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Going Reflective: Making Sense of the Process of Designing a Case Study Research under the Interpretive Paradigm

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How do field researchers design a case study research and deal with the multiple sources of accounts under the interpretive paradigm? When this author began her journey as a field researcher, she was trying to give a reflective answer to this question. Her reflective journey can be described in three overlapping phases (i.e. entering, during and exiting the field). The current reflection article discusses the various processes, challenges and voices embedded in the author's research journey. Although the author does not provide a clear answer to the above question, she emphasizes the non-linear process of designing an interpretive case study and its value to develop context-embedded accounts that reveal multiple voices.

Learning Outcomes
  • To demonstrate an understanding of the dynamics that shape the design of an interpretive case study
  • To develop an understanding of the role of the researcher in interpretive research and notions of preconceptions, reflexivity and disconnection from the field
  • To identify the challenges that a field researcher faces when combining and analysing multiple sources of accounts
Entering the Field

In the first months of my PhD journey, the article by Shalini Bahl and George Milne on the multiple and dialogical nature of consumers' selves marked my PhD journey. Being intrigued by their innovative use of the dialogical self theory in the stream of consumer research, I concluded that my dissertation would examine the multiplicity of consumers' selves in the area of consuming experiences. Trying to shape the point of departure of my project, the conceptualization of consuming experiences as subjective episodes through which consumers construct identity narratives (e.g. Carù & Cova, 2007) specified the main interest of the study.

In particular, my dissertation examines how the multiplicity of consumers' selves generates and shapes an identity narrative. To this end, the purpose of the study is to understand (1) how consumers' multiplicity of selves generates an identity narrative and (2) how these identity narratives reflect the process of identity (re)construction through consumption of experiences.

The twofold purpose of the study relates to the ontological (i.e. consumers' multiple identities that arise in a consuming context), epistemological (i.e. discerning subjective voices that create an identity narrative) and methodological assumptions of the interpretive paradigm (e.g. Guba & Lincoln, 1998). Specifically, the twofold research purpose called for a philosophical orientation that would allow me to investigate consumers' identity narratives as well as the context within which these narratives emerge. This emphasis on the context and idiosyncratic meanings ‘forced’ me to search for a consuming context within which consumers can enact their multiple identities and can find meanings for the construction of identity narratives.

In order to address the aforementioned purposes of the study, the case study methodology was considered as the most appropriate method. Following the principles of purposeful sampling (i.e. information-rich cases), the context of contemporary art consumption served as an illustrative case of consumption experiences where consumers through their interaction with contemporary artworks encounter their alternative identities (Danto, 1981) and (re)conceptualize themselves and the world around them (Chen, 2009). This context allowed me to frame my case study in line with Robert Stake's (2005) and Gibb Dyer and Alan Wilkins' arguments that single interpretive cases provide rich descriptions of the context in which experiences occur. Hence, I considered that this methodological choice would allow me not only to capture the complexity of consumers' self-interpretations but also to participate in the context in which these interpretations emerge.

As such, in June 2011, I decided to send a research proposal to the museum that organized the Thessaloniki Biennale of Contemporary Art, so as to request access for conducting my field research. By receiving a positive reply from the museum, I knew that in October I was going to start my field research.

Finding My Research Voice

During the period between the access was granted and my entrance to the field, I started to shape the research questions of the study. Beginning with a review of published literature, I started to sketch out a preliminary visual representation of my research topic (Figure 1). This figure incorporated the purpose (i.e. visitors' experience of their (multiple) identities during contemporary art consumption) and the theoretical framework of the study (i.e. contemporary art consumption as a dialogical activity).

Figure 1. An initial understanding of my research approach.

This preliminary visual roadmap led me to a reflective journey on the main concepts of the study and the relationships and characteristics of these ideas (i.e. key assumptions of the study). Illuminating the assumptions that underlie existing theories in the stream of contemporary art consumption, I started to reflect on what I was going to examine (Alvesson & Sandberg, 2011). Through this journey, I identified that limited research problematizes the role of contemporary artists in viewers' creation of identity narratives.

Following Mats Alvesson and Jorgen Sandberg's problematization methodology for generating research questions, I started to shape the thematic categories (Kvale, 1996) of the research questions. The thematic categories (i.e. multiplicity of identities, multiplicity and identity narratives in contemporary art consumption and multiplicity and identity (re)construction through contemporary art consumption) emerged from a different theoretical stance (i.e. dialogical self theory) that offered resources for reconsidering the process of consumers' creation of identity narratives through consumption of experiences.

