Do social movements matter to organizations? An institutional theory perspective on corporate responses to the contemporary environmental movement

Open Access
Bergh, Julianne
Graduate Program:
Doctor of Philosophy
Document Type:
Date of Defense:
May 02, 2002
Committee Members:
  • Dr Kevin T Leicht, Committee Member
  • Dr John D Mc Carthy, Committee Chair
  • Linda K Trevino, Committee Chair
  • Dr Martin Kilduff, Committee Member
  • Richard James Bord, Committee Member
  • institutional environments
  • social movements
  • organization theory
  • institutional theory
Social movements, defined as collectively held ideals, beliefs, or opinions that promote or resist social change (Snow & Oliver, 1995; Zurcher & Snow, 1992; McCarthy & Zald, 1977; Maxwell & Oliver, 1984; Oliver, 1989) have become increasingly prevalent in American society (Macionis, 1995, p.625). To advance their agenda of social change, social movements put pressures on both American society in general and on specific segments of this society for change. American corporations represent one significant segment of American society often targeted by social movements. However, little is known about how social movements influence organizations (Oliver, 1991). This dissertation examines this issue by examining the impact of one social movement, the contemporary environmental movement, on organizational behavior. It asks the question, under what conditions do organizations respond to social movements? A panel of fifty-seven firms from two industries was the focus of this study. These firms were followed from 1970 until 1995 to assess the impact of the contemporary environmental movement on their structures and actions. Institutional theory provided the basis for explaining how social movements influence organizations. Following institutional theory logic four primary forces were identified: public support, industry attention, legal support, and regulatory support for the environmental movement. The results suggest that firms do respond to social movements. In particular, firms were most likely to respond to increases in public support for and industry attention to the environmental movement. Further, contrary to conventional wisdom (c.f. Hardin, 1968)increases in coercion by the federal government in terms of legal mandates and regulatory power did not appear to influence organizational actions. Surprisingly, firms appear to learn about their environment through watching other firms and not from their own experiences. Finally, and most generally, the findings suggest that social movements do influence organizational behavior even in the face of organizational inertia and financial constraints. These findings have several implications for theoretical development. First, they suggest that the institutional environment should not be thought of as monolithic. The various institutional forces appear to influence organizations differently. Further, the results suggest that direct coercion may not play an integral role in organizational action, as has been expected. Finally, these findings suggest that firms appear to learn about and experience their environments vicariously and that these lessons may be more powerful than a firm's own direct experiences. This implies that organizational learning from the environment may be a complex and multifaceted phenomenon.