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Keating, P. 1995. A framework for classifying and evaluating the theoretical contributions of case research in management accounting. Journal of Management Accounting Research (7): 66-86.

Summary by Michele Martinez
Ph.D. Program in Accounting
University of South Florida, Spring 2002

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Overall, researchers’ believe that there is no general consensus about what kinds of information should be included in case study research. As management accounting case study research progresses, no agreement exists for addressing how case study papers should be written in order to address the basic question, "what have we learned about management accounting from this case study?" Suggestions for ways to increase methodological rigor in case studies along with efforts to categorize findings have been made, however to no avail. Thus, researchers feel that more attention needs to be paid to improving the production and writing of case study research. Consequently, the purpose of this paper as stated by the author, is to present a framework that: 1) captures the diversity of research scope covered in management accounting case studies, and 2) provides a straightforward framework for "taking stock" of those aspects of theoretical contribution that researchers have or have not addressed in their research.

Theory Development (Research Scope)

In this section the author addresses the notion of research scope. For his purposes research scope focuses upon the "what found" of a case study. Research scope locates a case study within a broader theoretical framework and stakes out the territory in which the researchers claim to make their contribution. Specifically, research scope relates to how the researchers articulate to the readers what they are expected to learn from the case study. It is this notion of research scope that categorizes the case studies in this paper.

Theory Development

In this section of the paper the author discusses the three phases of theory development - theory discovery, theory refinement, and theory refutation. This process is both iterative and circular in nature. The stages of theory development and case study research are interrelated in that the stages of theory development provide natural categories for classifying case study research. The framework posits four distinct types of case studies over the three stages of theory development. They are as follows:

Theory Discovery Case – Theory Discovery

Theory Illustration Case – Theory Refinement

Theory Specification Case – Theory Refinement

Crucial Test/Counterpoint Case – Theory Refutation

Given the stage of theory development and type of case study being conducted, researchers should then:

Specify the findings and relate the findings back to the theoretical issue under investigation;

Reassess the applicability of the theory in light of the case study findings and specify how the study refutes, complements or extends existing theories;

Identify the knowledge gaps and puzzles left unresolved by the study; and relate this particular program of research to other theory discovery, theory refinement, or theory refutation studies.

In each of the next sections the author explains what type of case study should be in each of the stages and presents some strengths and weaknesses for each.

Theory Discovery (Discovery Case Studies)

A theory discovery study should establish how the findings complement, corroborate, or refute related programs of research. Researchers should inform the reader about the present knowledge gaps and unresolved puzzles. Additionally, theory discovery studies are appropriate when describing novel phenomena or when searching for new perspectives to resolve existing theoretical anomalies. These studies usually produce "building blocks" of rather theory.

Theory Refinement (Illustrative and Specification Case Studies)

In this type of study, cases possess a more definitive theoretical starting point and focused research objective. Theory refinement represents the middle ground between theory discovery and theory refutation.

Theory Illustration Case

In theory illustration cases the case should: 1) employ a comparative perspective approach that demonstrates the relative explanatory or interpretive power of the illustrated theory over other theories or 2) identify aspects of the illustrated theory that require reformulation or more rigorous specification.

Theory Specification

In a theory specification case the researcher starts with a model that they seek to evaluate and further specify through empirical study. The purpose of this type of case is operational in nature. A specification case takes "theory into the field" to assess whether the theory captures the heterogeneity and complexity of the phenomenon it purports to explain prior to subjecting the theory to rigorous testing.

Theory Refutation Research (Crucial Test/Counterpoint Case)

Theory refutation case research is designed to disconfirm well specified theories by bringing negative evidence to bear or to offer counterpoint readings of previous case-based interpretations.

Theory Development Framework

The framework summarizes how case studies address the elements of research scope identified with each type of case study. The general purpose of this framework is for classifying case studies and to help researchers understand how case study research contributes to the growth of knowledge in management accounting. In addition, the framework can serve as a useful tool in helping researchers focus on the set of outputs most relevant to the type of case study they have undertaken.

The paper includes a table and discussion of eight research studies that provide examples of each type of case research. Three of these were theory discovery cases. Two cases involved theory refinement and theory illustration. Two were theory refinement and theory specification cases, and three cases included theory refinement and theory refutation.

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