Theory Construction Bleg

13 December 2011 at 11:14 pm 9 comments

| Peter Klein |

A friend writes:

I am trying to improve the theory writing skills of my doctoral students. . . . [In my field] we don’t often build complicated mathematical models; our theory tends to be more story telling. But nevertheless there is good and bad theory. I have found some papers that discuss how to write theory and what constitutes a theoretical contribution. But I really would like for you to recommend a book on the theory of theory construction. I want to assign chapters from it to my students as well as learn something myself. Since the principles of theory construction are generic, I don’t care what literature the author comes from . The insights will be useful regardless.

What would you suggest?

Entry filed under: - Klein -, Methods/Methodology/Theory of Science, Teaching. Tags: .

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9 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Marcel Bogers  |  14 December 2011 at 2:18 am

    We read draft chapters of Andy van de Ven’s Engaged Scholarship, which I found quite useful at that stage. It isn’t necessarily a book on the theory of theory construction per se but has some important elements (more as an introduction than advanced reading). Otherwise, I have found the standard (I guess) texts like Sutton & Staw’s 1995 ASQ piece quite useful. This year’s paper in AMR on “Building Theory About Theory Building: What Constitutes a Theoretical Contribution?” by Corley & Gioia may also be of interest.

  • 2. 1984  |  14 December 2011 at 5:44 am

    At a very basic level- Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” should be read and re-read.

  • 3. Marc F. Bellemare  |  14 December 2011 at 8:08 am

    I don’t know of any book on the topic, but the following paper by Hal Varian can help:

    http://people.ischool.berkeley.edu/~hal/Papers/how.pdf

    My general comment would be to practice, practice, practice. Startg in grad school by taking your core theory classes seriously, then by taking theory electives. In my case, on top of all the empirical development classes I took, I also took a course in which we covered a number of theoretical models in development, and a course in behavioral economics, which was taught by a theorist.

    The essay in my dissertation developed competing theoretical models between which my second essay would test. That helped a great deal because that gave me a strong incentive to learn the theory surrounding my topic (i.e., contract theory).

    Also, read the foundational papers, and make sure you understand their theoretical models. You don’t need to understand the proofs, just the assumptions and mechanics of the models.

  • 4. Shoko  |  14 December 2011 at 10:59 am

    I’ve just started reading a book:
    Jaccard, J. & Jacoby, J. (2010). Theory Construction and Model-Building Skills: A Practical Guide for Social Scientists. New York. The Guilford Press.
    The book has a good coverage of what constitutes theories as well as some methods that help theory construction (mathematical modeling, simulation, grounded theory approach). It also contains hints such as how to present a theory! This could be a good starting book.

    I’ve also worked on a discourse analysis project (from more of a linguistic point of view = for a writing course), and analyzed how entrepreneurship or management theory papers are structured and presented. Apparently, from writing instructors’ perspective, our field has a distinct writing pattern for theory papers, which has not been ‘theorized’ yet in their field :)

  • 5. @teppofelin  |  14 December 2011 at 12:32 pm

    Here’s some stuff that quickly comes to mind:

    Murray Davis. 1971. That’s Interesting! Philosophy of Social Sciences.

    Dave Whetten. 1989. What constitutes a theoretical contribution? Academy of Management Review.

    Smith & Hitt (editors). 2005. Great minds in management: the process of theory development. Oxford (folks who’ve written key theories contribute chapters that discuss the process etc: Williamson, Winter, Barney, Pfeffer, etc etc).

    And, then just read good theory. Of course anything by Foss and Klein, for example.

    I also think there is HUGE value in reading the classic social theorists: Adam Smith, Max Weber, Emile Durkheim, Friedrich Hayek, Karl Marx, etc.

  • 6. David Hoopes  |  15 December 2011 at 11:05 pm

    “I also think there is HUGE value in reading the classic social theorists: Adam Smith, Max Weber, Emile Durkheim, Friedrich Hayek, Karl Marx, etc.”

    Very strong point.

  • 7. Rafe  |  17 December 2011 at 6:09 am

    Best of luck if you write better after reading Max Weber!

    Bits of C Wright Mills on Intellectual Craftsmanship are good, try section 5 on writing, p 217 onward

    http://www.the-rathouse.com/2010/Intellectual_Craftsmanshp_C_Wright__Mills.pdf

    Talking to people who are not in the trade, like your relatives, is good to promote clear and direct presentations.

  • 8. Fred Thompson  |  17 December 2011 at 8:37 pm

    The Craft of Research by Wayne C. Booth, Gregory G. Colomb, and Joseph M. Williams.

  • 9. Josh  |  18 December 2011 at 9:24 am

    I’ll second Teppo’s suggestion of the Murray Davis article. It’s one of my favorite.

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