Thursday, 20 May 2010

So What's a Theory ?

In order to get your PhD you argue that you've made a contribution to theory (see earlier posts on assessment criteria and contribution). This in turn implies that you identify a theory, or body of theories, that you are working with in order that you signal your contribution clearly.  This is an area that many doctoral students struggle with, particularly in management related PhDs.  The simple question "what is theory ?" might be a useful starting point.  Theory is something which holds explanatory power.  In traditional scientific work, theory typically allows one to move from the specific to the general. If you develop a theory that liquids when heated turn into vapour from observing your kettle boil, then you should be able to apply the same theory to other liquids.  Where the theory doesn't apply so well, you need to refine it thus making a contribution.  In social science, there are few problems which are as well defined.  As a result, it is not uncommon to muddle the theory that you are using and the context in which you are studying a particular phenomenon.  Think of the relationship between the phenomenon you are interested in which could be strategic change, decision making or brand loyalty ... and the theoretical device that you employ (say actor network theory, institutional theory or systems theory).  You use the latter to better understand the former.  Which is to say that you might do a PhD on strategy development using institutional theory.  Thus, your contribution to theory rests on your ability to comment on the adequacy of the theoretical explanation you can offer.    Right from the outset you should be thinking about the argument that you'll build about contribution.  Contribution is most often incremental, modest and limited to the context where you conducted the research ... but if you don't identify the contribution explicitly you leave the eventual examiners the difficult job of trying to do this for you.