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Journal cover: International Journal of Organizational Analysis

International Journal of Organizational Analysis

ISSN: 1934-8835

Online from: 1993

Subject Area: Organization Studies

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Innovative uses of evolutionary/ecological approaches in the study and understanding of organizations

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Article citation: Colin Jones, Dermot Breslin, (2012) "Innovative uses of evolutionary/ecological approaches in the study and understanding of organizations", International Journal of Organizational Analysis, Vol. 20 Iss: 3, pp. -



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Article Type: Guest editorial From: International Journal of Organizational Analysis, Volume 20, Issue 3

The motivation for this special edition has lay restless for several years, never far from surfacing to act on the recent invitation of Aldrich (1999) for scholars to continue thinking about the study of organizations using an evolutionary and/or ecological approach. One of us (Breslin) is committed to generalising Darwinism within the study of socio-cultural change. The other of us (Jones) is specifically concerned with developing a more complete and consistent ecological approach to the study of organizations. We are also inspired by recent work that places Darwinism (Hodgson and Knudsen, 2010, p. viii) as a “metatheorectical framework that stimulates further inquiry and provides a repository for contingent auxiliary theories and models”.

We are united by a particular interest in the relations between human behaviour (collective or otherwise) and its direct and indirect surrounds. Nearly 80 years ago the prominent human ecologist McKenzie (1934, p. 59) noted that:

[…] the basic difference between human ecology and the ecologies of lower organisms lies in the fact that man is capable of a higher level of behaviour in his adaptation process. As a cultural animal man creates, within limitations, his own habitat.

Surprisingly, despite recognition that human behaviour (intentional or otherwise) has the capacity to alter environments and therefore alter processes of selection, patterns of variation and disrupt or sustain the retention of past variation, this issue is drawn little research. Our special edition seeks to partially redress this omission. We present six papers germane to the use of evolutionary/ecological approaches to the study of organizations, capture aspects of man altering his environs; intentionally or accidentally, be they the immediate surrounds related to his or her habits of thought through to the broader ecological environment in which the drama of collective life is play out upon.

The biggest challenge for the evolutionary approach in the study of organisations is moving from grand narratives, and meta theories to the development of middle range theory, and crucially much more empirical work. Drawing from auxiliary theories in a variety of domains of study (Stoelhorst, 2008), some have attempted to build middle range theory to conceptualise changing organisational behaviour (Aldrich, 1999), innovation (Ziman, 2000) and entrepreneurship (Breslin, 2008; Jones, 2005). However, these efforts have stopped short of extensive empirical investigation. Others have re-interpreted historical data through the evolutionary mechanisms of variation, selection and retention, to describe strategic change (Burgelman, 1991) and technology (Arthur, 2009; Murmann, 2003). The longer term development of the approach will be determined by the joint efforts in both directions, meeting in the middle as theory becomes verified by empirical evidence. Campbell (1974) put forward an evolutionary account of evolving knowledge in organisation studies, as socially constructed theories evolve through variation, and selective retention, reflecting in many ways a Kuhnian (Kuhn, 1996) account of emerging theories and paradigms. In this sense the evolutionary approach might still be considered to be in a pre-paradigmatic phase, with a lack of consensus on the approach adopted, including among others generalised Darwinism (Aldrich et al., 2008; Breslin, 2011), continuity hypotheses theory (Witt, 2004) or evolutionary psychology (Nicholson et al., 2006; Shane, 2010). Ultimately all these approaches are based on theoretical musings on how evolutionary theory might be used to describe and explain behaviour in organizations.

Examining the state of play within the field through the evolutionary lens of variation-selection-retention, we can see that variation in approach and conceptualisations continues to dominate the evolutionary project. While such variation can fuel the process of evolution, and thereby increase the possibilities of finding a theory which might be of use to researchers and practitioners alike, it can also lead to pitched battles between different groups, with the risk of cannibalizing the overall development of the approach and most importantly the inclusion of researchers outside the field. This latter acceptance and selection of the approach by the wider management community remains marginal, and while some key evolutionary papers have been published in leading organisation studies journals, a lack of empirical investigation continue to hamper major inroads being made in this area. Clearly major advances in empirical work are therefore needed to present the approach as a viable alternative to other theoretical approaches and crucially gaining wider acceptance in the mainstream management community. Moreover, such moves will allow researchers to decide which of the various nuances of evolutionary accounts have more value for research in management and organisations.

The first paper

“Organizational adaptation: an update” – Gianpaolo Abatecola.

