Article link: http://asq.sagepub.com/content/61/4/507
Question 1. Spotting Research Ideas & Research Partners
Finding ‘interesting’ research ideas is probably the biggest challenge for every scholar, especially doctoral students. While some suggest gaps in literature as a starting point, others point to interesting phenomena to begin. Attaining this fit (literature gap-phenomena) seems a real challenge. Where did your journey begin and which way is recommended for doctoral students?
Our journey began at a dinner in a well-known restaurant in Bergamo, Italy. Royston came to give the keynote address to the 4th New Institutionalist Workshop (www.newinstitutionalism.org) organized by Giuseppe at his, then, University, and after the dessert the owner of the restaurant offered a Grappa di Picolit, presenting it as ‘the’ Italian spirit. Giuseppe told Royston that now premium grappa was sold for 10 dollars a glass in fancy restaurants, but till the seventies was considered plebeian and restaurateurs would only serve foreign spirits like Cognac and Whisky. He told the story of a small producer in the Italian province who first failed and then succeeded having its grappa accepted by wine critics and restaurateurs. Royston, an excited light in his eyes, erupted with: “This is a story of a firm overcoming the categorical imperative! We have to write it down.” It was good luck that one of the main archives on the history grappa, those of the maverick wine critic Luigi Veronelli, were located in Bergamo and that Giuseppe had his sabbatical planned starting the fall of the same year. The following February, in Edmonton, we were learning from copies of historical documents how we might frame the story. That story eventually turned out to be a status imperative story. But the starting point was that dinner in the old city of Bergamo.
At first we did not talk of filling a theoretical gap. Instead, we found the question of how a vilified market category became purified and then glorified by elites, an intriguing puzzle. Yes, we had that initial insight that this ran counter to the categorical imperative idea, but the puzzle itself captured our attention. Moreover, we felt that the puzzle wasn’t yet a well-studied phenomenon. This evaluation was more an intuition, as neither of us at the time was very deep into the category and the status literatures. More importantly, we only later discovered the biggest gap in the literature, a kind of elephant in the room, when we noticed that whereas the status of organizations within market categories had already been extensively studied and theorized, only one study (Sharkey, 2014) addressed the status of categories themselves and none had investigated the status of a category as a ‘dependent variable’. I think that being initially outsiders in the status and category literatures allowed us to have a fresh look at the matter. Hopefully we will not lose that freshness now as insiders! Anyway, we realized that organizations that attempt to elevate themselves are not only bounded by their own status but also by the status of the category to which they belong. In our case, the provincial entrepreneur succeeded in breaking the glass ceiling of the highest status position accepted by audiences within Italian society, and did so to the advantage of the most alert members of the whole category.
We do not want to generalize too much out of this experience. But we found that having a more general curiosity and awareness of discussions in more than one academic sub-field helped us ‘identify’ an interesting phenomenon. Only later, after we had plunged more deeply into the specific literatures, did we begin to understand and carve out the specific gap that we were trying to close.
Question 2. Research Design
2a. It appears from your article that you have iterated numerous times between the data and the theory. Could you reflect how did you go for this and its relevance for inductive research designs?
A specificity of this study is the importance of the visual and the material, the need to collect pictures of bottles, advertisements, distilleries, and to analyze them. But also materiality, the spirit itself, and the handling of the bottles, and sensing the places in which grappa used to be drunk and is tasted nowadays. And of being introduced by experts to some secrets of tasting and production processes. Having an Italian in the team was fundamental in understanding some cultural nuances, although the time travel allowed by the historical documents provided many surprises (which is one of the reason why historical studies are so exciting).
From the other side, having a British-Canadian in the team who was not so keen to even taste grappa and could push the Italian to look for the forest rather than writing pages on the beauty of each tree, was an essential counterbalance. But, more fundamentally, we had two main central methodical devices that allowed us to direct our data search and navigate their analysis. First, we tried to falsify the heroic story that the main acclaimed family firm retrospectively had constructed. Not only triangulating several sources like documents, interviews, historical ads and videos, but also by comparing different versions of the company history that had been produced over the last 20 years (noting what was added and what was removed) was revealing. Second, we looked carefully at the failed attempts that preceded the successful one. Having the opportunity to compare success with failure allowed us to better understand the mechanisms that we were gradually extracting from the story. Although we could not falsify the main traded storyline of a ‘heroic’ family, our approach allowed us to have a much more differentiated and precise understanding of what was going on 30 years ago.
2b. Your research uses rich and varied sources of qualitative data. Identifying, collecting, storing and analyzing qualitative data is quite a task. How did you go about doing it? What should scholars attempting to use such methods be careful about?
We did not use some data analysis software like Atlas.ti, because we could not figure out how to put the actual bottles into the program… Seriously, we worked traditionally by filling A3 sized paper, whiteboards and excel and word files with reduced data, schemata and emerging theoretical ideas. And we left the main visuals and artifacts around us (we had the luck to get hold of three of the original 25cl bottles used in the 1970s as gifts to prominent people) so to be inspired also by them. In many ways, our approach might look rather unsophisticated in comparison to many of today’s qualitative analyses, but we found that our approach really immersed us in the data and gradually revealed that elephant in the room! Further, presenting our provisional story at gatherings of practitioners was very useful, not only because it helped validate or nuance our interpretations, but also as a source of new informants.
