Article Review: Generating Research Questions Through Problematization

Alvesson, M., & Sandberg, J. (2011). Generating research questions through problematization. Academy of Management Review, 36(2), 247-271.

Link to article (free)

In preparation for the full research proposal (the first stage of my doctoral program), one of the main challenges is coming to terms with a sea of articles and book chapters and deciding what to do about them. I want to do the following:

1) Give an accurate summary of what is happening in the research area;

2) Highlight areas that have been overlooked or misconstrued;

3) Propose an alternative paradigm for approaching my own research.

Reading Alvensson & Sandberg’s (2011) article has provided me not only fresh insights, but a practical approach to what I want to do, particularly with developing an alternative theory or conceptualization.

The authors recognize that researchers want to produce interesting and influential theories and that such theories need to “differ significantly from, and at the same time be connected to, established literature in order to be seen as meaningful” (p. 247). Generating research questions through problematization thus seem to be the main route toward more interesting an influential theories, however, established ways for arriving at research questions tend to mean spotting or constructing gaps in existing theories rather than challenging their assumptions.

The authors discuss briefly the reasons for such tendencies (e.g. fear of offending others), and illustrate the prevalent ways of constructing research questions from existing literature in the field of management studies.

The authors then focus on the methodology of problematization and offer five broad sets of assumptions open for problematization (see Figure 1 [p. 260]):

1) In-house: assumptions that exist within a specific school of thought

2) Root metaphor: broader images of a particular subject matter underlying existing literature

3) Paradigm: ontological, epistemological, and methodological assumptions underlying existing literature

4) Ideology: political-, moral- and gender-related assumptions underlying existing literature

5) Field: assumptions about a specific subject matter that are shared across different theoretical schools

The authors also provide six principles for identifying and challenging assumptions  (p. 260) which are helpful for the researcher, or the problematizer as they call it, to consider and when articulating alternative viewpoints.

This article has been for me a missing piece of the puzzle as I try to make sense of the broad sweep of literature with various strands and focus areas. May I grow in my role as a problematizer to question the underlying assumptions and offer an alternative but positive perspective to my research focus.

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