Why are journals so obsessed by theory?

If contributing to knowledge is the name of the game, what is wrong with description, asks Michael Marinetto

April 29, 2020
A man wearing a hat speaks into a microphone addressing the crowd gathered behind him, USA, circa 1950.
Source: Getty

I recently heard about a rejection letter from a Chinese economics journal that was a bit too generous with the sugar vis-à-vis the pill. “If we were to publish your paper, it would be impossible for us to publish any work of lower standard,” the editor wrote, several decades ago. “And as it is unthinkable that in the next thousand years we shall see its equal, we are, to our regret, compelled to return your divine composition.”

For most of us, however, rejections tend to be much more prosaic. My recent submission to the flagship journal (impact factor 2.817) of a once-popular social science discipline, for instance, was summarily dispatched on the grounds that it “does [not] seem to contribute in any substantial way to the generation of new knowledge or the development of theoretical frameworks”.

That old chestnut. In a 2011 article, the editors of the American Management Review conceded that the most common reason for giving articles the elbow was the absence of “a theoretical contribution to the literature”. However, they also admitted that most authors “can’t figure out what a theoretical contribution is, let alone write one”.

They’re not wrong. A friend emailed me once about a research article he had been struggling to write: “[What’s]…a contribution? A contribution to who? What constitutes a contribution? Can you remember any contributions that you have read? Why not?”

My hunch is that even the august minds who edit journals don’t have a clue what a theoretical contribution is. Robert Merton, a stalwart of American sociology, wrote in the 1960s that “like so many words that are bandied about, the word theory threatens to become meaningless. Because its referents are so diverse…use of the word often obscures rather than creates understanding.”

The fetishisation of theory does have practical payoffs for editors. For one Swedish academic, Pär J. Ågerfalk, the charge of “insufficient theoretical contribution” can be employed as a neat rhetorical brush-off for submissions that editors do not like the look of but “cannot quite put their finger on why”. Judging manuscripts against this vague gold standard renders editorial verdicts simultaneously opaque and irrefutable – and ever more open to professional backscratching.

I remember an article in Times Higher Education back in 2005 that recounted what a journal editor said to someone he had asked to review a submission by a leading light in the field, after being informed that this someone was a close friend of the author. “We both know we are going to publish it anyway. This is really just a formal exercise, so could you just go through the motions?” The luminary’s reaction? “The editor had kind of given the game away. Now I know I can send him any old rubbish and get it in.”

For others, though, the opposite is true. There is evidence, for instance, that female authors have to clear a much higher bar to get published; in one case in 2015, a referee suggested that two female scientists would benefit from a male co-author.

Even when editorial obsessing over theory is sincere and reasonably well defined, it is misguided because it risks killing originality and promoting hackneyed thinking instead. The social psychologist Michael Billig’s latest book, More Examples, Less Theory: Historical Studies of Writing Psychology, concludes that “in its oversimplified triviality [theory] constitutes an untruth”. This echoes the complaint in 2007 of the American management studies academic Donald Hambrick that “the blatant insistence on theory…in everything we write, actually retards our ability to achieve our end: understanding.”

We are probably too far down this rabbit hole to get out of it again. That would require courage on the part of editors to go against orthodoxy, which is rare. But it isn’t entirely absent. Ågerfalk, for instance, dared to question, in a 2014 editorial article in the European Journal of Information Systems, whether an insufficient theoretical contribution is really such a bad thing. For him, descriptive findings can advance and develop knowledge, so he implores editors to welcome theory-light papers that focus on empirical contributions and defer any theoretical analysis to other researchers at some later point in time.

I wouldn’t be the first person, moreover, to argue that these descriptive stories can, in themselves, make theoretical advances. As Billig shows in More Examples, I am treading a path that, while a little overgrown, is well worn.

Take the early 20th-century German philosopher Ernst Cassirer, who dedicated his vast, underrated body of work to revealing how art, myth and poetry intensify reality, whereas scientific abstraction impoverishes it. Cassirer, in turn, is echoing the founder of modern psychology, William James, for whom “theory mutilates reality”.

