Scholarship on alternative organizations and cooperatives has argued that networks and intermediaries foster organizational form stability and protect collectivist-democratic organizations from rationalization as well as decoupling. This study of field-level organizing among food co-ops in the United States shows that rather than buffering collectivist organizations from conventional market and rationalization pressures, meta-organizations can also serve as a conduit for rationalizing pressures, subjecting vulnerable organizations to what I call quasi-coercive isomorphism. Using interviews of field participants, ethnographic observations of conferences, and content analysis of organizational documents, I examine the formation and impact of National Co+op Grocers, a meta-cooperative created to leverage scale and pool resources among food co-ops. I find that this meta-organization enforced grocery industry-oriented norms of operation, management, and presentation among its member organizations in return for providing mutual liability and economies of scale. This focus on select operationally scalable processes and structures for support generated isomorphic pressures that exposed, rather than sheltered, co-ops, especially smaller, resource-poor ones, from industry standards. The meta-organization thus promoted a sectorized model of more marketized practices for the field’s cooperatives that pushed co-ops to adopt conventional grocery store practices and distanced them from the practices of other cooperative form fields. Moreover, the potential of cooperative form-specific elements for scaling was not realized: collective ownership and democratic governance remained local concerns. These findings suggest that whether meso-level cooperation among cooperatives can support alternative form maintenance is contingent on the structure and scope of the meta-organization and on the perceived scalability of operational and governance elements of the cooperative organizational form.
I would like to thank my thesis committee – Paul-Brian McInerney, William Bielby, Pam Popielarz, Katherine Chen, and Elisabeth Clemens – for their genuine interest in and engagement with this project. Michael Haedicke and Philip Howard also encouraged my questions and shared their food co-op expertise generously. A number of scholarly communities were crucial in motivating and advancing this project. The Society for the Advancement of Socio-Economics’ 2017 mini-conference “Seeking a More Just and Egalitarian Economy: Realizing the Future via Co-operatives, Communes, and Other Collectives,” co-organized by Joyce Rothschild and Katherine Chen, and the subsequent network Alternatives to Capitalism offered a scholarly home for this project and helped me articulate its contributions in exchange with other participants. Specifically, I would like to thank Genevieve Shanahan and Stephane Jaumier for inviting me to present at Grenoble École de Management, and Marc Schneiberg for championing this project throughout. Another space that facilitated this project was opened to me by Joseph Blasi, who invited me to join the Institute for Employee Ownership at the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations. The academic and practitioner community around employee ownership in the United States helped me build relationships within the platform co-op community and connect my research on cooperatives with broader policy debates. Last but not least, Katherine Chen and Victor Chen were the most engaged editors I could imagine, and I thank them for their dedication in shaping this paper.
Young, C. (2021), "The Iron Cage Has a Mezzanine: Collectivist-Democratic Organizations and the Selection of Isomorphic Pressures via Meta-Organization", Chen, K.K. and Chen, V.T. (Ed.) Organizational Imaginaries: Tempering Capitalism and Tending to Communities through Cooperatives and Collectivist Democracy (Research in the Sociology of Organizations, Vol. 72), Emerald Publishing Limited, Bingley, pp. 113-139. https://doi.org/10.1108/S0733-558X20210000072005
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