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Identity Study Methods

For my last blog of 2010 I thought why not share my first methods review of Identity studies mainly from an organisation perspective.  This is some preliminary work for the Research Methods assignment (in the program I am still not yet officially accepted of course!!)

Actually, the assignment instructed a ‘brief review’ of the literature – and being without a supervisor I have no idea what ‘brief’ actually means – so I settled on a list of 123 initial articles compiled from a 2008 Special Issue on Organizational Identity Studies in a 3 star publication called – Organization, Volume 15 (1).

Here is the process adopted:

1.Read all eight or so articles within the Journal.

2.Compiled a summary list of all references from these articles (119) and books (132).

3.The books I left to one side, although I noted prominent authors who were repeated within articles.

4.Performed a general database search on ‘Identity’ and ‘Social Identity Theory’ Studies from the Emerald Search Engine.  This appended a further 50 articles.

5.I searched and downloaded these 169 articles (That took me two days as some were not easy to find!)

  1. Loaded these into Mendeley, and tidied the references.
  2. Scanned from within Mendeley, each article for philosophy, methodology and methods adopted.

6 articles were dropped for clear lack of relevance and a further 46 articles demoted to indirect relevance to Identity studies in my research context (i.e. those not directly related to self, organizational, groups studies of identity).

8.123 directly related articles reviewed with associated spreadsheet analysis (see below).

9.Finally summaries were created for Epistemology, Methodology, Methods type, and collection.

Some points pre-analysis of the sample of Identity articles:

•It is very important to note that the editors of the special issue magazine were explicitly more interested in the interpretivist and critical research agenda.  This may/will have skewed this sample.  I supplemented with further articles form the Emerald database search, nevertheless, this sample may not be a fair representation.

•The epistemology was as a rule not explicitly stated by the article author.  I improvised a bit not having the time to carefully review this aspect e.g. most case studies using interviews and ethnography are assumed to be interpretivst.  Guideline only.  Explicitly stated research philosophy’s were recorded accurately as stated.

•Methodology was often not stated clearly, or was confusing e.g. either call the study ‘a case study’ when I could not see how, or even not call it anything using interviews and analysing results.  In these cases, judgment was used to reclassify as a ‘general qualitative approach’.

•Data collection methods used various naming conventions so I grouped things together e.g. ethnography, participant observation (or non) were all under ethnography; while semi-structured, in-depth or informal conversations were recorded as interviews.

•All discussion, conceptual, and literature review papers were classified under conceptual papers.

•Data analysis methods were as a rule totally unclear in the papers.  No analysis has been added here because of the lack of quality data, nevertheless it was more often than not qual or quant analysis in some fashion.

•Details around period of study, location, sampling were sketchy in most articles.

•Articles within the direct relevance sample were from 1977-2011, 112 of the 123 are from the past 10 years.


Interpretivist philosophy dominates the research methods suggesting that qualitative work is the most preferred choice for investigating Identity phenomena.


Conceptual and discussion papers, and case studies dominated sample articles evenly throughout the whole time period.  Interestingly, the research studies (i.e. not conceptual papers) are almost entirely in the past 10 years.   This might suggest that contemporary authors favour recent studies or is a recent empirical endeavour.  Removing the conceptual papers, the graph highlights the dominance of case study, general qualitative, and ethnography.  Survey methodology is roughly used once in every 5 studies.

Method Type


Single methods remained consistently the most popular method type over the period.  Multi-method is also common while mixed-methods remains to be used only sporadically, perhaps due to the difficulty for many to cross the quant/qual divide philosophically!

Data Collection Methods

Interview is the most popular method for Identity studies, followed by Ethnography and questionnaire.  Of course as per the method type above, these were often combined in mixed or multi-method configurations.  The most common of these are interviews and ethnography (72%), followed by interviews, ethnography and documentary (24%) – totaling 96% of multi method choices.  These naturally seem to form the multiple perspectives in which to build up a case study.

Journal  Characteristics

I also check the quality of the journals represented.  High quality category 3 and 4 journals were well represented at 29% and offer a third of the actual articles reviewed.  Equally a third of the articles samples come from journals not rated within 2010 Association of Business Schools ‘Academic Journal Quality Guide’, Version 4.



Within the sample overall, I must admit to be having mixed feelings over the quality of the outcomes from the research work undertaken.  In some cases, I was left in awe at the time and care taken to compile differing perspectives and literature on the identity study terrain.  In others, I was amazed at the detail surrounding the research design or the novelty factor on choices e.g. an auto-photography.  Yet, in many cases, I was left wondering what was the point of this research, what NEW insights were found and shared?  The positivist articles still leave me cold, and I found the overly narrative examples left me asking where is the value add?

Frankly, I have found this exercise to be quite laborious, but also interesting and helpful to see the plethora of choices researchers have to make up the design.   Using Morgan & Burrell’s 2×2 categorizations (1979) would have been interesting to validate Alvesson’s et al. (2008) claim of Identity studies being dominated from the functionalist frame.  My initial scan here seems to contradict this, nevertheless, I will admit my philosophical understanding is very light, and considering my limited methods focus in this first review – I could well be totally wrong here!

I will say that, one paper left an impression on me for an odd reason.  Tracy and Trethewey (2005) who highlighted the idea of the ‘crystallized self’ left me with the thought not so much in terms of identity but instead of qualitative research itself i.e. an attempt to extend far past a mere triangulation of evidence to looking for as many angles as possible to find the contribution to knowledge – Crystallized Research!!!!

As per usual, to anyone doing qualitative research or identity related studies – I would love to hear from you.

Shortly, I will post this detailed bibliography on to Mendeley in a shared folder.  Just holler if you would like access.


M. Alvesson, K. Lee Ashcraft, and R. Thomas, “Identity Matters: Reflections on the Construction of Identity Scholarship in Organization Studies,” Organization, vol. 15, Jan. 2008, pp. 5-28.

S.J. Tracy and A. Trethewey, “Fracturing the Real-Self ↔ Dichotomy : Moving Toward ‘ Crystallized ’ Organizational,” Communication Theory, 2005, pp. 168-195.

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