What Constitutes a Theoretical Contribution in Business/Social Sciences Research

Develop a Detailed Understanding of What is Theory and What actually makes up the Theoretical Contribution in a Research Study

Knowledge Discovery and Theoretical Contributions

Understanding Theoretical Contributions

This tutorial will help research scholars develop a detailed understanding of

  • What is a theoretical contribution, and What is not a theoretical contribution and the elements of theoretical contribution,
  • How to search a theory, and learn how to write theoretical contributions with examples.

What Constitutes Theoretical Contribution

Paper Rejected Due to Lack of Theoretical Contributions

  1. One of the greatest weaknesses in academic research, which could be easily improved, is making greater theoretical contributions in empirical studies
  2. This tutorial focuses on improving the quality of empirical studies. The emphasis is on improving the quality of the theoretical contributions of empirical research. Setting up a study in such a way that it makes a theoretical contribution to the extant literature is the cornerstone of empirical research.
  3. This is not to diminish the importance of good procedures, measurement, and analysis. However, if the theoretical contribution of a study has not been well established a priori, then the quality of subsequent steps is irrelevant.

What is a Theory?

  • Theories have the potential to explain a phenomenon. This puts theoretical work squarely ahead of mere descriptive or survey work, which just states phenomena as they are.
  • Theory is necessary and useful in most business and management research. Examiners expect to see propositions and hypotheses supported by theory or theoretical concepts/perspectives, and for empirical findings to be explained by theory or theoretical concepts/perspectives.
  • Most business and management research aims to explain a particular behaviour, such as a choice or an outcome that is associated with individuals (e.g. leaders, employees and consumers), groups (e.g. work teams, companies and countries) or systems (e.g. company practices and government policies). Theories are used to explain such behaviour.
  • For example, theories may be used to explain why some companies are successful while others are not, or why individual a decides to buy product x while individual b decides to buy product y. Theories can be used to provide both predictions and explanations. Theories do this by specifying how different concepts or phenomena relate to one another and why these concepts or phenomena relate to each other in the way that they do.

Elements of a Theory?

Whetten (1989) argues that theory contains four essential elements:

  • What – the factors in the theory, this includes the constructs in the theory.
  • How – how the factors are related; The arrows that connect the boxes. Servant Leadership influencing Job Satisfaction.Why – why the factors are related; and (The Key and Particularly Important in Theoretical Contribution)
  • Who, where, when – which represent the boundary conditions (moderators). Help explain what could possible change the existing prescribed relationships in the model.  Who here refers to the level of Analysis (Individual, Departmental, or Organizational), Where refers to the context or setting, and When refers to the timing.
  • A model is a representation of a theory, which is generally shown in graphical or mathematical form.

Contribution of Your Research

  • The purpose of academic research is to add to our knowledge or understanding of a given topic of interest in the academic community.
  • In a general sense, research is concerned about understanding how the world works. Researchers from different fields and subfields focus on understanding how a small part of the world works.
  • Hence, marketing researchers add to our knowledge on marketing-related phenomena. Nonprofit marketing researchers add to our knowledge on nonprofit marketing-related phenomena.Scholarly research aims to discover new knowledge. By identifying a deficiency or gap in our knowledge (knowledge archived in the scholarly literature), you are emphasizing both the need for knowledge discovery and the contribution you intend to make in your article.
  • If this issue is not addressed effectively, your article will be weak regardless of the methodological quality of the study you are reporting.
  • Researchers often spend too little time developing the theoretical contribution of their studies, while placing strong emphasis on reporting significant findings and model fit indices.

How to Search for a Theory?

Google Scholar can be significantly useful in searching for a theory. A few example search strings that can be utilized are presented here

What Theories have been used with a particular concept

  • intitle:”Servant Leadership” intext:Theory

If Servant Leadership has been using with a particular Theory

  • intitle:”Servant Leadership” intext:”Complexity Theory”
  • intitle:”Servant Leadership” intext:”Path-Goal Theory”
  • intitle:”Innovative Behavior” “Servant Leadership” intext:”Theory”
  • intitle:”Safety Performance” “Leadership” intext:”Theory”
  • intitle:”Knowledge Management” “Leadership” intext:”Theory”

Knowledge Discovery

A new context is not a contribution

  • One error researchers sometimes make is to assume that since a study has not been conducted in a different context, this represents a literature gap. Collecting data from a country in which prior research has not collected data is not a contribution to the literature. It is a replication.
  • Collecting data from an industry or type of organization in which prior research has not collected data is not a contribution to the literature. This common error is the result of the researcher failing to have the perspective of a social scientist.
  • As discussed previously, social scientists think in terms of inter-construct relationships. A gap in our knowledge (or literature gap) is the result of an interconstruct relationship that has not been previously examined. A theoretical contribution is made when we learn about a new inter-construct relationship.

