theory fetish


This is one post that is perfect for our hotly contested “just theory” category.

There has been quite a bit of discussion about the (lack of) relevance and impact of management and organizational research (see this AACSB report).  Don Hambrick has recently suggested that management’s theory fetish might be part of the problem:

  1. Here’s the BusinessWeek primer on the issue.
  2. Roughly the same issues get covered in a recent Academy of Management Journal essay: “The Field of Management’s Devotion to Theory: Too Much of a Good Thing?” (No copy available online.)
  3. Here’s a Times Higher Education piece on the same matter.

My thoughts?  Well, I think the type of theorizing that Hambrick is talking about clearly is problematic.  But, that type of theorizing only represents one (problematic?) variety.  And, whether intended or not, it felt like theorizing was characterized as “mere packaging” (again, just theory) rather than a key element of research and explanation, though the above pieces do also have some caveats about theorizing as a fetish.  Hmm, there obviously are some deeper epistemological issues wrapped up into this debate.  I’ll try to muster a follow up post soon to defend the theory fetish — well, at least in part. 

*Brayden: By switching to a b-school you may be averting some of the “public sociology” debates, but, as you see, management has its own demons. 

Written by teppo

March 12, 2008 at 2:32 pm

Posted in just theory, teppo

9 Responses

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  1. Great topic to take up. My off-the-cuff analysis of the difference that Hambrick points to between the frequency of the word “theory” in the ASQ and the Journal of Finance is that the latter is more theoretically inertial than the former. Putting the point in Kuhnian terms, I would guess that the finance field has a much more stable set of “symbolic generalizations” and much less problematic “metaphysical models” that we have in organization studies. His statistics, predictably, show that theory is not as much of an issue in finance as in org theory.



    March 12, 2008 at 8:10 pm

  2. I’m now reading the AMJ piece.

    Hambrick talks about a paper in the Journal of Marketing on the “doppelgänger brand image”. I’d have a difficult time defending my point about symbolic generalisations in branding “theory”; but Kuhn might still help us to understand the absence of overt references to theory: shared values.

    Second, Hambrick’s epidemiology example (1348) is not very well chosen. After all, what is epidemiology but the study of “empirical patterns” of illness? What theory would the editors demand rather than the background theories the relation of symtoms, death rates, etc. etc. to common causes? Now, what if a journal of cancer research rejected the paper? Well, then they’d be RIGHT to. Without a link to a theory about the causal mechanism, the merely disturbing pattern is not publishable in that field.

    Third, Hambrick complains that “straightforward tests of existing theories usually don’t qualify” as a contribution to theory (1350). Well, no, they don’t. That’s because the only “straightforward” test is one that confirms the theory. And theories are already the received view. Confirmations are not interesting. Disconfirmations, however, *imply* (at least the need for) modifications of theory. That’s the real connection between testing and theory … and the *good* reason “simple tests” aren’t publishable.

    Finally, Hambrick blames the theory fetish for bad writing. “Our insistence on theory,” he says, “has CAUSED a lot of bad writing.” Nonsense! There’s lots of bad atheoretical writing out there. And lots of great theoretical writing. Theory does not cause style; it simply sets up the stylistic problem for the writer om a particular way. So does the task of “documenting and dissecting a fascinating, important phenomenon” without theory (1348).

    Bad theoretical prose does have recognizable characteristics. “Contorted” and “ponderous” are apt adjectives. But the fact that theoretical concerns often lead to a different kind of badness than empirical concerns do does not prove that theorizing itself is to blame. Writing badly is the cause of bad writing.



    March 13, 2008 at 12:18 pm

  3. I agree with you Teppo. The problem is treating theory like packaging rather than thinking of theory as a discrete body of knowledge to which we’re contributing to (by adding to or refining) when publishing an empirical paper. The problem he notes is an important one though, I think, when you look at a lot of management journals. Too many folks are treating theories like window-dressing they need to “sell” their papers to some audience.



    March 13, 2008 at 6:29 pm

  4. I think what perhaps has led to the partial dismissal of theorizing is the fact that theorizing is often painted as a heavily Kuhnian activity within self-maintaining epistemic communities. Then, yes, based on this perspective theorizing indeed is not worth much as it truly (by definition) does not help us to explain or understand, only to frame and package arguments (which in arbitrary fashion could be framed in lots of different ways — which is partially true, but this has led some down a rather slippery slope where theorizing equals perspective rather than explanation). This of course is not the argument in the Hambrick pieces I link to above, but, perhaps another reason why theory is ‘just’ theory.



    March 13, 2008 at 7:08 pm

  5. The problem with Hambrick’s line, to my mind, is that as we modify the argument to make it hit something truly lamentable, whether that be “just” theory or “packaging” or “window-dressing”, it no longer applies essentially to theory. There are “just” facts, “ornamental” facts, and factual packagings that are as bad for inquiry as their theoretical counterparts. The problem simply isn’t to be found in the nature of theorizing. The problem is always a lack of judgment about what theoretical idealisations or, as the case may be, empirical realities to include in one’s analysis. Factualizing — the straightfoward “reporting” that Hambrick is longing for — demands a no less heavy Kuhnian framework to pass as inquiry. Finance, marketing and accounting are subject to just as heavy paradigms.



    March 13, 2008 at 8:49 pm

  6. Just a question for the management folks out there. How many theory seminars is the typical management PhD required to take before graduating? I don’t mean substantive courses but real theory seminars, like Classic Social Theory or Constructing Organizational Theory? Are these kinds of seminars ever taught?

    My sense is that there may be a big difference between the way most organizational sociologists and most management scholars are trained. By the time I started writing my dissertation I had taken two theory-only seminars and another focusing only on organizational theory. I took another course in economic sociology that was a lot like a theory seminar (thanks Kieran!). Is the same emphasis to theory given in management Phd programs?



    March 14, 2008 at 3:01 pm

  7. […] matters little to society. This claim, which has been made by many others (see, for example, Teppo’s post about our “theory fetish”), typically privileges one world view over another and is […]


  8. […] Hambrick wrote in AMJ a few years ago, in which he claimed that organizational scholars have a “theory fetish” that “prevents the reporting of rich detail about interesting phenomena for which no theory […]


  9. […] Scholars tend to have very strong opinions about this. Some people feel that as a field we’ve fetishized theory to the point of making our research inapplicable to the bigger world we live in. Others claim that […]


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