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Copyright eContent Management Pty Ltd. Journal of Management & Organization (2009) 15: 294308.

Qualitative research on family


businesses: The relevance
and usefulness of the
interpretive approach
M ATTIAS N ORDQVIST
Associate Professor, Center for Family Enterprise and Ownership, Jnkping International
Business School, Jnkping, Sweden

A NNIKA H ALL
Researcher, Center for Family Enterprise and Ownership, Jnkping International Business School,
Jnkping, Sweden

L EIF M ELIN
Professor, Center for Family Enterprise and Ownership, Jnkping International Business School,
Jnkping, Sweden

ABSTRACT
Family business research has grown over the last decade and there are increasing requests for deeper
insights into the nature and workings of these organizations. Currently, family business research is
dominated by quantitative research methods. In this article, we argue that these studies should be
complemented by a research approach that is more apt to capture the specific complexity and
dynamics unique to family businesses. We suggest that the interpretive approach within the broader
umbrella of qualitative methods has this potential. The article discusses issues, choices, require-
ments and implications for family business scholars engaged in interpretive research. We also offer
suggestions for how editors and reviewers can assess interpretative research.

Keywords: family firms, research methods, interpretive research, case study research

INTRODUCTION directions to pursue in future so as to gain deeper

S everal recent overview articles and special


issues of journals show that the family busi-
ness field of research has grown dramatically over
insights into the phenomenon of interest. We
agree and posit that such intermittent evaluation
and reflection should include efforts by
the last decade (Astrachan 2003; Chrisman, researchers to reflect upon, codify and diffuse
Chua & Steier 2005; Sharma 2004). As Sharma learning experiences from their research practice
(2004:332) argues, when a research field develops (cf. Pettigrew 1990). So far, the family business
and grows it is important to intermittently pause research field has seen very few articles that dis-
to evaluate the progress made and reflect on the cuss specific research methodologies and their

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Qualitative research on family businesses: The relevance and usefulness of the interpretive approach

respective relevance. Handlers (1989) important experiences and learning with a wider set of
article on five critical methodological issues in scholars interested in using the interpretive
family firm research is a notable exception. But approach when studying family businesses. Our
the family business field has developed signifi- thesis is that many of the aspects of family busi-
cantly since this article was published. nesses which make them unique are appropriately
Articles that take stock of previous experience, rendered comprehensible through in-depth and
codify and communicate learning from existing detailed interpretive research.
research practice help both new and established
researchers in the field to reflect and build upon POSITIONING INTERPRETIVE FAMILY
others experiences (Pettigrew 1990; Suddaby BUSINESS RESEARCH
2006). As in all management research, it is As shall be furthered elaborated upon in the next
important that family business scholars regularly section, research methods that allow for a detailed
share in detail their methods in use and research and in-depth investigation are important for a
experiences (Handler 1989; Sharma 2004). In richer and deeper understanding of family busi-
this article we set out to do that. nesses because of the complexity and dynamics
We argue that there is a need for more qualita- inherent in the family institution. Another reason
tive and interpretive research in the field of family for the importance of such methods is the hetero-
business that stands on its own, is rigorous and geneity of the family businesses population. Even
both draw upon and generate theory. Certain if often treated as similar and routinely com-
methodological approaches and research strate- pared to non-family businesses family busi-
gies are especially relevant to reach an in-depth nesses are in fact different amongst themselves
understanding of the complex and tacit phenom- (Melin & Nordqvist 2007). More critical and in-
ena and processes related to the dynamics of depth interpretive approaches can help to gener-
ownership, management and development in ate insights with regard to the specific challenges
family businesses. and characteristics of different forms of family
The purpose of this article is to explain, argue businesses, rather than default to a lumping
for and discuss the usefulness and relevance of together of them all.
interpretive research methods in researching and In Figure 1 we list 11 recently published stud-
theorizing on family businesses. To address this ies drawing on an interpretive approach to exam-
purpose, we rely on a set of selected exemplar ine and understand a wide array of important
interpretive family businesses studies as well as on family business research topics.
our own experience from working with interpre- Following Huff (1998) we use these studies as
tive family business research. We see at least two exemplars to reflect upon and illustrate how
main contributions from this article. First, we interpretive research methods can be used in
visualize and discuss a set of contemporary exem- practice, and what results and new knowledge
plar studies that draws on an interpretive these studies can generate.
approach to investigate and theorize about Our focus has been on studying strategy, own-
important family business topics. In this way, we ership and governance, with a specific interest in
establish the relevance and usefulness of this par- family businesses from a micro perspective. This
ticular research approach for generating a richer means to take the point of departure in everyday
and deeper understanding of family businesses. interaction between individuals and to under-
Second, we draw on these studies and our own stand the complex and dynamic organizational
experience to visualize the characteristics and reality that family businesses constitute. Under-
strengths of the interpretive approach for family standing various aspects and dimensions of orga-
businesses research. Thereby, we codify and share nizational life from this perspective means

