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date: 17 October 2019

Introducing Inter‐organizational Relations

Abstract and Keywords

This text draws together a wide variety of research that makes up the study of inter-organizational relations (IOR). It includes many empirical settings and a range of disciplinary and theoretical bases as well as several specific topic areas. It is mainly concerned with representing the state of knowledge in the emerging field of IOR research; in addition, it seeks to suggest fruitful avenues for future research. IOR is concerned with relationships between and among organizations. The study of IOR is concerned with understanding the character and pattern, origins, rationale, and consequences of such relationships. The organizations can be public, business, or non-profit and the relationships can range from dyadic, involving just two organizations, to multiplicitous, involving huge networks of many organizations.

Keywords: inter-organizational relations, empirical settings, IOR research, organization, networks


In this Handbook, we draw together a wide variety of research that makes up the study of Inter‐organizational relations—or IOR. As will be seen, we include many empirical settings and a range of disciplinary and theoretical bases as well as several specific topic areas. The Handbook is mainly concerned with representing the state of knowledge in the emerging field of IOR research; in addition, it seeks to suggest fruitful avenues for future research. While there clearly are implications for practice, the main audience addressed by the Handbook will be researchers from a variety of disciplinary and theoretical backgrounds who seek to extend their awareness of the different ways in which IOR contexts, theories, and topics have been treated.

(p. 4)

So what do we mean by ‘Inter‐organizational relations’? Inter‐organizational relations, as its subject name suggests, is concerned with relationships between and among organizations. In this book we will use the acronym, ‘IOR’, to refer to the name of the field—i.e. Inter‐organizational relations—and ‘IORs’ to refer to these Inter‐organizational relationships. The study of IOR is concerned with understanding the character and pattern, origins, rationale, and consequences of such relationships. The organizations can be public, business, or non‐profit and the relationships can range from dyadic, involving just two organizations, to multiplicitous, involving huge networks of many organizations. Empirical instances of IORs are ubiquitous and hugely varied. To name but a few, they can involve relations between: firms (e.g. Fuji—Xerox; Bosch—Siemens Hausgeräte; automotive industry alliances); firms and state‐owned enterprises (e.g. GE—Snecma); firms and governmental agencies (e.g. 3M—NASA; Microsoft‐local authorities); governmental agencies (e.g. Port‐Authority of New York and New Jersey; community care partnerships; Verband Region Rhein—Neckar); firms and non‐governmental organizations (NGOs) (Starbucks and Global Exchange); governmental agencies and voluntary sector or community organizations (e.g. service delivery contracts; community planning partnerships); non‐profit organizations (e.g. Barnardos—Carnegie; councils for voluntary organizations); and so on.

In common parlance, it tends not so much to be the ‘relations’ that are spoken about (i.e. the ways in which organizations connect), as the Inter‐organizational entities—or IOEs—that are the manifestations of the existence of Inter‐organizational relationships. Terms such as partnership, alliance, and network are widely used discursive representations of IOEs, but many other expressions are also in regular use amongst different sectors of the practice and research communities. Some of the more common ones are listed in Figure 1.1.

Much of the IOR terminology in common use, including partnership, alliance, and network, is in the form of nouns used as names or labels for IOEs, but there are also several frequently used adjectives operating as descriptors for more specific IOE manifestations such as ‘coordinated service agreements’ or ‘virtual project group’. Other phraseology, for example, outsourcing and franchising, is cited in terms of the actual act of relating. Figure 1.1 includes all three categories of terminology. Some terms have a form in all three categories—for example, a collaboration, collaborative, collaboration. Others are normally used in one category, but there is usually an implicit equivalent expression in the other categories—for example, outsourcing (act name) implies an outsourcing arrangement (IOE descriptor) and an outsourcing (or contractual) agreement (IOE name).

 Introducing Inter‐organizational RelationsClick to view larger

Fig. 1.1 Commonly used IOR language

Note: As discussed in the text, some of these terms may also be used in ways that are outside the sphere of this Handbook.

