Guest article by Kaisa Koskela-Huotari.
Scholars specialize within their respective fields in many ways. For some, the specialization is directed toward a specific empirical context (e.g., retail, health, tourism), phenomenonon (e.g., innovation, customer experience, service recovery), or theoretical lens (e.g., network perspective, practice theory, consumer psychology). For others, it can be about mastering a specific empirical research method (e.g., experiments, case studies, ethnography). For quite some time, I have struggled to name my specialization, but lately I’ve realized that it can be considered, perhaps a bit unconventionally, conceptual(-only) research. Such a specialization is the consequence of having worked with some of the greatest conceptual thinkers in service research and having been more drawn to books and academic discussions than to empirical fieldwork. Therefore, most of my published work (including my dissertation) has been conceptual-only in nature. Furthermore, by working on the editorial team of the only marketing journal focusing exclusively on conceptual-only articles, AMS Review, I have gained a platform to learn and reflect even more on the nature of conceptual-only research.
Conceptual research can be seen as the “rising tide” within a discipline or research field. In other words, conceptual-only articles are an essential part of increasing the conceptual rigor within a field and keeping the field flourishing as they integrate existing knowledge, bridge previously unconnected ideas, and bring forth new perspectives that push the boundaries of concepts and broaden the scope of our thinking. They also tend to be rather highly cited. Hence, there are definite benefits to writing conceptual-only articles, but there are also challenges that can make the writing process feel like an excessively overwhelming task. In this essay, I aim to share some of the main challenges I’ve encountered when writing conceptual-only articles and highlight useful resources to overcome them. These resources are particularly helpful when thinking about conceptual-only work, but they also provide insights that can benefit the writing process of empirical articles, for example, about article positioning and the theorization process.
What is a conceptual-only article?[i]
First, let’s clarify what is meant by “conceptual-only.” The difference between empirical and conceptual-only articles is not in their outcomes. Both types of articles can (and often should) result in conceptual and theoretical contributions; the difference is in the research process. While empirical articles use empirical data as the source and support for their arguments, conceptual-only articles use academic literature and existing theories and models (Vargo and Koskela-Huotari, 2020; see also Gilson and Goldberg, 2015; MacInnis, 2011). In other words, in conceptual-only articles, the contribution should be logical, complete and convincing enough based on the theoretical evidence provided for it without additional support from empirical data. Hence, it is important to note that a conceptual-only article is not the same as the section of an empirical article that builds a model or hypotheses for empirical testing, nor are all non-empirical articles automatically conceptual-only articles. For example, descriptive literature reviews that only provide an overview of the current state of a discussion on a topic or a citation analysis do not qualify as conceptual-only articles. To be classified as conceptual, a review article needs to provide an integrative synthesis of the literature and/or new conceptual insights that go beyond those included in the reviewed literature (Hulland, 2020). Lastly, it is good to remember that conceptual-only articles can also include anecdotes, examples and even illustrative cases. The important thing is how such empirical observations are used: they illustrate and contextualize the conceptually sound contribution by lowering the level of abstraction, not by providing evidence for it.
Challenges in writing conceptual-only articles
Like all kinds of articles, conceptual-only articles also have a set of challenges for the author. When writing conceptual-only articles, I find two main issues to be particularly challenging: framing the article in a compelling way and building the theoretical argumentation in a rigorous and convincing manner. Both of these challenges relate to the fact that templates for conceptual-only articles are not as well-defined as for empirical articles (Cornelissen, 2017). Also, the “craft of clear writing” (Ragins, 2012) may become even more important in conceptual-only articles as the author cannot disguise vague writing with a p-value or other empirical evidence that would convince the reader about the significance of the article’s contribution. Fortunately, there are great papers that offer useful insights into alleviating these challenges.
