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Getting Away with It (Or Not): The Social Control of Organizational Deviance



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Getting Away with It (Or Not): The Social Control of Organizational Deviance
Alessandro Piazza
Rice University
Patrick Bergemann
University of California, Irvine
Wesley Helms
Brock University
Abstract. The phenomenon of organizations breaking laws and norms in the pursuit of strategic advantage
has received substantial attention in recent years. Such transgressions generally elicit the intervention of
social control agents seeking to curb deviant behavior and defend the status quo. In some cases, their efforts
result in the deviant behavior being suppressed; in other occasions, however, organizational deviance can
persist and even be accepted into the very system of rules that was initially challenged. In this paper, we
advance a structured view of this process by formulating a theory of the social control of organizational
deviance. Building upon the sociological literature, we classify forms of social control based on their
cooperativeness and formality; additionally, we shed light on the outcomes of social control by illustrating
the conditions under which they are likely to be more or less accommodative of deviant behavior, as well
as more or less permanent. In so doing, we contribute to the scholarly understanding of the role of social
control in organizational fields, as well as of the advantageousness of deviant behavior as a strategic option
for organizations.
Forthcoming at Academy of Management Review
In 2010, a newly-founded San Francisco Bay Area startup named UberCab began offering a
service whereby users could hail a black luxury car through an app on their smartphones. While
immediately popular, the legality of the company’s business became contested, as UberCab was
served cease-and-desist orders from city authorities in San Francisco on the grounds that it was
running an unlicensed taxi and limo service (Baron, 2018; Kolodny, 2010). Instead of backing off,
however, the company doubled down and in 2012 launched UberX, which allowed virtually
anyone to drive non-luxury vehicles for the company, subject only to car registration and
background check requirements. In so doing, UberX encountered a number of challenges from
both taxi companies and municipal authorities, due to the potential threats to competition and
public safety. The company—now known as Uber—understood that it would face legal and
regulatory challenges but chose to forge ahead anyway.
While Uber’s behavior might appear egregious at first glance, it is hardly unique in the
contemporary economy (Roulet, 2020). Airbnb—perhaps the largest and best-known online
platform for short-term lodging—has long flouted municipal regulations across the globe. And
outside of the technology sector, the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC)—a promotion
company for the full-contact combat sport known as Mixed Martial Arts (MMA)—thrived in the
face of controversy, strategically using clashes with politicians and other regulators globally to
achieve mainstream acceptance (Helms & Patterson 2014). While organizational theory has long
emphasized the importance of conformity to prevailing norms, rules, and laws (DiMaggio &
Powell, 1983), many contemporary organizations seem to thrive by openly flouting them (Webb,
Tihanyi, Ireland, & Sirmon, 2009), de facto adopting deviance as a strategy.
This discussion outlines an intrinsic tradeoff. On the one hand, deviance is risky, both
because of the negative externalities of non-conformity (e.g., Ruef & Patterson, 2009; Zuckerman,
1999) and because sanctioning—in its many forms—can do real damage to the profitability and
survival prospects of organizations (King & Soule, 2007). When organizations violate well-
established codes of conduct or run afoul of existing laws, other actors—which we refer to as
social control agents—will often intervene so that the rule system is not upended. In the cases of
Uber and Airbnb, municipal authorities around the world stepped in to enforce the rules that the
companies had violated. In the case of the UFC, many U.S. states moved to outlaw MMA, while
prominent professional bodies such as the American Medical Association and the National Cable
Television Association recommended a blanket ban (Helms & Patterson, 2014; Plotz, 1999).
Deviant organizations may thus face the choice of either conforming to the status quo or shutting
down completely. At the same time, deviance can be generative—as was ultimately the case with
Uber, Airbnb, and the UFC—since it marks the beginning of a process that can sometimes result
in outcomes that are to the deviant organization’s advantage. This trade-off highlights the fact that
deviant organizations can—and do—emerge victorious from these confrontations. In the most
favorable case, deviants are able to continue pursuing their strategy undeterred, sometimes even
getting a say in how rules are made (e.g., Desai, 2016; Gilad, 2014; Susskind & McMahon, 1985).
