Espacios. Vol. 37 (Nº 18) Año 2016. Pág. 8

Building Relevant Contributions in International Business: Epistemological Considerations

Construyendo contribuciones relevantes en negocios internacionales: consideraciones epistemológicas


Recibido: 29/02/16 • Aprobado: 19/03/2016


1. Theoretical Contributions in Business

2. On the Positivistic/Empiricist and Relativistic/Constructionist Debate

3. Epistemology and Measurement in IB Research

4. Conclusion



This paper discusses International Business (IB) research from a theoretical, epistemological and critical perspective. It contributes to the discussion on what constitutes a relevant IB theoretical contribution, however, the intent is not to propose a new epistemology but rather to reunite and discuss some of the recommendations and approaches of scholars interested in IB research. This analysis has implications for scholars willing to make a significant and revelatory contribution to business theory.
Keywords: International business, research, epistemology, theory building.


Este artículo discute la investigación en negocios internacionales desde una perspectiva teórica, epistemológica y crítica. Contribuye a la discusión sobre qué constituye una contribución teórica relevante en negocios internaciones, sin embargo, su intención no es proponer una nueva espistemología sino reunir y discutir algunas de las recomendaciones y enfoques de académicos interesados en la investigación en negocios internacionales. El presente análisis tiene implicaciones para académicos interesados en hacer contribuciones significativas y reveladoras a la teoría en negocios.
Palabras clave: Negocios internacionales, investigación, epistemología, construcción teórica.

1. Theoretical Contributions in Business

Scholars have long discussed the creation, classification and relevance of theories in business research, however, IB as a study field is broader and more recent than other business-related disciplines, which implies a more profound and intricate discussion on multidisciplinary, theoretical contributions, and practical implications of research within this business area.

According to Sutton & Staw (1995), there is no consensus on what constitutes a strong or a weak theory in social sciences, however, there is more consensus that elements such as data, variables, constructs, diagrams, references and hypothesis do not constitute a theory per se. For them, scholars do not agree on distinguishing a model, framework or typology from a theory, furthermore, there are passionate discussions on the whether or not the falsifiability is a sine qua non condition to assess the reliability of a theoretical contribution, or the need of a theory to be interesting in order to be considered as significant.

Researchers, editors of top-ranked journals, reviewers, students and business practitioners seems to have different standards for appraising a theory as weak or strong. Davis (1971) approaches the issue of the demarcation between interesting and non-interesting theories, and argues that in order for a theory to be considered as an interesting one it needs to address several characteristics: affecting the attention and denying certain assumptions of their audience, constituting an attack on the taken-for-granted world, being articulated to a phenomenological assumption about the way a particular part of the world has looked, to finally dare assumptions and propose new avenues to both explaining and comprehending reality.

Although neither Sutton & Staw (1995) nor Davis (1971) explicitly referenced Kuhnian concepts of paradigms, progress in science, normal science and incommensurability, their conclusions suggest an understanding of fundamental concepts, for instance, the difficulties in terms of communication among people that belong to different research paradigms, the incommensurable limitations when comparing rival paradigms, and the different standards of evidence, argumentation and therefore theory building in research, especially in business-related disciplines.

Regarding what differentiates a good theory from others, Stanovich (1989), contributing to the popperian criterion of refutability, states that a good theory is the one that is potentially falsifiable, otherwise, it would have no implications in the natural world so it would be useless. For him, theories that receive confirmation from highly falsifiable, highly specific predictions are to be preferred. According to Popper (1968), the most useful theoretical predictions or conjectures are those with very specific implications, those that expose themselves to refutations; this is also the main claim in the provocative and influential text "Strong Inference", Platt (1964), in which he argues that a theory that cannot be mortally endangered cannot be alive. Nevertheless, other scholars, especially those that study business-related disciplines seem to emphasize in aspects more allied with purpose, novelty and curiosity.