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Mattias Nordqvist, Annika Hall and Leif Melin

F IGURE 1: S ELECTED EXEMPLAR FAMILY BUSINESS STUDIES USING AN INTERPRETIVE APPROACH

Empirical material
(data collection
Author (year) Topic Theory/concepts strategy) Main findings and contribution

McCollom (1992) Family and non- Family business 565 stories from Stories reflect daily processes by
family employees system theory family owned retail which relations between family and
experiences of firms business systems are created and
membership in a sustained; through stories a system
family business is constructed that reinforces a
system familys influence over the business
Cole (1997) Role of women and Gender, role and Study of women in Women treat other women as
impact of gender rules context of their invisible, they do not accept
issues on womens business family in traditional roles, they take longer
working lives nine firms to make decisions, they advance
(interviews) as fast as men and believe they
decide how much children hold
them back professionally
Johannisson and Recruiting non- Governance, Pilot survey of 12 Activating the board by adding
Huse (2000) family board contrasting family businesses, non-family members enforces
members ideologies case research into managerialism and challenges
(paternalism, two family dominant ideologies of
managerialism, businesses paternalism and entrepreneurship;
entrepreneurialism) (interviews) tensions can create energized and
more competitive family business
Hall, Melin and Corporate Culture and learning Case research into Some cultural patterns preserve
Nordqvist (2001) entrepreneurship as two family traditional ways of doing business,
strategic renewal businesses others facilitate change. To support
and a change (interviews and entrepreneurship, a process of
process observations) high-order learning in which old
cultural patterns are questioned
and changed is needed. To
accomplish this, the culture needs
to be explicit and open
Ram (2001) The impact of family Small business Case research in one Household relations (rather than
dynamics on management, family family business entrepreneurial individual) impor-
management of system, kinship ties, (interviews, tant for understanding operations;
professional service household company visits, tendency to underplay female part-
firm observations and ner; employees both value family
documents) aspects of organizational culture
Fletcher (2002) Professionalization Networks, culture, Ethnography of one Employees shape cultural organiz-
of the small, family organizing family firm ing by invoking emotional cate-
business (observation, gories to produce mutuality and a
interviews, sense of belonging; individuals try
documents) to trade away variance, divergent
views and new practices
Ainsworth and Dynamics of Culture, shared Case research into Employee perspectives shed light
Wolfram Cox (2003) compliance, understanding of two small family on critical aspects of family business
resistance and divisions, firms (interviews, site cultures, family has symbolic,
control interpretive divisions visits, observations, material and ideological meaning;
documents) family is hierarchical and gendered
Hall, Melin and Family and Arena, legitimacy, One case illustration Strategic practices and activities
Nordqvist (2006) ownership influence role and value, of a medium-sized are embedded in values, and
on micro strategic social interaction family business challenging these might lead to
processes of change role confusion, questioned
legitimacy and thereby decreased
organizational efficiency
Hamilton (2006) Role of women in Patriarchy, identity, Study of two Women resist and challenge
founding and gender, generations in three patriarchy, given way to an
establishing family entrepreneurship business families alternative understanding of their
businesses (interviews) previously marginalized role on
family businesses
(Continued)

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Qualitative research on family businesses: The relevance and usefulness of the interpretive approach

F IGURE 1: S ELECTED EXEMPLAR FAMILY BUSINESS STUDIES USING AN INTERPRETIVE APPROACH (Continued)

Empirical material
(data collection
Author (year) Topic Theory/concepts strategy) Main findings and contribution

Steier (2007) Familys role for Entrepreneurship, Case research into Family is an important sub-
entrepreneurial narrations, family one start-up narrative to understand start-up
start-up ties (interviews, company processes; family very important
visits, documents) as support
Nordqvist and Melin The role of actors in Strategy-as-practice, Case research into Strategic planning champions as
(2008) strategic planning champions two family business key strategic practitioners, acting
processes strategic planning as known strangers, artful
processes (inter- interpreters and social
views, observations craftpersons to lead strategic
and documents) planning
Hall and Nordqvist Professional Culture and Case research into Professional management consists
(2008) Management symbolic five family firms of formal and cultural
interactionism (interviews, competence; family members can
observations) also be professional managers

