TSElosophers meeting 26.5.2017
Otto Rosendahl, Jonathan Van Mumford, Kari Lukka, Milla Wirén
Building Theory about Theory Building: What Constitutes a Theoretical Contribution?
Kevin Corley, Dennis Gioia, Academy of Management Review, 2011
While extensively written, the article can be summarized to the following key points:
– theory can be either revelationary or incremental, and contribute to either scientific or practical knowledge
– current theorizing focuses too much on the scientific contribution and pays lip service to the practical utility
– in order to bridge the gap between theory and practise, the “best minds” in the profession of academia researching the profession of management should be employed in anticipating themes that will become relevant, and produce theory around those emerging themes to provide the vocabulary with which those themes can be discussed
– this would advance management science from upholding institutions to performatively contributing to the development of the business sphere
The article defines theory as “a statement of concepts and their interrelationships that shows how and/or why a phenomenon occurs”. More importantly, it asks what is a theoretical contribution and creates a 2×2 matrix for theoretical contributions which includes originality (revelatory, incremental) and utility (practically useful, scientifically useful). First, this article mentions that revelatory and scientifically useful articles are easy to publish. Then, it argues that a change is needed “in the guidelines of authors and reviewers” so that the authors would be “rewarded for developing more pragmatically useful […] theoretical contributions”.
This needed change is illustrated many times with different concepts pointing to the same direction: “adaptive role of academia”, “pragmatic utility”, “projective futurism” and finally “prescient scholarship”. Thus, the length of the article could have been condensed to a lot less than 15 pages. However, this style might have better impact for those readers unfamiliar with the previous discussion. We can contend the writing style has not been a failure since the paper is currently cited 641 times according to Google Scholar.
It is easy to agree with the article’s claim that courageous attempts to increase pragmatic utility should not be overlooked. The article leans to the traditions of American Pragmatism and states that “knowledge should be treated as a process” and it should be treated as “a recursive dialog between theorists and reflective practitioners”. This paves the way for prescient scholarship, where researchers aim to anticipate and theorize future problem domains. The sense-giving practices of the prescient scholars should be able to affect both the academic and the practitioner discussions. As the authors note, “the best way to predict the future is to influence the conversation about what it could or should be”.
Although the authors positively painted a future where researchers could have a better societal impact, we need to criticize the underlying assumption in the article. Contrary to the authors, it seems that even scientifically revelatory articles are not easy to publish. To put it differently, researchers are more bogged down by the incentives of the current publishing system than the article admits: it is mostly incremental articles that get published. According to Alvesson and Sandberg (2013), articles that try to challenge too many assumptions easily get rejected as they feel absurd to the reader. In practice, the reviewers often reject revelatory scientific contribution attempts by referring to the negligence of existing scientific discussion about the topic within the field. This sounds too much like rejecting a manuscript just because it is revelatory.
In sum, this article is ambivalent. There are certain ironies in it: although it touts that revelatory theoretical contributions are easy to publish, it only presents an incremental theoretical contribution; although it advises researchers to take a wider scope, it delimits the conclusions of its own valuable thoughts. Some of us recommend reading it; some of us recommend not reading it.
Yes, science should discuss at least the contemporary issues, and when groundbreaking, even anticipate novel pertinent themes. However the underlying tones of the article reveal an intriguing assumption: is it really so that if we just managed to harness the “best minds” of academics into shaping the emerging discussions through sensegiving, the world would be better off? Do we (or those deemed the “best minds”) really hold such truths that would validate this mission?
On the other hand, I admire the writing style of the article, as it is clearly cleverly designed in a way to elicit citations. It consists of catchy oneliners, like “lost before translation” (referring to the gap between the issues of interest amongst scholars or pracitioners) and “lost in translation” (referring to the inability to communicate the relevant insights from one field to another), provides a nice 2×2 matrix to quote, and addresses the everlasting discussion about the gap or bridge between theory and practice. As such, it reads as a pop rendering of the theme elsewhere discussed with more depth.
While it may be that the wielders of a hammer tend to see all problems as nails, I cannot escape the feeling that essentially this again pivots around the sticky theme we’ve been discussing from several angles at TSElosophers: what is science really about? What is the relationship between performativity and objectivity, or normativity and positivity, and what side should we aspire taking? Should we really bring in the third tenet of J N Keynes (1891) dismissed by Friedman (1953), called for by eg Colander (1992), the applied science – would that clarify the role of our endeavours? Would it help, if we really could box in the positive approach aimed at revealing how things are and work, the normative approach of how should things be and progress, and the applied approach bridging the two by making a statement about what we want (based on normative science), and assessing and creating the methods (based on the foundations deducted by positive science) through professedly applied science?
Personally I actually struggle with the normative part: based on what grounds can we create the scales of desirables (eg Thompson 1967, March 1982) that would not be narrowly context-bound? It is the lack of this discussion I find the most troubling part of the Corley&Gioia paper. They call for more applied approaches, however not explicitly engaging in the discussion of the accompanying normative element that inherently preceeds – or should preceed – this aspiration. But maybe I’m just too far from the supreme “best minds” to understand the benefits of the supreme wisdom that could be diffused throughout the more mundane endeavours of the rest of mankind – if the divine minds should only choose to do so.