Sub-theme 62: The Organization of Society: Meta-, Macro-, and Partial Organization

Nils Brunsson
Uppsala University, Sweden
Héloïse Berkowitz
Aix-Marseille University, France
Sanne Bor
LUT University, Finland

Call for Papers

There is a long and strong tradition in organization theory to study formal organizations under the explicit or implicit assumption that the phenomenon of organization is concentrated to these formal organizations, whereas their environment is not organized and therefore must be analysed by other concepts than organization. In contrast to that perspective, in this subtheme we are interested in describing and analysing all the organization that happens outside of and among formal organizations. Such organization is often needed for social systems to adapt to new challenges, though we still understand relatively little about its dynamics.
We build on a definition of organization as a decided order (Ahrne & Brunsson, 2011). The emphasis on decision as the common feature of organization offers a way out of the deep existential crisis organization theory has been diagnosed with (Grothe-Hammer & Kohl, 2020). This forms the background to the suggestion to expand organization theory (Ahrne et al., 2016; Ahrne & Brunsson, 2008, 2019) by combining the classical notion of formal organization with the notions of meta-organization, partial organization, and macro-organization. Meta-organizations are formal organizations with other organizations as members, often only partially organized (Berkowitz et. al., 2020) Macro-organizations have been defined as complex, partially organized systems of a multitude of interconnected formal organizations (Brunsson et al., 2018).
These concepts provide a new understanding of a broad variety of modern organizational phenomena and their manifold facets. Using them, scholars have, for instance, analysed market organization (Brunsson & Jutterström, 2018; Ossandón, 2019), the European Union (Kerwer, 2013), clusters (Lupova-Henry et al., 2021), partnerships (Cropper & Bor, 2018), transnational actors and governance (Fumasoli et al., 2018), corporate social responsibility and sustainability (Berkowitz et al., 2020; Rasche et al., 2013), social movements (Laamanen et al., 2020), or organization without actorhood (Grothe-Hammer, 2019).
The purpose of this sub-theme is to investigate the pros and cons of expanding the concept of organization to areas outside and among formal organizations. We invite papers that discuss the dynamics of social collectives through the lens of meta-macro, and partial organization in order to develop these alternative approaches of organization theory. We welcome submissions on aspects of meta-organization, macro-organization or partial organization, or an integration of all three. Papers can be theoretical, empirical, or methodological and may investigate:

  • Forms and functions: Are there different categories of meta- and macro-organizations? To what extent are meta-organizations and macro-organizations partially or completely organized? When and why does a macro-organization emerge?

  • Decisions and organization: In which ways do decision-making processes vary in meta- and macro-organizations? How does ‘decision’ structure organizational processes?

  • The organization of markets: What complementary insights does an organization perspective bring to existing approaches to the study of markets in economics, sociology or political science? Why do markets become more or less and differently organized?

  • Partial organization as ‘imperfection’: Is partial organization a fixed, final state or an imperfect state implying a process of slowly moving towards ‘more’ organization, even complete organization? How and why are initially loose networks among individuals or organizations getting more organized and with what consequences? Where is the boundary between partial organization and non-organization?

  • Organization, institutions and mutual adaptation: How does organization relate to institutions and processes of mutual adaptation? How does a focus on decision-making help understand this relation? How, why and under which conditions can (meta-, macro-, partial) organization turn into an institutional order? Conversely, how and why can organization lead to deinstitutionalization processes?

  • Organization and agency: Why and how do form of meta-, macro-, partial organization achieve collective actorhood, responsibility and accountability? Which elements of organization are crucial in the formation of actorhood, responsibility and accountability? How do they get constituted and maintained?

  • Success and failure: Under what circumstance do attempts at organizing outside and among formal organizations succeed or fail? What factors provide legitimacy to organization attempts and how do they lose legitimacy?


  • Ahrne, G., & Brunsson, N. (2008): Meta-organizations. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Publishing.
  • 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., & Seidl, D. (2016): “Resurrecting organization by going beyond organizations.” European Management Journal, 34 (2), 93–101.
  • Berkowitz, H., Crowder, L.B., & Brooks, C.M. (2020): “Organizational perspectives on sustainable ocean governance: A multi-stakeholder, meta-organization model of collective action.” Marine Policy, 118, 1–10.
  • Brunsson, N., Gustafsson, I., & Hallström, K.T. (2018): “Markets, Trust, and the Construction of Macro-Organizations.” In: N. Brunsson & M. Jutterström (eds.): Organizing and Reorganizing Markets. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 136–152.
  • Brunsson, N., & Jutterström, M. (2018): Organizing and Reorganizing Markets. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Cropper, S., & Bor, S. (2018): “(Un)bounding the Meta-Organization: Co-Evolution and Compositional Dynamics of a Health Partnership.” Administrative Sciences, 8 (3), 1–19.
  • Fumasoli, T., Stensaker, B., & Vukasovic, M. (2018): “Tackling the multi-actor and multi-level complexity of European governance of knowledge: Transnational actors in focus.” European Educational Research Journal, 17 (3), 325–334.
  • Grothe-Hammer, M. (2019): “Organization without actorhood: Exploring a neglected phenomenon.” European Management Journal, 37 (3), 325–338.
  • Grothe-Hammer, M., & Kohl, S. (2020): “The decline of organizational sociology? An empirical analysis of research trends in leading journals across half a century.” Current Sociology Monograph, 68 (4), 419–442.
  • Kerwer, D. (2013): “International organizations as meta-organizations: The case of the European Union.” Journal of International Organizations Studies, 4 (2), 40–53.
  • Laamanen, M., Moser, C., Bor, S., & den Hond, F. (2020): “A partial organization approach to the dynamics of social order in social movement organizing.” Current Sociology Monograph, 68 (4), 520–545.
  • Lupova-Henry, E., Blili, S., & Dal Zotto, C. (2021): “Designing organised clusters as social actors: A meta-organisational approach.” Journal of Organization Design, 10, 35–54.
  • Ossandón, J. (2019): “Notes on market design and economic sociology.” Economic Sociology – The European Electronic Newsletter, 20 (2), 31–39.
  • Rasche, A., Bakker, F., & Moon, J. (2013): “Complete and Partial Organizing for Corporate Social Responsibility.” Journal of Business Ethics, 115 (4), 651–663.
Nils Brunsson is Professor of Management and affiliated with Uppsala University, Sweden, and SCORE. He is currently studying organization outside formal organizations as well as the roots and consequences of competition in social life. Nils has published 30 books, including most recently these edited volumes: “Competition. What it is and why it happens” (Oxford University Press, 2021), “Organization outside Organizations: The Abundance of Partial Organization in Social Life” (Cambridge University Press, 2019), and “Organizing and Reorganizing Markets” (Oxford University Press, 2018).
Héloïse Berkowitz is a permanent researcher at CNRS (LEST, Aix-Marseille University), France. Her research deals with industry transitions to sustainability, focusing on sectoral governance and meta-organizations, in several empirical settings from natural resources to collaborative economy or ocean sustainability. Héloïse’s work has been published in ‘Academy of Management Review’, ‘Journal of Business Ethics’, and ‘European Management Review’.
Sanne Bor is a post-doctoral researcher at LUT University, Finland. Her research deals with collaboration among organizations, in particular meta-organizations, in different settings. In her current work, Sanne focuses on the relations among organizations in the transition toward sustainable food packaging.