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The Iron Cage Has a Mezzanine Collectivist-Democratic Organizations and the Selection of Isomorphic Pressures via Meta-Organization

Scholarship on alternative organizations and cooperatives has argued that networks and intermediaries foster organizational form stability and protect collectivist-democratic organizations from rationalization as well as decoupling. This study of field-level organizing among food co-ops in the United States shows that rather than buffering collectivist organizations from conventional market and rationalization pressures, meta-organizations can also serve as a conduit for rationalizing pressures, subjecting vulnerable organizations to what Young calls quasi-coercive isomorphism. Using interviews of field participants, ethnographic observations of conferences, and content analysis of organizational documents, Young examines the formation and impact of National Co+op Grocers, a meta-cooperative created to leverage scale and pool resources among food co-ops.

The author finds that this meta-organization enforced grocery industry-oriented norms of operation, management, and presentation among its member organizations in return for providing mutual liability and economies of scale. This focus on select operationally scalable processes and structures for support generated isomorphic pressures that exposed, rather than sheltered, co-ops, especially smaller, resource-poor ones, from industry standards. The meta-organization thus promoted a sectorized model of more marketized practices for the field’s cooperatives that pushed co-ops to adopt conventional grocery store practices and distanced them from the practices of other cooperative form fields. Moreover, the potential of cooperative form-specific elements for scaling was not realized: collective ownership and democratic governance remained local concerns.

These findings suggest that whether meso-level cooperation among cooperatives can support alternative form maintenance is contingent on the structure and scope of the meta-organization and on the perceived scalability of operational and governance elements of the cooperative organizational form.