THE CONTEXT IN WHICH I USE THE MATERIAL FROM THE BOOK
I sometimes teach a class to doctoral students in which I focus on how to
theorize. In that class, the primary template for theorizing which my students and
I have used for years is David Whetten’s chapter “Modeling theoretic
propositions” in Anne Huff’s (2009) book Designing research for publication. The
chapter walks participants through the steps of theorizing, starting with
developing constructs, then moving on to developing links between constructs,
understanding why these links are as they are and, finally, identifying conceptual
and contextual assumptions that likely underlie the constructs and their links.
Understanding why certain constructs link with other constructs has been a
cornerstone of management (and broader social science) theorizing for decades
(Bacharach, 1989). In a very well-known essay, Sutton and Staw (1995) argue
that answering the question “Why?” is the primary defining characteristic of
theory. Scholars such as Paul Dimaggio (1995) and Karl Weick (1995) suggest
that providing a clear-cut answer to the question “Why?” might not be necessary
for all theorizing, but in scholarly work about theorizing there is still a strong focus
on “Why?”. Of course, this emphasis is one of the reasons why institutional
theory, population ecology, identity theory, cognitive dissonance, and so forth
have become so popular. They provide ready-made answers to the question of
“why” two or more constructs are linked.
On the other hand, Whetten’s chapter describes contextual and conceptual
assumptions as specifying “the terms and conditions governing appropriate
application or ‘safe use’… it follows that making your assumptions explicit helps
you think critically about your theoretic arguments” (p. 225). For my students (and
for me) it is nowhere near as difficult to determine assumptions following
Whetten’s approach as it is to make explicit the answer to the question “Why?” in
theory. However, what Whetten's approach lacks is a framework that can
challenge these assumptions.
Answering the question “Why?” may be the sine qua non of theorizing but
as Murray Davis (1971) made evident more than forty years ago, answering that
question doesn’t necessarily make theory and theorizing interesting. Rather, what
makes a theory “interesting” is how it treats assumptions, whether it accepts or
challenges them. Well-articulated answers to the question “Why?”, no matter how
difficult these are to accomplish, will achieve publication but will not necessarily
lead readers to become enthusiastic about a particular contribution.
SUMMARY OF THE BOOK
In this book, Alvesson and Sandberg have focused squarely on
assumptions and their role in fostering interesting theorizing. For them, questions
about assumptions come not at the end of a theoretical construction (as they do
in Whetten’s chapter) but at its very beginning, in formulating the research
questions that precede constructs and their links. That is, Alvesson and Sandberg
emphasize the importance of identifying and challenging assumptions in the initial
crafting of a study, not waiting until the end of its conceptual development in order
to identify the boundaries within which a possible conceptual contribution is
Alvesson’s and Sandberg’s (2011) Academy of Management Review
paper, which summarizes some of the main ideas in this book, has certainly
gained a good deal of attention. It is cited considerably and, it seems to me,
trotted out regularly by reviewers of scholarly submissions who think the
submission is boring and ought to stir things up a bit in order to be judged as
having enough value to warrant publishing.
Constructing Research Questions builds (explicitly) on the earlier work of
Alvesson and Sandberg in several journal articles (including Alvesson &
Sandberg, 2011; Sandberg & Alvesson, 2011). It is relatively short with a very
clear and helpful outline that is faithfully followed. It is an excellent teaching tool;
one of the particularly useful contributions of the book is that it shows how much
goes into the competent development of any type of research question,
regardless of whether it challenges assumptions or not.
Fortunately, the book contains no major challenging of assumptions on
how to construct a book and/or guide readers in reading it. It is so well outlined
and plotted that in this section of the review I will simply summarize the major
aspects of each chapter.
