BUILDING THEORY ABOUT THEORY BUILDING: WHAT

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  • BUILDING THEORY ABOUT THEORYBUILDING: WHAT CONSTITUTES A

    THEORETICAL CONTRIBUTION?

    KEVIN G. CORLEYArizona State University

    DENNIS A. GIOIAThe Pennsylvania State University

    We distill existing literature on theoretical contribution into two dimensions, origi-nality (incremental or revelatory) and utility (scientific or practical). We argue for arevision in the way scholars approach the utility dimension by calling for a view oftheorizing that would enable theories with more scope (both scientific and practicalutility). We also argue for an orientation toward prescience as a way of achievingscope and fulfilling our scholarly role of facilitating organizational and societaladaptiveness.

    Theory is the currency of our scholarlyrealm, even if there are some misgivingsabout a possible overemphasis on theorybuilding in organization and managementstudies (Hambrick, 2007). Every top-tier man-agement journal requires a theoretical contri-bution before a manuscript will be consid-ered for publication. This tenet is perhapsmost strongly felt in this journal, the Academyof Managements premier conceptual journal(and also, not inconsequentially, the mostcited journal in organization studies [based onWeb of Science Journal Citation Reportsdata for 2009]). Consistent with this concern,the Academy of Management Review (AMR)has published two special issues dedicated totheory building (1989, issue 4, and 1999, issue4) and numerous Editors Comments dedi-cated to trying to articulate what constituteseither theory (e.g., Brief, 2003; Conlon, 2002) ora theoretical contribution (e.g., Kilduff, 2006;Whetten, 1990). These writings, however, de-spite their thoughtfulness, do not representcomprehensive treatments, especially of thelatter issue, and do not seem to have hit themark in a way that provides a satisfactory

    resolution to the crucial question of whatmakes for a theoretical contribution. Thus,scholars are still trying to articulate what itmeans to make a theoretical contribution (Bar-tunek, Rynes, & Ireland, 2006; Kilduff, 2006;Rindova, 2008; Smith & Hitt, 2005).

    A question that typically arises at this point isWhat is theory? Although there are many an-swers to this question, there is little agreementon a universal definitionto wit, Lack of con-sensus on exactly what theory is may explainwhy it is so difficult to develop strong theory inthe behavioral sciences (Sutton & Staw, 1995:372). For our purposes we use a simple, generaldefinition: theory is a statement of concepts andtheir interrelationships that shows how and/orwhy a phenomenon occurs (cf. Gioia & Pitre,1990). We believe, however, that a more pro-ductive question to ask, and for us to address,is What is a theoretical contribution? That is,what signifies a significant theoretical (as op-posed to an empirical or a methodological)advancement in our understanding of aphenomenon?

    Part of the difficulty in delineating the elusiveconcept of theoretical contribution is that orga-nization and management studies is an eclecticfieldand one with multiple stakeholders aswell. Not only do we self-identify as borrowersfrom many other scientific disciplines (e.g., psy-chology, sociology, economics, etc.) but we alsoclaim to speak to both academics and practition-ers. This medley of foundations, voices, and au-

    We offer a heartfelt thanks to Blake Ashforth, Don Ham-brick, Trevis Certo, Don Lange, Glen Kreiner, and our anon-ymous reviewers for their helpful comments and critiques onearlier versions of this paper. We especially acknowledgeAmy Hillman for her encouragement, commentary, and ex-cellent guidance throughout the revision process.

    Academy of Management Review2011, Vol. 36, No. 1, 1232.

    12Copyright of the Academy of Management, all rights reserved. Contents may not be copied, emailed, posted to a listserv, or otherwise transmitted without the copyrightholders express written permission. Users may print, download, or email articles for individual use only.

  • diences often creates confusion when discuss-ing contributions. What exactly is theconsensual basis for claiming and assessingtheoretical contribution? More pointedly, isthere a consensual basis for declaring whethera theoretical contribution exists? One basis forarguing that our field has vague or inadequatestandards for assessing theoretical contributionarises from comparing the list of AMRs BestArticles (awarded one year after publication)with the list of each years most cited AMR paperover the same years (based on Web of ScienceSocial Sciences Citation Index and/or GoogleScholar counts). In only four of the last eighteenyears does the paper currently most cited alsoturn out to be the one chosen as the AMR BestArticle for its year of publication (see Table 1),despite the competitive advantage in citationssuch articles have from their publicity for win-ning the award in the first place. This somewhatdisconcerting statistic seems to imply some dis-crepancy in assessing a papers value right af-ter publication and its value in the future.

