Sub-theme 32: Organizations as Open Polities: Struggles in the Good Organization

Klaus Weber
Northwestern University, USA
Simone Schiller-Merkens
Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies, Germany
Daniel Waeger
University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands

Call for Papers

What constitutes a good, virtuous or moral organization is subject to contestation and re-negotiation. Such conflicts are societal in nature, but also pervade the organizations that attempt to resolve competing ideals, interests and demands in practice. This sub-theme advances research on organizations as ‘open polities’ - political systems that are embedded in societal power and conflict. This view builds on the foundational work of Zald and his colleagues (Zald, 1970; Zald et al., 2005), which sees organizations as coalitions of actors that pursue their interests within the authority and task systems of formal organizations (March, 1962) The key insight of the open polity perspective is that political processes and structures inside and outside of organizations are intricately intertwined. For instance, external activist demands can be used by groups inside the organization to strengthen their positions (Weber et al., 2009), just as organizational members’ societal identities influence their stances and interests in the workplace (Briscoe & Gupta, 2016).
The political perspective of organizations has a long tradition. However, early political theories of organizations often focused singularly on political processes within organizations (e.g., Gouldner, 1954; Kanter, 1978). On the other hand, the open systems perspectives of organizations that came to prominence since the 1970s focus on contestation in organizations’ external environments and often use impoverished models of organizations as unitary actors that respond to stakeholder demands (see e.g., Weber & King, 2014, for a critique). The open polity perspective is distinct in conceiving of organizations’ internal political dynamics as central to their production of ‘good’ and ‘bad,’ while explicitly linking them to the external political environment.
From the vantage point of an open polity perspective, the “goodness” (and the “badness”) of organizations is thus the outcome of internal organizational struggles that are interdependent with external struggles. Such struggles can be fought over the establishment of normative aspirations for organizations as well as their practical realization. They take place in commercial, civic or political organizations. Several bodies of organizational scholarship study related questions, including research on social movement-based activism (e.g., Briscoe & Gupta ,2016; Weber et al., 2009), micro-institutional conflict (e.g., Maguire et al., 2004), political stakeholder theories (De Bakker & Den Hond, 2008; Scherer & Palazzo, 2007), resource dependence (Davis & Cobb, 2010); political sense-making perspectives (e.g., Patriotta et al., 2011), and critical approaches (e.g., Alvesson & Willmott, 2002; Fleming & Spicer, 2007).
This sub-theme aims at fostering dialogue between these research traditions in the context of understanding the politics of normative notions of goodness and their realization. We invite papers that share an interest in questions of how internal and external conflicts over what constitutes a ‘good’ organization are intertwined. Example questions concern:
Identity and interest formation and regulation

  • What are the institutional, political or cultural bases of identities, coalitions and domination in organizations?
  • How do organizational members navigate their organizational and ‘private’ selves, values and commitments?

Boundary processes

  • How and when do external environments and demands penetrate organizations’ political system? Which internal groups are likely to embrace or resist?
  • Through what channels and processes do societal demands enter organizations?
  • How are they interpreted and translated into organizational practice?
  • What role do organizational structures and routines play in the internalization of societal notions of worth and virtue?

Mobilization and internal activism

  • How does a social movement perspective on internal mobilization and counter-mobilization inform the relationship between environment and organization?
  • What kind of internal and external opportunity structures enable or constrain organizational mobilization and counter-mobilization?
  • Relatedly, how and when is social entre- and intrapreneurship internally encouraged or suppressed?

Responses and settlements

  • How are powerful decision-makers influenced by others in the organizational polity?
  • What is the role of middle managers and grassroots activists?
  • How can an issue-selling perspective contribute to understanding responses to environmental demands?

Societal consequences

  • When and how do organizations shape societal aspirations regarding the legitimate (and illegitimate) conduct of organizations?
  • Does a particular type of organizational polity help to influence societal beliefs and moral values about “The Good Organization”?

