Sub-theme 50: Organization outside Formal Organizations: Settings, Practices, and Processes

Nils Brunsson
Uppsala University, Sweden
Michael Grothe-Hammer
Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Norway
David Seidl
University of Zurich, Switzerland

Call for Papers

The field of organization studies has almost exclusively formal organizations as their study objects. Yet, organization is not a phenomenon that is restricted to the inner life of formal organizations. With concepts such as “partial organization” (Ahrne & Brunsson; 2011; 2019) or “organizationality” (Dobusch & Schoeneborn, 2015), scholars have extended organizational analysis to investigate organizational phenomena beyond formal organizations. Organization can be understood as a particular type of social order, an order produced through decision making, such as decisions about rules, sanctions, or membership (Ahrne et al., 2016). Such decided orders are fundamentally different from social orders that are not based on decisions, such as institutions or networks.
If we define organization as a decided order, we can find that many social settings are at least partially organized and organizational, including markets (Ahrne et al., 2015), networks (Sydow, 2019), or social movements (den Hond et al., 2015). Even families (Ahrne, 2019), internet communities (Dobusch & Schoeneborn, 2015), platform economies (Roed Nielsen, 2018), coworking spaces (Blagoev et al., 2019), meeting arenas (Haug, 2013), or international relations (Ahrne et al., 2019) can be seen as partially organized. Practices of partial organization include standardization, rankings, ratings, prizes, certifications, and accreditations. There are many organizers involved in creating and maintaining organization outside organizations, and they often compete each other. Organization outside organizations reduces the possibility or need for local organizing efforts by managers within the formal organizations affected.
These phenomena lend themselves to organizational analysis. Thus, organization theory is much more relevant for the understanding of social life in general than normally assumed by organization scholars as well as other social scientists (Ahrne et al., 2016). Acknowledging the relevance of organization in all its manifestations of decided order, furthermore, opens up the possibility of extending existing insights regarding the interrelation between organization and other types of social order including macro-level phenomena such as societal segmentation, stratification, and differentiation (Apelt et al., 2017).
In this sub-theme, we explore the potential of theorizing organization outside formal organizations with the help of theoretical and empirical studies. The purpose is to deepen and extend previous work on partial organization (Ahrne & Brunsson 2011, 2019; Ahrne et al., 2018) and organizationality (Dobusch & Schoeneborn 2015; Grothe-Hammer, 2019) or to modify or find alternative conceptualizations. We welcome studies examining how various social settings are partially organized, studies of organizations that function as organizers and studies of reactions from formal organizations and other organized entities. Comparisons between organization within and outside formal organization are also relevant as well as studies of the history and dynamics of organization outside organizations.
Examples of relevant issues include:

  • Various practices for organizing outside organizations: What are the practices and how can they be combined? What are the different forms of organization that result from the use of these practices?

  • Trajectories of organization outside organizations: How is a particular form of organization outside organizations achieved, reproduced, and transformed? Are there differences between cases in which organization substitutes or complements other types of social order, for example an institutional order?

  • Stability of organization outside organizations: How are decided orders kept stable and yet decidable over time? When do decided orders perish or become overly stable or institutionalized and, hence, almost undecidable?

  • Acceptance of organization outside organizations: Why do some decisions become accepted as a legitimate form of organization while other decisions fail to do so? How can organization outside organizations be resisted?

  • Interrelations between formal organizations, networks and institutions and partially organized social settings: How does organization relate to other forms of order? How does the one induce, influence, or co-constitute the other?

  • Organizers: When and how do organizers compete? What factors determine the outcome of competition and what implications for order does competition have?

  • Methodological opportunities and challenges of studying organization outside organizations: What are suitable methodological approaches? What are the limitations of traditional methodologies?

  • Societal relevance of organization outside organizations: How are decided orders related to macro-level forms of order manifest in societal domains like the economy, politics, education, religion, law, science, medicine, sports, art, love, and mass media?

  • Why are some settings organized but not organized as a formal organization?

