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Journal of Management OnlineFirst, published on January 23, 2009 as doi:10.


The Practice of Theory Borrowing in

Organizational Studies: Current Issues
and Future Directions
David A. Whetten*
Teppo Felin
Marriott School, Brigham Young University, Provo, UT 84602
Brayden G. King
Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University, 2001 Sheridan Rd, Evanston, IL 60208

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 bor-
rowing 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 hori-
zontal and vertical theory borrowing in organizational studies, in that it highlights the distinc-
tive features of the organizational social form and organizational social context.

Keywords:   organization theory; concept and theory borrowing; interdisciplinary research

Organizational research relies heavily on borrowed concepts and theories from neighboring
disciplines such as psychology and sociology. Indeed, the practice of borrowing theories is

*Corresponding author: Tel.: 801-422-6400; fax: 801-422-0223.

E-mail address:

Journal of Management, Vol. XX No. X, Month XXXX xx-xx
DOI: 10.1177/0149206308330556
© 2009 Southern Management Association. All rights reserved.
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so prevalent in organizational studies that it has lead to what has been characterized as a
balance of trade deficit with the basic disciplines (Ilgen & Klein, 1989). Sometimes this
practice involves “horizontal borrowing,” in the sense that organizational scholars use con-
cepts that were developed for the study of phenomena in other types of social contexts. For
example, insights from the social movement literature in sociology (Davis, McAdam, Scott,
& Zald, 2004), or market-related insights from economics (Zenger & Hesterly, 1997), have
been used extensively in organizational research. In other instances, organizational scholars
engage in “vertical borrowing,” wherein they borrow concepts that were developed at
different levels of analysis. Examples include several contemporary lines of organizational
research that are based on individual-level concepts, including organizational learning
(Argote, 1999), organizational decision making (Cyert & March, 1963), and organizational
identity (Albert & Whetten, 1985).
Both forms of theory borrowing have, of course, been extremely important and fruitful
for organizational studies. The practice of borrowing concepts and theories has helped the
relatively young field of organizational studies develop credibility as a legitimate form of
scholarly inquiry, and it has fostered strong ties between the applied study of organizations
and the core social science disciplines (cf., Agarwal & Hoetker, 2007; Gordon & Howell,
1959). Furthermore, borrowing from neighboring disciplines has clearly enhanced the inter-
disciplinary richness of organizational scholarship.
Despite the prevalence and importance of concept and theory borrowing in organizational
studies, the basic premise of this article is that the manner in which concepts and theories
are typically borrowed is problematic. Our central concern is that, with few exceptions, this
practice ignores differences in organizational social contexts and levels of analysis. As a
consequence, borrowed theories and concepts too often remain largely unmodified when
used to study organizational phenomena, without regard for whether in their native form
these borrowed concepts or theories are suitable as organizational theories. We see this gen-
eral lack of organizational context and level sensitivity as symptomatic of a broader tendency
in organizational studies to generally ignore the distinctive features of organizations as social
actors and the associated distinctive features of the organizational social context (cf., Heath
& Sitkin, 2001; King, Felin, & Whetten, in press b).
Our examination of theory borrowing within the field of organizational scholarship
includes several elements. First, we discuss the general practice—how and why we borrow
and to what effect. In this discussion, we distinguish between borrowing across vertical and
horizontal boundaries and between borrowing that informs research within organizational
social contexts (theories in organizations) and research conducted at the organizational
level of analysis (theories of organizations). Thereafter, we highlight specific problems with
how theory borrowing is commonly practiced, stemming from the general neglect of
organizations as unique social entities and social contexts. We then examine the distin-
guishing attributes of organizational social actors and explore the implications for a more
organizational context- and level-sensitive approach to theory and concept borrowing. To
make our review and critique of theory borrowing less abstract, we examine in detail the
challenges and problems of organizational theory borrowing from two literatures: individ-
ual identity and social movements. Our ultimate goal and contribution is in offering important
theoretical guidance for what it means to do organizational research—research that accounts
Whetten et al. / Theory Borrowing in Organizational Studies    3

for the organization as both a unique level of analysis and a unique social context (cf., Van de
Ven & Poole, 1995).

Theory Borrowing in Organization Studies

Reasons for Theory Borrowing

It is not difficult to explain why theory and concept borrowing is a widespread practice in
organizational studies. First, the study of “things-organizational” lends itself to inter- and
multidisciplinary investigation (e.g., see recent Academy of Management presidential
addresses: Huff, 1999; Mowday, 1997). Organizations, after all, are comprised of individuals
and thus knowledge about individual needs, identity, and personality, as well as judgment
biases and decision-making heuristics clearly is relevant for studying organizational behavior
(e.g., Schneider, 1987). Furthermore, organizations also are embedded in larger environments,
including organizational populations, sociopolitical contexts and cultures, and markets, and
thus the study of organizations is scarcely imaginable without the aid of economic and socio-
logical theory (Scott, 2001). A second reason for borrowing theories from neighboring disci-
plines is that, generally speaking, organizational and management research is often seen as
“an applied discipline” (Zald, 1993: 514; also see Boulding, 1958; Van de Ven, 2007). The
field’s applied focus is evident in the collective effort to demonstrate the utility of concepts
developed in basic disciplines as explanations of organizational practices and as guides for
improving managerial practice. The strong ties between organizational studies and the basic
disciplines can also be seen in the practice among highly ranked business schools of hiring
scholars who are trained in “core” disciplines such as psychology, sociology, and economics
(Agarwal & Hoetker, 2007: 1318). A third reason for theory borrowing is not specific to this
or any other field of study. Ideally speaking, the practice of theory borrowing can improve the
quality of theory-based organizational scholarship (Whetten, in press). The process of system-
atically applying a theory in different settings improves the theory’s explanatory power by
delineating its boundaries, or scope conditions. In addition, the in-depth understanding of
level effects and context effects required to make informed theory borrowing decisions
improves the borrower’s ability to use these context and level effects to explain cross-level or
cross-context differences, such as why different kinds of organizations or the same kinds of
organizations in different contexts perform the same function differently.

An Overview of Theory Borrowing

We begin our examination of theory borrowing in organizational studies by defining