Corly & Gioia (2011) explore the recommendations that Academy of Management (AM) has considered more appealing for new contributions within the last four decades: advancing knowledge and helping the field move forward, making new connections on previous constructs, and studying the empirical implications of these connections. Based on these motives, they propose a categorization that took into account the originality and utility (see Figure 1). Originality is a dimension of rigueur for AM that can be incremental when advancing the understanding of a discipline, or revelatory when research illuminates unstudied fields, relations or phenomena. This classification clearly related to Davis (1971) and former developments of Gray & Wegner (2013) when they propose that interesting theories are the one that deny certain assumptions and attack taken-for-granted understanding but at the same time are articulated to phenomena and properly introduced to both laypeople and scientists.

Figure 1. Categorization of dimensions for theoretical contributions

Taken from Corly & Gioia (2011)

Corly & Gioia (2011) use figure 1 to exemplify the kind of papers that usually succeed at top business journals, for them, papers in quadrant 1 are the preferred ones for both editors and reviewers and go along the reviewing process smoothly. Papers in quadrants 2 and 4 constitute a higher challenge for authors, editors and reviewers, and normally need to undergo longer and deeper reviewing and resubmitting processes. While papers in quadrant 3 exhibit the highest likelihood of being desk-rejected or outlast until the first round of reviews to end up being rejected with scorn.    

2. On the Positivistic/Empiricist and Relativistic/Constructionist Debate

Peter & Olson (1983) argue that what makes a scientific theory successful is the acceptance that it has in the research community and the adoption of its principles by a substantial segment. For them theories work just as products in a market, scientific ideas are organized in a set of constructs and hypothesis inside measurement, sampling and data analysis methodologies to eventually produce a manuscript, which represents a tangible representation of the original set of ideas, that product could be accepted and therefore disseminated and adopted or just rejected. A theory, just as any product, also has promotion, distribution, target market, and price. The latter represented in the time, effort, psychological and behavioral costs and money that scientist invest in developing theories. Although Peter & Olson (1983) do not aim to present a discussion on positivism and constructivism, they include a comparison about the major differences between positivism and constructivism view of science that is presented below.

Table 1: Major Differences between Positivistic/Empiricist and Relativistic/Constructionist Views of Science

Positivistic/Empiricist Science

Relativistic/Constructionist Science

Science discovers the true nature of reality.

Science creates many realities.

Only the logic of justification is needed to understand science.

The processes by which theories are created, justified, and diffused throughout a research community are needed to understand science.

Science can be understood without considering cultural, social, political, and economic factors.

Science is a social process and cannot be understood without considering cultural, social, political, and economic factors.

Science is objective.

Science is subjective.

Scientific knowledge is absolute and cumulative.

Scientific knowledge is relative to a particular context and period of time in history.

Science is capable of discovering universal laws that govern the external world.

Science creates ideas that are context-dependent, i.e., relative to a frame of reference.

Science produces theories that come closer and closer to absolute truth.

Truth is a subjective evaluation that cannot be properly inferred outside of the context provided by the theory.

Science is rational since it follows formal rules of logic,

Science is rational to the degree that it seeks to improve individual and societal well being by following whatever means are useful for doing so.

There are specific rules for doing science validly (e.g.. falsification),

There are many ways of doing science validly that are appropriate in different situations.

Scientists subject their theories to potential falsification through rigorous empirical testing.

Scientists seek supportive, confirmatory evidence in order to market their theories.

Measurement procedures do not influence what is measured.

Nothing can be measured without changing it.

Data provide objective, independent benchmarks for testing theories.

Data are created and interpreted by scientists in terms of a variety of theories, and thus are theory laden.

Taken and adapted from Peter & Olson (1983)

Peter & Olson (1983)' ideas seem to go to the same direction to Davis (1971), Anderson (1983), Whetten (1989), Sutton & Staw (1995), Hunt (1990), and the recent positions of Thomas, Cuervo-Cazurra & Brannen (2011), Muñoz (2011), Bello & Kostova (2012) that defend that theories should not be evaluated based just on their capacity to logically explain a phenomenon but assessment should also include criteria in regards of its usefulness and  theoretical contribution for which positivistic and empirical methodologies contribute but clearly do not represent the unique way to address business phenomena.

