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date: 22 April 2024

Inter-Organizational Relations: Five Theoretical Approachesfree

Inter-Organizational Relations: Five Theoretical Approachesfree

  • Ulrich FrankeUlrich FrankeUniversity of Bremen, Institute for Intercultural and International Studies


The number of organizations involved in world politics has long been increasing and so has, consequently, the number of relations among them. For scholars of international studies, it is of central importance to examine these inter-organizational relations. The state-centrism in international relations, however, impeded the discipline’s engagement with this phenomenon for some decades. It was only in the mid-2000s that this began to change. Since then, the study of inter-organizational relations in world politics has mostly drawn on five theoretical approaches: sociological neo-institutionalism, resource dependence, network accounts, regime complexity, and classical pragmatism. These approaches will be introduced; for the sake of comparability, all five are presented in the same way, by carving out their theoretical tradition and key concepts, their core argument and causal logic, as well as their understandings of organizations and how they relate. Each presentation offers a brief look at how the respective approach has been applied.


  • Organization

Introduction: Inter-Organizational Relations in World Politics

Compared to neighboring disciplines, inquiries into inter-organizational relations have come a long way in international studies. In sociology, psychology, and administration science, but also in economics and business studies, sensitivity to the topic began to rise back in the 1960s and 1970s. While this sensitivity had emerged from an understanding of organizations as open systems and a turn toward the environment of organizations (Aldrich, 1971), similar developments in international relations (IR) were impeded by the discipline’s predominant state-centrism. In line with the latter, international organizations—and thus the relations among them—were treated as epiphenomena (or mere instruments and arenas) of state action (Mearsheimer, 1994; Grieco, 1988; Abbott & Snidal, 1998; Keohane & Martin, 1995). It was only after international organizations and their subunits had increasingly been addressed as autonomous (bureaucratic) actors (Finnemore, 1993; Pollack, 1997; Barnett & Finnemore, 1999) that IR’s path was paved for the study of inter-organizational relations in the course of the 1990s. Since the mid-2000s, this path has been well-trodden (for an early exception, see Jönsson, 1986).

Today, IR scholars interested in global order can choose among at least five theoretical approaches for examining inter-organizational relations: sociological neo-institutionalism, resource dependence, network accounts, regime complexity, and classical pragmatism. Only one of them, regime complexity, originates in political science or IR. The other four have been imported from sociology. Sociological neo-institutionalism, as its name suggests, emanates from sociology exclusively; resource dependence is rooted in economics and sociology, while network accounts have their foundations in psychology and sociology. Finally, classical pragmatism is considered as North America’s first contribution to the history of Western philosophy. Thus, the corresponding approach to analyze inter-organizational relations has its source in (political and social) philosophy as well as sociology.

The five approaches will be presented according to their position in the rationalism-constructivism debate (Wæver, 1996, pp. 161–170)—regardless of the prominent warning not to frame discussions in IR along philosophical issues (Fearon & Wendt, 2002, p. 53). Rationalist and constructivist approaches can be roughly distinguished by their individualist and holist ontologies. Proponents of predominantly rationalist accounts—resource dependence, network accounts, and regime complexity—tend to conceive of organizations or organizational actors as atoms (amid an environment of other atoms). In this view, contact between these atoms in a world of scarcities always has to be established first at some cost. By contrast, adherents of constructivist accounts for examining inter-organizational relations treat the social context among organizations as always already there. Relations with others provide the conditions for (organizational) self-constitution. Constructivist reasoning is exemplified by sociological neo-institutionalism. These references hint at a slight tendency to transcend the rationalist-constructivist divide among scholars of inter-organizational relations. Rationalists who resort to resource dependence turn toward holist ontologies and assume a kind of mutually constitutive, dialectical relationship between organizations and their environments (Gulati & Gargiulo, 1999, pp. 1475, 1482); and a few proponents of regime complexity even anchor their approach in a constructivist framework (Struett, Nance, & Armstrong, 2013, p. 95). Against this background, the inter-organizational account rooted in classical pragmatism also aims at transcending the rationalist-constructivist divide.

Two qualifications must be made concerning the focus on theoretical approaches. First, contributions that deal with inter-organizational relations from a decidedly empirical or policy viewpoint are not included. The work of security experts, for instance, often falls into this category (Kille & Hendrickson, 2011; Varwick & Koops, 2009). The disregard for these writings might indicate that the gap (George, 1993) between scholars who address either an audience of academics or one of practitioners still exists. For a more inclusive map of the inter-organizational field, however, see Biermann and Koops (2017); for classifications by representatives of other disciplines, see Oliver and Ebers (1998), Reitan (1998), Barringer and Harrison (2000), as well as Rossignoli and Ricciardi (2015). As to the second concern, the focus on theoretical approaches seems to downplay the relevance of those studies that combine two or more of these accounts. Network approaches, for instance, are frequently fused with resource dependence (Gulati & Gargiulo, 1999; Biermann, 2008) or inspired by sociological neo-institutionalism (Ebers & Maurer, 2014, pp. 397–399). Even resource dependence and sociological neo-institutionalism appear together sometimes (Brosig, 2011). The present mode of presentation, however, does not deny the originality of these writings. Instead, it helps both to carve out their constitutive thoughts in “pure” form and to answer the question of whether they really match.

Five Theoretical Approaches for Examining Inter-Organizational Relations

Five theoretical approaches used in international relations (IR) to make sense of inter-organizational relations are introduced: sociological neo-institutionalism, resource dependence, network accounts, regime complexity, and classical pragmatism. For the sake of better comparability, each exploration will be guided by the same questions and will address them in the same order:


What is the (overarching) theoretical or intellectual tradition in which the approach is rooted? What (further) key concepts are of relevance for the approach, and what do they mean?


What is the core argument of the approach? What is its causal logic, or, what kinds of ascriptions of causality are made?


How are organizations and their relations conceptualized?


What are the major empirical issues and fields to which the approach is applied?

Sociological Neo-Institutionalism

Theoretical Tradition and Key Concepts

Sociological neo-institutionalism is known as the Stanford School approach, at least in organization studies. Since 1966, Stanford University’s Department of Sociology has been the academic home to John Meyer, a leading scholar of this approach, and many of his collaborators. The term Stanford School helps distinguish this direction of thought from those followed by scholars such as Robert K. Merton and Philip Selznick at Columbia University and those by the Carnegie School in Pittsburgh (Herbert A. Simon, James G. March, Richard M. Cyert). Whereas the latter focused on decision-making by individuals and organizations, bureaucratic functions and roles were emphasized at Columbia, where Meyer received a PhD for his reflections on Some Methodological Problems of Organizational Research in 1965 (Scott, 2004, pp. 3–4).

