Sub-theme 34: Inequality, Institutions and Organizations

John M. Amis
University of Edinburgh, UK
Thomas B. Lawrence
University of Oxford, UK
Kamal A. Munir
University of Cambridge, UK

Call for Papers

Our intent in this sub-theme is to build on a stream of work focused on the relationships between inequality, institutions and organizations, including a recently released Call for Papers for a Special Issue of Organization Studies. In so doing, we play squarely into the timely Colloquium theme that calls for reflection on 'Organizations and the Examined Life'. Although the relevance of organizational research to societal problems has spawned debate for at least a decade, and has generated a proliferation of polemics and prescriptions (e.g., Dover & Lawrence, 2010; George et al., 2012; Hinings & Greenwood, 2002; von Glinow, 2005), there has been insufficient serious, sustained theoretical and empirical engagement among organization scholars on questions that primarily relate to societal problems. The ways in which organizations and institutions contribute to or mitigate inequality is of particular concern. As such, the potential for management scholars to inform understanding of the mechanisms that exacerbate or reduce inequality is significant; similarly, the study of inequality poses fundamental questions for management theory.


The issue of inequality is a profound one for contemporary societies, both developed and developing. For example, rich societies do not necessarily tend to do better in terms of social and health indicators while more equal ones usually do. Thus Greece, with $20,000 per capita income, has a higher life expectancy than the USA that has twice the per capita income but much more pronounced levels of inequality (Wilkinson & Pickett, 2010). Despite widespread reporting of such disparities, and general public disapproval of them, it is also apparent that most people have little idea of the degree of inequality that exists in many countries, or the consequences of it (e.g., Norton & Ariely, 2011).

Of course, social inequality involves more than just inequalities of wealth. It includes inequality of access to health care, education, housing, food, economic resources, power structures, and areas of recreation; degradation of living conditions, the environment, social structures, and relationships; and direct or indirect exploitation of groups on the basis of gender, race, ethnicity, nationality, socio-economic status, disability, or sexuality. All of these are driven in part by the distribution of wealth, but they also each have their own specific dynamics and challenges. Consequently, rather than solely rely on numerical measures, we also need to consider qualitative understandings of (in)justice and perceived fairness.

A critical way in which institutional and organizational scholars can contribute to a better understanding of inequality is through an examination of the roles they play in producing, reproducing, and diminishing social disparities. An institutional perspective on these issues could highlight the ways in which social rules, beliefs, norms, values and practices are mediated through formal organizations to create and reinforce structures of social inequality such that they often become taken-for-granted. Macro- and micro-organizational scholars might productively explore those organizations and individuals most clearly tied to issues of social inequality, including those elites with formal decision-making power, such as politicians, corporate managers, senior civil servants, educators, and leaders of non-profit organizations. It could also examine those who act to contour organizational and societal cultures, such as film and television producers, media writers, designers, architects, professors, and enablers of mass forms of communication, who play a pronounced role in determining acceptable norms, values and beliefs.

There is growing evidence that the urgency for such research has been exacerbated by recent changes to the economic, political and social structures that shape our everyday existence. The recent financial crisis is clearly germane, but it is also apparent that the sources of societal inequalities are more deeply rooted, and that we know relatively little about them or the organizations and institutions that originate and perpetuate them. For example, the "working poor", while "seemingly indispensable to the value creation model for firms in developed economies" (Leana et al., 2012: 901), are simultaneously constrained by these same systems with little chance of advancing beyond their current circumstances (see also Mair et al., 2012). Virtual workers have reported feeling less respected and more disconnected to the organizations that employ them than more traditional workers (Bartel et al., 2012). Further, despite decades of awareness, women remain discriminated against in many organizations, leading to a perpetuation of unequal pay and severe under-representation in senior management positions (Belliveau, 2012; Ryan & Haslam, 2007). Racial disparities (Carton & Rosette, 2011; Cortina, 2008), sexual harassment (Berdahl, 2007; Raver & Gelfand, 2005), discrimination against stigmatized and marginalized individuals and groups (Martí & Fernández, 2013; Soule, 2012) and even exploitation that leads to "body breakdowns" (Michel, 2011) have also been reported as outcomes of pernicious organization-related and often institutionalized actions. Finally, the degradation caused to the natural environment as an outcome of political action, power dynamics, and investment decisions is also under-explored (Banerjee, 2012). As Adler (2012: 246) has recently stated, as well as being an enabling tool for required cooperative functioning, bureaucracies also remain a "coercive weapon for exploitation".

Despite the tremendous growth in research over the past decades, the intersection of social inequality, organizations and institutions remains significantly under-examined. As such, we feel that scholars interested in institutions and organizations, from those who study the behavior of individuals to those who are interested in how societies are shaped and governed – and all levels in between – can and should contribute to our understanding of inequality. We are most interested in work that goes beyond static, macro comparisons to studies that unveil the dynamic processes, practices, innovations and changes that will in turn enable a richer understanding of the relationships between inequality, institutions and organizations.