Useful resources for framing the article in a compelling way
To frame the article in a compelling way, I’ve found Lange and Pfarrer’s (2017) paper “Sense and structure—the core building blocks of an AMR article” to be extremely valuable. This paper argues that conceptual-only articles have five core building blocks that should be communicated clearly to the reader in the abstract and the introduction to create a captivating storyline:
1) Common ground (the commonly accepted status quo/trend, etc., in the literature),
2) Complication (the problem with this status quo/trend), 3) Concern (why the problem is important),
4) Course of action (how the complication is resolved), and
5) Contribution (how your work changes the discussion).
Nowadays, I begin almost all of my papers by drafting preliminary ideas under each of these core building blocks. To structure a compelling introduction for your conceptual-only article, an additional resource I recommend is Barney’s (2020) paper, “Contributing to theory: opportunities and challenges,” which practically offers a sentence-by-sentence guide on how to write your introduction so that your theoretical contribution is as clear as possible to the reader. I urge everyone to take a second look at their introductions based on these instructions!
Useful resources for building a rigorous and convincing theoretical argumentation
Regarding the second challenge of building the theoretical argumentation in a rigorous and convincing manner, it’s helpful to first clarify the type of the conceptual/theoretical contribution of the article and then using this as a signpost for developing the arguments. Cornelissen’s (2017) paper “Developing propositions, a process model, or a typology? Addressing the challenges of writing theory without a boilerplate” is helpful when thinking about the different types of contributions that a conceptual-only article can make and the style of theorization/theoretical argumentation connected to each one. Also, Jaakkola’s (2020) paper, “Designing conceptual articles: four approaches,” is an excellent resource for this as it provides four alternative “templates” of conceptual-only articles and clarifies the “research design considerations” for each different type. I’ve found her suggestions very helpful, especially when thinking about how to make the theorization process as transparent as possible and how to explain the role of different theoretical inputs within it. For example, it is crucial to determine which theory or discussion is being analyzed, synthesized and extended, and which is being used to inform these processes.
So, although it might sometimes feel challenging to write your conceptual-only paper, there are lots of helpful resources out there to support you in the process. I wish you great success in working with your papers (whatever kind they are), and I hope you’ll find these resources as useful as I’ve found them to be. Let’s keep raising the “tide” for service research together!
– Barney, J. B. (2020). Contributing to theory: Opportunities and challenges. AMS Review, available online ahead of print: https://doi.org/10.1007/s13162-020-00163-y
– Cornelissen, J. (2017). Developing propositions, a process model or typology? Addressing the challenges of writing theory without a boilerplate. Academy of Management Review, 42(1), 1–9.
– Gilson, L. L. & Goldberg, C. B. (2015). Editors’ comment: So, what is a conceptual paper? Group & Organization Management, 40(2), 127–130.
– Hulland, J. (2020). Conceptual review articles. AMS Review, available online ahead of print: https://doi.org/10.1007/s13162-020-00168-7
– Jaakkola, E. (2020). Designing conceptual articles: Four approaches. AMS Review, available online ahead of print: https://doi.org/10.1007/s13162-020-00161-0
– Lange, D. & Pfarrer, M. D. (2017). Editors’ comments: Sense and structure—The core building blocks of an AMR article. Academy of Management Review, 42(3), 407–416.
– MacInnis, D. J. (2011). A framework for conceptual contributions in marketing. Journal of Marketing, 75(4), 136–154.
– Ragins, B. R. (2012). Editor’s comments: Reflections on the craft of clear writing. Academy of Management Review, 37(4), 493–501.
– Vargo, S. L. & Koskela-Huotari, K. (2020). Editorial: Advancing conceptual-only articles in marketing. AMS Review, available online ahead of print: https://doi.org/10.1007/s13162-020-00173-w.
CTF, Service Research Center
[i] This section of the essay builds on the editorial “Advancing conceptual-only articles in marketing” by Vargo and Koskela-Huotari in AMS Review, available here: https://doi.org/10.1007/s13162-020-00173-w.
Photo credits: Fezbot2000.