BLOG: Theorizing the practical reality of theory: the importance of indigenous theories

Professor Davison on developing indigenous theory

 

Nothing is as practical as a good theory, Kurt Lewin once explained. Theories represent the world we live in. They allow us to survive and make sense of our experiences. Organizational scholars aspire to develop good theories that help us understand organizations and how actors move within and across those organizations. However, there are many theories out there that are developed with too little concern for context. They theorize the universal over the particular. To make the world of theory a better place, professor Robert Davison presented his view on the importance of developing “indigenous theory”. Professor Davison is professor at the Department of Information Systems at the City University of Hong Kong and visited us on Friday the 24th of November.

 

Theories that correspond with reality

 

During his talk he regularly draws from his experiences in China to illustrate that though some theories may seem parsimonious, they do not match all cultures and therefore these theories may not be as generalizable as some hope they are. For example, theories are sometimes developed without considering contextual and cultural differences. Davison argues in line with Weick (1989) that a good theory should also be “plausible…and correspond with presumed realities.” His argument for developing indigenous theory among others holds that we should acknowledge cultural differences. A theory on how eBay works in the US may not work in the same way Taobao works in China. Though theories on social capital are widespread, there are some elements in Chinese culture that cannot be caught in those theories. Guanxi, for example, covers elements of interpersonal relationships that are related to sustainable relationships, and an implied mutual reciprocity. Though such elements may be described in terms of social capital, their actual arrangement and the importance of nuances are typical for Chinese interpersonal relationships.

 

Professor Davison presenting his views on the importance of indigenous theories.

 

The limitation of limitations and boundary conditions

Professor Davison ideas clearly resonate with what we do at the KIN Group. The practice approach that many researchers employ helps us theorize the specific contextual conditions that influence the different phenomena we study. The embedded research we do means that we are indwelled in the realities of the actors we study.

A shared understanding in the room is that current studies put many of these concerns in their limitations, while they actually are paramount for the theorizing itself. An important take-away of the discussion is that we should expand our boundary conditions: do not let boundary conditions be mere afterthoughts, but let them explicitly inform our research and theorizing.

 

You can find his recent editorial in Information Systems Journal titled “The Limitation of Limitations” here: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/isj.12167/full

By Nick Oostervink.