Theory Building in Applied Disciplines

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This is the first book to provide a complete and detailed methodology for developing sound theory in applied disciplines, which are academic and professional fields that apply scientific knowledge to professional practice, such as management, nursing, psychology human resource development, and many more.

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1 To Hell with Gravity

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A BUMPER STICKER reads, “To Hell with Gravity.” While this message provokes a broad smile for a moment, it also quickly surfaces all the fears surrounding the anti-intellectuals and anti-science folks in our society. Hoards of individuals who are anti-theory, anti-science, and anti-intellectual are very comfortable with their rickety armchair theories and ideologies.

Searching for truth and sound theory is no easy task. Anti-intellectual positions that start with the answer—versus the question—avoid all that messy reading, thinking, and testing stuff. Blurting out uninformed opinions is easy—and almost always wrong. It is quite ironic that today we have more good information available to us than in any point in history and at the same time more misinformation. Outliers in the theory world were once less visible.

The Internet allows outliers a larger venue. It seems that if a piece of misinformation gets “tweeted” enough, it soon is perceived as fact by many people—a phenomenon particularly evident in recent political campaigns in the United States. The lament is that the real loser from cynical manipulations of fact and fantasy is truth (Kruse, 2012; Thomas, 1997).

 

2 Foundations and Definitions of Theory Building

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THE PURPOSE OF THIS CHAPTER is to establish the foundations and definitions of theory building in applied disciplines. Specifically, this chapter will

• present definitions of theory,

• describe the differences between theories and models,

• summarize philosophical orientations in theory building,

• discuss research paradigm approaches to theory building

• distinguish between types of theories,

• identify existing foundation work on theory building,

• discuss theory frameworks, and

• present general criteria for judging the quality of theories.

The information in this chapter is necessary and relevant for theory development research. While each of the chapter’s major sections could comprise a book, our goal is to abbreviate. Rather than engaging in lengthy debates on each of these topics, we attempt to clarify perspectives as they relate to the theory-building method presented in this book.

Any attempt at describing how theories are developed requires clarity about exactly what constitutes a theory. It is easy to see that the term theory is not universally interpreted. For example, we often hear that everybody has a “theory,” which really means nothing more than an armchair opinion. This kind of theory can simply be taken to mean an idea or hypothesis—perhaps based on some personal experience. Ideas or hypotheses that have not been evaluated with rigor, that do not have evidence to support them, or that lack verification from any alternative source do not qualify as theory in the learned world. Theory in a more serious sense is built of ideas that have been translated into measurement criteria, examined in detail, and tested by using an established, rigorous method.

 

3 General Method of Theory Building in Applied Disciplines

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Contributed by
Susan A. Lynham
Colorado State University

ONE OF THE CHALLENGES of theory building in applied disciplines is making the process both explicit and accessible. Although different methods of theory building advocate different theory-building research processes, there is an inherently generic nature to theory building in applied disciplines. This chapter highlights strategies used in theory building in applied disciplines and overviews the general, five-phase theory-building method mentioned earlier (Figure 3.1). This chapter specifically

This revised and edited chapter first appeared in Advances in Developing Human Resources 4(3), 221–241, S. A. Lynham, Issue Editor, and R. A. Swanson, Editor-in-Chief.

FIGURE 3.1 General Method of Theory Building In Applied Disciplines

• addresses considerations of theory building,

• discusses the establishment of a general theory-building method,

• describes the limitations of the general method, and

• examines the importance and challenges of theory building.

 

4 Conceptualize Phase

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CONCEPTUAL DEVELOPMENT is a common starting point for theory building in applied disciplines. Thus, much more has been written about this phase compared to the others. The purpose of this chapter is to describe specific approaches to the Conceptualize phase of theory building in applied disciplines (Figure 4.1). Specifically, this chapter will

• define and describe the Conceptualize phase,

• describe the general inputs to the this phase,

• summarize the pros and cons of four approaches to the Conceptualize phase,

• describe the outputs of the Conceptualize phase, and

• propose a set of quality indicators for Conceptualize phase outcomes.

