Constructing Research Questions: Doing Interesting Research


Mats Alvesson & Jörgen Sandberg

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    About the Authors

    Mats Alvesson is Professor of Business Administration at the University of Lund, Sweden, and a part-time professor in the school of Business at the University of Queensland, Australia. He has published a large number of books on a variety of topics, including Reflexive Methodology (with Kaj Sköldberg, Sage, 2009, Second edition), Understanding Organizational Culture (Sage, 2012, Second edition), Understanding Gender and Organization (with Yvonne Billing, Sage, 2009, Second edition), Knowledge Work and Knowledge-Intensive Firms (Oxford University Press, 2004) and Changing Organizational Culture (with Stefan Sveningsson, Routledge, 2008), as well as Interpreting Interviews (Sage, 2011), Qualitative Research and Theory Development (with Dan Kärreman, Sage, 2011) and Metaphors We Lead By (edited with André Spicer, Routledge, 2011).

    Jörgen Sandberg is Professor in the School of Business at the University of Queensland, Australia. His research interests include competence and learning in organizations, leadership, practice-based theories, qualitative research methods and the philosophical underpinnings of organizational research. He is currently carrying out research on practice theory in organization studies, frameworks and methodologies for developing more interesting and relevant theories and sense making in organizations. His work has appeared in numerous journals including the Academy of Management Journal, Academy of Management Review, Harvard Business Review, Journal of Management Studies, Organisational Research Methods and Organization Studies. He is also the author of several books and book chapters on the above topics published by Sage, Thomson, Routledge, and Kluwer.


    As we demonstrate in this book, there is a widely felt shortage of interesting and novel ideas in social science. Much contemporary research is perceived to lack imagination and to offer little new theoretical insight. This is perhaps partly related to the fact that much has already been said in most disciplines, which makes it difficult to come up with anything radically new. Nevertheless, the lack of research contributions that stand out as interesting and exert a broader influence can also be viewed as an outcome of strong and narrow specialization coupled with a tendency for researchers to reproduce taken-for-granted assumptions and established vocabularies in their respective fields. The need to publish in the right journals and careers informed by ‘publish or perish’ orientations associated with the contemporary age of not only mass education but also mass research make many people unwilling to work with deviant ideas. As we will try to demonstrate, there are strong forces towards mainstreaming in many, if not most, academic fields. Established methodologies and norms for producing and publishing research tend to emphasize and normalize narrow and cautious research questions.

    In this book we address this issue and try to make a case for an alternative way of approaching the subject matter under study. We highlight and focus on the theme of research questions. This is a neglected theme in much of the writing concerning how to produce good research. Key elements in the construction of research questions – which we see as a crucial element in, and a significant driver of, research and results – are the critical investigation and challenging of established assumptions in an area. Establishing and working with new assumptions opens up possibilities for producing more interesting and influential research, especially the development of new theoretical ideas. This book offers a rationale, a methodology and illustrations for such work. In addition, we also address how institutions, professional norms and researchers' identity obstruct or facilitate more imaginative, challenging and interesting work. The quality and character of research is very much a matter of social norms; institutional forces framing the ways researchers do research.

    This book is partly based on a series of articles we have published already. Chapters 3 and 4 are partly revisions and an extension of Sandberg, J. and Alvesson, M. (2011) ‘Routes to research questions: beyond gap-spotting’, Organization, 18: 22–44. Chapters 5 and the first half of Chapter 6 build on Alvesson, M. and Sandberg, J. (2011) ‘Generating research questions through problematization’, Academy of Management Review, 36: 247–71, and Chapter 7 is a revision of Alvesson, M. and Sandberg, J. (2012) ‘Has management studies lost its way? Ideas for more imaginative and innovative research’, Journal of Management Studies. We are grateful to the publishers of these journals for allowing us to use the material in this book, and to the editors and the reviewers of these journal articles for their good advice.

    We also are highly appreciative of the comments on drafts of this book from three anonymous reviewers consulted by SAGE Publications and from our colleagues Ronald Barnett, Alan Burton-Jones, Peter Liesch, Allan Luke, Tyler Okimoto and Sverre Spoelstra. This book has also benefitted from research collaborations over the years with, in the case of MA, Stan Deetz, Dan Kärreman and Kaj Sköldberg, and for JS, Gloria Dall'Alba and Hari Tsoukas.

    Lund and Brisbane, June 2012, Mats Alvesson and Jörgen Sandberg
  • Appendix 1

    Table A.1 Basic modes of gap-spotting and their specific versions

    Appendix 2

    Table A.2 Summary of Davis's (1971) index of the interesting
    Characterization of a single phenomenonThe relations between multiple phenomena
    • Organization

      What seems to be a disorganized (unstructured) phenomenon is in reality an organized (structured) phenomenon OR vice versa

    • Composition

      What seem to be assorted heterogeneous phenomena are in reality composed of a single element OR vice versa

    • Abstraction

      What seems to an individual phenomenon is in reality a holistic phenomenon OR vice versa

    • Generalization

      What seems to be a local phenomenon is in reality a general phenomenon OR vice versa

    • Stabilization

      What seems to be a stable and unchanging phenomenon is in reality an unstable and changing phenomenon OR vice versa

    • Function

      What seems to be a phenomenon that functions ineffectively as a means for the attainment of an end is in reality a phenomenon that functions effectively OR vice versa

    • Evaluation

      What seems to be a bad phenomenon is in reality a good phenomenon OR vice versa

    • Co-relation

      What seem to be unrelated (independent) phenomena are in reality correlated (interrelated) phenomena OR vice versa

    • Co-existence

      What seem to be phenomena that can exist together are in reality phenomena which cannot exist together OR vice versa

    • Co-variation

      What seems to be a positive co-variation between phenomena is in reality a negative co-variation between phenomena OR vice versa

    • 11. Opposition

      What seem to be similar phenomena are in reality opposite phenomena OR vice versa

    • Causation

      What seems to be an independent phenomenon (variable) in a causal relation is in reality the dependent phenomenon (variable) OR vice versa

    Appendix 3

    Abbott's Main Heuristic Tools

    Abbott's methods of discovery consist of a set of heuristics that can support the outlined problematization methodology in important ways. According to Abbott, heuristics provide tools ‘to question what already has been said, transforming it to new ideas and views’ (2004: 85).

    Search heuristics are geared toward questioning and breaking out from existing thinking by bringing in and utilizing new ideas from outside a specific topic or field. Examples are to make an analogy by trying to understand your particular subject matter with the help of a completely different subject matter outside your field, and borrow a method developed and used in another field and apply it on your specific research topic.

    Argument heuristics mean turning something familiar and self-evident into something unfamiliar and obscure. Examples are to problematize the obvious as a way to generate new and interesting research avenues, and make a reversal, for example, universities do not facilitate but prevent learning.

    Descriptive heuristics are designed to help us imagine or perhaps better re-imagine social reality in specific ways. Examples are a changing context, for example, to reverse what is in the foreground to the background, and changing levels of analysis, for example, from a micro to a macro context.

    Narrative heuristics change the way reality is portrayed. Examples are stopping and putting in motion, for example, something that typically is seen as static becoming something that is in motion or vice versa, and taking and leaving contingency, for example, arguing that a phenomenon is contingent upon something specific or by arguing that is not based on any contingency.

    Fractal heuristics encompass major debates in the social sciences, such as positivism versus interpretivism, and realism versus constructionism that are ‘fractals in the sense that they seem important no matter at what level of investigation we take them up’ (2004: 163). These and other major debates can, according to Abbott, be used as terrific heuristic tools to produce new research ideas and problems and possibilities for research by playing them out against each other.


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