theory and briefly describing two types of theory. Theory can simply be defined as an
explanation—an answer to the question of “why” (Sutton & Staw, 1995; Whetten, 1989).
Theories broadly fall into two categories: (a) Paradigmatic theories are constituted as broad
theoretical perspectives and they are typically used to explain a particular phenomenon, and
(b) propositional theories are constituted as one or more propositional arguments involving
the use of one concept to explain another concept. As an example of paradigmatic theory use,
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agency theory (Eisenhardt, 1989), behavioral theory (Simon & March, 1958), and equity
theory (Mowday, 1991) have all been used to explain differences in employee motivation. As
an example of propositional theory, Lawrence and Lorsch (1967) used the level of environ-
mental uncertainty to explain the levels of integration and differentiation among organiza-
tional units and functions. It is worth noting that authors writing about theory borrowing
often focus on one type of theory or the other (e.g., Morgeson & Hofmann, 1999, versus
Chen, Bliese, & Mathieu, 2005). Our analysis and recommendations apply equally to both
types of theories, to the point that, in some cases, we use theory borrowing and concept
borrowing interchangeably.
There are, broadly speaking, two types or kinds of theory borrowing observed in organiza-
tional studies—what we refer to as vertical and horizontal borrowing. Vertical borrowing uses
concepts that were formulated at a different level of analysis, meaning a different level of
abstraction (Chen et al., 2005; Morgeson & Hofmann, 1999; Rousseau, 1985). Although it is
possible to engage in vertical borrowing from both higher and lower levels of analysis, we will
focus on the most common practice in organizational studies of borrowing: the borrowing of
individual-level concepts and theories. In contrast, horizontal borrowing involves the use of
concepts that were formulated in a different social context. Following Chen et al. (2005), we
assume that horizontal borrowing occurs within the same level of analysis and that vertical
borrowing takes place within a single social context. In our examination of these practices, we
further assume that social contexts and levels of analysis share a common property of internal
homogeneity—that is, there is greater within than between context/level homogeneity (Ragin,
1987). In other words, it is expected that the prototypic properties of one level or context are,
in general, different from those of another level or context. In accordance with this assumption,
the validity threat posed by both vertical and horizontal theory borrowing is that the borrowed
explanation might operate differently within the “new” organizational setting (Campbell &
Stanley, 1966; Cheng, 1994; Cook & Campbell, 1979; Tsang & Kwan, 1999).
The general standard governing “appropriate” theory borrowing is that the way in which
a theory functions should be roughly equivalent in the new and the old setting (Morgeson &
Hofmann, 1999; Rousseau, 1985; Tsui, Nifadkar, & Ou, 2007).1 In the case of paradigmatic
theory, we should expect to “see” similar things across settings, in the sense that the distinc-
tive insights that have characterized a particular theory in its native level or context should
hold true in the new setting. In a similar manner, it is expected that in the case of proposi-
tional theory, the predictive or explanatory utility of a concept, relative to other concepts,
should be consistent across contexts or levels—that is, a concept’s nomological network
should not be significantly altered by a shift in context or level. Later in the article, we
explore some of the practical implications of this general standard for level- or context-ap-
propriate theory borrowing, including ways, when necessary, of modifying borrowed theo-
ries so as to account for the moderating effects of context or level differences.
Borrowed theories can also be classified on the basis of how, or where, they are applied
in organizational studies. Specifically, theories can and have been applied as theories of
organizations (explanations of organizational-level phenomena) or as theories in organiza-
tions (explanations of phenomena observed within organizations). To reduce the complexity
of our analysis, our examination of theory borrowing will be limited to vertical borrowing-as-
theories of organizations and horizontal borrowing-as-theories in organizations. This choice
Whetten et al. / Theory Borrowing in Organizational Studies    5

of focus allows us to highlight the use of “organizational” to signify both a distinctive level
(vertical borrowing-as-theories of organizations) and a distinctive context (horizontal
­borrowing-as-theories in organizations).

Critiquing Current Practice

Our critique of theory borrowing in organizational studies is inspired by related calls for
increased cross-level (Chen et al., 2005; Chen, Mathieu, & Bliese; Klein, Dansereau, & Hall,
1994; Klein, Canella, & Tosi, 1999; Klein & Kozlowski, 2000; Kozlowski & Klein, 2000;
Morgeson & Hofmann, 1999; Rousseau,1958) and cross-context sensitivity (Griffin, 2007;
Heath & Sitkin, 2001; Johns, 2001, 2006; Mowday & Sutton, 1993; Rousseau & Fried,
2001). Indeed, some have argued that cross-level and cross-context effects are so central to
an understanding of organizational phenomena that they should be distinctive features of
organizational scholarship (House, Rousseau, & Thomas-Hunt, 1995; Johns, 2006;
Kozlowski & Klein, 2000; Rousseau, 1985).
However, our critique of theory borrowing extends current efforts to foster greater context
and level sensitivity in two important ways. First, our explicit emphasis is on the importance
of organizational level and context sensitivity. What, from our point of view, is noticeably
absent from current discussion of context sensitivity in the organizational behavior literature,
for example, is the lack of attention to the organization itself as a relevant and unique context
(cf., Johns, 2006). As a consequence, obvious differences between organizations and other
types of social entities, as well as between different kinds of organizations, such as universi-
ties and corporations, or large/old and small/new businesses, tend to be overlooked as poten-
tially relevant contextual conditions for the study of attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors
exhibited by members of organizations. The general lack of organizational level and context
sensitivity in our field is particularly evident in the practice of theory borrowing, where the
modifier organizational is too often added to a borrowed theory as though stamping the
“organizational” brand on something makes it so. In addition, the fact that theory borrowing
tends to be organizational context and level blind suggests that it is possibly motivated by
the mistaken notion that introducing a new concept to the field of organizational studies in
and of itself constitutes a theoretical contribution. In contrast, a hallmark of level- and
­context-sensitive theory borrowing is the presumption that what is being borrowed will
explain something better than it has been heretofore explained (Whetten, in press). A second
distinguishing feature of our call for greater context and level sensitivity is that it is explicitly
theoretical, in contrast to the (often) methods-driven treatment of this subject. At this point
in time, it appears that the current conversation’s strong research-design focus, while cer-
tainly important and legitimate, has tended to downplay the importance of construct validity
(Tsui et al., 2007). Recalling the adage “a way of seeing is a way of not seeing,” it is critical
that prior to designing an organizational research study, including sample and measurement
selection, organizational scholars first scrutinize the history of their theoretical perspectives
and concepts to determine if they will be applied in level- and context-appropriate ways
(e.g., Kozlowski & Klein, 2000; Rousseau, 1985; Tsui et al., 2007).
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Not only does the failure to account for relevant organizational conditions constitute a
potential threat to validity, it also represents a significant opportunity cost, in terms of our
collective ability as organizational scholars to speak authoritatively about the unique proper-
ties of organizations and the organizational context. In the case of horizontal borrowing, a
lack of organizational context sensitivity leads borrowers to overlook organization context-
specific questions, such as “To what extent is our understanding of subject X drawn from
research conducted in organizational settings different from the general understanding of
subject X within the disciplines of psychology, sociology, or economics?” or “To what extent
can the results from this study conducted in a particular type of organization/organizational
setting be generalized?” It seems reasonable to assume that disciplinary and practitioner
readers interested in understanding organizational context effects would expect to find
answers to these kinds of questions in the organizational studies literature.
A similar concern about the opportunity costs associated with organizational-blind
research appears to have inspired Heath and Sitkin’s (2001) call for more “Big O” (Ob)
research. In contrast to the prevailing “Big B” (oB) research, they argue that “Big O” research
explicitly accounts for the uniqueness of organizations and the organizational setting. The
authors propose two standards for assessing the extent to which a particular piece of research
has an organizational (Ob) focus. (a) Core Competence Test: Is this a topic about which
OB researchers have unique insights that are not likely to be shared by researchers in related
social science disciplines like psychology, sociology, political science, or economics?
(b) Organizational Centrality Test: How much would we understand about organizations if
we understood everything there was to know about ____? How easy is it to imagine an organi-
zation where ____ is not a central concern? With regard to the subject of theory borrowing,
the Core Competence Test speaks to the importance of organizational level and context
sensitivity, and the Organizational Centrality Test suggests a strategy for identifying the unique
features of organizations.
We see a parallel, opportunity-costs argument in recent calls in the cross-cultural litera-
ture for more indigenous (context-specific) scholarship. For example, some have expressed
concern about the heavy (nearly exclusive) reliance on Western organizational studies concepts
and theories in organizational scholarship conducted in non-Western contexts (e.g., Meyer,
2006; Tsui, 2006; Tsui, Schoonhoven, Meyer, Lau, & Milkovich, 2004; Von Glinow,
Shapiro, & Brett, 2004; White, 2002). In particular, Tsui (2006; Tsui et al., 2007) warns that
this practice has led Chinese organizational scholars to overlook Chinese context-specific
organizational problems and issues and to neglect the development of Chinese context-
specific organizational theory (see Whetten, in press, for a related discussion).