Both thinkers hold that good description is the best way of explaining and understanding – and not merely in the humanities and social sciences. Cassirer was keen to cite Robert Myer, the 19th-century founder of thermodynamics, who took on the “metaphysical mutilators” by arguing that if something is described from all sides, it is explained. The work of science is done.

It could even be that the best way of making an original, theoretical contribution to knowledge is to avoid trying to do so. As Goethe once wrote: “all that is factual is already theory”. But that theory would no doubt be rejected if he submitted it to a modern journal.

Michael Marinetto is a senior lecturer in management at Cardiff Business School.

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Why do journals focus on theory?

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Reader's comments (9)

Is this a spoof article? I think the author could do with some scholarly training if not. The history of knowledge would be a good place to start, before the author claims a fact is a fact and that description can be unbiased and truthful, that knowledge isn't power, etc etc. Yes, theory is difficult, but at least make an effort. This is scholarship, in a university, not a comic strip in a magazine.
You are presenting a particular interpretation of scholarship, albeit one that is rather dominant for professional rather than intellectual reasons and it is one I vehemently do not share. I am not anti-theory, I just think it's overrated and rather badly done and often gets in the way of understanding the world. As William James once wrote: theory mutilates reality. But if reading some Foucauldian theory makes you happy, supercilious and smug - go ahead knock yourself out. I would rather read a comic strip than what counts as scholarship these days.
I share many of the authors sentiments in this article, although I don't claim to have fully reached a conclusion in my own thinking. In graduate school I was not even aware of the debate acknowledged above as my professors only ever taught and assigned readings that were heavily based in a theory-driven paradigm. When I was working on a diasertation idea the first question I was always asked was "what theoretical framework are you working in, and how are you advancing it?" While I am certainly not anti-theory, the problem, as I saw it, was that published scholarship in my field often seemed to conclude with evidence that confirmed the theory that was used being applied. Additionally, when I traced publications from a single author, I found that their studies regularly supported the same theory, and found evidence disconfirming competing theories. Theory seemed to become each scholars reality. I think one aspect of the problem is the dual preference of journals for theory driven work and positive findings (because who publishes null results?). So, when you choose a theoretical framework at the beginning of a project, there is a built-in professional incentive to find supporting evidence (or switch theories to accommodate the findings). My dissertation has a question, and I want to know the answer, regardless of whether that answer supports or opposes a given theory. What I enjoy about descriptive studies is that they provide the raw material from which I - or others - can think about a subject from different theoretical frameworks. The absence of theory in the study is actually preferred, as it frees the "raw facts" from any particular framework (I recognize that, at a higher level of abstraction, there is always some "theory" present). This it not to claim that descriptive work is then somehow subservient to theoretical work, as descriptive studies can just as easily cast doubt on some specific theory. But, the relationship between the two would seem to neccesitate that both types of studies are published. Thanks for read.
Dear Sean - many thanks for your comment and many valuable insights. The training you mentioned at Grad school when it came to theory driven research is a common issue and problem. I recommend reading Michael Billig's book Learn to Write Badly - esp chapter 3 which looks at academic training and the role of choosing a theory! Also the point you made about theory essentially making researchers more myopic and less open minded about their findings is an especially significant problem in theory driven research.
Theory is necessary and indeed inevitable in advancing scholarship. But it shouldn't always be necessary to declare one's theoretical allegiance in order to advance an argument. The theory may be implicit to the kind of argument one is making. Unfortunately theory has become something of a badge of honour in a highly competitive research environment. One often needs to display one's credentials - of the right kind for the journal in question - in order to publish work. Fortunately, there are also many readers and journals who are sufficiently discriminating to know a good argument when they see it.
Good point Oneiropolos and really well put and I agree with what your comment (despite my misgivings in the article)... This is something I should have included in the article but theory is great servant but a terrible master. Cheers for your comment.
May I draw attention to a recent article of mine, which also addresses these issues, published in Academy of Management Learning & Education? https://journals.aom.org/doi/10.5465/amle.2019.0255
Many thanks Dennis ... I will read with great interest. Wishing you all the best.
Good point Oneiropolos and really well put and I agree with what your comment (despite my misgivings in the article)... This is something I should have included in the article but theory is great servant but a terrible master. Cheers for your comment.

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