Home > education, research > Reflecting on theory and practice, part 1

Reflecting on theory and practice, part 1

From our doctoral cohort discussion group.

I first want to describe my reaction to the articles on theory referenced below and then conclude with some thoughts about the relationship between theory and research.

I began with the Feldman article, an editorial piece included at the front of a special edition of the Journal of Management examining the nature of management theory and disturbing trends that he saw in scholarly journals that were not serving community of practice well. He described the relationship of article authors and their reviewers as less than satisfying and offered some insights into how that came about. He offered  10 dimensions to help frame the problem of defining strong theory. This discussion included some social constructionist theory. I read his editorial as a call to action for both writers and reviewers to be more precise about their claims and methods in the placement of their work in the broader domain of knowledge.

Sutton’s 1995 article in Administrative Science Quarterly preceded the Feldman article by nine years and if Feldman is to be believed, little had changed in the intervening time. The authors describe the unsatisfactory state of affairs with authors and reviewers and the journals themselves with respect to clear and powerful writing on theory.  They identify five components of theory which themselves should not be considered as theory. These components often are offered in place of theory by authors trying to satisfy the purposes of the journal and the editorial comments of their reviewers and not necessarily the needs of the community of practice. The authors offer social construction reasons again for this phenomenon and offered some ideas on how to fix it. Their emphasis was on clarity and power in writing, defining more carefully the dimensions of theory, and a call to the community of practice to work together to solve their social problem.

In the same journal edition, Weick took the other side of the argument to emphasize the difference between theory as a noun and theorizing as an action verb. He observed that theories are always in the process of becoming, and require intermediate stages of development and that premature claims and assertions could do a disservice to the state of knowledge. He echoed Sutton’s call for increased clarity and precision in the use of language in order to place articles more carefully inside the realm of theory. I think he would say that if the theory is immature, then say so and then make statements and inquiries that would move it along appropriately. He was careful not to disagree with Sutton on the basic premise of a need for more clarity but it was clear that this is not always the highest value when constructing a theory.

In the last article Locke makes a very powerful argument for using induction rather than deduction to create theories in the real world. His masterful overview of the philosophical tensions that reach back to Plato Aristotle, through the Enlightenment, Kant and Hume are,  through the positivism of Newton and Popper to the dilemmas of present-day social scientists who are trying to say something meaningful and rigorous in a fuzzy world is one of the most cogent and concise descriptions of the state of philosophy of science that I have ever read. All He goes further by supporting his claims to the value of the inductive theory building by citing three powerful cases which demonstrate inductive theory in practice which can withstand the epistemological challenges of all but the most true believers in positivism. Given more time I might quarrel with his simplistic characterization of Popper’s position on falsifiability which was addressing the entire field of science in human knowledge and not just social science. If I were interviewing him I might ask him for advice of the utility of inductive theory building outside the narrow range of social science that his examples came from, but on the whole I find his position powerful and convincing.

All four articles can be seen as evidence in support of Kuhn’s insights into the social nature of scientific knowledge and theory building. Each article demonstrates the power of human intention and purpose which shapes the direction, content, style and methodology of creating even the most rigorous scientific knowledge.

It is clear that all four authors share a more precise definition of theory than conventionally found in dictionaries. They treat theory as a complex collection of networked ideas constructs, relationships, processes and rules which form an efficient and effective discretion of the workings of the world which can be applied to improve important matters. They treat hypotheses as specific instances of inquiry to test an extension of the theory into new areas of research. Hypotheses then, derive from theories, are suggested by theories and seek to stretch theories if the insight proves to be valid.

With respect to journal articles then, a call for stronger theory is a call for an increased attention to the context and purpose within which the research was conducted. It helps answer the “so what” question and the “why bother” question. These utilitarian questions serve  to demonstrate the worth of the work by suggesting why we should spend time and energy following this inquiry rather than that inquiry.

This batch of articles makes it clear why it is so important to establish the theoretical context of our research. When the theory is ill defined,  the field is wide open for speculation. We can still engage  at a theoretical level provided we make clear the boundaries and conditions we are describing.

A reviewer should not penalize a writer for lack of clarity in the theoretical context if the theories themselves are fuzzy. It is proper however to criticize an author who mischaracterizes the state of theory or neglects the context.

In our quantitative methods class Dr. Ram reinforce one of the basic premises of statistical technique, that data without context is meaningless. I think the same thing applies to research. Without the theoretical context the insights of research cannot be placed in the value and magnitude cannot be established.

Feldman, D. C. (2004). What are we talking about when we talk about theory? Journal Of Management, 30(5), 565-567.

Kuhn, T. (1970) The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 2d ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970).

Locke, E. A. (2007). The case for inductive theory building. Journal of Management, 33(6), 867-890.

Sutton, R. I., & Staw, B. M.  (1995) What theory is not. Administrative Science Quarterly, 40(3): 371-385.

Weick, Karl E. (1995) What theory is not, theorizing is. Administrative Science Quarterly, 40(3):385-390.

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