Sub-theme 22: Civil Society: The Site of Organized and Organizational Resistance

Michael Meyer
WU University of Economics and Business, Austria
Marta Reuter
Stockholm University, Sweden
Liesbet Heyse
University of Groningen, The Netherlands

Call for Papers

Civil society is the sphere of non-commercial, voluntary organisations, private in form but concerned with (semi-)public goals. While CSO are very diverse, a crucial component of most CSOs’ activity is the (re)production and diffusion of ideas, values and norms. Such ideas can concern the conception of 'good life' and the organization of the 'good society', but also the values and principles shaping a particular societal sector or field.

This ideational dimension of CSOs has an important organizational implication: civil society can be understood as a hotbed for organizational diversity. While CSOs are subject to conformity pressures, the embeddedness of their missions in ideas about 'the just way of doing things' means that CSOs also provide a testing ground for unconventional forms of organizing. New CSOs are established to change a particular situation or provide hitherto non-existant services, and consequently often experiment with organizational forms and functions. Meanwhile, older CSOs have organizational cultures, structures and goals that may reflect the institutional demands of a gone-by society, clashing with today’s ideas about legitimate ways of organizing (Reuter et al., 2014).

In this sub-theme, we pinpoint CSOs whose missions challenge the established order, or that espouse non-conformist organizational forms and functions, as in a 'state of resistance'. As such, they routinely need to handle pressures from an uncomprehending or even hostile environment, pressures which we assume demand organizational responses. However, little is known about the nature of such responses, the mechanisms behind them, and the potential links to reflexive processes in CSOs.

This sub-theme therefore asks how CSOs understand, reflect upon and negotiate their place and role in society in the face of an adverse environment, and what strategies and tools they employ to safeguard their identities and missions from being swallowed by the mainstream. We are interested in those CSOs that inhabit an organizational borderland between established, taken-for-granted practices of society's mainstream, and the unconventional and norm-challenging practices that their missions call for. We hope that the sub-theme will generate new insights about this borderland and the ways in which CSOs perceive and handle the tensions that arise there.

The study of civil society is an interdisciplinary field. We therefore invite papers that reflect this disciplinary diversity, both theoretically and methodologically. The following three topics illustrate the areas that we would particularly like to explore:


  1. Resistance to organizational conformity. The trend towards rationalization and professionalization of CSOs is a well-established, global phenomenon. However, research has not much focused yet on the forces and mechanisms that encourage and facilitate resistance against this type of pressure. Thus we especially invite papers that analyse the ways in which CSOs go about to subvert, circumvent and resist pressures related to the rise of managerialism or similar trends in organizing.
  2. Resistance as part of the mission. Many CSOs espouse missions and goals that put resistance at the very core of their activity. Some of them challenge particular societal structures and promote change. Others work to defy, thwart and counteract societal change. Yet others exist to support their members in pursuing lifestyles and activities perceived to be obscure or unusual by mainstream society. We invite papers that focus on the political agency of CSOs and the ways they reflect upon, negotiate and frame this agency in relation to an adverse environment.
  3. CSO language and discourses as tools of resistance. CSOs engaged in different forms of resistance need to carefully package their 'being different' while communicating with the outside world, making discourse a key variable. But what role does discourse play as a tool of resistance in CSOs? How is 'difference' and resistance to conformity pressures discursively packaged? We invite papers that look at the function(s) of language and communication in the context of organizational or societal resistance in civil society.




  • Reuter, M., Wijkström, F., & Meyer, M. (2014): "Who calls the shots? The real normative power of civil society." In: M. Freise & T. Hallmann (eds.): Modernizing Democracy? Associations and Associating in the 21st Century. New York: Springer, pp. 71–82.


Michael Meyer is Professor at the Department of Management and the Head of the Institute for Nonprofit Management at WU University of Economics and Business, Vienna, Austria. His research interests concern managerialism in NPOs, functions and participation in CSOs, social systems theory, social networks and social capital, career research.
Marta Reuter is a political scientist and researcher at the Stockholm Centre for Organizational Research (Score), Stockholm University, Sweden. Her research interests concern civil society organizations as political actors in the context of globalization and transnationalization. She is the co-editor of "Trust and Organizations. Confidence Across Borders" (Palgrave, 2013).
Liesbet Heyse is Assistant Professor in organization sociology at the Department of Sociology/ICS, University of Groningen, The Netherlands. Her research interests concern public sector reforms and professionalization processes in (international) nonprofit and public organizations.