Infusing Theory Borrowing With Greater “Organizational” Sensitivity

Given our analysis to this point, it seems that efforts to make the practice of concept and
theory borrowing more level and context sensitive must first tackle the more fundamental
and difficult challenge of demonstrating that the label organizational truly signifies a
distinctive level of analysis and social context. One of the obstacles lying in the path of such
Whetten et al. / Theory Borrowing in Organizational Studies    7

Figure 1
The Social Landscape of Organizations



Social Actors

Reproduced from King, Felin and Whetten, 2009, with permission.

an endeavor is a widely shared, legitimate fear among organizational scholars of using

anthropomorphic or reified conceptions of the organization (Simon, 1964). This concern is
reflected in Czarniawska’s (1997) objection to studying organizations as if they are super
individuals. It is, thus, not surprising that the cross-level literature in organizational studies
has heavily focused on methodological (Dansereau, Yammarino, & Kohles, 1999) and theo-
retical (Felin & Foss, 2005) approaches to aggregating individual data and has tended to
characterize the organization as an emergent, shared phenomena (Kozlowski & Klein, 2000).
Our view is that although this is certainly a valid fear, it appears to have distracted organiza-
tional scholars from addressing an equally important challenge. Swanson (1971), a pioneer in
modern organizational sociology, urged those studying organizations to avoid two logical
perils, not one: (a) treating organizations as if they have the same properties as individuals
and (b) treating organizational outcomes as merely the aggregate product of individual
behaviors. It is our argument that a conception of organizations that avoids both pitfalls is
essential for level- and context-appropriate theory borrowing in organizational scholarship.
More specifically, inasmuch as context effects are defined as effects originating at a higher
level of analysis (Griffin, 2007), an understanding of the distinctive features of the organiza-
tional level of analysis (“organizations”) is necessary for both level- and context-appropriate
theory borrowing in organizational scholarship.
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Figure 1 visually depicts the distinctive features of the organizational social form, or level
of analysis, when the organization is viewed as a social actor rather than as a social aggregate.
In this figure, the organization is situated in a landscape of social entities and social actors
with which organizations interact and interface. The figure conveys similarities and differ-
ences both horizontally, between different kinds of social entities, and vertically, between
different kinds of social actors (levels of analysis).
As we have discussed elsewhere (King et al., in press b), organizations are qualitatively
different from other types of social entities because of the fact that in modern society they
are granted the status of social actor. Said differently, as depicted in the vertical dimension
of Figure 1, organizations and individuals are deemed by the state to occupy a comparable
social status—that is, collective actors and individual actors, respectively (Coleman, 1982).
A distinguishing feature of social actors is that society or the state grants them some degree
of sovereignty and, in turn, holds them responsible for their actions. By implication, it is
presumed that organizational actors, like individual actors, possess a subjective, ­self-interested
point of reference and an associated capacity for intentional behavior and that society applies
roughly the same standards of accountability to both collective organizational action and
individual action. As a point of emphasis, the presumption that organizations, like individu-
als, should be held accountable to society requires a corollary presumption that organiza-
tions, like individuals, are capable of intentional, accountable, and self-regulated action.
As illustrated by the horizontal dimension in Figure 1, an important implication of the
social actor status granted to organizations is that, compared with other types of social enti-
ties, they are organized differently and thus influence individuals in a different fashion. For
example, unlike markets and communities, organizations can and must exercise a compara-
tively high degree of control over their members, including who qualifies as a member.
Organizations can exercise internal control because of their grant of limited sovereignty from
the state; organizations must exercise internal control because society holds them account-
able for the actions of their members. This distinctive feature of organizations is captured
nicely in Williamson’s (1975) book Markets and Hierarchies. It is also reflected in various
attempts to delineate the distinctive features of the organizational social form (Bauman,
1990; King et al., in press b; Scott, 2003). Extant definitions of organization broadly capture
this intuition: Organizations are goal-directed, boundary-maintaining activity systems
(Aldrich, 1999: 2-5).
Thus, it is because organizations alone (within the realm of social entities) function as
collective social actors that organizational signifies both a distinctive level of analysis, for
purposes of vertical borrowing, and social context, for purposes of horizontal borrowing. In
other words, it is our contention that treating organizations as social actors is the key to both
context-sensitive and level-sensitive theory and concept borrowing in organizational studies,
because it specifies what is and isn’t considered organizational in terms of a set of vertical
(level) and horizontal (context) boundary conditions. In addition, when one’s focus is on
organizations-as-social actors, then horizontal context borrowing can be modeled after the
standard practices found in cross-context research (treating the organization as a unique
social context) and vertical borrowing can be modeled after the standard practices found in
cross-level research (treating the organization as a unique level of analysis).
Whetten et al. / Theory Borrowing in Organizational Studies    9

Table 1
Theory Borrowing in Organizational Studies
Implications for
Type of Highlighted Standard for Appropriate
Theory “Boundaries” Application of Appropriate Organizational
Borrowing Crossed Borrowed Theories Theory Borrowing Theory Borrowing

Vertical Levels of Theories of Concept theories Organizational

   analysis    organizations    similarly across levels    level-effects sensitivity
Horizontal Types of Theories in Concept functions Organizational
   contexts    organizations    similarly across contexts    context-effects sensitivity

Table 1 summarizes the conceptualization of theory borrowing introduced in this section,

organized as four parallel distinctions. As shown in this table, vertical theory borrowing
involves the application of a borrowed theory at a level other than the one in which it was
developed, and horizontal theory borrowing involves a parallel contextual difference between
where a borrowed theory was developed and where it is applied. The table also highlights
our decision to focus on the use of vertical borrowing in conjunction with theories of organ-
ization and the use of horizontal borrowing in conjunction with theories in organizations. As
shown in the table, the judgment as to whether a borrowed theory can be used in an unmodi-
fied form is based on whether it functions, or performs (i.e., “explains”), the same way in the
old and new context or level. Finally, in line with the social actor view of organizations (King
et al., in press b) one of the key ways to improve the practice of theory borrowing is to make
it more organizational level and context sensitive.

Examples of Vertical and Horizontal Theory Borrowing

As a way of adding texture to our broad overview of theory borrowing, this section exam-
ines more closely two examples of this practice. In line with the immediately previous char-
acterization of the social view of organizations, our in-depth examination of these two cases
is intended to highlight both the challenges and the merits of explicitly accounting for the
distinctive features of the organizational level of analysis and the organizational context.