3. Epistemology and Measurement in IB Research

According to Thomas et al (2011) the most frequent reason for reviewers to reject a paper from the Journal of International Business Studies (JIBS) is the lack of theoretical contribution, this is not directly related to the specific discipline or methodology but to the underlying mechanisms that are used to clarify theoretical relations between independent, mediating, moderating and depend constructs and variables. These authors state that researchers frequently bypass a clear explanation of the logical relationships among constructs and substitute it with fancy and sophisticated mathematical models with a description of a the constructs and variables as a token of previous literature. Bello & Kostova (2012) also address the issue of theoretical weaknesses in IB manuscripts; table 2 presents an overview of common flaws that in IB research and recommendations for authors to avoid these mistakes.

Table 2: Common Weaknesses in IB Manuscripts



Lack of clear and explicit expression of research motivation and justification


Explain not just relations among constructs but how and why the research is interesting, important and different from the existing studies.

The first paragraphs of the manuscript should clearly state why is the study necessary, what is it about the observed phenomenon that is not understood, where does the literature remain shadow or unexplored on providing explanations and how the paper contributes to the theoretical gap.

Lack of articulation in the relationships among concepts, constructs or variables

A list of description of selected constructs and variables, and a cocktail of former studies that used the same concepts, ideas and measures to understand phenomena is not enough. Constructs must be both broad and parsimonious, the former to significantly reflect the domain of the studied phenomenon, while the latter, to focus inquiry.

Authors should clearly state how and why constructs influence each other, what is the underlying mechanism and under what circumstances the relation is predicted to happen.

Relying on repetition as a predictor

Correlations and findings in former studies are not to be taken as permanent explanations and predictors of future phenomena, especially in alterative IB fieldwork. Authors should be aware of this and explain the reasons behind construct and variable selection; furthermore, these should be validated and logically related to findings.

Insufficient contribution to subject area

Both poorly communicating the contribution of the paper and over assessing its findings are equally wrong.

Authors should clearly state how findings change the current understanding of the studied phenomenon; besides, they should answer key questions about their contribution: What is new? What is different? Why so? So what? Along with specifying the underlying logic, boundaries conditions, causal connections and relevant constructs.

Authors should express if their study confirm, expand, modify or reject existing theory, and what exact theory is affecting. Moreover, they should inform practical implications, for instance for business practitioners and policymakers.

Fail to obtain benefits from the revision process

Reviewing and resubmitting a manuscript is a long and sometimes exhausting process. Authors should be ready to extract the most benefits from the reviewing rounds in order to take the manuscript to the next level and improve the theoretical contributions, conceptual development, discussion and conclusions.

Weak conceptual development

Authors should avoid being too simplistic or banal about models in order to reach stronger outcomes. IB research usually borrows constructs and variables from other disciplines, which creates risks of trivializing, inadequately operationalizing measurement and even achieving tautological findings. Failing in adequately mixing moderating, mediating and interactive effects boils down to poor conceptual development.  

Wrongly using multiple theories for studying a phenomenon.

As IB research is multidisciplinary, authors tend to use multiple theories as lens to study a given phenomenon. This prevents researchers to achieve conceptual rigor and effectively contribute to theory development. Authors that integrate several disciplinary perspectives in one paper should be very aware of this risk and should as well integrate multiple validations in their studies.

Lack of diversity and creativity in the research context

Most of the manuscripts in IB study MNE-specific reality like entry modes decisions, internationalization motives, international joint ventures and so on; some other manuscripts validate and expand theories based on multiple complexities and contexts like different formal and informal institutions, intra-firm complexities, diversity in cultural frameworks. However, few studies dare to study the context of MNEs as a source of new theoretical insights that could eventually both broaden and propose theories for understanding IB in different contexts.

Lack of theoretical impact

Authors should explore the boundaries and special characteristics of MNEs for proposing and building new theoretical frameworks that could be influential not only for IB but for general organizational theory. MNEs offer special characteristics that are worth studying and represent the potential to obtain more significant theories, for instance regarding centralization, control, integration, standardization, differentiation and autonomy among others.