We have introduced these terms at this point in order to ground the book early on in the experienced world. The intention is to provide a sense of the field of IOR through invoking language from spheres of practice and extant research with which readers are likely already to be comfortable. However, we do not intend at this stage to attach precise meaning to any of this language. All of these terms are used with (p. 5) multiplicitous meanings. Although researchers have often provided definitions, none has become universally accepted. The chapters that follow—particularly those in Part II—will use and define terms in their own ways. It is also important to note that some of the language in Figure 1.1 is in common use, with meanings that are not within the domain of IOR. Most particularly, IOR is not concerned with relations between individuals unless they are, in some relevant way, affiliated to, and representing (or, at least, identifying with) different organizations.

Though IOR, by definition, is concerned with relations between organizations, this can be interpreted at different levels. From some research perspectives, IOR is conceptualized in terms of situations in which one or more people from each of two or more organizations establish a working relationship. From other perspectives it is the organizations themselves that are considered to have the relationship. We include both of these broad perspectives in our coverage of the area. Some corollaries are, however, needed.

First, while the field of IOR includes inquiry into competitive and conflictual relationships, we have largely restricted our interpretation of the term and coverage of the field in this Handbook to relationships that are based on mutual interest—i.e. cooperative or collaborative. However, we do not exclude the possibility of competitive or conflictual elements in these relationships, and, indeed, would see what Schelling (1980) referred to as ‘mixed motive’ relations as a norm. Second, our use of the term ‘IOR’ relates to situations in which a relationship implies more than a passing transaction. Thus, for example, we include supply chain arrangements (p. 6) when there is an agreement to co‐operate over the longish term, but do not include arm's length, spot market buyer—seller relationships. Third, we have not included mergers and acquisitions within the bounds of IOR since these typically result in (formally) single organizations.

Within the boundaries specified above, our purpose in producing this Handbook has been to bring together as many perspectives on the study of IOR as possible in the available space. In doing so, we have aimed to create a reference text that is capable of providing both a definitive introduction to the field and a means of supporting researchers in the field to identify knowledge that extends beyond their own perspective but which might enrich their analyses and understanding of IOR phenomena. As our own backgrounds, though varied, all are rooted in organization science we have given prominence to perspectives that fall within this discipline. We will explain the choices we have made in the part introductions.

The Origins of IOR Research

Inter‐organizational relations and Inter‐organizational entities, as defined above, must surely have existed for as long as there have been identifiable organizations to relate to one another. As the study of economies, societies, and polities became established, and the significance of formal organization became clear, scholars in those traditions began to explore some aspects of IORs and that work provided the early root structure for modern studies of Inter‐organizational phenomena in economics, sociology, and political science (e.g. Marshall 1923; Weber 1947;Selznick 1947). Literature searches for refereed journal articles with the term ‘Inter‐organizational’ in the title reveal that very little was actually published between 1947 and the mid‐1950s. It was the development of general systems theory by von Berta‐lanffy (1951), and its application to a range of social science problems by Boulding (1956), that appears to have laid the initial cornerstone for the study of IOR.

The introduction of general systems theory into discussions of management theory by Johnson et al. (1964) served as a stimulus, and a way forward, for those seeking to explore relations between organizations. They described systems theory as a way of integrating diverse internal and external factors that faced managers. In their view, systems theory also helped managers to cope with the complex nature of these factors. They argued that it was important to understand that firms were part of larger systems (e.g. industries, societies, etc.). Evan's (1965) now seminal article introducing the notion of a ‘theory of Inter‐organizational relations’ followed. He laid down a challenge to those exploring organizational phenomena, describing a ‘widespread neglect of problems of Inter‐organizational relations …’ (B‐218). (p. 7) Evan noted that while issues of an Inter‐organizational nature had been ignored by scholars, ‘managers are greatly preoccupied with Inter‐organizational relations’.

