Social Studies of Science: Theory as method. Methodological options for organization and management research

Deadline for submission of papers: January 15, 2019, 2 pm Belgian time

Call for Papers to a special issue of the Journal of Organizational Change Management on Theory as method. Methodological options for organization and management research


Steffen Roth, La Rochelle Business School, France, and Kazimieras Simonavičius University in Vilnius, Lithuania
Albert Mills, Sobey School of Business, Canada, and University of Eastern Finland, Finland
Dariusz Jemielniak, Kozminski University Warsaw, Poland
Bill Lee, Sheffield University, United Kingdom


As management and organization researchers, we have a vital interest in coherent interactions between our theories and methods. Whereas some theories, such as actor-network theory, game theory, or grounded theory, are casually referred to as research methods, the idea that any theory may be considered as methods is unpopular. The dominant view is that of a separation.

As with other dualisms, the mere existence of two sides suggests side-taking. Since the undisputed decline of Parsons-type grand theories, the balance of power between theory and method has clearly tilted in favour of the latter. Empiricist self-definitions of science and research prevail. Even those who disagree with abuses of theories as literal pretexts to explain the world typically consider theories as tools to change it. In either context, the quality of theories is measured against non-theoretical criteria, and theories therefore do not come off well. This auxiliarization of theory can be carried to the point where methods appear as “workable substitutes” for theories and where “theory-less” disciplines “may have an edge on those with strong theory” (Esping‐Andersen, 2000, p. 60; 76). As a consequence of what may also be branded as theoretical agility or pluralism, not least critical management scholars have early observed a commodification of theory: “Shopping at Theory, Culture and Society and wearing Ulrich Beck or Michel Serres’ latest collection. And sometimes we insist that others join in too, asking them what their favourite Theory is (…). Who is most relevant is most relevant in talking aim at corporate capitalism¾Marx, Althusser or Deleuze?” (Parker, 2002, p. 183). The proposed treatment for this diagnosis, however, paradoxically is again theory-abstinence: No theory. No surprisethen that “that almost all influential theories within” management and organization theory “have been brought in from the outside, not developed within” management and organization theory (Alvesson & Sandberg, 2013, p. 130).

On the other side of the demarcation line, anti-theorism has for long now been countered by equally eloquent campaigns “against method”. Here the idea is it is not theories (Pick, 2017)but methods that cage rather than capture the realities of their research fields because methods tend to preserve older, and not better, theories (Feyerabend, 1970). Perhaps this is summed up well by Law (2004), who refers to “After Method”, and by Magnusson and Szijarto (2013) who liken methodology to ideology. Much of this problematic is captured by debate around the theory-method character of Actor-Network Theory (Law and Hassard, 1999).

Both radical positions have ever since been accused of anti-scientism and provoked serious anti-anti-science backlashes (Bristow & Robinson, 2018), various attempts at triangulation (Cox & Hassard, 2005), and countless forms of retreats to the comfort zones between the extremes.

The importance of the above considerations, controversies, commitments, and compromises notwithstanding, it is noteworthy that there has always been a minority of scholars who think that the categorical separation of theory and method is a category mistake (Elias, 1978; Luhmann, 2017) not only because the “separation of method from theory can potentially lead to the misuse of the technique, a misinterpretation of the results, or simply the creation of a mutated version” (Bourne and Jankowicz, 2018, 127) of the original theory. Rather, true to this camp, theories necessarily act as methodologies as soon as they apply their own distinctions or categories not only to their research objects, but also to themselves. As such self-referential theories indicate how their observations-including their self-observations-come about, these observations can be replicated using these theories, which consequently constitute “a knowledge of the way to knowledge” as which Hjorth and Reay (2018, 11) have recently defined “method/ology”. The quality of such reflexive theory-methods would then be not in their robustness against falsification or the richness of the data they are grounded on. Neither would it be in the number of problems solved by or for these theories. Rather, these theory-methods would need to be measured against the scales and scopes of scientific problems they allow to generate (Merton, 1959).

In this special issue, it is our ambition to give voice to the small minority of researchers who think that theories positively are methods, and who are willing to explore new ways of thinking of theories in management and organization studies.