Fundamentally data collection and analysis are iterative processes that almost never end. The trickiest part is to always remember to challenge the emerging interpretation – whether by triangulating different sources, or by deliberately looking for contradictory data. In this respect, having two researchers helped – we continually challenged each other’s take on the data.
Question 3. Writing
3a. Your article makes an interesting reading. How did you go about drafting the paper? What tips on the craft can doctoral students, attempting qualitative approaches, take away from your experience?
Qualitative stories need to stand on their own – without an accompanying theory. So, as a check we gave the empirical story part as a teaching case to masters students and asked them the same question that we were trying to answer: What mechanisms are behind the status elevation of grappa? The teaching case is longer than that included in the ASQ paper, which we had to reduce for reasons of parsimony. But the fact that the story worked well as a teaching case study and that students came to similar conclusions to those that we were reaching, gave us confidence that we had summarized it well. Critically, it is essential that any qualitative study show in the description of the empirical story all of the empirical elements that are abstracted later into the theoretical story. For us, Tables 1 and 2 in the ASQ version are particularly important.
In our case, we were also sensitive to the probability that for most reviewers there would be a significant cultural and historical distance from our story. It was therefore important to show pictures in the paper and insist that they get published. Pictures, if explained, can give the reviewer and the reader the opportunity to understand the context much better.
There are, of course two ways by which qualitative accounts can be presented. We made the choice to clearly divide the empirical from the theoretical account. In the paper the empirical story is the section titled ‘Turning a Cinderella into a Queen’, and the theoretical analysis follows in its own section. An alternative approach that is also widely used would be to blend the two. That is, it could also be meaningful to introduce the main theoretical ideas while telling the story and showing the data, leaving to the discussion the task of presenting in a more abstract way the relationships among these constructs.
3b. The title of your article is attractive. Which one is better – informative title or attractive title? How important is it?
We think both are important. And the managing editor of ASQ, Linda M. Johanson, helped us a make the informative part of the title clearer for a wider audience.
3c. How and when did you decide that ASQ would be the right journal for your article?
Once we recognized that we had a new phenomenon that almost nobody had written about, and as we became confident that ‘theorization by allusion’ is enlightening, we recognized that ASQ would be an appropriate place to send the paper. ASQ has a broad readership and is known for cutting edge theoretical work. Moreover, it is less stringent in its page limitations, which helps in the kind of study that we were putting forward. But let’s be honest – ASQ is an elite journal for organization theory and that’s where we aspire to publish our work.
Question 4. Theoretical Framework
How did you go about situating your new theory within existing theoretical conversations? At what stage of your research did you identify/finalize the academic discourse you will join and contribute?
It was only at a mid stage of the exploration that we began to appreciate the full potential of our story. Once we had recognized that our conversation centers around an institutional approach to status in markets, we began to cut theoretical branches that had developed but that distracted from the “trunk” of our story. Then, of course, the review process sharpened that appreciation and focus.
Question 5. Implications and Future Research
A ‘receptive social context’ and presence of an ‘institutional entrepreneur’ have been identified as scope conditions within which the radical status change of Grappa was achieved successfully. Could you elaborate on the latter (‘institutional entrepreneur’)? Can you also point to possible areas of research around this scope condition (‘institutional entrepreneur’)?
One of the theoretical questions that we cut out as we streamlined our main arguments was – “Why didn’t the future institutional entrepreneur abide by the status imperative?” Producing cheap low status grappa had allowed other producers to earn consistent profits – so why did this producer strike out in a new direction given the high risk of failure that went with it. We came to understand that there are many imperatives for conformity and that the market imperative (to offer a product that is consistent with the status of the category) is only one. The main protagonist of the story, the wife of the distiller, was subject to other social imperatives posed by her social circle (bourgeoisie families of the region), and by those she aspired to access (cultural circles at national level). Abiding by the market imperative, in other words, carried social costs because being associated with a plebeian product constituted a social disadvantage. We reached this interpreted from a Bourdieusian point of view as ‘habitus displacement,’ with the notable feature that in our case the individual habitus was placed ‘higher’ than the position socially assigned to the product with which the individual was associated. It was this misalignment that generated the strong motivation for the distiller’s wife to change the situation to make it compatible to her habitus. The relationship between an organization and an audience, we interpreted, is therefore not only dyadic: imperatives can be multiple and incompatible requiring choice or change. These ideas, however, did not find place in the paper. To investigate such situations would be an interesting area of future research.
More generally, we can observe a schism in the organization and management literature. On one side, strategy scholars tend to attribute in a rather unproblematic way agency and choice to managers and entrepreneurs, while, on the other, institutionalists see agency more as a result of collective processes. The latter interprets ‘heroic’ entrepreneurs as the result of post-hoc sensemaking and rationalization. We think that the two views are too polarized. At least, in a case an individual was able to engage in “stretching constraints” and leave a legacy that would constraint and empower others: “leadership is that constrained place where imagination, resources, and opportunity converge. The imaginings need not be original to the leader, but he is the one who can control their use for his ends. The resources need not be entirely of her making, but she must be able to commandeer them for her own use” (Samuels, 2003, Machiavelli’s Children, Cornell University Press, p. 6). Maybe we need to give more attention to this way of conceiving institutional entrepreneurs?
Sharkey, A. J. (2014). Categories and organizational status: The role of industry status in the response to organizational deviance. American Journal of Sociology, 119: 1380– 1433.