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What is a theoretical contribution?

Another week shoots by following the usual pattern of multi tasking around family, work and reading up on different topics including re-reading an article shared by Dr Catherine called “What constitutes a theoretical contribution?” by David Whetton (1989).  Its fairly well known that as you move further up the academic ladder it gets much harder to determine was success looks like.  Whetton’s simplification down to Kipling’s six honest men (“Just So Stories”, 1902) is a master stoke.


I keep six honest serving-men

(They taught me all I knew);

Their names are What and Why and When

And How and Where and Who.


The “what, how and why” form the heart of Whetton’s thesis used to describe the phenomenon under research by asking the first two questions:

1. “What” are all the relevant factors are under study?

2. “How” are they related e.g. cause/effect, are there propositions, and can they be demonstrated in a graphical model?


He then continues that we must explain “why” the theoretical representation deserves any attention by others in your field.  He recommends strong logic, soundness and compelling evidence!  “Who”, “when” and “where” are minor players yet still important as they set the context and boundaries of theoretical discussion, and help understand how generalizable is the model (Whetton, 1989).


Ok, so far so good, but he shocks me by suggesting that much of new knowledge contribution comes from the study of existing models, often by applying theories in other disciplines in your own field, and stretching current thinking in a new context.  The Whetton recipe for success continues:


1. use multiple factors;

2. marshal compelling evidence by showing that the original logic, assumptions were wrong or show new empirical evidence proving the existing theory wrong;

3. propose remedies or alternatives as that comes as part of the “shared responsibility” of your chosen field;

4. finish with writing that includes clarity, impact, relevance and timeliness.


But, why is Whetton’s idea a shock for me?


Quick re-cap: thinking back over the past two months I have been looking at certain areas of interest (the what and why) and where they overlap, looking for somewhere interesting to dedicate my search for new knowledge.  I have been following this process of reducing uncertainty but let’s reflect on specifics.  My interest is where coaching, technology/web 2.0 and sustainability overlap, but in particular, how can using these tools and this context can they be used to cause value shifts in people participating in the research?


This week: I took on the crocodile and had a breakthrough in my search for relevant values and measuring values change research via the discipline of Environmental Psychology.  This is part of what Whetton says, but it is here it gets interesting…  The research uncovered is a major thread of robust research using VBN Theory (Values – Beliefs – Norms ) from leaders in the field of individual values such as Rokeach Values Survey (1973), Schwartz Values Survey (1992), and finally an extension to their work in an environmental context by de-Groot and Steg (2007, 2010).    There were other threads explored such as Inglehart’s political, cultural, national, and longitudinal values change surveys (1971) or Hertzberg’s cultural values (1984), however, I have concluded that these and other alternative representations are macro-value research projects and offer little help in the research of individual change.


With the risk of jumping the gun here as I have not yet explored forward from de Groot and Steg, but I must say that it was here that their research starts to look a little shaky both in terms of its assumptions in the environmental context, and that it may not be a complete model to use in the broader Sustainability context.  Regarding the first criticism from an environmental perspective, the researchers made the decision to take a subset of Schwartz Values Survey dimensions positing that the other dimensions have little effect on pro environmental behaviour.  While I agree with the logic of adding a biospheric dimension alongside Schwartz’s egoism (self-enchancement) and altruism (self-transendence) – for me this assumption seems quite a stretch!  Regarding the second criticism, its pro-environmental stance would not encompass the broader sustainability context, so returning to Schwartz’s full survey and moving forward from there might be required.  Have I stumbled upon the edge of knowledge as Whetton was suggesting in his article?


Here I get to my point (finally), if it proves true that no current knowledge or models are available to use as an instrument for testing measurable value changes towards sustainability, then researching, improving and extending the work of de Groot and Steg, and Schwartz will be needed BEFORE I can realistically continue towards the current focus.  Wow – that is a shock, in particular when I consider that the latter would not even be required as the former satisfies the criteria for new knowledge!


When starting out on doctorate research, perhaps we all have grandiose ideas about making real breakthroughs in human knowledge – going where no person has gone before!  When I asked a colleague and ex-professor in environmental economics about my bigger ideas, she violently shook her head in disbelief and replied (paraphrasing),


“No no no, who are you without any research credentials or credibility to attempt grandiose ideas? – no one will listen to you”, she continued, “when I went to my supervisor with my proposal [note this is a US PhD programme] developed over three years on internet pricing models, he said to me ‘No, no, no…. take this journal [that was sitting on his desk] and pick an article from it and do your PhD on that subject’, that is how it was for me – perhaps it might be different in the business field”.


Her advice to me was…“listen to your supervisor and pick something small that you value and just earn your ticket, then go for the bigger ideas”.


In summary, to date I have not yet found a model to demonstrate value change in a sustainability context, nevertheless, for the moment like Sherlock Holmes I must keep looking.  If I find one, then the model can be used in the context of coaching, technology and sustainability and I’ll be on track with original thinking, – if not, it seems I have to make one, otherwise how can I provide compelling evidence that any value shifts are towards Sustainability are possible?  So, is this some sort of early crossroads for me?  Will my focus be building upon Schwartz, and de Groot and Steg’s values work through the creation and empirical testing of a new micro-values model for usage in the Sustainability context, and will that be my new knowledge contribution – or will I find a model that allows me to return to the original intention exploring the overlaps of coaching, technology and sustainability?  Watch this space…


To finish on a light note, this is a link to a webpage that contains an illustrated guide to getting a PhD.  Love it.  http://matt.might.net/articles/phd-school-in-pictures/


Now, as per usual – I would love to hear your opinions on do I have the correct understanding of Whetton, and if so do I go big or go small?   Is there a robust Sustainability values instrument out there I have not found yet? Love to hear from you.


de Groot, J.I. & Steg, L., 2010. Relationships between value orientations, self-determined motivational types and pro-environmental behavioural intentions. Journal of Environmental Psychology. Available at: http://linkinghub.elsevier.com/retrieve/pii/S0272494410000472.


de Groot, J.I. & Steg, L., 2007. Value Orientations to Explain Beliefs Related to Environmental Significant Behavior: How to Measure Egoistic, Altruistic, and Biospheric Value Orientations. Environment and Behavior, 40(3), 330-354. Available at: http://eab.sagepub.com/cgi/doi/10.1177/0013916506297831.


Whetten, D.A., 1989. What Constitutes a Theoretical Contribution? The Academy of Management Review, 14(4), 490. Available at: http://www.jstor.org/stable/258554?origin=crossref.

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