Evan's piece seems to have been a significant tipping point in the study of organizations and their relations. As it pointed out, some work had already been undertaken on the topic. Ridgeway (1957) had explored IORs between firms, as had Dill (1959) and Phillips (1960). Levine and White (1961) investigated relations between health and welfare agencies using the emerging theory of social exchange, while Litwak and Hylton (1962) studied the dynamics between community chests and social services. Evan's investigations had begun in the early 1960s, and he was among the first to encounter the work that had been done by Macaulay (1963) in which relations between business firms were explored within a legal framework. Macaulay was undoubtedly influenced by Commons's (1924) views on bargaining transactions. But, at that stage, the work on IOR apparently was not deemed advanced enough even to be included as a distinct chapter in the March (1965)Handbook on Organizations.

Within a relatively short period of time, however, Inter‐organizational relations were being explored by those interested in developing theory based on the resource dependencies that frequently motivated organizations to seek resources via relations with other organizations (e.g. Aldrich 1976; Pfeffer and Nowak 1976). Similarly, the existence of various constraints that led organizations to determine whether, when, or how they might engage in IORs resulted in a focus on IOR among some contingency theory scholars (e.g. Thompson 1967; Hickson et al. 1971). Benson (1975) and Metcalfe (1976) explored relations among and between multiple organizations, relying, in part, on theories derived from ‘politics’. They introduced the concepts of networks and strategy into the vocabulary of Inter‐organizational relations and linked the formation and fate of networks to the wider political economy. Ostrom et al.'s (1974) work established an early focus on the comparative aspects of IORs. Cook (1977) laid the groundwork for further explorations based on exchange and power. Williamson (1975), while focusing primarily on efficiency in exchanges, and trade‐offs between market and hierarchically based governance, provided the building blocks for one of the more dominant theoretical approaches to studies of IORs, transaction costs theory. Finally, social network analysis, stemming from socio‐structural analysis, or sociometry, which had developed from pioneering work in the 1930s, was becoming recognized as a method of relevance to organizational research. This has provided another important foundation for the study of IORs (see Freeman 2004, for a recent review of this literature, and Kenis and Oerlemans, this volume).

In reviewing the variety of disciplinary‐based investigations of IOR, it appears that economists were less interested than sociologists, political scientists, or management scholars in dealing with IORs. This may have been the case because their discipline leads them to view IORs as variables in a system that have impacts on the system but are determined by forces operating outside the system (such as natural (p. 8) events, states, social movements, legal systems, informal norms, religious movements, etc.). These, as well as similar kinds of exogenous factors, can be helpful in explaining the ways or the whys of economic phemonena, but, by themselves, typically they are not subjects of explanation by most economists. For example, even in his second pass at theorizing about governance mechanisms, Williamson (1985: 22) held as constants many of the kinds of factors that other social scientists exploring IORs were introducing into their investigations. Thus, it is not too surprising to find that while economics might have provided a significant basis for understanding IORs, economists (Phillips 1960 was an exception) were not actively involved early on in developing or complementing theories about Inter‐organizational relations.

The richness and variety of the approaches to the study of organizations and the relations that they formed were well enough established by the mid‐1970s that the first of a continuing stream of ‘reviews’ of work done to date was provided by Van de Ven in 1976. Galaskiewicz followed suit in 1985, Oliver in 1990, Barringer and Harrison in 2000, and Galaskiewicz et al. again in 2004. In all cases, these authors described a field that was becoming increasingly ‘fragmented’. The disciplinary orientations of early scholars (management, organization theory, organization behaviour, economic geography, public administration, psychology, law, etc.) had resulted in a number of research traditions that had grown silo‐like. Each seemed to ‘store’ unique ‘grains’ of insights into Inter‐organizational relations. And over time, but within these theoretically and disciplinary ‘governed’ silos, emphasis was given to studying the growing variety in the types of Inter‐organizational entities that were manifesting themselves in all sectors of the economies (e.g. joint ventures, networks, partnerships, etc.); scholars from different disciplines sought to explain the same phenomenon. Researchers from disciplines that had developed bodies of knowledge around IOR soon also began to focus on particular topics that seemed especially relevant either because of the type of IORs or IOE being studied and/or the theory or theories being used to study them.