After the formation of the thematic aspects of the questions, I returned to the literature so as to specify further their meanings and to ensure that these categories did not encompass overlapping points. In sequence I started to write down some tentative questions for each thematic category. These tentative questions served as interview prompts that allowed the research participants to discuss how they experience and (re)construct their multiple identities through contemporary art consumption. Furthermore, these prompts allowed me to be more receptive to the ‘local idiosyncrasies’ (Miles & Huberman, 1984, p. 28) of the research phenomenon.

This iterative and reflective process of formatting the research questions (e.g. back and forth from theory to research questions and critically examining previous theoretical suppositions) emphasized the role of theory both in the design of case studies (Lincoln & Guba, 1985) and in the process of theorizing from interpretive cases. By having shaped the purposes of the study and its research questions, I started to be engaged in the design of the research and the methods followed to investigate the purposes of the research.

Designing the Study: A Single Interpretive Case Study

Deciding upon my methodology was a really challenging and dynamic process. Particularly, while the purpose of my research (i.e. description of how consumers reconstruct their identities in the consuming context of contemporary art) and the complex nature of the phenomenon under investigation made the case study to be considered as the most appropriate research method (Bonoma, 1985), I persisted on re-examining this methodological choice. This ambivalence returned me back to the methodological literature so as to answer the questions of what is a case study and why to adopt this research strategy and not an alternative one.

Initially, my understanding of the case coincided with the definition proposed by Rebecca Piekkari, Catherine Welch and Eriikka Paavilainen (2009, p. 569), namely, ‘the case study is a research strategy that 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’. This definition by going beyond the selection of the sources of accounts and by incorporating the dimensions of philosophical paradigm, boundary setting and position of theorizing introduced me to the ‘unconventional’ interpretive case study tradition and toured me around its dimensions.

Moreover, the main aspects of interpretive single cases which provide an understanding of individuals' reflections of their experiences as they occur (Denzin, 1989) and embrace the context of these experiences constituted immediately the arguments of why to follow the case study research. In other words, the rich contextual description that interpretive case studies provide (Lincoln & Cuba, 1985) would allow me to understand the (contextual) dynamics that shape consumers' identity narratives. Keeping up to reflect on the idiographic epistemology of single interpretive cases, I identified their strengths. Particularly, single interpretive cases

  • provide thick descriptions that illuminate the actions, narratives and voices that shape individuals' experiences,
  • allow the researcher to capture the complexities of the phenomenon under investigation,
  • develop context-embedded accounts that reveal multiple voices.

Given the above advantages and the philosophical beliefs of the purposes of the study, the conduction of a single interpretive case study was considered as the appropriate approach. Therefore, I was going to conduct a single interpretive case study of the Biennale of contemporary art, so as not to miss the context within which consumers ascribe meaning to their own identity narratives.

Casing: The Empirical and the Theoretical Unit of Analysis

The challenges that single interpretive cases hold to the research community (e.g. low integrity of accounts and researchers' preconceptions, cf. Bonoma, 1985) invite case researchers to identify the type of the case. As such, the selection of the single case should reflect either a rationale for single cases design (e.g. extreme case and critical case) or a rationale for employing a particular case (Stake, 2005).

Therefore, aiming at gaining insights into how consumers' multiple identities lead to identity (re)construction through contemporary art consumption (i.e. the theoretical unit) and specifying the empirical unit of the case (i.e. visitors of the Biennale exhibition), I followed an instrumental case design (Stake, 2005). This design would facilitate my understanding on the influence of consumers' multiple identities on their identity narratives. Furthermore, the motivation of this study is to shed light into the under-investigated phenomenon of consumers' multiplicity of selves in the field of consumer research; this necessitates a case that illuminates distinctly different identity narratives and understanding of the phenomena of interest.

In other words, the aim of an instrumental case is to provide detailed description of the context of the case, to enhance an understanding of a phenomenon beyond its context and to build theory from emerging evidence. Viewed in this light, the choice of the case emerged from the appropriateness of context (i.e. Biennale exhibition of contemporary art) for capturing the subjectivity and complexity of identity narratives, through the lenses of multiple identities. Specifically, the political and ironic content of the Biennale which would communicate to the audience the meaningful function of art could illuminate consumers' meanings and voices that shape the narrative(s) of their experiences.

