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date: 17 October 2019

(p. 281) Theoretical and Disciplinary Perspectives on the Study of Inter‐organizational Relations (p. 282)

(p. 283) Introduction

The nine chapters that make up Part III present key theories and disciplinary perspectives that have sought to describe and explain Inter‐organizational relations and their effects. Each offers a distinctive lens, or frame, through which the study of IORs may be undertaken. As we noted in the Introduction to this Handbook, we have chosen to concentrate primarily on theoretical contributions from organization science. Research on IORs has both grown out of, and has mainly drawn on, the theoretical base of organization science and this is treated in some detail. This part thus contains chapters on (in order of appearance), the social network perspective, evolutionary theory, transaction cost theory, critical perspectives, and the management perspective. However, other disciplines have made significant contributions to our understanding of IORs, or have the clear potential to do so even if they have not yet been fully acknowledged in organization science research. We included chapters on the social psychological, the political, economic geographic, and legal perspectives in this category. Like organization science, these neighbouring disciplines are finely differentiated and so the authors covering them have had to be especially judicious in their selection of materials and to treat the individual perspectives and research contributions of their respective discipline in a more abbreviated manner.

How did we select the theoretical and disciplinary perspectives represented in this section? In their bibliometric analysis of IOR research, Oliver and Ebers (1998) surveyed research published in four leading journals between 1980 and 1996 and identified seventeen theoretical perspectives within organizational science alone. While for reasons of space we could not accommodate all these perspectives, we have sought to include those that have generated significant research interest and output recently. But we also wanted to incorporate theoretical perspectives that would represent the range of perspectives that exists in IOR research and that can be described on the basis of criteria such as epistemological and ontological assumptions, explanatory goals and mechanisms, and level of analysis (Burrell and Morgan 1979; Van de Ven and Poole 1995; Borgatti and Foster 2003). We pored over the main organization theory journals, textbooks, and other handbooks in organization science to build a list of candidate theoretical perspectives. We then applied the two just‐mentioned criteria in order to select the entries for this Handbook.

While the social network perspective, evolutionary theory, transaction cost theory, critical perspectives, and the management perspective clearly figure prominently in research on IOR, other theoretical perspectives could equally have been (p. 284) included yet were not. Let us address up‐front a glaring omission. This Handbook contains no chapter on institutional theory from a sociological perspective (Powell and DiMaggio 1991; Scott 2001; Strang and Sine 2002), although throughout this Handbook readers will find many references underlining the significance of this theoretical perspective for the study of IOR and of organizations in general. The reason that this Handbook does not contain a chapter on the sociological institutional theory perspective on IOR is simple: the author was unable to deliver on a timely basis leaving us without time to find a substitute.

Readers might perhaps regard it as an equally troubling omission, at least at first sight, that this section of the Handbook also lacks a separate chapter on resource dependence theory (Pfeffer and Salancik 2003), as this perspective arguably is one of the most cited and most central perspectives in IOR research (see Oliver and Ebers 1998). However, while resource dependency theory is much cited, in recent times it has rarely been applied to the study of organizations or IORs. As Pfeffer (2005) himself notes, the theory nowadays is often used as a metaphor or general theoretical orientation, rather than as an object for empirical testing and theoretical refinement (for exceptions see e.g. Beckman et al. 2004; Casciaro and Piskorski 2005). Moreover, many resource dependence arguments have been absorbed or taken up by other approaches, such as transaction cost economics, institutional theory, the network perspective, or perspectives on power (Pfeffer 2005). This observation is empirically underscored by Oliver and Ebers's (1998) finding that in the space of IOR research, resource dependence theory is closely associated with the just‐noted research foci. Thus, although resource dependence theory itself does not have its own entry in this Handbook, its core ideas are nevertheless represented and taken up in various chapters, for example in those by Kenis and Oerlemans, Huxham and Beech, Lomi, Negro, and Fonti, as well as Knoke and Chen.

A further seeming omission concerns the strategy perspective. Three theoretical streams of strategy research seem particularly relevant for the study of IORs. One, associated with the resource‐based theory of the firm (Barney 1991), focuses on the relational capabilities as a source of competitive advantage for firms (Dyer and Singh 1998); another, associated with the industrial organization perspective (Porter 1985), stresses how non‐interactive relations between firms and complementors can produce competitive advantage (Yoffie and Kwak 2006); a third, the industrial marketing and purchasing approach (Håkansson 1982; Håkansson and Snehota 1989, 1995), regards buyer—seller transactions as episodes in often long‐standing and complex Inter‐organizational relationships and stresses how pre‐existing social relations among individuals, strategic intent, and task characteristics foster and support the development of IORs among organizations. We decided against a separate chapter on strategy in this part, though, mainly because much of the pertinent research is already covered in chapters in Part II of the Handbook, as most of the strategy research on IORs has tended to focus on particular manifestations of IORs, specifically on alliances and joint ventures, supply chains, and industrial districts. (p. 285) In order to avoid overkill on overlap, and because we feel that the strategy literature on IORs has relatively more to offer with regard to understanding manifestations than to IOR theory development, we refrained from including a strategy chapter in this part. Finally, some readers may miss a chapter on actor network theory (Callon and Latour 1981; Law and Hassard 1999). While this theory certainly represents an original contribution, so far it has not been applied to IOR research as frequently as the other entries in this part.

Four of the chapters in this part present and assess the contributions to IOR studies that have been made by disciplines that have not been so thoroughly assimilated within organizational studies. Why might research into IORs be interested in, and profit from, reading about the lenses other disciplines bring to bear, not least given the already strongly multidisciplinary base of organizational studies reflected in the five chapters that represent that field? And more specifically, why these perspectives?

