An International Conference in Vancouver, Canada

Although the relevance of organizational research to societal problems has been a heated debate for at least a decade and has generated a proliferation of polemics and prescriptions (Starkey & Madan, 2001, Hinings & Greenwood, 2002, Gulati, 2007, Lorsch, 2009, Dover & Lawrence, 2010), organizational scholars have not produced sufficient systematic empirical and theoretical examinations of social inequality, and especially of how organizations and institutions contribute to or mitigate inequality.

The issue of social inequality is a profound one for contemporary societies, both developed and developing. Despite Vermeulen ‘s(2010) claims that helping businesses make more money is itself a major contribution to society because social welfare increases when businesses make more money, a growing body of research contradicts this claim. Rich societies do not necessarily tend to do better in terms of social and health indicators. Equal ones do. Thus Greece, with all its problems has a higher life expectancy with $20,000 per capita income than the USA which boasts twice the per capita income. Income inequality is also growing in its prevalence and impact. In 2007, the top 1% households in the US owned 42.7% of total household financial wealth. In 1960, the ratio of annual pay of CEOs of large and medium sized American companies to that of workers was 42. By 2007 it had shot up to 344.

The growing problem of inequality in developed countries appears connected to the growing power of large corporations. Barley (2007), for instance, argues that large corporations wield inordinate influence over policy-making, hamper the performance of institutions created to protect the public from corporate excesses and, together with various multilateral institutions, push for increased privatization of public services. In a similar vein, Davis (2009), proposes the financialization of the economy has been a powerful catalyst for inequality. Shareholder value creation is the only imperative with employment, economic mobility or other benefits such as health or retirement increasingly forgotten. A symptom of such a changes is the shift in elite incomes: in 2004, the top 25 hedge fund managers earned a greater combined income than the CEOs from the entire S&P 500.

Social inequality is tied to but broader than inequality in income or wealth. It includes inequality in access to health care, education, housing, food, economic resources, power structures, or areas of recreation; degradation of living conditions, the environment, social structures, or relationships; and direct or indirect exploitation of groups on the basis of gender, race, ethnicity, nationality, socio-economic status, disability, or sexuality. All of these are driven in part by the distribution of wealth, but also have their own specific dynamics and challenges.

A critical way in which organizational scholars can contribute to a better understanding of social inequality is through an examination of the roles played by organizations and institutions in producing, reproducing, and lessening social inequality. An institutional perspective on these issues would highlight the ways in which social rules, beliefs, norms, values and practices are mediated through formal organizations to reinforce or challenge social inequality.  It would further highlight the institutional work of individual and organizational actors in the formation, ongoing operation, and potential transformation of institutions that include certain groups, while excluding others, reinforce unequal access to power and decision-making mechanisms, and provide freedom and wealth to some parts of society, while impoverishing and constraining others.

A focus on organizations and institutions might explore institutions and actors most clearly tied to issues of social inequality, including those with formal decision-making power, such as politicians, corporate managers, senior civil servants, educators, and leaders of non-profit organizations. It coulc also examine, however, institutions and actors tied to the construction of culture, and thus the shaping of values and beliefs, such as film and television producers, media writers, designers, architects, professors, and enablers of mass forms of communication. Finally, an institutional lens could also explore acts of resistance, ranging from the occasional and highly symbolic (Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat on a Birmingham, Alabama, bus) to the everyday tactics employed by the weak (silent non-compliance, gossip, petty sabotage, small theft and pilferage, etc.).

Despite the tremendous growth in institutional research over the past decades and its potential utility in exploring issues of inequality, the intersection of social inequality, organizations and institutions remains significantly under-examined. Our aim for this special issue is to help fill this important gap. Thus, we invite papers that explore a range of themes, including the following:

  • The impact of specific sets of institutions on social inequality, and how those impacts are mediated by organizations
  • The creation and persistence of particular organizations (e.g., multilateral agencies, associations or clubs) and their impact on specific forms and instances of inequality domains;
  • The development or employment of technology in the persistence and creation of inequality;
  • The institutional work of specific individual organizational actors to increase or decrease social inequality.
  • The unintended consequences on social inequality of organizational actions.
  • The use and exposure of devices that disguise inequality;
  • The collective mobilization against (or in support of) inequality;
  • The legitimization of particular domains of activity that lead to greater or lesser inequality;
  • Silences and absence of theorization with respect to inequality in institutional analyses;

This list is, of course, meant to be illustrative, rather than exhaustive. Our goal is to broaden and deepen the exploration of how, why, when and where social inequality, organizations and institutions interact. We welcome work that seeks engagement with a wide range of theoretical and empirical approaches. These may include institutional logics, practices and/or routines, feminism, critical theory, critical race theory, actor network theory, sensemaking, semiotics, network analyses, discourse analyses, and action research approaches. We equally welcome case studies, comparative research projects, ethnographies, survey-based work, large statistical analyses, and conceptual pieces.


Conference Structure

The conference is intended to provide the opportunity for high quality discussion and feedback for presenters. To achieve those ends, a limited number of papers will be accepted so that presenters can more deeply engage with each others’ work. All presented papers will be given reasonable time slots to allow for meaningful discussion and development of ideas.


The conference is intended to host approximately fifty participants for intensive mutual discussions. Our aim is to secure participation from around the world and to give equal opportunity to newer as well as more established scholars.

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