Conceptual and Theoretical

14 April 2007 at 10:44 am 5 comments

| Nicolai Foss |

A few days ago Peter drew attention to the misuse in many academic papers of the word “methodology” (which is too often used when authors really mean “method”).

My personal pet peeve is the misuse of the word “conceptual,” particularly by management scholars. What is usually meant is “theoretical” (in fact, the word is often used in a derogatory manner — “Ah, Prof. NN, well, he mainly [meaning ‘merely’] does conceptual work” — something I once overheard being said of myself (in spite of several recent empirical papers — grrrr …. )). 

Of course, management scholars are sometimes taken up with analyzing concepts per se — such as discussing alternative notions of competitive advantage — but usually conceptul analysis is the business of philosophers, and few management scholars publish in Metaphysica and similar places. (However, those management scholars who in fact do wish to undertake “conceptual work” may be interested in this newly started journal).

Entry filed under: - Foss -, Ephemera.

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5 Comments Add your own

  • 1. tf  |  14 April 2007 at 3:26 pm

    Related to your parenthetical comment – empirics/data versus theory/concepts. The former clearly drives scientific learning and understanding: we observe and see the sun go around the earth and thus gain knowledge – everything else is mere conceptual and theoretical speculation….yeah, right.

    I agree with the maxim, in fact reinforced to me yesterday during a presentation – “the theory is your friend, and the data is your enemy.”

    (Of course, in part, perhaps an artificial dichotomy, but one that shows up constantly in various academic and epistemological discussions).

  • 2. Chihmao Hsieh  |  19 April 2007 at 6:25 pm

    I agree with Nicolai that ‘conceptual’ and ‘theoretical’ are often confused for one another, and that the term ‘conceptual’ can be used to describe strictly philosophical issues. My 2 cents follow.

    When the terms ‘conceptual’ and ‘concept’ are used in the (cognitive) psychological tradition, the distinction between ‘concept’ and ‘theory’ is generally less clear.

    The term ‘concept’ as used in the cognitive psychology literature is very highly aligned with what Walsh (1995) out of the organizational theory tradition calls ‘knowledge structure.’

    Here, it’s probably appropriate to distinguish between the notion of concepts and the notion of labels. Labels relate to words or phrases, whereas concepts relate to the meanings that individuals attach to those labels. My adult layman’s concept of the label ‘dog’ will be different from the concept of the label ‘dog’ held by a dog expert, and will be different from the concept of that label held by a 2-year-old.

    Back to the matter at hand: my understanding when I hear the term ‘conceptual research’ is that somebody has done one of a few basic things. (1a) S/he has introduced a new label to the field. Sometimes that label is associated with a genuinely unique concept, as detailed by the author. (1b) Other times s/he has introduced a new label to the field that is associated with a well-known concept (colloquially known as ‘old wine in new bottles’). (2) In contrast, conceptual research may relate to re-examination of a familiar label that reveals that past conceptualization underlying that label has somehow been suboptimal. Updates to the conceptualization underlying the label is supposed to then guide future research efforts in more productive directions (i.e. to more efficiently describe or explain business or organizational phenomena). In summary, ‘conceptual research’ relates to either new labels, new interpretations of old labels, or both.

    Needless to say, all the types of conceptual research described above can come across to readers as strictly matters of personal interpretation, emerging due to the differences in meanings that researchers assign to the same label. Type #1b usually doesn’t make it into journals, certainly not top journals. Type #2 usually makes it into the more specialized ‘niche’ journals. To the mainstream, both of these types of conceptual research often just aren’t that compelling, and don’t pass the ‘who cares?’ test.

    That leaves us with Type #1a, which is the type of conceptual research that perhaps most likely finds its way into top journals. Yet the introduction of new labels associated with new unique specialized meanings (e.g. ‘opacity’ vs. ‘difficulty to understand’ as of SMJ 2001) can range from ‘ground-breaking’ to ‘imaginative,’ from ‘faddish’ to ‘could become valuable only starting 2015’ to ‘pointless for the rest of eternity.’ It can help us to overcome the semantic clumsiness imposed by the English language, and in a manner meaningful to the research efforts of strategy or organization (as one might argue re: ‘opacity’). Or not.

    No doubt that ‘theoretical research’ could be defined to overlap with a definition of ‘conceptual research.’ However, insofar that we could try using those two labels to represent two mutually exclusive meanings, ‘theoretical research’ would apply to research where neither new labels nor new meanings of labels are introduced.

    Good theoretical research would then identify or make connections (e.g. series of steps in logic or argument) that helps us to tie our existing agreed-upon concepts together, perhaps introducing well-known concepts agreed-upon from other fields too. It particularly appreciates, respects and uses the parsimonious set of concepts that we’ve developed already, and yet still manages to describe or explain important seemingly-unaddressable phenomena, or solve the seemingly unsolvable research puzzles.

    Hmm. This was more like 3 cents.

    * Incidentally, it’s probably a matter of opinion whether the identification or discovery of ‘connections’ between concepts does or does not update the concepts themselves. Those opining that discovery of connections DOES update concepts would also probably say that attempts to define ‘theoretical research’ and ‘conceptual research’ in a mutually exclusive way are futile.

  • 3. Chihmao Hsieh  |  20 April 2007 at 12:54 pm

    Incidentally, as I was driving into school, I considered how others might conceptualize the difference between ‘conceptual research’ and ‘theoretical research.’ For them, it might actually be a simpler matter of research that ‘describes’ versus research that ‘explains,’ respectively.

    Description is a complex issue to philosophers in general and epistemologists in particular, where the verbs “to be,” “to see,” “to perceive,” and “to sense” can each have a few meanings.* My guess is that such philosophical tradition moves us a bit closer to the meaning of ‘conceptual research’ to which Nicolai referred.

