The Role of Theory in Business Research

Associate Prof. Andrea Carugati, Prof. Tino Bech-Larsen and Prof. Lars Frederiksen, Department of Management, Aarhus BSS, Aarhus University.

The faculty is comprised of experts from the Department of Management (MGMT), Aarhus BSS, Aarhus University, supplemented by external experts.

Time and place
9-13 May 2016. The course will take place at the Department of Management, Aarhus BSS, Aarhus University, Bartholins Allé 10, 8000 Aarhus C. Room: 1325-242.

No later than 16 March 2016 to: Lisbeth Widahl, Department of Management, Aarhus BSS, Aarhus University, Bartholins Allé 10, 8000 Aarhus C (preferably by email). Please download and fill in the application form.
Please note that your application is binding. Applicants from the Department of Management will be given priority over applicants from other departments/universities.

External participants (from outside Aarhus University) will be charged a fee of approx. 1350 DKK (covers lunches and refreshments). 
Participants are required to find their own accommodation.

Requirements (applicants from other departments/universities)
The applicant must

  • be enrolled as a PhD student
  • have a MSc in Business Administration (or similar)
  • document experience from applying theory and theory development at MSc level.

Purpose and content
This PhD course provides room for a focused discussion with regard to the concept and importance of theory in business research. Thus the course offers PhD students tools to build theory and insights into the instruments and concepts of validating theory. As such, we provide students guidance for defining constructs, thinking through relationships and processes that link constructs, and deriving new theoretical models (or building on existing ones) based on those relationships. Step by step, we seek to illustrate how to use analysis as well as grounded and emergent approaches to theory construction. Students are enabled to develop ideas from across theoretical and analytical levels as well as from neighbouring research fields. An explicit aim of the course is to provide students with a deeper appreciation of theory-building in order to support them in crafting effective research papers and grant applications.  

An illustrative example of the sort of theory-driven debates that the course hosts is the issue of (economic) rationality in decision-making. Discussion of theories assuming various degrees of rationality among agents and the subsequent likely outcomes of their decisions is an important topic, which cuts across research fields from management to marketing to consumer behaviour. Another example of such theory-driven debate concerns the issue of how to define the boundaries of an organization and which implications the chosen demarcation will bring for strategic decision-making on, for example, managing innovation.

The course is divided into two main parts: 1) a general part about the role of theory in business research and 2) a part where the students are exposed to theory creation and validation applied specifically to key research fields: Organizational Theory, Management, Marketing, Consumer Behaviour. In this way we also aspire to create a foundation for a wider appreciation and potential integration across four main research fields.  

Finally, as a secondary aim, the course strives to create an ‘esprit de corps’ among the students and thus highlights possible venues for research collaboration across the different research fields. Therefore, while students learn about different formats of research outputs, process, and theory validation relative to the four specific research fields, they will also be exposed to the potential and advantages of cross-disciplinary research. As such, the course has a built-in element of how to become a social scientist.

Pedagogical format
In order to achieve the various aims, the course adopts different pedagogical tools and techniques. 

  • The general questions concerning: What is a theory and why is it handy to have one? Creation and validation of theory, etc. are dealt with through traditional lecturing and follow-up discussions. These lectures are mainly provided by MGMT faculty.
  • The presentation and discussion of knowledge creation in the different research fields are further developed by students presenting their research proposals. Student presentations should focus on questions such as: Which theory lens is selected and why? What is the contribution you are trying to make – to which theory and why? In this way students provide ideas and suggestions for fellow students for both developing and testing theory and thus offer food for thought about how to improve the theoretical grounding of their PhD project.
  • The presentation and discussion of how to learn from and possibly bridge theory emerging from multiple research fields.
  • The course lasts five days and has an intensive format.


The course is based on a high level of student involvement. Students are expected to be thoroughly prepared and to take an active part in the presentation and discussion of the material. Given the high content-to-time ratio, teaching is based on lecturing, illustrations and discussions and its success is predicated on interactive student involvement. The assessment has two parts:

1. Participants are required to present their research attending especially to the theory foundation, building and 'testing' of their PhD work (20 min. with a follow-up O&A session, 10 min.).

2. Within two weeks after the end of the course, participants are required to submit a note (3-5 pages) in which the participant seeks to set up his or her PhD research within a different theory framing than currently applied. Also, the note must offer reflections on how a change in theory lens is, or is not, useful for the development of the research as well as how a possible change in theory perspective would affect assumptions, unit of analysis, key constructs, possibilities of tests, etc. for the current research.

