Qual+, the new Aalto University Center for Qualitative Management Studies, opened formally on September 7th and 8th, 2023.
Qual+ promotes methodological and theoretical pluralism in management studies and invites all forms of qualitative research, including mixed and merged methods. The center's main objectives include advancing methodological connections across researchers, helping researchers learn and develop new methodologies, promoting multidisciplinary dialogue concerning the use of qualitative methodologies, and exploring future trends in qualitative methods. The center brings researchers together by organizing seminars, workshops, and community-building events. It builds on a long tradition of qualitative research scholarship at the School of Business (and its predecessor, the Helsinki School of Economics) and leverages Aalto’s world-class qualitative research skills internationally.
Earlier in the opening week, Tine Köhler and Joep Cornelissen both led their own methods workshops. Tine’s workshop, “How to write research methods papers that make a methodological contribution”, gave participants the chance to exchange views and evaluate some recent examples of good practice from Organizational Research Methods, of which Tine is Co-Editor-in-Chief. Joep’s workshop, “How to develop and write (about) theory”, sought to define and demystify what many scholars regard as “much harder to deal with and think through compared to methods or the practical relevance of our research”, as well as guiding participants in their own theorizing through practical exercises.
Rebecca Piekkari officially opened Qual+ and Day One of its two-day inaugural event as Director of the Center, joined by the Chair of the Board of Aalto University, Mikko Kosonen. Mikko emphasized how important it is for researchers to invest in gaining a deep understanding of the phenomena they are studying and in building close ties with practitioners. Such investments often go unrecognized in current career systems at universities.
Rebecca emphasized the timeliness of a qualitative research focus: “The world we live in is characterized by drastic geopolitical disruptions and societal transitions. This means that research aiming to predict the future and identify recurring patterns is not very useful. Quantitative methods alone are not enough if we want to address causal complexity, future uncertainty, and systemic and processual changes in order to produce racially new solutions.” Aalto University already has a record of doing this through qualitative research. The purpose of Qual+ is to institutionalize that practice and expertise, and to capitalize on the distinctively close relationship between business and academia in Finland, as well as its extensive international research networks.
John Van Maanen kicked off the substantive content with a retrospective keynote speech, “There and back again: Ruminations on ethnographic studies”, referring to his seminal ethnographic work, and emphasizing the parity of discovery and storytelling in ethnography. “Bringing back the news” of understudied cultures is not something to be undertaken lightly; it is an immersive and transformative way of knowing, and the cultural representations we produce through our ethnographic writing should strive to be commensurate to the weight of experience in their aesthetic qualities on the page.
Eero Vaara rounded off John’s keynote with a commentary, “Genres of qualitative work”, that identified four themes emerging from it: Van Maanen’s inspirational personal journey in the ethnography; the practices of ethnography (including the parity of field work and text work, as well as our reflexive and critical awareness of institutional work); the process of abduction (and the roles of discovery and doubt); and the genres of ethnography.
Henri Schildt delivered the second keynote speech of the event, “Cyborg inquiry: Can AI help us do better qualitative research?”, including provocations and demonstrations of the use of AI in qualitative research. With a focus on ChatGPT as the currently best-known LLM (large language model), Henri struck an optimistic tone about how AI can already tackle aspects of coding work, potentially freeing up scholars to focus on the parts where humans still excel: intersubjective sensemaking.
The day concluded with two less formal speech events. First, a panel discussion turning to “The future of qualitative management research”, moderated by Saku Mantere. The panelists were Joep Cornelissen, Tine Köhler, Michael Pratt, John Van Maanen and Catherine Welch. Second, an academic speed-dating session, with half a dozen 5-minute shifts of intensive conversation about how we relate to qualitative research, punctuated by chain-shifting round a long table to face our next conversation partners.
Day Two kicked off with introductory remarks from institutional and international perspectives, thanks to Ilkka Niemelä, the President of Aalto University, and Timo Korkeamäki, the Dean of Aalto University School of Business.
Michael Pratt delivered the final keynote speech of the opening event on the topic of “New developments in qualitative methods”, informed by his career-long tally of editorial decision-making on over 600 academic articles. Mike observed that qualitative methods are relatively new to business schools, and that evaluative standards taken from quantitative traditions have been inappropriately applied to them in an effort to demonstrate their methodological legitimacy. But new standards of rigor have begun to gain traction as qualitative methods mature and diversify within business scholarship.
Susanne Tietze led a workshop opening up discussion on several critical angles on qualitative research. “Are qualitative research methods dangerous? Cross-language perspectives” invited participants to consider the socio-political, methodological and empirical implications of crossing linguistic barriers in research and in writing, in English and other languages. In the context of cross-language research, Susanne prompted participants to consider what it means for a researcher to act responsibly and behave ethically, what translation challenges are posed by functional languages, to what extent translation is treachery (traduttore, traditore), and whether international research is a monolingual (English) game.
Six parallel roundtable discussions followed, going deeper into some of the key themes of the opening events and the nascent program of Qual+. Tine Köhler’s roundtable focused on “Longitudinal qualitative fieldwork projects: Design, execution, publication possibilities”. Saku Mantere asked “Can methodology be an impediment to reasoning?”. Mike Pratt’s group discussed the possibility of “Moving from data to convincing results?” Henri Schildt led discussions on “The creative leap in qualitative research”. Susanne Tietze asked “How does qualitative research (not change) in cross-language contexts?”. And John Van Maanen’s discussion focused on “Challenges in your field work”. Each of the six roundtables comprised two short and lively discussion sessions, swapping participant groups at the halfway point. The roundtables wrapped up with a general discussion in the main venue lecture hall.
The opening of Qual+ concluded with closing remarks and thanks from Rebecca. This was indeed “a smart and heady event,” as John Van Maanen said the day before of this “unusual gathering of qualitative researchers all in one room”. We look forward to a busy program of events in the years ahead. For videos and resources related to the opening event and other activities of Qual+, and to sign up to our newsletter and hear about future events, please see the Qual+ website: https://www.aalto.fi/en/department-of-management-studies/qual
This article was first published on 2 October by Aalto University.