The Cycles of Theory Building in Management Research

by Paul R. Carlile & Clayton M. Christensen

Overview — How do business academics know they are categorizing or measuring the best things to help us understand interesting phenomena? Scholars waste a lot of time and energy disparaging and defending various research methods. Yet the stakes are high for business academics to create theory that is intellectually rigorous, practically useful, and able to stand the tests of time. The authors describe a three-stage process for building theory; discuss the role of anomalies for building better theory; and suggest how scholars can refine research questions, carry out projects, and design student coursework. Key concepts include:

  • A common language about the research process will help management scholars build more effectively on each other's work.
  • If management researchers follow a robust, reliable process, even the most "average" among them can produce and publish research that is of high value to academics and practitioners.
  • The dichotomy that many people see between teaching and research need not create conflict.

Author Abstract

Starting from the assumption that good theories are of practical value, this paper offers an account of what theory-building research is and how it is done. Rather than arguing on one side of a debate about deductive vs. inductive or qualitative vs. quantitative, this paper describes the cycle through which theory-building research continually passes. We argue that the cycle passes through three stages: description, categorization and causality. When new descriptions reveal anomalies the cycle is repeated and current theory can be potentially altered. By building a common understanding of the theory building process, we hope this will help avoid many of the debates that sidetrack our "collective" research efforts and identify potential changes in how we design research programs, evaluate each others' work and teach the craft of scholarship to our students.

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