Abhinav Gupta – University of Washington, Foster School of Business
Forrest Briscoe – Pennsylvania State University, Smeal College of Business
Francisco Aragon Guiller – Rutgers University, Rutgers Business School
Article link: https://doi.org/10.1177/0001839219852954
Francisco: As someone who is also interested in the internal characteristics of organizations that may influence responses to a variety of issues, I found this study highly valuable in looking beyond exogenous forces alone. From both of your research trajectories, readers know that you have a strong interest in how social movements, political ideologies and the institutional landscape affect the kinds of responses we see from firms in terms of CSR, resource allocation and other firm activities. From the perspective of phenomena, this is a timely topic given everything that we have seen transpire in recent years. So, how did the idea for this study ultimately emerge and evolve? Was the inspiration more so from unresolved tensions in the literature or from phenomena?
Forrest: This paper grew out of Abhinav’s dissertation. If I recall correctly, one of the core ideas was to conceptualize organizational ideology for corporations – the idea that the entire firm could be placed on a spectrum from deep blue to deep red and anywhere in-between, based on employees’ donations… and that this concept could meaningfully predict a variety of organizational behaviors. Abhinav has developed that idea in multiple ways, and this paper allowed us to connect it with the specific phenomenon of corporate responses to social activism.
In turn, one might then ask where the idea of organizational ideology came from. I suppose it grew out of Abhinav’s early conversations with Don Hambrick and I about what could be done with the political campaign donation data. Don and I had both used those data in earlier projects. Could one gather and average the donation data for thousands of a company’s employees? What would it capture? It turned out that these were useful questions to ask.
Abhinav: Forrest has covered most of it! I will add that I first started thinking about companies’ “openness” to social activism in my first year in the doctoral program. For the Organization Theory doctoral seminar (taught by Forrest), I wrote a “theory” paper on how social movement research has not sufficiently accounted for organizations’ internal attributes as predictors of their responses to social activism. It took us several years to realize that organizational political ideology provides a compelling way to theorize about those internal differences.
Research process: Going from connections and research questions to a real study
Francisco: As PhD students, one of the most daunting and necessary learning experiences we face is making the jump between a “front end” or proposal and a real study with data collection and analysis that actually pans out. This study possesses both a strong and original analytical perspective when it comes to the way you operationalized variables and constructs in how the hypotheses map out, yet you used good judgment in acknowledging and adopting some methods from predecessors, including some techniques you developed in your previous papers. Can you walk our readers through this process in the evolution of this study? Did the operationalized variables and the constructs always map so well from the start or were there some iterations in the study design aspect?
Abhinav: This is a great question! It is fair to say that the theory and methods both co-evolved over time. It took us quite some time and effort to develop the measure of organizational political ideology. We initially thought of capturing organizations’ ideology using a composite index comprising employees’ political donations and a host of corporate practices, such as CSR, gender equality, and LGBT friendliness. Based on the early feedback from the journal reviewers, we realized that this approach unnecessarily conflated employees’ values with the outcomes that would logically emanate from those values. In subsequent iterations, we honed in on employees’ political contributions as a window into the ideological makeup of the organization. Of course, this approach has some limitations – as all social scientific methods do – but it is also highly beneficial in that one can use it to capture the political ideology of any organization in the United States. This approach also allowed us to make an apples-to-apples comparison of the effects of the organization’s ideology and that of its community and industry environment and model their interactive effects. Looking back, I am fascinated by how non-linear and iterative the process of developing this study was.
Forrest: Another noteworthy shift during the paper development process was moving away from a theoretical focus on symmetrical alignments between ideology and activism. That’s perhaps the most obvious way to theoretically connect these two concepts. In other words, liberal people and liberal organizations will naturally be more approving of liberal activism… relative to conservative people and organizations (who might conversely be more approving of conservative activism).
That alignment concept remains relevant. But we became more interested in the notion that there is an asymmetry between liberalism and conservatism in how social activism toward companies is interpreted and responded to. That shift ended up forming the basis for the theory contribution of the paper.
Francisco: Can you describe how the nature of the drafts shifted between different rounds of reviews with both ASQ editors as well as other trusted sources that provided feedback? What aspects were received well or challenged by reviewers, and did this process surprise you in any ways?
Forrest: One issue that might be worth relaying, building on the point above: we received some initial skepticism about the asymmetric argument that we were advancing. Reviewers observed that most social activism against corporations seems liberal-flavored. This led us to collect more data and do more analysis to see how we could better control for the different social issues represented by anti-corporate activism, making sure our findings held across both more- and less-liberal social issues. At the end of the process, we were able to address this in a way that was satisfactory (although not perfect, leaving room for future research).
