PhD Tips

What is the Purpose of Organizational Theory?


1. What is the purpose of theory in organizational research?

2. What constitutes good quality theory and how can it be developed?

Definition of purpose varies - ‘x’

Good quality theory has the potential to do x well, or a lot (not ‘does x well’)

How it’s developed depends on x



‘the research process is to be regarded not as a set of problems to be “solved”, but rather as a set of dilemmas to be “lived with”; and the series of interlocking choices is to be regarded not as an attempt to find the “right” choices but as an effort to keep from becoming impaled on one or another horn of one or more of these dilemmas.’

(McGrath, 1982: 69).


‘we shall never see a general, simple, accurate theory of social behaviour… to increase both generality and accuracy, the complexity of our theories must necessarily be increased’

(Weick: 1999: 800).


‘theorizing and theory… doing it and freezing it’

(Weick, 1995: 390).


Angst: insecurity about relative status of management knowledge

‘The research we do is described as trivial, insignificant and nothing but common sense’ (Mitchell and James, 2001: 540).



Role: discover truth… interpret… uncover contradictions, critique


‘an objective world external to the mind that is mirrored by scientific data and theories’


‘different meanings held by different persons or groups produce and sustain a sense of truth, particularly in the face of competing definitions of reality’


‘describes dominant and subordinated meanings, displays the power implications of meanings… provides a means for emancipation from structures of domination’

(Gephart, 2004: 456-7).


Epist / Ontological: falsifiable… reliable basis for knowledge… text / (D)discourse


‘The great tragedy of science - the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact.’

(T. H. Huxley).


‘an ordered set of assumptions about a generic behaviour or structure assumed to hold throughout a significantly broad range of specific instances’

(Weick: 1989: 517).


‘Texts that are produced by actors who are understood to have a legitimate right to speak, who have resource power or formal authority, or who are centrally located in a field are more likely to become embedded in discourse’

(Philips, Lawrence and Hardy, 2004: 643).


Truth: correspondence / coherence / pragmatic / relativist


correspondence - ‘The chess-board is the world, the pieces are the phenomena of the universe, the rules of the game are what we call the laws of Nature. The player on the other side is hidden from us.’

(T. H. Huxley).


coherence - ‘meanings are determined through the historical development of specific language games in which the usage of particular words constitute valid moves in the game’

(Mauws and Phillips, 1995: 324).


pragmatic - ‘Practical adequacy’

(Sayer, 1992)


relativist – ‘readings of the data produce different possible subjects located in differently constituted possible worlds’.

(Honan, Knobel, Baker and Davies 2000: 11-12)

Self-Contained Accounts

Scientific: simplicity, accuracy, power explanatory / predictive

Five criteria for successful theory: a theory’s statements can be judged for internal consistency and parsimony; a theory should be falsifiable; it should result in enhanced scholarly understanding; it should help in control and management of behaviour; it should help to predict when and where theorized behaviours might occur.

Lee et al (1999: 451). Also (Bacharach, 1989: 500; Whetten, 1989: 493).

‘researchers tend to emphasize prediction as a criterion in judging models, we should not lose sight of the importance of understanding as a goal of scientific enquiry’

Lee and Mowday (1987: 738).

 ‘A theory should be as simple, elegant, consistent and general as possible’. (Lohmölller, 1989: 13 in Nelson, 2004: 37).


Aesthetic: appeal, inspiring, exciting

Absence of a management studies paradigm, ‘has the undesirable property of permitting taste, virtually unconstrained by scientific norms and standards, to run rampant’

(Pfeffer, 1997, pp. 193-194 different reading by Strati and de Montoux (2002, p. 757).


Field: supplant other theories, make redundant

Behavioral decision making existed before 1979, but in that year, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversy published their revolutionary article, ‘Prospect theory:  An analysis of decision under risk’…  Its impact on decision research was like that of On the Origin of Species on biology’

(Read, 2002: 469).


Schooling: influence a body of research

‘the process through which new schools of thought become established as distinct, legitimate theoretical frameworks’

(McKinley, Mone and Moon, 1999: 634).


Real world’: inform practice, inform policy

‘From knowing to doing’.

(Nutley, Walter and Davies, 2003).