Vertical Theory Borrowing: The Case of Organizational Identity

As noted earlier, we presume that the purpose of vertical borrowing is to guide research
at the organizational level of analysis, functioning as explanations and theories of organiza-
tions (see Table 1). Thus, in this case, the organizational modifier signifies that the borrowed
concept is considered to be a property of the organization itself as a social actor.2 Using the
language of Kozlowski and Klein (2000), the focus here is on the global properties of
organizations, as compared with the shared, emergent properties of their members. To date,
the literature on cross-level organizational analysis has heavily focused on the emergence of
collective organizational properties via individual aggregation and individual interaction
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(Dansereau et al., 1999; Felin & Hesterly, 2007; Kozlowski & Klein, 2000; Morgeson &
Hofmann, 1999). This important body of work directs attention to how organizational prop-
erties may emerge from activities occurring at lower levels of analysis. Although we
acknowledge the importance of this approach to cross-level theorizing, our focus is on cross-
level theory borrowing. Said differently, rather than examining how to appropriately theorize
the emergence of higher level (in our case, organizational) phenomena, we will examine how
to appropriately borrow theory from a lower level of analysis with the global properties of
the organization in mind.
In their discussion of what they refer to as cross-level theories of homology, Chen et al.
(2005) describe a continuum ranging from metaphorical theories to identical theories.
Metaphorical theories use metaphors and analogies, such as biology and information
processing, to describe the similarities between individuals and organizations. This end of
the continuum is characterized by “low precision and prediction” and “exploratory/theory
building.” In contrast, identical theories “more precisely predict that the phenomena of inter-
est, and thus the magnitude and pattern of relationships manifesting the phenomena, remain
highly consistent or even identical across levels of analysis” (Sutton & Staw, 1995: 381).
This end of the continuum is characterized by “high precision of prediction” and “confirma-
tory/theory testing.”
Coming at this subject from a different angle, Cornelissen and Kafouros (2008) provide
an extensive review of how individual-level concepts are used metaphorically in the study of
organizations, wherein the intent is to focus attention on learning-like, or identity-like, or
memory-like organizational components. In this manner, metaphors are used as linguistic
tools and explanations that help us more clearly visualize a particular feature of organiza-
tions by comparing it with an analogous feature commonly observed in individuals. As noted
earlier, the common justification for using an individual-level concept in only a metaphorical
manner at the organizational level of analysis is that it avoids concerns about anthropomor-
phism and reification (Simon, 1964). Metaphorical borrowing is illustrated by Nelson and
Winter (1982: chap. 4), whose oft-cited concept of an organizational routine was originally
developed via a metaphor to individual skills.
As these treatments of cross-level theory suggest, we can view the typology of cross-level
theories proposed by Chen et al. (2005) in two ways. From one perspective, it describes the
life cycle of borrowed theories, envisioning the possibility of a given theory moving, over
time, from metaphorical to identical. It can also be viewed as a set of categorical distinctions,
linked to related differences in organizational scholars’ beliefs about the appropriateness of
borrowing individual-level theories, especially theories involving specific properties of indi-
viduals, such as identity, personality, or memory.
In the developmental sense of Chen et al.’s (2005) continuum, the concept of organizational
identity is clearly in the metaphorical phase, especially considering that much of the empirical
research on this subject has focused on describing this property of organizations (e.g., how
organizations change their identities), rather than on applying the analogue of individual iden-
tity theory at the organizational level of analysis (i.e., using organizational identity to explain
organizational-level outcomes). In the categorical sense of their continuum, it also appears that
the widespread practice in this literature of scholars using organizational identity as a metaphor
reflects a concern about borrowing individual-level concepts. When differences between levels
Whetten et al. / Theory Borrowing in Organizational Studies    11

are considered to be fundamentally incompatible, then cross-level borrowing is likely to be

limited to metaphorical applications. For example, Cornelissen (2002) and Gioia, Schultz, and
Corley (2000) argue against the practice of modeling organizational identity after individual
identity and in favor of more organizationally appropriate conceptions—in particular, ones that
account for organizations as socially constructed collectives. In this section, we offer a friendly
amendment to this proposal, in the sense of proposing a both/and alternative. Specifically, we
will agree with the need to attune the concept of organizational identity to the distinctive fea-
tures of organizations and propose a way of borrowing individual identity theory that avoids
concerns about building the concept of organizational identity on an anthropomorphic view of
organizations. Said differently, we will explore the possibility of formulating an organization-
appropriate conception of identity and using individual identity as the prototype.
We begin with a brief overview of the identity concept and associated theory. Identity has
been used by generations of psychologists to explain individual behavior (Erikson, 1964;
James, 1890; Leary & Tangney, 2003). Within this intellectual tradition, identity is roughly
equated with a person’s self-view—a reflexive, subjective sense of “who I am” (Leary &
Tangney, 2003). Identity theory has been characterized as an “agentic” alternative to behav-
iorism, because of its focus on motivated action. More specifically, it is posited that identity-
congruent choices contribute to the fulfillment of fundamental, existential human needs,
such as the needs for distinctiveness, self-approval, consistency, and coherence (Baumeister,
1998; Ryan & Deci, 2003). Identity has also been characterized as a person’s “distinctive
behavioral signature” or “identifying commitments” (Leary & Tangney, 2003; Mischel &
Morf, 2003), reflecting and explaining a distinctive pattern of consequential choices over
long periods of time and across a variety of situations. Prospectively, when individuals face
particular fork-in-the-road choices, their identity, or self-view, is said to operate as a set of
boundary markers, signifying the perimeter of personally appropriate behavior (Baumeister
& Vohs, 2003; Brewer, 2003). In brief, identity theory is used to explain motivated choices
(versus reflexive responses) that are personally consequential (versus routine). As a theory
of appropriate, consequential choice, it is also generally more useful in predicting what a
person won’t choose than exactly what a person will choose.
A significant “social turn” is evident in the identity literature during the past three dec-
ades. A hallmark of this period has been the emphasis on socialized identity—the imprint
that the surrounding culture and social structure places of an individual’s self-concept
(Hogg, 2003; Hogg & Terry, 2000, 2001). This point of emphasis was a reaction to the strong
individual-differences treatment of identity in prior identity scholarship. Social identity
theory (SIT) and its derivative, social categorization theory, embeds individual identity in an
encompassing social structure and culture, especially the social expectations associated with
memberships in salient groups and social categories, referred to as social identities (Ashforth
& Mael, 1989; Brewer, 2003; Hogg & Terry, 2000, 2001; Pratt, 2001, 2003). The parallel
sociological form of identity theory has focused on role expectations (Gecas & Burke, 1995;
Stets & Burke, 2000, 2003). It follows that an individual’s identity can be conceptualized as
a type of sociometric diagram, representing the individual’s unique location in n-dimensional
space, constituted as a set of personally salient social groups, social categories, roles, and
relationships (Hogg & Terry, 2001). Within this intellectual tradition, the identity of a group
or social category (a person’s social identities) is characterized as a collective identity,
12    Journal of Management / Month XXXX

operationalized as a group’s prototypical member or group stereotype, or intersubjectively

as a shared sense of “we-ness,” or oneness, among group members (Ashmore, Deaux, &
McLaughlin-Volpe, 2004; Cerulo, 1997; Pratt, 2003).
The net effect of the increased emphasis on social identities within identity theory has
been a more balanced view of individual identity, as encompassing both individuating traits
and shared expectations. Brewer (1991, 2003) refers to this as the “principle of optimal dis-
tinctiveness,” suggesting that a fundamental characteristic of identity is that it straddles the
equally compelling needs for distinctiveness (uniqueness) and assimilation (similarity with
others). It follows that one of the things that distinguishes identity theory from related expla-
nations of consequential choice (e.g., personality theory) is its focus on a person’s internal-
ized understanding of similarities and differences and their implications for appropriate
As suggested by this brief overview, the principle value of an organizational analogue of
individual identity theory is that it offers an alternative to the prevailing explanations of
consequential organizational choice, borrowed from economics and sociology, which gener-
ally have strong overtones with behaviorism. Thus, it weighs in on the agency side of the
agency versus determinism divide within organizational theory (cf., Emirbayer & Mische,
1994). What it adds to current agentic explanations of organizational action is a coherent,
well-developed formulation, grounded in need fulfillment theory. Also, heretofore, agentic
explanations for organizational actions have generally focused on the agency of the indi-
viduals “leading” an organization—interjecting “individual choice” as a mediator between
environmental conditions and organizational actions. In contrast, the concept of organiza-
tional identity can be used as an “organizational” agentic explanation, in which leaders act
on behalf of their organization—in accordance with the organization’s self-interests, or self-
view, as reflected in past fork-in-the-road choices (Whetten, 2006).
In their recent assessment of the state of the organizational identity literature, Corley
et al. (2006) describe two broad perspectives, or approaches, linked to the level of analysis
from which organizational identity is conceptualized. First, numerous scholars have viewed
organizational identity from the perspective of individuals, most notably organizational
members (Dutton, Dukerich, & Harquail, 1994; Haslam & Ellemers, 2005; Hogg & Terry,
2000). This is a straightforward application of SIT to organizational contexts—treating the
identity of an organization as the referent for a member’s individual identity (a type of social
identity). This is generally referred to as perceived or construed organizational identity, or as
the collective identity of an organization’s members. Second, scholars preferring a more
macro-, social structure focus have viewed organizational identity in terms of an actor’s posi-
tion or role within an encompassing set of social categories and social ties—an organiza-
tion’s social identities (Hsu & Hannan, 2005; Polos, Hannan, & Carroll, 2002). For example,
Rao, Davis, and Ward (2000) observe that “organizations acquire a social identity from the
industry to which they belong, the organizational form they use, and through membership in
accrediting bodies” (p. 20). This treatment of organizational identity is typically written from
the perspective of the institutional level, or population level, focusing on what organizations
share in common. At the conclusion of their review, Corley et al. (2006) celebrate the diver-
sity of perspectives. They also emphasize the need for more dialogue and bridge building
between these polar-opposite approaches.
Whetten et al. / Theory Borrowing in Organizational Studies    13

As suggested by Figure 1, the social actor view of organizations can serve as one such cross-
level bridge, in that it spans the individual-level and the institutional-level approaches to the
study of organizational identity. Specifically, although both of these approaches acknowledge
the organizational level of analysis, neither focuses on it. The individual-level (bottom-up)
approach views the organization as a common experience that spawns a shared sense of we-
ness among its members; the institutional-level (outside-in) approach views the organization as
an expression of institutional social, economic, and political forces and forms.
In its bridge-building capacity, the social actor, organizational view adds conceptual
richness to both approaches to organizational identity. Recognition of the agentic aspect of
organizations enriches the institutional approach by encouraging greater attention to the
operational aspects of organizational identity, including how organizations choose and change
their identities (Corley & Gioia, 2004). Similarly, recognition of the interorganizational
dimension of organizational identity expands the reach of the individual approach by focusing
attention on the functions performed by an organization’s identity, including its critical contri-
bution to organizational legitimacy and classifiability (Zuckerman, 1999).
In this manner, a social-actor-focused approach to organizational identity invites exami-
nation of a host of organization-centric subjects, such as how organizations manage to oper-
ate in the face of sharply divided perceived identities; why founders make critical choices
between alternative identifying characteristics (social identities/social categories); the prac-
tice of mature organizations effecting real, substantive identity change (moving from one
social category to another); and the challenges that leaders in hybrid identity organizations
(e.g., family businesses) face under the constant and pressing realization that an operational
problem, sudden change in environmental conditions, or disagreements over alternative
strategic directions could escalate into a “civil war.” There are several examples in the
organizational identity literature that demonstrate the utility of using a social actor view of
organizations to study a variety of subjects, including studies of organizational identity
change following a corporate spinoff (Corley & Gioia, 2004), identity conflict in hybrid
identity organizations (Foreman & Whetten, 2002; Glynn, 2000; Golden-Biddle & Rao,
1997), and the use of an organization’s identity as a decision guide during periods of tumultu-
ous environmental change (Ravasi & Schultz, 2006).
It appears that ontological concerns about positing a subjective organizational actor per-
spective have contributed to the reticence of organizational identity scholars, especially those
within the individual-level approach, to view identity from the organizational actor’s per-
spective (see Gioia et al., 2000). More specifically, if one posits that only individuals are
capable of possessing a self-view, then it is clearly inappropriate to conceptualize organiza-
tional identity as a subjective property of organizations.
In response to this concern, we offer both a tempering observation and a potential worka-
round. First, as noted by Czarniawska (1997) in her treatment of organizational identity, it is
important to recognize that the individual-level subjective perspective is no less unobserva-
ble. Indeed, Baumeister (1998) attributes the strong functional flavor of individual-level
identity theory (i.e., “identity is what identity does”) to the fact that its core explanatory
mechanism—the self-concept—cannot be directly measured. Thus, although it is admittedly
more problematic to postulate an organizational (collective) self-view than an individual
self-view, scholars studying identity at both levels of analysis are faced with essentially the
same “black box” problem.
14    Journal of Management / Month XXXX

As for our proposed workaround, the fact that individual-level identity theory has adopted
a strong functional orientation provides a clue for how organizational-level scholarship
might approach this shared challenge, in line with the approach to cross-level theorizing
proposed by Morgeson and Hofmann (1999). A distinctive feature of their approach is its
systematic use of structural and functional comparisons and its insistence that organizational
constructs borrowed from the individual level of analysis need not exhibit the same structural
properties, only the same functions (i.e., comparable effects or consequences on other con-
cepts or phenomena). For example, although the functions associated with “memory” can be
observed in both individuals and organizations, the form it takes need not be the same (Walsh
& Ungson, 1991). Morgeson and Hofmann propose that once the comparable functions of
an individual-level construct have been identified at the organizational level of analysis, to
gain a fuller understanding of how the function operates in organizations, one needs to identify
the supporting organizational structures or forms. From a structural-functional view of cross-
level theorizing, the principal value of identifying the organizational-level structural compo-
nents of organizational identity is that it avoids the possibility that a level-inappropriate view
of organizational-identity-structure might significantly alter the expected or predicted
organizational-identity-function. At the extreme, this apparent lack of cross-level consist-
ency in identity theory’s function might lead to the mistaken conclusion that this explanation
should be limited to the individual level of analysis.
So what are the structural properties of an organization that can function as identifying
features and serve as the organizational actor’s self-view? According to Albert and Whetten’s
(1985) definition, these are the organizational features that are generally considered to be
central, enduring, and distinctive. This structural treatment of organizational identity has the
overtones of institutional theory, both the old and the new version, in organizational studies.
The “old” school’s emphasis on institutionalization within organizations is reflected in
Whetten’s (2006) argument that an organization’s institutionalized practices, policies, and
procedures—its deep structure—serve as persistent reminders of past fork-in-the-road,
identity-defining organizational choices. The “new” school’s emphasis on exogenous social
institutions is reflected in Hsu and Hannan’s (2005) characterization of organizational identity,
which emphasizes the social obligations associated with the adoption of social forms. What
is common to these characterizations of organizational identity is the notion of “sticky”
organizational features and practices (Aldrich, 1999; Bouchikhi & Kimberly, 2003; see also
Morgeson & Hofmann’s, 1999, use of “persistent structure”). From an identity perspective,
what accounts for the “stickiness” of fork-in-the-road organizational choices is the pressing
realization that “this is who we are.” This doesn’t mean that an organization’s identifying
features can’t or don’t change. It just means that relative to features that are significantly less
central, enduring, and distinctive, they are less likely to change—to think otherwise is to
operate outside of identity theory’s core focus on the need for actors to avoid acting in
uncharacteristic, unrecognizable, inconsistent ways.
Let’s look more closely at how the social actor treatment of organizations and organiza-
tional identity helps avoid concerns about anthropomorphism and reification. First, it posits
that members are capable of distinguishing between their interests and perspective and the
interests and perspective of the organization—that is, they are capable of adopting the role of
“member-agent,” especially when called on to act or speak on the organization’s behalf when
Whetten et al. / Theory Borrowing in Organizational Studies    15

engaging in organizationally consequential activities. Thus, it is members consciously acting

as agents of their organization that constitutes “organizational” action. Second, it is assumed
that member-agents are cognizant of the fact that were they to commit their organization to
an uncharacteristic course of action, they would risk what Czarniawska (1997) refers to as the
potentially fatal flaw of mistaken organizational identity. Third, it is assumed that member-
agents follow the same process for avoiding uncharacteristic organizational decisions that
they use when making consequential individual choices: They reference the actor’s identifying
attributes (i.e., self-view) as guidelines for appropriate behavior (e.g., “We should choose
Option A because Option B is inconsistent with who we are as an organization”).
Returning to Gioia et al.’s (2000) call for “structural” conceptions of organizational iden-
tity that reflect the fact that organizations are socially constructed collectives, it is worth
noting the potential that organization-appropriate conceptions of identity have for informing
current treatments of individual identity. It is noteworthy that the preponderance of research
on individual identity has focused on inherent or physical identities, principally gender,
ethnicity, and social economic status (Ashmore et al., 2004). Hence, research on the acquisi-
tion and change of organizational identities can help broaden the treatment of “choice”
within the individual identity literature. Organizations provide an equally fortuitous oppor-
tunity to examine collective identity from the perspective of a “purposive collective”—one
in which the collective’s identity plays an essential role in self-governance. Thus, for exam-
ple, explorations of how organizations manage their multiple identities (Pratt & Foreman,
2000) can inform the study of multiple identities in individuals.
Thus far, we have largely focused on how the concept of organizational identity illustrates
cross-level borrowing. We will now broaden our focus to include organizational identity
theory—an agentic explanation for consequential organizational choice. Inasmuch as there
are relatively few examples of organizational identity being used in this manner, the distinc-
tion between borrowing a concept and borrowing a theory is both relevant and timely, in that
it suggests new directions for this body of scholarship. In this regard, it is worth noting that
a metaphorical treatment of the individual identity concept is an equally useful device for
describing a set of observations from an organization, community, or market. In contrast,
when one is interested in using identity theory to explain a particular organizational choice
or outcome, a metaphorical view underuses identity theory’s unique capacity to explain
purposive, consequential action.
Our example involves the use of identity theory as a “new” explanation of corporate social
performance. Heretofore, the most common reason offered for why corporations engage in
social practices has been that it is in their financial best interests—it’s a way of contributing to
their bottom line (Margolis & Walsh, 2003). Scholars interested in theoretical explanations for
these practices often turn to “distinctive competencies,” a business strategy theory of competi-
tion. According to this theory, a subset of organizational competencies—those that are valuable,
relatively unique, and difficult to imitate—is a prime source of a firm’s sustainable competitive
advantage (Barney, 1991, 2001; Barney & Stewart, 2000). Within this literature, the conven-
tional view is that organizations acquire distinctive competencies as a consequence of either
managerial prescience or luck, good judgment or good fortune. By definition, this explanation
for the acquisition of persistent organizational features does not account for the adoption of
organizational practices that have no obvious market value, now or later. Hence, in cases where
16    Journal of Management / Month XXXX

persistent corporate social practices aren’t improving a firm’s financial performance, distinctive
competencies theory is not a particularly useful explanation for those practices.
In contrast, an identity theory explanation of persistent virtuous behavior among individuals
would focus on how well these actions conform with, or reflect, a person’s self-view (i.e.,
“Am I a virtuous person?” “Is virtuous behavior typical of me?”). Thus, an organizational-
equivalent identity explanation would direct the search for the motivational roots of ­persistent
corporate social practices to historical accounts of “who we are as an organization.”
A test of these competing explanations of consistently high corporate social performance
ratings among SandP 500 firms, covering 15 years from 1991 to 2005, was recently reported
by Whetten and Mackey (2002). The results of that study show that firms who consistently
received high marks as corporate citizens experienced relatively little financial benefit from
their social practices. Instead, the best predictor in this study was whether a firm’s autobio-
graphical accounts highlighted previous adoptions of practices comparable to those used to
construct the dependent variable and whether the first adoption occurred while the founder was
actively involved in the organization. The most surprising result in the study was that the adop-
tion of social practices following the founder’s era did not predict the dependent variable. It is
also noteworthy that the authors report evidence suggesting both a founder’s effect and a
founding effect. That is, it appears that the firms who adopted social practices during the
founder’s era had founders with strong social values, and the “stickiness” of these practices
appears to stem from the fact that they were initiated soon after the company was formed—
which is particularly significant given that many of these firms are more than 100 years old.
In summary, in this section, we have argued that, in line with Chen et al. (2005), meta-
phorical treatments of individual-level concepts have little explanatory utility at the organi-
zational level. We have also argued that inasmuch as individuals and organizations share a
common status as social actors, it is more appropriate to use individual-level theories when
constructing theories of organizations than when constructing theories of markets or com-
munities. In addition, we made a distinction between borrowing a concept and borrowing a
theory, and we provided examples of both. For organizational scholars engaged in the prac-
tice of borrowing individual-level concepts and theories, we have advocated the use of
Morgeson and Hofmann’s (1999) approach as a way of avoiding the perils of anthropomor-
phism and reification. This approach is particularly relevant for concepts linked to individual
properties, like identity, that can be shown to perform comparable functions in organizations.
As a point of emphasis, this structural-functional approach to cross-level theorizing is a two-
step process: First, the criterion of functional comparability is used to determine whether
cross-level theorizing is appropriate, and second, level-appropriate structural conceptions of
the concept or theory are formulated. Quite obviously, this approach does not mean that all
individual-level concepts can readily be used in a valid manner at the organizational level.
However, it does open the door to the direct application of those concepts and theories that
satisfy the test of “functional comparability.”

Horizontal Theory Borrowing: The Case of Social Movements

Horizontal theory borrowing involves taking a theory about one context and applying it
to another context, while maintaining a consistent level of analysis. Using Figure 1 as our
Whetten et al. / Theory Borrowing in Organizational Studies    17

frame of reference, and as noted earlier, our focus is on borrowed theories and concepts that
are used to explain behavior in communities or markets, for the purpose of explaining related
behaviors in organizations. Although Morgeson and Hofmann (1999) intended their func-
tional/structural duality to aid cross-level theorizing, it might also be used to provide insights
for effective horizontal borrowing. Scholars tend to borrow theories from other contexts
when they see a similar kind of phenomenon in both contexts and when one context already
has a theory that has been shown to explain that phenomenon in some way. Thus, horizontal
borrowing is usually done because a theory or concept is seen as functionally similar across
contexts (i.e., a theory can explain the same phenomenon in two contexts).
In line with the above reasoning, we maintain that effective horizontal borrowing not only
identifies the functional similarities of a theory in both contexts but that it also seeks to
explore how contextual differences may lead to structural dissimilarities in the theory.
Failure to fully derive the structural dissimilarities of a theory may lead to incorrect diag-
noses of the theory’s functional utility. That is, importing theories to a new context without
taking into account the contextual differences may lead to a misapplication of the theory,
hollowing the theory of its original explanatory power. In contrast, effective horizontal
­borrowing includes identifying the theory’s limits to generalizability.
To illustrate conceptual borrowing on the horizontal dimension, we highlight how organ-
izational theorists have borrowed social movement theory. Although we used organizational
identity theory as an example of a theory of organizations, we use social movement theory
as an example of borrowing a theory of phenomena in the organization (see Table 1). Thus,
rather than focus on the global properties of organizations, we specifically emphasize
research that draws on social movement theory to explain emergent, bottom-up processes
that occur within organizations.3
Borrowing concepts from social movement analysis to organizational theory has only
begun relatively recently (see Davis et al., 2004), especially when compared to borrowing in
the organizational identity literature. Because using social movement concepts in organiza-
tional research is still fairly novel, this instance of borrowing can give us perspective on
theory borrowing at an early stage of development. Overall, we argue that organizational
research that has borrowed social movement theory has struggled to move beyond the stage
of metaphorical use primarily because this research has not yet fully theorized how contex-
tual differences (i.e., organizations versus political settings) affect the structure of social
movement theory (i.e., how movements organize and take action).
Organizational scholars drawing on social movement theory have been primarily inter-
ested in processes leading to organizational change (e.g., changes in corporate policies). The
shift reflects, in part, organizational theorists’ need to explain organizational changes that
emerge from bottom-up processes, instigated by actors who do not normally occupy posi-
tions of power or authoritative decision-making capability. Initially developed by political
sociologists, social movement theory analyzes collective action as a force for change in the
political sphere, emphasizing precisely those aspects of change—purposeful action and
bottom-up processes—that seem to be missing from most macrotheories (Davis et al., 2004).
Importing social movement theory has helped organizational theorists fill a functional gap
in their own theories of change.
The synergy of the two theories has indeed proven to be fruitful. One vein of research at
the nexus of organizational and social movement theories looks at the impact of movements
18    Journal of Management / Month XXXX

within organizations (Zald & Berger, 1978), specifically at those organizational agents
attempting social and organizational change efforts, such as shareholders, managers, and
employees (Briscoe & Safford, 2008; Davis & Thompson, 1994; Hoffman, 1999; Lounsbury,
2001; Raeburn, 2004; Scully & Segal, 2002). Another strand of research examines the role
of mass movements and their effect on organizational change, often focusing on the out-
comes of particular movement campaigns or tactics (Bartley, 2007; King, 2008; King &
Soule, 2007; Schurman, 2004).
Like organizational identity research, however, much organizational research drawing on
social movement analysis for inspiration is still in the metaphorical phase. Adopting the
concept metaphorically has caused organizational scholars to assert a much broader defini-
tion of movements than the one political sociologists apply (e.g., Davis & Thompson, 1994).
In fact, some scholars have hesitated to even label the phenomena as social movements,
instead referring to “movement-like” activities or behavior (Carroll, 1997; Fligstein, 1996;
Lounsbury & Carberry, 2005; Lounsbury & Ventresca, 2003). Often when organizational
scholars say that a movement has influenced an organization or field, they mean that actors
have mobilized a direct challenge to established firms or industries and that the challenge is
“populated with individuals and organizations devoted to causes, lifestyles and visions of a
better future for all (rather than profit-maximizing entrepreneurs engaged in competitive
battles based primarily on self-interest)” (Carroll, 1997: 129). Davis and McAdam (2000)
suggest that a social movement framework was applicable to organizational analysis “to the
extent that economic action comes to look like contentious politics” (p. 317).
According to these definitions, movement-like behavior can be observed in any economic
arena where collective action is present, economic interests are subjugated to change-oriented
values, boundaries are impermanent, institutions are contested, and collective action is mobi-
lized. Although this sort of organizational behavior certainly is functionally similar to move-
ment activity in the political realm, in the sense described by Morgeson and Hofmann (1999),
nonetheless, “movement-like” phenomena in organizational contexts are undertheorized at a
structural level. Specifically, the broad definition of social movements applied in organizational
analysis encompasses a wide variety of behavior, which may or may not correspond structur-
ally with the sorts of behavior observed in social movements in the political realm. Behavior
that is called a social movement in organizational analysis might not exactly look like the kinds
of social movements observed or studied by political sociologists in political settings.
One example of poor structural fit is the relationship of social movement actors to their
target of proposed change. Political sociologists usually see social movements as relatively
powerless outsiders, lacking direct access to the institutional resources needed to initiate
change. Movements, almost by definition, are outsiders to the institutions that they target for
change (McAdam & Snow, 1998). Their outsider status is often reflected in the kinds of tactics
that they use to instigate change processes and in their extra-institutional or anti-authoritarian
stance (King & Soule, 2007; Young, 2006). In contrast, a lot of organizational scholarship
portrays relative insiders, such as employees (e.g., Lounsbury, 2001) or shareholders (e.g.,
Davis & Thompson, 1994) as social movement like. Without questioning the usefulness of
social movement theory in explaining employee- or shareholder-led organizational changes,
it is worth noting that neither group could accurately be described as outsiders or even as
Whetten et al. / Theory Borrowing in Organizational Studies    19

This lack of structural congruency may create some translation problems when importing
social movement concepts to organizational analysis. For example, researchers use social
movement as an explanatory concept but often fail to specify or operationalize the causal
mechanisms explicitly (as is true with much of the research in population ecology). As has
been the case with other kinds of borrowing, organizational scholars using social movement
concepts seem to be guilty, at least in part, of importing theory but without making any
genuine contributions to the subfield from which it was borrowed. For example, political
sociologists, although glad to have the extra citations, have not meaningfully engaged with
the new wave of research at the nexus of organizational theory and social movements. One
reason for this may be because the kinds of questions being asked by social movement schol-
ars now (e.g., “What explains the effectiveness of a movement’s tactics or strategies?”) are
of little interest to organizational scholars. In fact, this may be the most noticeable differ-
ence. Although movement scholars have often focused on mobilization processes, determi-
nation of movement tactics, and the creation of new frames and identities, organizational
scholars have either ignored those questions or have considered tactics, frames, and identi-
ties to be endogenous to market conditions. In the latter case, movements are relegated to the
status of epiphenomena in the organizational world. They are a link along the causal chain
but not central to the causal explanation.
The research that draws the most extensively from political sociology examines mass
movements and organizations, and thus, the translation problems tend to be less acute in this
research (Clemens, 1997; King, 2008; King & Soule, 2007; Rojas, 2006; Schneiberg, 1999;
Schneiberg, King, & Smith, 2008; Soule, 1997). Still, there are few studies looking at mass
movements that seek widespread social change but have a variety of targets (Van Dyke,
Soule, & Taylor, 2004).
Understanding the contextual variation of a theory’s concepts seems key to successful
horizontal borrowing. For organizational scholars, this means being able to conceptualize
what is unique about the organizational setting as a context and thinking about how the
distinctiveness of the context will affect a theory’s logical structure. Identifying the context-
specific aspects of organizations seems especially important when importing social move-
ment theory because so much of this theory is based on the premise that political context
shapes the possibilities for collective action and movement success. Contextual differences
may lead to important distinctions in the kinds of behaviors that movement actors may take
in each setting. Although the political sociology literature emphasizes the importance of the
political context (or “political opportunities”) as a determinant of movement effectiveness
and ability to mobilize (Meyer & Minkoff, 2004), the organizational literature has not suf-
ficiently revised the political opportunity concept to organizational settings (although, see
King, 2008; Schurman, 2004).
Another key practice for horizontal borrowing is comparison across contexts. Comparisons
allow the researcher to identify context-specific mechanisms. Returning to social movement
theory, if political opportunities really do matter to the outcome of movement efforts, we
should expect that developing a comparative typology of different organizational environ-
ments would be fundamental for refining the use of social movement concepts in organiza-
tional settings. The tendency has been for organizational scholars to focus on what
movements do to organizations rather than how organizational context affects movements,
20    Journal of Management / Month XXXX