Conceptual development is the specification of the key elements of the theory, an initial explanation of their interdependence, and the general limitations and conditions under which the theoretical framework can be expected to operate. “The output of this phase is an explicit and thought-out conceptual framework that often includes a model or metaphor developed from the theorist’s knowledge of and experience with the realm, issue, or problem” (Lynham, 2002, pp. 231–232).

 

5 Operationalize Phase

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TO OPERATIONALIZE A THEORY, the theory must be expressed in terms of its functional use for the purpose of acceptance or rejection. The Operationalize phase becomes a logical bridge between the Conceptualize and Confirm phases, but it also interplays with the Apply and Refine phases (Figure 5.1).

The purpose of this chapter is to describe specific approaches to operationalization that serve as an instructive guide. This chapter will

• define the Operationalize phase,

• describe the general inputs to this phase,

• provide a practical summary of Operationalize phase activity,

• describe the outputs of the Operationalize phase, and

• propose a set of quality indicators for Operationalize phase effort.

An applied discipline theory needs to be confirmed or tested in its real-world context so as to establish its utility (Lynham, 2002a). The explanation that the new theorizing creates must be examined and assessed in the world in which it occurs. To confirm a theory, the ideas and relationships must be converted to observable and confirmable components or elements (Lynham, 2002a). Operationalizing theories commonly results in hypotheses, empirical indicators and other claims (Cohen, 1989), which are investigated in the confirm phase. Ultimately, operationalizing requires that the theorist develop strategies for judging the accuracy and fit of the new theory in the world in which it is expected to function.

 

6 Confirm Phase

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CONFIRMATION OR DISCONFIRMATION is seen as a respectable end point for theory building in applied disciplines. Yet, that is not always the case, and concluding with confirmation actually falls short. You can imagine a theorist’s creative and active mind crunching knowledge and experience into a new solution that the theorist immediately tests so as to check it out. The outcome could be very important information that feeds into a more formal and revised conceptualization and operationalization of the theory. Furthermore, to confirm a theory is not a one-time event, yet initial efforts give the theorist enough direction to continue working on a theory, or scrap it and start over. The Refine phase dictates additional confirmation efforts that are often started in the Confirm phase.

The purpose of this chapter is to describe specific approaches to the Confirm phase of theory building in applied disciplines (Figure 6.1). Specifically, this chapter will

• define the Confirm phase,

• describe the general inputs to this phase,

 

7 Apply Phase

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THE APPLY PHASE of theory building in applied disciplines seems straightforward on the surface—putting the theory in practice. If a theory-building effort has established evidence to accept a theory, the next logical phase would be to apply it. Of course, if the evidence supports a decision to reject a theory, there could be a problem with the original conceptualized idea or how it was operationalized. The theorist must choose to return to one of the previous phases based on what was learned. Ideally, the Apply phase assumes a successful theory-building effort that has been shown to fit within a realm of human/human systems activity.

Theories must involve practice and research. Theories must explain what something is and how it works (Torraco, 1997). We will add that theories must also tell you how to do something. Theories that do not include descriptions of how the theory works fall short.

Application can also be positioned as a starting point itself. For example, new problems arise in practice that create the need for further understanding, pushing the theorist to develop new ideas and to conceptualize how something works. The purpose of this chapter is to describe approaches to application within the General Method of Theory Building in Applied Disciplines (Figure 7.1). Specifically, this chapter will

 

8 Refine Phase

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THE REFINE PHASE presents a tenacity challenge to the theory builder of applied disciplines. Because of the real-world focus and the ever-changing world, applied theories need to be continually refined to assure their present-day integrity. Thus, the lines between the Apply and Refine phases are blurred. Applied theories are never finished. Theories must undergo continuous assessment of their fit and utility in the ever-changing world of practice. The Refine Phase involves a variety of activities that may push the theorist to revisit all of the other theory building phases. By necessity, the Refine Phase occurs over time. “The intentional outcome of this phase is to ensure that the theory is current and relevant, and that it continues to work in the practical world. It also ensures that when the theory is no longer useful, it is disconfirmed, adapted, or discarded” (Lynham, 2002a, pp. 234). The Refine Phase also marks the ongoing and iterative nature of theory building in applied disciplines.

