“What Theory is Not, Theorizing Is” by Karl Weick

Theories are strange things. They’re often so comfortable that we forget they’re at best approximations. They are, by definition, abstractions over a a real thing. This is not to say that they’re fragile or unreliable—theories are developed to be resilient, and the process through which theories are formed (i.e. theorizing) is itself rigorous.

Both theory and theorizing are the topics of Karl Weick’s essay, “What Theory Is Not, Theorizing Is,” a response to an essay entitled “What Theory is Not” by Robert Sutton and Barry Staw (all three are researchers in organizational studies). The original essay demarcated a line between papers that contain theory and papers that do not, and named five elements that were often used by authors in place of theory (i.e. references, data, variables, diagrams, and hypotheses). Sutton and Staw bring this issue to light because they describe observing a rash of authors submitting papers with little to no theory simply because journals require strong theory, the effect of which is a weakening of the standards of theory.

Weick’s response to this is not a counterargument but rather a tangential discussion of the act of theorizing, the practice that leads to theory. He describes some of the difficulties that novice theorists might have in identifying which “which of their efforts are theory and which are not. This difficulty arises,” he goes on to say, “because theory work can take a variety of forms, because theory itself is a continuum, and because most verbally expressed theory leaves tacit some key portions of the originating insight.”

The “originating insight” can consist of any number of activities which led to the development of the theory. And while those activities themselves may not be eligible to be called theories, their existence is necessary for a theory to exist. Whereas a paper without theory may be labeled as having an insufficient contribution, a theory without any rigor or grounding is just as pointless.