even though there is likely a clear moderating relationship between organizational context
and a movement’s effectiveness in changing that context. The dearth of comparative research
of this kind is somewhat surprising given calls to examine how movements adapt their strat-
egies and resource use to fit the institutional climate of their targeted change (Amenta,
2006). Walker, Martin, and McCarthy’s (2008) comparison of the kinds of tactics used
against corporations, universities, and the government is the exception. Thus, we know very
little about how social movements vary by context.
Failure to consider contextual differences in horizontal borrowing may lead to conceptu-
alizations that mischaracterize or fail to capture the richness of a theory. On the flip side,
theorizing contextual differences helps researchers identify the limits of a theory’s generaliz-
ability. Both tendencies may plague current efforts at borrowing. Insensitivity to context
when borrowing social movement theory could lead to the perhaps mistaken notion that
politics and power operate similarly in very different sorts of institutions. The corporation,
in a sense, becomes reduced to a generic social organization in which interests are played
out in a political fashion. Although stylistically this may be a useful way to conceptualize
some problems (e.g., Davis & McAdam, 2000), the effect on organizational scholarship may
be to make important institutional distinctions more ambiguous and less analytically tracta-
ble. At the same time, it is possible that certain theoretical propositions developed in political
sociology about movements simply do not apply in an organizational setting. More attention
to context would reign in efforts to generalize too broadly.
In particular, when considering movements in organizations, we should address how the
uniqueness of the organizational context affects the ability of movement actors to initiate
change (see, for a positive example, Weber, Thomas, & Rao, in press). Consider how the
organization as an employment setting might affect a movement. Social movements seeking
to create legislative change adapt to specific institutional rules that outline how laws are
made and passed. Movements that want to take part in the policymaking process develop
lobbying arms or may try to use more open democratic means to shape public opinion and
put direct pressure on lawmakers to change policies. In contrast, movements in organizations
are often spearheaded by employees of the very organizations they seek to transform. As a
result, movements must adapt to the conditions of employment. Because of their position as
committed members of the organization and their commitment to the ideals of social change,
Meyerson and Scully (1995) refer to employee-led movements as “tempered radicals.”
Compared to mass movements, insider-led movements struggle to meet the twin commit-
ments to ideals and employer, using their political and social savvy to initiate lines of com-
munication and win favor with top management. Rather than develop lobbies or using
disruptive tactics, employee-led movements may seek allies within the corporate structure
and develop rationales for supporting a particular social change that focuses on its financial
benefits (Lounsbury, 2001).
Although organizational researchers have often borrowed social movement theory meta-
phorically, future refinement of our theories should involve conceptualizing the structural
differences between organizational and political movements and theorizing how contextual
variation translates into different forms or mechanisms of influence. This effort would align with
recent calls from social movement theorists to consider movements in their multi-institutional
contexts (Armstrong & Bernstein, 2008). Sensitizing social movement research to the uniqueness
Whetten et al. / Theory Borrowing in Organizational Studies    21

of the organizational setting would not only create a more nuanced depiction of social move-
ments, but the research would also be better positioned to make a meaningful contribution to
both fields, social movement studies and organization theory.
Keeping in mind our focus on using cross-context concept borrowing as theories in organ-
izations, to enhance the context/organizational sensitivity of this practice, organizational
scholars would do well to emulate the growing practice within cross-cultural studies of
organizational behavior of explicitly accounting for theory-relevant, context-distinguishing
effects. In his examination of cross-context theory borrowing, Whetten (in press) highlights
two key ways in which contextual differences play a role, related to his distinction between
making a contribution of theory (theory application) and a contribution to theory (theory
improvement). When the intent is to borrow a theory from Context A as a “new” explanation
of phenomena in Context B, then relevant contextual differences should be controlled for in
studies using the borrowed theory. Alternatively, when a theory from Context A is borrowed
for purposes of testing its contextual reach, by observing how it performs in Context B, then
explanation-altering contextual differences are added to the theory as moderators.
An obvious prerequisite for context-sensitive theory borrowing is a conceptualization of
contextual differences. Within the cross-cultural research domain, several context-effects
typologies have been developed for this purpose (Hofstede, 1980; House et al., 2004; Lytle
et al., 1995; Trompenaars & Hampden-Turner, 1998). By implication, and in line with Heath
and Sitkin (2001), a prerequisite for context-sensitive theory borrowing in organizational
studies is a parallel means of identifying the context effects that distinguishes organizational
from nonorganizational contexts (King, Felin, & Whetten, in press a). Key differences that
would be useful for understanding how social movements operate in the organizational
setting versus the political setting include the structural variations that shape how the two
types of actors (state or corporation) make decisions, allocate rights, and regulate their mem-
bers. For example, the state may be open to input from social movements but may have more
formalized, less flexible means for processing input, whereas corporations may be less open
to outsider input but more flexible in their ability to process that input and make changes
(King & Soule, 2007).


Our review and examination of theory borrowing in organizational studies has focused on
the reasons for this widespread practice, various types of theory borrowing, different ways
in which borrowed theories are used, and the general standard for appropriate cross-level and
cross-context borrowing. Our examination draws heavily on, and attempts to extend, recent
calls for greater context and level sensitivity in organizational scholarship. In line with our
treatment of the subject, we hope that the focus of this conversation will become more
explicitly organizational and theoretical.
Our examination of the practice of theory-borrowing reflects our broader interest in
exploring the implications of adopting a social actor view of organizations as a guide for
organizational scholarship. In this case, we see merit in the fact that this conception of
organizations provides a coherent, parsimonious understanding of the distinctive features of the
22    Journal of Management / Month XXXX

organizational level of analysis and context. Said differently, the social actor view of organi-
zations helps specify both the vertical (cross-level) and horizontal (cross-context) boundaries
of what might be considered the “organizational effect” (compared with nonorganization
level or context effects). In turn, this conception of organizational boundaries can inform
judgments regarding level- and context-appropriate theory borrowing in organizational stud-
ies. It is worth noting that although we have, on one hand, argued for a distinctive view of
the organizational level and context, we have not, on the other hand, called for the develop-
ment of organization-specific, “indigenous” theory. Instead of suggesting that every context
and level requires its own theory, our focus has been on improving the practice of cross-level
and cross-context theory borrowing.
Over the course of our examination of this topic, we have become more cognizant of the
similarities between vertical and horizontal theory borrowing. What is common to the effec-
tive practice of both forms of theory borrowing is an understanding of the context and level
limitations of each and every theory used in organizational scholarship. By implication, it
would be helpful for the developers of new theory to delineate the conditions under which
they expect their explanation to hold. More pertinent to the subject at hand, it would be
equally helpful if every application of an existing theory, regardless of its origins, was
informed by an historical analysis of past applications and was committed to documenting
whether (and if so, how) any differences between new and old context or level conditions
affected the theory’s performance. By extension, an important implication of our examina-
tion of theory borrowing is the use of Morgeson and Hofmann’s (1999) criteria of functional
equivalence as a standard for appropriate borrowing across levels and contexts. What we
would add, in conclusion, as a point of emphasis to this general call for greater context and
level sensitivity in our development and application of theory in organizational studies is an
urging to make organizational-level and organizational-context sensitivity a hallmark of
organizational scholarship.

1. Tsui et al. (2007) also describe a second standard for cross-context borrowing: equivalent meaning. This is
particularly relevant for theory borrowing involving significantly different cultural or linguistic contexts.
2. For a related discussion of how individual identity theory has been applied as theories in organizations, see
Whetten (2007).
3. Organizational scholars have sometimes used social movement concepts to describe differences between
incumbent and entrepreneurial organizations and to explain processes of form legitimation (Carroll & Swaminathan,
2000; Ruef, 2000; Swaminathan, 2001). When used in this fashion, social movement theory becomes a theory of
organizations. We do not assess this use of social movement theory so as to make a clean distinction between theory
borrowing that explains similar sorts of phenomena in different contexts.


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