Weick, Karl. E., Theory Construction as Disciplined Imagination, Academy of Management Review, 1989, 14:4 516-531.


"Theorists often write trivial theories because their process of theory construction is hemmed in by methodological structures that favor validation rather than usefulness. (Lindblom, 1987). Too much validation takes away the value of imagination and selection in the process.

Theorizing consists of disciplined imagination that unfolds in a manner analogous to artificial selection. It comes from the consistent application of selection criteria to "trial and error" thinking and the "imagination" in theorizing comes from deliberate diversity introduced into the problem statements, thought trials, and slection criteria that comprise that thinking."

A theory is "an ordered set of assertions about a generic behavior or structure assumed to hold throughout a significantly broad range of specific instances."

Verification and validation mean the demonstration, beyond pure chance, that the ordered relationship predicted by the hypothesis exists and therby lends support to the hypothesis. Proof is verification of a probabalistic statement. It is a statement of high reliability.

A good theory is also a plausible theory, more interesing than obvious, irrelevant, or absurd, obvious in novel ways, a source of unexpected connections, high in narrative rationality, aesthetically pleasing, etc.

A good theory process should be designed to highlight relationships, conenctions and interdependencies in the phenomenon of interest.

Knowledge growth by intention is when an explanation of a whole region is made more and more clear and adequate. Knowledge growth by extension means a full explanation of a small region is used to explained adjacent regions.

Bourgeois states the that theorizing process should weave back and forth between intuition and data-based theorizing and betwen induction and deduction.

Most theory theorists describe it as a more mechanistic process, with little appreciation for the intuitive, blind, wasteful.... quality of the process. They assume that validation is the ultimate test of the theory and a good theorizing process keeps this in mind at every step.

In reality, theory construction is not problem solving, because many steps happen simultaneously. It is more a struggle with "sensemaking".

"When theorists build theory, they design, conduct, and interpret imaginary experiments. Their activities are like the three activities of evolution -- variation, selection, and retention, and actually more like artificial selection than natural selection.

Theoretical problems are more likely to be solved when the problem is stated accurately and more detail.

Problem Statements
Unlike nature, theorists are both the source of variation and selection. Often the problems are wide in scope but limited in detail, inaccurate, and vague. While natural scientists pick problems they can solve, social scientists pick problems in need of a solution, whether they have the tools to solve them or not. Natural scientists pick topics of which governments, political bodies, and religious authorities are indifferent.

"By their very nature the problems imposed on organizational theorists involve so many assumptions and such a mixture of accuracy and inaccuracy that virtually all conjectures and all selection criteria remain plausible and nothing gets rejected or highlighted."

Theories of the middle range are those that are solutions to problems with a limited number of assumptions and of manageable scope, with the problem description of considerable accuracy and detail.

In fact, it would be better if theorists attacked problems that they can solve, not insolvable problems that people feel too strongly about.

Thought Trials
A theorizing process that produces lots of conjectures is better than one producing only a few, especially if there is alot of variation. A classification system can help determine when the variation in conjectures is too narrow. Thus conjectures across various theory paradigms will be more powerful than one constrained in only one paradigm.

Another way to increase variation is to eliminate memory, preference, or foresight to avoid narrow habituated thinking. Kuhn's paradigm work shows this is very difficult to do sometimes -- thought trials tend toward homogeneity. Some devices to increase variation include hetergeneous research teams, generalists, randomizing devices, etc.

Selection Criteria
Selection criteria must be applied consistently or theorists will be left an assortment of conjectures just as fragmented as what they started with. Remember that validation is not the key task of social science, because we can't. Thus, the selection criteria must be chosen carefully because the theorist, not the environment, controls the survival of conjectures. "The contribution of social science is in suggesting new relationships and connections that change actions and perspectives."

When theorists apply selection criteria to their conjectures, they ask whether the conjecture is interesting, obvious, connected, believable, beautiful, or real, in the context of the problem they are trying to solve.

When an assumption is applied to a specific conjecture, there are four reactions -- thats interesting, that's absurd, that's irrelevant, that's obvious. They are equivalent ot significance tests, and they serve as substitutes to validity. A judgement that's interesting is selected for future use.

A disconfirmed assumption is an opportunity for a theorist to learn something new. However, for a non-theorist is suggests that past experience is misleading for subsequent action and that coping may be more difficult.

Theorists also assume events are unrelated and are surprised when they find unexpected connecions between events. Also, the standards by which narratives are judged differ from those used to judge arguments.

Yet there is a thin line between that's interesting to that's in my best interest, from that's obvious to that's what managers want, from that's believable to that what managers want to hear, and the that's real to that the power system I want'.

Sifting witha greater number of distinct criteria, which Campbell call opportunistic multipurposedness, should produce theories that are mor important.