understanding individuals, their needs, motives, interaction between the firm, the family and indi-
roles, values, emotions and relations aspects and vidual family members and their influence on the
issues which might be rather tacit and more or business (Habbershon, Williams & MacMillan
less unconscious to the individuals studied, but 2003). Shared family history, and the resulting
nevertheless possible to trace, interpret and visu- family values and interaction among family mem-
alize through scholarly inquiry. bers build on extended prior experience and fami-
Probably the most referred to characteristic of ly myths (Copeland & White 1991: 5). Families
family businesses, and the one distinguishing also have a built in power hierarchy, which distin-
them from other businesses, is the integration of guishes them from other social groups.
family and business (Astrachan 2003). Under- Family relations tend to be closer and more
standing family business dynamics means recog- emotional and complex than relations between
nizing that decisions and actions of key non-family members. The long-term relationship
individuals in the company are at the same time and shared history intensifies emotions and the
decisions and actions of members of a specific multiple role relationships family members have
family. A family might be defined as a social to each other within their family business con-
group bound together by genuine relations. Gen- text. Research has discussed how family relations,
uine relations, like kin ties, are unique, and the history, values, traditions, emotions and ways of
individuals are not (easily) replaceable. These thinking might have a strong impact on the busi-
close family ties are emotional, and they seek the ness, manifested in a long-term perspective, com-
preservation of confidence and trust (Stewart mitment, and a strong culture. Along with these
2003). A further characteristic is reciprocity. characteristics also the challenges of multiple role
Genuinely related individuals benefit from inter- relationship have been highlighted, for instance,
actions with each other as part of a close, well in relation to succession and to the choice of
defined group. Ultimately, this shapes the identi- overall strategic direction (Craig & Moores 2005).
ty of the individuals. Most research on manage- Even though valuable insights have been pro-
ment largely ignores the dynamic caused by kin vided through the studies summarized in Figure 1,
ties and close family relations (Dyer 2003; Stew- Sharmas (2004) request of deeper insights could not
art 2003; Ram 2001). be met by the application of the methods currently
A research challenge in family business research dominating the field. Understanding how and why
is that it means researching and understanding the family involvement influences business means

Volume 15, Issue 3, July 2009 JOURNAL OF MANAGEMENT & ORGANIZATION 297
Mattias Nordqvist, Annika Hall and Leif Melin

understanding the influence of family members researchers unite around the effort to explicate
relations, emotions, values, power, and roles. In the ways people in specific social settings come
turn, this means understanding the needs, motives, to understand, account for, and manage their
meanings, and rationales underlying not just inter- daily lives, where the goal is to build shareable
action between family members, but also the inter- understandings (Denzin 2001). The focus on
actions between family and non-family members three central concepts, interpretation, meaning
at different levels of organizing (Ainsworth & Wol- and understanding is also shared among interpre-
fram Cox 2003; Fletcher 2002). tive researchers.
Many of these aspects are invisible and tacit Interpretation can be seen as the clarification
sometimes even unconscious to the family mem- of meaning, and understanding is the result of
bers themselves. Yet, any serious attempt to processes of interpreting, that is, grasping and
understand the uniqueness of family businesses comprehending the meaning that is felt, intend-
the rationale for talking about a field of family ed, and/or expressed by actors (Denzin 2001).
business research must try to understand pre- Interpretive researchers seek to reach understand-
cisely these issues. This means not only to estab- ing through interpretation of meanings assigned
lish that family dynamics and complexities have to, for instance, actions, events, processes,
an influence on business development but also to objects, and actors. An interpreter is someone
contribute with suggestions as of how and why who interprets or translates meanings to other
this is the case. This means to explore, describe actors and an interpretation can be seen as an
and theorize on family influence to make it more acceptable, approximating translation (Weick
visible and comprehensible to an audience of 1995). Interpretations are made both by the
researchers and practitioners. actors under study and by the researcher studying
them. Giddens (1979) calls this double
DEFINITION AND ASSUMPTIONS OF hermeneutics, meaning that interpretive research
INTERPRETIVE RESEARCH is a collaborative project where the researcher and
The overall purpose of interpretive research is to the researched join in an ongoing dialogue where
understand social, economic and political phe- knowledge is created through mutual under-
nomena and to view reality in novel ways that standing (Melin 1977).
complicates or challenges dominant taken-for- In this view, understanding is reached through
granted views (Burrell & Morgan 1979). This is detecting or assigning meanings to social phenom-
consistent with an epistemological view of ena (Lindholm 1979), where meaning is seen as
human beings as active, knowledgeable actors in what an experience means to a person, defined in
the creation and re-creation of their social reality terms of intentions and consequences (Denzin
(e.g. Berger & Luckmann 1966). From this per- 2001: 160). In the interpretive approach, under-
spective, the complex realities of family businesses standing is thus about seeing something, such as an
must be interpreted as something in order to be organizational phenomenon, as something and
comprehensible. interpreting is about seeing things in new ways, or
Most interpretive approaches have in common assigning new meanings to them (Asplund 1970;
the idea of verstehen (e.g. Weber 1921/1968) and dman 1991). This can, for instance, involve see-
have their philosophical roots in hermeneutics ing patterns in the empirical material that, linked
(see Palmer 1969; Howard 1982). They also to a wider theoretical frame of interpretation, can
share a focus on the fine-grained details and provide novel and unexpected understanding.
complex processes by which human actors inter- For instance, Hamilton (2006) visualizes an
pret the meaning of their own and others actions alternative gender discourse in the context of the
(Schwandt 2000). A majority of interpretive role of women in family businesses through her

