strategic management as a social movement


Strategic management is a thriving subfield of organizational studies (see our previous posts on strategic management to get a flavor of what it’s all about). The Strategic Management Journal is considered a high impact journal and the Business Policy and Strategy division of the Academy of Management is one of the largest divisions of the association. The prominence of strategic management is incredible when you consider that it emerged in the late-1970s as a relatively nonintellectual course topic. Strategic management has become so successful as a subfield that some strategy scholars now claim that organizational theory (as a viable competitor) is dead.

Why did strategic management rise to prominence so rapidly? Donald Hambrick and Ming-Jer Chen argue in a recent article in the Academy of Management Review that the rise of strategic management was partly due to mobilization by business school faculty who had a shared interest in its legitimacy. Hambrick and Chen identify the conditions in which an academic community, such as strategy scholars, will be able to successfully mobilize and achieve the status of an academic field. As you see many other organizational scholars doing, they draw on social movement theory to explain why mobilization was a necessary condition for a legitimacy-building process.

The paper should spark the interest of people studying the sociology of science, social movements, and, more generally, those interested in the history of organizational scholarship. I’m encouraged by the use of social movement theory to explain the emergence of an academic field, and in general I think social movement theories are being appropriately used to identify mechanisms of collective action underlying organizational phenomena. Yet I also wonder to what extent we’re stretching and abusing the concepts created to analyze movements in political contexts. Work of this type should be careful to distinguish how movements in different contexts, such as the academic environment, vary from traditional political movements. Hambrick and Chen are sensitive to this and attempt to describe how the strategic management community was different from more typical social movements. Academic movements, they argue, take a less confrontational stance than political movements. While the objective of many political movements is to disrupt, challenge, and change the status quo, academic movements instead seek to be included or admitted to the status quo. Thus, they label them “admittance-seeking movements.”

[Social movement] theorists have often portrayed movements as more antagonistic and rebellious, or what might be called “confrontational social movements.” These confrontational movements are undertaken when participants want major changes in the social order – changes in regime or the righting of perceived wrongs…Our main interest, however, is in those aspiring communities that want to join, rather than alter (except by their joining), the social order (33-34).

Admittance-seeking movements has a nice ring to it, but I have a different take. My sense is that the major thing distinguishing the admittance-seeking movements they describe in their paper from other political movements that also want admitted to the dominant social order (e.g., the civil rights movement might be seen as an admittance-seeking movement) is that these activists were established insiders to the institution they sought to change. A business school professor trying to change the institution of academia from within is structurally very different from a black civil rights activist who has been denied the right to vote. Business school professors already have membership to the institution they want to change. They have access to legitimate channels of change and resources. If they became too confrontational, they might have lost the legitimacy they’d built up over time as respectable members of the academic community. A civil rights activist in the 1960s, however, who had never had any sort of power or legitimacy within conventional politics had little to lose by adopting more confrontational tactics. It was the structural positioning of the activist community that made confrontational tactics more acceptable to the civil rights movement and made it unacceptable to strategy professors. More simply put, the latter was more structurally powerful than the former and did not need confrontational tactics to instigate change.

So while I applaud Hambrick and Chen for being sensitive to the need to develop context-specific conceptualizations of movement activity, I’m inclined to take a structural and power-centered analysis of the difference between movement types.


Written by brayden king

December 28, 2007 at 11:16 pm

5 Responses

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  1. The militant civil rights protesters were mostly students and ministers. Whether to do militant protest was highly controversial among civil rights advocates. There were some who preferred working from within, as it were. That is, big movements are complex and include people with many different social locations.

    As you doubtless know, there has been quite a bit of social movements research about movements or movement processes within organizations, professions, institutions. The SM field itself was created as a movement within sociology, and the founders had no trouble using their concepts and theories to analyze their own actions & comparable activities in other organizations. A classic piece is by Zald & Berger AJS 1978, and there has been a lot since.

    The idea that there are different kinds of movements and that your structural location along with your power & resources will affect what you do is pretty much a given, or at least that is how I teach it.

    I have not read Hambrick and Chen. Maybe they are up to speed on what is out there. Or maybe it is more of the disciplinary boundaries stuff.



    December 29, 2007 at 6:45 am

  2. I think the article speaks more about changing resource allocations within academia (i.e. getting a larger slice of the pie by hiring more tenured strategy professors) rather than changing the structure per se – strategy professors were not very prevalent at the beginning of the study period.

    That being said, I think the demand factors were very important in establishing legitimacy – more so than the social mobilization factors – the AACSB requirement for a capstone course in 1969 and the resultant increase in strategy hires and demand for doctoral students and the external relevance of strategy to corporate groups.

    Porter’s work on competitive advantage, which made strategy more rigorous by borrowing from economics and also gave it substantial legitimacy via the strong interest that the ideas generated in the business/consulting community. Shared interests were able to coalesce around the “economics of strategy” whereas international businesss remained fragmented.

    I tend to link this to Lakatos’ notion of research programs where paradigms are ‘progressive’ because of their ability to solve problems and make a few dramatic, stunning, or unexpected predictions. I think Porter (and later Barney with the resource-based view) achieved this. I would personally argue that the strategy field is currently degenerating because of a lack of breakthroughs of this nature.



    December 29, 2007 at 7:08 am

  3. Olderwoman: you’re right about the militant tactics, but I think by confrontational tactics they mean the entire range of nonconventional tactics that subvert the dominant authority system (e.g., protest through nonviolent civil disobedience). And they do recognize that some academic movements may be more likely to use confrontational tactics, but those tactics tend to be used by groups that embrace highly confrontational identities (e.g., feminist scholars). Re the larger issue about positional diversity: yes, I see your point about the demographic diversity of movements. I doubt many movements, if any, are as internally homogeneous as the strategic management community.

    Hambrick and Chen certainly appear to be taking the social movement lit seriously, which I think is great. I don’t think they’re being careless, and most of their paper I find enlightening. A good example of interdisciplinary work. :) It’s just this one issue that rankled me a little (and in a good way as it caused me to think about a definition that I usually take for granted).



    December 29, 2007 at 7:27 am

  4. […] Orgheads, you only have your chains to lose. […]


  5. […] is plenty of room for heterogeneity, like you see on For more on this topic, see this post about strategic management as a social […]


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