Searching for Rigour in Workplace Case Studies: Trends, Practices and Gender Differences

Thursday, 2 July 2015: 4:00 PM-5:30 PM
TW2.3.01 (Tower Two)
Patrick McGovern, London School of Economics & Political Science, London, United Kingdom
Diego Alburez Gutierrez, London School of Economics & Political Science, London, United Kingdom
There is a long established and much venerated tradition of research within industrial relations and the sociology of work that is characterised by a combination of workplace case studies and the use of qualitative research methods. Among other things, the ‘case study tradition’ has been praised for providing realistic accounts of workplace relations, for capturing insights that could not be obtained through other methods, and for the richness of its empirical evidence. Though the case study may be a favoured research design there has been surprisingly little attempt to examine the use of case study research designs and qualitative research practices. This lack of reflection is all the more surprising given recent developments in the literature on case studies and qualitative research across the social sciences.

This paper examines the ‘state-of-the-art’ in workplace case study research by examining a random sample of 137 papers published between 2000 and 2013 in nine of the major British and American journals, namely the British Journal of Industrial Relations, Economic and Industrial Democracy, European Journal of Industrial Relations, Industrial & Labor Relations Review, Industrial Relations, Industrial Relations Journal, New Technology, Work and Employment and Work & Occupations, and Work, Employment & Society. Using a set of 21 indicators drawn from the emerging literature on the quality of qualitative research, we examine the extent to which papers address a wide range of quality criteria relating to issues of research design, internal validity and reliability/replicability. In contrast to internal validity, conceptions of external validity or 'transferability' are not considered as they are not generally considered to be one of the strengths of case study research.

In the first part of our analysis we present some descriptive findings on contemporary research practice and compare variations across the three dimensions. As anticipated, the strongest results are for internal validity while the results for research design are more troubling. We then turn to possible explanations of variations in the quality of the reported research methods. Here we consider such factors as the year of publication, gender, the rank of the author(s), their subject area, and whether the research received external funding among other things. The results provide grounds for optimism with regard to improvement in research practice over time though they are a somewhat more mixed with regard to the ability of journals to act as guarantors of research standards.  Significantly, those for gender suggest that female authors still feel they have to do more by way of research methods in order to get published. The paper concludes by calling for further research into a tradition that has previously held the position of an unquestioned faith within the fields of industrial relations and the sociology of work.