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Atkinson, A. A. and W. Shaffir. 1998. Standards for field research in management accounting. Journal of Management Accounting Research (10): 41-68.

Summary by Mohamed Gomaa
Ph.D. Program in Accounting
University of South Florida, Spring 2002

Field Studies Main Page | Research Methods Main Page

The main purpose of this article, as stated by the authors, is to propose some standards for developing and reporting field research. The authors looked at some of the primitive issues that underlie the conduct and process of field research, and what they imply for standards that should be required of field research.

The Evolution of Qualitative Research

The authors followed Lofland and Lofland (1984) to describe qualitative research as "the data collection techniques of participant observation and/or intensive interviewing and data analysis techniques that are nonquantitative." Therefore, qualitative research is about observing events in their natural setting and reporting them in a systematic way. Some critics have asserted that sociology’s reliance on the natural science approach to its subject matter led sociologists to "bend, reshape and distort the empirical social world to fit the model they use to investigate it" (Filshead 1970). On the other hand, qualitative methodology recognizes that human behavior cannot be adequately understood by observing it from the outside. Using this methodology, social phenomena are understood from the actor’s own perspective. This can be achieved through qualitative methods such as field reseach – participant observation, informal interviewing and others.

The Essential Characteristics of Field Research

Although there are several approaches to data collection, participant observation (field research) is the most prominent. This type of research involves "that method in which the observer participates in the daily life of the people under study … observing things that happen, listening to what is said and questioning people, over some length of time" (Becker and Geer 1957). To reach this goal a field researcher would suppliment participant observation with additional techniques such as semi-structured interviews, life histories, document analysis, and others. The main motivation for doing field research is to provide a reliable method to mine human experiences.

There are important markers of field research:

1. It is done in the field.

2. It involves gathering data that is derived primarily from observing behavior, which is usually a time consuming process.

Grounded theory and Field Research

Two strategies were proposed by Glasner and Strauss (1967) for developing grounded theory:

1. The constant comparative method in which the researcher simultaneously codes and analyzes data in order to develop concepts. This approach facilitates the generation of data that is relevant to an existing category or the emergence of relevant categories.

2. Theoretical sampling where the researcher identifies new cases to study according to their potential to expand on or refine the concepts that have already been developed. This can serve as a useful guide for selecting people to interview.

Field Research in Management Accounting

There are three broad types of field research:

1. Field studies that provide a description of practice.

2. Field studies that test a theory developed elsewhere.

3. Field studies that develop a theory.

Why do Field Research?

As noted by Schwartz and Jacobs (1979), we do field research because we want to know what the actors know, see what they see, and understand what they understand. This type of research is situated within the theoretical framework of symbolic interaction, which is associated with phenomenology’s principles. Blumer (1969) explais that symbolic interaction rests upon three major premises:

1. "People act towards things bases on the meanings these things have for them;

2. the meanings are social products that are derived from, and arise out of, social interaction; and

3. social actors attach meanings to situations, others and themselves through a process of interpretation.

One of the central issues to qualitative research is experiencing reality as others experience it. Therefore, a researcher must identify with the people studied in order to understand how they see things. Using field research we avoid the laboratory’s potential problems of inappropriately modeling the environment of the behavior under study. One of the advantages of field research is that it investigates phenomena in their natural setting. This improves the researcher’s ability to understand or identify what elements of the environment influence the events that the researcher is interested in.

Critical step 1 in Field Research: Observing

Issues Relating to Internal Validity – Biases Introduced by the Observer

McCall and Simmons (1969) believe this problem falls into three categories:

1. "Reactive effects of the observer’s presence or activities on the phenomena being observed;

2. Distorting effects of selective perception and interpretation on the observer’s part; and

3. Limitations on the observer’s ability to witness all relevant aspects of the phenomenon in question."

The need for a perspective or Framework for Observation

Several researchers have argued that field researchers should go into the field with a clean slate to avoid the problem of selective observation. However, even if we tried, we cold not observe everything. It would overwhelm the observer. Therefore, we need to be guided in what and how we observe by what we think is important. We are guided by a research question that points us in a direction for observation. Researchers must develop standards for communication their field research so that others can understand how the researcher’s biases may have affected the research process.

