Sub-theme 21: Complexity, Organizations, and Grand Challenges

Bart Cambré
Antwerp Management School and University of Antwerp, Belgium
Peer C. Fiss
University of Southern California, USA
Johannes Meuer
ETH Zurich, Switzerland

Call for Papers

Managers and organizational scholars are increasingly being called on to deal with “grand challenges” and “wicked problems,” including issues such as poverty, public health, and climate change, to name but a few. One of the hallmarks of such grand challenges is their complexity, for as the EGOS Colloquium 2020 theme notes, they involve “an array of potential dilemmas, paradoxes, complexities, contradictions, and conflicts”. Such complexity is challenging and often surprising in both its nature and its consequences. Their interdependencies mean that the outcomes of attempts to solve such challenges are often unexpected and difficult to predict and may give rise to new issues elsewhere.
Likewise, managers who care about impactful results have realized that the path forward remains unclear. Existing data frequently offers a dizzying array of suggestions. Each suggestion may have merit and some may be more valuable than others. Yet, many suggestions may only work in combination or “conjunction” with others. A combination of a few tactics may be more effective than either a piecemeal approach that prioritizes only one strategy or a shotgun approach that tries everything.
Clearly, the complex challenges that societies and organizations currently face require nuanced and powerful theorizing. Yet, many of our current approaches – both theoretically and empirically – are not able to account for this kind of complexity. Thus, organizational scholars need to develop novel avenues of critical thinking, innovative and creative theories, and methodologies capable of translating creative theories into corresponding empirical models. In recent years, researchers have aimed to account for such complexity with a theoretical shift toward understanding phenomena in a configurational manner (Fiss et al., 2013; Misangyi et al., 2016). At the same time, corresponding methodological developments have aimed at tackling causal complexity, most prominently the emergence of a set-analytic perspective (Ragin, 1987, 2000, 2008; Fiss, 2007, 2011). These developments present more than a resurgence of configurational thinking or a new methodological approach – they suggest the emergence of a neo-configurational perspective, a perspective that aims to understand social and organizational phenomena in set-theoretic terms, allowing for an analysis of specific causal complexities.
In the current sub-theme, we aim to start a conversation about how this neo-configurational perspective offers opportunities to disentangle complex social and organizational challenges. Specifically, we would like to open up a dialogue about how a deeper engagement with complexity and the use of a neo-configurational perspective may reshape ways of theorizing organization; how we empirically engage with our data to understand the rich and complicated relationships that characterize organizational life; and how scholars may leverage causal complexity to advance research on grand challenges, wicked problems, and beyond.
We invite papers that contribute to a configurational understanding and welcome contributions from multiple theoretical fields of organizational studies. We encourage theoretical, empirical, and methodological contributions that strive to enhance our ability to capture causal complexity and the dynamic nature of configurations. We especially welcome papers deploying set-theoretic methods such as crisp and fuzzy set Qualitative Comparative Analysis (QCA) and related set-analytic and configurational approaches, but also work using case studies, process tracing, and other empirical approaches for advancing our scholarly understanding of causal complexity.
Our sub-theme particularly invites contributions that focus on one or more of the following questions:

  • Theoretical Connections: How does a neo-configurational perspective challenge existing theories on grand challenges? How can set-theoretic methods deepen existing theories or integrate different aspects of existing theories such as institutional theories, resource dependency theories, and others?

  • Methodological Innovation: What new methodological tools do we need to disentangle causal complexity? How can we make the methodological toolkit more robust and complementary? On what assumptions are set-theoretic methods and QCA based and how can we assess/test these assumptions? What are the limits of set-theoretic methods?

  • Empirical Findings: We welcome original empirical applications of QCA in different fields of organizational studies (CSR, corporate governance and sustainability, strategy, sustainable entrepreneurship, human resources, etc.).

  • The Role of Organizations: What role, specifically, do organizations play in dealing with the challenges of today, both grand and small? How can organizations help us overcome complexity? Conversely, what is the role of complexity in (and of) organizations?

  • Uncovering (Category) Intersectionality: One central feature of grand challenges is the interconnected nature of social categorizations (e.g., the trade-offs among social, environmental and economic categories in the triple bottom line.) How can a neo-configurational perspective help us understand systems of reinforcing advantages and disadvantages?

  • Institutional Complexity: How might a neo-configurational perspective help us understand incompatible prescriptions from multiple institutional logics? What can it contribute to studying constellations of institutional logics?

  • Complex Organizational Forms: After a century of classic organizational forms and structures, new ways of organizing emerge, such as organizational networks, virtual and hybrid organizations. How can a neo-configurational perspective clarify the processes and the complex conditions that make these forms (in-)effective?

  • Theorizing Hybridity: Complexity can weaken difference in type, suggesting the existence of hybrid solutions or recombination instead of discrete categories and positions. How do we theorize such organizational hybridity and fuzzy organizational boundaries?



  • Fiss, P.C. (2007): “A set-theoretic approach to organizational configurations.” Academy of Management Review, 32 (4), 1180–1198.
  • Fiss, P.C. (2011): “Building better causal theories: A fuzzy set approach to typologies in organizational research.” Academy of Management Journal, 54 (2), 393–420.
  • Fiss, P.C., Cambré, B., & Marx, A. (eds.) (2013): Configurational Theory and Methods in Organizational Research. Research in the Sociology of Organizations, Vol. 38. Bingley: Emerald Group Publishing Ltd.
  • Misangyi, V.F. (2016): “Institutional complexity and the meaning of loose coupling: Connecting institutional sayings and (not) doings.” Strategic Organization, 14 (4), 1–34.
  • Ragin, C.C. (1987): The Comparative Method: Moving Beyond Qualitative and Quantitative Strategies. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Ragin, C.C. (2000): Fuzzy-Set Social Science. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Ragin, C.C. (2008): Redesigning Social Inquiry: Fuzzy Sets and Beyond. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Bart Cambré is Vice-Dean and Professor of Business Research Methods at Antwerp Management School and at the University of Antwerp, Belgium. His current research involves business research methods with a focus on the configurational approach, organizational networks and organizational renewal. He published on these topics and advises organizations on how to be effective. Bridging academic insights and practical management needs are his main focus.
Peer C. Fiss is Professor and Chair of the Department of Management & Organization at the Marshall School of Business of the University of Southern California, USA. He is broadly interested in how meaning structures shape organizational actions and has studied this in the context of how practices diffuse, how they change, and how accounts framing and justifying practices are constructed. In addition, he has worked on configurational theory using set-theoretic methods such as fuzzy set Qualitative Comparative Analysis (fsQCA). His work has been published in ‘Academy of Management Journal’, ‘Academy of Management Review’, ‘Administrative Science Quarterly’, ‘American Sociological Review’, ‘Journal of Management’, ‘Journal of Management Studies’, ‘Organization Science’, and ‘Strategic Management Journal’, among others.
Johannes Meuer is a senior researcher in the Group for Sustainability and Technology at ETH Zurich, Switzerland. His research draws on theories at the intersection of corporate sustainability, organizational design, and strategic management to investigate strategies for firms to integrate sustainability into their business operations. He also develops and works with configurational theory and configurational comparative methods, in particular Qualitative Comparative Analysis (QCA). His research is published, among others, in ‘Research Policy’, ‘Organization Studies’, and ‘Organization Research Methods’.