Friday, March, 27, 2015
by Andrew J. Hoffman and P. Devereaux Jennings
* This essay is drawn from the conclusion to:Hoffman, A. and P.D. Jennings (2015) “Institutional theory and the natural environment: Research in (and on) the Anthropocene,” Organization & Environment,28(1): 8-31. Available at: http://oae.sagepub.com/cgi/reprint/28/1/8.pdf?ijkey=HpecXGbGXRg4Faz&keytype=finite
The notion that humankind has been changing the natural world is not new. Over a century ago, terms such as “Anthropozoic,” “Psychozoic,” and “Noosphere” were developed to mark the entry into a new period in which human kind were a global force (Zalasiewicz et al., 2010). In the 1970s, organizational and sociological study of the interaction between the natural environment and social organization and behavior coincided with the emergence of environmental activism and social movements in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere (Laclau & Mouffe, 1985). But where much of this early attention sought corrections by integrating natural system considerations into social systems, the emergence of the Anthropocene Era and the resultant Anthropocene Society compels a recognition of and responsibility for the extent to which social systems have imposed themselves into natural systems with likely calamitous effects.
An important issue in such an inversion of focus, and the concurrent magnitude of implications that accompanies it (overshoot of planetary boundaries related to climate regulation, water availability, food security, etc.), relates to the applicability of existing theories to both understand and address it (Kuhn, 1962). For example, Catton and Dunlap’s (1980) New Ecological Paradigm—the shift away from anthropocentric (human-centered) to ecocentric thinking (humans are one of many species inhabiting the earth)—was a central and influential theoretical insight of environmental sociology, one that was supposed to supplant existing notions of social analysis. Yet this argument has generated little research interest outside the specialty field (Hannigan, 2014). Lash and Wynne’s (1992) Risk Society, on the other hand, has arguably had tremendous impact beyond the subfield, yet it approaches the subject of environmental risks from the traditional perspective of the macrosociology of social change (Lash & Wynne, 1992) rather than from the subfield-specific concerns of environmental sociology. The differential impact of these two approaches highlights the tensions over the value of challenging versus engaging existing disciplinary approaches (Hoffman & Ventresca, 2002).
The corpus of O&NE research parallels this dual track approach. For example, one common theme has been the shift from an anthropocentric to ecocentric perspective similar to the New Ecological Paradigm (Gladwin et al., 1995; Purser, Park, & Montuori, 1995). But most O&NE scholars have considered how to merge existing concerns for economic competitiveness with environmental demands to gain market advantage by making “the business case” for action (Roome, 1998; Russo & Minto, 2012; Sexton, Marcus, Easter, & Burkhardt, 1999; Shrivastava, 1995; Stead & Stead, 1995). Much of this research has been normative in focus, focusing on understanding and predicting why and how corporations “can take steps forward toward [being] environmentally more sustainable” (Starik & Marcus, 2000, p. 542). The fact is that this latter approach of integrating environmental considerations within the dominant logics of the market and social theory has taken deep root within O&NE research.
But the emergence of the Anthropocene Era and the Anthropocene Society raises questions about the viability of this continued emphasis (Whiteman, Walker & Perego, 2013). It exposes a paradox between the research approach been used by O&NE scholars and the geophysical realitybeing studied. On the one hand, at the time of the writing of this article, sustainability has gone “mainstream.” Firms develop sustainability strategies, create sustainable products and operations, produce sustainability reports, and appoint Chief Sustainability Officers who tout sustainability to be their core mission. University administrators promote sustainability as central to their curricula. Consumers buy sustainable products, drive sustainable cars, stay at sustainable hotels, and are seemingly bombarded with sustainability marketing campaigns. And O&NE scholars pursue sustainability as a legitimate field of research inquiry, as measured by the norms of academic success (e.g., tenure and promotion).
On the other hand, the problems that the O&NE agenda is meant to address continue to get worse. The Anthropocene Era is a glaring marker of that unfortunate truth. How did this misalignment between sustainability as a problem and sustainability as solution emerge? There is a growing argument that sustainability has been subverted by corporate interests such that it has lost its meaning and does not go far enough as presently envisaged (Sandelands & Hoffman, 2008). Critics have argued that corporate sustainability has become merely a label for strategies actually driven by standard economic and institutional mechanisms (Delmas & Burbano, 2011; Jacobs, 1993). According to Gladwin (2012, p. 657), “The past half-century has been marked by an exponential explosion of environmental knowledge, technology, regulation, education, awareness, and organizations. But none of this has served to diminish the flow of terrifying scientific warnings about the fate of the planet.” The notion of the Anthropocene is an articulation of the disconnect between problem recognition and positive response.
This leaves the O&NE researcher with a dilemma. Even with the modifications and new models proposed in this article, we need to both fit the phenomena within existing theory in order to contribute to the field (and maintain legitimacy within the academy through publication, promotion, and tenure) and step outside the domains of existing theory to fully capture the magnitude and scope of the problem. The first is to begin to mitigate the impact we are having on the environment. It is polite, acceptable, and unchallenging to the systems of practice and the academy. The second step is to reenergize and reradicalize the field (Gladwin, 2012; Starik & Kanashiro, 2013), returning to the O&NE tone of 20 years ago, when scholars of environmental issues resided outside of mainstream scholarship and practice by criticizing and challenging the underlying institutions of the field. The Anthropocene Era calls for O&NE scholars to do that again, to enter the realm of creative destruction and changing markets, to question taken for granted metrics and concepts, to be impolite and unacceptable, to challenge existing power structures. Rather than merely fitting O&NE within existing management theories and models, this new work in institutional theory must explore the ways in which the fundamental systems of thinking and beliefs must adapt to the present-day reality of the Anthropocene. The goal today for forwardlooking institutional theorists is to do both and in so doing, advance institutional theory and address the societal implications of the shift to the Anthropocene era.
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