What isTheory? – David Whetten

LOGO FINALQuality IS…a recipe for connecting patterns.

Why seek criteria that will lead to a coherent quality theory with explanatory power?


Probably the most didactic approach on the subject of writing good theory was an article published in 1989 by David A. Whetten; editor of the Academy of Management Review, entitled What Constitutes a Theoretical Contribution.

Per their Website – The Academy of Management Review (AMR) is ranked among the top five most influential and frequently cited management and business journals. AMR is a theory development journal that publishes the highest quality conceptual work being done in the field. Articles challenge conventional wisdom concerning all aspects of organizations and their role in society, and provides new theoretical insights.

Whetten commented “My experience has been that available frameworks are as likely to obfuscate, as they are to clarify, meaning.  Besides exposure to works of Kaplan, Dubin and others varies widely across the academy.” His general approach was concerned with what he referred to as “building blocks of theory.” Specifically, every theory must contain three essential elements: What, How and Why.

What: Which factors (variables, constructs, concepts) logically should be considered as part of the explanation.  The author must consider comprehensiveness and parsimony.

How:  How are the factors (variables, constructs, concepts) related? This step adds conceptualization by explicitly delineating patterns. How is often put in the form of a theoretical statement and is graphically represented. Relationships are the domain of theory.

Why:  Why constitutes the theories assumptions and propositions, the theoretical glue that welds the theory together. The key here is why should the reader give credence to the theory?   Propositions link concepts in ways that result in something testable. However, only hypotheses require measures.

Together these three elements provide the essential ingredients of a simple theory: description and explanation.

 In out last post regarding  – What is Theory?  – we will peruse the thoughts of  Henry Mintzberg.

Dr.  Mintzberg earned his Master’s degree in Management and Ph.D. from the MIT Sloan School of Management in 1965 and 1968 respectively  and has NOT written a book about developing or writing theory.  He is currently the Cleghorn Professor of Management Studies at the Desautels Faculty of Management of McGill University in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, where he has been teaching since 1968.