    As scholars familiar with the practice of de-veloping theoretical contributions, we believethe time is right for our field to turn a reflectivelens on itself and try to establish more clearlynot only what currently constitutes a theoreticalcontribution but also, and perhaps more impor-tant, what should constitute a theoretical contri-bution in the future. To help accomplish the firstand set the stage for the second, we establishedtwo goals for this paper. First, we hope to con-tribute to the practice of making a contributionto theory as it currently stands. Toward this end,we provide a synthesis of the dimensions cur-rently used to justify the existence of a theoret-ical contribution and provide some perspectiveon the usefulness of these dimensions. Our syn-thesis reveals two dimensionsoriginality andutilitythat currently dominate considerationsof theoretical contribution. We also note twosubcategories underlying each of these maindimensions, which provide a more nuanced de-scription of the current craft of contributing totheory.

    Second, we hope to contribute to what wemight call the theory of theoretical contribu-tionto build theory about theory building, ifyou will. Thus, we use our synthesis of the liter-ature, as well as our reading of AMRs Best Ar-ticles and most cited papers listed in Table 1, as

    a point of departure for outlining the need for arenewed and reframed emphasis on practice-oriented utility as a focus for future theorizing.In addition, we call for and encourage organiza-tion scholars to adopt an orientation toward pre-science in their theorizing. We define prescienceas the process of discerning or anticipatingwhat we need to know and, equally important,of influencing the intellectual framing and dia-logue about what we need to know. An orienta-tion toward prescience holds some promise foradvancing our craft of theory development, aswell as enhancing the receptivity of the audi-ences for our developing theories beyond theacademy and, therefore, conferring a greater po-tential for influencing the organizations and so-cieties we study.

    We structure the rest of the article aroundthese two issues. We begin with a synthesis ofthe theoretical contribution literature as it per-tains to the field of management and organiza-tion studies, highlighting the current state of theart for making a contribution to theory in ourtop-tier management journals. Building on thissynthesis, we then argue that a practice per-spective on theory building would lead to ourtheories having greater scope and, furthermore,that an orientation toward prescience would en-hance the value and impact of our theoreticalcontributions. Finally, we discuss implicationsof our proposals for the field.

    SYNTHESIZING CURRENT VIEWSON WHAT CONSTITUTES A

    THEORETICAL CONTRIBUTION

    Despite the relatively short time that organi-zation and management studies has existed asa field, there is actually quite a collection ofwritings on the notion of theoretical contribu-tion. We use the term writings because much ofthis literature is found in editorial statementspublished in AMR and AMJ. Although there are anumber of other sources outside AMR that pro-vide opinion and insight, because AMR is ourfields premier theory journal, much of what fol-lows stems from these writings about making acontribution to theory. In its inaugural (1976) is-sue, for instance, AMRs Suggestions for Con-tributors provided a vision for the types of pa-pers the Academy of Managements leadershipsaw as most appealing for the new journal:

    2011 13Corley and Gioia

  • The Review publishes distinguished originalmanuscripts which (a) move theoretical concep-tualization forward in the field of management,and/or (b) indicate new theoretical linkages that

    have rich potential for theory and research inmanagement, and (c) provide clear implicationsof theory for problem-solving in administrativeand organizational situations.

    TABLE 1AMR Best Articles and Most Cited Papers: 19902008 (Citation Counts As of April 2010)

    Year PropsVolume(Issue) Author(s) Google SSCI Rank

    1990 Best Article 15(2) Dollinger 79 16 23rdMost cited 15(1) Reed & DeFillippi 1424 455

    1991 Best Article 16(1) Oliver 2213 650 1stMost cited Same

    1992 Best Article 17(4) Trevino 113 70 19thMost cited 17(2) Gist & Mitchell 1030 255

    1993 Best Article 18(4) Pfeffer 604 305 4thMost cited (Google) 18(2) Woodman, Sawyer, & Griffin 920 311Most cited (Social Sciences

    Citation Index)18(4) Cordes & Dougherty 866 343

    1994 Best Article 19(1) Kahn & Kram 49 20 23rdMost cited 19(1) Ring & Van de Ven 2247 636

    1995 Best Article 20(3) Van de Ven & Poole 1132 308 4thMost cited 20(3) Mayer, Davis, & Schoorman 4014 1234

    1996 Best Article 21(1) Chen 468 161 10thMost cited 21(1