Chapter 1 describes the importance of formulating good research
questions for theory development; indeed, the formulation of these questions may
be the most critical aspect of research. It also emphasizes “that problematization
– … questioning the assumptions underlying existing theory in some significant
ways – is fundamental to the construction of innovative research questions and,
thus, to the development of interesting and influential theories” (p. 2). The focus
in the book is on how such problematization can be accomplished, with the
expectation, following Davis (1971), that problematization will lead to theories that
are “more likely to become influential in academic disciplines and sometimes also
more broadly in society” (p. 5). Problematization is much more likely to
accomplish this than the more typical “gap-spotting” approach to research.
Chapter 2 describes how the contexts in which research questions are
constructed and formulated affect the resulting questions. It notes, for example,
that “all research questions are constructed and formulated within certain
frameworks, such as disciplinary, theoretical or methodological perspectives, but
also within culturally taken-for-granted understandings” (p. 14). Other contextual
factors that are likely to have an impact include the availability of research
funding, the interests of other (typically senior) researchers in one’s own
department or core group and, fortunately, the researcher’s own interests.
Chapter 3 emphasizes gap-spotting as the prevalent way of constructing
social science research questions. Building in part on Golden-Biddle and Locke
(2007), it describes several means of gap-spotting in social science. The authors
do note, however, that the published presentation of research questions as gap-spotting may be more prevalent than the actual formulation of the questions as
gap-spotting, simply because the norms for presenting research questions in
terms of spotting gaps are so strong.
Chapter 4 investigates the presented research questions in 119 journal
articles and finds that even though some of these questions reflect “complex,
constructive, and sometimes creative processes… [none of them] actually make
an ambitious, deliberate attempt to challenge the assumptions underlying existing
theories about the subject matter in question” (p. 41). This then limits the
possibilities of their interesting and influential contribution.
Chapter 5 presents the major contribution of the book, the development of
problematization as a way of generating research questions. Rejecting some
approaches to problematization, such as pre-packaged approaches challenging
the assumptions of all non-critical studies in similar ways, the authors instead
advocate a genuine problematization approach that includes challenging not only
assumptions that underlie others' theoretical position but also one’s own
assumptions. In fact, problematization starts with “a dialectical interrogation of
one's own familiar (or home) position, other theoretical stances, and the domain
of literature targeted for assumption challenging” (p. 49).
Problematization thus involves understanding the assumptions underlying
a particular subject matter and then, based on this understanding, generating
new types of inquiry. Several methodological principles are presented “for
identifying, articulating and challenging assumptions” including “(1) identifying a
domain of literature; (2) identifying and articulating the assumptions underlying
this domain; (3) evaluating these; (4) developing an alternative assumption
ground; (5) considering it in relation to its audience; and (6) evaluating the
alternative assumption ground” (p. 56). Each of these is developed in depth
alongside practical illustrations of scholarly papers that challenge assumptions.
In Chapter 6 Alvesson and Sandberg use their methodology to
problematize two theories reflected in two frequently cited articles: Dutton,
Dukerich and Harquail’s (1994) work on the study of identity in organizations and
West and Zimmerman’s (1987) study of gender. They walk through all the steps
developed in prior chapters as these would be used in scholarly practice.
Chapter 7 includes several reasons that explain why gap-spotting is so
influential even though it reduces the chances of creating interesting theories. In
particular, it highlights the social norms that regulate what is publishable or not,
as indicated by the small number of approved journals in which publications
“count” in many social science fields. Also described are an “accumulation” norm
of presenting findings in a way that shows how they explicitly add to prior
literature in many fields, a “crediting” norm “which stresses the need to build on
and acknowledge the work of other scholars” (p. 98), and emphasis on careful
analysis and statistical treatments without comparable attention to whether the
data address the major questions asked.
Alvesson and Sandberg ask: who can change these norms? Perhaps
governments can, by changing the criteria they use to assess scholarly work and
broadening the outlets that “count.” Perhaps universities can, by placing greater
emphasis on citation impact than on particular journals and extending time clocks
for tenure. Or perhaps academics can change scholarly norms by rating the
innovativeness and originality of ideas more highly and allowing more room for
creativity in responding to reviews.