Despite the fact that I had specified the case and justified the case selection, I was aware that during fieldwork, a refinement of the empirical and theoretical unit as well as a modification of the research questions of the case would be possible (Dubois & Gadde, 2002; Ragin, 1992). Having adopted this emergent logic in designing my study, I felt that at this stage, I was not able to make any further justifications and clarifications concerning the case selection and boundary settings of the case. Being comfortable with the flexible nature of interpretive case studies, I knew that during fieldwork I should let myself to be open to fieldwork's anarchy and weirdness so as to further clarify the aforementioned issues.

Methods of Collecting the Qualitative Accounts: Towards a Methodological Pluralism

In order to understand the complex nature of individuals' subjective worlds, I collected multiple voices that emerged from multiple sources of accounts. This ‘methodological pluralism’ would allow me not only to respond to the challenges that interpretive cases hold (i.e. to discern consumers' lived experiences from multiple views) but also to secure the trustworthiness of my case (i.e. between-method triangulation that relied on the use of multiple methods of data collection). As such, by understanding the importance of the use of multiple data sources (Stake, 2000) and by identifying that the research questions of the study required distinctive methods of data gathering, I began to specify these methods.

One method of gathering the qualitative accounts would be the in-depth interviews. In line with Steinar Kvale that through unstructured interviews the researcher is able to delve into individuals' lifeworlds and uncover their subjective meanings, I conducted interviews to discern consumers' multiple identities and their identity narratives. However, keeping in mind that I also had to grasp consumers' multiple interpretive perspectives so as to understand how an identity narrative emerges, I faced the limitations that the method of interviews holds (e.g. individuals' are not always able to reflect on their experiences, Polkinghorne, 2005). Inspired by Paul Ricoeur's statement that narratives provide insightful descriptions of an experience, I found out that the written format of consumer diaries overpass the limitations of interviews. Particularly, the narrative nature of diaries (Patterson, 2005) encourages reflective thinking and allows muted voices to be heard. According to this perspective, diaries would allow me to unravel the multiplicity of the author's perspectives (Wheeler & Reis, 1991) and reveal the enactment of visitors' consumption stories (Orbuch, 1997).

While I specified the methods of gathering the qualitative accounts, an article of Arch Woodside, Carol Megehee and Suresh Sood on visual methodologies directed me to seek for papers that had employed visual methodologies. By discovering that visual methods allow researchers to tap into consumers' inner realities (e.g. consumers' unconscious connections regarding the consumption experiences; e.g. Butler-Kisber & Poldma, 2010; Levy, 2005), I understood the complexity and, above all, the uniqueness of visual accounts.

Paradoxically, these readings reminded me Donald Polkinghorne's (2005) premise that ‘recollections and thinking often occur in visual images’ (p. 139). Through this statement, I recognized that I should not only facilitate consumers to overcome language barriers, in terms of narrating their experiences, but also facilitate myself to perceive the very way that consumers experience themselves and construct their identity narratives. By exposing myself into the distinctive visual methodologies, my desire to invite research participants to create visual images in which recollections occur was totally expressed by the method of collage.

The visual method of collage constitutes a process of cutting and gluing together (i.e. juxtaposing) different and/or irrelevant images (and text) from magazines/newspapers onto a cardboard (Butler-Kisber, 2008; Butler-Kisber & Poldma, 2010). Identifying that the associative and artistic nature of collage allows researcher to

  • go beyond individuals' consciousness,
  • bring to the fore disparate consumers' voices,
  • unravel the protagonists that participate in consumers' identity narratives (van Schalkwyk, 2010).

I recognized that collages narrate a metaphorical story, which not only provides rich descriptions regarding consumers' multiple identities but also emphasizes the subjective meanings as individuals have experienced them (cf. Ricoeur, 1977).

After the specification of the methods for gathering the qualitative accounts, I had also to determine the participants of the research. Keeping in mind that the aim of interpretive case studies is to unveil various consumer voices and perspectives, I decided to recruit consumers (i.e. visitors of the Biennale exhibition) from diverse demographic, psychographic and cultural (i.e. novices and experts) backgrounds (e.g. Joy & Sherry, 2003). This selection of respondents was purposive (Polkinghorne, 2005) in order to maximize nuances associated with identity narratives and allow the development of thick descriptions.

During Fieldwork

While my official access to the museum of contemporary art was scheduled for 27 October 2011, I entered the field 1 week earlier. This preliminary contact with the field had to do mainly with identifying my role as a researcher. Particularly, this early entrance enabled me to

  • develop a familiarity with the museum context and exhibition prior to collecting data,
  • undergo the consuming experience of contemporary art so as to gain an empathetic understanding of consumers' responses regarding my research purposes,
  • become conscious of the preconceptions that I had as a researcher.

