Call for Papers
Not only the traditional economic theory of the firm, but also the sociological and business theories of organization refer to the ‘Betrieb’ as a corporate actor. This is a simplistic assumption that is often justified – also against better knowledge e.g. in old and new institutionalist organization theory, contract or decision theory perspectives or even systems theory approaches – with regard to empirical research. The simplification is strengthened further by the assumption that corporate actors – like individual actors – pursue goals, develop strategies and – like persons – have attitudes and opinions.
To illustrate this with an example: In Germany, not only corporations but also establishments act as legal entities. German collective labor law operates on the level of establishments where works councils are elected and co-determination takes place. Accordingly, the central subject-matter of the field of Business Administration is defined as the “Betrieb” (the establishment) as a corporate actor.
One particular challenge of empirical research is to delimit its survey units. While the idea of firms and organizations as corporate actors is used internationally, empirical investigations fall back on legal concepts such as firm, establishment or employer, which are neither uniformly defined beyond national legal classifications nor identical with organizational theory categories. Thus defining the ‘Betrieb’ as corporate actor constitutes both an empirical and theoretical challenge involving economic, business, sociological and also judicial theories.
With our workshop “The ‘Betrieb’ as Corporate Actor – Theoretical and Empirical Challenges”, we aim to discuss and partially answer the following questions and share ideas and concepts on how to treat these problems in our research. The notion of corporate actor appeals to (a) the sociological and political analysis of organizations, (b) the concept of the legal person’s rights to make decisions and take action, (c) the normative problem of whether establishments should be seen as ends from a welfare-economic perspective or merely as means of individual actors, and (d) the methodological need to differentiate between the unit of analysis and the survey unit.
In order to explore the subject further and to disentangle the various meanings which the notion of “corporate actor” takes on, we will discuss the following questions (not a comprehensive list) from a theoretical as well as a methodological perspective:
- Visibility and appearance
How does an organization become (in)visible as a corporate actor? When do we indeed observe a corporate actor and corporate actions and decision results, and when do we only monitor individual actors but mistakenly interpret their opinions, attitudes and stance as that of corporate actors?
How do corporate actors decide and form preferences? What do we know about the decision-making processes and their results that makes us confident enough to talk and think of corporate actors as homogeneous decision units? How do we get valid information that reflect corporate decisions?
- Internal structures
What elements of the internal structure of the corporate actor – for example with regard to formal work teams, informal teams, social groups, hierarchical levels, to algorithms and AI, to stewards and agents, to actors in industrial relations and collective labor law – are important for our decisions how to treat corporate actors in research? Which theories may bridge the gap between individual and collective actors? Which elements of these theories may help us to better inform our empirical research related to corporate actors?
- Accounting and responsibilities
On what basis can actions and results of actions be attributed to corporate actors? What possibilities are associated with this for the internal and external control of organizations and the rules for the distribution of results of actions?
- Erosion of corporate entities
What do we know about the erosion or invigoration of corporate actors? Digitalization and globalization have strengthened networks and dissolved boundaries of firms and establishments as well as hierarchies: What qualifies corporate actors in times of boundaryless corporations?
Answers to all these questions also have to be considered under the current conditions of the Covid-19 pandemic. Acceptance and practice of home office and teleworking has increased, thereby changing the visibility and appearance of the organizations as well as decision-making processes and internal structures. While this seems to further contribute to the erosion of corporate entities, the dependence on global value chains has been called into question.