Sub-theme 31:

Living in a Material World: Organizing Material and Energy Flows

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Frank Boons, Erasmus University Rotterdam, The Netherlands

Pratima Bansal, University of Western Ontario

Henrikke Baumann, Chalmers University of Technology, Sweden

Call for Papers

Material and energy flows connect human societies to their natural and physical basis: the physical resources we use, the natural and man-made environment we inhabit, and natural ecologies from which resources are drawn and on which material and energy flows have an impact. Organizations can exist only within the larger natural system that makes life possible.

Organization studies have largely abstracted from this physical reality (Kolk & Mauser, 2002; Baumann, 2004; Kallio & Nordberg, 2006). In order to establish the social as a valid object of scientific study, but also to avoid accusations of environmental determinism, the physical environment has entered the field mainly as social constructions and social problems. Although the constructivist approach has led to important insights, it also leads to neglects. For example, the empirical study of environmental strategy and management has focused its attention on the relationship between managerial processes and organizational performance, rather than actual ecological impact of organizations.

The study of material and energy flows has developed largely within the environmental and engineering sciences. Methods such as life cycle assessment and material flow assessment are used to describe material and energy flows with their related environmental impacts for a product system and a regional industrial system or a company, respectively. Such studies rarely take account of the organizational dimension (e.g., Mac, 2000), although different approaches to managing for example similar buildings result in different environmental impacts (Baumann, 2008).

Social scientists have approached the physical reality in different ways, but tend to focus on technology. Technology management studies deal with economic and organizational aspects of technology development and adoption (e.g., Kemp, 1994). More ambitious attempts with actor-network theory apply a symmetric approach to human and non-human actors (e.g., Latour, 1993). While this enables the study of organization, technology and ecology, studies on the organization of pollution are rare (Murdoch, 2001; Law, 2002). Also, when materiality is dealt with in organization studies, attention is given to technology (e.g., Orlikowski, 2007; Pinch, 2008). Pickering & Guzik (2008) and Shove et al. (2008) provide unusual contributions by paying attention to examples of human interaction with the Mississippi river and household water use. We would like to acknowledge materiality in this wider meaning, one that goes beyond technology to include material and energy flows with all their environmental aspects.

This sub-theme seeks to place the material world in relation to organization and management. We are interested in exploring and understanding the processes of organizing that shape and are shaped by material and energy flows. This leads us to consider at least three issues as especially important:

  1. It invites a complex systems approach to organizations. Social systems are comprised of individual actors and groups of actors and the interactions among these entities. These interactions involve material and energy flows (Boons & Howard-Grenville, 2009). Yet these very flows also represent the act of organizing and can thus shape the very social system they constitute. For this sub-theme we are seeking research that explores how material and energy flows shape and are shaped by the dynamics of social systems. From the perspective of material and energy flows, relevant social systems are supply chains, global value chains, as well as regional clusters of firms.
  2. It invites a perspective on organizations and 'environmental issues' which takes as an empirical variable the extent to which such issues are based on actual changes in natural ecosystems (Boons, 2009).
  3. The ways in which materiality can be theorized when it comes to 'environmental issues'.

We especially encourage submission of work that develops theory based on empirical research.


Baumann, H. (2004): "Environmental assessment of organising: towards a framework for the study of organizational influence on environmental performance." Progress in Industrial Ecology, 1 (1-3), 292-306.
Baumann, H. (2008): "Simple material relations handled by complicated organization by or 'How many (organizations) does it take to change a lightbulb?'" In: Proceedings of What is an Organization? Materiality, Agency and Discourse, HEC Montréal, Université de Montréal, Québec, Canada, May 21-22, 2008.
Boons, F. (2009): Creating Ecological Value. An Evolutionary Approach to Business Strategies and the Natural Environment. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar.
Boons, F. & J. Howard-Grenville (2009): The Social Embeddedness of Industrial Ecology. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar.
Kallio, T.J. & P. Nordberg (2006): "The Evolution of Organizations and Natural Environment Discourse. Some Critical Remarks." Organization & Environment, 19 (4), 439-457.
Kemp, R. (1994): "Technology and the transition to environmental sustainability." Futures, 26 (10), 1023-1046.
Kolk, A. & A. Mauser (2002): "The evolution of environmental management: from stage models to performance evaluation." Business Strategy and the Environment, 11, 14-31.
Latour, B. (1993): We Have Never Been Modern. New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf.
Law, John (2002): Actor-network resource: thematic list. Download:
Mac, A. (2001): "When firms make sense of environmental agendas of society." Journal of Cleaner Production, 10, 259-269.
Murdoch, J. (2001): "Ecologising Sociology: Actor-Network Theory, Co-construction and the Problem of Human Exemptionalism." Sociology, 35 (1), 111-133.
Orlikowski, W.J. (2007): "Sociomaterial Practices: Exploring Technology at Work." Organization Studies, 28 (9), 1435-1448.
Pickering, A. & K. Guzik (eds.) (2008): The Mangle in Practice. Duke University Press, Durham, USA.
Pinch, T.J. (2008): "Technology and institutions: living in a material world." Theory & Society, 37 (5), 461-483.


Frank Boons?is Associate Professor at the department of Public Administration at Erasmus University Rotterdam, and director of the off-campus PhD Program on Cleaner Production, Cleaner Products, Industrial Ecology, and Sustainability. His research focuses on ecological strategies of firms within the context of regional clusters and global product chains. He has published and edited several books and special issues, and his work has appeared in journals such as Ecological Economics, Journal of Industrial Ecology, and International Studies in Management and Organization.

Pratima Bansal?is Professor at the Richard Ivey School of Business, at the University of Western Ontario. She also directs the Centre for Building Sustainable Value at Ivey, and is the Executive Director of the Network for Business Sustainability ( Her research centers in the area of business sustainability, introducing notions of time and systems to the field. Her research has appeared in the Academy of Management Journal, Organization Science, and the Strategic Management Journal, among others.

Henrikke Baumann?is an Associate Professor at Environmental Systems Analysis, Chalmers University of Technology in Göteborg, Sweden. She leads a multi-disciplinary research program on Organizing for the Environment. For this, she shares her time between the group at Chalmers and the Gothenburg Research Institute, the School of Business, Economics and Law, University of Gothenburg. Her research interests include the practices of life cycle assessment in industry, and also the influence of organization on environmental performance. Her research has appeared in journals such as Business Strategy and the Environment and International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment.

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