Robert Sutton; Barry Staw: What theory is not

This essay describes differences between papers that contain some theory rather than no theory. There is little agreement about what constitutes strong versus weak theory in the social sciences, but there is more consensus that references, data, variables, diagrams, and hypotheses are not theory. Despite this consensus, however, authors routinely use these five elements in lieu of theory. We explain how each of these five elements can be confused with theory and how to avoid such confusion. By making this consensus explicit, we hope to help authors avoid some of the most common and easily averted problems that lead readers to view papers as having inadequate theory. We then discuss how journals might facilitate the publication of stronger theory. We suggest that if the field is serious about producing stronger theory, journals need to reconsider their empirical requirements. We argue that journals ought to be more receptive to papers that test part rather than all of a theory and use illustrative rather than definitive data.


By Robert I. Sutton and Barry M. Staw