Sociological neo-institutionalism contests both new institutional economics and traditional concepts of institutions in sociology. This makes it sociological and neo. New institutional economics’ perspective on organizations such as firms in terms of efficiency, profit, and transaction costs (Coase, 1960; Williamson, 1979) is considered too tight. Simultaneously, sociology’s classical concept of institutions is considered too broad. This, for instance, encompasses shaking hands between friends every time they meet. Sociological neo-institutionalism operates with a notion of institution that is more closely connected to features of organizations and their emergence. Correspondingly, institutionalization refers to societally shared and taken-for-granted ideas of what is characterizing organizations (Walgenbach, 2014, pp. 297–298). Members of society are held to see institutions both “as relative fixtures in a social environment” and as “functional elements of that environment” (Jepperson, 1991, p. 147), as shaping as well as reflecting social order. More specifically, sociological neo-institutionalism draws on both Max Weber’s thoughts about the power of bureaucracy and bureaucratization—the “iron cage” (Weber, 2006b, p. 33)—and on his thesis of a rationalization of culture (Weber, 2006a, p. 101). Weber’s claim that Occidental (Western) rationality brought about cultural phenomena of universal significance and validity can thus be seen as one of sociological neo-institutionalism’s iron premises. However, this premise is modified in that the homogenizing effects of bureaucratization and rationalization are not primarily attributed to “the need for efficiency” (DiMaggio & Powell, 1983, p. 147), but to structural effects of the environment in which organizations operate.

Beyond the terms institution and institutionalization, the concepts of isomorphism, decoupling, and world culture/polity/society are particularly significant. Isomorphism refers to a constraining process of homogenization that brings about structural similarities among organizations in a certain policy field (DiMaggio & Powell, 1983, p. 149; Meyer & Rowan, 1977, p. 346). This process of an organization’s response to and integration of environmental tendencies and influences is driven not only by external pressures and emulation but also by scholars and other professionals. Hence, coercive, mimetic, and normative mechanisms of institutional isomorphic change are—conceptually rather than empirically—distinguished from each other (DiMaggio & Powell, 1983, pp. 150–154). In the case of coercive isomorphism, the pressure to adapt “may be felt as force, as persuasion, or as invitations to join in collusion” (DiMaggio & Powell, 1983, p. 150). Mimetic isomorphism describes situations of uncertainty and ambiguous goals in which successful and legitimate organizations serve as models for mimesis. Finally, normative isomorphism grasps the diffusion of organizational patterns by members of particular, professionalized occupations, for instance. These are not only held to have a similar academic background but also, due to this shared background, to be guided by similar norms.

However, organizations are not considered to give in to external demands per se. They are also conceptualized as interested in defending their autonomy against inconsistent expectations. This is where the notion of decoupling comes in, which draws upon a distinction between formal structure and actual working activities. By decoupling the latter from the former, organizations can deal with institutionalized requirements from the environment on a formal level without affecting their day-to-day working activities. In this manner, organization managers maintain or increase their room for maneuvering while organizations retain their societally accepted, legitimated and legitimating formal structure (Meyer & Rowan, 1977, p. 357).

On the macro-level, finally, the most comprehensive form of an environment is referred to as world culture (world cultural models), world polity, or world society (Meyer, 1999; Meyer, Boli, Thomas, & Ramirez, 1997). For sociological neo-institutionalists, organizations are embedded in world society and shaped by its norms, values, and other institutionalized elements referred to as “powerful myths” (Meyer & Rowan, 1977), mostly through rationalized others of whom world society is considered to be “mainly made up of” (Meyer, Boli, Thomas, & Ramirez, 1997, p. 162). World society emerges from the institutionalization of rationalized world cultural models (the world polity) which are held to be “organized in scientific, professional, and legal analyses of the proper functioning of states, societies, and individuals” (Meyer, Boli, Thomas, & Ramirez, 1997, p. 149). Organizations are grasped as constructed by this (universal) culture because they adapt to them for the sake of increasing their legitimacy and strengthening their capacities for survival. It is of course this interplay between organizations and world society that leads to inter-organizational similarities introduced as (variants of) isomorphism.

Core Argument and Causal Logic

Sociological neo-institutionalism, as exemplified by the work of Meyer and Rowan (1977) as well as DiMaggio and Powell (1983), starts from the premise of a distinction between organizations and their environment. Both stand in a relation of mutual constitution. The environment constitutes organizations and vice versa (DiMaggio & Powell, 1983, p. 148). An organization’s environment consists of other organizations. In formal terms, each organization thus is surrounded by a distinct environment. The Stanford School’s core argument holds that organizations orient themselves toward institutionalized, societally accepted environmental elements such as formal or material characteristics of other organizations. By adopting these externally legitimated elements, an organization becomes accepted and can “secure its survival” (Meyer & Rowan, 1977, p. 349). An environment of organizations of the same kind is referred to as an organizational field (DiMaggio & Powell, 1983). Across an organizational field, a process of homogenization takes place. This process brings about structural similarities among organizations—isomorphism (DiMaggio & Powell, 1983, pp. 150–154).

From the perspective of sociological neo-institutionalism, changes in the environment bring about changes in an organization. Although organizations somehow have to adapt to these changes, sociological neo-institutionalism does not subscribe to a functionalist logic. Changes in the environment imply changes in the external expectations an organization faces. Nevertheless, those who act on behalf of organizations are considered free to deal with these changing expectations in the way they think is adequate. In this manner, contingency is built into the approach. Keeping up with external expectations is held to ensure an organization’s legitimacy, but this does not imply that all expectations are fulfilled by all organizations all the time. It is of relevance in this context that the autonomy of organizational actors is conceptualized as being restricted. Organizational actors rely on the advice of members of professional associations when it comes to decisions on whether or not to respond to external expectations and how to deal with them (Meyer & Jepperson, 2000, p. 107). As rationalized others, representatives of these associations and the state “shape organizational life both directly by imposing constraints and requirements and indirectly by creating and promulgating new rational myths” (Scott, 1987, p. 499). Examples of these myths are those institutionalized elements of an organization’s formal structure that are adopted by others to become accepted (Meyer & Rowan, 1977, pp. 348–349).

