What Theory Is Not

By Sutton, Robert I.; Staw, Barry M. | Administrative Science Quarterly, September 1995 | Go to article overview

What Theory Is Not


Sutton, Robert I., Staw, Barry M., Administrative Science Quarterly


The authors, reviewers, readers, and editors who shape what is published in ASQ insist, perhaps above all else, that articles contain strong organizational theory. ASQ's Notice to Contributors states, "If manuscripts contain no theory, their value is suspect." A primary reason, sometimes the primary reason, that reviewers and editors decide not to publish a submitted paper is that it contains inadequate theory. This paper draws on our editorial experiences at ASQ and Research in Organizational Behavior (ROB) to identify some common reasons why papers are viewed as having weak theory.

Authors who wish to write strong theory might start by reading the diverse literature that seeks to define theory and distinguish weak from strong theory. The Academy of Management Review published a forum on theory building in October 1989. Detailed descriptions of what theory is and the distinctions between strong and weak theory in the social sciences can be found, for example, in Dubin's (1976) analysis of theory building in applied areas, Freese's (1980) review of formal theorizing, Kaplan's (1964) philosophical inquiry into the behavioral sciences, Merton's (1967) writings on theoretical sociology, and Weick's (1989) ideas about theory construction as disciplined imagination.

Unfortunately, the literature on theory building can leave a reader more rather than less confused about how to write a paper that contains strong theory (Freese, 1980). There is lack of agreement about whether a model and a theory can be distinguished, whether a typology is properly labeled a theory or not, whether the strength of a theory depends on how interesting it is, and whether falsifiability is a prerequisite for the very existence of a theory. As Merton (1967: 39) put it:

Like so many words that are bandied about, the word theory threatens to become meaningless. Because its referents are so diverse - including everything from minor working hypotheses, through comprehensive but vague and unordered speculations, to axiomatic systems of thought - use of the word often obscures rather than creates understanding.

Lack of consensus on exactly what theory is may explain why it is so difficult to develop strong theory in the behavioral sciences. Reviewers, editors, and other audiences may hold inconsistent beliefs about what constitutes theory and what constitutes strong versus weak theory. Aspiring organizational theorists face further obstacles because there is little consensus about which theoretical perspectives (and associated jargon) are best suited for describing organizations and their members (Pfeffer, 1993). Even when a paper contains a well-articulated theory that fits the data, editors or reviewers may reject it or insist the theory be replaced simply because it clashes with their particular conceptual tastes. Finally, the process of building theory is itself full of internal conflicts and contradictions. Organizational scholars, like those in other social science fields, are forced to make tradeoffs between generality, simplicity, and accuracy (Weick, 1979) and are challenged by having to write logically consistent and integrated arguments. These difficulties may help explain why organizational research journals have such high rejection rates. Writing strong theory is time consuming and fraught with trial and error for even the most skilled organizational scholars. This is also why there is such great appreciation for those few people, like James March, Jeffrey Pfeffer, and Karl Weick, who are able to do it consistently.

We don't have any magic ideas about how to construct important organizational theory. We will not present a set of algorithms or logical steps for building strong theory. The aim of this essay is more modest. We explain why some papers, or parts of papers, are viewed as containing no theory at all rather than containing some theory. Though there is conflict about what theory is and should be, there is more consensus about what theory is not. …

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