Technocratic: rank of journal, no times cited, total number of articles using it

‘The literature on citation analysis is by now fast and growing… it enables… a first attempt at rigorously quantifying elusive but important socioeconomic phenomena such as reputation, the quality of scholarly output’

(Palacios-Huerta and Volij, 2004: 963).


Social: profile, prestige, status

e.g. honorary doctorates, distinguished scholar awards


Production / consumption: similar mechanisms in other spheres of activity

‘consumption of knowledge fuels the creation of new knowledge’ and ‘new knowledge acquires its status as ‘knowledge’ only when selected for consumption by important players’

(Hassard and Kelemen, 2002, p. 333).


Stakeholders: e.g. mode 1, mode 2, ‘relevance’

Less idealistically, ‘I can write papers for my scholarly colleagues that address the demands of scholarship that are utterly opaque to my students, because no-one ever expects managers to read them.  I can teach tried-and-true folk wisdom in class, because none of my colleagues ever set foot in one of my classrooms.’

(Pearce, 2004: 177).


Constituting order: (social) scientists as secular priests (of management)

‘Deprived of the shepherding role of the Christian clergy, there is a temptation to look to a new, scientific clergy for moral guidance’

(Thorpe, 2001, p. 20).


Genealogy / Cultural archaeology: dialectics and systems of value

Truth ‘triumphed over the Christian god’ as ‘truthfulness… was understood ever more rigorously’, it became, ‘translated and sublimated into a scientific conscience, into intellectual cleanliness at any price’

(Nietzsche, 1887 / 1974).

Telos: travelling on an axis of progress

‘consensus is a necessary condition for the systematic advancement of knowledge’.

(Pfeffer, 1993: 600).


Discourse: part of an overarching ideology, meaning contested and problematic

Theory can be understood ‘socially and culturally as a type of resource’.

(Locke, 2001, p. 11).


Artefact: theory as creation, or craft

Writing ‘like everyone else’ means we ‘bore ourselves to tears’, but it also limits theory development, we ‘restrict the range of our inquiries and speculations’

(Van Maanen., p. 139).


Zeitgeist: spirit of the age, product of / source for societal change

‘It might be going too far to say that the modern scientific movement was tainted from its birth; but I think it would be true to say that it was born in an unhealthy neighbourhood and at an inauspicious hour.’

(Lewis, 1978: 46).


Pulling together

In order to make sense of these, a framework identifying and summarising different aspects to theory is useful.  As well as offering a summary, a useful contribution would be to consider the relationship between these different senses.  There are a number of ways of conceptualising such relationships: as sharing some core common meaning – a necessary-condition model; as linked to one another in a web-like way, but not overlapping - a family resemblance model; as wholly unrelated – a fragmented model; as conceptually different, but lying on a common dimension, in a hierarchical or continuous way – a linear model; as differing in terms of two or more dimensions – a matrix model.


‘in the early stages of theory development, there may be a fine line between satisfying the criteria of the internal logic of the theory and achieving a creative contribution.  A good theorist walks this line carefully.’

(Bacharach, 1989: 513).


Efforts to replicate theory encounter, ‘a vague sense of disrespect’; studies ‘are often second-class citizens’ (Hendrick, 1991, p. 42).  Journal editors describe them as, ‘dull’, ‘boring’, readers ‘aren’t interested in them’, because they ‘don’t reflect cutting edge stuff’ (Neuliep and Crandall, 1991, p. 88).


Rules and games:

‘how many replications you count depends on which replications you count… I would wager a year’s associate editor’s pay that most AMJ articles include at least partial replication… of course, not labelled “replication research”

Eden (2002, p. 842).




Bacharach S. B. (1989) ‘Organizational Theories: some criteria for evaluation’, Academy of Management Review, 14(4): 496-515.

Eden, D. (2002). ‘Replication, Meta-analysis, Scientific Progress and AMJ’s Publication Policy’, Academy of Management Journal, 45(5): 841-846.

Gephart, R. P. (2004) ‘Editorial note: Qualitative Research and the Academy of Management Journal’, Academy of Management Journal, 47(4): 454-462.

Hassard, J. and Kelemen, M. (2002). ‘Production and Consumption in Organizational Knowledge: The Case of the ‘Paradigms Debate’, Organization, 9(2): 331–355.

