Breaking the Silence About Exiting Fieldwork: A Relational Approach and Its Implications For Theorizing

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<ul><li><p>BREAKING THE SILENCE ABOUT EXITINGFIELDWORK: A RELATIONAL APPROACH AND</p><p>ITS IMPLICATIONS FOR THEORIZING</p><p>SNEJINA MICHAILOVAUniversity of Auckland</p><p>REBECCA PIEKKARIAalto University</p><p>EMMANUELLA PLAKOYIANNAKIAristotle University of Thessaloniki</p><p>TIINA RITVALAIRINA MIHAILOVA</p><p>ASTA SALMIAalto University</p><p>It is surprising that, to date, a discussion of exiting fieldwork is absent from themanagement and organization literaturean absence we believe is unjustified. Weargue that analyzing exit from fieldwork is important for theorizing. We combine twostreams of researchethnography in the broader social sciences and business mar-keting on dissolving relationshipsto propose a relational framework for conceptu-alizing and analyzing exit. The framework represents a first attempt to examineexiting in a systematic and nuanced manner, with the objective of understanding whyand how breaking the silence about exiting fieldwork may advance theorizing. Wedevelop a typology of four exit types leading to four different approaches to theorizing.We suggest that exit may bring about a new beginning in theorizing rather thanclosure and that it is not only high-quality relationships in the field but also those thatare disruptive that may lead to interesting theorizing.</p><p>Theory cannot be improved until we improve thetheorizing process, and we cannot improve thetheorizing process until we describe it more ex-plicitly, operate it self-consciously, and decoupleit from validation more deliberately. A more ex-plicit description is necessary so we can see moreclearly where the process can be modified andwhat the consequences of these modificationsmight be (Weick, 1989: 516).</p><p>One of the ways in which scholars theorize isby conducting rigorous, high-quality fieldwork.Collecting original data in real organizationsmakes fieldwork different not only from desk</p><p>research in general but also from working withcomputer simulations, laboratory experiments,and secondary databases. Fieldwork is chal-lenging and rewarding because it occurs out-side controlled settings; employs a more idio-graphic, open-ended research mode (McCall,2006); and has no prespecified algorithms forproducing it (Gephart, 2004)it is a journey thatmay involve almost as many steps backward asforward (Edmondson &amp; McManus, 2007: 1173).One critical step in this journey is exiting field-work, which, in line with Weicks quotationabove, contributes to a more explicit descriptionof the theorizing process. To date, the literaturehas been silent on exiting fieldwork.</p><p>In simplistic terms, exiting implies withdraw-ing from the research site1 where empirical data</p><p>We thank associate editor Rick Delbridge and three anon-ymous reviewers for their developmental and thoughtfulguidance throughout the review process. We highly appre-ciate the feedback provided by John Van Maanen. We ac-knowledge the comments we received from David Guttorm-sen and Stuart Macdonald and from colleagues at ourrespective institutions and at seminars and conferenceswhere we presented earlier versions of the paper.</p><p>1 The terms research site, field, field site, fieldwork site,and sometimes locale are typically used interchangeably in</p><p> Academy of Management Review2014, Vol. 39, No. 2, 138161.http://dx.doi.org/10.5465/amr.2011.0403</p><p>138Copyright of the Academy of Management, all rights reserved. Contents may not be copied, emailed, posted to a listserv, or otherwise transmitted without the copyrightholders express written permission. Users may print, download, or email articles for individual use only.</p></li><li><p>have been generated over a period of time. Froma relational perspective, however, exiting is farmore than that; it is at the core of the embeddedprocess of disentangling from the field. Weadopt this perspective and view exiting field-work as a process (rather than a single act) ofending relationships developed with researchparticipants over a period of time, be it longer orshorter. It is affected by past, present, and futureconnections, which may be personal or organi-zational, formal or informal. Exiting the fieldmay occur only once during the course of thestudy or take place several times when data arecollected periodically. Exiting fieldwork is asso-ciated with changes in identities and emotionsas enacted and experienced by both the re-searcher and research participants and their(self) learning and reflexivity. Understood in thisway, exiting raises important questions aboutthe foundation of fieldwork and theorizing.