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Academy of Management Journal

2011, Vol. 54, No. 6, 10981102.


Editors Note:
This editorial continues a seven-part series, Publishing in AMJ, in which the editors give suggestions and advice for
improving the quality of submissions to the Journal. The series offers bumper to bumper coverage, with installments
ranging from topic choice to crafting a Discussion section. The series will continue in February with Part 5: Crafting
the Methods and Results Sections. - J.A.C.

A theory section is a critical part of any paper that doesnt flow logically from the text immedi-
but is particularly important for an AMJ submis- ately preceding it. Often the issue in this case is
sion. The primary purpose of a theory section is that the author became so engaged in telling the
to ground hypotheses; this involves (1) position- reader what others have done that the paper
ing those hypotheses in relation to related re- does not contain a strong case for the current hy-
search (2), developing a clear, logical argument pothesis. Merely citing prior studies does not con-
explaining why the core variables or processes stitute a logical argument; instead, citations should
are related in the proposed fashion, and (3) cre- be used to illustrate various elements of the logic of
ating a sense of coherence in the relationships ones own argument (Sutton & Staw, 1995).
among the variables and processes in the pro- Alternatively, it is important to avoid the other
posed model. All are important elements of the extreme, focusing exclusively on the argument and
theoretical foundation for ones hypotheses. We ignoring prior related conversation. Failing to cite
discuss each separately and then address several several highly relevant papers will lead readers to
potential pitfalls in explanatory logic. question the value of the contribution, especially
when they believe one or more of the neglected
articles is closely related to what the current work
Engaging Prior Research addresses. Part of explaining how your work fits
into the literature on a topic is to clearly articulate
A key element of creating a strong theory section
involves entering into a constructive dialogue with how the paper builds upon that literature, which
other researchers who have examined the theory or requires explaining what has already been done
theories that have guided research on a topic. AMJ and why what the paper proposes is a logical and
reviewers look to the theory section to find a clear, important contribution that goes beyond
theoretically driven narrativenot a literature re- prior work.
view. Producing such a narrative effectively in- The key to covering prior work effectively is to
volves maintaining a delicate balance between en- look beyond just citing specific empirical results
gaging previous research and carefully developing and focus instead on the underlying theoretical
ones own novel insights. issues that are being addressed. Entering the con-
On the one hand, citing any remotely relevant versation in previous research means engaging the
paper runs a very real risk of what is sometimes underlying theoretical narrative that is the founda-
called argument by citation. When many of the tion for past empirical research but not the em-
sentences of a theory section start with citations pirical results themselves. Similarly, the contribu-
(e.g., Smith (2002) found . . .), it is important to tion rests not solely on the results, but also on how
take a step back and verify that one is building a they lead to new insights about organizational phe-
compelling argument based on explanatory logic. It nomena. Those insights will be meaningful to the
is important to cite relevant prior works in building extent that the ideas used to motivate them are
an argument, but the theory section should not be clearly linked to the development of the underlying
built around these prior works in such a way that theoretical narrative informing the hypotheses.
the logical reasoning is pushed to the background. One way to achieve the required balance between
Reviewers are virtually certain to raise concerns linking to prior work and developing clear reason-
about papers that have a couple of pages of litera- ing is to start with the arguments themselves, as
ture review/discussion followed by a hypothesis they serve as the organizing structure for ideas. An
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2011 Sparrowe and Mayer 1099