Thus, we invite papers that explore a range of themes, including, but not limited to:

  • Institutional and organizational foundations of inequality
  • The impact of specific routines, structures and practices on social inequality
  • The effects of technology on the persistence and creation of inequality
  • The role of elites in creating and/or reproducing self-serving structures of inequality
  • The institutional work of specific individual organizational actors to increase or decrease social inequality
  • The use and exposure of devices that disguise inequality
  • The legitimization of domains of activity that lead to greater or lesser inequality
  • The roles of power and political structures in the creation and maintenance of structures of inequality
  • Strategies that disrupt institutionalized structures of inequality
  • The implications of inequality for theories of organization studies




  • Adler, P.S. (2012): "The sociological ambivalence of bureaucracy: From Weber via Gouldner to Marx." Organization Science, 23 (1), 244–266.
  • Banerjee, S.B. (2012): "A climate for change? Critical reflections on the Durban United Nations Climate Change Conference." Organization Studies, 33 (12), 1761–1786.
  • Bartel, C.A., Wrzesniewski, A., & Wiesenfeld, B.A. (2012): "Knowing where you stand: Physical isolation, perceived respect, and organizational identification among virtual employees." Organization Science, 23 (3), 743–757.
  • Belliveau, M.A. (2012): "Engendering inequity? How social accounts create vs. merely explain unfavorable pay outcomes for women." Organization Science, 23 (4), 1154–1174.
  • Berdahl, J.L. (2007): "Harassment based on sex: Protecting social status in the context of gender hierarchy." Academy of Management Review, 32 (2), 641–658.
  • Carton, A.M., & Rosette, A.S. (2011): "Explaining bias against black leaders: Integrating theory on information processing and goal-based stereotyping." Academy of Management Journal, 54 (6), 1141–1158.
  • Cortina, L.M. (2008): "Unseen injustice: Incivility as modern discrimination in organizations." Academy of Management Review, 33 (1), 55–75.
  • Dover, G., & Lawrence, T.B. (2010): "A gap year for institutional theory: Integrating the study of institutional work and participatory action research." Journal of Management Inquiry, 19 (4), 305–316.
  • George, G., McGahan, A.M., & Prabhu, J. (2012): "Innovation for inclusive growth: Towards a theoretical framework and a research agenda." Journal of Management Studies, 49 (4), 661–683.
  • Hinings, C.R., & Greenwood, R. (2002): "Disconnects and consequences in organization theory?" Administrative Science Quarterly, 47 (3), 411–421.
  • Leana, C.R., Mittal, V., & Stiehl, E. (2012): "Organizational behavior and the working poor." Organization Science, 23 (3), 888–906.
  • Mair, J., Martí, I., & Ventresca, M.J. (2012): "Building inclusive markets in rural Bangladesh: How intermediaries work institutional voids." Academy of Management Journal, 55 (4), 819–850.
  • Martí, I. & Fernández, P. (2013): "The institutional work of oppression and resistance: Learning from the Holocaust." Organization Studies, 34 (8), 1195–1223.
  • Michel, A. (2011): "Transcending socialization: A nine-year ethnography of the body’s role in organizational control and knowledge workers' transformation." Administrative Science Quarterly, 56 (3), 325–368.
  • Norton, M. I., & Ariely, D. (2011): "Building a better America – one wealth quintile at a time." Perspectives on Psychological Science, 6 (1), 9–12.
  • Raver, J.L., & Gelfand, M.J. (2005): "Beyond the individual victim: Linking sexual harassment, team processes, and team performance." Academy of Management Journal, 48 (3): 387–400.
  • Ryan, M.K., & Haslam, S.A. (2007): "The glass cliff: Exploring the dynamics surrounding the appointment of women to precarious leadership positions." Academy of Management Review, 32 (2), 549–572.
  • von Glinow, M.A. (2005): "Let us speak for those who cannot." Academy of Management Journal, 48 (6), 983–985.
  • Wilkinson, R., & Pickett, K. (2010): The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone. London: Penguin Books.


John M. Amis is Professor of Strategic Management and Organisation at the University of Edinburgh Business School, UK. His research is focused on issues of organizational and institutional change. It has been published in journals that include 'Academy of Management Review', 'Academy of Management Journal', 'Organizational Research Methods', 'Human Relations', 'American Journal of Public Health', and 'Journal of Change Management'. He sits on a number of editorial boards including 'Academy of Management Review', 'Organization Studies' 'Journal of Management Inquiry', and 'Journal of Change Management'.
Thomas B. Lawrence is Professor of Strategy at Saïd Business School, University of Oxford, UK. His research focuses on the dynamics of power, change and institutions in organizations and organizational fields. It has appeared in such journals as 'Academy of Management Journal', 'Academy of Management Review', 'Administrative Science Quarterly', 'Human Relations', 'Journal of Management Studies', 'Organization', and 'Organization Studies'. He is a co-editor of "Institutional Work: Actors and Agency in Institutional Studies of Organization" (2009), and the "SAGE Handbook of Organization Studies" (second edition, 2006). Lawrence has also edited special issues of 'Organization Studies' on "The Legacy and Relevance of Max Weber for Organization Studies" (2005) and "Institutional Work: Current Research, New Directions and Overlooked Issues” (2013). He has been a member of the editorial boards of 'Academy of Management Perspectives', 'Journal of Management Inquiry', and 'Strategic Organization'.
Kamal A. Munir is Reader in Strategy and Policy at University of Cambridge's Judge Business School, UK. His research focuses on social change and stability, as well as innovation and technological shifts in society; it also spans the competitive advantage of nations. Munir has published several articles in leading organizational and technology journals. His work has also been featured widely in media including TV, print and online. He has been a consultant to several organizations including the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank. He is a co-founder of OTREG, an international discussion forum for organizational theorists, and an Associate Editor of the 'Journal of Management Inquiry'.