298 JOURNAL OF MANAGEMENT & ORGANIZATION Volume 15, Issue 3, July 2009
Qualitative research on family businesses: The relevance and usefulness of the interpretive approach

interpretive study. Rather than subscribing to the Skldberg 2000:276). For family business
general assumption that women are marginalized research this means that interpretive research
and held back by patriarchic power patterns, aims to go beyond the surface-scratching
Hamiltons interpretive study uncovers strong research (Handler 1989) that has dominated the
resistance to patriarchy and offers a credible field to date.
account of how women challenge power relations
and assumptions that are dominant in both THE INTERPLAY BETWEEN THEORY AND
research and practice. Hall and Nordqvist (2008) EMPIRICAL MATERIAL
draw on interpretive research to question, chal- Most interpretive researchers probably agree that
lenge and then extend the current dominant knowledge is a social and historical product, and
understanding of the concept of professional man- that empirical material comes to us laden with
agement. They argue that the taken for granted theory and prior conceptual and practical under-
meaning and assumptions related to professional standing (Miles & Huberman 1994; Denzin
management in family businesses are outdated and 2001). This means that many interpretive
not really useful for research or practice. researchers acknowledge naturalistic retroduc-
Interpretive researchers differ in the extent to tion (Emerson 2004) or abduction (cf. Alvesson
which they take a more objective approach to the & Skldberg 2000; Suddaby 2006). These two
phenomenon under study or a more relativist notions refer to that empirical material and theo-
approach. With a more objective view, interpreta- ry are not divided, but rather that researchers
tions means to detect, decipher, or translate some- move back and forth between empirical observa-
things actual and real meaning. From a more tions and theory, modifying original theoretical
relativist and often social constructionist stand- statements to fit observations, and seeking obser-
point, the seeing as in the act of interpreting vations relevant to the emerging theory (Emer-
implies giving something a specific meaning where son 2004: 458). This interplay between empirical
the meaning is constructed by the interpreter. material and theory and iterative analysis is a
For most interpretive researchers the seeing as more adequate description of the actual interpre-
in the definition of interpretation implies that tive research process than is the often assumed
every organizational phenomenon can be seen as inductive approach (Suddaby 2006).
something else. For instance, Ainsworth and In practice, interpretive researchers start with a
Wolfram Cox (2003) question the normative general focus, research question and some kind of
unity and harmony often assumed when using theoretical framework in mind. However, then
the notion of family in organizational studies. In different themes may emerge from the empirical
their critical interpretive study they reveal alterna- material as the fieldwork proceeds and this guides
tive meanings and interpretations of family, the search for new theoretical ideas and inspira-
which have implications for patterns of compli- tion to support emerging interpretations and
ance, resistance and control embedded in the understandings. In this view, theories and litera-
organizational culture. ture are seen as frames of interpretation that are
Every understanding is a product of negotiated deliberately open and adaptable, especially in
meanings, and, as such, it is open to reconstruc- early stages of the research.
tion (Berger & Luckmann 1966; Schwandt Interpreting socially complex phenomena in
2000). It is therefore fruitful to think of research family businesses, where often several meanings
as conversation (Huff 1998), where interpreta- are detectable depending on the voices heard
tions and conclusions are arguments for a partic- (Ainsworth & Wolfram Cox 2003; Fletcher
ular way of understanding social reality, in the 2002; Hamilton 2006), means that researchers
context of a never-ending debate (Alvesson & need to be open for several perspectives and theo-

Volume 15, Issue 3, July 2009 JOURNAL OF MANAGEMENT & ORGANIZATION 299
Mattias Nordqvist, Annika Hall and Leif Melin