Despite examples of market-based organizations positioning themselves in opposition to
existing rules often making headlines (Greve, Palmer, & Pozner, 2010), the conditions under which
deviance can be framed as a strategically sound option remain unclear. Part of the reason for this,
we argue, is that scholars still lack a good understanding of the process through which deviant
behavior is associated with positive outcomes for firms (Elsbach & Sutton, 1992; Tracey &
Phillips, 2016) or, conversely, ends up generating penalties that make deviance an unattractive
proposition (Roulet, 2020). In the remainder of the manuscript, we refer to this process as the
social control of organizational deviance (Ermann & Lundman, 1978; Vaughan, 1998) and argue
that in order to understand whether and how deviant behavior can be advantageous for
organizations, developing an integrative theory of the social control of organizational deviance is
critical. We therefore ask: how does the social control of organizational deviance unfold?
We begin our discussion by elaborating on our conceptualization of deviant behavior by
firms; we do so by grounding our arguments in the sociological literature on deviance (Becker,
1963; Durkheim, 1951) and its applications to organizations (e.g., Greve et al., 2010; Sharkey,
2014). We then introduce the notion of social control as developed within the fields of sociology
and criminology (Meier, 1982), as well as its macro-level extensions to organizations (Ermann &
Lundman, 1978; Jacobs, 1974) and industries (Zald, 1978). Having done so, we theorize about the
form that social control will take (Black, 1998; Meier, 1982), and in particular, we elaborate on
the degree to which deviant firms and social control agents are likely to resolve their conflicts
cooperatively, as well as whether social control will be more or less formal in nature. We then
break down the potential outcomes (Black, 1993a) of social control from the perspective of deviant
organizations based on the extent to which they accommodate (vis-à-vis suppress) organizational
deviance and their degree of permanence. Finally, we conclude by discussing the implications of
our arguments for research on deviance and social control at the macro-organizational level, with
particular reference to the degree to which deviant behavior is more or less advantageous as a
strategic option, and by offering suggestions for future research.
Defining organizational deviance
Any theory of the social control of organizational deviance requires an operating definition
of the latter as a starting point—that is, what it means for organizations to engage in deviant
behavior. At a baseline level, deviant behavior is fundamentally counternormative behavior—that
is, behavior that is at odds with societal expectations, informal norms, or written law. However,
norms are subjective, laws can be inconsistently applied, and different segments of society may
have different ideas regarding whether behavior is in line with norms; right or wrong; ethical or
unethical. One way out of this conundrum is the labelling theory of deviance, which was developed
in the 1960s within sociology and argues that behavior is not inherently deviant; rather, deviance
is simply behavior that is labeled as such (e.g., Becker, 1963; Goffman, 1963; Matza, 1969). As
observed by Kitsuse (1962: 253), “forms of behavior per se do not differentiate deviants from non-
deviants; it is the responses of the conventional and conforming members of the society who
identify and interpret behavior as deviant which sociologically transform persons into deviants.”
Extending the above to organizations, organizational deviance can therefore be defined as behavior
judged by actors external to the organization as being in violation of established rules, norms, or
other standards of behavior.
