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Chitu Okoli

Posted on May 2, 2011 in Research summaries

Whetten 1989: What constitutes a theoretical contribution?

Whetten, D.A., 1989. What constitutes a theoretical contribution? Academy of Management Review, 14(4), p.490–495.

I read this to learn what is considered a “theoretical contribution.” This article has 1381 hits on Google Scholar (as of September 24, 2013), so it seems that a lot of people think he’s right on. I created a simple diagram that illustrates his perspective.

Model of a theoretical contribution: There are four concepts each labeled "what", connected with relationships each labeled "how? why?". The concepts and relationships are bounded in a box representing the bounds of the theory labeled "who? where? why?". Outside the box are labels "Outside the bounds of the theory"

What is a theoretical contribution? (Based on Whetten 1989)

  • Rationale: There’s no clear description of what constitutes a theoretical contribution, So David Whetten, editor of AMR, decided to write about this.
  • Objectives: This article is a personal reflection on what constitutes a theoretical contribution.
  • Key questions:
    • “What are the building blocks of theory development?” A theory has four basic components: “what,” referring to what concepts are identified and specified; “how,” referring to the relationships between the concepts; “why,” referring to the logically-argued theorized explanations for the relationships; and “who, where, when,” referring to the bounding contextual conditions within which the theory operates, outside of which no claim is made for the theory to hold.
    • “What is a legitimate, value-added contribution to theory development?” A theoretical contribution derives primarily from developing new and compelling “whys,” that is, new understandings and explanations relative to what has been understood before. This rarely comes from merely identifying and specifying new concepts, adding new relationships, or empirically testing bounding conditions. A theoretical contribution requires extensions of existing theory that fundamentally change the prior understanding of the mechanisms by which relationships operate. This might involve developing new concepts or redefining old ones, but the contribution lies in developing logically compelling arguments for the new relationships that are being theorized. This can also include identifying new bounding conditions, but the value of such contributions lie in new understandings of why prior theory is limited or insufficient to explain these bounding conditions. Nor is it sufficient to merely reveal limitations of extant theory; a theoretical contribution, at least in the organization sciences of which Whetten wrote, must propose new explanations and resolutions to the revealed problems.
    • “What factors are considered in judging conceptual papers?” As for the art of writing a publishable theoretical paper, there are seven required elements that reviewers look for (in order of importance): the paper must 1) clearly demonstrate the newness of its contribution; 2) argue the impact that its contributions would have on research practice; 3) provide compelling logical or empirical evidence for the new explanations provided; 4) be scholarly rigorous in its execution; 5) be well written; 6) argue for the timeliness of its contribution; and 7) explicitly indicate the audience (hopefully a broad one) that would be impacted by the contribution.
  • Key contribution to knowledge: This is a valuable checklist for any paper that hopes to be considered a “theoretical contribution.”

In my paper on using systematic literature reviews to build theory, I depend heavily on Whetten in the aspect of formulating and arguing for a theoretical contribution.

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