Sub-theme 01: [SWG 01] The (Partial) Organization of Meta-Organizations -> HYBRID sub-theme!

Héloïse Berkowitz
Aix Marseille University, France
Nils Brunsson
Uppsala University & Score, Sweden
Michael Grothe-Hammer
Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Norway

Call for Papers

Meta-organizations are organizations that have other organizations as their members (Ahrne & Brunsson, 2005). The notion of meta-organization encompasses a diversity of organizations including international governmental organizations and non-governmental organizations, multi-stakeholder initiatives, cross-sectoral partnerships, inter-organizational alliances and associations, project network organizations, network administrative organizations, collaborative governance organizations, and many more. But whereas these types of organizations are usually analyzed within their own debates, the concept of meta-organization allows for discussing and understanding the characteristics and consequences of this form of organizing on a broad and generalized scale (see, e.g., Bor & Cropper, 2023; Brankovic, 2018; Karlberg & Jacobsson, 2015; Laurent et al., 2020; Megali, 2022; Rajwani et al., 2015; Valente & Oliver, 2018; Zyzak & Jacobsen, 2020).
For nearly two decades now, meta-organization theory (Ahrne & Brunsson, 2005, 2008) has represented a major break from the mentioned discourses, which usually exhibit one of two tendencies (Berkowitz et al., 2022). They tend to treat meta-organizations like their “conventional”, individual-based counterparts, without reflecting on the particular effects that stem from putting an organization on top of organizations. Or they frame meta-organizations as inherently non-organizational phenomena such as “networks”, and, hence, often overlook the organizationality of the phenomenon. Meta-organization theory on the other hand, has provided us with the basic and yet fundamental insight that part of the environments of organizations are often just other levels of organization, and this creates a number of challenges.
Meta-organizations often compete with their members for autonomy and actorhood. They face an unprecedented intermingling of multiple levels of structures, cultures, and decision-making. And they are often unwilling or unable to organize their members too much. Therefore they are often only “partially organized”, using a selective combination of organizational elements (membership, hierarchy, rules, monitoring and sanctions; see Ahrne et al., 2016) in stronger or weaker forms. Yet, some meta-organizations are relatively strongly organized while others are barely noticeable as organizational to begin with. While these varying degrees of “partialness” of meta-organization let the former ones look like “normal” organizations, and the latter ones as networks and collaborations, meta-organization theory allows to see their commonalities.
The concept of partial organization (Ahrne & Brunsson, 2011) refers to a social order that is crucially based on decisions, an order that is therefore highly specified, potentially immediate, accountability-producing, and furthermore inherently paradoxical. The concept invited organizational scholars to put decisions back to the core of organization theory by declaring decisions the fundamental aspect of organization. In a series of works building on this common ground, they proposed to expand organization theory (Ahrne et al., 2016; Ahrne & Brunsson, 2019; Grothe-Hammer et al., 2022) by combining the classical notion of formal organization with the notions of meta-organization and partial organization (i.e. certain decided types of social order that can be seen as organizational; Ahrne & Brunsson, 2011; and decidable or non-decidable; Berkowitz & Grothe-Hammer, 2022).
Building on this ground, recent years have seen several further contributions that used partial organization to account for the specific nature of meta-organizations (Berkowitz & Souchaud, 2019; Garaudel, 2020; Lupova-Henry et al., 2021). Scholars have also brought in other theoretical perspectives like the Communication as Constitutive of Organizations school and sociological system theory, in order to unpack different form of organizationality of partial and meta-organization (Grothe-Hammer et al., 2022), as well as identifying different densities of decisions about said organizationality – which Berkowitz and Bor (2022) call “decisionality”.
Despite these rich and manifold developments in terms of both theoretical development and empirical applications, we still know relatively little about the dynamics of organizing in, of, and by meta-organizations and their emergence, development and evolution, especially in terms of their partialness and in respect to the interplay of decided/non decided and decidable/non decidable orders.
In this sub-theme, we therefore seek to question and expand the articulation of partial organization and meta-organization. We invite papers about the partial or more complete organizing in, of, and by meta-organizations. Examples of issues to be discussed include:

  • How and why meta-organizations become more or less organized. Empirical studies and theoretical reflections could concern internal processes within meta-organizations, for instance why attempts at organizing succeed or fail. They could also concern comparisons over time in individual meta-organizations and comparisons between different meta-organizations or meta-organizations in different stages of development. Variations and historical evolutions of organizationality, decidability and decisionality of social orders in meta-organizations, and drivers of change or lock-ins are relevant issues.

  • Comparisons between the conditions for organizing in meta-organizations and organizing in other forms of cooperation among organizations.

