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During my recent secondment in Germany with University of Stuttgart and ARENA2036, I had the honour to participate in a 3-day seminar ‘On Theorizing’ by Professor José López from University of Ottawa. This provided me the opportunity to reflect on a fundamental element of science – theory building. As researchers we are consistently asked to consider our theoretical contribution, to justify what theories we are using, to understand complex theories, and how we are building upon this. It dawned on me as an early-stage researcher, we are never really explicitly told how to do all of these things. We are aware this is crucial, but the ways in which we can do this are not clear.
What exactly is ‘theory’? And how do you ‘theorize’?
Distinguishing between theory and theorizing was a key takeaway for me. Perhaps this comes from imposter syndrome to an extent, but I always considered that creating ‘theory’ was for the grand theorists and thought leaders of our generation and those before us. Therefore, the rest of us simply chip away at the edges of this, either confirming or disproving these grand theories. I needed to be reminded this is only one way to think about theory and, in fact, there is always big T Theory and little t theory – both of which are as important as each other.
Theory remains abstract and ambiguous; this is largely due to the contestations on the nature of truth. Theory can be defined as a formal statement of ideas that are suggested to explain a fact, or event, or how something works. Essentially, we are trying to explain truths. When different people have different ideas on what the truth is, this gets complicated. Thus, attempting to build theory becomes even more complex.
Putting a different perspective on this, we can think about theorizing instead. The forming of a theory seems somewhat more achievable than facing the Theory beast head on and ill-equipped. Abend (2008) suggests 8 ways in which theories can be developed from causal explanations to social interpretation. While this isn’t an exhaustive list, it is rather inclusive of various epistemological standpoints and opened my mind to more ways that theorizing can be done.
How useful is this really?
Personally, I find it useful to distinguish between theory and theorizing because the language itself infers whether it is passive (theory) or active (theorize). In addition, I feel more comfortable with the idea of theorizing as opposed to making or creating theory. While these are both simply cognitive influences, this is nonetheless important and useful if it enables researchers to engage with theory more proactively. You might disagree if you feel that it complicates the process of theory building, in which case, find whatever suits you.
Regardless, I hope it was useful to reflect on this with me. I have recommended a few readings if you would like to further your thoughts on theory and how to make your own contributions! Feel free to comment additional resources you have found useful too 😊
Abend, G. 2008. The Meaning of ‘Theory.’ Sociological Theory, 26(2), pp. 173–199. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9558.2008.00324.x
Corley, K.G. and Gioia, D.A., 2011. Building theory about theory building: what constitutes a theoretical contribution? Academy of management review, 36(1), pp.12-32. https://doi.org/10.5465/amr.2009.0486
Makadok, R., Burton, R. and Barney, J., 2018. A practical guide for making theory contributions in strategic management. Strategic Management Journal, 39(6), pp.1530-1545. https://doi.org/10.1002/smj.2789
Sutton, R. I., & Staw, B. M. 1995. What theory is not. Administrative science quarterly, 40(3), pp. 371-384. https://doi.org/10.2307/2393788
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