What is Theory? – from Mintzberg

LOGO FINALQuality IS…a recipe for connecting patterns.

Why seek criteria that will lead to a coherent quality theory with explanatory power?



We must seek out wisdom, but first we must recognize it. As the author of this blog, I offer to you, the reader, the wisdom of Henry Mintzberg

  • When I think about it (theory) I see explanation along a continuum, from lists (categories), to topologies (comprehensive lists), to impressions of relationships among factors (not necessarily “variables”: that sounds too refined for many of the factors I work with), to causations between and patterns among these relationships, to fully explanatory models (which interweave all the factors in question).
  • Theory is insightful when it surprises, when it allows us to see profoundly, imaginatively, unconventionally into phenomena we thought we understood.  No matter how accepted eventually, theory is of no use unless it initially surprises – that is, changes perceptions.
  • Theory is about connections, and the more, and the more interesting the better.
  • We need all kinds of theory, – the more the better.  Researchers, teachers and scholars are obligated to stimulate thinking, and a good way to do that is to offer alternate theories, multiple explanations of the same phenomena.
  • Inventing explanations about things, not finding them – that’s truth, we don’t discover theory, we create it.
  • Theories can be assessed without numbers, just as numbers can be used to induce theories. There is an impression that “quantitative” research is somehow “scientific”- even if it contributes no insight, while qualitative research is something to be tolerated at best.  This is the double standard that pervades our academic journals to their terrible discredit.
  • Hard data may suggest some relationship, but, it is rich description that best helps to explain it.  Anecdotal data is not incidental to theory development; it is an essential part of it.
  • No matter how we think about our theories, ultimately we have to convey them to other people in linear order, and that means mostly in words. Theory is belief; an outline helps to get beliefs down on paper.
  • Aristotle said that “The soul…never thinks without a picture.” I use diagrams because I like to see things altogether at a single glance.
  • Theory development is really about discovering patterns, recognizing similarities in things that appear dissimilar to others, i.e., making unexpected connections.
  •  It is rarely the insight that makes for an interesting theory.  That usually comes from the weave together of many insights, many creative leaps, most small and perhaps a few big.