As reflected in Table 1.1, the amount of scholarly work dealing with just four of the terms commonly associated with the contents of this volume has grown exponentially over the past half‐century. Not surprisingly, over time, the foundations that might have supported further proliferation of specialist lines of inquiry have been severely stressed.

Two things appear to be taking place. First, those studying these phenomena through a single theoretical lens have tended to stay focused on issues that are defined as significant within its terms and in the trajectory of inquiry that the theory and its community of scholars have established. In our view, however, the logic of many theoretical boundaries is actually breaking down. And so, second, the boundaries of theories being used to investigate IORs or IOEs have begun to intrude on each other. For example in Yeung's chapter on Economic Geography in this Handbook the discussion of ‘the relational turn’ is based on the enrichment of that perspective with theories from organizational sociology. In this respect, (p. 9) this Handbook aims to provide a means for those who have relied on a single disciplinary or theoretical lens to engage in more cross‐boundary investigations of IORs and IOEs.

Table 1.1 The growth of research in IOR







Inter‐organizational relations or Inter‐organizational relations






Strategic alliances






Joint ventures












Notes: The first number in a cell reflects the number of times the topic appears in a title of a refereed journal article; the second the number of times it is used as a subject term for a refereed journal article; and the third is the number of times it appears in the text of a refereed journal article. We have not included ‘Partnerships’ in this list because it is impossible to make an automated search that distinguishes Inter‐organizational partnerships from organizational governance partnerships.

Source: Business Source Premier, powered by EBSCOhost. Accessed via LMU's Von der Ahe Library's Article Databases.

What is IOR Research About? Core Concepts in the Study of IOR

Despite the considerable differences in theoretical approaches, what unifies IOR research is this: in one way or another, it focuses on the properties and overall pattern of relations between and among organizations that are pursuing a mutual interest while also remaining independent and autonomous, thus retaining separate interests. For all IOR researchers, the aim is to understand and explain one or more of: the antecedents, content, patterns, forms, processes, management, or outcomes of relations between or among organizations. The focus of a researcher's interests may be on any or all of the participating organizations and their members or other affected actors, such as the community in which an IOE operates, or its competitors.

Very obviously, there are two core concepts that underlie all IOR research: organizations and the relationships between them. All of the theoretical approaches in IOR research create their distinctive frames of enquiry from these two core building blocks: a set of dimensions describing the relating organizations and a set of dimensions describing the nature of the relationships through which they are linked. Different types of IOR research are thus distinguished by the particular ways they characterize the organizations and their interrelationships. In addition, two other building blocks are important. These are the macro‐and/or micro‐context (p. 10) in which both organizations and their relations are embedded, and the processes through which IORs are established, maintained, changed and dissolved, and produce outcomes.

The two core building blocks of IOR research define the field, because it is a necessary prerequisite for studies of IORs to introduce some sort of conceptual differentiation of either organizations and/or their relations in order to be able to make comparisons and on this basis to arrive at explanations of the phenomena of interest. The other two building blocks, macro‐and micro‐contexts and processes, however, do not have this status. Rather, they can enrich the precision of IOR theorizing by specifying factors and processes that constrain and enable IORs and thus help us better to understand the properties of the organizations participating in an IOE, their relations, and related outcomes.

We now turn to a discussion of these building blocks, highlighting some of the dimensions that have been shown to be of relevance to each and providing examples of attributes that are typically studied.

Dimensions and Attributes of Organizations

The dimensions against which organizations involved in IORs are typically described relate to two levels of analysis: the level of the individual organizations in an IOE and the collective level of all organizations involved in an IOE.