Abhinav: There were a few other key changes. The initial version of the manuscript had companies’ prosocial claims as another dependent variable. The idea was that liberal-leaning companies respond to activism by altering their practices, whereas conservative-leaning engage in impression management by communicating that they are already taking prosocial action. The reviewers thought we were trying to do too much and that we needed to precisely nail down the mechanisms before linking organizational ideology to various corporate behaviors. In revising the manuscript, we dropped that dependent variable and added moderators (geographic dispersion of workforce, community ideology) that helped approximate the mechanism through which organizational ideology becomes salient to decision-makers and ultimately exerts its influence on companies’ willingness to concede to activists’ demands.
Implications of the findings
Francisco: What about a firm like Meta (formerly Facebook)? Executives have donated to the firm’s own PAC, with the vast majority of those donations going to Democrats according to FEC data. The firm positions itself on prosocial terms, emphasizing how it facilitates human interconnectedness through its products and mission. And yet, there is a palpable avoidance of CSR other than improvements in environmental sustainability that address internal processes. The firm has also experienced tensions with its own employees and notable whistleblowers regarding the role of its platform in stoking extremism around the world. The company donates to liberal politicians, but they appear more conservative in terms of not entertaining the demands of activists. In light of this study, what factors do you believe can help explain such cases?
Forrest: Your example highlights the limitation of relying mainly on Republican vs. Democrat to capture the complexity of political ideological beliefs. For example, some individuals say they are “socially liberal but fiscally conservative.” Some companies, like Facebook in your example, may represent such a more complex mixture of political values at the organizational level.
One response to this limitation would be to find a better data source. Some scholars have used more fine-grained information about donation recipients to refine their measurement of donor political ideology. This seems sensible, although in our experiments with such an approach, we did not find that it changed results much.
Since you used Facebook in your example, it’s also worth mentioning that researchers have measured complex political beliefs with that platform’s user data, as well as with data from other social media giants. Those data may well be higher quality, but at present there are quite a few challenges for scholars to access and use such types of data.
Abhinav: These are fascinating issues to ponder. Forrest has rightly pointed out that there are real opportunities for refining the measure and theory of organizational ideology. But to an extent, organizational ideology will frequently exist in tension with the instrumental goals and priorities of the company. One can imagine any company in California would want to appease its predominantly liberal workforce but not be willing to alter its practices beyond a point. How and whether that tension gets resolved over time is an exciting research question in need of inquiry!
Advice for PhD students
Francisco: This study balanced methodological rigor that maps strongly to theory while being highly relevant to the contemporary societal context in which firms operate. As doctoral students developing our research identity, we often hear strongly worded advice based on what side to select on the rigor versus relevance debate in management. What words of advice do you have for doctoral students who aim to produce rigorous contributions on topics of high contemporary relevance, such as social activism and CSR, but may feel a bit intimidated when it comes to getting the balance right?
Abhinav: Well, don’t be intimidated! In my view, rigor – both conceptual and analytical – is what differentiates social scientists from other social commentators and journalists, so it is a foundational skill set (and mindset) that all doctoral students should strive to inculcate. But I certainly don’t think that to pursue rigor, one has to forgo relevance. If you look at the publication process from the point of view of the reviewers and the editors, one of the most common problems with manuscripts is that they are dull and uninteresting. Often, the most societally relevant topics are the ones that get the reviewers excited about a study and help those manuscripts stand out. Perhaps I am too optimistic, but in my experience, it is usually at the intersection of rigor and relevance that the most exciting and impactful research happens.
Concluding reflections on building a research program
Francisco: When we look up to our mentors and other senior scholars, PhD students tend to see a sustainable career that is the result of a rich tapestry of research questions that build upon one another. We also know that it is often difficult enough for an individual to develop a research program. Yet in this article, you each manage to impressively build upon the other’s work and your work together over time, as evidenced in discussions about the research questions and even in the methods section. How do you see this article in the overarching view of your research trajectories and are you currently working on projects based on these extensions?
Abhinav: I have learned a great deal by working with Forrest. We have collaborated since my first year in the doctoral program, so it’s been twelve years! The bulk of our work together has focused on political ideology and social activism. We have our intellectual interests and topics we care about, but the point of convergence is usually around contemporaneously relevant issues. For example, we have ongoing projects that examine how stakeholders’ ideologies influence the adoption of controversial practices and how geographic dispersion of the workforce impacts organizational culture. The recent pandemic has made these topics even more exciting and relevant! I hope our collaboration will last for another hundred years. Then I will retire and move on to something else.
Francisco Aragon-Guiller is a PhD student in Organization Management at Rutgers Business School. His research interests broadly center on the different types of strategies that firms adopt in response to the demands of various stakeholders, such as corporate social responsibility (CSR). Specifically, he examines the governance modes of CSR activities and their implications for different stakeholders, risk and sustainability outcomes.