The Field of Management’s Devotion to Theory: Too Much of a Good Thing?

Abstract

Many nice things can be said about theory. Theories help us organize our thoughts, generate coherent explanations, and improve our predictions. In short, theories help us achieve understanding. But theories are not ends in themselves, and members of the academic field of management should keep in mind that a blanket insistence on theory, or the requirement of an articulation of theory in everything we write, actually retards our ability to achieve our end: understanding. Our field’s theory fetish, for instance, prevents the reporting of rich detail about interesting phenomena for which no theory yet exists. And it bans the reporting of facts—no matter how important or competently generated—that lack explanation, but that, once reported, might stimulate the search for an explanation. It is well known that the top journals in management require that all manuscripts contribute to theory (Colquitt & Zapata-Phelan, 2007; Rynes, 2005; Sutton & Staw, 1995). The current editorial statement of AMJ (its “Information for Contributors”) mirrors those of our other top journals and illustrates this insistence explicitly: “All articles published in the Academy of Management Journal must also make strong theoretical contributions.” And, believe me, there is no breaching or skirting this policy. After years of comparing notes with colleagues about the rejection letters we have received, it seems the most annoying passage—which I am sure editors have preprogrammed for handy one-click insertion—is this one: “The reviewers all agree that your paper addresses an important topic and is well argued; moreover, they find your empirical results convincing and interesting. At the same time, however, the reviewers believe the paper falls short in making a theoretical contribution. Therefore, I’m sorry . . . etc., etc., etc.” One might ask whether our top journals are really as doctrinaire about theory as I am suggesting. After all, editors sometimes refer to a “lack of theoretical contribution” as a polite brush-off for papers with various kinds of shortcomings. And, granted, the formal editorial statements of top journals try to convey a “big tent” philosophy as to what constitutes a theoretical contribution. But still, after years of writing reviews, reading the reviews of fellow referees, reading editors’ decision letters, and seeing what shows up in print, I find it is exceedingly clear that the gatekeepers for the top journals in management first screen manuscripts for basic readability and technical adequacy, and then they apply one pivotal test, above all others: Where’s the theory? As someone who regularly reads the journals of sister fields (including those of higher stature than management), I am not aware of any other field in which theory is viewed with such religious fervor. I don’t want my point to be mistaken. First, no personal motives underlie my thesis. I have had more than my share of papers accepted by our journals, and my biggest successes, I guess, have been in theory development. Second, I’m not pointing fingers, as I have been fully complicit in building up our current approach. I’ve served as an editor, as a member of multiple editorial boards, as an officer of the Academy, and am in every other way part of the establishment. But my unease has been growing in recent years, and now I want to elbow the powers that be. Third, I am not proposing that we abandon our commitment to theory. Theory is essential, and the field of management will not advance without it. It’s just that we’ve gone overboard in our obsession with theory. The requirement that every paper must contribute to theory is not very sensible; it is probably a sign of our academic insecurity; and it is costing us in multiple ways. I am grateful for helpful comments from the following individuals: Bert Cannella, Craig Crossland, Jim Detert, Syd Finkelstein, Marta Geletkanycz, Dave Harrison, Tim Pollock, Chet Miller, Sara Rynes, Gerry Sanders, and Mike Tushman. 1 I refer specifically to the Academy of Management Journal, the Academy of Management Review, Administrative Science Quarterly, and Organization Science. Of course, theory is the entire mission of Academy of Management Review. Top-tier specialty journals such as Strategic Management Journal, the Journal of Applied Psychology, and Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes vary in their degree of insistence on theory. Academy of Management Journal 2007, Vol. 50, No. 6, 1346–1352.

Statistics

010202008200920102011201220132014201520162017
Citations per Year

86 Citations

Semantic Scholar estimates that this publication has 86 citations based on the available data.

See our FAQ for additional information.

Cite this paper

@inproceedings{Hambrick2008TheFO, title={The Field of Management’s Devotion to Theory: Too Much of a Good Thing?}, author={Donald C. Hambrick}, year={2008} }