Big Think in Management Research
| Peter Klein |
Greg Clark’s A Farewell to Alms has received a lot of attention in the econo-blogosphere. I haven’t read the book and don’t have much to say about it but you can read as much as you like from Cowen, McCloskey, DeLong, Caplan, Kling, and others. One of the most interesting reviews, to me, is this one by Robert Margo of Boston University. Margo admires the book but dislikes this genre, what he calls “Big Think.”
“Big Think” refers to the genre of economic history that asks The Big Question. Why England and not China? Do institutions “matter” or is it something else, or many things? Why is the United States rich and Bolivia poor?
Reviewers should be upfront about their ex ante biases. Here is one of mine: I do not care for Big Think. The Big Question per se is not the problem — in economics, there is nothing more important. For me, the problem with Big Think is that it is inherently Too Big. One cannot hope to answer The Big Question by tackling it head on. One must break The Big Question into a great many very tiny precisely posed questions, and get the answers to them right. In economic history we are still _very_ far from completing this task even for a country whose economic history is as well-worn as the United States. Big Think is a Big Distraction from our true purpose in life.
Margo goes on to propose several hypotheses regarding the popularity of Big Think research, including both supply-side (economic historians want to be popular and important, and they tend to dislike formal theory and econometrics, which Big Think doesn’t require) and demand-side (scholars and laypeople crave answers to these questions) factors.
Management research (particularly in strategy and organization) is often criticized for doing too little Big Think, or for doing Big Think that is not closely tied to the mundane research results of the type Margo favors. Of course there are plenty of books in the Built to Last genre, but these are not grand, sweeping treatises on basic managerial problems (leaving aside their other problems). Strategic Organization encourages scholars to think broadly about management problems in its SO!apbox series, but these are usually shorter, more speculative pieces. Nicolai’s recent paper on the role of property rights in strategy — a Medium Think project, at least — wasn’t universally well received by some management scholars in the audience, presumably because it was too general and abstract. Perhaps Chandler’s books come closest to the Big Think projects favored in other social sciences. What do readers think?