This paper offers a meta-theory concerning the relation between the general and the specific in science. This issue was recently called back to attention by Hodgson (2001). A heuristic of discovery, developed in earlier work (Nooteboom 1992, 1996, 1999b, 2000a), is used in an attempt to contribute to an understanding and a resolution of the tension between generality and specificity. That tension can be resolved if we look at general theory and specific conditions (or data, experience) not as separate entities or approaches that one has to choose from, in a static perspective, thus choosing to be a generalist or an empiricist, but as complementary, in a dynamic, dialectical process of theory development, in the process of discovery. The paper argues that there is an alternation of the general and the specific, in an ongoing cycle of formation and application of theory. Generalisation and abstraction are necessary to lift experience from specific contexts and carry it into new contexts with their own specificity. That, in turn, is needed for the theory to face failure and collect the experience that will lead to new generalisation. In the face of failure, adaptations are made to the specific context, in differentiation, and hints are found for novel specific elements to be absorbed, which yields hybridisation. This exerts pressure, and provides the material and the directions, to develop a new unity out of novel combinations, and we are back at the beginning of the cycle.

, , ,
, ,
ERIM Report Series Research in Management
Erasmus Research Institute of Management

Nooteboom, B. (2003). Generality, Specificity And Discovery (No. ERS-2003-030-ORG). ERIM Report Series Research in Management. Retrieved from