  • Multi-levelness of decision-making processes in meta-organizations and the way they structure and affect the layering and overlapping of organizational processes (meta-organization, organization members, individual members)

  • Partial organization and organizationality as a theoretical tool to distinguish meta-organizations from other related or similar constructs

  • Further combination with other theoretical perspectives like communication as constitutive of organizations, performativity, dis/ordering, among others

  • Methodological challenges of studying social orders in meta-organizations



  • Ahrne, G., & Brunsson, N. (2005): “Organizations and meta-organizations.” Scandinavian Journal of Management, 21 (4), 429–449.
  • Ahrne, G., & Brunsson, N. (2008): Meta-organizations. Cheltenham, UK: 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, UK: 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., Brunsson, N., Grothe-Hammer, M., Sundberg, M., & Valiorgue, B. (2022): “Meta-Organizations: A Clarification and a Way Forward.” M@n@gement, 25 (2), 1–9.
  • Berkowitz, H., & Grothe-Hammer, M., (2022): “From a Clash of Social Orders to a Loss of Decidability in Meta-organizations Tackling Grand Challenges: The Case of Japan Leaving the International Whaling Commission.” Research in the Sociology of Organizations, 79, 115–138.
  • Berkowitz, H., & Souchaud, A. (2019): “(Self-)Regulation of Sharing Economy Platforms Through Partial Meta-organizing.” Journal of Business Ethics, 159 (4), 961–976.
  • Bor, S., & Cropper, S. (2023): “Extending Meta-Organization Theory: A resource-flow perspective.” Organization Studies, first published online on June 24, 2023,
  • Brankovic, J. (2018): “How Do Meta-organizations Affect Extra-organizational Boundaries? The Case of University Associations.” In: L. Ringel, P. Hiller, & C. Zietsma (eds.): Towards Permeable Boundaries of Organizations? Research in the Sociology of Organizations, Vol. 57. Bingley, UK: Emerald Publishing, 259–281.
  • Garaudel, P. (2020): “Exploring meta-organizations’ diversity and agency: A meta-organizational perspective on global union federations.” Scandinavian Journal of Management, 36 (1),
  • Grothe-Hammer, M., Berkowitz, H., & Berthod, O. (2022): “Decisional Organization Theory: Towards an Integrated Framework of Organization.” In: M. Godwyn (ed.): Research Handbook on the Sociology of Organizations. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar Publishing, 30–53.
  • Karlberg, E., & Jacobsson, K. (2015): “A Meta-organizational Perspective on the Europeanization of Civil Society: The Case of the Swedish Women’s Lobby.” VOLUNTAS: International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations, 26 (4), 1438–1459.
  • Laurent, A., Garaudel, P., Schmidt, G., & Eynaud, P. (2020): “Civil Society Meta-organizations and Legitimating Processes: The Case of the Addiction Field in France.” VOLUNTAS: International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations, 31 (1), 19–38.
  • 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.
  • Megali, T. (2022): “Digital Platforms as Members of Meta-Organizations: A Case Study of the Online Advertising Market.” M@n@gement, 25 (2), 10–26.
  • Rajwani, T., Lawton, T., & Phillips, N. (2015): “The ‘Voice of Industry’: Why management researchers should pay more attention to trade associations.” Strategic Organization, 13 (3), 224–232.
  • Valente, M., & Oliver, C. (2018): “Meta-Organization Formation and Sustainability in Sub-Saharan Africa.” Organization Science, 29 (4), 678–701.
  • Zyzak, B., & Jacobsen, D.I. (2020): “External managerial networking in meta-organizations. Evidence from regional councils in Norway.” Public Management Review, 22 (9), 1347–1367.
Héloïse Berkowitz is a permanent research fellow at CNRS, Aix Marseille University, France, and senior researcher at IBEI, Spain. Her research deals with transitions to sustainability, with a focus on sectoral governance and meta-organizations. She co-founded the Peer Community in Organization Studies, an open science initiative reviewing and recommending preprints. In 2022, Héloïse received the CNRS medal of Bronze for her work on meta-organization and socio-ecological transitions.
Nils Brunsson is Professor of Management and affiliated with Uppsala University and Score, Sweden. He has published 30 books and numerous articles on organization. Nils is currently studying organization outside and among formal organizations as well as the roots and consequences of competition in social life.
Michael Grothe-Hammer is Associate Professor of Sociology in the Department of Sociology and Political Science at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Norway. His research focuses on organizational sociology and the relation between organization and societal differentiation. Michael is President of the Research Committee “Sociology of Organizations” of the International Sociological Association and Co-Editor-in-Chief of the ‘Journal of Organizational Sociology’.