exercise likely to help is first writing the Theory ment model is not sufficient. The author must offer
and Hypotheses section of a manuscript without a enough verbal explication for the reader that he/she
single citation to previous research. To be sure, the understands why Y should be predicted by X with-
ideas of others are the foundation of this exercise. out having to read Tyler and Blader (2000). The
But crafting the explanatory logic in this pure form success of this approach depends primarily upon
enables one to see whether it is clear, consistent, the correspondence between the claim(s) made in
and persuasive on its own. Further, this exercise the paper and the established theory; if other ele-
will require incorporating the ongoing theoretical ments in the logic are inconsistent with the group
narrative into ones own explanatory logic, and do- engagement model, then the premise will fail.
ing so will make the relationship of the proposed A related logical technique is to offer empirical
ideas to the larger conversation become evident. evidence supporting claims similar to what the hy-
When this point is satisfactorily reached, one can pothesis states. Here, the implicit argument is that
go back and incorporate prior work, giving credit to if it has been shown to occur in similar circum-
those to whom it is due and explaining how the stances, then it should also apply in the present
new work complements or challenges their work. circumstances. Empirical evidence is persuasive,
Among the challenges of starting a theory section however, only when accompanied by a logical
by framing ones ideas relative to others is losing rationale.
the focus on making a clear argumentthe most A third approach is to focus on how the hypoth-
critical element in an effective theory section. By esized relationship occurs by crafting a narrative
the time readers arrive at an effectively grounded that describes the role of intervening states and/or
hypothesis, the theory section should have led processes. For example, Seibert, Kraimer, and
them to the point that (1) the hypothesis is not a Liden (2001) developed a model integrating two
surprise (i.e., the paper clearly led up to this spe- perspectives on the career benefits of social capital.
cific prediction) and (2) the readers understand
The roles of relevant theoretically relevant media-
clearly why the constructs are associated. They
tors (access to information, access to resources, and
might not completely agree, but they clearly under-
career sponsorship) were carefully explained, cre-
stand the underlying relationship that is the focus
ating a compelling narrative of how social capital
of the hypothesis.
brings career benefits. When giving an account of
how a hypothesized relationship works, note the
Building the Argument, or the Logic of importance of operationalizing the primary inter-
Explanatory Logic vening states and processes; without empirical
The sections of a manuscript that lead up to each tests, the role of mediators cannot be substantiated,
hypothesis are among the more challenging to and reviewers may see it as speculative.
write, for good reasons. The objective in these sec- A related consideration in framing hypotheses is
tions is to persuade readers that the claims made in context. Hypotheses may be intended to apply gen-
the hypotheses are plausible. Those readers (re- erally, or they may be limited to specific contexts,
viewers) were selected because of their subject mat- such as industries or national cultures. The bound-
ter expertise and, as reviewers, their role is to main- ary conditions need to be identified so that the
tain an attitude of healthy skepticism regarding the relevance of the proposed relationships is explicit.
claims (hypotheses) made in a paper and the logic Utilizing multiple theories. The challenge of ex-
that supports them. plaining the mechanisms underlying the hypothe-
Substantiating hypotheses. In simple form, a hy- ses is particularly important when multiple theo-
pothesis is a claim that Y, a dependent variable, is ries are used. Different theories can be a source of
systematically related to X, an independent vari- novel insights into a variety of issues and may be
able. Logic forges the connection between the two from the same area (e.g., the resource-based view of
and can be framed in several ways. The first is to the firm and transaction cost economics) or from
link a hypothesis to a similar logical relationship different underlying disciplines (e.g., social psy-
that is a central tenet of an established theory or chology and economics). In either case, the chal-
conceptual framework. For example, a hypothesis lenge of combining insights from multiple theories
might depend on the idea that team members en- is to explain clearly why addressing this research
gage in cooperative behavior to enhance their question requires using these theories and how ex-
standing. To substantiate this claim, an author actly the theories will be joined in a way that cre-
might appeal to the group engagement model of ates a unique contribution to the research topic.
Tyler and Blader (2000). As Sutton and Staw (1995) The need for each additional theory should be
pointed out, merely referencing the group engage- clearly explained so as to avoid the impression that
1100 Academy of Management Journal December

theories are being combined ad hoc to justify dis- whether the integration offers new questions and
parate hypotheses. new insights to each theory and its respective lit-
There are several possible approaches to combin- erature. For example, Silverman (1999) integrated
ing theories, each with potential advantages and elements of transaction cost economics and the re-
disadvantages. Pitting one theory against another source-based view of the firm in a study of corpo-
through competing hypotheses and letting the data rate diversification.
decide the winner is a widely used approach that We wish to emphasize that using multiple theo-
must be used with care, as it can leave the reader ries can be a very effective way to create strong
puzzled as to why one plausible theory should theory. The challenges of explanatory coherence,
trump another equally plausible theory espe- however, are greater when the theories utilized are
cially given the likelihood that both theories enjoy from different base disciplines. Although AMJ en-
considerable empirical support in the literature courages multidisciplinary research, the majority
(Cooper & Richardson, 1986; Platt, 1964). An alter- of published management papers focus on a single
native approach is one that explains when and why core discipline (Agarwal & Hoetker, 2007). Work
one theory should take precedence over the other, integrating ideas from different areas has signifi-
and an especially effective way of doing that is to cant potential to contribute to theory, but the actual
explain the conditions under which the predictions integration of the ideas must be carefully done.
of each theory are likely to be most applicable and Coherence. One of the biggest problems in the
test these predictions empirically. Vanneste and development of an effective theory section is ex-
Puranams (2010) examination of when a learning plaining why one has chosen a specific set of ex-
effect will have more influence on contract design planatory variables over others. Without a strong
and distinguishing the learning effect from the ef- discussion of coherence, readers and reviewers will
fect of trust is an example of this approach. wonder what holds a theoretical narrative together
In many other cases, authors are interested in (Dubin, 1976; Whetten, 1989). The key is to address
combining theories to give a more complete ac- the question of why these variables (and only those
count of an organizational phenomenon. Combin- variables) were selected. An effective theory sec-
ing implies that the relationship is additive and tion must explain how these variables fit together
leads to hypotheses that link different independent in a way that creates a strong and coherent theoret-
variables to dependent variable(s). The risk in this ical contribution and doesnt leave the reader won-
approach is the temptation to specify models com- dering why other variables werent included. The
bining independent variables simply because, in proposed hypotheses should be linked a way that
past research, each has been shown to affect the creates an overall contribution to the topic. Graeb-
dependent variable. A conceptual framework that ner (2009) did a nice job of weaving together liter-
brings the two theoretical perspectives together and ature from trust and agency theory in a qualitative
articulates their relevant differences is essential. examination of acquisitions of entrepreneur-
Agarwal, Echambadi, Franco, and Sarkar (2004) ial firms.
made this type of theoretical combination effec- A strong conceptual framework does not require
tively in their analysis of the creation and perfor- a figure with boxes and arrows to explain how the
mance of spin-outs in the disk drive industry. Re- hypotheses fit togetheralthough a figure can help
latedly, a paper can explain how different theories readers visualize the framework. What matters is
are most applicable for related research questions that a clear, overarching research question drives
that combine to address a particular phenomenon; the hypotheses, and one explains clearly, by draw-
for example, one theory may explain when a prac- ing on the underlying theoretical and empirical
tice will gain traction but another may explain work on the research topic, how these explanatory
which firms will be the most likely to adopt that variables come together.
practice (e.g., Sherer & Lee, 2002). What we have said above regarding entering the
A third approach is to seek more integration be- conversation with previous research leads to the
tween two theories. This involves articulating how conclusion that persuasive logic is best served by a
the two perspectives are complementarythat is, combination of all three approaches: building on
how the assumptions of one theory implicitly re- established theory, offering relevant empirical evi-
quire those of the other to be fully realized, and dence, and explaining how variation in X leads to
vice versa. This kind of integration requires a thor- variation in Y. But explanatory logic serves as the
ough understanding of the logic underpinning each foundation; without it, appeals to existing theory
theory, and how the two are related has to be artic- fail to ring true, and offering only empirical evi-
ulated before hypotheses are framed. The potential dence leaves the reader wondering why? Further,
for making a significant contribution depends on building on established theory can lead to an ex-
2011 Sparrowe and Mayer 1101

