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.


The Recipe – Preparation – Goals: Step 2

LOGO FINALQuality IS…a recipe for connecting patterns.

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


The goals of a theory involve the characteristic of “How” the theorist is going to convey the knowledge that is the essence of the theory. The editors at AMR provided us with the worthy and, perhaps, lofty goals.

  • Challenge or clarify existing theory.
  •  Identify and delineate a novel theoretical problem.
  • Synthesize recent advances and ideas into a fresh new theory.
  • Reveal significant inconsistencies in a particular theory or theories that have been used to explain a phenomenon.
  • Provide evidence that existing theories are significantly deficient in their ability to explain a particular phenomenon.
  • Provide a theoretical structure that was not there before.
  • Clearly convey significance, shortcomings and challenges.
  • Should be an interesting and important theoretical puzzle that requires a novel theoretical resolution.
  • Help readers develop broader understanding of the concept or process.
  • Create synergies from the integrated research such that insight from the integration comes across as being novel and important even to those who might be quite familiar with the relevant bodies of literature.
  • If integrative, provide insights that each perspective alone cannot provide.
  • Force a more detailed consideration of assumptions.
  • Fill in gaps in understanding through the combination of perspectives.
  • Accommodate far apart areas of research with incompatible underlying assumptions.
  • Theoretical integration should reflect an elaborate system of relationships among specific concepts that is theoretically grounded and internally consistent.

Certainly no theory can accomplish all of the goals outlined above. Accomplishing any of them may be worthy of an acceptable product.  The objective of this book is not necessarily an acceptable product but complete explication. To accomplish that objective, many of the goals above must be achieved.  They will be revisited in the final chapter.

Digiprove sealCopyright secured by Digiprove © 2014 Patrick Kelly