What is Theory?

There seems to be a lot of confusion about what theory is. At least this is a recurring question I get from students. Let us first discuss what theory is not: Sutton & Staw (1995) show that “references, data, variables, diagrams, and hypotheses are not theory” and they “explain how each of these five elements can be confused with theory” (p. 371). But we should also be aware of the difference between facts and theory! In his essay, which is part of a collection of six essays, Pagell (in: Boer et al., 2015) paints the picture of an ideal research world where “most research will be building or testing facts, not theory”, while “theory building and testing [will be left] to a much smaller group of papers, where the theoretical argument would be critical” (p. 1244). So, what is theory? A definition I like comes from Suddaby (2015): “[T]heory is simply a way of imposing conceptual order on the empirical complexity of the phenomenal world” (p. 1).

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About Andreas Wieland

Andreas Wieland is an Associate Professor of Supply Chain Management at Copenhagen Business School. His current research interests include resilient and socially responsible supply chains.

One response to “What is Theory?”

  1. Morten Brinch says :

    Thanks for the post. As an PhD student I have also been given some thoughts to what theory is and have read several articles on the subject. Though, as you write, there seems to be a lot of confusion and I have not been to able to come to any conclusion.
    I would like to supplement with the point that the purpose for scholars is to increase knowledge rigorously and to disseminate that knowledge to the wider community. That would include building/testing of both facts and theory, just as Pagell states. So perhaps the discussion on theory is on a wrong path, we should instead discuss what knowledge is and is not and how that knowledge can help to wider community (relevance).

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