Monday, March 10, 2008

ASQ and Theory

I'm breaking my discipline tonight because I forgot to say something about how the Administrative Science Quarterly approaches theory. Here's the relevant portion of the "Notice to Contributors":

Theory is how we move to further research and improved practice. If manuscripts contain no theory, their value is suspect. Ungrounded theory, however, is no more helpful than are atheoretical data. We are receptive to multiple forms of grounding but not to a complete avoidance of grounding.

It was the crux of an important discussion about the status of theory in organization studies back in the mid-1990s. In 1995, ASQ (vol 40) published an exchange between Robert Sutton and Barry Staw, on one side, and Karl Weick, on the other. They complement another important exchange of views between Jeffrey Pfeffer ("Barriers to the Advance of Organization Science", Academy of Management Review 18(4), 1993) and John van Maanen ("Style as Theory", Organization Science 6 (1), 1995) on the status of "paradigms" in management studies. (Readers of Thomas Kuhn will know that "paradigms" are basically what researchers themselves call "theories"—long story.)

These discussions, which are of course ongoing, show that there is little consensus about what theory is among established organization theorists. But, as the notice just quoted shows, that does not keep anyone from demanding its presence in articles. So what is theory in the sense (minimally) required by ASQ? My short answer is that it is the difference between data and observation.

A theory is the background against which what is "given" (data) is observed as a sign of an underlying order, or disorder as the case may be. The theory is the framework within which what we see becomes meaningful; it is the discipline by which we pass from merely seeing to seeing-as.

As ASQ makes clear, many different frameworks are available, and it does not propose to identify any of them in advance as better or worse than the others. In the end, whether or not your observational framework is interesting depends on what you have observed. ASQ simply demands that you say something about both what you observed and the way you were disposed to observe those things rather than others.

This is more than just method. It is not just about how you went about your research, how you discovered what you did, and how you avoided common sources of error. It is about how you were conditioned to interpret your discovery as a meaningful experience for organization studies. In the "ASQ gloss" of your research you have to account explicitly for this disposition to make sense of what you see. That, in a nutshell, is your theory of organization.

No comments: