The practice of theory borrowing in organizational studies: Current issues and future directions

David A. Whetten*, Teppo Felin, Brayden G. King

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

259 Scopus citations


The borrowing and application of concepts and theories from underlying disciplines, such as psychology and sociology, is commonplace in organization theory. This article critically reviews this practice in organizational research. It discusses the borrowing of theoretical perspectives across vertical (cross-level) and horizontal (cross-context) boundaries and makes an associated distinction between theories in organizations and theories of organizations. It also explicates several unintended consequences and metatheoretical challenges associated with theory borrowing and highlights the legitimate reasons and ways for borrowing theories. By way of example, this article reviews how theories and concepts have been borrowed and applied in organizational research from two different literatures: individual identity and social movements. Overall, it is argued that treating organizations as social actors is the key to appropriate horizontal and vertical theory borrowing in organizational studies, in that it highlights the distinctive features of the organizational social form and organizational social context.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)537-563
Number of pages27
JournalJournal of Management
Issue number3
StatePublished - Jun 18 2009


  • Concept and theory borrowing
  • Interdisciplinary research
  • Organization theory

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Finance
  • Strategy and Management


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