Concept of Organizations and How They Relate

An organization is distinguished from its environment by means of the formal criterion of membership (March, Simon, & Guetzkow, 1958, pp. 9, 89–90). Members decide on an organization’s structure and remit. They are counseled by rationalized others who represent the environment (grasped as world society). Embedded in world society, organizations adapt to environmental expectations for the sake of increasing their legitimacy. In essence, this is how sociological neo-institutionalism sees inter-organizational relations. They result from and can be considered synonymous with interactions between organizations and their environments.

Given the assumed dynamics and variety of inter-organizational relations, this account might appear over-generalized. However, the conceptual shift from environment to organizational fields reduces this problem (DiMaggio & Powell, 1983). Whereas environments are introduced as broad, given, or pre-established, the term organizational fields is used to denote those parts of environments that consist of organizations with similar tasks. In this way, sociological neo-institutionalism’s perspective on inter-organizational relations turns more specific but is restricted to interaction among similar kinds.

Empirical Application

Empirically, sociological neo-institutionalism is applied to inter-organizational relations in the fields of security, economy, and finance, as well as health and sustainability governance. Aspects of external (military) intervention, for instance, are made sense of by means of the concept of “decoupling” (Lipson, 2007; Hensell, 2015). State agencies, intergovernmental organizations, and nongovernmental organizations involved in re-building the “failed state” of Albania in the 1990s and 2000s decoupled their rhetoric from their day-to-day activity. They all supported the principle of coordination for reasons of legitimacy and to simultaneously continue pursuing their own agendas. However, the principle of coordination turned out to be an “unmet goal” (Hensell, 2015, p. 13)—a rational myth invoked to gain acceptance. In a similar way, UN peacekeeping operations are held to manage irreconcilable environmental demands. The United Nations pretends to comply with cultural expectations such as the three traditional principles of peacekeeping (consent, neutrality, use of force only in self-defense). However, its symbolical compliance is decoupled from what is taking place on the ground: robust peacekeeping with less restricted use of force (Lipson, 2007, pp. 7–8, 19–21).

Beyond the realm of security, the fight against infectious diseases attracts attention. Led by the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, the World Bank, and the World Health Organization (WHO), this fight is found to be (rhetorically) oriented toward a meta-governance norm of harmonization (Holzscheiter, 2015). This norm was stipulated by the 2005 Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness resolved by ministers and heads of development institutions; its interpretation, however, is contested in the organizational field of health governance and part of a discursive struggle about defining a good order (Holzscheiter, 2015, pp. 332–340). The Stanford School’s concept of organizational fields also figures prominently in attempts to explicate (rather costly) formal similarities among organizations that govern transnational social and environmental sustainability (Dingwerth & Pattberg, 2009). Their convergence is traced back to the assumed effectiveness of a legitimized standard model of transnational rule-making organizations (Dingwerth & Pattberg, 2009, pp. 713–718, 726–727). Finally, sociological neo-institutionalism is used to address the speed and scope of policy change brought about by the International Monetary Fund. Relevant factors are the organization’s position in the fields of financial sector surveillance and poverty reduction as well as its openness, that is, the strength of its interactions with other participants in these fields (Vetterlein & Moschella, 2014, pp. 150–152).

Resource Dependence

Theoretical Tradition and Key Concepts

The resource dependence approach originates in social exchange theory, which was developed in the late 1950s (Homans, 1958; Emerson, 1962). In the 1970s, amid increasing transfers of social exchange theory to the study of organizations, the term resource dependence was coined (Aldrich, 1976; Cook, 1977, p. 63). Social exchange theory draws on assumptions from psychology, sociology, and economics. It considers interpersonal interaction “an exchange of goods, material and non-material” (Homans, 1958, p. 597). Exchange brings about dependency in which power “implicitly” (Emerson, 1962, p. 32) resides. The power of an organization grows with “the scope of the resources (or the number of different resources)” it brings into an exchange relation (Cook, 1977, p. 66). Hence, power is formally grasped as the ability to decrease the exchange ratio. In broadest terms, this concept of power resembles Weber’s, as power is not considered the attribute of individuals but “a property of the social relation” (Emerson, 1962, p. 32). Whereas Aldrich’s focus is on “relations between organizations of equal power or control over resources,” other authors such as Cook, referring to Blau and Emerson, are more concerned with “power differentials,” dominance, and “vertical relations among organizations” (Cook, 1977, p. 77).

Beyond the notion of power, further key concepts are resources and dependence as well as interdependence. The concept of resources upon which the approach rests is very broad. It encompasses material as well as immaterial values—“monetary or physical resources, information, or social legitimacy” (Pfeffer & Salancik, 1978, p. 43). The importance of a resource is held to result from the relative magnitude of its exchange and from its criticality: a resource is important either when it has a large share in the total amount of an organization’s resource exchange or when an organization cannot function without it (Pfeffer & Salancik, 1978, p. 46). Moreover, the control over a resource is derived from a couple of factors in this context. These are possession of resources, access to resources, control of the use of resources, as well as effective regulation of the possession, allocation, and use of resources (Pfeffer & Salancik, 1978, pp. 48–49).

The aspect of control over resources is closely connected to the second category in the name of the approach: dependence. An organization’s dependence on others is determined by both the importance that given resources have for it and by the level of control others have over these resources (Pfeffer & Salancik, 1978, p. 51). In formal terms, dependence varies both with the value of the resources an organization receives from others and (inversely) “with the comparison level for alternative exchange relations” (Cook, 1977, p. 66). The concept points to the presence of others in an organization’s environment and their role in or influence on that organization’s decision-making; it is about power advantages that result from asymmetry in exchange relations among organizations (Pfeffer & Salancik, 1978, pp. 52–53).

Finally, interdependence “exists whenever one actor does not entirely control all of the conditions necessary for the achievement of an action or for obtaining the outcome desired from the action” (Pfeffer & Salancik, 1978, p. 40). In these instances, organizations face “problems of uncertainty or unpredictability” (Pfeffer & Salancik, 1978, p. 42) so that their managers take relations with other organizations into account. Interdependence between organizations is reduced when the availability of the resources that these organizations need rises “relative to the demands for them” (Pfeffer & Salancik, 1978, p. 42). At the same time, interdependence increases when specialization and inter-organizational division of labor are on the rise (Pfeffer & Salancik, 1978, p. 43).