This paper aims at contributing to the debate on organizational adaptation by providing both scholars and practitioners with reasoned observations as to where this research domain is and, perhaps, could be going, and as to what important questions and gaps still exist in this research area. The article tries to inform the conversation through updating the lenses of the “determinism versus voluntarism” approach seminally used by Astley and Ven de Ven for commenting the state of the art in the 1980s. In particular, the article aims at enhancing the debate through a timely critical discussion of the extant literature, whose comparative analysis starts from the 1960s. The analysis mainly indicates that, since Astley and Van de Ven’s milestone, the dichotomy between determinism and voluntarism has been reduced, although it still exists. The co-evolutionary approach can constitute a promising tool for the further reducing of the dichotomy, but more research seems to be needed to improve its utility. The key contribution of this article is that it tries to shed light on how and why the discussed schools of thought have been theoretically and empirically evolving, what issues they have mainly addressed and if some visible or invisible colleges can be found among them. Moreover, the article analyses what scholarly positions still remain dichotomous to date and what positions scholars have reconciled, either totally or partially. Finally, it also proposes some possible avenues for further investigations within this research domain.

The second paper

“The evolution of entrepreneurial learning” – Dermot Breslin and Colin Jones.

The aim of the paper is to present an evolutionary perspective on entrepreneurial learning whilst also accounting for fundamental ecological processes. This paper focuses on the development of key recurring, knowledge components within nascent and growing small businesses. A range of hierarchical levels and different types of selection are accounted for in our approach, as are various mechanisms that account for entrepreneurial learning. The paper presents a timely review of literature in the fields of organizational evolution and general ecology. Key developments within the approach are then related to current research on entrepreneurial learning, with arguments presented in favour of adopting a multi-level evolutionary perspective that captures and explains hidden ecological process, such as niche-construction. A multi-level focus on key recurring knowledge components over time provides access to many unique features of the notion of entrepreneurial learning thereby providing access to new perspectives on the process of entrepreneurial learning. An evolutionary approach offers researchers the opportunity to use the framework of variation-selection-retention to develop a multi-level representation of organizational and entrepreneurial learning. Building on past research the conceptualization of entrepreneurial learning in this manner can shed new light on a well studied phenomenon and led to the cross-fertilization of ideas across domains. Entrepreneurial learning, viewed as a multi-level struggle for survival amongst competing knowledge components provides a new way to consider the way in which entrepreneurs behave and make decisions.

The third paper

“Characterizing the evolution of commercial organizational spaces” – Stephen Dobson.

The analogy of the city as an evolving system is an enduring one that is both universally acknowledged and greatly researched in equal measure. This paper aims to illustrate the potential for urban characterization studies, emerging from the fields of cultural heritage and landscape, to provide a rich source of data for exploring the characteristics of spatial adaptation and innovation over time. An analysis of commercial organizational space in the city of Sheffield, UK is provided here as the subject of study which employs English Heritage’s Historic Landscape Characterization dataset to explore temporal characteristics of commercial space within a broader context of change, at the city-wide scale. It is hoped that the approach presented may provide an important stage in thinking about the spatial relationships between business and society over time and particularly their interdependence within a city ecology. The scope is therefore to explore multi-level evolutionary characteristics of sociocultural space, appreciating multi-scale temporal change through a broad lens of Darwinism. It is proposed here that to achieve culturally sustainable development against a context of urban “deterritorialization” and homogenization the very character and distinctiveness of innovation and change needs to be explicitly acknowledged. An evolutionary approach to organizational space is suggested here as a means to locate such adaptation and spatial change in “place”.

The fourth paper

“An extra-memetic empirical methodology to accompany theoretical memetics” – Jameson Gill.

This paper describes the difficulties encountered by researchers who are looking to operationalise theoretical memetics and provides a methodological avenue for studies that can test meme theory. The application of evolutionary theory to organisations is reviewed by critically reflecting on the validity of its truth claims. To focus the discussion a number of applications of meme theory are reviewed to raise specific issues which ought to be the subject of empirical investigation. Subsequently, the empirical studies conducted to date are assessed in terms of the progress made and conclusions for further work are drawn. The paper finds that the key questions posed by memetic theory have yet to be addressed empirically and that a recurring weakness is the practice of assuming the existence of a replicating unit of culture which has, however, yet to be demonstrated as a valid concept. Therefore, an “extra-memetic” methodology is deemed to be necessary for the development of memetics as a scientific endeavour. Narrative analysis is abducted as an appropriate avenue for the operationalisation of extramemetic empirical research. The paper highlights inconsistencies, embedded in much of the memetic literature, which have not previously been recognised and the colloquial nature of the discipline is challenged from a positive but critical perspective.

Consequently, the paper develops a rationale for the adoption of a widely recognised social science methodology for memetics which has been absent to date. In proposing narrative orientated research, knowledge concerning memes’ validity can be facilitated whilst avoiding the current circularity in memetic truth claims.

The fifth paper

“The selfish signifier: meaning, virulence and transmissibility in a management fashion” – Ilfryn Price.

Management fashions can be, and have been, conceptualized as narrative elements competing for replication and resources in the wider managerial discourse. Most wax and wane through a life cycle. Some achieve an extended place and even a transition to quasi permanent institutions. Facilities/facility management (FM) is one such example. The case draws FM’s history since 1968 and asks whether it is compatible with recent and classic (Darwin, 1871) thoughts on cultural evolution as a selection process between competing discourses. Several properties of that history are argued as compatible with the theoretical stance taken particularly the mutation of the syntactic content to suit local circumstances and the dilution of the term’s intent. Success attributes in the selective competition include contingency, securing an organizational home and mutability (what was represented became, more operational, less virulent but in the process more transmissible). In spreading globally the signifier/meme FM also proved mutatable to local managerial discourses. The study supports a developing paradigm that it is possible to view organizations as ecologies of variously, memes, signifiers, narratives, representations or discourses. All five terms are shown to have been used to make similar significations by different authors. It shows how a natural history of narrative memes can be constructed.

