Sub-theme 26: The Role of Organizations in Sustainability Transitions

Raghu B. Garud
Penn State University, USA
Joel Gehman
University of Alberta, Canada
Jochen Markard
ETH Zurich, Switzerland

Call for Papers

We invite empirical and conceptual papers that address the role of organizations in sustainability transitions. Sustainability transitions are long-term processes of fundamental socio-technical change associated with sustainability goals (Garud & Gehman, 2012; Geels, 2010; Markard et al., 2012). Examples include the ongoing transformation of the energy sector towards renewable technologies, the emergence of electric vehicles, regional climate change initiatives, and shifts in consumption practices related to food and water.
Prior research has suggested that sustainability transitions pose formidable challenges as an area of study (Ferraro et al., 2015; Markard et al., 2012; van den Bergh et al., 2011). Any sustainability transition is complex, uncertain, values laden and political. Moreover, transitions are multi-dimensional, as they entail organizational, institutional and technological changes. And, they implicate a variety of intertemporal tensions and potential tradeoffs across multiple stakeholders. These features make it a particularly interesting setting for organizational scholars to apply, scrutinize and expand existing theoretical frameworks and approaches.
Organizations (e.g., corporations, social movements, industry associations, NGOs, governments and regulators) individually and collectively play critical roles in sustainability transitions as they develop new products, processes, and technologies (Kaplan & Murray, 2010), establish common industry standards (Slager et al., 2012), lobby for regulatory support (Barley, 2007), engage in societal discourses and problem framing (Lefsrud & Meyer, 2012), or create collective expectations (van Lente & Rip, 1998). At the same time, organizations may also work against transitions, for instance, by maintaining existing infrastructures, industries, technologies and institutions (Smink et al., 2015), mobilizing resources against major changes in environmental regulation (Hess, 2014), or perpetuating established technologies by associating them with sustainability (Garud et al., 2010). Given these different forces for and against transitions, there are understandably intense struggles over objectives, meanings, adequate courses of action and policies (Fligstein & McAdam, 2011; Meadowcroft, 2009).
Given the magnitude of the challenges and the complexity of the topic, sustainability transitions are attracting academics from a broad range of disciplines. With this sub-theme, we particularly want to reach out and strengthen ties to ongoing research in organizational studies. We welcome research from diverse theoretical perspectives around the following indicative topics:

  • Roles, challenges and opportunities for incumbent firms and newcomers during sustainability transitions
  • Networking, lobbying and collective action related to sustainability transitions
  • Struggles over the meaning of sustainability within and across organizational fields
  • Role of cultural narratives and broader contextual dynamics in the emergence of novel fields
  • Challenges in obtaining long term commitments and scaling up by a large number of diverse organizations
  • Critical resources, capabilities and complementary assets in transforming socio-technical systems
  • Emergence, maturation and decline of technological fields



  • Barley, S.R. (2007): “Corporations, Democracy, and the Public Good.” Journal of Management Inquiry, 16, 201–215.
  • Ferraro, F., Etzion, D., & Gehman, J. (2015): “Tackling Grand Challenges Pragmatically: Robust Action Revisited.” Organization Studies, 36, 363–390.
  • Fligstein, N., & McAdam, D. (2011): “Toward a General Theory of Strategic Action Fields.” Sociological Theory, 29, 1–26.
  • Garud, R., & Gehman, J. (2012): “Metatheoretical perspectives on sustainability journeys: evolutionary, relational and durational.” Research Policy, 41, 980–995.
  • Garud, R., Gehman, J., & Karnoe, P. (2010): “Categorization by association: Nuclear technology and emission-free electricity.” In: W.D. Sine & R. David (eds.): Research in the Sociology of Work. Bingley: Emerald Group Publishing Ltd., 51–93.
  • Geels, F.W. (2010): “Ontologies, socio-technical transitions (to sustainability), and the multi-level perspective.” Research Policy, 39, 495–510.
  • Hess, D.J. (2014): “Sustainability transitions: A political coalition perspective.” Research Policy, 43, 278–283.
  • Kaplan, S., & Murray, F. (2010): “Entrepreneurship and the construction of value in biotechnology.” In: N. Phillips, G. Sewell & D. Griffiths (eds.): Research in the Sociology of Organizations – Technology and Organization: Essays in Honour of Joan Woodward. Bingley: Emerald Group Publishing Ltd., 107–147.
  • Lefsrud, L.M., & Meyer, R.E. (2012): “Science or Science Fiction? Professionals' Discursive Construction of Climate Change.” Organization Studies, 33, 1477–1506.
  • Markard, J., Raven, R., & Truffer, B. (2012): “Sustainability Transitions: An emerging field of research and its prospects.” Research Policy, 41, 955–967.
  • Meadowcroft, J. (2009): “What about the politics? Sustainable development, transition management, and long term energy transitions.” Policy Sciences, 42, 323–340.
  • Slager, R., Gond, J.-P., & Moon, J. (2012): “Standardization as Institutional Work: The Regulatory Power of a Responsible Investment Standard.” Organization Studies, 33, 763–790.
  • Smink, M.M., Hekkert, M.P., & Negro, S.O. (2015): “Keeping sustainable innovation on a leash? Exploring incumbents’ institutional strategies.” Business Strategy and the Environment, 24, 86–101.
  • van den Bergh, J.C.J.M., Truffer, B., & Kallis, G. (2011): “Environmental innovation and societal transitions: Introduction and overview.” Environmental Innovation and Societal Transitions, 1, 1–23.
  • van Lente, H., & Rip, A. (1998): “The Rise of Membrane Technology: From Rhetorics to Social Reality.” Social Studies of Science, 28, 221–254.
Raghu B. Garud is Alvin H. Clemens Professor of Management & Organization and the Research Director of the Farrell Center for Corporate Innovation and Entrepreneurship, Pennsylvania State University, USA. Raghu's research explores the emergence of novelty and its adoption. Specifically, he is interested in understanding how new ideas emerge, are valued, and become institutionalized. He has written extensively on these topics offering concepts such as path creation, economies of substitution, technology entrepreneurship, bricolage as a collective process and the socio-cognitive bases for technology emergence. Raghu is currently working on sustainability journeys.
Joel Gehman is Assistant Professor of Strategic Management and Organization at the University of Alberta School of Business, Canada. He studies the organization of concern: How do concerns related to sustainability and values affect organizational strategies, technology innovation, and institutional arrangements? And reciprocally, how do organizations, innovation and institutions affect the emergence and trajectories of cultural concerns? His research has been published in the ‘Academy of Management Journal’, ‘Academy of Management Review’, ‘Organization Studies’ and ‘Research Policy’, among others.
Jochen Markard is Senior Researcher in the Group for Sustainability and Technology within the Department of Management, Technology, and Economics of ETH Zurich, Switzerland. He studies the interaction of technology, actor strategies, politics, society and culture. A focus is on the emergence of new technological fields, which have a potential to contribute to larger societal transformation and sustainability transition. Recently, Jochen has analyzed technology legitimacy and the impact of sectoral and cultural contexts on technology development, organizational strategies and alliances, advocacy coalitions and the ongoing energy transition.