Release | Special Issue | Theories are Methods. Or are they? Methodological options for organization and management research

Theories are Methods. Or are they? Methodological options for organization and management research, special issue of the Journal of Organizational Change Management [SSCI 2.293, Scopus, CNRS**, FNEGE**, CABS**].


Steffen Roth, Albert Mills, Bill Lee, and Dariusz Jemielniak: Theory as method. Introduction to supertheoretical options for organization and management research

Abstract: This article is devoted to conditions and examples of how theories may be applied as methods in the fields of management research and organization studies. An introduction to minimum requirements for a successful refunctionalization of theory as method as well as to nine contributions to a special issue of the Journal of Organizational Change Management on “Theory as method” is provided. The review of these nine cases suggests that the use of theories as methods is not necessarily harmful for the former, and particularly not for the more robust among them. This article sheds new light on the value of theoretical monism or loyalty and calls for a reassessment of the relative value of expertise in a specific research field, method and or theory.


Vladislav Valentinov and Anna Hajdu: Integrating instrumental and normative stakeholder theories: a systems theory approach

Abstract: The stakeholder theory encompasses instrumental and normative varieties whose mutual relationship remains unclear and exhibits a classic tension between rational self-interest and moral motivation. The purpose of this paper is to develop a strategy for navigating this tension. Niklas Luhmann’s social systems theory is concerned with the limited ability of social systems to codify, and be receptive to, the complexity of the environment. Drawing on this theory, the paper juxtaposes the codification problems of two types of social systems: the for-profit firm and the economic function system. This juxtaposition allows to identify four firm behavior patterns, two of which can be aligned with instrumental and normative stakeholder theories. If the codification capacity of the economic function system is assumed to be sufficient, the codification problems of the for-profit firm are shown to specify the range of applicability of the instrumental stakeholder theory. Dropping the above assumption is shown to specify the range of applicability of the normative stakeholder theory. The argument offers a fresh way of understanding the institutional economics foundations of the stakeholder theory. Given that the systems-theoretic idea of codification reflects the functioning of the real-world institutions, the argument shows that both instrumental and normative stakeholder theories reflect the institutional texture of the modern society in distinct but equally legitimate ways.

Steffen Roth: Draw your organization! A solution-focused theory-method for business school challenges and change

Abstract: This article presents a solution-focused approach to current problems and criticisms faced by business schools. In order to facilitate the required shift from problems to solutions, I outline a theory-method and demonstrate how it has informed my teaching at FT-ranked business schools and other institutions of higher education in two subjects and on three continents. I report on two student exercises showing that even advanced business school students confuse organizations with political economic hierarchies. I conclude that business schools pursuing a smart specialisation strategy by challenging this reductionist view may turn into new schools of management distinguished by a broader, multifunctional concept of themselves and their impact on their environment.

Kristof Van Assche, Raoul Beunen, Monica Gruezmacher, Martijn Duineveld, Leith Deacon, Robert Summers, Lars Hallstrom, and Kevin Jones: Research methods as bridging devices: path and context mapping in governance

Abstract: The purpose of this paper is to investigate the potential, both analytically and practically, of understanding research methods as bridging devices. Methods can bridge theory and empirics, but it is argued that they can perform several bridging functions: between theory and praxis, between analysis and strategy and between past and future. The focus is on those forms of bridging relevant for understanding and effectuating change in governance, at community level and at the scale of organizations. The paper develops a perspective on methods as bridging devices. It uses the newly minted methods of governance path and context mapping as a case study. These methods conceptually derive from evolutionary governance theory (EGT) and were developed and tested in Canadian empirical research. The case helps to develop insight in features, forms and limitations of methods as bridging devices in governance research and practice. The authors then use the case to further develop the initial concept of bridging more generally, emphasizing the shifting balance between methods as bridging and creating boundaries. Both the case study and the theoretical analysis underline the necessary imperfection of any method as bridging device. The authors affirm the potential of method to perform different bridging functions at the same time, while revealing clear tradeoffs in each role. Tradeoffs occur with adapted versions of the method producing new strengths and weaknesses in new contexts. In each of the forms of bridging involved neither side can be reduced to the other, so a gap always remains. It is demonstrated that the practice of bridging through method in governance is greatly helped when methods are flexibly deployed in ongoing processes of bricolage, nesting and modification. Governance enables the continuous production of new framing devices and other methods. The idea of methods as bridging devices is new, and can assist the development of a broader understanding of the various forms and functions of research methods. Moreover, it helps to discern roles of research methods in the functioning of governance. The context of governance helps to recognize the multi-functionality of research methods, and their transformation in a context of pressured decision-making. Moreover, this approach contributes to the understanding of governance as adumbrated by EGT.

