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Theorizing: The blurred line between the personal and the communal

February 5, 2020


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By Anne Vorre Hansen and Sabine Madsen

Academic careers depend on what is perceived as the individual’s ability to publish research that makes a theoretical contribution to a given field. Much of the material on how to succeed with this delineates a systematic, step-by-step approach to theory construction.

But how are theories developed in practice? An interview study with eight key thinkers from the organizational studies field provides a picture that challenges this externally motivated, linear and production-oriented approach. Instead, a personal, creative and process-oriented perspective is revealed.

Below, insights from interviews with David Boje, Barbara Czarniawska, Kenneth Gergen, Tor Hernes, Geert Hofstede, Edgar Schein, Andrew Van de Ven and Karl Weick are presented.

The process of theorizing

Many books and articles provide formal guidance to the construction and publication of theory, for example based on authors’ and editors’ experiences and lessons learnt. However, the interviewees in our study do not particularly favor that kind of material and they are also reluctant to give advice themselves. There are two reasons for this. First, they are far more interested in theorizing – the process through which a theory is created, from the initial conception of an idea to data collection, reading, writing, publication and beyond – than in theory construction. Second, for them, theorizing is a personally meaningful process – not a formal activity or a career goal. Instead, the process of theorizing represents an urge to understand and connect with the slice of the world that the interviewees are interested in.

Theorizing is deeply personal

Our research shows that theorizing is deeply personal in nature. The individual’s background, such as national culture, influence and expectations of parents, teachers, supervisors and mentors, geographical living, education, being a part of organizations and institutions as well as historical times, impacts how the individual theorizes. Thus, aspects of the researcher’s personal history as well as empirical data and extant literature interact in a non-linear manner to shape research interests, ideas, thinking processes, research results and theoretical insights. In the interviews, this is illustrated by the fact that each of the eight interviewees have their own definition of what theory is and what good theories are supposed to do for readers and in the world.

Theorizing as subjective practices

The interviewees emphasize that ‘the right way’ to theorize does not exist. Instead, it is important to find the activities and the ways of listening, reading, writing, thinking and engaging that works for you. Therefore, each of them has reflected on and discovered their own ‘tricks’ for carving out time and getting in the mood for concentrated and creative thinking about the research topic. Moreover, they stress that a large part of theorizing is to ‘think further’ than what already exists in the data, in the existing literature, etc. and to ‘find your own voice’. If you get too hung up on ‘doing it right’ and repeating what is already there, you will have trouble finding your own way and becoming yourself as a thinker and researcher.

A long-term communal process

Despite the interviewees’ personal definitions and approaches to theory and theorizing, they also have one thing in common: they see theorizing as a long-term communal process. They describe how it can easily take five to ten years for the researcher to understand a topic well enough to be able to conceive, develop, refine and publish theoretical ideas about it. This means that theoretical ideas about a topic are rehearsed in several journal publications and books, before they can be presented in a resonant way in the publication. Many of the interlinked processes related to this, such as reviewing, editing, presenting, getting and giving feedback and keeping up with current academic fashions, are collective. This in turn means that the author(s) is not the only creator of a published text, nor is the published text the endpoint of the theorizing process. On the contrary, for a text to become theory, it must be picked up by the community, circulated, cited and further developed by being incorporated into other peoples’ thinking and published work. This can easily take another five to ten years.

Contributing means helping

It takes a long time and much individual and communal effort to create a theory. Therefore, it is more accurate to talk about contributing as a verb, i.e. as activity in time, rather than contribution as a noun, i.e. as a concrete result. The interviewees also have a broad definition of what it means to contribute. Their definition goes well beyond what the individual researcher writes in a given published text and looks at the various ways in which theoretical ideas are at work in and over time and texts (and other media) and how these ideas contribute to the field, to theory-in-the-making, to practice and to people. Particularly the latter, i.e. being able to help specific people that the researcher interacts with, is considered a real contribution. Thus, by theorizing researchers contribute in many ways: by creating new and timely knowledge as well as lasting and profound insights that others need; and importantly, the theorizing that researchers do, individually and jointly, help move the thinking about the research topic forward.

An antidote to one-sided instrumentality

The aforementioned points offer a refreshing antidote to one-sided instrumentality. However, a key question is if the current conditions for researchers, and especially for junior faculty, are supportive for such thinking processes and personally meaningful pursuits? From the outset, the interviews did not focus on this more critical aspect, but the interviewees stressed that their academic paths have been based on certain conditions that have changed a lot since they entered the scene. In particular, they dismiss the notion of identifying ‘a research gap’, which today is perceived as the main task for PhD students and the primary justification for most research presented in academic journals. They argue that such a gap is an illusion. Instead, interesting and relevant research aims to bridge, bond and connect existing thoughts and research streams to be able to understand the complexity of real-life issues better. Thus, the dismissal of the ‘gap research’ approach is also a critique of a an academic system, where there is a disconnect between the main measurement parameters and the creative aspect of theorizing alongside the personal motivation of (hopefully) most researchers to contribute, not only to the academic society but also importantly, to practice.

Anne Vorre Hansen, works in the Department of Social Sciences and Business at Roskilde University and Sabine Madsen, teaches in the Department of Political Science at Aalborg University, Denmark

Book Cover for Theorizing in Organization StudiesThe text is based on: Hansen, Anne V. and Madsen, Sabine (2019), Theorizing in Organizational Studies: Insights from key thinkers, available now from Edward Elgar Publishing..

Read chapter 1 free on Elgaronline.

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