The sixth paper

“Reviving organisational memetics through Cultural Linnæanism” – Andrew Sinclair Lord.

This paper proposes a Linnaean nomenclature for cultural taxonomy in an attempt to address a definitional problem that has retarded the progress of empirical organisational memetics. A resolution may provide insight into potential evolutionary mechanisms of organisational development. Methods in evolutionary biology are well known; by comparison, memetics and cultural science are embryonic. By retracing the developmental footsteps of the more senior science, the essential methodological processes may be emulated by cultural empiricists. A case of film genre studies definitional difficulties serves as a bridging concept which highlights the insufficiency of significance as a basis for classification. A fixed, definitive and objective alternative for cultural taxonomy is offered using the Linnaean template. Vernacular naming invokes meaning making about the use of artifacts. However, significance is a poor basis for scientific classification. A dedicated and structured neolexicon for cultural phenomena, a parody of scientific binomens, will decouple the hermeneutic impulse thereby allowing an objective comparative morphology among organisations. Objectivity among taxa may resolve definitional uncertainties impeding organisational memetics. Development of the proposed Cultural Linnaeanism will unambiguously identify cultural and organisational taxa and enable methods to be drawn from the life sciences into memetics. The zoological and botanical methods date from the eighteenth century onwards. The application, however is in consiliance, jumping together knowledge from the arts and humanities and the sciences. The value of this present work is to furnish organizational memetics with a solid foundation for empirical research.

In light of the discussion above, this special issue seeks to add further to the mechanism of variation by presenting a range of different conceptualisations of the evolutionary approach. We hope that together, the papers presented in this special edition rekindle curiosity in why there is a tendency for ever-increasing diversity and complexity (McShea and Brandon, 2010) in the evolutionary/ecological systems in which organizations operate. Diversity and complexity that is explainable via the mechanisms of variation, selection and retention. We also hope that the papers presented here stimulate an interest in returning to many seminal evolutionary/ecological works to verify their original contribution.


Aldrich, H.E. (1999), Organizations Evolving, Sage, London
Aldrich, H.E., Hodgson, G.M., Hull, D.L., Knudsen, T., Mokyr, J. and Vanberg, V.J. (2008), “In defence of generalized Darwinism”, Journal of Evolutionary Economics, Vol. 18, pp. 577–96
Arthur, W.B. (2009), The Nature of Technology: What It Is and How It Evolves, Penguin Books, London
Breslin, D. (2008), “A review of the evolutionary approach to the study of entrepreneurship”, International Journal of Management Reviews, Vol. 10 No. 4, pp. 399–423
Burgelman, R.A. (1991), “Intraorganizational ecology of strategy making and organizational adaptation: theory and field research”, Organization Science, Vol. 2, pp. 239–62
Campbell, D. (1974), “Evolutionary epistemology”, in Schilpp, P.A. (Ed.), The Philosophy of Karl Popper, Open Court Publishing, Lasalle, IL, pp. 413–63
Hodgson, G.M. and Knudsen, T. (2010), Darwin’s Conjecture, University of Chicago Press, London
Jones, C. (2005), “Firm transformation: advancing a Darwinian perspective”, Management Decision, Vol. 43 No. 1, pp. 13–25
Kuhn, T.S. (1996), The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 3rd ed., University of Chicago Press, London
McKenzie, R. (1934), “Demography, human geography, and human ecology”, in Bernard, L.L. (Ed.), The Fields and Methods of Sociology, Ray Long & Richard R. Smith, New York, NY
McShea, D.W. and Brandon, R.N. (2010), Biology’s First Law, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL
Murmann, J.P. (2003), Knowledge and Competitive Advantage: The Co-evolution of Firms, Technology and National Institutions, Cambridge University Press, New York, NY
Nicholson, N. and White, R. (2006), “Darwinism – a new paradigm for organizational behavior?”, Journal of Organizational Behavior, Vol. 27, pp. 111–19
Shane, S. (2010), Born Entrepreneurs, Born Leaders: How Your Genes Affect Your Work Life, Oxford University Press, New York, NY
Stoelhorst, J.W. (2008), “The explanatory logic and ontological commitments of generalized Darwinism”, Journal of Economic Methodology, Vol. 15 No. 4, pp. 343–63
Witt, U. (2004), “On the proper interpretation of ‘evolution’ in economics and its implications for production theory”, Journal of Economic Methodology, Vol. 11 No. 2, pp. 125–46
Ziman, J. (2000), Technological Innovation as an Evolutionary Process, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, MA

Colin Jones, Dermot Breslin
Guest Editors