pushing your cookie vs. theoretical prostitution

John Meyer, one of the fathers of institutional theory, spoke at the University of Utah a few years back. As a brash, budding, young scholar I decided to challenge him a bit (cordially of course) when I had an opportunity to do so in a smaller group interaction – I pushed him on the underlying microfoundations of institutional theory (there are none), and, to be even more provocative, I highlighted some of the virtues of a Colemanian-type rational choice approach. His response was interesting – he essentially said: “Well, we all have our own cookie to push.” That’s it. Undoubtedly he has run into his fair share of challengers since introducing myth and ceremony to org theory and sociology, so my quick quip meant little to him. While my original question to Meyer on microfoundations still stands, I can respect his point about pushing one’s theoretical cookie and sticking to it.

The opposite of “pushing your cookie” is theoretical prostitution. That is where a ‘hey, I found this cool data, and, hey, this theory seems to fit it’-type of research reigns supreme. Theoretical prostitution is caving into reviewer comments (you know what I mean), running into data and mining it for a variety of theoretical explanations, making inconsistent statements in different published papers. Perhaps I run in the wrong circles, but there seems to be far too much theoretical prostitution in management and organization theory.

In short, push your cookie and don’t succumb to theoretical prostitution.

Written by teppo

August 3, 2006 at 3:18 am

Posted in research, teppo

14 Responses

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  1. Hrm, I’m not sure about this one. We all have colleagues who write papers as occasions to engage theoretical commitments – and you suggest that this is just par for the course. This is, I think, a peculiar feature of orgs literature more than others. Between the rational choice folks, pop ecologists, and institutional theory crowds, there is mostly silos. Occasional breaches and bridges across these divides, but mostly silos.

    That Meyer is not willing to suggest that there is a fundamental flaw in his pet theoretical position, or that there are highlights and lowlights, or that any theoretcial position fails as monolith, is problematic.

    The alternative can be but does not have to be theoretical prostitution. From Becker’ s Writing for SocSci:
    ‘a serious scholar ought routinely to inspect competing ways of talking about the same subject matter. The feeling that you can’t say what you mean in the language you are using will warn you that the literature is crowding you…Use the literature, don’t let it use you.’

    I think one is being a bit lazy if one is either: a) a permanently committed theoretical partisan-warrior; or b) a person who attaches theory that agrees with what they already want to say.

    Shorter: advocate your worldview, but be willing to abandon it in the face of countervailing evidence or better theories.



    August 3, 2006 at 12:54 pm

  2. Of course, it is also important to differentiate theoretical prostitution from the more open minded approach that some of us have vis a vis theoretical commitments. I am certainly not monogamous when it comes to theory, and I am open to all kinds of Kama-Sutra-like perverse experimentation with various (theoretical) positions. Sometimes I do cheat on some of my favorite theories (I wrote a paper criticizing Bourdieu from a Meyerian perspective for instance), but I always come back with flowers and make up. Am I a shameless philanderer? You betcha. But unlike, Donna Summer’s proverbial girl on the corner, I work hard, but not for the money.



    August 3, 2006 at 2:01 pm

  3. Peter, I agree. Being the epistemological realist that I am, I think that there is some kind of social big-t Truth that we are after, so I most certainly recognize that theories need to be revised if it indeed is warranted.

    I suppose we get into problems (related to the prostitution I describe) where there is an open admition – social construction – that theories aren’t after any kind of underlying reality or truth, but that they are simply a communal language game…this means that we can’t prioritize or priviledge anything. I am veering into another discussion here – more on it in a later post.

    Omar – you’ve taken the metaphor to a whole new level.



    August 3, 2006 at 3:44 pm

  4. It seems to me that this discussion is operating at a rather high (abstract?, ideal?) level. It maybe that we are seeking for Truth, or are engaged in language games, or something else. At the same time, we’re also trying to get out of grad school, get a job, make tenure, win the admiration of our peers, etc.

    All of which is to say, how much of “pushing one’s cookie” vs. “theoretical prostitution” (vs. shameless philandering”?) represent “real” positions over trying to just trying to get by?

    Or maybe it just looks this way because I’m still low on the totem pole.



    August 3, 2006 at 4:08 pm

  5. My adviser once told me (although using different words) that “theoretical prostitution” may help you get a job, but “pushing a cookie” gets you tenure at an elite institution.



    August 3, 2006 at 4:20 pm

  6. […] From the lecture – here’s how Lakatos feels about pushing your cookie: The hallmark of scientific behaviour is a certain scepticism even towards one’s most cherished theories. Blind commitment to a theory is not an intellectual virtue: it is an intellectual crime. […]


  7. […] we are orgtheory wonder about what is the ideal approach to scientific practice.  Various ideal types are popular in […]


  8. […] party-line and implied level – hmm, which perhaps this post itself suggests – where one in Meyerian, cookie-pushing fashion hangs onto a key level; I respect the cookie-pushing approach though my own cookie […]


  9. […] unsatisfactory, to say the least. It’s so opportunistic, so void of perspective, so void of cookie-pushing, so phenomena-driven. So lame. « uh oh, the hobbit […]


  10. […] about “science conducted in the service of a really good theory” reminded me of the pushing your cookie versus theoretical prostitution discussion of Teppo at […]


  11. […] Fifth, there is conference etiquette. Most conferences have an informal dress code. Nothing fancy, but if you are giving a talk, nice slacks/jacket/dress are good. Also, people expect you to talk about your research.  It’s a conference after all, so people want to hear about your work. So have a 1 sentence summary ready to go. Push your cookie! […]


  12. I think that it might be that you need to commit a lot of theoretical prostitution before you find your cookie to push. And some people- well they were just never meant to settle down. :-)

    This seems to work with what Brayden’s adviser once said.


    Alotta Errata

    October 27, 2009 at 12:55 am

  13. […] the practical implications of these debates for understanding social phenomena, questions of “pushing your cookie” versus pluralism, etc, etc.  Great […]


  14. […] ba yah.   Think about it as different lenses on the phenomenon (though, I have to say that my Meyerian cookie-pushing self really hates that notion). […]


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