Own construction based on Bello & Kostova (2012), Thomas et al (2011)

There are several studies on the IB contributions of business schools and single authors (see Table 3). Xu, Poon & Chan (2014) analyze previous studies and propose a ranking of scholars and business schools as influential contributors to IB. They found that the most distinguished journal in IB, the Journal of International Business Studies has the highest mean normalized citation among the other seven top-tier IB journals; besides, they found that the quality of papers in these journals varies significantly, to the point that some papers remain uncited. They also present a list of the top 50 universities and professors that contributes IB theory, the top five corresponds to 1. Harvard University, 2. University of South Carolina, 3. University of Pennsylvania, 4. University of Chicago, and 5. Uppsala University.

Table 3. Studies on IB contributions of institutions and authors


Covered Journals

Scope of the Study

Kumar and Kundu (2004)


Ranking schools and authors based on research output

Chan, Fung & Leung (2006, 2009) 


Ranking schools based on research output

Xu, Yalcinkaya & Seggie (2008)


Ranking of authors based on research output; ranking of institutions based on number of prolific authors

Treviño, Mixon, Funk & Inkpen, (2010)


Ranking of schools based on research output

Lahiri, & Kumar (2012)


ranking of schools and authors based on research output

Xu, Poon & Chan (2014)


Ranking schools and authors based on research output

Tuselmann, H. Sinkovics, R. Pishchulov, G. (2016, in press).

JIBS, IBR, MIR, IMR, JIMgt, JIMkt, JWB, and other nine journals.

Ranking schools based on research output

IBR (International Business Review), JIBS (Journal of International Business Studies), JWB (Journal of World Business), MIR (Management International Review), JIMkt (Journal of International Marketing), IMR (International Marketing Review), JIMgt (Journal of International Management).

Taken and adapted from Xu, Poon & Chan (2014)

Xu et al (2014) argue that research quality in IB should not take into account merely the productivity of scholars but also the impact of published articles in terms of citations and empirical implications. Their claim is aligned with Whetten (1989), Sutton & Staw (1995), Bello & Kostova (2012) and Thomas et al (2011) when advocating for a theoretical developments that exhibit the capacity to provide explanations and predictions of IB phenomena.

4. Conclusion

Although the study of IB as a separate discipline is recent and less developed than other business-related areas, the challenges that a scholar pursuing a relevant theoretical contribution must face are both epistemological and disciplinary. During the last few decades, IB scholars have triggered tremendous developments in the research program of this field, together with a challenging research agenda with respect to theory developments, methods, approaches and underlying mechanisms that illuminate future research. Building a relevant contribution to the IB theory should not be oversimplified, neither unnecessarily tangled to make it look more sophisticated or better built.

Scholar should be able to satisfactorily explain two set of questions. The first one regarding research itself and manuscripts (e.g. are constructs clearly defined and international? Is research logically motivated? Are former theoretical developments properly integrated? Are hypothesis or propositions related to former studies but relevant to empirical evidence? Are mediators and moderators clearly defined and explained?  And, are the theories, methods and contributions properly and parsimoniously presented?), the second set of questions are more business grounded (e.g. are the contributions to business specifically stated? Are the findings relevant to business practice, public policy and/or future research? If a theory was propose, does it have the ability to explain and predict phenomena? And, Are contributions not just theoretical and pragmatically useful?). Doing a suitable and influential contribution is not a matter of prescriptions, recipes and checklists, however, changes are high that when scholars positively answer these questions, they might be contributing to develop IB theory and practice.


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1. Juan VELEZ-OCAMPO is an Associate Professor of International Business at Institución Universitaria Salazar y Herrera and a PhD student at Universidad EAFIT in Medellín, Colombia. His research interests include the impact of globalization on emerging economies and the internationalization of developing countries multinationals. He earned a MA in International Business from Universidad EAFIT and a BA in International Business from Institución Universitaria ESUMER. (,  

Revista Espacios. ISSN 0798 1015
Vol. 37 (Nº 18) Año 2016


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