Sub-theme 54: Rethinking the Social, Technical and Material Foundations of Organizations

Jannis Kallinikos
London School of Economics, UK
Paul Leonardi
Northwestern University, Evanston, USA

Call for Papers

Organizations are social entities and research on organizations has justifiably focused on the study of social phenomena. Yet, the field has been keenly aware of the bonds tying social action to various embodiments and objectifications. The idea that organizations are variously entangled with the technologies and the material world in ways other than trivial recurs in the history of the field. There currently are good reasons to revisit the role that technology and objects more generally play in shaping work processes and organizational structures. Many contemporary digital technologies are flexible and scalable, and for these reasons pervasive. They recast people’s skill profiles and permeate the boundaries of organizations, destroy or construct links between work groups, functional units or hierarchical layers. They are also involved in shaping the environment of organizations as social networks evidently show. Not by accident, many of these technologies are labelled social technologies to signal the primarily communicative role they assume in social relations.

Placed against this backdrop, organizational theorizing needs to readdress the shifting boundaries between the technical, the social and the material and rethink the foundations of organizations. However, such venture stumbles upon a number of difficult conceptual and empirical issues. Organizational theorizing does not seem to have at its disposal an adequate conceptual elaboration of the issues which the massive involvement of digital technology in human affairs occasions. This has often led to the empirical investigation of technologies without paying due attention to the complex and often time-ridden developments through which they shape skills, organizational processes and outcomes. While empirical work should remain open to the contingent nature of social life, non-reflexive empirical research runs the risk of losing sight of the less conspicuous aspects of technologies that do not manifest in situ.

These observations acquire particular importance by the fact that the operations the software embodies are logical instructions rather than embodiments of techniques for acting on the material world. Current recognition of critical linkages between the social and the technological manifest in evocative words such as "co-constitutive" and "entangled". However, more is needed. One could distinguish, for instance, between "non-material technological objects" and their corresponding "bearers" – that is, objects such as computers which constitute a substrate for objects such as software. This crucial distinction allows us to overcome confusions about the material or immaterial nature of digital technologies (recognizing that they are both, each aspect with unique properties), and to avoid conflating organizational routines, procedures, and everything that makes up habitus (in Bourdieu's terminology) with technology. A person who knows and can enact routines does not resolve to a cached set of invariant, reliable logical instructions contained within a bearer. Many differences are apparent such as the person's holistic, embodied enactment of routines, the possibility for imaginative reconstruction or even abandonment of routines, and the impossibility to propagate enacted routines across innumerable points in a network as the outcome of the logical and immaterial constitution of software.

We invite contributions to one or more of the following issues:

  • Theorizing the technical, the social and the material and the ways they implicate or differ from one another
  • Empirically investigating how digital technologies redraw the boundaries between the social, the technical and the material and shape particular aspects of organizational life
  • Theorizing and investigating the relationship between routines and technologies
  • Accounting for the distinctive implications particular social technologies have for organizations
  • Recasting technologies not as phenomena that occur within organizations, but as fundamental properties of organizing


Jannis Kallinikos is Professor at the Department of Management, London School of Economics and Political Science. Recent works include "The Consequences of Information: Institutional Implications of Technological Change" (Edward Elgar, 2006) and "Governing Through Technology: Information Artefacts and Social Practice" (Palgrave, 2011).
Paul Leonardi is Allen K. and Johnnie Cordell Breed Junior Professor of Design in the Department of Communication Studies and Industrial Engineering and Management Sciences at Northwestern University. His book "Car Crashes Without Cars: Simulation Technology and Organizational Change in Automotive Engineering"' will be published by MIT Press in 2012.