Comparative polity structures and rules of the game

  • Are organizational political and governance systems related to greater or lesser organizational virtue? Are such relationships mediated by the external environment, e.g., in terms of industry, sector or country?
  • And are these relationships historically contingent?
  • Are democratic, pluralistic and participative organizations “better”?

Hybrid organizations

  • How are struggles that occur in social movement organizations (SMOs), civil society organization (CSOs), social enterprises (SEs) or multinationals (MNEs) conditioned by external conditions?
  • How do these organizations reconcile more radical with more reformist ideals?



  • Alvesson, M., & Willmott, H. (2002): “Identity regulation as organizational control: Producing the appropriate individual.” Journal of Management Studies, 39 (5), 619–44.
  • Briscoe, F., & Gupta, A. (2016): “Social activism in and around organizations." Academy of Management Annals, 10 (1), 671–727.
  • Davis, G.F., & Cobb, J.A. (2010): “Resource dependence theory: Past and future.” Research in the Sociology of Organizations, 28 (1), 21–42.
  • De Bakker, F.G.A., & den Hond, F. (2008): “Introducing the politics of stakeholder influence a review essay.” Business & Society, 47 (1), 8–20.
  • Fleming, P., & Spicer, A. (2007): Contesting the Corporation: Struggle, Power and Resistance in Organizations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Gouldner, Alvin W. (1954): Patterns of Industrial Bureaucracy. New York: Free Press.
  • Kanter, R.M. (1978): Men and Women of the Corporation. New York: Basic Books.
  • Maguire, M.C., Hardy, C., & Lawrence, T.B. (2004): “Institutional entrepreneurship in emerging fields: HIV/AIDS treatment advocacy in Canada.” Academy of Management Journal, 47, 657–679.
  • March, J.G. (1962): “The business firm as a political coalition.” Journal of Politics, 24 (4), 662–678.
  • Patriotta, G., Gond, J.‐P., & Schultz, F. (2011): “Maintaining legitimacy: Controversies, orders of worth, and public justifications.” Journal of Management Studies, 48 (8), 1804–36.
  • Scherer, A.G., & Palazzo, G. (2007): “Toward a political conception of corporate responsibility: Business and society seen from a Habermasian perspective.” Academy of Management Review, 32, 1096–120.
  • Weber, K., & King, B.G. (2014): “Social movement theory and organization studies.” In: P. Adler, P. du Gay, G. Morgan & M. Reed (eds.): Oxford Handbook of Sociology, Social Theory and Organization Studies. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 487–509.
  • Weber, K., Rao, H., & Thomas, L.G. (2009): “From Streets to Suites: How the Anti- Biotech Movement Affected German Pharmaceutical Firms.” American Sociological Review, 74 (2), 106–127.
  • Zald, M.N. (1970): “Political economy: a framework for comparative analysis.” In: M.N. Zald (ed.): Power in Organizations. Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University Press, 221–261.
  • Zald, M.N., Morrill, C., & Rao, H. (2005): “The impact of social movements on organizations: Environment and responses.” In: G.F. Davis, D. McAdam, W.R. Scott & M.N. Zald (eds.): Social Movements and Organization Theory. New York: Cambridge University Press, 253–279.
Klaus Weber is an Associate Professor of Management & Organizations at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, USA. His research analyzes cultural and institutional change, with substantive interests in the political economy of globalization, the intersection between social movements and the economy, sustainability and social enterprise.
Simone Schiller-Merkens is a Senior Research Fellow at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies, Germany. Simone’s research focuses on the dynamics of institutions, markets and fields. She is particularly interested in understanding the role of social movements in the creation of moral markets, and the social, institutional, and political contexts shaping the formation of such markets.
Daniel Waeger is an Assistant Professor of Strategy and International Management at Amsterdam Business School, The Netherlands. His research spans from theory on social movements and organizations to neo-institutional theory and research on upper echelons and covers empirical phenomena such as corporate responsibility, corporate governance and the multinational corporation.