Hendrick, C. (1991). ‘Replications, Strict Replications, and Conceptual Replications:  Are they important?’.  In J. Neuliep (Ed.). Replication Research in the Social Sciences, Sage, London: 41-49.

Lee T. W. and Mowday R. T. (1987) ‘Voluntarily Leaving an Organization:  an empirical investigation of Steers and Mowday’s model of turnover’, Academy of Management Journal, 30(4): 721-743.

Lee T. W., Mitchell T. R., Holtom B. C., McDaniel L. S. and Hill J. W. (1999) ‘The Unfolding Model of Voluntary Turnover: a replication and extension’, Academy of Management Journal, 42(4): 450-462.

Lewis, C.S. (1978) The Abolition of Man, Collins, Fount Paperback.

Locke, S. (2001). ‘Sociology and the public understanding of science: from rationalization to rhetoric’, British Journal of Sociology, 52(1): 1-18.

Lohmölller, J.-B. (1989) Latent Variable Path Modelling with Partial Least Squares, Physica-Verlag Heidelberg, Heidelberg.

McGrath, J. E. (1982). ‘Dilemmatics: the study of research choices and dilemmas’. In McGrath, J. E., Martin, J. and Kulka, R. Judgement calls in research. 69-102, London, Sage.

McKinley, W., Mone, W. A. and Moon, G. (1999). ‘Determinants and development of schools in organization theory’. Academy of Management Review, 24(4): 634-648.

Mitchell T. R. and James L. R. (2001) ‘Building Better Theory; Time and the specification of when things happen’, Academy of Management Review, 26(4): 530-547.

Nelson, K. A. (2004) ‘Consumer Decision Making and Image Theory: Understanding value-laden decisions’, Journal of Consumer Psychology, 14(1&2): 28-40.

Neuliep, J. W. and Crandall, R. (1991), ‘Editorial Bias Against Replication Research’, in Replication Research in the Social Sciences, J. W. Neuliep (Ed.), Sage, London: 85-90.

Nietzsche, F. (1887 / 1974). The Gay Science, (Trans. Kaufmann), Vintage, New York.

Nutley S. M., Walter I. and Davies H. T. O. (2003) ‘From Knowing to Doing: A framework for understanding the evidence-into-practice agenda’, Evaluation, 9(2): 124-148.

Palacios-Huerta, I. and Volij, O. (2004) ‘The Measurement of Intellectual Influence’, Econometrica, 72(3): 963-977.

Pearce, J. L. (2004) ‘Presidential Address: What do we know and how do we really know it?’, Academy of Management Review, 29(2): 175-179.

Pfeffer, J. (1993). ‘Barriers to the advance of organizational science: paradigm development as a dependent variable’. Academy of Management Review, 18(4): 599-620.

Pfeffer, J. (1997). New directions for organization theory: Problems and prospects, Oxford University Press, New York.

Phillips, N., Lawrence T. B. and Hardy, C. (2004) ‘Discourse and Institutions’, Academy of Management Review, 29(4): 635-652.

Read, D. (2002) ‘Book Review: Choices, values and frames’, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky (Eds.) Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, 15(5): 469-473.

Sayer A. (1992) Method in Social Science: a realist approach, Routledge, London.

Strati, A. and de Montoux, P. G. (2002). ‘Organizing aesthetics’, Human Relations,

55(7): 755-766.

Thorpe, C. (2001)‘Science against modernism: the relevance of the social theory of Michael Polanyi’, British Journal of Sociology, 52(1): 19-35.

Tranfield D., Denyer D. and Smart P. (2003) Towards a methodology for developing evidence-informed management knowledge by means of systematic review.  British Journal of Management, 14: 207-222.

Van Maanen, J. (1995). ‘Style as Theory’. Organization Science, 6(1): 133-143.

Weick K. E. (1989) ‘Theory Construction as Disciplined Imagination’, Academy of Management Review, 14(4): 516-531.

Weick K. E. (1996) ‘What Theory is Not, Theorizing Is’, Administrative Science Quarterly, 40: 385-390.

Weick K. E. (1999) ‘Theory Construction as Disciplined Reflexivity: tradeoffs in the 90s’, Academy of Management Review, 24(4): 797-806.