What isTheory? – David Whetten

LOGO FINALQuality IS…a recipe for connecting patterns.

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

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Probably the most didactic approach on the subject of writing good theory was an article published in 1989 by David A. Whetten; editor of the Academy of Management Review, entitled What Constitutes a Theoretical Contribution.

Per their Website – The Academy of Management Review (AMR) is ranked among the top five most influential and frequently cited management and business journals. AMR is a theory development journal that publishes the highest quality conceptual work being done in the field. Articles challenge conventional wisdom concerning all aspects of organizations and their role in society, and provides new theoretical insights.

Whetten commented “My experience has been that available frameworks are as likely to obfuscate, as they are to clarify, meaning.  Besides exposure to works of Kaplan, Dubin and others varies widely across the academy.” His general approach was concerned with what he referred to as “building blocks of theory.” Specifically, every theory must contain three essential elements: What, How and Why.

What: Which factors (variables, constructs, concepts) logically should be considered as part of the explanation.  The author must consider comprehensiveness and parsimony.

How:  How are the factors (variables, constructs, concepts) related? This step adds conceptualization by explicitly delineating patterns. How is often put in the form of a theoretical statement and is graphically represented. Relationships are the domain of theory.

Why:  Why constitutes the theories assumptions and propositions, the theoretical glue that welds the theory together. The key here is why should the reader give credence to the theory?   Propositions link concepts in ways that result in something testable. However, only hypotheses require measures.

Together these three elements provide the essential ingredients of a simple theory: description and explanation.

 In out last post regarding  – What is Theory?  – we will peruse the thoughts of  Henry Mintzberg.

Dr.  Mintzberg earned his Master’s degree in Management and Ph.D. from the MIT Sloan School of Management in 1965 and 1968 respectively  and has NOT written a book about developing or writing theory.  He is currently the Cleghorn Professor of Management Studies at the Desautels Faculty of Management of McGill University in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, where he has been teaching since 1968.

 

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?

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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.