Organization science is a still‐emerging field (McKelvey 2003) with IOR gradually becoming a more distinct focus for work. But several other disciplines have also taken IOR as an object of interest and have bodies both of concept and of evidence that could be a source of fruitful insight both in themselves (for understanding of IORs) and for organization science. For example, IOR research employing a sociological or a managerial perspective, prevalent in research based in organization science, has tended not to acknowledge the embeddedness of IORs in legal frameworks, political structures, or the impact that groups and individuals exert on IORs. Disciplines are more than simply a bundle of available theoretical resources; they also carry expected ways of proceeding in research, a body of accumulated evidence, and questions/contests to be addressed. As the chapters on the legal, political, social psychological perspectives, and economic geograph suggest, these have much to offer in complementing or deepening organization science frames of inquiry, and for reasons it is important to consider, have generated different amounts of empirical research. Ring, reviewing the legal perspective, notes that findings from early studies in law effectively closed down, across disciplines, what are now recognized to be interesting and important questions about the status and form of contract in IORs. Knoke and Chen highlight questions about power that are central to the political perspective, and the continuing questions about the politics of IORs—including, for example, issues of democratic governance—that are of great contemporary importance in the study of public policy networks (see also Klijn's chapter in Part II of this volume). Schruijer's review of the literature on IORs from a psychological perspective reveals relatively, and perhaps surprisingly, little engagement. The theoretical resources and the empirical findings she highlights could provoke important lines of inquiry into IOR—Schruijer's assessment that the sticking points are as much methodological as conceptual is worth further reflection. The chapter on economic geography illustrates a contrasting storyline. Yeung notes that economic geography has incorporated insights from organization (p. 286) studies and from disciplines, especially sociology and economics. And although he also highlights some epistemological and methodological questions to be addressed, in his account of the ‘relational turn’ and in his conclusions, Yeung notes the extent of interpenetration of problematiques, concepts, and methods of inquiry and suggests that the boundary line between organization studies and economic geography could continue to be explored and to ‘blur’ to mutual advantage.

A number of disciplines, some clearly very central to the study of IORs, are not represented in this section. There is no chapter on sociology, as we argued that the theoretical base of sociology is well‐covered by perspectives we have claimed for organization science—social network theory, evolutionary theory, and critical theory. Economics (with extensive theoretical work on, for example, contracting, industrial organization, game theory) was an obvious candidate for inclusion. How can we justify that we do not have a separate chapter on this large body of research? Economic theories are represented in the Handbook, including in the treatment of contracting (Ring), evolutionary economics (Lomi, Negro, and Fonti), transaction cost economics (Hennart), and economic geography (Yeung). By implication, we also decided against including a chapter on economic sociology (Guillen, Collius, England, and Meyer 2002; Swedberg 2003). Finally, the discipline of history, with its empirical preoccupation with trade, commerce, and guilds (e.g. Kieser 1989) might also have been a candidate for inclusion, if only to indicate resources available to researchers interested in more definitely historical, contextualized, and multilevel analyses of emergence and change in IORs including markets, populations, and networks. Yet at this point, too few researchers outside evolutionary perspectives on IOR (which is represented here) have utilized the potential of historical analyses of IORs for us to justify a separate chapter on the historical perspective.

What did we ask the chapter authors to do? Each individual chapter presents and critically assesses the specific set of assumptions, core concepts, and questions that the respective perspective applies to the study of IORs, and the insights it generates. We encouraged authors to assess the body of work representing the perspective in their own terms and to highlight its achievements, challenges, and the prospects for future research. They were also invited to provide brief descriptions of the history of the perspective, the research context in which it has developed, and research methods in use. The contributions were thus intended to set up the reader to ‘know’ the ways in which the topic has been framed and understood, the state of knowledge about the topic, and to provide a basis on which to relate the topic to research emanating from other research perspectives.

The various perspectives provide alternative conceptualizations, interpretations, and explanations of IORs, and so can neither fully subsume, nor substitute for, one another. Rather, the perspectives can be seen as complementing one another: each highlights particular aspects of IORs and may provide commensurate insights into the same phenomenon. This part of the Handbook is, then, both an invitation to extend our ways of seeing as IOR researchers and an invitation to connect or (p. 287) to distinguish theoretical resources that represent clearly different ways of understanding IORs.

Lomi, Negro, and Fonti, for example, point out how institutional and evolutionary theories converge in their analyses of social legitimation processes, and that variants of the ecological approach are beginning to incorporate network‐based processes of internal differentiation within organizational populations. In a similar vein, the social network perspective has inspired a number of other perspectives in IOR research, for instance on social capital, in economic geography, and political science. Likewise, a social psychology perspective may enrich our understanding of the factors and processes that lead to the formation of networks and impact the management of IORs. At the same time, only by recognizing other perspectives can scholars understand the specific boundaries that a particular perspective draws and the limitations it entails.

Rather than ignoring or seeking to disprove other perspectives, therefore, scholars can also embrace their variety (see Weick (2007) for an argument for richness of theory). That challenge, to ‘work theory’ for IOR research, demands a careful and critical response. The disciplines and theories we have included offer lenses with different levels of resolution—macro to micro—and a different ontology—state and process views of IORs for example—and different foci and interests. Linkage between theories may be profitable, but there are equally questions of theoretical integrity and coherence and avoidance of an ad hoc eclecticism. We hope that this part of the Handbook at least provokes further debate about these matters and encourages researchers judiciously to assess how and when linked theories might enrich descriptions, understanding, and explanations of IORs in powerful and valid ways.


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