</p><p>Our analysis of exiting fieldwork is placed ona continuum that has inquiry from the insideand inquiry from the outside as its end points(Evered &amp; Louis, 1981). This continuum goes be-yond the division between quantitative andqualitative research; quantitative researcherscan indeed be seriously engaged in the physicalresearch setting, whereas qualitative research-ers may be sitting behind a desk at the researchsite or studying archives or media texts on theuniversity premises. On the one hand, when in-quiring from the inside, researchers immersephysically and psychologically in the field, andtheir fieldwork is often likely to be more inti-mate, open-ended, and holistic. Inquiring fromthe outside, on the other hand, tends to be lessintimate and somewhat more transactional andclosed-ended. However, it does not exclude con-cerns about how researcher-researched rela-tionships and social exchange develop in thefield. Regardless of the type of inquiry, issues ofsubjectivity, interpretation, meaning, and rela-tionships will always matter, albeit to a differ-ent extent (see Boisot &amp; McKelvey, 2010; Chris-tensen &amp; Carlile, 2009). Because of this, our ideasare applicable to both types of inquiry but are</p><p>likely to resonate more strongly with scholars en-gaged in the inquiry from the inside. It is becauseof their deep immersion in the first place thatexiting from the field is at all possible.</p><p>By breaking the silence about exiting from field-work and providing original insight into this phe-nomenon, we aim to change in three fundamentalaspects the way theorizing is commonly under-stood. First, we contest the temporal dimension oftheorizing by arguing that exit may introduce anew beginning to theorizing rather than bring it toclosure. Theorizing may occur through rather thanafter exiting since exiting enables the researcherto maintain a dual state of connect and disconnectwith the phenomenon under study. Understandingand appreciating this paradox of distance are crit-ical for good theorizing.</p><p>Second, we challenge the view that interest-ing theorizing would be an outcome only ofhigh-quality, sustained relationships in thefield, as suggested by the advocates of the rela-tional foundation of research (Dutton &amp; Duke-rich, 2006; Gulati, 2007; Van Maanen, 2010). Ourstudy proposes a typology of four different exittypes, which are coupled with four different the-orizing approaches: conventional, paradoxical,one-sided, and blind alley theorizing. We visu-alize these as a model and a matrix. Whereasmost exits tend to be anticipated, contributing toconventional theorizing, sometimes a revelatoryexit caused by a breakdown of relationshipswith research participants may spur a processof paradoxical theorizing and lead to paradigm-challenging insights. In this way we contributeto the relational foundation of research, whichhas previously not incorporated exit as a dis-tinct phase of the research journey or exploredthe relationship between exiting and theorizing.</p><p>Third, management and organization re-search would benefit from acknowledging andembracing self-consciousness as an inherentpart of the theorizing process (Sandberg &amp; Tsou-kas, 2011; Shepherd &amp; Sutcliffe, 2011). VanMaanen, Srensen, and Mitchell (2007) point outthat theory and method are highly interrelatedin practice but often treated as conceptually in-dependent. Our nuanced analysis of the waysscholars think and (not) talk about exiting aimsto legitimize the discussion about exiting thefield in published work. In pragmatic terms, thevalue of our contribution is to improve the cur-rent research practice of informed scholars(Whetten, 1990: 581).</p><p>the literature, and we follow this convention. Some authorsdifferentiate between field and site by pointing out that it ispossible to situate the field more precisely as a site con-structed through shifting entanglements of anthropologicalnotions of culture. A physical movement away from the sitedoes not necessarily mean leaving the field.</p><p>2014 139Michailova, Piekkari, Plakoyiannaki, Ritvala, Mihailova, and Salmi</p></li><li><p>The remainder of the article unfolds in thefollowing way. In the next section we look at theprocesses of theorizing and of exiting fieldworkand establish the link between the twoa linkthat, to the best of our knowledge, has not beenproposed previously. We then present the re-sults of our systematic review of the method-ological literature and outline the theoreticalfoundation of our studyselected ideas fromethnography and the business marketing litera-turewhich provide valuable insights and ameaningful vocabulary for building a relationalframework on theorizing through exit. If viewedseparately, ethnography and business market-ing provide an incomplete understanding of ex-iting the field, but when combined they form asolid and generative theoretical foundation forconceptualizing this critical step in fieldwork.We then propose a typology of four exit typesleading to four different theorizing approaches.We conclude by summarizing our main contri-butions, outlining the implications of our anal-ysis for writing and reading scholarly work, andsuggesting directions for future research.