Reconciling theory and context: How the case study can set a new agenda for international business research

Catherine Welch, Eriikka Paavilainen-Mäntymäki, Rebecca Piekkari & Emmanuella Plakoyiannaki

Journal of International Business Studies (2022) 53, 4–26

In our Decade Award-winning article from 2011 we argued that it is not possible to explain social phenomena without consideration of their contexts.
However, a persistent assumption in international business (IB) is that theories should be context-free. This affects the methodological choices we make, favoring the inductive theory-building approach to theorizing from case studies. In 2011, we proposed an alternative – contextualized explanations – that in our view better utilizes the main strength of the case study: reconciling theory and context. In this Retrospective, we further develop our original argument that context is essential, and not a hindrance, to theorizing, as well as elaborate on how decontextualization impoverishes theoretical insights. In order to achieve contextualized explanation, we offer four alternatives: process research, historical research, the extended case method, and configurational theorizing. We argue that, for the IB field to take contextualization seriously, we need an open debate about what theory is and how we produce it. We hope this paper will broaden the scope of our discussion from the need for methodological pluralism to the need for theoretical pluralism, thereby setting a new agenda for future IB research.