Shepherd and Sutcliffe 2011: Inductive Top-Down Theorizing
Rationale and background: This paper is in response to the Academy of Management Review call for papers on new kinds of organizational theorizing. It appears in the special issue section called the “Forum for New Theory Development” in issue 2011 36:2. More specifically, there has been many calls for researchers to combine deductive approaches (going from abstract theory to concrete data) and inductive approaches (going from data to theory) to theorizing. Whereas there has been some attempt at adding bottom-up (inductive) elements to deductive theorizing, there has been little or none to add top-down (deductive) elements to inductive theorizing.
Objectives: Shepherd and Sutcliffe aim to describe a new approach to creating organizational theories by adopting a generally inductive approach, where the theory arises from the data, but adding key top-down deductive elements, where the data employed is the existing theoretical scholarly literature. They also incorporate principles of abduction (from pragmatist philosophy of science: creating theory by solving perceived problems) in their approach.
Theoretical background: Coherence theory posits (in this application) that researchers have a sensory representation of the literature that they encounter, and that this might initially be incongruent with their conceptual representation, their draft theory that makes sense of the literature. These representations are very much shaped by researchers’ limited scope of attention. Through constant comparison of these two representations, their conceptual representation is revised until there is perceptual coherence between the sensory and the conceptual.
Methodology: This conceptual essay describes a proposed theory development methodology; there is no detailed example offered of its actual application.
Key findings: Researchers should have few preconceptions when approaching the literature, and let the literature suggest new ideas and themes; that is, they should let the literature itself focus their attention. However, the researchers should be aware that their prior knowledge and ideas, as well as their organizational context, can focus their attention; being aware of this helps limit their effects. When a problem is recognized, an abductive approach with constant comparison of the literature data and the emerging theory can help formulate a new theory; Shepherd and Sutcliffe give examples of thought experiments and metaphorical reasoning as practical techniques to aid this process. The theory is developed when coherence occurs.
Comments: Because of my interest in literature reviewing, I have a particular line of unanswered questions after reading their paper:
1. Shepherd and Sutcliffe present the body of literature as an enormous flux of work. However, in order to start inductively reading the literature, the researchers must narrow down significantly. Out of hundreds of thousands of studies, the researchers must focus on maximum 50 to 100 studies. First, is this the case or not?
2. If this is correct, then how do the researchers narrow down? Surely they must do a restricted topic search. How do they choose what kind of topic to focus on that is conducive to inductive theorizing? I know they have a section in the discussion that talks about when inductive top-down theorizing might or might not work, but my point is that there needs to be some decision about how to restrict the body of literature to a relatively narrow sample for the purpose of the theorizing exercise. This leads to my next question.
3. Since there must be some criteria for narrowing down the selected body of studies, regardless what the criteria might be, doesn’t it necessarily introduce a significant bias in what the researchers are able to see in the literature? The practical screen for a literature review is a practical imperative; yet, it restricts the possibilities of the result. Because of the inductive nature of Shepherd and Sutcliffe’s approach, I think it would be essential for them to have talked about this, but unfortunately they did not.