</p><p>EXITING FIELDWORK AND THEORIZING:THE SURPRISING LINK</p><p>There appears to be insufficient understand-ing of the theorizing process in managementand organization studies (Folger &amp; Turillo, 1999;Locke, Golden-Biddle, &amp; Feldman, 2008; Weick,1999). The emphasis there, as well as in thesocial sciences in general, seems to be on theoryas the frozen end product rather than the pro-cess itself. When scholars discuss theorizing,their discussion often relates to theory testingrather than theory development. Set against thisbackground, we use the term theorizing (ratherthan theory), which involves a mixture of ob-serving something, penetrating something, andfinding something out (Swedberg, 2012: 9). Inparticular, we are concerned with theorizingthat results from interaction between the re-searcher and research participants in the field,rather than with theorizing generated from anisolated armchair behind closed doors; that isbased on ones own rather than other peoplesfieldwork; and that aims at developing theoryrather than testing/validating it.</p><p>Exiting fieldwork is particularly well linkedwith such a view of theorizing. Exiting is closerto the write-up stage than any other fieldwork</p><p>stage and therefore also temporally closer tomeaningful theorizing. The very decision abouttiming the exit from fieldwork has tangible con-sequences for theorizing. Contrary to the viewthat one should exit once theoretical satura-tionan expression often used as a rhetoricaldevice to legitimize the right timing of exitingfieldwork has been achieved (Glaser &amp;Strauss, 1967), it can be argued that the questionof when to exit can only be answered arbitrarily.A study can be considered to be completedwhen a sufficient understanding of the phenom-enon under study has been achieved. As Shaffirand Stebbins point out:</p><p>Because our understanding of the social worldis necessarily incomplete and imperfect, repre-senting an approximation and oversimplifica-tion, no study can ever be considered finished.There are always deeper levels of understand-ing to be achieved. Yet if we did not withdrawfrom the field every once in a while to try to makesense out of what we have seen, heard, and ex-perienced, we would be left with piles of datawith no understanding of the social world at all(1991: 242).</p><p>Building on Weicks (1989, 1999) and Swed-bergs (2012) views on theorizing, we furtherelaborate on the link between exiting fieldworkand theorizing. First, theorizing is not necessar-ily a linear process. The activities that make uptheorizingobserving, choosing something in-teresting, formulating the central concept, build-ing the theory, and completing the tentative the-orycan happen in a very different order or inno order at all (Swedberg, 2012). There is noreason to exclude the option of them happeningupon exiting the field. When exiting, the re-searcher can indeed find something that hasremained hidden or appeared trivial duringfieldwork but that suddenly stands out as impor-tant or surprising. As an act of discontinuity,exiting is likely to prompt creativity, reflection,and learningprocesses necessary for buildinggood theory (Weick, 1989). Indeed, learning isoften caused by stress and disequilibrium, and,in this regard, exit represents an untappedsource of important (self) learning. Counterintui-tively, exit can initiate rather than close a learn-ing cycle, which is at the heart of interestingtheorizing.</p><p>Second, unlike researchers who have dis-cussed theorizing in terms of relationshipsamong scholars (e.g., Cals &amp; Smircich, 1999),</p><p>140 AprilAcademy of Management Review</p></li><li><p>we open up space for bringing research partic-ipants into the exercise of theorizing. Theorizingrequires passion, emotional engagement, andempathy with research participants. By relyingactively on the researchedon their motiva-tion to engage in fieldwork, their interpreta-tions, and their reflectionsthe researchers po-sition is not automatically privileged. It iscommon that the reasons for engaging in field-work and the experiences during and at the endof fieldwork are perceived very differently bythe researcher and the research participants,both at the individual and collective levels(Clark, 2010). Giving consideration to such mul-tiple viewpoints can lead to richer, more nu-anced theorizing. Exiting provides the opportu-nity to explore again, but in a different situation,the dynamics of the researcher-researched rela-tionship, how the research is coconstituted bythe researcher and research participants, andhow they may cotheorize. Exiting can reveal amoment of truth and provide an excellent op-portunity for both the researcher and researchparticipants to reconsider the research relation-ship and its outcomes.</p><p>Third, there is need for more mindfulness withregard to the tacit practices of theorizing andfor directing accuracy in explanations at theexplainer rather than the objects being ex-plained (Weick, 1999: 802). Reflexivity, (self)learning, and unlearning are crucial in the the-orizing process. To be reflexive is to have anongoing conversation about the experiencewhile simultaneously living in the moment(Hertz, 1997: viii). It refers to thoughtful, con-scious self-awareness (Finlay, 2002: 532). Klein-sasser (2000: 158) relates reflexivity to writing-to-learn and un-learnlooking for ungroundedassumptions, possible mistakes, and omissionsis invaluable in theorizing. Na...</p></li></ul>