“Does Management Research Need to Become More Empirical?”

| Nicolai Foss |

Or, to put it more precisely, does management research (i.e., the journals) need to become more empirical in the specific sense of allowing for research that is pre-theoretic, but addresses an issue of relevance or detects a pattern to organizational stakeholders, that is, identifies a potentially important stylized fact?

In two SO!APBOX Editorial Essays in the May issue of Strategic Organization,Danny Miller and Constance Helfat both argue, in Miller’s words, that “the current institutional setting within which administrative studies develop has evolved to de-legitimize [this] type of research” (p. 177). As examples of the benefits of pre-paradigmatic, atheoretic research Miller points to Fleming’s discovery of penicillin, and, in management, to Woodward’s discoveries of the impact of technology on organization structure, the Hawthorne experiments, Tushman’s work on firm trajectories, etc. Helfat points to the Philips curve and the learning curve.

Miller and Helfat may be quite right that descriptions of stylized facts that are not somehow informed by theorizing are seldom, if ever, seen in the leading management journals (of course, to a hardcore economist — all management “theorizing” is essentially the kind of work that Miller and Helfat want to be done ;-)). However,

  • Are there any known cases of this kind of research being killed by the journals to the detriment of the management field?
  • Isn’t it — contrary to what is implied by Miller and Helfat — the case that sometimes harm may have been done by atheoretical work on empirical regularities? Think of the PIMS.
  • What is necessarily so bad about requesting that authors try to come up with a theoretical rationalization of an observed regularity? Is this such a barrier that it will stop potential authors from publishing their result? Theorizing comes in many forms, and some kinds of theorizing is much harder to do than other kinds of theorizing. What is wrong with requesting that, as a minimum, authors provide some verbal account of the possible underlying mechanisms that may produce an observed regularity?

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