Sector, size, and nationality of individual organizations are attributes that are often taken‐for‐granted starting points for IOR research. Thus, for example, as indicated in our discussion of the preceding section, much research is located within either the public or the private sector (cf. Part II), but does not make the specific effects of sector a subject of its study. Other attributes of organizations are commonly studied though, including, for instance, an organization's:

Important attributes at the collective level relate to the overall structure or pattern of inter‐related organizations:

  • measures that reflect the number of partners involved in an IOE, from dyadic alliances (e.g. Stuart 2000) to hundreds or thousands of organizations (e.g. Rao 2002);

  • the antecedents and consequences of the spatial distribution of interrelated organizations in, for instance, regional clusters of organizations (e.g. Staber et al. 1996) or industrial spaces (e.g. Storper 1997);

  • the density of relations among organizations in a population and how this affects their fate (e.g. Lomi 2000).

(p. 11)

Some attributes are relevant at both the individual and collective levels of analysis in combination. Positional descriptors tend to be of this type. In an influential piece of research, Powell, Koput, and Smith‐Doerr (1996), for example, found that the number and diversity of a biotechnology firm's IORs, and its centrality within its network, positively impact upon its growth. Typical examples of this type of attribute are:

  • an organization's degree of centrality in a network (e.g. Powell et al. 2005);

  • its occupation of a brokerage position (e.g. Burt 2005).

Dimensions and Attributes of Relationships

Inter‐organizational relationships are described on the basis of dyadic or multilateral data. Typically researchers observe ‘values’ for the relationship(s) between two or more organizations (e.g. the extent of information exchange, the mechanisms governing the relationship, the power imbalance, or the degree to which the organizations in a relationship have particular attributes in common).

There are two (not mutually exclusive) dimensions across which organizations can be related. They can have: interactive relationships, for instance in the exchange of information or resources; or non‐interactive relationships when they share particular attributes—such as status, identity, cognitive structures, strategic positioning, or core technology—that induce the same behavioural stimuli in related members and/or expose the organizations to the same evolutionary forces. Most of IOR research focuses on direct interactions between and among organizations. However, there is a body of research, mainly in population ecology, that has investigated non‐interactive relations too (see e.g. Baum and Singh's (1994) study of the effects of niche overlap on organizational survival rates). The emerging work on Inter‐organizational cognition provides further examples of the study of non‐interactive relations (Porac et al. 2002). Some research combines both interactive and non‐interactive dimensions. Dyer and Nobeoka's (2000) study of the Toyota supplier network, for instance, shows how the combination of direct interactions between Toyota and its suppliers and the (non‐interactive) network identity that has developed within the group of suppliers facilitate knowledge sharing and learning. Since interactive relationships are the more commonly researched form, we concentrate on them in this introduction.

Interactive relationships among organizations can be usefully conceptualized on three sub‐dimensions, content, governance mechanisms, and structure. The content of a relationship refers to the flows of information or other resources that take place between the organizations involved in an IOE. Common attributes used to conceptualize the particular content flows in IORs relate to:

  • tangible and intangible resources (e.g. Wernerfelt 1984);

  • tacit and explicit knowledge (e.g. Nonaka 1991);

  • (p. 12)
  • different forms of resource interdependence (e.g. Dussauge and Garrette 1999);

  • the intensity and frequency of resource and information flows among organizations (e.g. Gulati 1995).

Each content category purportedly poses particular constraints and opportunities for IOEs.

Governance mechanisms are the means through which actors manage the content flows and co‐ordinate their relationships (Ebers 1997). The mechanisms enable and constrain actors’ behaviour; different governance mechanisms regulate in different ways, for example by providing (dis)incentives for action or by directly regulating behaviour through fiat. IOR literature has highlighted a wide variety of governance mechanisms (Jones et al. 1997). Attributes of governance mechanisms that have been widely studied include:

  • • trust (see Bachmann and Zaheer, this volume);

  • • reciprocity and equity as well as other forms of norm‐based social exchange (e.g. Ouchi 1981; Uzzi 1997);

  • • incentive structures and administrative controls (e.g. Nooteboom 1996);

  • • various forms of contracts (see Ring, this volume).

