Just blah blah blah? Finding out why, when and where theory really matters

Just blah blah blah?  Finding out why, when and where theory really matters

There is debate in many social science disciplines about whether research and writing is under- or over-theorized. Gorgi Krlev, argues that while these debates may provide insight, they fail to clarify why and when theorizing can be useful at all. To promote better theory building, it provides a framework for thinking about where theorizing adds value to research and what does not.

All social sciences have problems with theory. But not everyone has the same problem.

In social psychology, a replication crisis is called a “replication crisis”.problem in theory”, which means that the inability to reproduce empirical results is due to a lack of theoretical justification or consistency. Economics has become math heavy and gone “beyond theory”, presumably to be considered scientific field on a par with the natural sciences.

My own discipline, management studies, is sometimes referred to as “envy of physicshas swung to the other extreme: hardly any other discipline seems to be as obsessed with “theoretical input” as management. The obsession has become so widespread that some have begun to think of the act of theorizing as a mere “blah blah blah.”

So, we see three variants of the problem. I am sure that we would see much more if we delved into any area of ​​the social sciences. This begs the question: Why is there a theory at all? And when do we need more or less theory?

A heated debate that misses the point?

In a recent article, I draw on management research as a useful an example of how theorizing can be approached pragmatically. While I draw from the specific context of management research, I believe there are broader lessons to be learned for other disciplines.

Naturally, in a theorizing discipline, there are competing theories about why management, unlike other social sciences, is so theoretically focused. Along with envy of physics, relevance theory says that after an initial period when management education was nothing more than practical advice, skills and tools, theory has come into prominence to show that management research had a lot to offer in addition to honing managerial behavior. From this point of view, the overproduction of theory in management is a mechanism for overcoming the fact that it is not considered a science, and sometimes even not even social science.

Regardless of where the dominance of theory comes from, scholars now widely claim that management researchers have overdone the theory and this has led to serious limitations. For example, it hinders the discipline’s ability to deal with current social problems. These critiques rarely softened their words. Stanford professor Jeff Pfeffer called for draining “swamp of management theoryand Dennis Turish, a management scholar at the University of Sussex, has gone so far as to equate all management theory with nonsense production.

In response, calls were madeto hell with science“and re-humanize scientific research by challenging the objectification of theory while others question the need for growth”theoretical ballsto be able to theorize in management, challenging the male dominance of the debate. Some have proposed alternative, inexplicable types of theory and thus greater theoretical diversitywhile others pondered how to produce “influential theories“, prompting a long-standing empirical debate about “what is interesting and what is relevant?” into the realm of theory.

While these new proposals help diversify theory, they do not answer my original questions: why and when do we need a theory?

What does theory do?

I argue that in order to answer the questions, we need to better understand the various instrumental functions of the theory. Theory can be mainly concerned with: (1) building a new foundation for knowledge, (2) consolidating knowledge, (3) making sense between strands of knowledge, or (4) translating knowledge.

Just blah blah blah Finding out why when and where | lifefromnature

It is difficult to perform well any one of these functions, let alone several at the same time. In management, researchers tend to do too much, perhaps to fit the scientific myth that any article should three theoretical contributions. By better understanding what a theory does, in what context, and under what conditions, we could not only become more circumspect (or bold) in our theorizing, but also understand where and when we do not need a new theory at all, but instead more empirical analysis, or methodological detail or reflection.

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More emphasis should be placed on empiricism or methods when the empirical evidence is very important but not theoretically interesting (limited), highly relevant, original, and new but difficult to understand (phenomenon stage), or extremely extensive and all-encompassing (double burden). ), so that theorizing becomes very difficult or unreasonable.

What does this mean for theory in a broader sense?

Small tweaks won’t help.

From a management point of view, there is not enough research in closed areas. Precisely because of this, it should not matter that (a) research in these areas is limited in its ability to generate new theory, or that (b) researchers should refrain from theorizing in these areas because the resulting theories will be speculative.

While additional suggestions on how to solve theoretical problems in management may have advantages such as in favor of abductive theories over other types of theory, explaining better what we do when we theorize unit theory setup (more fine-grained and staged) in favor of program theory (more comprehensive). In fact, they do not solve the main problem: management has too much theory, which helps us understand too little.

From the point of view of other social sciences, this outline should be helpful to authors, reviewers, and editors when they are writing or evaluating new research, as it can help substantiate (more) theories, position theory better than other kinds of contributions, and prioritize. those functions of the theory that are most needed in this area.

More broadly, the social sciences need to consider whether their default mode of publishing, hybrid papers combining empiricism and theory (both done hesitantly), is more valuable than purely theorizing papers or research spaces.” without theory. They should also strive to ensure that the theoretical, empirical and methodological spheres are well connected and have a mutually corrective function. Perhaps in this way, scientists can improve the quality of theory construction and at the same time use the empirical richness of their discipline.

Note. A version of this blog post was previously posted on blog belonging Journal of Management Studies.

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Image credit: Mike Baumeister via Unsplash.com.

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