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Properties of excellent theories

Author: Dr Simon Moss


Before researchers submit a manuscript, they should evaluate the extent to which they fulfill the criteria of an exemplary paper. Some of these criteria are presented below.

Theoretical underpinnings

To ensure they are published in exemplary journals, articles should present a solid theory. Although the definition of theory is contentious, most reviewers agree that authors need to present an integrated series of compelling arguments, each of which are justified empirically or logically. Theories should include the following properties (see Kaplan, 1964 & Merton, 1967 & Sutton & Staw, 1995):

According to Van Lange (2012), four ideals can be utilized to evaluate and to improve theories. Specifically: excellent theories demonstrate:

Shortcomings that authors should avoid.

Rather than characterize the procedures that researchers should follow to construct a theory, Sutton and Staw (1995) delineated a set of shortfalls that writers should circumvent. First, according to Sutton and Staw (1995), many writers merely include a list of references, such as "Extraversion is related to level of management (Smith, 1995)" rather than explicate the mechanisms or processes that relate one variable or event to another variable or event.

As Sutton and Staw (1995) contend, an allusion to a reference should not replace a brief but lucid description of why these variables or events are related to one another. Writers do not need to characterize every facet of the theory, but should certainly summarize the key arguments.

Second, according to Sutton and Staw (1995), research findings should not be regarded as a substitute to theory. For example, suppose a researcher wants to contend that extraversion is related to level of management, which in turn is associated with breadth of knowledge. To propose this argument, authors must clarify why extraversion might be related to level of management&& the finding that "Extraversion is related to level of management, as shown by Smith (1995)" is informative, but not sufficient.

Third, as Weick (1989) contends, classifications or constructs should not be regarded as substitutes to theories. For example, according to Sutton and Staw (1995), dividing variables into dispositional and situational is not a theory. Characterizing three distinct forms of justice is not a theory, even if valuable to readers. These contributions do not demonstrate how variables are related to one another. They do not demonstrate how various events unfold.

Fourth, a diagram that entails a series of variables, connected by arrows, does not alone represent a theory. Again, researchers need to characterize the mechanisms or processes that underpin each arrow--a narrative to explain why one variable is associated with another variable (Sutton & Staw, 1995).

Finally, researchers need to recognize that hypotheses are not theories. That is, hypotheses do not specify the mechanisms or processes that demonstrate how the variables might be related to each other. According to Sutton and Staw (1995), a lengthly set of hypotheses often indicates that such propositions were included in lieu of suitable theoretical development.

Arguments to justify these shortfalls

In some instances, researchers recognize their theories are not optimal, but rely on references, data, constructs, diagrams, or hypotheses to mask shortfalls in their arguments. Nevertheless, some scholars have proposed arguments that can be used to justify the legitimacy of papers, despite these shortfalls.

First according to Weick (1995), the hallmarks of an exemplary theory are seldom realized. Instead, most attempts merely represent approximations to these ideals. For example, according to Merton (1967), some attempted theories are merely frameworks, stipulating the categories of variables that are relevant to this domain. Other attempted theories are merely characterizations of various constructs, without any attempt to show how these concepts are related. Finally, some attempted theories are broader conceptualizations of specific observations&& for example, the finding that anger amplifies the optimism bias could be written as negative emotional states might magnify cognitive errors.

Although these attempts do not represent exemplary theories, they do, according to Weick (1995), facilitate the construction of insightful and definitive theoretical arguments. In other words, these attempts are still invaluable, even if imperfect. That is, these attempts to expedite the processes that underpin theory development: abstracting, generalizing, relating, selecting, explaining, and synthesizing.

Second, according to DiMaggio (1995), these shortfalls, such as a reliance on diagrams or hypotheses, do not compromise all categories of theories. That is, not all theories are intended to explain relationships between associations. Some theories, for example, are intended to challenge readers, highlighting paradoxes and undermining common assumptions, but not designed to explain broad generalizations, which are usually broadly recognized and thus somewhat unenlightening. As a consequence, no specific set of criteria should be applied to all theories.

Indeed, many of the criteria that define optimal theories conflict with each other, according to DiMaggio (1995). For example, theories need to penetrate a single issue, deeply and profoundly, but also encompass a broad range of factors, such as culture. Likewise, theories need to be lucid and clear, but also seem challenging and paradoxical.


DiMaggio, P. J. (1995). Comments on "What theory is not". Administrative Science Quarterly, 40, 391-397.

Kaplan, A. (1964). The conduct of inquiry. New York: Harper && Row.

Merton, R. K. (1967). On theoretical sociology. New York: Free Press.

Sutton, R. I., && Staw, B. M. (1995). What theory is not. Administrative Science Quarterly, 40, 371-384.

Van Lange, P. A. M. (2012). What we should expect from theories in social psychology: truth, abstraction, progress, and applicability as standards (TAPAS). Personality and Social Psychology Review, 17, 40-55. doi: 10.1177/1088868312453088

Weick, K. E. (1989). Theory construction as disciplined imagination.Academy of Management Review, 14, 516-531.

Weick, K. E. (1995). What theory is not, theorizing is. Administrative Science Quarterly, 40, 385-390.

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Last Update: 6/2/2016