In line with the examples discussed in the introduction and in the spirit of keeping our
theory development tractable, however, in what follows we narrow our focus to a particular type
of organizational deviance which is characterized by a few common features and which has
received limited attention in the organizational literature. The first is that we are interested in
deviant behavior that is deliberate on the part of the organization—i.e., it is not merely accidental—
and integral to its strategy. This does not mean that the organization necessarily intended to violate
laws or norms—in some cases, firms may simply be negligent or ignorant—but it does mean that
the underlying behavior is deliberate and strategic.1 This excludes events like accidents (Vaughan,
1999), which—while often serious—are not deliberate. Second, while deviance is often
perpetrated covertly, or at least with the intention of being covert, we focus our attention on
1 In some cases, organizations can even engage in overt, strategic behavior without controversy for some time before
it is labeled as deviant.
behavior that is overt—that is conducted out in the open, as in the case of new product and service
offerings. This excludes behaviors such as embezzlement or fraud, which—while undoubtedly
deviant—are generally neither visible nor publicized. In sum, we focus on overt strategic behaviors
by organizations which social control agents perceive as violations of prevailing laws or norms.
Taking this approach allows us to depart from existing perspectives within the field and
complement existing research in at least two ways. First, existing approaches have largely been
concerned with deviance that is involuntary or hidden, as well as with the prevalence and negative
externalities of such deviance. This is the case, for example, of the literatures on accidents and
errors (e.g., Chandler, Polidoro, & Yang, 2020; Desai, 2011; Vaughan, 1996), organizational
misconduct (e.g., Greve, Palmer, & Pozner, 2010; Palmer, 2012), and scandals (e.g., Dewan &
Jensen, 2020; Piazza & Jourdan, 2018). By contrast, we know relatively little about overt, strategic
forms of deviance such as the Uber example discussed in the introduction. Such forms of deviance
are both highly consequential and increasingly prevalent, as exemplified by Silicon Valley mantras
such as “move fast and break things” (Taplin, 2017) and “ask for forgiveness, not permission”
(Tusk, 2016), which arguably makes better understanding these deviant behaviors a necessity.
Second, with only limited exceptions (e.g., Aguilera, Judge, & Terjesen, 2018; Nam,
Parboteeah, Cullen, & Johnson, 2014) macro-level organizational research has taken a negative
approach to deviance, primarily viewing it as something to be eradicated, and in so doing it has
arguably failed to recognize its potential upside for organizations. This stands in contrast to the
organizational behavior literature (Mainemelis, 2010; Spreitzer & Sonenshein, 2004), which has
explicitly conceptualized positive or constructive forms of deviance within organizations (Warren,
2003), such as dissent, whistleblowing, and voice. Yet even macro-level organizational deviance
need not be inherently negative (Vadera, Pratt, & Mishra, 2013) and can be generative, potentially
yielding positive outcomes for those firms that engage in it (Baumol, 1990; Elert & Henrekson,
2016). And because the opportunity structure of organizational deviance is largely a function of
social control, theorizing about the latter is essential to understanding the conditions under which
the “dividends of deviance” make it a worthwhile strategic option. Key to doing so is expanding
upon the dynamics of the social control of organizational deviance, which we address next.
The notion of social control
Defining social control. In its broadest sense, social control is the normative aspect of
social life (Black, 1976; Cohen, 1985). As such, it encompasses a wide range of behaviors: “law
is social control, but so are etiquette, custom, ethics, bureaucracy” (Black, 1976: 105). While the
idea of social control goes as far back as Ross (1910), scholars do not appear to have converged
around any precise definition of the term, despite its widespread usage (Meier, 1982). While it is
understood by some as the totality of practices and arrangements that contribute to the maintenance
of social order (Black, 1984), social control is also used as an umbrella term for how deviant
behavior within society is identified and addressed (Black, 2014). As a result, the scope of social
control as a phenomenon is remarkably broad—not only does it include legal, and highly
formalized, types of sanctioning such as property seizures, prison sentences, and capital
punishment, but also peer pressure and informal ostracism (Meier & Johnson, 1977). Importantly,
theories of social control have also been concerned with how deviant behavior is channeled via
various pathways through which deviant actors and social control agents can interact with the
purpose of resolving conflict and adjudicating differences, whether at the negotiating table, in
court, through the actions of a legislative body, or by other means (Black & Baumgartner, 1993).
For the purposes of this paper, social control can thus be thought of as being “present whenever
and wherever people express grievances against their fellows” (Black, 1984: 5).