Core Argument and Causal Logic

According to the resource dependence approach, organizations face at least two external constraints: they are located in an insecure environment and in need of resources. Uncertainty in the environment of organizations is held to result from “the lack of coordination of activities” among them (Pfeffer & Salancik, 1978, p. 42); scarcity of resources is considered a central condition of life. It is in response to these constraints that organizations turn toward others for the sake of resource exchange, that is, “voluntary transactions . . . for mutual benefit” (Cook, 1977, p. 64). Organizations thus begin and maintain relations with others mostly to procure resources, as they seldom produce, control, or have available all the resources they need to accomplish their tasks. In so doing, however, organizations run the risk of losing their autonomy and becoming dependent on others. To prevent one-sided dependency, they strive for balanced exchange ratios and to maintain interdependence (Pfeffer & Salancik, 1978, p. 42).

The resource dependence approach operates in the rationalist style of economic logic and adheres to a strategic notion of inter-organizational relations. Organizations exist in a realm of necessity in which they compete for scarce resources. Concerned about their autonomy they get involved with each other only when they must. Organizations turn to their environment for the sake of exchanging resources and perpetuate this process only when they perceive it as effective (van de Ven, 1976, p. 33). In this context, consensus and awareness matter. Consensus denotes internal agreement about “an organization’s specific goals and services”; awareness refers to organizations’ knowledge of “possible sources in other agencies where their needed resources can be obtained” (van de Ven, 1976, p. 31).

In terms of ascriptions of causality, the resource dependence approach starts its explanation with structure, that is, the environment. The latter is marked by uncertainty, scarce resources, and interdependence among its units. These units are organizations. They are grasped as (collective) actors (Cook, 1977, p. 69). Structure brings about the units’ action. This action aims at both reducing an organization’s “environmental dependencies” and enhancing its power (Oliver & Ebers, 1998, p. 575). It is guided by strategies such as specialization (Brosig, 2011), co-optation, or using one’s ties (Mizruchi & Galaskiewicz, 1993, p. 47). In case that the strategic action by organizations has an effect on the (interdependent) structure surrounding them, some resource dependence theorists tend to grasp this as bidirectional causality or even as dialectic relationship (Gulati & Gargiulo, 1999, pp. 1475, 1482).

Concept of Organizations and How They Relate

Organizations are portrayed as both interested in maintaining their autonomy and, to varying degrees, dependent on their environment. This dependence stems from external commitments in the wake of the need for scarce resources (van de Ven, 1976, pp. 28–30). It is in response to this need that organizations engage with each other. Put differently, organizations face the following trade-off: organizations want to accomplish their tasks and to maintain their autonomy. In doing so, they depend on resources from the environment. As this puts their autonomy at risk, organizations have to engage with their environment without becoming hooked on it. Inter-organizational relations are, thus, about the achievement of goals that organizations cannot accomplish alone (van de Ven, 1976, p. 25). They are grasped as “negotiated environments” to reduce environmental uncertainty (Cook, 1977, p. 65) and “as an action system to solve complex problems or attain joint goals” (van de Ven, 1976, p. 24). The concept of inter-organizational relations supported by the resource dependence approach is compatible with competitive and cooperative organizational strategies and mostly characterized by differences in power (Cook, 1977, p. 75).

Empirical Application

The resource dependence approach has been applied to security issues and aspects of economic development. NATO and the UN, for instance, are found to exchange military capabilities with civilian expertise and legitimacy in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan. Winning coalitions of member states within the two organizations perceived the respective partner’s resources essential to realize one’s aims (Harsch, 2015, pp. 4, 155). In general, the Atlantic alliance gives its “tangible hard security resources” such as the capacity to plan and execute “large-scale, high-tech, sustainable long-distance operations”—and it receives legitimacy as well as access to other “intangible soft security resources” (Biermann, 2014, pp. 223, 229) owned by the United Nations or the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). Simultaneously, NATO shies away from cooperation with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and other organizations that allied representatives consider illegitimate. For the same reasons, organizations favoring civilian instruments keep the alliance at distance (Biermann, 2014, pp. 220, 229). One of these (former) civilian powers, the European Union (EU), is regarded as (interested in) pooling resources with the UN, at least as far as peacekeeping in Africa is concerned (Brosig, 2014, pp. 75–77). To avoid competition and overlaps, the EU not only engages in specific action (grasped as demarcated zones or functional niches) but also is expected to offer support “tailored on the basis of UN needs” (Brosig, 2014, p. 87) in the future.

In addition to security issues, the resource dependence approach has prominently been applied to explicate organizations’ openness for transnational actors (Liese, 2010) and cooperation in the anti-corruption realm (Gest & Grigorescu, 2010). The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) opens to transnational actors because it needs the latter’s resources. Afraid of losing autonomy, however, FAO managers forgo cooperation when they, as in the case of agribusiness firms, do not see a chance to effectively control these actors. To cope with this, the FAO’s strive for money and expertise—and thus its collaboration with transnational actors—is held to be restrained by a risk-averse organizational culture (Liese, 2010, pp. 101–106). In a similar way, intergovernmental organizations working together against corruption are found highly concerned with their autonomy, too. Moreover, organizations’ demand for expertise exceeds their demand for financial resources and prestige in this policy field (Gest & Grigorescu, 2010, pp. 65–67).

Network Accounts

Theoretical Tradition and Key Concepts

Network accounts are connected to psychiatric studies on juvenile runaways in the 1930s (Ebers & Maurer, 2014, p. 387) or even traced back to Simmel’s sociological and psychological writings from the late 19th century (Cygler & Sroka, 2014, p. 52). At the same time, however, the term inter-organizational network is disputed due its “metaphorical origin” (Bergenholtz & Waldstrøm, 2011, p. 540). Network accounts are even criticized for not being based on theory at all (for a brief summary of this reproach, see Ebers & Maurer, 2014, p. 404). This might explain why network accounts are often underpinned by other approaches. Among them are not only game theory, the theory of transaction costs (Cygler & Sroka, 2014, p. 53), and role theory (Rese, Gemünden, & Baier, 2013; Jönsson, 1986; Evan, 1965) but also sociological neo-institutionalism (Ebers & Maurer, 2014, pp. 397–399) and—an elective affinity—the resource dependence approach (Gulati & Gargiulo, 1999; Cook, 1977; Galaskiewicz, 1985; Biermann, 2008).

