[We’re pleased to welcome author Herman Aguinis of George Washington University. He recently published an article in Organizational Research Methods entitled, “Using Theory Elaboration to Make Theoretical Advancements,”co-authored by Greg Fisher of Indiana University. From Aguinis:]
“Our field is rapidly being pulled apart by centrifugal forces. Like a supernova that once packed a wallop, our energy is now dissipating and we are quickly growing cold”
Donald Hambrick (2004, p. 91)
“Like symphony orchestras that play a repertoire of a dozen baroque and classical composers year in and year out, management research can sometimes appear like a living museum of the 1970s.”
Jerry Davis (2010, p. 691)
As highlighted by the above two quotes, theory development in the management field is fragmented and lacks novelty. What then can we do about this?
We propose that one way to address the opposing forces of fragmentation and lack of novelty is to adopt an approach to theory development that has loosely been referred to as theory elaboration. Lee, Mitchell and Sablynski (1999) suggested that “Theory elaboration occurs when preexisting conceptual ideas or a preliminary model drives [a] study’s design” (p. 164) and they contrasted it with theory generation that “occurs when the inquiry’s design produces formal and testable research propositions” and theory testing that “occurs when formal hypotheses or a formal theory determines the study’s design” (Lee et al., 1999, p. 164). We provide a more comprehensive definition of theory elaboration as the process of conceptualizing and executing empirical research using pre-existing conceptual ideas or a preliminary model as a basis for developing new theoretical insights by contrasting, specifying, or structuring theoretical constructs and relations to account for and explain empirical observations.
To better understand theory elaboration we identified published articles that have implicitly or explicitly adopted such an approach, and although the overall number of articles is small we recognized that many such articles are among the most highly cited and impactful in the management field. We therefore set about to codify such an approach. To do so we used a reverse-engineering process to extract fundamental features of impactful theory elaboration studies.
Our goal is adopting such a reverse engineering process was to explain how to conduct a theory elaboration study, to offer illustrations of how to use particular tactics to achieve specific theory advancement goals, and to point out particular contexts and circumstances where theory elaboration is most fruitful. As such our paper serves as a catalyst for “cloning” the important theoretical advancements that have been achieved by the handful of studies that have adopted a theory elaboration perspective.
From this reverse engineering process we describe seven specific tactics for conducting a theory elaboration study:
- Horizontal contrasting – contrasting observations across different contexts
- Vertical contrasting – contrasting observations across different levels of analysis
- New construct specification – identifying and defining new constructs
- Construct splitting – identifying a need or oppo
rtunity to break a broad construct into specific constructs
- Structuring specific relations – defining/redefining a specific relation between two constructs
- Structuring sequence relations – providing an explanation of a sequence of events or relations
- Structuring recursive relations – Accounting for a recursive relation between two or more entities over repeated interactions
We link each of these tactics with different types of theory advancements and we provide a sequential decision-making process for deciding whether to adopt a theory elaboration approach. Finally, we identify research domains and specific topics in OBHR, strategic management, and entrepreneurship for which theory elaboration is likely to be highly effective as a means to make theoretical advancements. We believe that theory elaboration holds a great promise as a perspective to empower scholars to overcome some of the current challenges associated with theory advancement in the management field.
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