ries to create increased understandings. Hall et al. researchers to study actors, processes and events
(2006), for instance, combine the concepts of closely, holistically and longitudinally (Eisenhardt
role, arena, values and legitimacy to interpret 1989; Stake 1995). Case study research is appro-
empirical accounts from an in-depth case study, priate for processual and contextual studies of
and Hall and Nordqvist (2008) integrate cultural change (Pettigrew 1990) and can give insight
theory and symbolic interactionism to make through rich detail. Orum et al. (1991) summa-
sense of their study of professional management. rize the advantages of case studies in four points.
In interpretive approaches, interpretation First, they permit the grounding of observations
requires and is contingent on concepts and lan- and concepts about social action and structures
guage. This means that certain relevant concepts by studying actors day-to-day activities at close
can be used to sensitize the researcher to impor- hand in their natural settings. Second, they pro-
tant aspects of the empirical field under study. vide information from a number of sources and
Sensitizing concepts suggests directions along over an extended period of time, thus allowing
which to look (Hammersley 1989). Nordqvist for a study of complex social processes and mean-
(2005), for instance, uses the concepts of actors, ings. Third, they highlight the dimensions of
arenas, and strategic issues as sensitizing concepts time and history to the study of social life. In that
to capture the process of strategizing and to inter- way, a researcher can examine continuity and
pret the role of ownership in this process in fami- change in life-world patterns. Finally, case stud-
ly firms. Fletcher (2000) uses the concept of ies encourage and facilitate theoretical and con-
resource to give an alternative interpretation of ceptual development.
the role of family in business, and Steier (2007) Conducting interpretive research through in-
searches for a familial sub-narrative in the broad- depth case studies means a combination of several
er discourse of entrepreneurship and individual factors. First, the cases under investigation must
start-up processes. enable the researcher to examine the ebb and
Empirically, interpretive researchers seek flow of social life over time and to display the
knowledge through individual experiences of patterns of everyday life as they change (Orum et
actors who are directly involved in the social al. 1991:12). This longitudinal ambition gives
processes under study. This typically means that time for both the researcher and the researched to
the researcher enters the world of the actors being reflect on and perhaps revise meanings and
studied in order to see the situation as it is seen understanding that emerge from the observa-
by the actor, observing what the actor takes into tions. For instance, the researcher can in con-
account, observing how he interprets what is versations with both researcher or the studied
taken into account (Blumer 1969: 56). An actors get new ideas and test emerging, vision-
intense contact with a field where the daily lives ary theories (Melin 1977). In-depth case studies
of individuals is reflected is therefore prioritized thus allow for a flexible research process.
(Miles & Huberman 1994). In family business There are several methods of producing empir-
studies, this approach means increased complexi- ical accounts when using interpretive approaches
ty since researching family businesses inherently in family business research (e.g. Cole 1997;
also means researching a family (Handler 1989). Hamilton 2006; Fletcher 2002; Hall &
Nordqvist 2008). As in most qualitative research,
INTERPRETIVE WORK IN PRACTICE: typical examples are interviews, observations and
THE CASE OF RIGOROUS CASE STUDIES documents, including archival material.
From Figure 1 it is apparent that case research is a In the family business context, it seems impor-
common way to carry out interpretive fieldwork tant to interview people from different genera-
on family businesses. Case research enables tions, people with different formal relations to

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Qualitative research on family businesses: The relevance and usefulness of the interpretive approach

the firm (e.g. family members working in the incidents, that is, particular in-the-field events or
firm vs. not working in the firm), as well as both observations that open up significant, often com-
family and non-family members at different levels plex lines of conceptual development (Emerson
of the organization (Ainsworth & Wolfram-Cox 2004:457) and that can frame subsequent inter-
2003; Hamilton 2006; Nordqvist & Melin pretations. The within-case interpretations can be
2008). Especially, family/non-family and genera- seen as a first level of interpretation (excluding
tional differences are at the heart of what makes interpretations made already in the field work).
family businesses different from other types of After the within-case interpretations, the
organizations (Sharma 2004). researcher can move on to make cross-case inter-
To understand the role of family dynamics, pretations focusing on differences and similarities
Fletcher (2002) combines in-depth interviews in the patterns from each of the studied cases.
and ethnographic observations in her interpretive After making the first cross-case interpretations,
case study of cultural organizing and professional by comparing the empirical patterns noted in
management in a small family firm. Ram (2001) within-case interpretations, the next step is often
relies on face-to-face interviews, informal inter- to work more systematically testing and trying
actions, observation of a meeting and company out different theoretical notions and perspectives
documents in his interpretive research on family in order to identify more general themes from the
dynamics in a consultancy firm. Also focusing on patterns emerging through the interpretive work.
one case firm, McCollom (1992) generates 565 Not all of these notions remain in later stages of
organizational stories collected through in-depth the interpretive work as they might not con-
fieldwork to reveal how family and non-family tribute to new and relevant understanding. The
employees experience membership in a family cross-case interpretations can be seen as a second
business system. These studies are good examples level of interpretation.
of how interpretive research is able to uncover After some analytical twisting and turning,
tacit and ambiguous relations and tensions that and as a result of the second level of interpreta-
are typical for family businesses, but is unable to tion, the interpretive researcher can decide to con-
address using quantitative methods. centrate on a range of especially interesting and
A first step after gathering empirical material relevant emerging themes. Here, the researcher
can be to construct rich descriptions of each case can go back to re-read the original case descrip-
in order to leverage the lush, detailed, cumula- tions and code them according to the themes in
tive and comprehensive (Orum et al. 1991:13) an attempt to interpret and categorize the empiri-
empirical material that should be the result of in- cal material de novo (cf. Maxwell 1998). In this
depth case studies. The next phase in the inter- process, using theory as an interpretive structure
pretive work is often to conduct systematic, that renders a set of experiences meaningful and
empirical, within-case interpretations. This can, understandable (Denzin 2001:162) means mov-
of course, also be done on the raw empirical data ing from the parts to the whole and back to the
rather than the case descriptions. Here, the parts iteratively to support the emerging under-
intrinsic value of each case (Stake 2000) is in standing (c.f. the hermeneutic circle). Introducing
focus. At this stage, the ambition is typically to new theoretical ideas at this stage can be done to
ask questions and listen to the text (let the case unearth generic relations and formulate emerg-
talk to you) as well as to discuss arguments and ing theoretical propositions (Hammersley 1989),
counter-arguments for various emerging mean- at the same time as going back to the empirical
ings and interpretations (Alvesson & Skldberg material to find support and illustrative examples
2000). The researcher can observe themes in each for the interpretations (see e.g. Nordqvist &
of the cases, especially through a focus on key- Melin 2008).

