Pet Peeve: “Normative Theory”
| Nicolai Foss |
I have seldom attended a meeting or conference on management research where the notion of “normative theory” hasn’t been brought up. A couple of decades ago when transaction cost economics was making its influence felt in management research, it was frequently dismissed as “just another normative contingency theory.” Discussants may quiz presenters on whether they are “doing positive or normative theory,” and gravely tell them that they must heed the difference between the two.
While I am all for being upfront about one’s (normative) premises, I am not sure the notion of “normative theory” makes a lot of sense. (There is ethical theory which may be partly falsifiable, but this is usually not what is meant by “normative theory”). There are theoretically informed statements about what ought to be the case — but these are simply derived from positive theories with the addition of an “ought” clause. To be sure, one can build theory that is designed to help remedy some state in the real world that one considers undesirable. Theorizing (i.e., the construction of theory) is, of course, shot through with normative considerations, as Gunnar Myrdal famously argued. But, that doesn’t make the theory a “normative theory” per se. A theory can be (should be) 100% wertfrei although its emergence is entirely explainable in terms of moral, political, etc. considerations.
Theory can be (should be?) used as an instrument, to be sure. Thus, the proponent of a theory may tell decision-makers that if they want to achieve X, they should do Y. That is still not “normative theory,” because the proponent doesn’t tell decision-makers that X is something they ought to pursue. Fairly simple stuff, to be sure. But, many management scholars apparently haven’t fully absorbed the basic implications of what Hume, Menger, and Weber said on these issues. And in today’s method-obsessed graduate programs, they likely won’t.
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