Kosuke Sakai: Functional differentiation of society as a middle-range theory: Semantic analysis of modern insurance in Germany during the nineteenth century

Abstract: This paper aimed to analyze the ways in which Niklas Luhmann’s theory of the functional differentiation of society can be applied to historical studies. To achieve this, a semantic analysis of the development of modern insurance in Germany during the nineteenth century was conducted. Through an examination of the significant features of Luhmann’s theoretical frameworks in empirical objects, Luhmann’s semantic analysis was reformulated as an approach based on a middle-range theory, similar to that of Robert K. Merton, where the potential of the theory can be maximized for empirical research. This paper embodies this proposal, citing several developments within organizations that imbued insurance technology with various ideas and values. The theory of the functional differentiation of society can be reconstructed as a working hypothesis from a methodological perspective, instead of a general theory that explains every part of society. Applying this to empirical social practices leads to progress in historical studies conducting the semantic variations connected to the institutional formation and their boundary works. This paper provides a practical research perspective for historical studies in the social sciences, employing a reinterpretation of sociological theory that may be understood only as a structural presupposition of modern society. Furthermore, the increased possibility of historical-comparative studies on modern insurance is indicated by illustrating the applicability of this framework to a detailed case study of modern insurance.

Margit Neisig: Social systems theory and engaged scholarship: co-designing a semantic reservoir in a polycentric network

Abstract: The purpose is to investigate a position for engaged scholarship bridging the gulf between theorizing and practice in a social system perspective using Design Thinking for assisting the emergence of a semantic reservoir in a polycentric network “in spe”. The paper combines social systems theory with the concept of engaged scholarship based on Design Thinking, and illustrates how such a research position might be applied to problems of polycentric networks as a theoretical/methodological case. The paper concludes on a possible role for an engaged scholarship as a midwife assisting the emergence of a shared semantic reservoir that is needed to make commitments and couplings possible to become a polycentric network. Design Thinking is explained as a structured way to irritate (disturb) other systems, and the role of a shared semantic reservoir for a polycentric network “in spe” is accounted for. Bridging the gulf between theorizing and practice in management theory is under-explored, and social systems theory underlines the immanent rigor-relevance gap, which this paper suggests a way not to overcome, but to bridge. The discussion of the rigor-relevance gap is revisited. Also, the critical process for a shared semantic reservoir to emerge in the formation of poly-centric networks is underexplored and so are its role for coupling of networks. The conceptual understanding thereof is also contributed to.

Viktor Dörfler and Marc Stierand: Bracketing: a phenomenological theory applied through transpersonal reflexivity

The purpose of this study is to improve our understanding of bracketing, one of the most central philosophical and theoretical constructs of phenomenology, as a theory of mind. Furthermore, we wanted to showcase how this theoretical construct can be implemented as a methodological tool. In this study we have adopted an approach similar to a qualitative meta-synthesis, comparing the emergent patterns of two empirical projects, seeking synergies and contradictions and looking for additional insights from new emerging patterns. On a philosophical level, we have found that bracketing, as a theoretical construct, is not about the achievement of objectivity; quite to the contrary, it embraces subjectivity and puts it centre-stage. On a theoretical level, we have achieved a better understanding of Husserl’s phenomenology, as a theory of mind. On a methodological level, we have achieved a powerful way of supplementing and/or clarifying research findings, by using a theoretical construct as a methodological tool. Our paper contributes to the phenomenology literature at a philosophical, theoretical and methodological level, by offering a better understanding and a novel implementation of one of the central theoretical constructs of phenomenology.

