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Making a theoretical contribution in empirical research. Jim Combs University of Alabama August 10, 2011. My simple definition of theory:. A theory is a set of assumptions and the causal logic that explains the relationships among constructs (not variables). . Theory. Risk Taking. CEO

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Making a theoretical contribution in empirical research

Making a theoretical contribution in empirical research

Jim Combs

University of Alabama

August 10, 2011

My simple definition of theory
My simple definition of theory:

A theory is a set of assumptions and the causal logic that explains the relationships among constructs (not variables).







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Value of stock options


Why does theory matter
Why does theory matter?

  • Philosophical Answer:

    • Theory explains empirical relationships.

    • Without it, we would need to memorize all empirical relationships and try to draw our own conclusions about the world.

    • Theories influence human behavior.

Why does theory matter1
Why does theory matter?

  • Practical Answer:

    • Most, if not all, management journals want a theoretical explanation for empirical relationships.

    • AMJ demands and other journals (JoM) desire an actual contribution to theory.

What theory is not naming
What Theory is not: Naming

  • Naming the theory and citing those who either developed or tested the theory is not the same as contributing to it.

    • “your theory development might be characterized as a list of papers….the analytical set-up for this type of research –or any other—needs more than lists of papers and arguments” (AMJ Reviewer)

    • “whereas you name four theories as the focus of your study, you neither justify their use nor clearly explain how your research contributes to any or all of these theories” (AMJ Decision Letter)

What theory is not studying the under studied
What Theory is not: Studying the under-studied

  • Just because something hasn’t been studied much doesn’t mean it hasn’t been studied at all.

  • “You make some bold statements about prior literature…. For example, you suggest that “strategy research is deficient,”“the strategy literature has largely neglected …”“no significant study has included…,” and so on. However, your theory development is somewhat vague about the nature of gaps in prior literature and how your study fills these gaps.”(AMJ Reviewer, my emphasis).

What theory is not testing theory
What Theory is not: Testing Theory

Testing a theory and finding exactly what the theory predicts (and others have found) does not add anything new to the theory.

  • “Each of them [the hypotheses] is exactly what we would expect to find (already know) and as such are quite boring.” (AMJ Reviewer)

  • “Some of your findings are, for example, the eco-system level is a source of value creation; individuals are necessary to create value in an eco system; persistence and diversity are important; etc. Now these are all very interesting, but not entirely surprising.” (AMJ Reviewer)

What theory is not empirical contribution
What Theory is not: Empirical Contribution

  • Testing or finding something that has not been tested or found might offer an empirical contribution, but it is not alone a theoretical contribution.

    • “Your paper would make a much stronger contribution worthy of AMJ papers if you repositioned it with respect to a theoretical, rather than an empirical contribution”(AMJ Reviewer).

    • “…the claimed contribution seems to rest on measure and analytical differences. Certainly, it is important to provide better evidence, even replication, but it is unclear to me whether AMJ should publish it.” (AMJ Reviewer).

Common types of theoretical contributions





Decision making speed


Common Types of Theoretical Contributions

  • Identifying factors that moderate or mediate key relationships (e.g., Miller & Shamsie, 1996, AMJ; Baum & Wally, 2003, SMJ).

Common types of theoretical contributions1
Common Types of Theoretical Contributions

  • Applying a theory to explain a complex relationship (i.e., Haleblian & Finkelstein, 1999, ASQ).

  • Developing the logic that reconciles predictions from competing theories(e.g., Combs & Skill, 2003, AMJ: Deephouse, 1999, SMJ)

Common types of theoretical contributions2
Common Types of Theoretical Contributions

  • Extending a theory to explain a phenomenon where it has not previously been applied(Chatterjee & Hambrick, 2007, ASQ; Combs, Michael, Castrogiovanni, 2009, JoM)

    • Or a new phenomenon (Cowen & Marcel, 2011, AMJ)

  • Explaining a theory’s boundary conditions(e.g., Ray, Barney, & Muhanna, 2004, SMJ; Shervani, Frazier, & Challagalla, 2007, SMJ)

Common types of theoretical contributions3
Common Types of Theoretical Contributions

  • Developing logic to explain a phenomena that is not consistent (or seems inconsistent) with a theory(Knott, 2003, SMJ; Sanders & Hambrick, 2007, AMJ).

  • Introducing a new construct and explaining how it relates to important constructs(Finkelstein & Boyd, 1998, AMJ; Baker & Nelson, 2005, ASQ)

The introduction is the most important section

Doing it

The introduction is the most important section!

  • “it was not apparent how this study advances management theory and practice.”

  • “In my view, this paper emerges without a compelling motivation.”

  • “the core topic of the paper is not motivated well…it is not clear why this study is needed.”

  • “Why would we be interested in this study? You tell us what you did but not why you did it.”

  • “it is not clear what the gap that you are trying to address is and what motivates you to address it.”

Justification set up aka introduction

Doing it

Justification & Set-up (aka Introduction)

  • Hardest section to write

  • Explain exactly

    • ‘what we know’

    • ‘what we need to know’

    • Why is it important to know this

    • how your paper will close the gap

  • Don’t get fancy (until later)!

Finding the gap

Doing it

Finding the “Gap”

  • You must be the content expert

    • Dissertation: The next question comes from the knowledge frontier

    • If you have data:

      • Get out on the knowledge frontier

      • Dig!!!

      • When you find something, ask:

        • Is it interesting

        • Can it be made interesting

Process issues

Doing it

Process issues

  • In most cases, you want to draw upon concepts that we already have and use only one theory.

  • Theory dictates constructs and measures.

  • Define concepts and stay consistent (Duane Ireland on: considerably vs. substantially)

  • Avoid ‘argumentation by citation’

  • Developing theory is hard work – get feedback from skilled colleagues

  • Position the paper in the journal you are pursuing

  • Take naps

Good references writing
Good References: Writing

  • Bem, D. J. 1987. Writing the empirical journal article. In M. P. Zanna and J. M. Darley (Eds.), The compleat academic: 171-201. New York: Random House.

  • Huff, A. S. 1999. Writing for scholarly publication. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

  • Silva, P. J. 2007. How to write a lot: A practical guide to productive academic writing, APA.

  • Daft, R. L. (1995). Why I recommended that your manuscript be rejected and what you can do about it. Publishing in the Organizational Sciences. L. L. Cummings and P. J. Frost. Thousand Oaks, CA, Sage.

Good references theory
Good References: Theory

  • Davis, M. (1971). "That’s interesting." Philosophy of Social Science, 1: 309-344.

  • Bacharach, S. B. (1989). "Organizational theories: Some criteria for evaluation." Academy of Management Review, 14: 496-515.

  • Sutton, R. I. and B. M. Staw (1995). "What Theory is Not." Administrative Science Quarterly, 40: 371-384.

  • Whetten, D. A. (1989). "What constitutes a theoretical contribution?" Academy of Management Review, 14: 490-495.

  • Look at up-coming “From the Editors” at AMJ.

Survey of job board members n 101
Survey of JOB board members (n=101)

  • The prestige of the person's 2% doctoral granting institution

  • The professional status of 8 the person's mentor

  • Luck 3

  • Hard work61

  • The quality of one's doctoral training 24

  • The quality of colleagues in the 3 department where the person works


Which of the following do you believe is the MOST important determinant of a person's level of success as a researcher in the organizational sciences?

Writing theory is
Writing Theory is

  • Valuable

  • Rare

  • Difficult to Imitate

  • No substitutes