Sub-theme 31: Theorizing the Network Organization

Josh Whitford
Columbia University, New York, USA
Francesco Zirpoli
Ca' Foscari University Venice, Italy

Call for Papers

Debates in organization studies have developed considerably since the 1980s in the wake of the broadly shared sense that the vertically integrated behemoths that had dominated so much of the post-war period were gone, if not for good, at least for now. Those debates have been fundamentally marked by Walter Powell's (1990) seminal call for a "new conceptual toolkit" to describe "networks that are neither markets nor hierarchies," but that are somehow more social –that is, more dependent on relationships, mutual interests, and reputation – as well as less guided by a formal structure of authority" (Powell 1990: 300), than either markets or hierarchies. Developments have included some rethinking of Williamson's Transactions Cost framework (1985) by scholars who have recognized that it could not, as it was, explain changing patterns of vertical integration. Those scholars have focused on technological changes in the artifacts being exchanged and arguing that the vertical disintegration of production reflects the diffusion of "modular" product architectures that reduce uncertainty in contracting and that thus shape patterns of relation (e.g. Sanchez & Mahoney, 2006; Langlois, 2002): Others have given primacy to the mode of firms "embedding" in communities by arguing that the characteristics of the artifacts exchanged are a consequence rather than a cause of the social relations across which they are exchanged (e.g. Granovetter, 1985; Dyer, 2000; Gulati 2007): Still others hold instead that the characteristics of artifacts and the qualities of the relationships across which they are exchanged are both function of organizational techniques used to govern the exchange (Sabel, 2006).

A more recent wave of literature focusing on the relationships dynamics within and across networks, highlighted the potential interest of a convergence between organization studies and social movements research in explaining both the internal forces and the external social pressures coming from different groups of interests that can drive network evolution (Kaplan, 2008): Scholars in this field underscore how organizations are "both constituted by and embedded in networks of relationships that are not ordered hierarchically", therefore reintroducing the political and cognitive dimensions as important elements for the network governance theories (Clemens, 2005: 355; Davis et al. 2005) .

There have, however, been few efforts to bring these various approaches together, or to rethink and reshape this field of inquiry. This sub-theme invites papers and contributions that consider how this variety and richness of approaches can be harmonized in a more comprehensive framework, that can answer not to which theory is the best, but rather when and how different dimensions have causal force in organizational practice. We invite theoretical and empirical research that providing insights on the following – not exhaustive – list of questions:

  • How can we bridge different theories of network governance?
  • Which is the relative explanatory power of different approaches to network governance research?
  • How to describe the interplay between structure and processes from a network governance point of view?
  • Which are the social and institutional mechanisms that drive network evolution?
  • Are there differences between the evolution of vertical and horizontal networks, or between other structural forms? What the implication of such differences?
  • How change and evolution in network forms can be observed and measured?



Clemens, Elisabeth S. (2005): 'Two Kinds of Stuff: The Current Encounter of Social Movements and Organizations.' In: Gerald F. Davis, Doug McAdam, W. Richard Scott & Mayer N. Zald (eds.): Social Movements and Organization Theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 351–366.
Davis, Gerald, Doug McAdam, W. Richard Scott & N. Mayer Zald (eds.) (2005): Social Movements and Organization Theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Dyer, Jeffrey (2000): Collaborative Advantage: Winning Through Extended Enterprise Supply Networks. New York: Oxford University Press.
Granovetter, Mark (1985): 'Economic Action and Social Structure: The Problem of Embeddedness.' American Journal of Sociology, 91 (3), pp. 481–510.
Gulati, Ranjay (2007): Managing Network Resources: Alliances, Affiliations, and Other Relational Assets. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Kaplan, Sarah (2008): 'Framing Contests: Strategy Making Under Uncertainty.' Organization Science, 19 (5), pp. 729–752.
Langlois, Richard N. (2002): 'Modularity in technology and organization.' Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization, 49 (1), pp. 19–37.
Powell, Walter W. (1990): 'Neither Market Nor Hierarchy. Network Forms of Organization.' Research in Organizational Behavior, 12, pp. 295–336.
Sabel, Charles (2006): Learning by Monitoring. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Sanchez, Ron & Joseph T. Mahoney (1996): 'Modularity, Flexibility, and Knowledge Management in Product and Organization Design.' Strategic Management Journal, 17, Special Issue, pp. 63–76.
Williamson, Oliver (1985): The Economic Institutions of Capitalism. New York: Free Press.


Josh Whitford is Associate Professor at the Department of Sociology, Columbia University, USA. His interests include economic and organizational sociology, comparative political economy, economic geography and pragmatist social theory.
Francesco Zirpoli is Associate Professor and Pro-Rector (Research) at Ca' Foscari University Venice, Italy. His interests include strategy and organization design with a specific focus on organization boundary decisions, network governance and the organization of innovation processes.