The structure of the collectivity of all relationships in an IOE provides associated actors with opportunities and constraints for action (see Kenis and Oerlemans, this volume). Structural attributes of relations in an IOE refer, for instance, to:

  • the diversity of types of relations that exist among the organizations of an IOE (multiplexity) (e.g. Wasserman and Faust 1994);

  • the overall intensity and restrictedness of the relations (closure) (e.g. Coleman 1990);

  • internal clustering that a set of IORs displays (see Lomi et al., this volume).

Dimensions and Attributes of Contexts

Contexts relevant to the study of IOR comprise conditions that facilitate and constrain the emergence, functioning, evolution, and dissolution of IORs. They have both micro‐and macro‐dimensions. Micro contexts refer to levels of analysis lower than that of the organizations engaging in IORs; i.e. to groups and individuals. Researchers scrutinize how features of organizational groups and individual organization members impact the functioning and results of IORs (see Schruijer, this volume). Micro‐level contextual attributes commonly studied include:

  • • specific characteristics of Inter‐organizational teams (Stock 2006);

  • • board interlocks (i.e. the instances of individuals being members of boards of more than one relating organization) (Mizruchi 1996; Uzzi and Lancaster 2003);

  • (p. 13)
  • • the career histories, status, and past relations of managers (e.g. Higgins and Gulati 2003);

  • • the nature of ties among (i.e. links between) organization members (e.g. Uzzi 1997);

  • • the goals that individuals pursue within an IOR and the cognitions they develop (Huxham and Vangen 2005);

  • • organization members' social capital and the organization structure in which they operate (e.g. Maurer and Ebers 2006);

  • • attachment among the organizations' boundary spanners (i.e. individuals who work with those in other organizations) (e.g. Seabright et al. 1992).

Such micro‐contextual (or endogenous) attributes may be used to explain the likelihood that organizations will collaborate or that an IOE will be dissolved. Equally, the concern may be with the impact on processes, performance, dynamic development, effectiveness, or type of outcomes.

Macro‐contexts are the higher level institutional environments in which IORs and IOEs are situated. These comprise, for instance, the legal environment in which an IOE operates (see Ring, this volume), its political, economic, national, cultural, spatial environment, and their historical contexts. Examples of attributes in these environmental dimensions of IORs are:

  • legal—for instance intellectual property protection (Oxley 1999);

  • political—the use of IORs in particular policy domains (see Knoke and Chen, this volume);

  • economic—environmental resource munificence (e.g. Provan and Milward 1995);

  • industry—firms’ network positions (Stuart 1998) or their particular niche (see Lomi et al., this volume);

  • national/cultural—the particularities of IORs in their national and/or cultural contexts (e.g. Park and Luo 2001; Adams et al. 2006); or the differences between international IOEs and nationally homogeneous ones (Griffith et al. 2006);

  • spatial—the nature of particular spatial contexts (e.g. Saxenian 1994; Lomi and Pattison 2006).

At this level, researchers aim to relate endogenous attributes like these to broader outcomes such as the structure of IOE formation, the consequences for the participating organizations or for various government policy domains. The likelihood of service delivery networks being formed or institutions that can support IORs—such as chambers of commerce, employers' unions, banks, science parks, universities, and training centres—becoming regionally embedded are examples of such outcomes.

The micro‐and macro‐contexts in which IOEs operate may or may not change over time and can therefore be related to the particular historical context in which they occur. For instance, Marquis (2003) explained patterns of local corporate (p. 14) interlocks focusing on community institutions and local histories. Further historical studies were provided, for example by Scott (1987) who traced back the different forms of interfirm relations in Britain, France, and Germany to distinct patterns of national historical development, and by Powell et al. (2005), who describe the historical development pattern of IORs in the US biotechnology industry.

Dimensions and Attributes of Processes

Processes also have both macro‐and micro‐dimensions. Macro‐scale processes are concerned with the evolution of Inter‐organizational situations over time, while at the micro‐level, the processes experienced by individual participants attempting to negotiate, facilitate, or interrupt larger‐scale processes, are the focus.

