It is important to start by recognising that case studies can be used in a variety of different ways in accounting research. The following are some of the types of accounting case studies. However, the list is intended to be neither definitive nor exhaustive. It merely seeks to indicate some of the different ways in which case studies can be used. Descriptive case studies: these describe accounting systems, techniques and procedures used in practice. A number of companies may be selected as cases to describe different accounting practices or the similarity of practices in different companies. Descriptive case studies were particularly useful in the 1980s as researchers attempted to provide descriptions of management accounting practice. Then and subsequently such studies have often been funded by professional accounting bodies because they appear to offer the possibility of determining ‘best’ practice — sometimes conceived as the most common practice and sometimes as the practice adopted by ‘successful’ companies. However, such studies beg the crucial question of what constitutes ‘best’ practice and ‘successful’ companies. Nevertheless, such case studies are useful in providing information concerning the nature of contemporary accounting practices.
Illustrative case studies: in management accounting research (especially in North America), case studies have been used to illustrate new and possibly innovative practices developed by particular companies. Case studies can also be illustrative in the sense of providing a Weberian ‘ideal-type’. These are case studies which provide empirical exemplars of the embodiment of particular theories. They are not intended to illustrate practices that are necessarily superior to others. Instead, they provide illustrations of the way in which particular theoretical categorisations can be observed in practice. Experimental case studies: accounting researchers frequently develop new accounting procedures and techniques that are intended to be helpful to accounting practitioners. Sometimes, however, it can be difficult to implement the researchers’ interpretive case studies.
Traditional accounting research has utilised a positive empirical methodology, which relies to a great extent on the methods and theories of neo-classical economics. Such research sees the world as essentially objective and external to the researcher, uses deductive reasoning and hypothesis testing, and sees the role of accounting as assisting economic decision-making. It is from such a methodological perspective that case studies are seen as largely exploratory, and used to generate hypotheses for later testing through large-scale surveys and statistical generalisation. The particular uses made of case study research methods will depend on the methodological choices of the researcher and the nature of the research; specifically, the research questions to be addressed. I will return later to the importance of clearly specifying the research questions, when I discuss the main steps in a case study. But in the meantime, some comments are needed on the selection of suitable cases.
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