Among the key concepts used in network accounts are: nodes, edges, size and density of the network structure, as well as (structural) positions. First of all, the term node denotes actors. Actors—both individuals and collectives—are grasped as cornerstones of relations, as knotting themselves to each other. Relations among these nodes or actors are formally referred to as the edges of a network. The strength or weakness of an edge depends on factors such as the frequency of interaction or the quality of the emotional ties among the nodes. Moreover, the term network structure is defined in type of the concepts size and density. Whereas the first refers to the number of nodes in a network, the latter is about the intensity of their relations. Finally, the concept of a (structural) position is reserved for specifying a node’s place within a network. Such a position is regarded as central if the actor who holds it is linked to many other actors (or nodes). Of particular importance are bridge-building positions; they link those parts of a network that, beyond this bridge, are connected to each other rather weakly (Ebers & Maurer, 2014, pp. 388–391). Concepts like these make it possible to examine dynamic properties of inter-organizational networks such as “an increase or decrease in dominance, shifts in alliances or coalitions, the formation of mergers, the rise and fall of competitive activity, and the instigation of regulatory practices” (Cook, 1977, p. 79).

Core Argument and Causal Logic

Network accounts that aim at seizing inter-organizational relations are built on the premise that “the structure of interactions connecting political actors” (Knoke & Chen, 2008, p. 442) has a significant impact on what these (organizational) actors do. Distinguishing among several kinds of network relations, network structures, and positions within these networks, it is argued that all these differences matter as they influence organizations directly. This influence is held to concern the resources available for an organization, an organization’s power and control, as well as its reputation and status (Ebers & Maurer, 2014, pp. 386–388). At the same time, organizational action potentially transforms the network structure (Knoke & Chen, 2008, p. 442).

As specific constellations of inter-organizational relations (Whetten, 1981, pp. 5–10; Bergenholtz & Waldstrøm, 2011, p. 542), networks primarily provide “opportunities for transactions” (Cook, 1977, p. 68). Inter-organizational transaction within networks might concern everything of importance for those involved, be it the flow of resources, information, and sentiments, or otherwise (Cook, 1977, p. 79, referencing Mitchell). Even in terms of form, these trans- or interactional flows cover a broad spectrum of possibilities. This spectrum “may at one extreme include extensive, reciprocal exchanges of resources or intense hostility and conflict at the other” (Benson, 1975, p. 230). Compared to the formal membership in an organization, relations among organizations in networks are (formally, at least) non-hierarchical. They are less fixed and stable but not unstable. Stability in networks is provided by reciprocity. Reciprocity constitutes network relations. Moreover, networks are distinguished from dyadic relationships as they consist of “three or more actors” (Cook, 1977, p. 68).

Network accounts are often fused with the resource dependence approach. In this case, the causal chain sets in on the level of organizations’ dependence on each other. It is this mutual dependence that is held to make organizations form and join networks. More specifically (organizational) actors are assumed to respond to their environment and to change it: the macro-structure of inter-organizational relations both emerges from organizational micro-decisions and has an influence on them (Gulati & Gargiulo, 1999, p. 1475). Network structures and what (organizational) actors do thus influence each other (Ebers & Maurer, 2014, p. 388). This takes place in “a dynamic process driven by exogenous interdependencies . . . and by endogenous network embeddedness mechanisms” (Gulati & Gargiulo, 1999, p. 1441).

Concept of Organizations and How They Relate

Network accounts hold organizations to provide “boundary roles” (Jönsson, 1986, p. 42). Boundary roles enable their occupants to form networks. They do so by transforming organizations into linking-pins for integration (Jönsson, 1986, pp. 42–43). Some of the occupants of boundary roles are grasped as key persons (Rese, Gemünden, & Baier, 2013) who occupy distinct roles. Following Merton’s concept of role-set, the totality of these roles is referred to as organization-set (Evan, 1965, pp. 219–220). Organizational actors are motivated by several goals, such as the acquisition of money and authority (Benson, 1975, p. 231). Besides, they can pursue several cooperative and non-cooperative strategies vis-à-vis these goals (Cook, 1977, p. 73; Benson, 1975, p. 247), among them sensitivity toward one’s position in a network (Brosig, 2011, p. 159).

Inter-organizational relations are conceptualized as loose, formally non-hierarchical networks that differ in size, density, or other structural features. As it enables (organizational) action, the structure of an inter-organizational network is considered an “opportunity structure” (Cook, 1977, p. 68, referencing Emerson). The constituents of inter-organizational networks range from individuals, organizational units, and organizations to industrial sectors and regions (Ebers & Maurer, 2014, p. 389). The environment in which networks are embedded comes in as structure, too. This is the case when network accounts are based on theories that, like sociological neo-institutionalism or resource dependence, distinguish between organizations and environments. As “forces and conditions” these environments are also assumed to have an impact on network relations (Benson, 1975, p. 247).

Empirical Application

Network accounts have been applied to explicate trends in the realms of security as well as, mostly, economic cooperation and development. Relations among NATO, the EU, the OSCE, the Council of Europe, and the UN, for instance, are referred to as a Euro-Atlantic security network that emerged from the Balkan crisis in the mid-1990s (Biermann, 2008, pp. 159–163). This network is considered “one of the most mature networks among international governmental organizations” so far. However, cooperation within it is mainly restricted to information sharing and impeded by situational and structural factors such as conflicting political views or members’ concerns about preserving their autonomy (Biermann, 2008, pp. 154, 165–168).

Studies that focus on non-security networks come to more optimistic assessments. The Financial Action Task Force (FATF) against money laundering established in 1989 on an initiative by the G-7, to begin with, is described as a problem-oriented and flexible, influential and effective, complex and legitimate network that successfully internationalizes U.S. legislation (Jakobi, 2012, pp. 183, 190, 195–196, 200). Moreover, collaboration in the inter-organizational development network is traced back to five factors. International governmental organizations specializing in infrastructure development tend to work together not only with organizations a) of the same type, b) with similar funding sources, or c) with reciprocal ties with them but also with organizations that have been d) selected by others or that e) are related to a common other (Atouba & Shumate, 2010, p. 306). Finally, the international aviation network linking governments and airlines has been addressed in a pioneering study on transnational networking in the mid-1980s (Jönsson, 1986). It shows that the Secretariat of the International Air Transport Association, a nongovernmental organization of then 120 (and today 250) airlines mainly concerned with negotiating international airfares, successfully used its “linking-pin” position to mobilize the network against U.S. attempts to liberalize pricing (Jönsson, 1986, pp. 46–47, 50–51, 55).

