Case studies in accounting and business management

Professor Robert W Scapens, Division of Accounting and Finance, Manchester Business School.

The research methods books of Yin are frequently cited as references to justify the use of case study research. In his early work he defined a case study as:

  • an empirical inquiry that investigates a contemporary phenomenon within its real-life context;
  • when the boundaries between phenomenon and context are not clearly evident; and
  • in which multiple sources of evidence are used (Yin, 1984, p. 23).

However, case studies are used in many different ways in the various disciplines of the social sciences, and across the humanities. In accounting, and business management more generally, case studies are frequently used to understand the nature of accounting and management practices. Frequently, such studies are criticised as “not generalisable”. However, such criticism is grounded in a rather positivistic view of case study research, whereas in accounting and business management case studies are used in a broad range of different methodological approaches.

In simple terms it is possible to distinguish positive to interpretive case studies. Both types of studies fit Yin’s definition (summarised above), but they use case studies in very different ways. Positive case studies present objective facts which should ultimately lead to generalisable findings, but further quantitative work is usually needed for (statistical) generalisation. Hence, the case studies can only be exploratory - providing insights and propositions which could be tested through statistical analysis of large samples. In contrast, interpretive case studies are grounded in subjective understandings, which provide local explanations of the social phenomena of interest. Hence, such case studies should seek to be explanatory; providing ways of understanding the nature of accounting and management practices as social phenomena.

Two recent accounting case studies which clearly illustrate these differences are:

  • Kennedy, F.A. and Widener, S.K., “A Control Framework: Insights from Evidence on Lean Accounting”, Management Accounting Research, 19.4, (2008) 301–323.
  • Ahrens, T. and Chapman, C.S. “Management Accounting as Practice” Accounting, Organizations and Society, 32.1-2 (2007) 1-27.

The book edited by Chris Humphrey and Bill Lee B. (eds.), The Real Life Guide to Accounting Research, [Kidlington, Oxford: Elsevier, 2004], contains various contributions which examine the practical issues of doing research, and includes a number of chapters on various aspects of case study research. In particular, Chapter 15 (by Scapens) discusses ways of doing “Doing Case Study Research”.

Staff using case studies

Within the Manchester Business School there are many people who use a wide range of different types of case studies. In the Accounting and Finance Division (interpretive) case studies are used primarily by the people in the Management Accounting and Information Systems group.

Management Accounting

  • Professor Sven Model
  • Professor Ted O’Leary
  • Prof Robert W Scapens
  • Dr Jodie Moll
  • Dr ChunLei Yang

Information Systems

  • Professor Mike Newman
  • Dr Brian Nicholson
  • Dr Heba El-Sayed

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