Adriana van Hilten: A theory of (research) practice makes sense in sensemaking: Applying Bourdieu’s critical social theory to the study of sensemaking change

Abstract: The purpose of this paper is to introduce Bourdieu’s social theory, and its “thinking tools” of habitus, doxa, field and capital, as a sensemaking theory. The emic research studied, for a particular group, the firm-wide implementation of a new system. The study used data occurring naturally in the organization (executive newsletters), and externally (third-party surveys), as well as 23 participant interviews to structure the social space (field) and determine what is of interest (identity). Interviews were coded for habitus, doxa, field, capital, symbolic violence and strategies to re-assert interviewees’ own doxa versus logic imposed by the powerful. A unique, esteemed identity was being erased through executive attempts to introduce a new culture at the firm, and the new systems represented a challenge to this valued identity. Participants used strategies to re-assert their identity through not participating in the logic of the new tool: discussing misuse, lack of use, relative unimportance and low priority of the new tool. Change that threatens an esteemed, valued identity is more likely to be resisted. The logic of an established practice or system (beyond merely gathering user requirements) is beneficial in understanding potential reactions to a new system. Change in systems that occur simultaneously with the imposition of a new culture, particularly where the system is seen as being a representation of that imposed culture, may be resisted through non-practice (misuse or lack of use) of the new system. The paper demonstrates the applicability of Bourdieu’s social theory to organizational studies, providing a sensemaking of change and acts of resistance. A theory of (research) practice makes sense in sensemaking: Applying Bourdieu’s critical social theory to the study of sensemaking change

Devon Gidley: Creating institutional disruption: an alternative method to study institutions

Abstract: This paper develops a new method to study institutions based on institutional work theory. Institutional disruption is intentionally utilized to explore the taken-for-granted foundations of social institutions. The paper outlines the method and considerations. Taking inspiration from ethnomethodological breaches, the paper outlines the steps in the new method called researcher initiated institutional disruption (RIID). The four steps are identifying the institution, identifying the institutional actors, selecting the disruption type and disrupting the institution to gather data (action and reaction). RIID utilizes three types of institutional disruption: undermining assumptions and beliefs, resistance and issue raising. The new method complements traditional field methods, such as observation, by showing how a researcher can deliberately make taken-for-granted institutional features visible. The paper finds that RIID offers the opportunity to gather different data, but it is not appropriate for every study and carries potential consequences in the field. This paper contributes to the literature by outlining an innovative use of theory as method. The approach has not previously been detailed and offers the potential to access previously inaccessible research questions, data and theoretical insights.

Masoud Shadnam: New theories and organization research: from the eyes of change

Abstract: In recent years, organization scholars have engaged in several conversations about the process of theory development, and offered many proposals for building new theories of organization. The purpose of this paper is to highlight a fundamental, fruitful and often neglected method for developing new theories of organization. This paper draws on Peirce’s typology of reasoning: deduction, induction and abduction. This typology helps in analyzing and categorizing the extant proposals for developing new theories of organization, and also makes it visible what approach has been most often missing. This paper shows that the offered proposals can be categorized into the following two models: (1) armchair theorizing; (2) present capturing. This categorization also highlights a third model – change sensitizing – that is based on shifting organization theories by sensitizing ourselves to macro shifts of organizational reality. Although the change sensitizing model is an unusual, marginal practice in today’s organization research, it has historically been used to develop many of the renowned theories in social sciences. If taken as a serious agenda, it has the potential to generate a host of new, valuable theories of organization.

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