Jian Bai Li – National University of Singapore
Henning Piezunka – INSEAD
Stephen Hwang – Northwestern Kellogg
Shelby L. Gai – Northwestern Kellogg
Question 1. Family businesses account for a significant amount business activity around the world, but have a reputation for being notoriously difficult to study given data access. What motivated you to study family businesses? What surprised you during the research process?
We wanted to study family businesses because they are interesting in and of themselves—and because they’re also a great context for building theory. Family businesses have a bit of everything all tangled up together: there are people enacting different roles, relationships of different types existing across two different domains (business and family), strong family norms that both aid and impede business operations, etc. So, in that sense, it’s a great context to build theory on multiplex relationships and on economic sociology more generally. And that, I think, is also the tip we would give to other scholars: to use the family business context as an opportunity to build new theory rather than simply applying existing theories to it. We believe that this context can really offer many more novel insights that would expand our current understandings of social and economic behavior. That was certainly true in the case of our paper: while the uniplex third is not exclusive to family businesses, it manifests itself saliently in the family business context so as to enable its underlying mechanisms to be studied.
Question 2. Your data-collection took over six years – wow! What changes did you see over the course of the six years? Could you speak to what you did differently / tried to keep constant during the five times you returned to the site?
There were many changes we observed in the firms we gathered data from (succession being one of them) over six years of data collection, the chief among which is that our relationships with our informants grew. When we first started collecting data, most of what our informants told us were “by the books” stories about how they founded their companies, and they weren’t immediately willing to share details regarding relationships and conflicts in the family. It was only when we had built up sufficient trust with them that stories about the family side of their family businesses came out. But, methodologically, we always tried to maintain the same approach to data collection (i.e. the one we outlined in the methods section of the paper) throughout the six years we spent in the field.
Question 3. How did your theoretical argument about multiplex relationships emerge in relation to the data-collection? How did you arrive at your current framing, and what were some of the push back (if any) that you received as you bring in a new, previously unexplored construct (i.e., uniplex third) to the literature?
We arrived at our theoretical arguments via a process of gradual abstraction from our data. We began with the multiplex relationship between the founder/father and the successor/son—because nearly all of our informants described that founder-successor relationship as occurring across two (business and family) domains. We then found it interesting that this founder-successor relationship depended on the facilitation of the mother during the succession process, and thinking about the abstract mechanisms for why that is enabled us to induce the concept of the uniplex third.
As for pushback, the biggest challenge we faced from reviewers is the issue of generalizability, i.e. whether the new theory we’ve built is generalizable beyond the context from which the data we used to build that theory was collected. I think, to a certain extent, all qualitative research faces this challenge, especially if one builds theory using data from a context that isn’t located in North America or Western Europe. Yet this challenge is also one for which qualitative research can never address definitively, simply because qualitative research doesn’t generate the kind of large-n, cross-contextual data necessary to address the generalizability issue definitively. So, in our case, we received a lot of pushback related to the generalizability of our theory beyond China, and for a long time we were at a loss as to how to address that push back because, well, we don’t have data on firms outside of China. But what we eventually figured out was that, when reviewers and presentation audiences were raising the issue of generalizability, what they were really saying is that we’ve yet to build our theory in such a way that it can function without context-specific elements. In other words, the push back on generalizability isn’t really about generalizability but about the quality of our theory-building. That, then, spurred us to build a context-independent theory, which, we confess, we would’ve never done had we not engaged seriously with the pushback we received from the reviewers and from presentation audiences.
And that was very helpful because, while we always had an intuitive sense for how the involvement of the mother’s kin in the business pulled the mother in two opposite directions, it wasn’t until we started getting pushback that we began to build the abstract theoretical mechanisms by which the uniplex third is inhibited. Working with that pushback was quite instrumental towards us conceptualizing the concept of cross-domain closure and differentiating that concept from the network closure that prior research has discussed.
So, I guess the takeaway is something that senior scholars say all the time in various doctoral and junior faculty consortia: most of the time, reviewers and presentation audiences are sincerely trying to help us improve the paper (even if they don’t sound like it), and engaging with their pushback seriously will make the paper better. In our case, I can say that the generalizability pushback we received from our reviewers and from our editor unquestionably helped us improve our theory and our paper. In particular, we probably would not have conceptualized the concept of cross-domain closure and worked out how it inhibited the uniplex third had our editor and our reviewers not pushed us to build a more general theory, and we are infinitely indebted to them for doing so and for their comments and suggestions overall.
Question 4. After reading your paper, we realized that your empirical setting of succession events between the founder and his son indeed offers a great context to study single-domain role transitions in multiplex relationships. However, we would imagine that combining these two literatures (the founder succession and social network literatures) might pose a challenge during the writing and journal review processes. If that is the case, can you share us any big or small difficulties you faced as you bridge and engage with two big, disparate literatures and how you were able to address them effectively?
Yes, engaging with two big, disparate literatures is difficult, particularly when it comes to the review process. What we eventually figured out was that, for this paper, the social networks and the family business literatures actually fit together nicely: the former provides the theoretical background, while the latter provides background on the empirical setting. Specifically, in the social networks literature, there’s a rich body of work on multiplexity and a rich body of work on network triads—but very little on multiplex triads. The family business literature talks about triads of multiplex relationships as empirical phenomena but hasn’t sufficiently theorized on it. So, we contribute to the gap in social networks literature by theorizing on multiplex triads, and we build on empirical findings from the family business literature to craft that theory.
Question 5. Finally, do you have any advice for young students who wish to conduct an inductive study like yours? Any tips or common pitfalls that they should be aware of?
If we had one tip for other young scholars seeking to conduct inductive, qualitative studies, it would be to interpret what they’re hearing and observing the way their informants are interpreting them—and not the way prior theories or frameworks seem to interpret them. This is because one of the biggest mistakes that a qualitative scholar can make is to bring prior theory and frameworks into the field and use them to interpret the phenomena one observes in the field, since doing so strongly interferes with a researcher’s ability to develop an intuition regarding how the actors native to the field interpret their own behaviors and the behaviors of those around them. That intuition, more than anything else, is both the key ingredient and the starting point to theory-building, and no amount of granular data or detailed coding scheme can make up for the lack of that intuition.
We nearly made that mistake ourselves in this study. You see, a lot of research on network triads and third-parties have portrayed these actors as mediators, and what the mother did to help the founder/father and successor/son certainly seemed like mediation to us at first. But our informants never interpreted what the mother did as mediation—in fact, they interpreted what the mother did as something opposite to mediation where she, instead of trying to help the founder/father and successor/son find common ground during their business arguments, actively tried to prevent these arguments from even taking place within the family. And this realization that our informants did not interpret what the mother did as mediation was very, very crucial to us building the theory on the uniplex third. Had we analyzed our data using schemes or codes based on prior research that portrayed third-parties as mediators, we probably would not have arrived at the theoretical insights that we did.
The overall takeaway, we suppose, is that qualitative theory-building should be done upon the informants’ interpretations of their social experiences and not in place of them. This becomes particularly important if one is doing qualitative work in non-Western cultural contexts, and taking theory based on social and economic behavior in Western cultural contexts into non-Western contexts generally results in conclusions that superficially confirms existing research without truly contributing new theoretical insights.