 

9 Case Example: Marsick and Watkins’s Learning Organization Theory

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WHILE THE LEARNING ORGANIZATION is a concept that came to the forefront with the publication of The Fifth Discipline (Senge, 1990), the first mention of the term learning organization was in 1979 (Huczynski & Boddy, 1979). Numerous other authors contributed to the literature in this area in the 1990s and developed the concept further (Coopey, 1995; Garvin, 1993; Kim, 1993; Nevis, Dibella, & Gould, 1998; Tsang, 1997; Watkins & Marsick, 1993). This chapter looks at the concept of the learning organization from a theory-building perspective. Only one contribution to the learning organization literature has framed its approach in terms of theory building—Watkins and Marisck’s (1993) book called Sculpting the Learning Organization.

The overarching purpose of this chapter is to provide an example of theory building that has been conducted using a variety of techniques. This chapter applies the method and its phases to profile a theory that began to emerge almost a decade earlier. In this case example, the task is to illustrate each of the five phases applied to Marsick and Watkins’s specific theory of learning organization culture (Watkins & Marsick, 1993, 1996, 2003). This chapter will

 

10 Case Example: Chermack’s Scenario Planning Theory

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THIS CHAPTER ILLUSTRATES the direct application of the General Method of Theory Building in Applied Disciplines to creating a new theory. Scenario planning has been claimed as a strategic learning tool (Chermack & Swanson, 2008), and numerous organizational scholars have contributed to its development (Healey & Hodgkin-son, 2008; Keough & Shanahan, 2008; Korte, 2008; McWhorter, Lynham, & Porter, 2008; van der Merwe, 2008; Wack, 1985). In this case example, the task is to illustrate each of the five phases in building a theory of scenario planning (Chermack, 2004a, 2005). Specifically, this chapter will

• describe the Conceptualize phase as applied to scenario planning,

• discuss the Operationalize phase as applied to scenario planning,

• examine the Apply phase as applied to scenario planning,

• describe the Confirm phase as applied to scenario planning,

• describe the Refine phase as applied to scenario planning, and

• discuss a set of quality indicators that have been applied to scenario-planning theory-building work.

 

11 Figuring Out the Present Status of a Theory

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THE BULK OF THIS BOOK has been an effort to detail and illustrate the use of the five-phase General Method of Theory Building in Applied Disciplines. This chapter demonstrates another way of using the method—as a tool for assessing the status of theories. Specifically, this chapter will

• summarize the method’s holistic utility,

• describe how the method can be used to assess theories, and

• illustrate the use of the method to assess applied discipline theories.

Theory building is challenging work. Deep thinking and consistent examination of an integrated set of relationships takes time. Plus, there are many barriers to theory building in applied disciplines. Gaining access to organizations with their fickle short-term financial views and organizational politics are two barriers. In addition, measurement and assessment criteria can provide challenges. Even so, the struggle to arrive at “knowing” something offers inspiration that motivates practitioners and scholars to solve complex problems.

 

12 Whatcha Gonna Do?

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WE ASSUME YOU HAVE READ Chapters 1 through 11 and have now landed here at Chapter 12—our closing effort. Our minds rang with the regular refrain offered by our mutual Italian-American friend: “Whatcha gonna do?” For sure, “What are we going to do?” was exactly what we thought as we approached this concluding chapter.

• Provide an emotional appeal? No!

• Summarize the book? No!

• Look to the future? No!

• Give some solid advice for your next steps? Yes!

Our goal for this last chapter is to offer some practical advice for moving ahead with your theory-building endeavor.

The General Method of Theory Building in Applied Disciplines Developing (Figure 12.1) has been detailed for the purpose of advancing both theory and practice. This method for assessing and developing sound theory in applied disciplines is meant to fill voids. Both scholars and practitioners have input into this successful methodology. Fusing information from both perspectives can yield a complete and accurate understanding of the realm being investigated.

 

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