Theoretical Contributions

  • What and How. Although, in principle, it is possible to make an important theoretical contribution by simply adding or subtracting factors (Whats) from an existing model, this process seldom satisfies reviewers.
  • One way to demonstrate the value of a proposed change in a list of factors is to identify how this change affects the accepted relationships between the variables (Hows). Just as a list of variables does not constitute a theory, so the addition of a new variable to an existing list should not be mistaken as a theoretical contribution.
  • Relationships, not lists, are the domain of theory. Therefore, theoretical insights come from demonstrating how the addition of a new variable significantly alters our understanding of the phenomena by reorganizing our causal maps.
  • Why. This is probably the most fruitful, but also the most difficult avenue of theory development. This includes identification of mediators and moderators that could help explain not only the mechanism of impact but also the boundary conditions (moderators). Why explains, provides reasoning.
  • Utilizing a theory to explain the relationships between variables where there has been no empirical research, for instance using Knowledge Based View to explain how Entrepreneurial Leadership affect knowledge management processes.
  • Who, When, Where. Generally, it is insufficient to point out limitations in current conceptions of a theory’s range of application. For instance lack of application of a particular factor in a context/setting is not enough, Theorists need to understand why this anomaly exists, so that they can revise the How and What in the model to accommodate this new information. Servant Leadership and Life Satisfaction example

Examples of Theoretical Contributions

Theory has been used to explain a different situation/context

Whereas Self-Determination Theory traditionally pays attention to the various types and work-related sources of human motivations for displaying particular workplace behaviors (in this article, work/nonwork integration behavior), no attention is paid to the needs and obligations individuals may have outside the work domain

The concepts are related in light of a particular theory

The authors make a theoretical contribution by explaining the process by which ethical leaders influence employees to engage in CCBs, addressing calls to understand how social learning theory can be used to understand how people learn to become socially responsible.

Another example by Incorporating two different theories

This study contributes by exploring the factors that will help explain the mechanism to build a loyal customer based through CSR. Additionally, the present study integrates three theoretical approaches (i.e., social identity, stakeholder, and signaling theories). In doing so, it expands previous studies that have based on the social identity perspective almost exclusively to understand the CSR-loyalty link.

Further, Google Scholar may also be used to search for sample Theoretical Contributions. Here is a sample string that can be utilized
  • intitle:”Leadership” intext:”Theoretical Contribution”


  • Whetten, D. A. (1989). What constitutes a theoretical contribution?. Academy of management review, 14(4), 490-495.
  • Peters, P., & Blomme, R. J. (2019). Forget about ‘the ideal worker’: A theoretical contribution to the debate on flexible workplace designs, work/life conflict, and opportunities for gender equality. Business Horizons, 62(5), 603-613.
  • Wymer, W. (2017). Improving the quality of empirical nonprofit research: the focal constructs and their measures. International Review on Public and Nonprofit Marketing, 14(2), 137-148.
  • Butler, P., & Tregaskis, O. (2018). Distributed leadership and employee cynicism: Trade unions as joint change agents. Human Resource Management Journal, 28(4), 540-554.
  • Sakka, G., & Ahammad, M. F. (2020). Unpacking the relationship between employee brand ambassadorship and employee social media usage through employee wellbeing in workplace: A theoretical contribution. Journal of Business Research.
  • Wilkins, S., Neri, S., & Lean, J. (2019). The role of theory in the business/management PhD: How students may use theory to make an original contribution to knowledge. The International Journal of Management Education, 17(3), 100316.
  • Patiar, A., & Wang, Y. (2016). The effects of transformational leadership and organizational commitment on hotel departmental performance. International Journal of Contemporary Hospitality Management.
  • Cloutier, C., & Langley, A. (2020). What Makes a Process Theoretical Contribution?. Organization Theory.
  • Eva, N., Newman, A., Zhou, A. J., & Zhou, S. S. (2019). The relationship between ethical leadership and employees’ internal and external community citizenship behaviors. Personnel Review.

Writing Theoretical Contributions: A Step by Step Guide

Complementing this post, i have designed a tutorial to guide the research scholars on how to write the research contributions. The tutorial follows a step-by-step approach on how to draft the research contributions. Click Here to view the tutorial

Video Session Explaining What Constitutes the Theoretical Contributions and How to Write the Theoretical Contributions

Video: Theoretical Contribution: Why it is important, Searching a Theory with Examples - Edited Webinar

Video: An Updated Session on Theoretical Contributions