Sub-theme 40: Grand Challenges and the Rhetoric of Collective Action

Kerstin Neumann
Innsbruck University, Austria
Issy Drori
Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, The Netherlands
Yiannis Kyratsis
Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, The Netherlands

Call for Papers

The world today is in havoc, acute problems such as public health, climate change, inequality and poverty, local and geopolitical conflicts, migration and human rights are interwoven with transformation in the economic, social and technological realms that are commonly referred to as grand challenges. George et al. (2016: 1880) refer to grand societal challenges as “formulations of global problems that can be plausibly addressed through coordinated and collaborative effort”. They argue that articulating such problems, which are known for their complex and multifaceted nature, is key to stimulate dialogue among different actors and promote collective action to help solve or manage them (Ostrom, 1990). Accordingly, numerous stakeholders at different levels, namely, local, regional and global are competing for influencing the public opinion and decision makers to champion their worldview and interests.
It is therefore surprising, that the rhetorical perspective is fairly absent from the debate on grand challenges. Indeed, there is a great deal of research on how rhetoric and discourse facilitate institutional (Suddaby & Greenwood, 2005) and organizational change (Jarzabkowski & Sillince, 2007). Linked with the “linguistic turn” (Alvesson & Karreman, 2000), we have seen a growing interest in how discursive strategies in communication are used to construct social and societal reality (e.g., Cornelissen & Werner, 2014; Vaara, Sonenshein & Boje, 2016). However, we have limited understanding of how rhetoric motivates and shapes collective action in addressing the change required for the most pressing global concerns, such as to help tackle grand challenges. This is despite the fact that the so-called New Rhetoric (Perelman, 1977) offers a variety of theoretical tools and methods to examine the wider implications of rhetoric in society – especially in terms of convincing (Suddaby & Greenwood, 2005; Sorsa & Vaara, 2020). Indeed, our understanding of rhetoric has been limited as management scholars have tended to view rhetoric relatively narrowly as a managerial tool used “primarily as a means of manipulation and control” (Sillince & Suddaby, 2008: 5). But beyond its discursive quality aimed at communicating ideas or facts, rhetoric includes meaning and the ability to influence social and organizational interactions as well as human behavior (Burke, 1969). It therefore, provides a framework to understand various aspects of social change that is based on shifting and attributing meanings.
In line with the Colloquium’s theme of ‘Organizing for a Good Life’, in this sub-theme we call upon contributions on rhetoric to help us unpack the multifaceted nature of collective action for a good purpose in the context of grand societal challenges. Consequently, our aim is to bring together scholars that explore important new directions in rhetoric as discourse and action. We seek to facilitate the dialogue on how different categories of rhetoric emerge and how they hinder or facilitate strategies and decision making for effective collective action in the context of grand societal challenges. We see an opportunity to connect and integrate the currently disparate streams of research on collective action and rhetoric, as combining these theoretical traditions offers new perspectives on adaptive responses to grand challenges by focusing on the practice or initiative as the unit of analysis (Zollo et al., 2013).
Considering that rhetoric in the context of pursuing collective action for grand societal challenges could be formulated around various domains, we encourage submissions of empirical, conceptual and policy-making papers from different disciplines using diverse theoretical lenses and empirical methods that, for example (but not exclusively) refer to: (1) Social identity and identification theory; (2) Social movement theory; (3) Rhetoric and the public good; (4) Rhetoric and the nation state; (5) Rhetoric and public policy change, and (6) Rhetoric and Stakeholder theory.

In more detail, we invite submissions focusing on (but by no means limited to) the following issues:

  • How can different societal actors use rhetoric to pursue and promote change through historical, contested or consensual discourse for collective action in grand challenges?

  • How can rhetoric bring new perspectives and insights to our understanding of the meaning of the societal (disruptive) change currently taking place (e.g., Covid-19, climate change, global energy and food crisis, or disruptive technological shocks)?

  • Which rhetorical processes and strategies of action are pursued for social mobilization?