Regime Complexity

Theoretical Tradition and Key Concepts

The regime complexity approach relies on the theory of regimes. Composed of “principles, norms, rules, and decision-making procedures around which actor expectations converge in a given issue-area” (Krasner, 1982, p. 185), regimes provide responses to problems of coordination and collaboration in world politics (Stein, 1982) as well as to detrimental effects of the unilateral pursuit of interests (Young, 1982, p. 281). Regimes are dynamic (Young, 2010, pp. 378–379) and govern the activity of their members, that is, sovereign states, in stipulated regulatory areas beyond these members’ jurisdiction (Young, 1982, p. 277). From this angle, the regime complexity approach can also be grasped as a theoretical underpinning of global governance accounts. Rooted in regime theory, too, the latter start from an understanding of global governance as “systems of rule at all levels of human activity” (Rosenau, 1995, p. 13) that guide the “analysis of political processes beyond the state” (Dingwerth & Pattberg, 2006, p. 198).

In addition to the terms regime and (global) governance, other key concepts of the regime complexity approach are: functional overlap, (regulative) competition, adaptation, differentiation, and division of labor. These concepts can be grasped as moments or phases of the inter-organizational process. This process begins with two or more organizations that are involved in a particular policy field and share many members (functional overlap). This brings about regulative competition among the organizations as each of them wants to be the one to make the central rules of the field. The dynamics of competition result in adaptation and a differentiation of rules: organizations adapt to the interests of their members either by specializing or by adopting rules from others. In so doing, organizations create varieties of rules as well as a division of labor (Faude, 2015).

Division of labor structures the relations between organizations and thus constitutes order among them. Instead of considering this process to happen automatically, regime complexity theorists refer to it as functional emergence. At the same time, however, they connect the emergence of order to self-interested strategic choices of (organizational and state) actors (Gehring & Faude, 2014, p. 472). Consequently, strategic action is another key concept of the regime complexity approach. Intrinsically tied to rationality, strategic action is oriented toward the attainment of one’s goals by making use of others in an instrumentally rational manner. Strategic action might draw on neoclassical economy’s concept of rationality if it is modeled on game theory (Gehring & Oberthür, 2009, pp. 126–127), but it can also be informed by Herbert Simon’s concept of bounded rationality (Alter & Meunier, 2009, p. 18).

Core Argument and Causal Logic

The regime complexity approach starts from the assumption that inter-organizational relations significantly contribute to global order by intended and unintended effects of strategic state action (Faude, 2015, p. 297). Inter-organizational relations are referred to as institutional or regime complexes, that is, “systems of functionally overlapping international institutions that continuously affect each other’s operations” (Gehring & Faude, 2013, p. 120; see also Young, 1996, p. 6). Regime complexes or functional overlaps among international organizations are considered non-hierarchical networks that govern “a particular issue-area” (Raustiala & Victor, 2004, p. 279) or “relate to a common subject matter” (Orsini, Morin, & Young, 2013, p. 29). They are held to result from a rise of complex interdependence (Alter & Meunier, 2009, p. 14; Young, 1996, p. 20; see also Keohane & Nye, 1974) and institutional density in the context of “increasing legalization in world politics” (Raustiala & Victor, 2004, p. 295).

Regime complexes generate undesired regulatory competition among organizations (Gehring & Faude, 2014, p. 480; Alter & Meunier, 2009, p. 20) and—as states can pick those organizations that fit their interests best—new opportunities for strategic action (Gehring & Faude, 2013, p. 126; Raustiala & Victor, 2004, p. 299). These opportunities or cross-institutional strategies include forum-shopping, regime-shifting, and strategic inconsistency (Alter & Meunier, 2009, p. 17; Hafner-Burton, 2009, p. 34; Helfer, 2009, pp. 39, 42; Margulis, 2013, p. 59). They are also discussed as à la carte behavior (Hafner-Burton, 2009, p. 35) and chessboard politics (Alter & Meunier, 2009, p. 16). As a consequence, organizations come under strong pressure to adapt to the interests of their members. This is why regime complexes are seen as both enabling and constraining cooperation (Orsini, Morin, & Young, 2013, p. 34).

Among the inhibitive consequences of functional overlaps are “turf battles” over the functional and geographic scope of institutions (Hofmann, 2009, p. 49), lack of hierarchy, and increasing costs of changing strategies over time (Struett, Nance, & Armstrong, 2013, p. 95). At the same time, however, functional overlaps also contribute to a division of labor and thus alleviate cooperation: organizations unilaterally give in to the pressure to adapt to their members’ interests when they are confronted with intensifying inter-organizational competition about regulative competencies. They do so either by specializing or by integrating rules from other organizations into their own rule-sets. Such an adaptation process is considered to result in both a differentiation of organizational rule-making and an inter-organizational division of labor that facilitates state gains from cooperation (Faude, 2015, pp. 301–306).

Cooperation is alleviated by a stabilization or convergence of expectations (Young, 1982, p. 277; Morin & Orsini, 2013, p. 48) and a renewal of state actors’ self-binding (Faude, 2015, p. 316). The emerging division of labor among organizations is even held to replace conflict (Gehring & Faude, 2013, p. 124) and to bring about patterns of structural order. In contrast and as an alternative to forum shopping, this kind of order involves a coordination of (state and organizational) action. It is said to be rather stable and to consist in procedural rules, a principle of order (the division of labor), and organizational components (grasped as both substantial rules and institutional apparatuses). State actors are considered to turn against this order only when the constellation of power and interests has changed or when governance functions are redistributed (Faude, 2015, pp. 305–306).

The premises of these core arguments are manifold and touch upon macro- and micro-level assumptions. One assumption is that order spontaneously emerges from state action. Unlike negotiated and imposed orders (Young, 1982, pp. 283–285), this happens in a functional and non-intended way. In addition, the regime complexity approach is built upon the premise that state actors are strategic actors that rationally engage in regimes to realize their own goals and preferences (Betts, 2013, p. 78; Keohane & Victor, 2011, p. 8). However, interest-based actors are also held to have “their own norms and belief systems” (Orsini, Morin, & Young, 2013, p. 36). Regime complexity theorists thus conceive of action as guided by a triad of interests, institutional dynamics, and norms (Zelli, Gupta, & Van Asselt, 2013, p. 106).

As far as ascriptions of causality are concerned, regime complexes have an impact on states, organizations, and (in terms of global governance arrangements) world order (Gehring & Faude, 2014, p. 472). International organizations are said to exert causal influence on each other’s normative development, performance, and effectiveness (Gehring & Oberthür, 2009, p. 126; Alter & Meunier, 2009, p. 20). The organizational macro-level influences individuals at the micro-level. The individuals’ adaptation to these influences contains interactions that have an impact on the macro-level of organizational outcome (Gehring & Oberthür, 2009, p. 129). This bidirectional mode of influence is also grasped as follows: organizations or regimes, as normative structures, define norms of appropriate action, while actors shape and change the underlying norms (Struett, Nance, & Armstrong, 2013, p. 95). In greater detail, a) the knowledge and ideas of an organization, b) its norms and obligations, c) its output, as well as d) the functional interdependence among organizations are conceptualized as four kinds of triggers with the potential to bring about changes. These changes become manifest either in targets, in negotiation processes, in the effectiveness, or in staff behavior (Gehring & Oberthür, 2009, pp. 132–144; Gehring & Faude, 2014, pp. 477–478).

