The Demography and Ecology of Organizations

Ecological analysis is appropriate when organizations are subject to strong inertial pressures and face changeable, uncertain environments. Under these conditions there are strong parallels between processes of change in organizational populations and in biotic populations. In such cases it may be useful to eschew the typical social-scientific preoccupation with single organizations and their environments (and the associated predilection to reason anthropomorphically about organizations) and instead concentrate on analyzing selection and replacement in populations of organizations. As we try to demonstrate, such a shift in focus opens new and interesting questions.

The population ecology perspective concentrates on the sources of vari-ability and homogeneity of organizational forms. It considers the rise of new organizational forms and the demise or transformation of existing ones. In doing so, it pays considerable attention to population dynamics, especially the processes of competition among diverse organizations for limited resources such as membership, capital, and legitimacy.

A general treatment of the dynamics of the relations between organizations and environments involves analysis at several levels of complexity.

The first level, which concerns the demography of organizations,’ considers variations in vital rates for organizational populations: founding rates, merger rates, and disbanding rates. It considers variations in these rates both over time and between populations and seeks to identify basic regularities in such rates. It also tries to relate variations in the rates to patterns of change in environments. Surprisingly, organizational researchers have devoted little attention to the demography of organizational populations. Thus there is little well-established theory and research on which to base more complicated models of organizational ecology. For this reason we devote considerable attention to establishing demographic baseline models on which to ground ecological and evolutionary models.

The second level, which concerns the population ecology of organizations, attempts to link vital rates between populations. Instead of considering each organizational population as an autonomous unit facing its environment, population ecology models describe how founding rates and mortality rates are affected by the presence and density of other populations of organizations. In other words, this kind of analysis tries to accommodate the view that the environments of organizations are not purely exogenous but are comprised of other organizational populations. Thus, population ecology addresses the interactive character of organizational change.

A pattern of ecological dynamics can arise for several reasons. Consider the case of differentials in selection, the balance of foundings and mortality. The growth and decline of populations may reflect the strategic responses of managers and leaders to changing environmental conditions. They may also reflect imitation of successful organizations, or the spread of organizational fads from schools of management or professional societies. Alternatively, the patterns of changing numbers might reflect differences in survival chances (or growth rates) of structurally inert organizational forms facing changing environments. Whether a given pattern of selection reflects planned adaptation, social imitation, or organizational competition for scarce resources is a sociologically interesting question.

The third level concerns the community ecology of organizations. A community of organizations is a set of interacting populations. Some analysts refer to such communities as organizational fields (Warren 1967) or as societal sectors (Meyer and Scott 1983). A typical community of organizations in industrial settings is composed of populations of firms, populations of labor unions, and populations of regulatory agencies. Community ecology investigates the evolution of patterns of community structure. These patterns are usually represented in the pattern of links among constituent populations. That is, community ecology considers how the links between and among populations affect the likelihood of persistence of the community as a whole.

Although we work at all three levels, this book devotes the most attention to demographic and population ecological processes. This emphasis reflects our belief that development of a community ecology of organizations presumes knowledge of the other two ecological processes.

Source: Hannan Michael T., Freeman John (1993), Organizational Ecology, Harvard University Press; Reprint edition.

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