Sub-theme 22: Comparative Institutional Perspectives on Alternative Forms of Organizing around Social Problems

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Nikolas Rathert
Tilburg University, The Netherlands
Johanna Mair
Hertie School of Governance, Germany
Marc Schneiberg
Reed College, USA

Call for Papers

Organization scholars have documented the emergence of market-based alternative forms of organizing across a variety of institutional contexts, ranging from cooperative, municipal, and local state-owned alternative corporations in infrastructure sectors (Schneiberg et al., 2008), non-profit organizations creating market opportunities for ultra-poor populations in developing economies (Mair & Martí, 2009), to social enterprises seeking to reintegrate the long-term unemployed people into the labor market (Pache & Santos, 2013). These forms of organizing make use of and create markets not only to remain financially sustainable, but to address and overcome social problems. While not rejecting commercial activity, they deviate from corporate forms in various ways, for example through the pursuit of multiple goals and by attending to local needs. They also transcend established divisions of labor by introducing commercial activity in societal domains usually associated with a voluntary ethos (i.e., civil society) or hierarchical decision-making (i.e., the state). Taken together, these organizations seek to make markets and societies more inclusive, and have fueled hopes to overcome some of the deficiencies of capitalism or the limits of public agencies in the face of persistent social problems (Davis, 2016; Mair & Rathert, 2019; Rothschild & Whitt, 1986; Schneiberg, 2011).
Research applying institutional theory has shown that institutions matter both for the emergence and for different outcomes of these organizations. While some scholars have suggested that different institutional contexts are associated with distinct ideal types of alternative forms of organizing (Kerlin, 2013; Rothschild & Whitt, 1986), others have examined how different institutional logics and conditions within and across countries variably support or undermine alternative organizing (Stephan et al., 2015; Zhao & Wry, 2016). Research has documented that alternative organizations may actively try to change institutional arrangements that sustain undesirable conditions for societal groups, and do so by repurposing norms for new goals (Mair et al., 2016). Studies have also examined how, despite regulatory support, alternative organizing may remain largely illegitimate (Grohs, 2014). These findings suggest that alternative forms of organizing at times complement, substitute for, or resist institutions. They also point to the need for a deeper engagement with comparative perspectives on the intersection of institutions and alternative forms of organizing, making use of different levels of analysis (Mair & Rathert, 2019).
In this sub-theme, we aim to better understand how institutions influence alternative organizing around social problems – problems that are rooted in these very same institutional arrangements. We conceive of institutions as the set of explicit regulations (e.g., legal forms), more implicit, taken-for-granted conceptions and practices (e.g. specific governance modes prevalent in a context (Seibel, 2015), as well as the public salience and norms surrounding a social problem (Gusfield, 1989; Hilgartner & Bosk, 1988), which jointly underpin organizing in a given context. We encourage papers exploring a dynamic perspective on these underpinnings: how institutions change and how these changes affect antecedents, outcomes, and the legitimacy of alternative organizing, as well as papers examining how alternative organizations navigate tensions and contradictions between different institutional influences on ways of organizing, both of which remain understudied.
We are therefore interested in advancing the institutional study of alternative organizing across a number of lines of inquiry, working within and across different levels of analysis such as countries, communities, or problem domains (i.e., domains demarcating activities around the provision of a common service or good). We invite scholars in organization and management studies and a variety of adjacent subfields, including sociology and public administration to consider – among others – the following questions:

  • How do institutions shape the nature of social problems, leading to differences in the “culture of public problems” (Gusfield, 1989: 431), for example whether a problem is assigned to the public, market, or private sphere? What are the consequences for alternative organizing?

  • How do changes in the relative prominence and institutional underpinnings of social problems (e.g. unexpected exogenous events and crises, regulatory reforms, social movements etc.) change the possibilities for or legitimacy of alternative forms of organizing?

  • How and to what extent do alternative forms of organizing engage in competition and/or collaboration with incumbents in different sectors, or challenge or provide work arounds to existing systems of economic and political governance (Schneiberg, 2017)?

  • How do institutional contradictions and tensions affect alternative forms of organizing, for example when social problems gain high levels of salience in public discourse or challenger groups mobilize alternatives as part of a broader project, while regulation discourages organizations diverging from incumbent forms?

  • How do regulatory systems encourage the emergence of alternative forms of organizing, and what are the intended and unintended consequences of introducing new organizations in societal domains?

  • When and how do alternative forms of organizing draw on existing organizing forms and practices, or introduce organizational “building blocks” (Meyer & Rowan, 1977: 345; Schneiberg, 2011) that are new to a given institutional context?