  • Advantages and disadvantages of organization outside organizations: What effects stem from the inherent peculiarities of such organization compared to formal organizations and compared to other forms of order? What are the implications of the particularities of organization outside organizations for accountability, responsibility, transparency and democracy?



  • Ahrne, G. (2019): “Organizing intimacy.” In: G. Ahrne & N. Brunsson (eds.): Organization outside Organizations. The Abundance of Partial Organization in Social Life. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 235–252.
  • Ahrne, G., Aspers, P., & Brunsson, N. (2015): “The organization of markets.” Organization Studies, 36 (1), 7–27.
  • Ahrne, G., & Brunsson, N. (2011): “Organization outside organizations: the significance of partial organization.” Organization, 18 (1), 83–104.
  • Ahrne, G., & Brunsson, N. (eds.) (2019): Organization outside Organizations. The Abundance of Partial Organization in Social Life. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Ahrne, G., Brunsson, N., & Kerwer, D. (2019): “The partial organization of international relations: International organizations as meta-organizations.” In: G. Ahrne & N. Brunsson (eds.): Organization outside Organizations. The Abundance of Partial Organization in Social Life. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 390–418.
  • Ahrne, G., Brunsson, N., & Seidl, D. (2016): “Resurrecting organization by going beyond organizations.” European Management Journal, 34 (2), 93–101.
  • Apelt, M., Besio, C., Corsi, G., von Groddeck, V., Grothe-Hammer, M., & Tacke, V. (2017): “Resurrecting organization without renouncing society: A response to Ahrne, Brunsson and Seidl.” European Management Journal, 35 (1), 8–14.
  • Blagoev, B., Costas, J., & Kärreman, D. (2019): “‘We are all herd animals’: Community and organizationality in coworking spaces.” Organization, 26 (6), 894–916.
  • den Hond, F., de Bakker, F.G.A., & Smith, N. (2015): “Social movements and organizational analysis.” In: M. Diani & D. della Porta (eds.): The Oxford Handbook of Social Movements. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 291–305.
  • Dobusch, L., & Schoeneborn, D. (2015): “Fluidity, identity, and organizationality: The communicative constitution of anonymous.” Journal of Management Studies, 52 (8), 1005–1035.
  • Grothe-Hammer, M. (2019): “Organization without actorhood: Exploring a neglected phenomenon.” European Management Journal, 37 (3), 325–338.
  • Haug, C. (2013): “Organizing spaces: Meeting arenas as a social movement infrastructure between organization, network, and institution.” Organization Studies, 34 (5–6), 705–732.
  • Roed Nielsen, K. (2018): “Crowdfunding through a partial organization lens – The co-dependent organization.” European Management Journal, 36 (6), 695–707.
  • Sydow, J. (2019): “The inter-firm network as partial organization?” In: G. Ahrne & N. Brunsson (eds.): Organization outside Organizations. The Abundance of Partial Organization in Social Life. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 191–211.
Nils Brunsson is a Professor of Management at Uppsala University, Sweden. He has published 30 books and numerous articles on organization – including most recently: “Organization outside Organizations: The Abundance of Partial Organization in Social Life” (together with G. Ahrne; Cambridge University Press, 2019), “Organizing and Reorganizing Markets“(together with M. Jutterström; Oxford University Press, 2018), and “Decisions: The Complexities of Individual and Organizational Decision-Making” (together with K. Brunsson; Edward Elgar, 2017).
Michael Grothe-Hammer is an Associate Professor in Organization and Technology at Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Norway. His field is organizational sociology with a focus on the perspectives of partial organization, communication constitutes organization (CCO), and sociological systems theory. Michael’s work has appeared in various outlets such as ‘Current Sociology’, ‘Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory’, and ‘Organizational Research Methods’.
David Seidl is a Professor of Organization and Management at the University of Zurich, Switzerland. He has published several books and articles in the field of organization theory, strategy and corporate governance – including most recently: “Cambridge Handbook of Open Strategy” (together with G. von Krogh & R. Whittington; Cambridge University Press, 2019).