. Evidently, there were diverse judgments and perceptions that made the stakeholders view the NRCE in different ways yet only one respondent had suggested that there was more to “tackling variations in performance and raising standards,” as the government had stated as its intention (Department of Health, 2002).

One clinician with management responsibilities had made the following observation “I think that the problem with the way things are being generated at the moment is that they [the government] are seeking to make everyone as average as they can and I, personally, don’t think that that is a good thing (Clinical Director at an NHS Trust).” (Department of Health, 2002). According to the authors of the article, that observation implied that the meaning of the governments comment was to make everyone as average as possible. Through the NRCE, the government gave hospital managers a tool to control clinicians especially when they went out of line. Managers were then able to pressurize clinicians who increased costs through unconventional behaviors to conform to standards that lowered the costs. (Department of Health, 1998) Despite this view of making everyone as average as possible making sense to the research team, most respondents did not agree with it, others remained blank when questioned on what they thought and only a few concurred with that view. When theoretical back up was sought, it was seen that categorization and measurement, which were the main aspects of the NRCE, resulted in more homogeneity and “averageness”. “Regardless of the theoretical support, in the beginning, just one person had argued on the possible notion of “averageness” excluding a few prompted views of other respondents (Bryman, 1988).

In conclusion of the article the authors look at the earlier arguments on why the minority views are more insightful than the majority views in the investigation of the meanings and importance of organizational events. It is evident that in such situations where emergent change is the main focus, the opinions and judgments of the many stakeholders are different and most often than not, conflicting (Bowker,& Star, 1999).

Nonetheless, in the world of academic publishing, even the comments from reviewers usually focus on the extent of the evidence from which the conclusions are drawn and whether the findings can be generalized to other populations. According to the authors, the first submission of their paper was judged on its validity of their argument about the UK government aiming for “averageness”. This could be resulted to the expectations that qualitative research methods should follow the criterion that is applied in scientific research. Therefore, they were expected to give evidence from the politicians themselves that they aim was to promote “averageness” as well as show that their results could be used as a generalization ( Blaxter, 2010).

Later on, there was the convergence to the average cost of the English hospitals and an announcement by the government that they would continue funding if the average cost showed unexpected developments. These were great indications that the single respondent who had made the earlier claim on the government promoting “averageness” was in fact correct. Even without these developments, the respondent would still have been right and the only difference would have been that government’s intention would not have been realized (Alvesson, & Sko¨ldberg, 2000).

The article surmises that it is legitimate to give advantage to one view over a common view. This is because “A singular view may be based on more knowledge, may be formed on a superior judgment and may be made from a position that gives more insight into “what’s going on” (Llewlelyn and Northcott, 2007). From the case study that was carried out on the NRCE, it is clear that an individual may have more perceptions and superior judgments as compared to the minority view. As seen in the research project of the NRCE, the role of a clinical director which combined clinical and managerial expertise was a great contributor in making one individual wise enough to see the true initiative of the government unlike the majority people who were more concerned with their own personal gains or losses. This individual was able to make a superior judgment based on the future he could foresee in relation to health care. Despite the NRCE being a politically sensitive issue, the authors were able to prove that the singular view of “averageness” by one respondent was actually more accurate than the majority view.

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However, whether the same effect would be felt if other countries tried similar costing initiatives is indefinite. The only possibility is that clinicians from other parts of the world would oppose such initiatives in their countries based on the impact of the NRCE in the UK and would thus avoid the “averageness” outcome. The validity of the process would not be undermined by this but others would learn from the event of the NRCE in the UK.

Reference list

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  24. Wittgenstein, L, 1953. Philosophical Investigations. London: Blackwell.
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