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Mattias Nordqvist, Annika Hall and Leif Melin

In this process of reaching an understanding In social constructionist interpretive approach-


the researcher creates interpretive constructs and es, interpretations and representations of reality
concepts to better grasp the meaning of what are seen as negotiated through conversation. As
people do and say. The new concepts and con- words and categories are constitutive of the social
structs enable the researcher to assign meaning world (Gubrium & Holstein 2001), concept and
and direct attention to new aspects of the social theory development lies at the heart of interpre-
phenomenon under study. The different levels of tive research. As we have seen concepts and theo-
interpretation in the processes of reaching an ries are developed through intensive empirical
understanding represent different levels of theo- fieldwork, but also through analytical or theoreti-
retical abstraction. This means that the concepts cal generalizations, that is, linking findings from
and theories developed represent novel or extend- particular cases to the general level of theory (Yin
ed perspectives through which meaning can be 2001).
assigned to the phenomenon under study and This means to create language (concepts and
thus contribute to an increased understanding. categories) through which (potentially tacit) struc-
Ainsworth and Wolfram Cox (2003) is an tures and processes are rendered more visible and
example of this process in the context of family comprehensible. Theories are generalizations;
business research. They draw on theory and they explain some phenomenon across a variety of
empirical data iteratively to develop and refine a specific instances or cases of that phenomenon
typology of spatial, familial and ownership divi- (Schwandt 1997). While theory constitutes the
sions to understand tensions of culture and con- basis on which analytical generalizations are made,
trol in small family firms. generalizations emerging from interpretive
research might also lead to the refinement, elabo-
CONTRIBUTION OF INTERPRETIVE ration or even questioning of that theory
FAMILY BUSINESS RESEARCH (Schwandt 1997).
The interpretive approach in family business Theoretical and analytical generalizations
research has an ambition to conceptualize and made in interpretive family business research is
contribute with new theory through novel, some- thus not about statistical generalizations. Put dif-
times critical, interpretations. Good interpreta- ferently, the aim is not to find patterns and rela-
tions are integrated into new or modified tionships that can be said to hold in all family
conceptual language and theoretical frameworks businesses. Given the heterogeneity of the family
that increase our understanding of key issues in business population it is reasonable to question
the field of family business. the ability to confidently generalize to the all
Following Whetten (1989), theoretical contri- family businesses even if the researcher uses the
butions should include answers to the what, how, appropriate statistical procedure. As noted, inter-
why and who, where, when of the phenomenon pretive research becomes even more important
under study. In brief, what refers to which factors and motivated given the heterogeneity of family
that logically are considered part of the under- businesses. The uniqueness of family businesses is
standing achieved, while how refers to in what thus appropriately investigated and better under-
way these factors are related to each other. Fur- stood through an interpretive research approach
ther, why is about the underlying psychological, than through conventional quantitative survey
economic, or social dynamics that justify the research.
selection of factors and relationships. Finally, The transferability of a theory or conceptual
who, where and when is about the contextual lim- language among different family businesses refers
itations, both in time and space, of the theoretical to the extent to which the results of interpretive
framework generated (Whetten 1989). research can encourage reflection, give new

