Management research as craft

Here Emma discusses the features of research as craft, an approach that enables methods and methodology to be understood as more than a set of techniques and facilitates greater consideration of ethics and politics. The need for craft(y) research will be situated in the context of business school globalisation, and the pressures that this places on researchers to conform to research norms set by globally ranked journals. Concepts such as interpretivism, induction and abduction will be covered, and some of the qualitative methods used by craft(y) researchers will be introduced.

Activity: Film Focus 2, ‘Management research as craft’ – Emma Bell

Watch the film and make your own notes in response to the following questions:

  • Summarise the idea of research as craft in your own words.
  • Do you see your own research as craft? Why – or why not?
  • What advantages or risks are associated with seeing research as craft?
Download this video clip.Video player: 02-250623-management-research-as-craft.mp4
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I’m Emma Bell, and I work at The Open University in the UK. And today, I’m going to be talking to you about management research as craft. I’m going to explain to you the practice of crafting management research and how it differs from other forms of management research, including positivist test and quantitative forms of study. I’m going to be exploring with you how you might think about practising research craft, and I’m going to identify some of the threats and challenges that crafting management research presents to the dominant norms within our field.

I’ll begin by situating this idea of management research as craft in context. Firstly, it’s important to bear in mind that management and organisations, as aspects of the social world, are amenable to the same methods of study as used by other social scientists, including in the disciplines of anthropology, sociology, psychology or economic.

Second and related to this, how these methods are practised is dependent on the specific norms and values that pertain to the community of research practice. So within business and management research, there are specific values and practices that have become dominant and others that perhaps have become peripheral, and that may be quite different from sociology or anthropology.

Research methods do not simply describe reality, they help to produce it. This is quite a complex philosophical point which we will come back to at various points during this lecture series. For now, what I would like you to think about is the fact that the dominance of certain methods and practices within business and management research frames and constrains the type of knowledge that is produced. And it is the purpose of this series to start to explore alternatives and to use the process of crafting research as a way of thinking about how we do this.

Over the last 50 years, there has been an explosion of academic literature in the social sciences on how to do research and how methods should be used. Martyn Hammersley in his work categorises this literature into three genres. The first genre is methodology as technique. This literature sets out to codify or develop rules for the application of research methods. It sets out the appropriate way of conducting research according to a particular method, whether it’s a survey instrument, or a questionnaire, or an interview. So the idea is that the researcher takes a research problem and finds the appropriate research method in order to solve or address the problem.

The second genre, methodology as philosophy, attempts to explore the underlying assumptions which define how we produce knowledge. These are questions of ontology (what is truth?) and epistemology (how knowledge is produced). The third genre, methodology as autobiography, focuses on the interdependent relationship between the researcher as producing knowledge and the subject of the research, and suggests that there is a reciprocal relationship between these two, that they cannot be separated, that the researcher is not a fly on the wall, is not independent of the context of study – rather, they help to produce it.

When I go to conferences, I often end up talking to people about their research – that’s one of the nice things about attending research conferences. Sometimes the people I talk to have used my co-author textbook, Business Research Methods, when they have been learning how to do research and deciding on which methods to use.

At the end of these conversations, occasionally someone might say to me, ‘Is what I’ve done OK?’ And that concerns me, because it suggests that the textbook presents a set of codified rules according to which research can be done and should be done. And it suggests that the dominant genre within management research is methodology-as-technique.

Now there are reasons why methodology-as-technique has become the dominant genre in management research, and it is not necessarily the case in other disciplines such as sociology and anthropology. And in part, this relates to the intense pressures that management researchers in business schools face as they seek to compete, to publish in a small number of highly-ranked journals which are dominated by positivists and quantitative research.

One of the ways in which we can seek to challenge the dominance of methodology-as-technique in management research is by thinking about our research practice as craft. So what is craft and how does it relate to management research? Craft is an activity of making something: in this case, making knowledge. It relies on skill. It’s also a mode of being, a way of feeling and interacting with the world.

In traditional crafts, such as woodworking, this involves an intimate connection between the tools of making, the objects, the wood, and the hand of the maker. Woodworkers such as David Pye refer to this as the workmanship of risk, whereby each piece of wood has unique organic properties, and that it is the skill and the experience of the person who is handling and shaping that wood that informs their engagement with it. And each object is unique. It has variations that are inherent to those material characteristics and properties.

And this idea is relevant to research. It’s relevant because we cannot know in advance of a piece of research what we will find. Each situation is historically and culturally unique. And it is these characteristics of management research which lend themselves to the metaphor of craft.

So craft is a way of thinking about the world that we inhabit and connecting ourselves to that world. It acknowledges the close relationship between the researcher and what they are studying or who they are studying. So thinking about management research as craft suggests that methods are not just about methodological and empirical precision, they’re also about the creative process of searching for mystery and puzzling about the nature of knowledge.

Denzin and Lincoln use the term ‘bricolage’ to describe this piecing together through which in a given situation, the researcher draws on their skills and their experience to deal with the unpredictability and the uniqueness of what presents itself in ways that are not captured in textbook accounts of methods. And bricolage is an essential aspect of research craft. It highlights the flexibility of the researcher and their dedication and skill, and how they apply that in their own unique context rather than in the way it is prescribed to them.

The process of learning how to do management research as craft, then, relies on access to a community of practice, a community that enables the researcher to learn by doing, to learn through apprenticeship, through seeing more experienced practitioners of research craft as they engage in the process themselves and learning from them.

So how does a crafty researcher see the world? Generally they have a constructionist view of reality as constantly shifting and emergent and situated in context determined by people. Their approach to the development of theory is either inductive or abductive. Inductively, they are seeking to develop theory from what emerges in an empirical situation. Abductively, they are puzzling over the gap or the difference between theory and the literature and what they see in an empirical situation. This is quite different from a deductive approach, as characterised typically by hypothesis testing.

So the type of knowledge that crafty researchers create is idiographic. It’s dependent on the situation, and unique. The criteria of generalisability in the sense of replication are not typical of crafty research. So crafty research is evaluated according to the criteria of trustworthiness and authenticity of the researcher and the data that is generated through the research process, rather than the criteria of reliability and validity.

So how do you become a crafty researcher? C. Wright Mills in his book, The Sociological Imagination, talks about the open empathetic attitude that lies at the heart of craft research. And this idea of imagination, of being open to the world as it arises, is core and central to the idea of research craft.

Becoming a crafty researcher is also about honing your abilities of perception, about sensory awareness: becoming attuned through sight and sound and smell and touch to the encounters that you have with the world. And its these abilities that distinguish crafty research from the practice of focusing on intellectual ideas, as they are presented purely linguistically. It’s about the whole sensory experience of the research encounter.

Being a crafty researcher also relies on having an attitude of openness and undecidability. As Abbott says in his book, Methods of Discovery: ‘researchers come at an issue with only a gut feeling that there is something interesting about it. Figuring out what the puzzle really is often happens in parallel with finding the answer itself.’

So I hope you’ve gained an insight into the idea of management research as craft, and I hope you share my enthusiasm for doing management research in crafty ways.

End transcript
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