where do great theories come from?

If you are interested in this question, consider reading Great Minds in Management: The Process of Theory Development (Oxford University Press).  In this edited book volume, a set of top minds were asked to talk about the origins of the theories that are attributed to them.  So there is a chapter by Albert Bandura on Social Cognitive Theory, a chapter by Barry Staw on the escalation of commitment, a chapter by Jay Barney on the origins of the resource-based view, Karl Weick talks about sensemaking, Ed Freeman on stakeholder theory, Dick Scott on institutional theory, Oliver Williamson on transaction cost economics, Sid Winter talks about evolutionary economics, Jeff Pfeffer about resource-dependence, etc, etc.

Good stuff.

No matter what your theoretical cookie is – the chapters are interesting (though I haven’t carefully read all of them).  Some of the chapters are biographical, others talk about their own (often interdisciplinary) influences, some talk about the struggles of getting their work published (Barney’s RBV paper was rejected by top journals, he eventually accepted his own paper in a “lesser” journal — the article is now cited nearly 20,000 times), others offer “lessons” (Williamson: be disciplined, be interdisciplinary, have an active mind), etc.

Definitely worthwhile.

In the epilogue the volume editors Ken Smith and Mike Hitt offer their thoughts on the process of theory development (summarized in the figure below).


Written by teppo

September 20, 2011 at 9:27 pm

Posted in just theory

13 Responses

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  1. Very interesting. I’ve always thought that the trick to great theory development was simple interdisciplinary arbitrage.



    September 20, 2011 at 9:43 pm

  2. In a somewhat similar vein, Passion, craft, and method in comparative politics has Munck and Snyder interview sociologists and political scientists including Almond, Bates, Collier, Huntington, Moore, Scott, Skocpol, about how they work, how they generate ideas, what drives them, etc. It’s an uncommon kind of book.



    September 20, 2011 at 9:49 pm

  3. I’ve always thought that the trick to great theory development was simple interdisciplinary arbitrage

    This is a certainly a powerful trick, but it can’t be the only one.

    As for that diagram … words fail me.



    September 20, 2011 at 11:55 pm

  4. For my money – some of the most interesting discussion focuses on the history of the Carnegie School (discussed by both Williamson and Winter). The 50s/60s at Carnegie laid quite a foundation for many of our key theories. Pfeffer’s discussion of 70s org theory is also interesting (lots was then happening at the U of Illinois, Barry Staw, Salancik, Pfeffer and many others were there then).



    September 21, 2011 at 12:09 am

  5. Oh, I don’t know Kieran. If we’re talking “Great Minds In Management,” I’d say the diagram sums things up perfectly!



    September 21, 2011 at 12:16 am

  6. For what its worth – some great, additional discussion on the Carnegie School can be found in this piece by Williamson:

    Williamson, O. 1996. “Transaction Cost Economics and the Carnegie Connection,” Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization 31: 145-56.



    September 21, 2011 at 12:35 am

  7. Don’t want to hijack the thread, but could someone explain what is happening to Orgtheory? My great theory is that there Is there a group “back office” scribes tucked away in some dark alley in Bangalore writing under the names of Fabio and Teppo. Posts written in Kannada, translated into English using Babblefish? Give those boys a 5 Rs./line raise, they are doing great work.



    September 21, 2011 at 12:46 am

  8. […] tip to Freek Vermeulen's twitter feed.]  Ken: are you looking for more posts like […]


  9. […] blog […]


  10. That diagram is equally effective at describing the process of a successful sexual encounter.



    September 21, 2011 at 11:01 am

  11. I think one might add an interesting institutional angle to the diagram with “contribution inhibition” box. It could include some psychological characteristics of reviewers (narcissism, ignorance, dysfunctional respect for authority) that negatively moderate the efforts of researchers on likelihood and size of contribution.

    During my previous conference trip, I asked a peer whether I was too negative. He was very reassuring: “it’s ok, you’re an academic”.



    September 22, 2011 at 5:30 pm

  12. Just ordered the book on Amazon (only $15 for the Kindle version, vs $50 for the paperback). Looking forward to reading it. I’m currently reading “A Very Short, Fairly Interesting and Reasonably Cheap Book About Studying Strategy” – – and it sounds like this will be an awesome addition. I’m an aspiring academic, currently working for a big corporation, but in the process of applying to PhD programs, and I’m loving this blog. Thanks!


    Andrew Boysen (@boysenandrew)

    September 23, 2011 at 2:24 pm

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    October 28, 2011 at 3:51 pm

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