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Publisher : Elsevier - Science Direct (الزویر - ساینس دایرکت)
Journal : Management Accounting Research, Volume 21, Issue 2, June 2010, Pages 130–141
This paper seeks to develop our understanding of method triangulation and research paradigms in interpretive management accounting research. Relying on field illustrations, the paper provides insight into how method triangulation has actually been received within the Finnish management accounting research community. At present, talk can be distinguished from action in method triangulation. Relying further on this insight, the paper discusses the meaning of a “paradigm”. It points out that for the individual scholar the paradigm is not necessarily a coherent, well-reflected philosophical standpoint. Instead, it represents a socio-political assemblage that suggests a “methodological identity” and provides “paradigmatic economies” for the self-interested academic. We also put forward a view on the future of method triangulation and paradigmatic détente more generally.
Interpretive management accounting research seems to be living a period of critical self-reflection. Recently, the philosophical underpinnings of interpretive studies, and especially the paradigmatic subjective/objective dichotomy in its methodological foundations, have been elements in an intensive academic exchange (Kakkuri-Knuuttila et al., 2008a, Kakkuri-Knuuttila et al., 2008b and Ahrens, 2008). The distinctive role of theory in producing plausible empirical findings has been reassessed (Ahrens and Chapman, 2006). Even the future of interpretive accounting research has been discussed in a polyphonic debate (Ahrens et al., 2008, Armstrong, 2008, Baxter et al., 2008 and Scapens, 2008).1 Against this background, the arguments which have been advanced for combining case and survey study methods in management accounting research have become more significant. What has been said regarding method triangulation now appears as a terrain where the orientation of interpretive accounting research can once again be discussed. It seems that method triangulation is becoming a central dimension where critical choices about the reconciliation or incompatibility of research paradigms are being made in research practice. As Modell (2009, p. 3) crystallizes it: “The tensions associated with straddling between paradigms are readily observable when one considers the issue of triangulation between theories and methods [emph. added] rooted in different paradigms”. Here, at the level of actually doing empirical management accounting research by mobilizing or by not mobilizing multiple research methods, management accounting researchers reveal how much they actually wish, and are able, to straddle between the positivist and the interpretive paradigms ( Modell, 2009, Modell, 2007, Modell, 2005, Arnold, 2006, Hopper and Hoque, 2006, Kakkuri-Knuuttila et al., 2008a, Kakkuri-Knuuttila et al., 2008b and Davila and Oyon, 2008). Method triangulation can be seen as revealing something fundamental about how paradigmatic détente is perceived amongst management accounting scholars working in the interpretive tradition. We should, however, acknowledge the challenge that method triangulation sets for scholars at the level of actual research practice (Ahrens and Chapman, 2006, pp. 833–836, see also e.g. Patton, 1990). Moreover, questions should be raised about how method triangulation can be effectively operationalized, and about how it could affect the future of interpretive management accounting research (Hopwood, 2008). This paper offers an illustrated theoretical discussion. It is anchored to the contemporary debates concerning the nature of paradigms in management accounting research and the benefits of employing different research methods. In brief, it contributes to these debates by first seeking field insights into the social reality of academics in the interpretive tradition. Then, having explored the actual mobilization of different research methods, by listening to a number of “voices from the field”, it discusses the potential of method triangulation and the nature of research paradigms as critical socio-political assemblages. More specifically, through interviews in a “reachable” national research community, the study seeks insight into how practicing management accounting researchers are, in reality, enacting method triangulation. Within the boundaries of a small European country, where a strong interpretive tradition in management accounting research has taken root, we are able to address a particular research community fairly comprehensively. We selected the Finnish research community as we belong to it, and are familiar with its theoretical tradition and academic organization. This provides us a context and a kind of introspective setting for theoretical reflection and for illustrating our conclusions about the current status, the pros and cons and the actual prospects of method triangulation – as well as for a discussion on the meaning of research paradigms more broadly. We are cautious about transporting our argument to other settings, but on the basis of our field insights, we seek to add to the current debate by discussing how method triangulation actually becomes mobilized, what its perceived benefits are, how its challenges are actually being felt in everyday research practice, and why it often fails to become widely embraced as a vehicle for validating qualitative empirical enquiry. Furthermore, we seek to develop a more detailed understanding of how the research paradigm both enables and constrains the interpretive management accounting researcher. Our conclusions are advanced in a tentative spirit, with the aim of further stimulating the debate. The paper's purpose is to deepen our understanding of method triangulation and research paradigms – at the operational level of management accounting research. We examine method triangulation and its challenges in the practical field where paradigmatic rigidity seems to surface. Consequently, our curiosity about method triangulation leads us to say something about paradigms as practical socio-political constructs. Our study suggests that the individual scholar in interpretive management accounting does not evaluate research paradigms primarily from a philosophical standpoint. Instead of pondering the philosophical foundations of competing paradigms, the individual scholar usually embraces one of the available paradigms. However, paradigms may contain philosophical contradictions, and exaggerate their ontological and epistemological distinctiveness (Kakkuri-Knuuttila et al., 2008a). But regardless of such contradictions and exaggerated elements, the paradigm plays a critical role. As we will argue in this paper, the interpretive methodological paradigm serves important functions: it provides both a “methodological identity” as well as “paradigmatic economics”. The paper is structured as follows. First, it reminds us what a recent pronouncement concerning straddling between research paradigms suggests about the paradigm incommensurability thesis. Second, it provides a summary of key arguments about method triangulation. Third, it explains the field interviews that both inspired and illustrate the paper's message. The fourth section introduces the voices from the field of Finnish management accounting scholars, while the fifth section discusses the insights gained from the field and offers a number of conclusions.