Theory Salting in the Organizational Sciences

Salt shaker spilling salt on a table.

I have been around the I-O psychology/management field long enough to see things evolve from its origins in behaviorism where theory was de-emphasized to the current state of theory obsession. It is hard to find a peer review that does not mention some deficiency in theory. Authors feel that they must spend pages and pages talking about theoretical ideas to have a chance of getting a paper accepted for publication in a top journal. People engage in theory salting in the organizational sciences, meaning they sprinkle the names of theories throughout their paper to give the illusion that a given piece of research is somehow theory driven, and that it contributes to theory.

What Do People Mean by Theory?

There are many definitions of theory in science, so there is no one accepted definition. Theory can be used to describe a phenomenon or it can be used to explain it. A descriptive theory, as the word suggests, mainly describes something. Relativity theory in physics is a series of equations that describes the physical world. For more than a century physicists have been putting the theory to test to see if its predictions are accurate, for example, that nothing can exceed the speed of light. In the social sciences we often look to theory to explain phenomena. For example, we know that job satisfaction leads to employee turnover. An explanatory theory would provide a mechanism that can account for that connection. An emotion-based theory might explain the connection in terms of emotional reactions to the job and people’s strategies to regulate such emotions by quitting.

A few weeks ago I received a review of a paper in which peer reviewers complained about insufficient theory, but it was not at all clear what they meant. At one point a reviewer referred to a variable as a theory. The other reviewer seemed to equate theories with empirical findings. This makes we wonder if the idea of theory has become so loose as to be unhelpful from a scientific perspective. A theory should be a description/explanation that is a representation of the world. Researchers put that representation to the test to show that we can accept the theory’s explanations and predictions. To do that, we need to be clear about what a theory is.

How Theory Should Be Used in Science

At an early age I learned that discovery was at the heart of science. Scientists investigate phenomena of interest in order to figure out how the world works. They collect data to discover interesting patterns. Theories emerge as they produce systems that describe, explain and organize those patterns of observations. Those theories can be used to make predictions (hypotheses) about new observations, and those predictions are tested to see if they support the theory. Thus science involves three different different types of activities that are the basis for three kinds of inference.

  • Induction: Discovery through exploratory research. The role of theory is minimized as the focus is on the phenomenon itself. The scientist does not want the investigation to be limited by a theory.
  • Abduction: Theory development through the integration of exploratory findings. This typically occurs after a sufficient body of results are available. New theories do not arise out of each study.
  • Deduction: Tests of theories demonstrate whether or not their predictions are correct. There can be many tests of a given theory, ideally using different methodologies that might converge on the same conclusion.

Theory testing involves generating predictions from a theory that can be put to empirical test. You start with the theory, specify something that the theory predicts, and then conduct a research study that can either confirm or disconfirm the prediction. Note that the prediction derives from the theory and should be specified before the study is conducted, and ideally, before it is designed. For example, Suzy Fox and I developed the stressor-emotion model of employee misbehavior. It states that when people are under stress at work they are likely to act out. This can lead to a number of predictions about how people would react to things at work that increases or decreases their experience of stress. If employees are provided mindfulness training, we would predict that if it is effective in reducing feelings of stress, it would reduce misbehavior. A study could be conducted to test that prediction.

Theory Salting in the Organizational Sciences

When I was a student, there were few theories in our field, and those that existed were extensively tested. Expectancy theory, for example, had dozens of articles written describing tests of its predictions. There were so many tests that a meta-analysis was published summarizing 77 studies. Most research papers had no hypotheses–they were exploratory studies dealing with important phenomena. Today theory is used in a loose way, with almost every article sprinkling in mentions of various theories. People state hypotheses and then claim that they were “informed” by one or more theories. What those theories are and how they “informed” the hypotheses is generally unstated. I reviewed a paper once where one theory was claimed as the basis for one hypothesis and a different theory for another. What was unstated was that the theories led to opposite predictions about the two hypotheses.

Much has been written about the academic-practice divide in organizational research. Theory salting is part of the problem. Rather than focusing on important questions and understanding phenomena, most of the literature is concerned with theoretical discussions, and testing hypotheses that are loosely linked to a variety of theories. That kind of research de-emphasizes discovery, and it fails to provides solid evidence to support theories. It is stuck in the middle as what appears to be exploratory work is presented as it is theory-driven, thus failing to present new discovery nor provide adequate tests of useful theories. This leaves practitioners with neither new insights into their issues from exploratory studies, nor a reason to consider a theory as something they might apply.

Theory is important, but theory salting in the organizational sciences is not at all helpful for advancing it. Nor is the requirement that all articles have theory. Science works best when there is a balance. Some papers merely present new findings, some present new theories, and some provide tests of theories. Our field needs to restore that balance to both optimize scientific progress and to be relevant to the world beyond academia.

Photo by Lorena Martínez from Pexels

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3 Replies to “Theory Salting in the Organizational Sciences”

  1. As an I/O Psychology Student and now I possess an MA in I/O with an almost Ph.D. My go to was always the Harvard Business Review while it does not speak about theory, it does speak about case studies that worked in real-world situations and this makes what the definition of I/O Psychology as defined by the brilliant Dr. Paul Spector “the study of psychology in the workplace” Paul Spector and HBR are the guides that people serious about Psychology and functioning in the workplace should follow.

  2. Fantastic web site. Plenty of helpful information here.
    I’m sending it to several buddies ans additionally sharing in delicious.

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  3. I couldn’t agree more with Paul’s insights regarding the (mis) use of theory in academic journal articles. I love the term “theory salting”, and will start using it as a reviewer. Whereas there is “nothing a more practical than an a good theory”, the obsession of our (and many other) field(s) with “providing a novel theoretical contribution” has become a useless dogma that impedes organizational studies to be a true scientific discipline. In the organizational studies field, baring some noteworthy exceptions, any theory testing papers are usually rejected due to a “lack of contribution”. In management studies, it is know that only around 5% to 6% of the theories published in purely theoretical journals are tested (e.g., Academy of Management Review), and of course, hardly ever replicated or translated into actionable interventions. The result? A “babel tower” syndrome were you can find a micro- or meso- level range theories to (poorly) explain or justify every possible empirical relation (usually after a study’s results are know).

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