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Qualitative research on family businesses: The relevance and usefulness of the interpretive approach

insights and broaden the understanding of a the cornerstones are to be explicit about method-
wider set of cases. In practice, the degree of trans- ology and its underlying assumptions. Being
ferability is typically determined by subsequent transparent about the research process is an
efforts to diffuse and expand the results through important way to support the trustworthiness of
further research and application in practice. results (Seale 2004). Transparency makes it easier
for editors and reviewers to follow the often non-
CHALLENGES FOR EDITORS AND linear research process that characterizes interpre-
REVIEWERS tive research and thus to appropriately determine
Journal editors and reviewers face challenges to the quality of the results (Suddaby 2006). Follow-
give interpretive research articles an appropriate ing Alvesson and Skldberg (2000:61) trustwor-
assessment and secure relevant and useful feed- thy interpretations should:
back to authors. Interpretive research is often seen i) Be internally consistent: they should lack logi-
as subjective. While all research is subject to cal contradictions and provide an interpre-
some degree of subjectivity and priority imposed tive system where their parts are linked to a
by the researcher a focal point in most interpretive larger whole.
research is that subjectivity is not necessarily seen ii) Be externally consistent: either they should
as something that should be minimized or exclud- agree with other theories or give plausible
ed, but rather leveraged upon (Schwandt 2000). reasons and arguments for not doing so.
Alvesson & Skldberg (2000:5), for instance, iii) Combine closeness and distance: make indi-
argue that in interpretive research excerpts from vidual details of the empirical material more
reality can provide a basis for generation of understandable, while at the same time
knowledge that opens up rather than closes, and make clear broader themes and conclusions
furnishes opportunities for understanding rather emerge from this empirical material.
than establishes truths. Using criteria such as iv) Put into a more holistic understanding: ele-
validity and reliability in their usual positivistic vated above the common-sense level, by
meaning should thus be avoided. yielding a deeper understanding of the
A way to assess interpretive research is to view empirical material through linking it to the
it in light of three criteria: directing attention, interpreters evolving and successively
organizing experience, and enabling useful responses. increasing understanding of the phenome-
This way of assessing interpretive research is not non under study.
about establishing its correspondence to a truth
but its newness, trustworthiness and usefulness Trustworthiness is also a question of how the
with regard to understanding a particular family research is presented. An overall ambition of the
business phenomenon. The theory and concepts presentation should be to enhance the readers
generated through interpretive research should be understandings. Writing up and presenting the
rich in points, that is, the novel value of the empirical material as well as creating interpreta-
research should be highlighted. But also insight tions are integrated parts of the interpretive work,
development, and problematisation of established since the writing process moves through succes-
ways of thinking that cast new light on some- sive stages of self-reflection (Suddaby 2006). An
thing that earlier has either escaped serious atten- important consideration is how to present the
tion or been understood in a conventional and empirical material. This is especially the case for
thus partly conservative way (Alvesson & Skld- journal publications. Essentially, the researcher
berg 2000:152). has to decide what is needed in order to commu-
Trustworthiness and credibility in interpretive nicate an understanding of the final results as well
research refer to relevance and conviction, where as how they were reached. As Suddaby (2006)

Volume 15, Issue 3, July 2009 JOURNAL OF MANAGEMENT & ORGANIZATION 303
Mattias Nordqvist, Annika Hall and Leif Melin

notes, presenting interpretive research in a con- opportunities for the readers to challenge the text
ventional article form typically requires consider- and the results. In order to acknowledge the
able reorganization giving the impression that the underlying assumptions and open up the text for
researcher conducted the research in a much alternative interpretations the researcher should
more linear way than he or she actually did. apply a writing and reporting style that reflects
Trustworthiness is also linked to the amount this. Such a style implies the replacement of tra-
and quality of the empirical material, the process ditional realist discourse with forms of writing
through which the material is collected and to cast in opposition to truth telling, ()
the overall thoroughness and comprehensiveness signal(ing) to the reader that the account does not
of the research work, that is, the overall level of function as a map of the worldbut as an inter-
ambition of the research. The systematic manner pretative activity (Gergen & Gergen 2001:1029).
in which the empirical and interpretive work has Ethical considerations are also crucial. Given
been carried out is pivotal. Interpretive research the in-depth nature of high-quality interpretative
means an open approach supporting creativity research, good access to families and their busi-
and continuous iteration in the research process. nesses is necessary for achieving new and interest-
New research questions can emerge, conceptual ing results. Good access builds on relationships
frameworks may change and new theory be based on trust. Once established, trust might lead
brought in as patterns and themes emerge and to the revealing of experiences, thoughts and
call for interpretation. This flexible and creative emotions which individuals would normally not
way of doing research and skepticism towards too voice. This is especially the case in the family
structured techniques does not mean, however, business context where relations between key
that anything goes rules. Interpreting empirical individuals are simultaneously professional and
and theoretical texts rigorously, drawing conclu- private. When disagreeing with a colleague at the
sions based in clear argumentation, and honesty same time means disagreeing with a close family
and clarity in chosen directions are important cri- member, there is no option of taking the problem
teria for assessing interpretive research. home, and vice versa.
Therefore, in family business research, it is not
IMPLICATIONS FOR FAMILY BUSINESS unlikely that researchers will find themselves
RESEARCHERS involved in private and often confidential conver-
Self-reflection in research is necessary for trans- sations. An experienced and skilled researcher is
parency and includes a wide range of issues, from likely to have a good empathic understanding
underlying values, interests and philosophical and the likelihood of good access to individuals
assumptions to the choice of research methods, experiences, meanings and stories increase. Out
such as what cases to pick, who to interview or of respect for the individuals and the familys
observe, how to construct the empirical material integrity, the researcher might have to exclude rel-
(i.e. what to include) etc. Self-reflection is diffi- evant, interesting but at the same time also
cult. Even so, it is a necessary undertaking in revealing or hurting information even at the
good interpretative research where the researcher cost of less transparent interpretations. Serious
is the main research instrument. judgment and reporting of the choices made will
An important prerequisite of reflection is the then be necessary.
chosen character of the research text. It is essential Interpretive research further means that many
for the interpretive researcher to pay attention to of the analytical tools of quantitative and more
the use of rhetoric, since the way we talk and positivistic research approaches are replaced by
write about things make them into what they are the judgments of the researcher and a more or
(perceived to be). The researcher need to give less explicit dialogue with the research subject,

