contingency theory – is that like a thing anymore?

Once in a while, I am asked by students about contingency theory – the view in organization theory that there is no optimal firm structure and that it simply “depends.” In other words, it’s the pragmatism of the org theory world. Here’t the question I get asked: is contingency theory still an active research area? On the one hand, it is obviously alive – people (including myself) still talk about it in published articles. On the other hand, it seems to be permission to resort to contextual, ad hoc exaplanations, or, better, to add a needed extra dimension of variation. There aren’t native “contingency theory variables” that have been developed in the decades since the 1960s.

My own view is that it is now more of an argumentative move rather than a stand alone theory. Even though it is an obvious point, it acts as a corrective to the very rigid theories of org environments often found in sociology (e.g., iron cage institutionalism or early population ecology). If you think there is a real advance in contingency theory, do use the comment section.

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Written by fabiorojas

February 19, 2014 at 12:01 am

11 Responses

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  1. I like field theory as the successor. There are many generic processes, but which are enacted is a function of the field of plausible and legitimate action. There is not an environment, institutional or otherwise, but rather actors are constrained/enabled by relevant fields. This idea works for network and institutional and power approaches to organizations. references? fligstein & mcadam; j l martin; emirbayer & johnson.


    Don Tomaskovic-Devey

    February 19, 2014 at 1:14 am

  2. I could never figure out why people called it contingency “theory.” It simply says, “it depends.” On what? On lots of stuff, I guess. How can that be a theory of anything? But, Lex made a living from it…


    Howard Aldrich

    February 19, 2014 at 1:45 am

  3. Be careful! How many theories in sociology can be similarly derided as “it depends”? I recommend everyone read the five pages Pfeffer wrote in New Directions or Organization Theory on structural contingency theory (pp.158-163). He ascribes part of the disinterest in contingency theory to the inherent faddishness of the profession and part to the difficulties in operationalizing the constructs in research. Great insights. I like his last sentence in the section most particularly.



    February 19, 2014 at 3:47 pm

  4. I don’t think it was ever really one theory, rather a way of classifying a bunch of research that was similar in the sense of relating some characteristics of the firm or its environment to some characteristics of the firm’s structure.


    David Barron

    February 20, 2014 at 8:03 am

  5. What David said…


    Howard Aldrich

    February 20, 2014 at 2:45 pm

  6. Based on some of the more recent (2013-present) results in scholar:

    ‘Antecedents of proactive supply chain risk management–a contingency theory perspective.’
    ‘Towards a Contingency Theory of Enterprise Risk Management.’
    ‘Chief strategy officers: Contingency analysis of their presence in top management teams.’
    ‘The Application of Contingency Theory in the Every Development Stage of Cluster Supply-Chain’

    It seems as if it is still being used by management folk.



    February 20, 2014 at 3:57 pm

  7. Some people are still using suspenders…


    Howard Aldrich

    February 20, 2014 at 4:19 pm

  8. @Don: Field theory combines insights from a number of other perspectives but it doesn’t explain what counts as an organization’s environment in quite the same way contingency does. If we are discussing the distribution of resources in a field, we ought to mention resource dependency. Likewise, if we are talking about the effect uncertainty has on org structure, we should probably mention contingency theory.


    Peter Lista (@peterlista)

    February 20, 2014 at 7:51 pm

  9. this stuff is still a necessary/ritual citation in studies of technology and organization. different kinds of tasks, it was argued (Perrow 1967), require different kinds of organizations. boom! mind blown.



    February 21, 2014 at 4:16 am

  10. Although contingency theory (CT) seems to be lacked of popularity, it is still relevant on studying organizational design. Both the configuration and complexity perspectives, as more recent and dominant approaches to organizational design, are largely based on CT.


    Umut Koc

    February 21, 2014 at 2:11 pm

  11. Reblogged this on Notas de campos.



    March 8, 2014 at 3:08 am

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