Concept of Organizations and How They Relate

Organizations are grasped as both substantive rules and institutional apparatuses (Faude, 2015, p. 306). From this perspective, they stand for structures influencing and being influenced by (individual) actors. In line with a sharper distinction between institutions such as regimes or regime complexes and their organizational components, however, organizations are also referred to as actors. As strategic actors, they strive for substantial and organizational goals and (have to) adapt to the interests of their member states to maintain their function (Faude, 2015, p. 302). At the same time, inter-organizational relations are conceived as a (mostly) non-intentional, functional consequence of overlapping rules among organizations. As regime complexes, inter-organizational relations are involved in a process that brings about structures of order that are constituted by organizations and procedural rules (Faude, 2015).

Empirical Application

The regime complexity approach has been applied to a very broad spectrum of policy fields (and their interlinkages). It encompasses environmental issues (Young, 2010; Keohane & Victor, 2011; Zelli, Gupta, & Van Asselt, 2013), consumer protection and trade (Raustiala & Victor, 2004; Hafner-Burton, 2009; Helfer, 2009; Gehring & Faude, 2014; Faude, 2015) as well as security and human rights (Betts, 2013; Hofmann, 2009; Margulis, 2013; Struett, Nance, & Armstrong, 2013; for an attempt to combine regime complexity with resource dependence in reference to peacekeeping in Africa, see Brosig, 2015). Scholars drawing on regime complexity can, roughly, be classified as optimists or pessimists regarding the question of whether or not state representatives’ increasing options to choose among available institutions brings about order. The rather optimistic stance holds that short-term orientations of state representatives do not capture the whole picture. Mostly unintentionally, a division of labor among the organizational constituents of regime complexes emerges instead—and in the wake of it: social order (Gehring & Faude, 2014; Faude, 2015). Other optimists stress the “flexibility and adaptability” of regime complexes (Keohane & Victor, 2011, p. 7).

The pessimists among regime complexity theorists point to the detrimental effects of inter-organizational competition or rather the strategies by means of which the representatives of states and international governmental organizations deal with it. Negatively affected in a global perspective are, for instance, refugees (Betts, 2013) and those who suffer from hunger (Margulis, 2013). In addition, a third position is provided by scholars who come to a rather ambivalent evaluation of the effects of regime complexity. They stress the simultaneity of both cooperation (if only achieved by muddling through) and inefficiency through competition. An example of this position points to relations between NATO and the European Union (Hofmann, 2009).

Classical Pragmatism: Structures of Corporate Practice

Theoretical Tradition and Key Concepts

Key thinkers of classical pragmatism include philosophers Charles Sanders Peirce (1839–1914), William James (1842–1910), John Dewey (1859–1952), and George Herbert Mead (1863–1931). They share a view of the social world that, unlike Descartes, starts from belief and not from doubt. As “belief is a rule for action” (Peirce, 1992, p. 129), pragmatism’s focus is on what humans do, and this is held to be genuinely creative (Joas, 1996). Moreover, pragmatists share a concept of truth that puts emphasis on what is believed to be true. They are not seeking correspondence between propositions and facts. Since the early 2000s, pragmatist ideas have increasingly been brought to IR (Hellmann, 2002; Bauer & Brighi, 2009; Friedrichs & Kratochwil, 2009; but see also Deibert, 1997).

The classical pragmatist attempt to examine inter-organizational relations draws on the concept of structures of corporate practice (Roos, 2010; Franke & Roos, 2010). This is modeled on Dewey’s notion of public. For Dewey (1984), public emerges from collective attempts to regulate those consequences that some people’s action have upon others. The concept of structures of corporate practice tends to universalize this pragmatist idea. It denotes collective attempts to cope with social problems. Structures of corporate practice are not restricted to a particular kind of collectivity. All phenomena usually taken as “collective actors” are considered structures of corporate practice—whether they are states, national or international as well as governmental or nongovernmental organizations, business enterprises, families, formal and informal groups, relations among two or more of these entities, or something else.

Two further key concepts of the classical pragmatist approach are universe of meaning and spaces of possibilities. The term universe of meaning refers to classical pragmatism’s understanding of meaning or meaning-making as a social endeavor. For Peirce (1992, p. 132), the meaning of something lies in its consequences. This maxim implies that speakers, for instance, do not have the meaning of what they say at their own disposal just as sculptors do not have the meaning of their sculptures at theirs. Meaning is socially mediated; it is negotiated in social, intersubjective processes. Against this background, the universe of meaning can be grasped as the meaning of everything that concerns human beings. It is a kind of meta-structure that is embedding all human beings and binds them together.

The term space of possibilities refers to what single human beings can and cannot do. On the one hand, this space is constrained by the beliefs that guide a human being’s action. On the other hand, it is constrained by the opportunities to act provided by the structures of corporate practice in which a person is involved. From this angle, the universe of meaning can also be grasped as the space of possibility of humankind: it encompasses the meaning of everything that concerns human beings and, thus, stands for everything that humankind can and cannot do.

Core Argument and Causal Logic

Inter-organizational relations are conceptualized in the same way as their constituents: as structures of corporate practice (Franke & Koch, 2013; Franke, 2015). These refer to problems of action that human beings cannot solve alone—and are considered materialized ideas of how to cope with these problems in a common endeavor. Structures of corporate practice can also be understood as rules or, in case they prove their worth, routines. They are held to stand in a dialectical relationship with human beings, or more precisely: with those human beings who act in and for them. Correspondingly, human beings are grasped as the only actors. The dialectical relationship between structures of corporate practice and human beings as the only actors is referred to as process. It is oriented toward Mead’s stance of “I” and “me” as two phases of the self. Along with the concept of the universe of meaning, this prevents the approach from falling prey to individualism (Mead, 1974; Franke & Roos, 2010, pp. 1070–1072).