  • Davis, G.F. (2016): “Can an economy survive without corporations? technology and robust organizational alternatives.” Academy of Management Perspectives, 30 (2), 129–140.
  • Grohs, S. (2014): “Hybrid organizations in social service delivery in quasimarkets: The case of Germany.” American Behavioral Scientist, 58 (11), 1425–1445.
  • Gusfield, J.R. (1989): “Constructing the ownership of social problems: Fun and profit in the welfare state. Social Problems, 36 (5), 431–441.
  • Hilgartner, S., & Bosk, C L. (1988): “The rise and fall of social problems: A public arenas model.” American Journal of Sociology, 94 (1), 53–78.
  • Kerlin, J.A. (2013): “Defining social enterprise across different contexts: A conceptual framework based on institutional factors.” Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, 42 (1), 84–108.
  • Mair, J., & Martí, I. (2009): “Entrepreneurship in and around institutional voids: A case study from Bangladesh.” Journal of Business Venturing, 24 (5), 419–435.
  • Mair, J., & Rathert, N. (2019): “Alternative organizing with social purpose: Revisiting institutional analysis of market-based activity.” Socio-Economic Review,
  • Mair, J., Wolf, M., & Seelos, C. (2016): “Scaffolding: A process of transforming patterns of inequality in small-scale societies.” Academy of Management Journal, 59 (6), 2021–2044.
  • Meyer, J.W., & Rowan, B. (1977): “Institutionalized organizations: Formal structure as myth and ceremony.” American Journal of Sociology, 83 (2), 340–363.
  • Pache, A.-C., & Santos, F. (2013): “Inside the hybrid organization: Selective coupling as a response to competing institutional logics.” Academy of Management Journal, 56 (4), 972–1001.
  • Rothschild, J., & Whitt, J.A. (1986): The Cooperative Workplace: Potentials and Dilemmas of Organizational Democracy and Participation. London: Cambridge University Press.
  • Schneiberg, M. (2011): “Toward an organizationally diversified American capitalism? Cooperative, mutual and local state-owned enterprise.” Seattle University Law Review, 34, 1490–1534.
  • Schneiberg, M. (2017): “Resisting and regulating corporations through ecologies of alternative enterprise: Insurance and electricity in the US case.” In: A. Spicer & G. Baars (eds.): The Corporation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 512–526.
  • Schneiberg, M., King, M., & Smith, T. (2008): “Social movements and organizational form: Cooperative alternatives to corporations in the American insurance, dairy, and grain industries.” American Sociological Review, 73 (4), 635–667.
  • Seibel, W. (2015): “Welfare mixes and hybridity: Analytical and managerial implications.” VOLUNTAS: International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations, 26 (5), 1759–1768.
  • Stephan, U., Uhlaner, L.M., & Stride, C. (2015): “Institutions and social entrepreneurship: The role of institutional voids, institutional support, and institutional configurations.” Journal of International Business Studies, 46 (3), 308–331.
  • Zhao, E.Y., & Wry, T. (2016): “Not all inequality is equal: Decomposing the societal logic of patriarchy to understand microfinance lending to women.” Academy of Management Journal, 59 (6), 1994–2020.
Nikolas Rathert is Assistant Professor of Organization Studies at Tilburg University, The Netherlands, and studies why organizations incorporate social goals into their organizing models and how they address social problems that manifest differently across contexts. Drawing on institutional theory, including the neo-institutional and comparative traditions, Nikolas has published on these questions in the areas of corporate social responsibility and social entrepreneurship.
Johanna Mair is Professor for Organization, Strategy and Leadership at the Hertie School of Governace in Berlin, Germany, and examines how organizational and institutional arrangements generate economic and social development. In her work, published in leading organization and management journals, she has advanced our understanding of how organizations and institutions both perpetuate social problems such as inequality and exclusiveness, and how organizations can work to overcome these issues. Johanna has addressed these questions in the areas of social entrepreneurship, impact investing, and the sharing economy.
Marc Schneiberg is the John C. Pock Professor of Sociology at Reed College in Portland, USA. He is an economic and organizational sociologist who researches the rise, contemporary fates, and economic consequences of organizational diversity and alternatives to giant, shareholder corporations in American capitalism. This work addresses both the evolution of cooperative and other alternative enterprise systems in the US, and how the emergence of such enterprises can help upgrade markets, regulate corporations, and foster more decentralized and small stakeholder trajectories of capitalist development. Marc’s work has been published in leading journals in sociology, organization studies, and law.
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