The aforementioned issues were quite important in terms of the reflection process that an interpretive researcher has to be engaged in so as to secure the trustworthiness of the study (Andrade, 2009). However, the last issue, namely, researchers' preconceptions, was the most central reason of this early entrance to the field since it reflects the (epistemological) presence of the researcher in it. Moreover, preconceptions lead researchers to develop an informed understanding of the phenomenon under investigation (Thompson, Pollio, & Locander, 1994), since they participate in the process of giving sense (etic level) to consumers' meanings (emic level) (e.g. Guba & Lincoln, 1994). To this end, the identification of my preconceptions (i.e. influences from theory and personal experience as a viewer of contemporary art) not only contributed to a better understanding of my research but also set the stage for starting a reflective journey within the field.

On 27 October 2011, I entered the field ‘officially’. During the first days of fieldwork I felt like a stranger. However, I knew that my everyday presence in the field for the next 2 months and the ‘socialization’ with the research participants would allow me to become a native in the setting. Knowing the challenges that could emerge from abolishing the critical distance between me and the field, I tried to learn what life is like for an ‘insider’ (e.g. understanding the lived meanings that consumers ascribe to their narratives) while remaining, inevitably, an ‘outsider’ (e.g. interpreting these lived meanings). This process of going native and at the same time being a foreigner required me to be engaged in a continuous reflective process regarding my presence in the field. According to Craig Thompson, Howard Pollio and William Locander, interpretive researchers, in order to make sense of the world, have to be engaged into two distinct phases: in the phase of understanding the participants' viewpoints and in the phase of interpreting these viewpoints. Therefore, having in mind that through this interpretive and iterative process I would be able to shape an understanding of the participants' worlds and as such to provide thick descriptions, I started the collection of accounts.

Collection of Accounts: Facing Respondents' Silence

My challenges of approaching research participants within the field (i.e. the museum) were

  • practical challenges, such as participants time constraints to participate in my research;
  • methodological challenges, for instance, the ability and the willingness of participants to reflect on and provide rich descriptions of their experiences.

The last challenge, the methodological one, was the most demanding I had to face during fieldwork. Given that my study would employ various methods of collecting the accounts, I had to secure that visitors would be eager to participate in the whole research process (Table 1). Despite the willingness of respondents to participate in the whole procedure, I faced the situation that a small group of the study's participants had not sent me their reflection diaries. The process followed for the collection of the diaries involved the following steps: First, I had to send the topic of the diary to the respondents via email. In sequence, respondents would have to write it within 1 week (from their visit to the museum) and send their diaries back to me.

Table 1. Methods of gathering the qualitative accounts.

Without having predicted this ‘negative’ turn and without wanting to ignore the ‘noise’ of these silent data, I did not exclude the diaries from the research process. Instead of getting disappointed by some participants' denial to make sense of their experience through diaries not only had made me intrigued in terms of how I was going to give sense to this silence, but also I thought that maybe something ‘pleasant’ would come up because of this intended silence.

(Un)making Sense: Challenges in the Analysis of Accounts

Since the analysis of accounts during the period of data collection is extremely important in case study research (Dubois & Gadde, 2002), in terms of redirecting researcher's focus in new themes across the data, I began to analyse my accounts during the period of the research. This journey of starting to make sense of my accounts made me face the challenge of how I was going to gain an initial understanding of the evidence that emerged from multiple sources of accounts. Moreover, this first level of data analysis should be reflective (Stake, 2005) since a possible refinement of the unit of analysis may emerge at this phase.

Hence, inspired by Anne Smith's article on making sense of qualitative accounts, I began to construct figures that would facilitate not only the (reflective) analysis of the accounts at this early phase but also the (dis)connection of the evidence that would emerge from the different sources of accounts.

Analysing Interviews

Employing intratextual and intertextual cycles (Thompson, 1997) of interpretation in the analysis of visitors' interviews, I knew that first I would have to make sense of each interview's parts in order to grasp the whole meaning of each interview. Interview transcription allowed me to explore the parts of each interview, to connect each part to the whole meaning of interviews and to identify some preliminary themes across the interviews.