304 JOURNAL OF MANAGEMENT & ORGANIZATION Volume 15, Issue 3, July 2009
Qualitative research on family businesses: The relevance and usefulness of the interpretive approach

with aspects of the researcher that are not approach. This is to position the interpretive
entrenched behind a research position, and with approach in the growing field of family business
the reader (Maranhao 1991, cited in Alvesson research and establish the relevance and useful-
& Skldberg 2000:248). The researcher ceases ness of this research approach for a deeper under-
to be an objective finder of the truth (given the standing of complex family business phenomena
right methods correctly applied) but turns into a requiring in-depth and detailed scholarly atten-
subject; a socially and culturally situated co-pro- tion. Second, we use the exemplar studies as well
ducer of the social reality. Abandoning the sole as our own experience as a point of departure to
role of the researcher as an objective finder describe and discuss the characteristics and
and transmitter of facts interpretive research strengths of the interpretive approach for research
means arguing for special understandings. This on family businesses.
makes the researcher an advocate of a particular We argue that family businesses as social and
way of seeing the world (Stake 1995:92). This organizational phenomena are especially apt as a
way of understanding is part of the ongoing context for research adopting an interpretive
conversation with academics and practitioners approach. Many of the features and dimensions
through which reality is constructed and that make family businesses unique, compared to
reconstructed. other types of businesses, are indeed only possible
Interpretive family business research requires a to capture and grasp through such in-depth,
lot of work, choices, and ethical judgments in detailed and close research methods. At the same
both reading and empirical work. These time time, the interpretive approach is an appropriate
consuming efforts are worthwhile, as the result of approach to further investigate and understand
good interpretive research often is novel, surpris- the differences within the heterogeneous popula-
ing and thought evoking understandings that tion of family businesses (Melin & Nordqvist
contribute to theoretically and practically relevant 2007).
perspectives on everyday life situations. Indeed, For academics, a key result of well designed
this is the kind of research requested by many interpretive research is generalized meaning, i.e.
family business researchers and practitioners. theory (new, revised or extended concepts and
language), that can be used as a building block
CONCLUSION for further deeper scholarly insights into the
This article discusses the interpretive approach as complexities and dynamics of family businesses.
a useful means of researching and understanding Here, it is important to point out that studies of
complex, tacit and sometimes ambiguous organi- family businesses should not only relate to the
zational phenomena in family businesses. Study- specific field of family business research and be
ing family businesses inherently means disseminated in journals and books solely devot-
researching families. This means that the history ed to this topic. The relevance of tacit, micro
and socio-psychological development of the and relational aspects of organizational life is not
owner-family typically have considerable impact delimited to businesses owned and managed by
on both the content and the process of research families. Rather, complex interpersonal link-
(Handler 1989:264). We believe that the inter- ages, emotions and affectionate ties predominate
pretive approach discussed in this article is an apt in all organizations (even if ) possibly more com-
research method in order to move the field of plex and embedded in family firms (Fletcher
family business research forward. 2000:164).
More specifically, the main contributions of We believe that interpretive research on family
this article are twofold. First, we visualize con- business can help to uncover and visualize impor-
temporary exemplar studies using an interpretive tant but often hard-to-get-at phenomena at the

Volume 15, Issue 3, July 2009 JOURNAL OF MANAGEMENT & ORGANIZATION 305
Mattias Nordqvist, Annika Hall and Leif Melin

micro-level of social interaction and organization- sions of Family Business Research, University of
al development. Therefore, high-quality interpre- Jyvskyl University Press: Jyvskyl, Finland. We
tive research into family businesses that both are grateful for the comments from two of the
apply and generate theory have the potential to guest editors, Dr Justin Craig and Dr Panikkos
refute or modify time-worn truths about the Poutziouris, as well as the feedback from two
nature of organizations, and such knowledge will anonymous reviewers.
undoubtedly make its way into journal articles
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