TSElosophers meeting 12.11.2021. Participants: Erkki Lassila, Kari Lukka, Mia Salo, Milla Unkila, Morgan Shaw, Otto Rosendahl.
Sandberg, J., & Alvesson, M. (2021). Meanings of theory: Clarifying theory through typification. Journal of Management Studies, 58(2), 487-516.
Sandberg and Alvesson (2021) present a novel approach to define and classify theories. They argue that management and organization studies (MOS) definitions of theory tend to be narrow and/or built on a single social paradigm. Especially, they see a problem with requiring explanative theory in all research, seeing this as being related to researchers often presenting artificial pseudo-contributions and, effectively, making the entire idea of contribution a fetish. Instead, they classify explanative theory as only one theory type, which needs to be complemented by other types of theory in order to advance the knowledge of the discipline.
The authors adopt a wide constructivist lens and perceive theory as a human pursuit with various aspects. Through this lens they perceive altogether seven criteria for theoretical knowledge. The primary criteria which make difference between the various theory types are what is the purpose of theory and how the targeted phenomenon is assumed to exist. Indeed, based on the seven criteria, they develop a typology of five different theory types: explanative theory, comprehending theory, ordering theory, enacting theory and provoking theory.
Sandberg and Alvesson suggest that their approach to defining theory has potential to overcome many ontological and epistemological differences and thereby provides a more neutral way of communicating about the role of theory in the scientific pursuit. They make an extensive effort to hedge their contribution so as not to step on anyone’s onto-epistemological toes: their approach might still yield more theory types and, besides, any research is not forced to select only one theory type since theory types are somewhat overlapping.
On the positive side, the article is splendidly written. Its rhetoric is thoroughly appealing, which increases its potential to fulfill its own intended purpose of “pointing at a range of different theory types and levelling the playing field within the MOS community” (p. 491). The latter part of this purpose implies that the role of theory in the community should shift from “political-practical controlling device” (p. 509) towards enabling “researchers to advance knowledge development” (p. 490-491).
However, TSElosophers also found three significant shortcomings in the article. Firstly, we didn’t find much argumentation as for how the seven criteria behind the typology were chosen. It seemed as if the deep experience and professionalism of the authors were trusted to the extent that they could present their list of seven criteria without extensive analytical elaborations. Some of us felt the suggested set of criteria is too complex and formulaic; for instance the two-item formulation of Friedman (1953) goes arguably better to the point and is more helpful for researchers.
Secondly, the article seems to present a strawman of what explanative theory means. Especially problematic is the claim that Whetten (1989) defined explanative theory narrowly, since it misreads the scope of Whetten’s (1989, 490, emphasis added) short article, where the intent is merely “to propose several simple concepts for discussing the theory-development process.” Explanation can well be defined much more broadly; it is not just limited to ‘positivist’ notions of explanation typical of e.g. quantitatively oriented research! For example, Wittgenstein characterizes scientific explanation as profound understanding.
Finally, it was suggested in our discussions that the article provides less actionable advice about theorizing than e.g. MacInnis’ (2011) “A framework for conceptual contributions in marketing”. Therefore, Sandberg and Alvesson’s contribution might be reduced to raising awareness without urging for widespread changes.
Despite our criticisms, we consider that this article admirably follows the adage ‘better being approximately correct than exactly false’. As long as the reader keeps in mind that some of the appeal of its narrative is achieved with a tradeoff from its accuracy, we may endorse reading this article.