Odziemkowska (2022). Frenemies: Overcoming Audiences’ Ideological Opposition to Firm–Activist Collaborations

Kate Odziemkowska – University of Toronto, Rotman School of Management

Lambert Zixin Li – Stanford University, Graduate School of Business
Kangyi (Connie) Liu – Tsinghua University

Article link: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/00018392211058206

1. Your paper uncovered many nuanced findings on an exciting topic. Could you please summarize the key message of your paper in one or two sentences for academic colleagues and graduate students? Could you please also do so for practitioners and/or policymakers?

Kate: The key messages for academics are as follows. First, conflict, or the threat of it, can be a catalyst for collaborative relationships when cooperating with friends of your enemies provides unique strategic benefits. Second, interorganizational relationships may be openly contested when they involve two parties embedded in different organizational fields with their own norms, ideologies and understandings of what is and isn’t legitimate.

The key message to practitioners is the following. There has been a meteoric rise in firms collaborating with social movements over the past two decades. However, not all movements are open to collaboration. Ideological opposition in a movement can stifle the formation of collaborations with firms, while intra-movement cooperation helps mute the effects of ideological opposition to enable cross-sector collaborations.

2. There is a tradition of sampling U.S. Fortune 500s in social movement research. In your opinion, what are the advantages and limitations of this approach, considering that more and more protests are against local firms and multinational corporations?

Kate: I chose to sample Fortune 500 because social movement organizations (SMOs) choose targets strategically, and tend to favor large, publicly recognized companies for their contentious targeting. This bore out in my data: in most industries, typically the five biggest companies are targeted. So a key advantage of this sampling approach is that I knew I would have sufficient observations for a key explanatory variable of collaboration: contentious targeting by a movement. The other benefit was that large companies have substantive public relations capabilities and media pays attention to the Fortune 500. This mattered because I relied on companies’ press releases, 10-Ks and media reports for data on contentious and collaborative interactions between SMOs the firms. Many of the firms in the sample are also multinationals, and contentiously targeted across many countries. One advantage of sampling the Fortune 500 in this regard is that you’re effectively controlling for any home-country effects (i.e., they are all U.S.-based firms) which we know matter to movement tactics and firms’ responsiveness to movements. The limitation is the generalizability of the findings to other countries where institutions (especially political ones) differ in ways that might suggest that contention and ideological opposition may play lesser roles in explaining cross-sector collaborations. In a similar manner, it would be challenging to generalize the findings on ideological opposition to small, local firms, which is one limitation I discuss explicitly in the paper. In other research with Sinziana Dorobantu (NYU Stern), we find a similar symbiosis between protest and formal collaborations/contracts between local firms and communities, with an underlying mechanism (i.e., threats to firms’ rent-generating resources) that echoes Frenemies. However, the role played by ideological opposition and local networks in stifling or enabling cross-sector collaborations in local, small firm contexts is an open question.

3. Why did you choose ASQ as the venue for this research, as opposed to, for example, the American Journal of Sociology? Based on your publication experience, what is unique about this venue besides its high bar for research quality? Could you tell us about the challenges or stories behind the drafting and publishing of this paper?

Kate: ASQ was my first choice for this paper because it’s the outlet where much of the discussion on firm-movement interactions has taken place. I wanted to contribute an understanding of collaborations between movements and firms, very distinct from (but not unrelated to) the contentious targeting of firms that has dominated that work.

What I really appreciated at ASQ was the ability to retain my voice and overarching message in the paper. My editor and reviewers were very knowledgeable on the topic, and steered me in directions that significantly improved the paper. What was unique was that at each stage of the review process I was given wide latitude on how to address their comments and suggestions. Wide latitude was a little scary at first, especially for a junior person and a solo-authored paper. But thanks to that latitude and their patience (my first revision left a bit to be desired), it ultimately allowed me to retain the core message of the paper and what motivated my inquiry in the first place (but in a much more theoretically compelling package, thanks to the reviews).  

4. You constructed an original, longitudinal dataset based on extensive media searches. What would be your advice for doctoral students to collect or access high-quality data for their dissertations, given the time and budget constraints? Further, what are your suggestions for doctoral students on finding dissertation topics in general?

Kate: Collecting data from scratch is resource intensive, but sometimes few alternatives exist. That was the case for firm-movement collaborations. If you’re going to collect data from scratch, begin by reviewing existing literature to determine an appropriate method (e.g., in addition to media I included firms’ 10-Ks in my corpus because that’s what firm-firm alliances scholars do). Then, make adjustments specific to your setting (e.g., I also included press releases because it’s reasonable to think collaborations are touted by firms but not always picked up by media) and run the method by others (i.e., to avoid fatal flaw surprises down the road). You also want to look for efficiencies like those offered by natural language processing (NLP) or machine learning. I didn’t find NLP methods to be sufficiently accurate for identifying collaborations, but did use them to identify specific environmental issues on which SMOs worked together that make up the inter-SMO networks. Finally, start early – it took me nearly four years to collect the data – and write drafts without results. Not being distracted by results helps you to build coherent theoretical building blocks for the answers to your research questions.

My advice for finding dissertation topics is to focus on something you’re passionate about. Data collection, writing, and journal review processes are long and arduous, and passion helps fuel your persistence through them. Ideally the topic would also fit into an active scholarly conversation. But to some extent, this consideration is secondary because hot topics come and go (often in cycles quicker than a dissertation cycle), and you have considerable agency in framing your topic to join a specific conversation.    

5. What motivated you to study social movements? What do you think students and scholars of organizations can learn most from social movement organizations and social movement theory in general?

Kate: What drew me to study social movements is that (often) their purpose is to change existing institutions, and they do so despite seemingly insurmountable obstacles (e.g., fewer resources than incumbents). It’s hard for me to think of something more inspirational, and simultaneously puzzling, than a group of actors challenging entrenched systems of governance, production etc. which are supported by well-resourced public and private incumbents. From this point of view, social movement theory is highly relevant to scholars interested in institutional change, and those studying inter- or intra-organizational dynamics akin to the David and Goliath story. Thus, the answers offered by social movement theory to canonical questions of movement emergence (i.e., when they emerge), micro-mobilization (i.e., recruitment), dynamics (i.e., strategies, tactics), and outcomes (i.e., what difference do they make), could inform a wide breadth of organizational theories and phenomena. 

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