  • How can theories on rhetoric advance insights that address the immediate challenges of increasing vaccination confidence and uptake for Covid-19, also among historically marginalized communities globally? What are the societal and economic implications?

  • How does rhetoric influence culture, public opinion or policies through disruption of old or legitimation of new values and norms?

  • How do stakeholders and social actors use rhetoric to compete or collaborate and which role do social media play for constructing “fake news” or ‘post truths’?

  • How, at the policy level, can different types of rhetoric be developed, implemented and coordinated aiming at more effective communication strategies to respond to future global challenges in a collective action effort?

  • Which role do trust and expert rhetoric by professionals play in mobilizing collective action for tackling grand challenges?



  • Alvesson, M., & Karreman, D. (2000): “Varieties of discourse: On the study of organizations through discourse analysis.” Human Relations, 53 (9), 1125–1149.
  • Burke, K. (1969): A Rhetoric of Motives. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
  • Cornelissen, J.P., & Werner, M.D. (2014): “Putting framing in perspective: A review of framing and frame analysis across the management and organizational literature.” Academy of Management Annals, 8 (1), 181–235.
  • George, G., Howard-Grenville, J., Joshi, A., & Tihanyi, L. (2016): “Understanding and tackling societal grand challenges through management research.” Academy of Management Journal, 59 (6), 1880–1895.
  • Jarzabkowski, P., & Sillince, J.A.A. (2007): “A rhetoric-in-context approach to shaping commitment to multiple strategic goals.” Organization Studies, 28 (10), 1639–65.
  • Ostrom, E. (1990): Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
  • Perelman, C. (1977): The Realm of Rhetoric. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press.
  • Sillince, J.A., & Suddaby, R. (2008): “Organizational rhetoric: Bridging management and communication scholarship.” Management Communication Quarterly, 22 (1), 5–12.
  • Sorsa, V., & Vaara, E. (2020): “Can pluralistic organizations proceed with strategic change? A processual account of rhetorical contestation, convergence, and partial agreement in a Nordic city organization.” Organization Science, 31 (4), 1–26.
  • Suddaby, R., & Greenwood, R. (2005): “Rhetorical strategies of legitimacy.” Administrative Science Quarterly, 50 (1), 35–67.
  • Vaara, E., Sonenshein, S., & Boje, D. (2016): “Narratives as sources of stability and change in organizations: Approaches and directions for future research.” Academy of Management Annals, 10 (1), 495–560.
  • Zollo, M., Cennamo, C., & Neumann, K. (2013): “Beyond what and why: Understanding organizational evolution towards sustainable enterprise models.”  Organization & Environment, 26 (3), 241–259.
Kerstin Neumann is a Professor for Corporate Sustainability at the Department for Organization and Learning, Innsbruck University, Austria. Her research focuses on the intersection of collaborative strategy and organization theory. By integrating stakeholder theory in the study of corporate growth, Kerstin aims at understanding the sustainable evolution of firms, through lenses of collaboration and collective action. Her work has been published in journals, such as ‘Strategic Management Journal’, ‘Global Strategy Journal’, and ‘Organization & Environment’.
Issy Drori is a Professor Emeritus at the Organization Sciences Department, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, The Netherlands. His research is based on organizational ethnography, focusing on trust, identity, work culture, rhetoric and authenticity, and also on start-ups and transnational entrepreneurship, emergence of innovation ecosystems, and microfinance. Issy published books and numerous articles in journals, such as ‘Academy of Management Journal’, ‘American Sociological Review’, ‘Organization Science’, ‘Organization Studies’, and ‘Journal of Business Venture’.
Yiannis Kyratsis is Associate Professor in Organization Theory at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, The Netherlands, and Research Director of the Organization Sciences Department. His research focuses on discursive processes of professional role-identity reconstruction, innovation diffusion and implementation, institutionalist accounts of organizational change. Yiannis’ research has been published in top management and medical journals, including ‘Academy of Management Journal’, ‘Sociology of Health and Illness’, ‘Lancet’, and ‘Clinical Infectious Diseases’.