The evolution of new organizational forms

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Citation: Elaine Romanelli (1991) The evolution of new organizational forms. Annual Review of Sociology (RSS)
DOI (original publisher): 10.1146/
Semantic Scholar (metadata): 10.1146/
Sci-Hub (fulltext): 10.1146/
Internet Archive Scholar (search for fulltext): The evolution of new organizational forms
Tagged: Sociology (RSS) Organizational Theory (RSS), Entrepreneurship (RSS)


The evolution of new organizational forms is an annual review of sociology article on the topic of evolutionary approaches to understanding the creation of new organizational forms. Published in the Annual Review of Sociology, the paper is primary focused on the organizational sociological literature but also describes work on the broader organizations and strategy literature.

The paper is basically broken down into four parts. The first part explores the conceptual basis of a literature on organizational forms. In particular, it asks where one form stops and another begins and provides a good overview of how the literature has struggled with the question of defining exactly what a form is. Clearly, there are different types of organizations. That said, a more precise operationalization is needed for any real empirical approach to the problem. That said, despite several attempts, there is no taxonomy of organizations or of organizational forms. Romanelli's conclusions seems to roughly be that while an answer is not likely to be forthcoming, the fact that there is a debate focuses attention on issues of organizational differences in similarity which remains a key element of any study. Romanelli does not offer a particularly satisfying answer in this regard.

The bulk of the paper, however, is a more standard literature review framed by a third part typology. In her typology, Romanelli breaks down the literature in three major approaches:

  1. An organizational genetics view which often treats organizational routines as "genes" and focuses on characteristic traits of organizations more generally. This view considers variation to be random and the process of search.
  2. An environmental conditioning view which shifts emphasis to the environment and talks about how conditions of environments may be more or less conducive to different organizational form variations. The focus, in these cases, is more on selection than on creation and can been seen in both economics and sociology (e.g., Stinchcombe 1965 and the population ecologists more generally). From the perspective of mechanism, this broken down into environmental imprinting (e.g., Selznick or Stinchcombe) or organizational speciation (e.g., Hannan and Freeman).
  3. Finally, Romanelli presents a third new model that she calls emergent social systems and which she compares to more epigenetic approaches in biology that focus on the way that a species might create its own niche. Represented by the work of Rappa, this seems to be the least studied but the approach that Romanelli is most excited about.

Theoretical and Practical Relevance

The review is more solidly descriptive than some other annual review pieces and does not offer a grand new theory or direction. That said, it provides a reliable citation that has been used widely in the evolutionary literature on organizational forms and in the entreneurship literature more broadly.