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Building Social Theory With Typologies

Typologies are important analytical tools for social scientists. Why are they on the decline?

Miles and Snow's (1978) typology of business strategies

Typologies are important analytical tools for social scientists. Typologies reduce the complexity of social phenomena, allowing researchers to study complicated patterns and relationships. Typologies facilitate classification, prediction, and explanation of the social world — but unfortunately, they seem to be on the decline.

Delbridge and Fiss (2013) issued a call for more theoretical typologies in the Academy of Management Review. Too much theorizing focuses on the development of propositions and correlational analyses, they claim. Although proposition-testing has produced many advancements in management theory, the authors warn that a singular focus on propositions may exclude certain kinds of theorizing. The norm of using propositions may encourage authors to submit propositions in order to please reviewers rather than pursuing alternative (and more appropriate) approaches.

Delbridge and Fiss argued that typologies represent a particularly fruitful alternative to the use of propositions in building social theory. They believe that typologies allow researchers to move beyond simple correlations to examine more complex causal relationships.

In their response to Delbridge and Fiss, Snow and Ketchen (2014) agreed that the lack of typologies in top management journals represents a missed opportunity. They suggested two directions for typology-driven theorizing: (1) reevaluating and updating old typologies, and (2) developing and testing new typologies. As an example, they examined Miles and Snow’s (1978) typology of business strategies. This typology identified four types of organizations: prospector, defender, analyzer, and reactor organizations. Snow and Ketchen believe that the subsequent studies using this typology both confirmed its validity and improved its application. These studies found evidence of the four typological categories in various industries, and they developed new ways of measuring each type’s main characteristics.

Of course, we agree with the authors above about the utility of typologies. The Systems of Exchange framework is a typology which has proven useful in describing alternative economic arrangements — everything from water policy to insider trading to the price of vaccines. In the spirit of Snow & Ketchen’s call to action, we encourage researchers to test the empirical limits of the Systems of Exchange typology. Of particular interest would be explanations for the conditions under which certain exchange relationships arise, and the factors causing exchange arrangements to transition between types (e.g., from the Price System to the Communal System).


To read the full dialogue between Delbridge & Fiss (2013) and Snow & Ketchen (2014), see the links below:

Delbridge & Fiss (2013) - Styles of Theorizing and the Social Organization of Knowledge

Snow & Ketchen (2014) - Typology-Driven Theorizing: A Response to Delbridge and Fiss

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