Relationally Reflexive Practice: A Generative Approach to Theory Development in Qualitative Researchby P. Hibbert, J. Sillince, T. Diefenbach, A. L. Cunliffe

Organizational Research Methods




Organizational Research

The online version of this article can be found at:

DOI: 10.1177/1094428114524829 2014 17: 278 originally published online 11 March 2014Organizational Research Methods

Paul Hibbert, John Sillince, Thomas Diefenbach and Ann L. Cunliffe

Qualitative Research

Relationally Reflexive Practice: A Generative Approach to Theory Development in

Published by:

On behalf of:

The Research Methods Division of The Academy of Management can be found at:Organizational Research MethodsAdditional services and information for Alerts:

What is This? - Mar 11, 2014OnlineFirst Version of Record - Jun 9, 2014Version of Record >> at PENNSYLVANIA STATE UNIV on August 11, 2014orm.sagepub.comDownloaded from


Relationally Reflexive

Practice: A Generative

Approach to Theory

Development in

Qualitative Research

Paul Hibbert1, John Sillince2, Thomas Diefenbach3, and Ann L. Cunliffe4


In this article we explain how the development of new organization theory faces several mutually reinforcing problems, which collectively suppress generative debate and the creation of new and alternative theories. We argue that to overcome these problems, researchers should adopt relationally reflexive practices. This does not lead to an alternative method but instead informs how methods are applied. Specifically, we advocate a stance toward the application of qualitative methods that legitimizes insights from the situated life-with-others of the researcher. We argue that this stance can improve our abilities for generative theorizing in the field of management and organization studies.

Keywords relationality, reflexivity, theory development, methodology, research methods


The adoption of novel methodological practices is very slow. Although some of the reviews refer to ‘‘changes,’’ ‘‘improvements’’ and ‘‘important trends,’’ a close examination of the data actually show that changes take place very slowly and usually do not happen in less than two to three decades. (Aguinis, Pierce, Bosco, & Muslin, 2009, p. 75) 1University of St. Andrews School of Management, The Gateway, Fife, United Kingdom 2Newcastle University Business School, Newcastle upon Tyne, United Kingdom 3Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University (APU), College of International Management, Oita-ken, Japan 4Leeds University Business School, Maurice Keyworth Building, University of Leeds, Leeds, United Kingdom

Corresponding Author:

Paul Hibbert, University of St. Andrews School of Management, The Gateway, North Haugh, St. Andrews, Fife, KY16 9RJ, UK.


Organizational Research Methods 2014, Vol. 17(3) 278-298 ª The Author(s) 2014

Reprints and permission:

DOI: 10.1177/1094428114524829 at PENNSYLVANIA STATE UNIV on August 11, 2014orm.sagepub.comDownloaded from

In a recent special feature topic in Organizational Research Methods, Davis (2010) reviewed the progress in organization theory development in recent decades and found that there was little evidence for a proliferation of novel approaches—in fact, quite the reverse. He concluded that ‘‘a half-dozen paradigms maintain hegemony year after year, facing little danger that new evidence will pile up against them, with [neo-institutional theory] at the head of the class’’ (Davis, 2010, p. 705).

Alvesson and Sandberg (2013) also argue that despite a proliferation of ‘‘rigorous’’ research, there is a shortage of innovative and high-impact research—a claim supported by Aguinis et al. (2009) in the previous quote, who extend the lack of innovation to methodology. We concur, and argue that we need to develop research methodologies and practices that lead to new and possibly more contextualized theoretical insights. In addressing this need, we aim to supplement the improvements offered by Alvesson and Sandberg (2013; addressing institutional norms that constrain theory development) and Davis (2010; addressing poor research practices commonly associated with quantitative research designs). Our work adds to these debates by addressing epistemological constraints that go beyond institutional conditions and by developing generative research practices associated with qualitative rather than quantitative approaches.

Accordingly, in this article, we develop and describe qualitative research practices that support generative theorizing. We follow Carlsen and Dutton (2011) in defining generativity as a creative engagement with experience that has ‘‘the potential to produce more enduring expansive and transformative consequences with regard to 1) the development of ideas, 2) the development of researchers, their practices and relationships, and 3) the thought-action repertoires of people in the researched organization’’ (p. 15). All three of these elements go hand in hand, but our focus is particularly on the second aspect—the development of researchers, their practices, and relationships through a relationally reflexive approach to the craft of qualitative research. As we shall argue, a relationally reflexive approach involves practices that address the need, spelled out by Cunliffe and

Karunanayake (2013), to ‘‘question the way we position ourselves in relation to others in the research in our methodology, interactions, and research accounts’’ (p. 385). Our article builds on this questioning approach by examining how researchers can develop their practices in a move toward more generative theorizing.

In order to develop our perspective on supporting generative theorizing through relationally reflexive practices, the remainder of this article proceeds in three main parts. First, we reflect on the barriers to generative theorizing that stimulated our development of a relationally reflexive response. Second, we describe in detail the nature of relational reflexivity and the practices through which a relationally reflexive research methodology is constructed. In particular we characterize two kinds of relationally reflexive practice—engaging otherness and enacting connectedness—across three phases of the research process. Finally, we describe how this approach allows for generative theory development, through illustrating its application to a specific methodology, action research, and by drawing out the general implications.