    * As a simple yet profound example of debate over what it means to ‘see,’ see (sorry!) discussions regarding the ‘inverted spectrum’: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inverted_spectrum . (The usual disclaimer re: Wikipedia should apply.)

  • 4. Chihmao Hsieh  |  21 July 2007 at 11:18 pm

    To add on to this post: several years ago when I was a PhD student, a professor asked me whether I was an “empiricist” or a “theorist.” To this day I’m still not quite sure how most people make the distinction. Is it that theorists simply attempt to prove hypotheses through a top-down approach (using existing theory and logic) and that empiricists prove hypotheses through a bottom-up approach (via data)?

    And my other perhaps more burning question: when somebody asks whether you are a theorist or empiricist, do those labels connote any kind of social stigma?

  • 5. JC  |  22 July 2007 at 11:12 am

    Oh dear, I hate to bang on about the same things over and over again but the distinction between ‘theoretical’ and ’empirical’ is both inevitable and basic, even though it ain’t entirely simple.

    ‘Theoretical’ is largely to do with the exploration of the consequences of adopting some specific concepts or axioms – such as rational maximization or conservation of momentum. The resulting theorizing then becomes a sort of mathematical or logical discourse. Given this and this, then what follows logically?

    Notions like the individual, equilibrium, or balance, are pervasive axioms – just as are self-regulation, boundary maintenance, etc. Or we might have an axiom such as a business with slack resources is always looking to apply them. We might call all such propositions ‘concepts’ or axioms.

    The important thing about an axiom is that it is adopted without any demonstrable justification. They are the theorist’s ‘strategic choices’. The most acceptable justifications are (a) these choices are already manifest in the literature, so the theorist is following in an academically established tradition, or (b) the theorist is striking out in new directions by ‘inventing’ a new concept, such as the equivalence of mass and energy or, in Maxwell’s case, light and electricity. In (b) it is probably the case that the theorist is using tropes such as ‘analogy’ or ‘metaphor’ to apply a mode of thought familiar in some other field to her/his own field, as an innovation. Thus biological systems theory is applied in organization theory, even though the actual entity to which it is then applied has never been identified. Either (a) or (b) can lead to novel propositions or ‘hypotheses’. Thus Parsons’s work.

    The typical philosophy of science position is that these should be tested by experiment. There are plenty of questions about what, if anything, can be discovered by doing this but most of them are ignored in our field.

    But there is an implicit division of labor between those whose work is primarily intellectual – who might call themselves theorists – and those who work on the experimentation – who may call themselves empiricists. The classic example is the collaboration of Michelson and Morley on the speed of light, in which Michelson, who won the Nobel, was the theorist and Morley the experimenter. The example may be more apocryphal than useful since I am not at all clear about who did what in this collaboration, which was clearly fruitful. But one certainly imagine this kind of division of labor. The nature of academe and its power systems is that theorizing is regarded as a higher form of activity. This is not simply snobbery, it is about the reach of the the work done. The experiment is of limited influence, while the theoretical implications may be extensive.

    But there are other notions of ’empirical’ or ’empiricist’. The whole idea of testing ideas against one’s experience of the world is ’empiricist’, and goes back to Francis Bacon’s and John Locke’s thinking about how to persuade people by example rather than by appeals to higher authority, such as the Delphic Oracle or the Bible. This gets us into discussing alternatives notions of Truth, and their ‘warrants’. To be an empiricist in this sense is to be modern and the very opposite of stigmatized. This most extreme form of this approach is ‘logical empiricism’.

    The social sciences are different, perhaps, because there are two kinds of phenomena. First there are those which can be observed in the manner of the natural sciences, billiard balls banging into each other, rocks being crushed, metal strips being torn apart, chemicals combining into new compounds, etc. Thus we can observe people undergoing training and learning how to behave in new situations, such as being managerial. We can imagine experiments testing alternative forms of training.

    But there is a second class of phenomena which is about the meaning that people attach to their experience. This arises only because we allow a different axiom, to do with the difference between people and rocks. People, we assume, think for themselves, and act on the basis of those thoughts.

    This is the method of ‘Verstehen’, or ‘subjectivity’ and in due course gets us into existentialism. All of which grows out of us observing others doing their own theorizing about the world. The emphasis is on understanding that mental activity rather than on our theorizing about their physical actions, and it means a significant shift of vantage point.

    Once we have adopted this distinction between people as thinking for themselves and rocks which only act under the impulse of ’causes’, we have a lot of problems with knowing what we can ever say, in the sense of hypotheses, about other people. We are in danger of saying the only truth is whatever the individual takes to be the truth.

    One way out of this is to presume there is a form of inter-subjective truth wherein free-thinking individuals come to an agreement. This is not the same as concluding that what these individuals think has been ’caused’ by someone or something else. That would be to deny what I have called the second class of phenomena and push the discussion back into the cause and effect discourse of the natural sciences.

    Technically, or axiomatically, the difference is to do with human agency, which we can call the human ability to intercede between cause and effect on the basis of her/his own theorizing. It is also to do with changing the epistemological relationship between the researcher and the person researched, of recognizing there can be no prioritizing the researcher who, we assume, is no more or less of a person than the ‘subject’, the person being theorized about.

    Again, one way of dealing with researching those who have agency is to look for common patterns – do those who consider themselves French eat differently than those who consider themselves Norwegian?

    This leads to another form of ‘being an empiricist’, which is to say one must start from such patterns of human behavior rather than from concepts. This is the distinction that lies behind the Methodenstreit – about which it is always good to think.

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