Positioning knowledge: schools of thought and new knowledge creation – Part 1

By Phin Upham


Cohesive intellectual communities called ‘‘schools of thought’’ can provide powerful benefits to those developing new knowledge, but can also constrain them. We examine how developers of new knowledge position themselves within and between schools of thought, and how this affects their impact. Looking at the micro and macro fields of management publications from 1956 to 2002 with an extensive dataset of 113,000? articles from 41 top journals, we explore the dynamics of knowledge positioning for management scholars. We find that it is significantly beneficial for new knowledge to be a part of a school of thought, and that within a school of thought new knowledge has more impact if it is in the intellectual semi-periphery of the school. Keywords Innovation Management Schools of thought Clustering.


New knowledge developers work in an intellectual and scientific landscape with social structures that shape their actions. In doing so they navigate within, between and among intellectual ‘‘schools of thought’’ that deeply affect their contributions (Kuhn 1962; Small 2003). Previous research has explored that new knowledge has more impact when it is well situated in an existing school of thought and/or when it incorporates outside knowledge (Trajtenberg 1990; Fleming 2001). Drawing from previous research, we develop a strategic understanding of the positioning incentives for researchers creating new knowledge in the social science field of management. We contribute to the existing literature in this field by quantitatively testing how the position of researchers within or outside schools of thought relates to the impact of their contributions. We then test how positioning within schools of thought and a researcher’s experience in multiple schools of thought affects performance. Our tests widen the applicability of the dynamics of knowledge positioning and put forth a clearer understanding of their potential for future management research.

First, we wish to understand the systematic mechanisms by which schools of thought engage and incentivize individual developers of new knowledge. Second, we wish to use citation data to explore how schools of thought encourage both local and distant search, integrating the findings of recent innovation literature with our theory. Third, we wish to quantitatively explore the consequences on intellectual impact of new knowledge positioning both within and between schools of thought by examining the intellectual organization of the field of management.

An epistemic community or mini-paradigm, often called a school of thought, is a socially constructed and informal community of researchers who build on each other’s ideas and share similar interests and who consequentially share patterns of citation in their work (Crane 1972, 1980). Research on schools of thought in citation analysis has been limited but very suggestive (Small and Crane 1979; Ennis 1992). While researchers have identified and delineated schools of thought in various fields ranging from management of information science to theoretical high energy physics, they have rarely looked at how these schools function or how they affect new knowledge performance (Crane 1980; Culnan 1987).

Schools of thought can powerfully influence the process of individual knowledge creation in at least three ways. First, the socially agreed upon boundaries of schools of thought influence how developers of new knowledge explicitly think about and position themselves within their field; thus there is an explicit strategic dimension to knowledge positioning (Castro et al. 2001). Second, schools of thought are labels for dense social networks that distribute information through personal ties, conferences, conversations, etc. They deeply influence the knowledge developer’s searches, access to and ease of finding information and, in aggregate, an individual researcher’s knowledge stocks and resulting new knowledge contributions (Doreian 1988; Moody 2001). Third, schools of thought represent mental paradigms that unconsciously influence authors’ view of the boundaries of their intellectual world (Crane 1980; Pfeffer 1993; Small 2003). Seminal work by Thomas Kuhn in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions argues that groups of researchers with a coherent scientific and intellectual world view and a shared set of questions and methodologies are a fundamental part of intellectual thought and rigor (Kuhn 1962). In her description of the field of management of information science, Culnan (1986) describes invisible colleges (which we call schools of thought) as inherent to innovative research:

Researchers in any discipline tend to cluster into informal networks, or ‘‘invisible colleges,’’ which focus on common problems in common ways…. The history of the exchanges between members of these subgroups in a discipline describes the intellectual history of the field. (p. 156)

It is perhaps to be expected that loosely defined groups of like-minded researchers within academic fields will tend to study similar questions with overlapping methodologies. This holds particularly true in the social sciences, where methodology and goals are fragmented and schools of thought are prevalent.

Pfeffer (1993), discussing the field of organizational theory, argues that researchers need a strong paradigm to direct and organize the advancement of knowledge through agreed upon goals and vocabulary so that their work can incrementally build on each other’s. He argues that a level of external intellectual ‘‘borrowing’’ from outside one’s paradigm causes a lack of coherence in a field. As he puts it, ‘‘consensus is a critical precondition for scientific advancement (p. 600).’’ At the opposite extreme these same forces can socially embed new knowledge builders so that they are structurally disinclined to try to communicate or learn valuable ideas from those outside of their circle—which can lead to intellectual isolation and stagnation.

To analyze strategies for maximizing effectiveness in an ideological landscape, we build on the ideas of positioning theorists (Hotelling 1929; Downs 1957; McGann 2002) and search theorists (March and Simon 1958; Levinthal 1997; Cohen et al. 2000). Positioning theorists seek to explain the behavior of agents who try to position themselves to appeal to a maximum number of consumers. Search theorists analyze the consequences of local and distant search strategies on outcomes such as innovation. Using these approaches, we show how the implicit incentive structures created by schools of thought affect the impact of new knowledge.

The field of study examined in this paper, micro and macro management strategy, has been characterized throughout its history by competing schools of thought offering different and sometimes mutually exclusive causal explanations for business phenomena and identifying the underlying drivers of firm behavior (Barney 1986; Mintzberg 1994). We use a database of 113,000 papers from 41 top management journals from 1956 to 2002, which covers the modern life of management studies, to explore what affects the impact of the publications of management scholars.