Purpose – The purpose of this paper is to examine the nature of context and its implications for theory and research in service. Design/methodology/approach – This is a conceptual paper based on exploring existing research and theory related to context in service research. Findings – The characteristics of service make context both important and challenging, there is great contextual diversity in service research as reflected, for example in ecosystems made up of multiple contextual variables. There is a need to identify the context-specific nature of middle range theory and the contextual logic of general theory. The authors explore the challenges of context for service theory and how we might learn from theory in a particular context and test or adapt it in other contexts. Originality/value – The findings of this paper are of value to researchers seeking to develop and justify theory in service research (general, middle range or theory in use).