Through this early phase of dealing with my accounts, I started to realize that the themes emerged from the analysis of interviews seemed to be irrelevant to my research purposes. Although I knew that in this early stage of analysis I was not able to conduct the necessary iterations (i.e. from part to whole and from whole to part) in order to develop a holistic understanding of the interviews texts, I decided to reflect on these unexpected themes. Starting to outline the composition of these themes and trying to connect them with a theory that would explain these data (Swedberg, 2011), I understood that these themes invited me to re-evaluate the theoretical platform of the research. Consequently, I redirected my attention to these emerging themes during my next entries to the field so as to gain a deeper understanding of both theory and empirical accounts (Dubois & Gadde, 2002).

Analysing Diaries

The analysis of visitors' diaries took place simultaneously with the analysis of interviews. In this process, I began to search for agreements and disagreements between the themes that emerged from interviews and the evidence in consumers' written texts. Due to the overloading and conflicting evidence that started to emerge from this process, the creation of figures constituted for me the best solution in order to start organizing my messy thoughts regarding the accounts and capturing the multiple aspects of consumers' identity narratives. Having as a guideline the figure that depicted my initial understanding of the research process, I started to add to this figure the key concepts and the relationships that appeared in the accounts. The identification of (dis)connections that emerged from the analysis of interviews and consumers' diaries unravelled to me new dimensions of the research purpose. Trying to match the emerged evidence with theory, I started to improve my understanding regarding the case by illuminating new theoretical directions.

Despite the insightful directions that emerged from this abductive process (Dubois & Gadde, 2002), I had also to deal with the missing diaries. Being aware that if I was going to face respondents' silence as ‘missing data’, I would end up in an epistemological patchwork, I had to find a solution in terms of how to face them. To this end, I decided to return back to the interviews and collages of these participants and to re-examine their existing data sources in light of the evidence that emerged from the other respondents' diaries. This act led me to develop a better understanding of these consumers' expressed and visual meanings through the (re)interpretation of these accounts in light of the evidence that emerged from diaries. As such, the void that some respondents' diaries created in my analysis of accounts is covered by the other data sources.

Analysing Collages

Knowing that the constructivist epistemology of collages constitutes them to be open to multiple interpretations (Butler-Kisber & Poldma, 2010), during the process of data collection, I had invited respondents to explain to me the story that their collages narrated. While I was aware that this decision was against the epistemological nature of collages, it was a necessary choice so as to secure that my process of making sense of respondents' collages should reflect their (intended) meanings.

Getting started from observing consumers' visual representations (captured in collages), I tried to understand how the story of each collage was connected with its visual content. Although I was able to comprehend the meaning of each collage, the ‘unorthodox’ and artistic nature of this method created the following queries:

How am I going to analyse collages so as not to lose their unique dimensions?

How am I going to reflect on consumer collages so as to link them with the other sources of accounts?

Without being able to answer these questions, I embarked on creating a concept map (Butler-Kisber & Poldma, 2010) concerning the collage methodology. This map served to remind me that the analysis of collages should be based in their main characteristic, namely, the visual juxtapositions through which the meaning of collages emerges (Butler-Kisber's, 2007). Therefore, by starting to concentrate on the relationships between the pictures that shaped collages and by (re)reading their stories, I gradually began to give sense to the metaphorical meanings (e.g. van Schalkwyk, 2010) that consumers ascribe to their representations.

Exiting the Field

Having lived in the field for almost 3 months, the time to leave was connected more with the end of the Biennale exhibition rather than with the achievement of an adequate understanding of the phenomenon under study (Glaser & Strauss, 1967). This revelatory exit (Michailova et al., 2010) was associated with the feeling that something was not right enough in my accounts. Facing respondents' multiple (and conflicting) noises and their unpleasant silences during the analysis of accounts, I recognized that the time to exit the field was inappropriate.

Being aware that I had no time and opportunity to engage respondents in the co-construction of insights of the research, this disconnection from the participants allowed me to attain mental and emotional distance from the field (Mintzberg, 2005). As such, the rapid exit from the field not only assisted me to reconsider the essential approaches to the research that emerged during fieldwork but also was the starting point of the process of (paradoxical) theorizing from the case study research.

Discussion Questions
  • What are the main dimensions of interpretive case studies?
  • What are the methodological strengths and weaknesses of this reflective article?
  • What is the author's mode of theorizing and what does this theorizing mode entail?
  • What the reader can learn from the author's exiting experience?
Further Reading
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Woodside, A. (2010). Case study research: Theory, methods, practice. Bingley, UK: Emerald Group.
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Methods Map

Case study research

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