The Case Study In Family Business: An Analysis of Current Research Practices and Recommendations

(Authors: Tanja Leppäaho, Emmanuella Plakoyiannaki, and Pavlos Dimitratos)

Research Applied précis prepared by Nava Michael-Tsabari, The Raya Strauss Center for Family Business Research, Tel Aviv University

Case study has emerged as a prominent methodological approach for qualitative researchers interested in family business (FB). Thus, the research questions posed for the present study were the following: (a) How has the case study been practiced in FB as a discipline up to now? (b) How could case study methodology be applied in the future? The term “case study” refers to qualitative research which “examines, through the use of a variety of data sources, a phenomenon in its naturalistic context, with the purpose of ‘confronting’ theory with the empirical world.”

There are three possible case study approaches in research, which reflect different philosophical assumptions regarding the nature of social reality and what it means to be human (ontology), and the nature and purpose of knowledge (which can be placed along a continuum, ranging from objectivist to subjectivist perspectives). These are:

  • Positivistic (“qualitative positivist”) – a search for facts and observations that closely mirror reality, emphasizing the potential of case studies to generate new theory from empirical data in the form of theoretical frameworks and/or testable propositions. This methodology is oriented to regularities rather than to the exploration of the reasons behind them.
  • Interpretivist– supports the idea that knowledge development concerning the social world relies on human interpretation. According to this view, the theoretical purpose of the case is to develop an understanding of the phenomenon investigated by appreciating its uniqueness, complexity, and interaction with its context. Researchers in this tradition embrace context, narratives, and the personal engagement of the investigator. The selection of instrumental and unique cases, or of critical, extreme, or revelatory cases, is seen as offering a high potential for FB theorizing.
  • Critical realist– regards explanations of social phenomena as being both causal and interpretive, matching the positivist and constructivist/interpretive views, respectively. Critical realist case studies seek to identify causal mechanisms that do not function at a general level, being rather context-based. The goal is primarily to explain the causal mechanisms that generate a certain event.

To examine the practice of qualitative FB case studies, the authors undertook an in-depth content analysis of 75 FB case studies published between 2000 and 2014 in high-quality academic journals. They analyzed the philosophical foundation of the case study (the assumptions, theoretical purpose, and research questions), the logical structure of the study (the rationale of the study, which had implications for the selection of the setting), and the rhetoric of the writing in the study (the language, structure and style). They found 67 positivist studies, seven interpretative studies, and only one critical realist case study.

The authors found that the cases seemed to struggle to align themselves with a specific philosophical orientation, often bringing disparate elements forcibly together without giving adequate justification for any of them. Cases appeared to blend different philosophical assumptions within a single article, even if they had very different ontological and epistemological starting points. Moreover, the reporting of the case study method appeared to lack transparency.

The authors do not seek to replace the qualitative positivist case study with interpretive or critical realist studies; rather they hope to encourage a plurality by using more of the last two methods. They also suggest that FB case researchers could use data other than interviews in developing their accounts, such as direct observation, focus group discussion, and secondary materials (including company archival data). These alternative orientations, in conjunction with the positivistic approach, could allow researchers to capture more of the dynamics and complexities of FBs, and make qualitative case studies more applicable to FB theorizing.

About the contributor

Nava Michael-Tsabari is director of The Raya Strauss Center for Family Business Research, Tel Aviv University, Israel. She is the recipient of the 2015 FBR Best Article Award and the 2012 Best Unpublished Research Paper Award. Nava can be reached at [email protected].