Finally, Chapter 8 summarizes the general arguments of the book and
emphasizes that the authors do not advocate problematization as the only
approach in formulating research questions, as sometimes gap-spotting is
appropriate. They conclude by arguing in favor of theory development that
actively searches for opportunities to let empirical material “inspire rethinking
conventional ideas and categories” (p. 120), with the hope of finding the
unanticipated, not just the predictable.
ONE-SIDED DIALOGING WITH THE BOOK
This book is interesting and inspiring in many ways. It is well worth
grappling with its critiques and several thoughts come to mind following a close
First, in Chapter 5 the book gives some illustrative examples of articles that
have successfully challenged assumptions. The articles cited are mostly well
known ones whose challenged assumptions are recognized post hoc. I wonder,
however, about everyday assumption challenging. I would have liked to see the
working through of this on a less “famous” level, including in articles-in-progress
that attempt to challenge assumptions in a meaningful way. I have reviewed
several such submissions that challenge assumptions but did so unknowingly
and it is unlikely that this is what the authors have in mind.
Second, I agree with the notion that it is of value to produce interesting
research and theorizing but I don’t think that producing interesting work is
confined to challenging assumptions. An analysis by Bartunek, Rynes & Ireland,
2006 (p. 12) indicates several factors – in addition to challenging assumptions –
that affect how interesting an article is. These include the “quality of the article
[i.e. the study itself], how well it was written, the newness of its theory and
findings, the importance of its practical implications, and the extent of its impact
on subsequent research.” Davis’s (1971) framework, while extremely valuable,
does not comprise all the potential factors that make an article interesting.
Third, my graduate training was in Experimental Social Psychology, a
discipline in which – as in similar social science disciplines – the assumption is
that, once formulated, the research questions (and hypotheses) don’t change.
This assumption is so widespread that it is often considered unethical if a
question and hypothesis change midstream. However, this assumption is also
casually challenged on a regular basis in organizational research: reviewers
sometimes help authors think of “better” research questions that fit their data
better, and, as noted above, they challenge assumptions more. Is this
condonable? Where in the research process should challenging assumptions
(ethically) be acceptable?
Fourth, the book reminds me of another type of assumption challenging. In
1974 (and then in subsequent books) Argyris and Schön formulated a description
of double loop learning as opposed to single loop learning. Single loop learning
involves learning that occurs within what Argyris and Schön call “governing
variables, terms that undoubtedly be substituted for underlying assumptions.”
Double loop learning, which they consider very rare, involves learning in ways
that challenge these governing variables or underlying assumptions. Argyris and
Schön developed tools to help foster double loop learning (e.g. the left-hand
column and ladder of inference). These are designed to help individuals and
larger groups recognize that they have an assumption ground, what it is, what it
means to operate within it and, finally, challenge it. Linking Argyris and Schön’s
materials with Alvesson and Sandberg’s book makes it evident that what
Alvesson and Sandberg are talking about here is something much bigger than
scholarly competence, especially given their expectation that challenging
assumptions should challenge one’s own assumptions, not just provide a
programmed challenge to others. Developing the ability to challenge one’s own
and others’ scholarly assumptions involves personal development, not just
Thus, in conclusion, this book suggests that scholarly development may
also be able to foster personal cognitive development. It also indicates that
activities designed to develop individual learning in practice settings – such as
those discussed by Argyris & Schön (1974) – may also help to foster scholarly
development. Perhaps I should use one of these exercises next time I teach a
class on how to develop theory.
This possibility suggests a good way to end the review. Alvesson and
Sandberg’s book – whether or not this was intentional – provides a challenge to
many people’s assumptions about the links between practice and scholarship.
Namely, that the successful challenging of scholarly assumptions may be
fostered by exercises that scholars have designed for practitioners. This is
definitely not the standard assumption. Wouldn’t it be interesting if their book
helped to challenge that assumption?