There is no generally accepted classification of macro‐scale processes (but see Hibbert et al., this volume). While, in principle, any facet of an Inter‐organizational situation can be monitored over time, the attributes commonly studied are:

As Hibbert, Huxham, and Ring (this volume) note, there are numerous variations on the ‘phases’ perspective. Most tend to include some ‘set‐up’ phases—in Larson's case, for example, these are concerned with setting out preconditions for establishing a relationship and establishing conditions to build the relationship—and then one or more phases relating to the ongoing relationship. Consideration of dissolution is relatively rare, except when it is the specific subject of study (e.g. Inkpen and Ross 2001).

Underlying these macro‐scale processes are formal and informal processes of sense‐making, understanding, committing, and enacting. These are the micro‐level processes. They relate to what is lived as process in grappling with the everyday, continually varying challenges that participants face. Research on these is often descriptive of the processes that participants engage in, but can also be normative, with an intent to prescribe appropriate courses of action (see Hibbert et al., this volume). Very many attributes of micro‐processes are studied; the examples here are a random selection from the possibilities:

  • how trust unfolds (e.g. see Schruijer, this volume);

  • the leadership activities of partnership managers (e.g. Vangen and Huxham 2003);

  • sense‐making in IORs (e.g. Vlaar et al. 2006);

  • processes for Inter‐organizational innovation (see Nooteboom, this volume);

  • (p. 15)
  • processes for evaluating IORs (see Provan and Sydow, this volume);

  • intervention processes (see Gray, this volume).

Some of this micro‐level research is presented as sequenced steps (e.g. Crosby and Bryson 2005; Ring et al. 2005), but much of it is described without particular emphasis on progression over time.

Rationale and Contents of the Handbook

Having outlined the history and nature of the study of IOR, we are now in a position to explain how we have compiled this Handbook. In introducing it at the start of this chapter we indicated that our aim was to bring together the variety of perspectives on the study of IOR and to provide a definitive overview of the field. As we argued earlier, the history of this field is characterized by a degree of separation of lines of research into IOR phenomena (as research was pursued in what might be called silos) and there still is relatively little overlap in the reference sets quoted by authors writing from the different standpoints. However it is our view that the perspectives have something to say to each other. We are not seeking to unify the field—far from it—but to enrich it by encouraging those working in one research perspective to draw, as appropriate, on other equally well‐developed approaches to studying the same, or similar, empirical phenomena.

Deciding upon a structure and the particular chapter contents for the Handbook proved both less and more challenging than might be expected. Designation of the three main parts of the book was relatively straightforward. These are concerned with manifestations (i.e. different types of IOEs), theories and disciplines through which IOR is studied, and topics (i.e. typical foci for IOR research that span the manifestations and many of the theories and disciplines). They were a relatively natural way of slicing the field since similar categories had emerged repeatedly in discussions among groups of IOR researchers. This partitioning was not radically challenged during the refereeing process of the Handbook proposal.

We did, however, debate—and several times change our minds about—whether the middle section should be organized around theories and/or disciplines. A focus on theory allows for a more detailed way into the field, since disciplines generally offer multiple theories. But it was impossible to include all major theories from the various disciplines that investigate IORs. We decided, therefore, to anchor the Handbook in the discipline of organization science and to cover, with some exceptions that we shall discuss in our Introduction to Part III, the main organizational theories that have informed research on IORs. However, (p. 16) organization science from its inception has been a cross‐and inter‐disciplinary enterprise, drawing contributions from other disciplines. We believe that organizational research on IORs can benefit significantly from recognizing where other disciplinary perspectives have been brought to bear on IOR, and vice versa. So, we have included chapters that represent and cover the most important contributions other disciplines have made to research on IORs. Since these chapters could not be much longer than those covering individual theories, they have had to be highly parsimonious and selective in their coverage of research.

Finally, some other aspects of knowledge that might have justified their own distinct parts in the book were eventually dismissed as not being of primary relevance. These included the methodologies through which IOR is studied and classic study settings such as Western—Sino joint ventures, public—private partnerships, and community development.

