The Use of Anthropomorphizing as a Tool for Generating Organizational Theories

Dean A. Shepherd, Kathleen M. Sutcliffe

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleScientificpeer-review

20 Citations (Scopus)


Despite admonishments that anthropomorphizing represents a serious error in scientific thinking, this review shows that anthropomorphizing has been a critically important tool for developing influential theories in organization studies. Analyzing the literatures related to organizational identity and organizational knowledge reveals how organization theorists build on their rich and highly accessible understanding of humans (i.e. the self and others) to (1) make guesses and sense of organizational anomalies, (2) articulate theoretical mechanisms to build stronger theories, and (3) create plausible stories that facilitate sensegiving. Our review shows how some theorists by using particular approaches were able to use anthropomorphizing to generate new organizational theories, yet anthropomorphizing does not always lead to such salutary outcomes. Anthropomorphizing is less likely to enhance theorizing in organization studies when the theorist does not sufficiently doubt their guesses about organizational phenomena, fails to develop stronger explanations of the “how” and “why” of the theory thereby only partially exploring the social mechanisms underlying the proposed relationships, and fails in their attempts to tell the theory's “story”. We conclude with a discussion of the conditions under which anthropomorphizing is more or less effective.
Original languageEnglish
Peer-reviewed scientific journalAcademy of Management Annals
Issue number1
Pages (from-to)97-142
Number of pages46
Publication statusPublished - 2015
MoE publication typeA1 Journal article - refereed


  • 512 Business and Management


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