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).