Observation and On-Going Hypothesis Revision

A researcher revises the initial hypothesis as the field research progresses to reflect new observations and acquired insight. The initial hypothesis that drives the field research is called the working hypothesis. The initial hypothesis is important for two reasons:

1. It signals the bias or perspective that the researcher brought into the study.

2. There is strong evidence to suggest that where the researcher ends up, in terms of the revised hypothesis, will be determined by where the researcher started, in terms of the initial hypothesis.

Issues Relating to Internal Validity – Biases Introduced by Observation

In field research, observation may be intrusive (e.g. an interview) or detached (e.g. eavesdropping). The following table summarizes the two ways to classify observation

Participant Nonparticipant
Covert Undercover Spy
Overt Active Participant Passive Participant

There are several ways that observation can affect behavior. These include:

1. The desire by the subject to be helpful to the researcher by tellingthe researcher what the subject thinks the researcher wants to hear.

2. Altering behavior so the observed will be presented in a more favorable light to the observer.

3. Altering behavior because of a perception that what is observed will be reported back to a supervisor who expects a certain type of behavior.

Gold (1969) devised a basic topology that included four ideal roles for a field researcher.

1. Complete participant

2. Participant-as-observer

3. Observer-as-participant

4. Complete observer

Although all observation methods suffer from potential problems, the participant roles create additional problems.

1. As a participant, the observer may end up assuming advocacy roles within the group and disrupt the group process.

2. The common phenomenon of the participant identifying with the group and loosing objectivity when reporting about the group.

Issues Relating to Construct Validity – Biases Introduced by the Observer

As the researcher tries to understand and explain observed behavior in a particular setting at the hypothesis level, the researcher is faced with the problem that the researcher’s and the subject’s perception of the setting may be quite different. Therefore, problems arise when a researcher projects his interpretation of events onto the social world that is being studied. Blumer (1969) points out that in the absence of a careful documentation of subject’s view of the world, it is hard to know what is in someone else’s mind and , therefore, interpreting the behavior of a subject is risky business.

Critical step 2 in Field Research: Evaluating Observations

Problems created by Inappropriate Generalizations

The issue of generalization is related to field research that inductively establishes a hypothesis or theory. In this type of field research we record data and use the data to build a model of behavior in the chosen setting. Researchers are then faced with the problem of the lack of external validity that results from a small sample size.

Validity and Reliability: Requirements/Standards for Field Research

There are four important requirements of all field studies.

1. Construct validity, which asks whether we are measuring what we want to measure. There are four common strategies used to enhance construct validity:

a. The researcher should identify clearly the preliminary hypothesis and the background or training that he has taken into the study.

b. The researcher should clearly identify the mode ofobservation.

c. The researcher should develop alternate measures for the same phenomenon and show that both sets of dataimply the same conclusions.

d. The researcher should show evidence of the result of having the observed review the material for accuracy and reasonableness.

2. Internal validity, which asks whether the researcher has taken steps to ensure that the evidence used to ensure a causal relationship is complete. There is a three part test in this area:

a. Is there a logical argument to expect cause and effect?

b. The researcher should clearly show evidence of the temporal location between cause and effect.

c. The researcher should clearly state in a cause and effect model whether the cause is necessary or sufficient or both to provide evidence that is consistent with the indicated model of cause and effect.

3. External validity, which asks whether we identified clearly the population to which the results apply.

4. Reliability, which asks whether the research can be replicated with the same results.

Critical Step 3 in Field Research: Reporting Results

For descriptive studies, what is important is that the description be faithful and, to the extent possible, describe events from the perspective of the subjects not the experimenter. For studies that develop a theory, evidence that the logic underlying the hypothesis should be provided that meets the classical logical tests of relevance, sufficiency and acceptability. Studies that test existing theories should meet the following tests:

1. Are the conditions of the test consistent with the underlying assumptions of the theory?

2. Does the test clearly define the results that would support/contradict the theory?

3. Was the test unbiased?

4. Does the test define and measure accurately the artifacts for the theory’s variables?


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