10, no 15, Commandments of Writing Theory

A conversation with a collaborator about how to write and publish theory led Ted to send me the hot-off-the-press Editor’s comments from the most recent AMR. Got me thinking about some of the other badly needed comments on theory in our field. Distilling them led to the following list. There are many other resources out there about how to think theoretically. These have the advantage of being about the craft of writing and publishing theory. These are all my paraphrases (including colorful language in a few places).

I am very grateful to to the cited authors for offering guidance and directions to those of us setting off across terra incognito.

□ Know that your audience are other scholars interested in same topic, not God, or ignorant savants. Talk to the Guild; the heavens ain’t listening (Rindova 2008).

□ Your theory shall start with a richly detailed problem statement that triggers theorizing (Weick 1989)

□ Your theory shall have a what (elements) a how (processes) and a why (fundamental logic) (Whetten 1989).

□ Your theory shall be a why account that emphasizes the causal nature of events, thoughts, and structure; it delves into reasons for systematic occurrence or non-occurrence.

□ Your theory shall not substitute references, list of variables, diagrams, hypotheses nor data for good theory (Sutton and Straw 1995)

□ Your theory enlightens, illuminates, surprises, delights, and narrates (Weick 1995; Sutton and Straw 1995; DiMaggio 1995).

□ Thou shalt know that the What and How of a theory describe; only Why explains (Whetten 1989).

□ Novel theory can come from new discoveries of what or how (induce from surprising research). (Whetten 1989)

□ Novel theory is more likely (but it is harder to produce) from new whys. These new whys will come from importing perspectives into a theory leading to surprise and reorientation to the new gestalt. (Whetten 1989).

□ New Theory from boundary condition applications (trying it in new settings) is weak (Whetten 1989).

□ New Theory from a new setting needs a feedback loop so that the guild sees the theory in a new light. (Whetten 1989).

□ Problems with existing theory can be empirical (troubling facts), logical (flawed whats or hows), or epistemological (flawed why, flawed assumptions) (Whetten 1989).

□ You shall know this set of evaluation criteria:

○ What is new?

○ So What? (how will it affect research practice)

○ Why is this so?

○ Well done? (Theory is good)

○ Done well? (Writing, clarity)

○ Why now?

○ Who cares? (what are audiences)?

□ Thou shalt Engage revision as conversation, not an argument nor a checklist (Rindova 2008).

□ When facing the long dark night of doubt and rejection, take some cold comfort that well-crafted theory will hit a helter skelter world of theory as slogan and social movements in which good theory is normally constructed as a process between author and audience (DiMaggio 1995).



DiMaggio, Paul J. 1995. Comments on “what theory is not”. Administrative Science Quarterly, 40(3): 391.

Rindova, Violina. 2008. EDITOR’S COMMENTS:
NEW TO THE GAME. Academy of Management Review, 33(2): 300.

Sutton, Robert I., & Staw, Barry M. 1995. What theory is not. Administrative Science Quarterly, 40(3): 371.

Weick, K. E. 1989. Theory construction as disciplined imagination. Academy of Management Review, 14(4): 516-531.

Weick, Karl E. 1995. What theory is not, theorizing is. Administrative Science Quarterly, 40(3): 385.

Whetten, D. 1989. What constitutes a good theory. Academy of Management Review, 14(4): 490-495.


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