After the course, the PhD student will be able to:

  • Identify and understand what constitutes a theory (including causality, assumptions etc.) and to distinguish theory from taxonomies, morphologies, colloquialisms etc.
  • Develop own conceptual frameworks and mid-range theories
  • Apply different theoretical lenses to an empirical problem in order to see how theory in the social sciences sometimes influences our conclusions

5 ECTS points.

Preliminary list of literature
Andersen, P.H.; Kragh, H. (2010) Sense and Sensibility: Two approaches for using existing theory in theory-building qualitative research, Industrial Marketing Management, 39, 49-55.

Anderson, Paul F. (1983) Marketing, Scientific Progress, and Scientific Method, Journal of Marketing, Vol. 47, No. 4, pp. 18-31

Argyris, Chris (1991) Teaching Smart People How to Learn, Harvard Business Review, 99-109, May-June.

Astley, W.G. and Van de Ven, A.H. (1983) Central Perspectives and Debates in Organization Theory. Administrative Science Quarterly, Vol. 28, June, pp. 245-273.

Bacharach, S. (1989) Organizational theories: Some criteria for evaluation, AMR 14: 496-515.

Booth, W.C., Colomb, G.C., Williams, J.M. (1995) 2nd edition, The Craft of Research. Chicago, Ill.: The University of Chicago Press

Colquitt, Jason A. & Zapata-Phelan, Cindy P. (2007) Trends in Theory Building and Theory Testing: A Five-Decade Study of the Academy of Management Journal, Academy of Management Journal, 50: 1281-1303

Corley Kevin G. & Dennis A. G. (2011) Building Theory About Theory Building: What Constitutes a Theoretical Contribution? Academy of Management Review, 36: 12-32

Davis, M. (1971) That’s interesting! Philosophy of the Social Sciences, 1: 309-344.

Eisenhardt, K. (1989) Building theories from case study research, Academy of Management Review, 14(4): 532-550.

Ghoshal, S. (2005) Bad management theories are destroying good management practices, AMLE, 4(1): 75-91.

Grunert, K.G., Shepherd, R., Traill, W.B. & Wold, B. (forthcoming) Food choice, energy balance and its determinants: Views of human behaviour in economics and Psychology, Trends in Food Science & Technology

Huber, G.P. (2010) “Organizations: Theory, Design, Future.” APA Handbook of Industrial and Organizational Psychology

Hunt, Shelby D. & Morgan, R.M. (1996) The Resource-Advantage Theory of Competition: Dynamics, Path Dependencies, and Evolutionary Dimensions, Journal of Marketing, Vol. 60, No. 4, pp. 107-114.

Lewis, M & Grimes, A. (1999) Metatriangulation: Building theory from multiple paradigms, Academy of Management Review, 24: 672-690.

Locke, K.; Golden-Biddle, K. (1997) Constructing opportunities for contribution: structuring intertextual coherence and 'problematizing' in organizational studies, AMJ, 40(5), 1023-1062.

McGrath, J.E.; Brinberg D. (1983) External Validity and the Research Process: A Comment on the Calder/Lynch Dialogue, The Journal of Consumer Research, 10(1), 115-124.

Oswick, C., Fleming, P. & Hanlon, G. (2011) From borrowing to blending: Rethinking the processes of organizational theory building, Academy of Management Review, 36: 318-337.

Oxley, J. E., Rivkin, J. W., and Ryall, M. D. (2010) The strategy research initiative: Recognizing and encouraging high-quality research in strategy, Strategic Organization, 8(4): 377-386.

Rindova, V. (2008) Publishing theory when you are new to the game, Academy of Management Review, 33: 300-303.

Smith, K. & Hitt, M. (2005) Epilogue: Learning to develop theory from the masters, Great Minds in Management: The Process of Theory Development, Oxford University Press, pp. 572-589.

Suddaby, R. (2006) What Grounded Theory Is Not, Academy of Management Journal, 49, 4, 633-642.

Sutton, Robert I. & Staw, B.M. (1995) What theory is not, Administrative Science Quarterly, 40: 371-385.

Weick, K.E. (1989) Theory construction as disciplined imagination, AMR, 14(4), 516–531.

Whetten, David A. (1989) What constitutes a theoretical contribution? Academy of Management Review, 14: 490-495.

Woodward, M.N. and Holbrook, M.B. (2013) Dialogue on some concepts, definitions and issues pertaining to 'consumpti on experiences', Marketing Theory, 13(3), 323-344.

Further information
Please contact Andrea Carugati, Tino Bech-Larsen, or Lars Frederiksen.