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The field of management enslaved by theory?

Don Hambrick, one of the management field’s leading academics comments on the way the field relies on theory in a recent Business Week:

Viewpoint January 13, 2008, 4:06PM EST

The Theory Fetish: Too Much of a Good Thing?

Management journals demand contributions to theory. But slavish devotion to theory inhibits other valuable research
by Donald C. Hambrick

Recently I was at a brown-bag seminar where a pair of faculty colleagues in our business school’s department of management sought advice about a preliminary research idea. We all quickly agreed that their research question was fascinating and would be of great interest to both academics and practicing managers. The only problem: The presenters had no theory.

No theory! Everyone knows that the top scholarly journals in management require without exception that manuscripts make contributions to theory. And so we spent the entire session that day going through our collective mental catalogues of theories. Theories that I’d never heard of were proposed. Things got a little frenzied: “Good God, there must be a theory that we can latch onto,” someone said.

Losing the Trees for the Forest
Because these researchers are savvy about academic publishing, their project likely will appear some day in a leading journal. But the straightforward beauty of the original research idea will probably be largely lost. In its place will be what we too often see in our journals and what undoubtedly puts non-scholars off: a contorted, misshapen, inelegant product, in which an inherently interesting phenomenon has been subjugated to an ill-fitting theoretical framework.

Many nice things can be said about theory. Theories help us organize our thoughts, generate coherent explanations, and improve our predictions. But they are not ends in themselves, and in academic management we have allowed obsession with theory to compromise the larger goal of understanding. Most important, perhaps, it prevents the reporting of rich detail about interesting phenomena for which no theory yet exists but which, once reported, might stimulate the search for an explanation.

Happily, our sister disciplines in business education—accounting, finance, and marketing—are not afflicted to the extent that those of us in management are. But the breadth and variety of the subjects that fall under the category of management exceed those of the other business school academic departments; a number of MBA-granting institutions, in fact, call themselves schools of management. If management scholars fail to connect with real-life managers or management scholarship is shrugged off by managers as irrelevant—both of which happen with regularity—the credibility of all business academe suffers.

Management’s idolization of theory began after two blue-ribbon reports of the late 1950s, from the Carnegie and Ford foundations, levied withering attacks on business schools for their lack of academic sophistication. As a result, in the 1960s and 1970s schools adopted a new commitment to drawing from basic academic disciplines (e.g., economics and psychology), and to analytic rigor, science, and—above all—theory. Since then, however, other fields have relaxed their single-mindedness about theory, while management scholars have not.

Trapped in Inertia?
To confirm this, I recently analyzed the 120 articles published in 2005 by three leading scholarly management journals—the Academy of Management Journal, the Administrative Science Quarterly, and Organization Science. Every one contained some variation of the word “theory.” In contrast, only 78% of the 178 articles published in 2005 in the Journal of Marketing, the Journal of Finance, and Accounting Review contained those words. Moreover, they appeared 18 times, on average, in each management article, but only eight times, on average, in each non-management article. Finally, about two-thirds of the articles in the management journals had section headings that trumpeted “theory,” compared with one in five headings in the non-management journals.

I must admit to uncertainty about the reason for this continuing fetish; perhaps we in management academe are simply trapped in our own inertia. But at what a cost! To illustrate, let me take a hypothetical case from another field that has nothing to do with management or business.

Imagine it is the 1930s, and I am an epidemiologist who has a hunch that cigarette smoking is bad for people. Smoking is stylish and has even been portrayed as healthful, so nagging suspicions to the contrary can make me seem a bit of a crackpot. But I persevere, and, in a series of matched-sample studies, I find recurring evidence that smoking is associated with an array of serious health maladies. As an epidemiologist who is not a biologist, I have no clear insights about the central mechanisms at work, but, convinced my findings should be reported, I submit them to a prominent journal.

If the journal applied the criteria that prevail now in academic management, my paper would be rejected.

Scholarship Needs a Broader View
Note that I am not proposing that our top journals should lower their standards, only that they should shift them. Reviewers would still apply stringent requirements in terms of argumentation, acknowledgment of relevant literature, technical adequacy, and readability. But the requirement for a “contribution to theory” would be replaced with this test: Does the paper have a high likelihood of stimulating future research that will substantially alter managerial theory or practice?

With this criterion in place, some pieces that would be published under current standards would no longer qualify, leaving space in our most elite journals for more consequential articles of other types. In addition, second-tier journals should be inaugurated for the principal purpose of testing existing theories. Today, only papers that have brand-new theoretical angles will be accepted by our top journals; as a result, the vast majority of published ideas in our field are submitted to no tests at all; only a handful are tested even once; and fewer still are tested in multiple ways. If we are to develop a body of knowledge that managers can use for evidence-based decisions, we must allow for the requisite evidence to accumulate.

Let me be clear: Theory is critically important for our field, and we should remain committed to it. And, for sure, the greatest acclaim will always go to those who develop breakthrough theories. But there are other ways for knowledge to advance, and it is long past time we gave them their due.

Donald C. Hambrick is the Smeal Chaired Professor of Management at Penn State University and a former president of the Academy of Management. This article is adapted from a longer piece in the current Academy of Management Journal.

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