The pragmatist approach is built on Peirce’s premise that beliefs guide human action, mostly as routines. When, in times of crisis, these routines do not work any longer, human beings have to find new ways to cope with critical situations or problems of action. They do so by means of their (socially constituted) potential for creative action (Joas, 1996). In case these new ways turn out to be helpful, they become new routines. In this manner, a new belief is established. Beliefs are construed as rules. Like every rule, they can be seen as socially constituted, since “it is not possible to obey a rule ‘privately’” (Wittgenstein, 1958, §202). Whether or not human beings formulate or follow their beliefs consciously or unconsciously, these rules for action do not represent idiosyncrasies or solipsistic products. They are social creations per se.

Rules that guide inter-organizational relations are considered contributions to global order. Their examination starts from the following assumption: both structures of corporate practice and what is brought about by those who operate in and for them can be conceived as ideas to which human beings are loyal (Roos, 2015, pp. 183–185). These ideas materialize in the process of world politics and represent (potential) contributions to global order. Due to its focus on beliefs that guide human beings’ interaction, the pragmatist account thus addresses the contributions that these beliefs make to global order. Moreover, it highlights how these beliefs and contributions to global order evolve over time. According to Roos (2015), evolvements like these reveal shifts in loyalty.

In terms of the Aristotelian differentiation between active (efficient and final) as well as constitutive (material and formal) causes (Kurki, 2006), the pragmatist approach operates on the following ascriptions of causality: what human actors bring about due to their competence to act is referred to as efficient causes. Beliefs as rules for action are conceived as final causes. The universe of meaning and every tangible object are grasped as material causes; and possible actions, spaces of possibilities, come in as formal causes. Combined, the process of life or politics makes up a dialectic relationship between actors and structures. It is conceptualized as a double mutual constitution of beliefs (rules for action) and spaces of possibilities on the one hand and of the universe of meaning (plus all tangible objects) and the competence to act on the other hand. Human beings are primed to make a difference (active causes) due to their competence to act and their beliefs. However, they can do so only as a result of their social embeddedness (Franke & Roos, 2010, pp. 1070–1072).

Concept of Organizations and How They Relate

Both organizations and inter-organizational relations are conceived as structures of corporate practice. They epitomize responses to problems of action in which rules for action addressing these problems become manifest. Three types of rules for action are distinguished. The first type refers to the constitutive problem of a structure of corporate practice (and its substructures) as well as to its relations with other structures of corporate practice. The second type of rules is linked to the configuration of a structure of corporate practice. It concerns structural positions within this structure and its substructures as well as the relations among these positions. Finally, a third rule type addresses what those who hold a distinct structural position can or cannot do according to the structural potential of or incorporated in this position (Franke & Roos, 2010, pp. 1065–1068).

At the same time, the pragmatist approach portrays human beings as the only actors. For this purpose, a triad of characteristics is assumed from which their competence to act is derived: corporeality, reflexivity, and creativity (denoted as the aptitude for abduction). Corporeality refers to pre-reflexive strivings of the body that strongly influence a human being’s perception of social situations. Reflexivity, in terms of Mead, stands for a human being’s capability to think of oneself as of an object. Abduction, finally and following Peirce, is linked to creative problem-solving and the capacity to control these processes (Franke & Roos, 2010, pp. 1068–1070).

Empirical Application

When applied to inter-organizational relations, the pragmatist approach focuses on security and humanitarian issues. However, research is still in the early stages. One example is the analysis of the German government’s position toward the relationship between NATO and the (pre-Lisbon) European Security and Defence Policy (ESDP). It established the following policy aims: to emancipate ESDP from U.S. hegemony, to set up autonomous European security instruments beyond NATO, and to strengthen EU influence on NATO’s design and operations (Roos, 2010, pp. 247–258). Another pragmatist study briefly referred to the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) for the coordination of humanitarian assistance. Created by the UN General Assembly in 1992, the IASC is a striking example of inter-organizational relations. It is constituted by several intergovernmental organizations of the UN system and open to representatives from coalitions of nongovernmental organizations. The self-understanding of IASC participants is, less surprisingly, guided by the belief in strengthening coordination in the humanitarian field (Franke, 2015, pp. 279–287). Similar beliefs might have led the UN Secretary-General to join meetings of the Group of Twenty (G-20) and to assign the head of the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA) as the UN’s G-20 Sherpa (Franke & Koch, 2013, pp. 98–99).

Implications for Further Research

International Relations (IR) scholars began to engage in the study of inter-organizational relations later than their colleagues in neighboring disciplines such as sociology and economics. Several accounts are now available, however, for those who want to inquire into why and how relations among international organizations and other constituents of world politics take place and what they bring about. Against this background, a further consolidation of the study of inter-organizational relations is expected to be achieved in the years to come. Common endeavors to check the content, compatibility, and plausibility of what is driving the approaches already out there promise to be helpful on this track. In particular, this holds true for the broader philosophical or socio-theoretical assumptions and for the political and societal implications of these accounts. Pressing questions to be addressed in this context are: what is currently restricting research on inter-organizational relations and how is it possible to overcome these obstacles?

First answers to these questions indicate that research is restricted by a focus on dyadic relations, the same policy field, or organizations of the same type, say intergovernmental organizations. In addition, a full realization of the potentials of research on inter-organizational relations is prevented by a deep divide in the discipline. This splits researchers inspired by one or more of the well-established paradigms from those colleagues who, by dint of their worldviews or procedures, are located at the margins of the discipline. Simultaneously, these two groups of rather theory-driven researchers are split from those colleagues who are endued with vast field knowledge but engage their research object in a more or less non-theoretical, empiricist way. Attempts to overcome these (traditional) splits might be suited to advance the study of inter-organizational relations in IR.

Finally, current research is restricted by the still dominant equation of (inter-organizational) relations with cooperation, coordination, or collaboration. Examinations of competition and conflict already take place but should be strongly encouraged and expanded. In this context, however, it is important to engage the research object in an open and reconstructive manner instead of subsuming it under pre-established categories. The empirical relevance and richness of inter-organizational relations cannot be overlooked. It is manifest not only in relations among governments but also, to name but a few, in relations between the World Health Organization (WHO), pharmaceutical companies, and private foundations, in the Holy See’s relations with representatives of other world religions, or in those kinds of relations that the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), maintains with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and various multinational corporations. Inquiries into these kinds of inter-organizational relations and the patterns of world order they bring about will surely bear much fruit. The five approaches presented here are ready for this endeavor.


For helpful comments on former versions of this article I’d kindly like to thank Peter Mayer, Sebastian Mayer, Sebastian Streb, an anonymous reviewer, and the editors.


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