Rather more challenging to decide upon—and inevitably unsatisfactory to some degree—was the make‐up of the chapters in each part. First, there was not space to include every relevant subject and some decisions for exclusion were made purely on those grounds. Paradoxically, there was also a problem of overlap. For example, because of the ‘silo‐ing’ of the field, some of the disciplinary perspectives are closely linked to particular types of IOE manifestation; the prevalence of work on policy and implementation networks within IOR research emanating from roots in political studies is a case in point. Similarly, some of the topics have been most intensely studied in the context of particular manifestations. In the main, we decided that it was important to retain chapters in the various parts, even when there was high likelihood of overlap. Where sensible to do so, we have aimed to reduce this by encouraging chapter authors to cross‐reference rather than covering an overlapping area in detail. Third, we wanted to include not only areas where there was strongly established IOR research but also areas where there is clear potential for a contribution even if the existing research base is small—for example, psychology. Once again, given space constraints, it was not possible to be comprehensive in what should be included. Finally, while we asked authors to provide a general overview of their subject and its treatment in the literature, we also invited them to frame their contribution in the terms they felt to be most important: inevitably therefore, some aspects of each chapter's area will be given greater privilege than others.

How to Use this Book

In bringing this Introduction to a close, we would like to set expectations about what will be found in the following chapters and suggest ways in which the book can be used as a way of gaining a wider understanding of the field.

(p. 17)

We asked authors to provide an overview of research in the area, if possible providing some historical context. Ensuring coverage of the variety of knowledge accumulated in each area seemed more important than depth per se, although we invited authors to focus on selected and, where possible, seminal contributions to the subject. We asked them to assess the state of knowledge and the styles of research that had generated that knowledge. And we asked them to include their views on fruitful directions for future research. Authors were given a strict word limit, which most used to the full! The chapters are therefore neither full literature reviews nor personal pronouncements; rather, they represent a composite of the two.

Given this, chapters can be read both as a broad introduction to their area and as a more specific contribution to research in that area. Chapters can be thought of as introductions to and springboards into an area, in two ways. First, while the body of work referenced in each chapter can only be indicative of a much wider literature, the way in which each chapter is framed can provide signposts to the kinds of literature for which it is likely to be worth searching further. Second, there is often much closely related material to be found elsewhere in the book. Part introductions and cross‐references within each chapter aim to indicate the most fruitful ‘trails’ to follow.

Thus, for example, if seeking an introduction to IOR research on trust, the first place to go is Bachmann and Zaheer's chapter in Part IV. The chapter is framed such that it indicates clearly theoretical areas that the authors see as being of central importance. These would be areas to follow up with literature searches. The chapter contains cross‐references to the chapters on Alliances and Joint Ventures (Dacin et al.), Social Network Theory (Kenis and Oerlemans), Transaction Cost Economics (Hennart), and Theories of Contract (Ring). The cross‐references within the chapter are intended to provide more detail in areas that it covers. By contrast the Introduction to Part IV focuses on identifying areas that are underprivileged in the chapter and providing pointers to these elsewhere in the book. Thus it highlights the chapters on social psychology (Schruijer), intervention approaches (Gray), and local and regional partnerships (Geddes), each of which has substantial amounts of text dedicated to trust. Finally, since trust is an ubiquitous concept, the index reveals references to it in almost every other chapter of the book.

It is our hope that in using this book—whether to seek understanding of a specific topic or for more general purposes—readers will move out of their comfort zone and read beyond their normal sphere of interest. We imagine psychologists reading about critical theory and critical theorists reading about economic geography, where their influence can be seen. We envisage those concerned with commercial joint ventures reading about voluntary and community sector partnerships and those concerned with policy networks reading about business networks and project organizations. And so on. We believe—and we will address this point in the Conclusion—that these previously disparate contributions have significance together. Though these contributions to a field of study may yet lack full coherence, there is much that its various elements have to offer each other.


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