planation of how, because mediators often flow out Stating the obvious. Though it seems counterin-
of theorizing. tuitive, supporting ones hypotheses so thoroughly
that they seem obvious and therefore uninteresting
is not uncommon. If a hypothesis states the obvious
or makes a claim that is common knowledge, then,
although true, it also is likely to be trivial (Davis,
Having described the core elements of grounding 1971). When a reviewer says, I cant imagine how
hypotheses, we felt it would be useful to review or when the null hypothesis could ever be the
some of the recurring pitfalls that reviewers iden- case, she or he is making precisely this point.
tify when evaluating the hypothesis development One way to remedy this problem is to flirt with
in a submission. Common pitfalls in grounding hy- the null hypothesisthat is, reflect on the plausi-
potheses include lack of specificity, fragmented bility of the opposite argument or the absence of a
theorizing, and stating the obvious. relationship. Then, frame the alternative hypothe-
Lack of specificity. Lack of specificity occurs ses as alternatives to what can be seen as plausible,
when ones explanatory logic draws from a theory or even as received wisdom. This entails thought-
that speaks to a much broader or more general fully considering theoretical perspectives that
domain. For example, trait activation theory (Tett & would lend credence to the null. If it proves diffi-
Guterman, 2000) offers an explanation of how the cult to frame the null hypotheses as plausible, then
attitudes and behaviors associated with personality your alternatives may in fact be obvious and trivial.
traits are activated in the context of an individu-
als social environment. It thus offers an important
bridge to researchers who seek to explain attitudes Conclusions
and behaviors in organizations by means of person- Hypotheses are the heart of a paper, and ground-
ality traits. However, it is general in its application ing hypotheses is one of the most important tasks in
and, though perhaps necessary to explanation of crafting effective theory. A strong theory section
why a particular ensemble of environmental factors has to effectively engage prior literature, both the-
will activate attitudinal and behavioral manifesta- oretical and empirical, but must go beyond it to
tions of a specific trait, it is not a sufficient expla- build a strong logical argument. A great deal of
nation. Social exchange theory (Blau, 1964) offers thought goes into every paper, and the theory sec-
another example; it can ground ones logic at a tion is key to explaining how one is going to add
general level (e.g., favors beget reciprocation), but value to the research topic and why these specific
does not clearly ground more specific operational- hypotheses make sense individually and fit to-
izations of that relationship (e.g., civility predicts gether to form a coherent conceptual framework.
job performance). The particulars and specifics
Raymond T. Sparrowe
need to be explainedand this guidance applies to
Washington University
all instances in which the domain of the theory one
draws on to buttress claims is broader or more Kyle J. Mayer
general than that of the hypotheses themselves. University of Southern California
Fragmented theorizing. Fragmented theorizing
is implied when authors have a model with multi-
ple hypothesized relationships in which each link REFERENCES
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