The social control of individuals and organizations. Because of its historical origins in
sociology and criminology, the bulk of social control scholarship and research has historically
been concerned with deviant behavior by individuals (Beccaria, 1986). In practice, this translates
to a prevailing focus on how criminal and delinquent behavior is prevented, dealt with, corrected,
and deterred (Cohen, 1985). As such, this strand of research has largely examined societal
phenomena such as the enactment and enforcement of laws (Pound, 1997), punishment (Foucault,
1977), and deterrence (Meier, Burkett, & Hickman, 1984). In spite of the fact that maintenance of
social order does not stop at individuals, however, the social control of organizations has received
relatively less attention (with Ermann & Lundman, 1978; Vaughan, 1998; and Zald, 1978 being
important exceptions). This is in a sense surprising, since organizational actions often have
enduring consequences and reverberate through society to a much greater degree than those of
individuals. Indeed, as noted by Ermann & Lundman (1978: 55), “many of the discomforts
characteristic of the contemporary experience are traceable to the actions of large-scale
organizations.” The need for a theory of the social control of organizations is thus self-evident
(Zald, 1978), in that there is a manifest societal interest in the management of the behavior of
organizations, in light of the scope and extent of its potential consequences (Jacobs, 1974).
Moreover, while the social control exerted over individuals is typically unilateral and often
characterized by coercion, this is less often the case for organizations. Unlike individuals, who
typically have little agency in terms of the social control they are subjected to, organizations tend
to have greater leverage and access to resources, factors which allow them—at least in principle—
to dispute social control efforts that target them, turning social control into a potentially contested
process (Oliver, 1991). Theorizing the nature and outcomes of organizational social control thus
requires understanding the associated dynamics of contestation (Euwema, Van de Vliert, &
Bakker, 2003; Mnookin, Ross, & De Ros, 1995), and by extension, the relationships between
social control agents and the deviants that underlie them (Li, Xie, Teo, & Peng, 2010; Oliver,
But how does the social control of organizations unfold? Or rather, how are organizations
controlled? Not unlike individuals, organizations are bound by written law (Berg & Zald, 1978)
as much as by relatively more informal pressures deriving from norms and societal expectations
(DiMaggio & Powell, 1983). And much like the social control of individuals, the (limited)
literature on the social control of organizational deviance has recognized that systems of
surveillance and sanctioning (Zald, 1978) are necessary because organizations are often prone to
engage in deviance “to attain desired organizational goals unless the anticipated penalties [...]
exceed additional benefits the firm could gain by violation” (Vaughan, 1998: 23). Control can thus
be exerted through physical coercion (Black, 1990), the withholding of resources (Emerson, 1962;
Jacobs, 1974), as well as through attempts to shame deviants into compliance or by bestowing
degrees of legitimacy on compliant organizations. On its own, the existence of formal and informal
systems of sanctions, however, is not enough to ensure social control. As noted by Zald (1978:90),
some social actor “must monitor the performance of target elements and […] must apply sanctions
to influence the performance". In other words, social control is toothless—either as deterrence or
as punishment—unless one or more social actors—typically other organizations—are willing to
step up and actively sanction misbehavior. We turn to the question of which social actors might
do so and why next.
Agents of organizational social control and their motivations
The preceding discussion of the social control of organizations leads us to the question of
who takes up the mantle of social control and what their motivations for doing so may be. Ermann
& Lundman (1978: 59) refer to these as “controller organizations” to underline their
“responsibilities and powers for labeling and controlling […] deviance”, whereas in the remainder
of the paper we refer to them as social control agents, in line with the literature on the social
control of individuals (Marx, 1970). While social control’s overarching purpose is the maintenance
of social order, the motivations that make a particular social actor decide to get involved in social
control may vary. In some cases, social control agents are motivated by violations of the law—
that is, they intervene when they believe that one or more laws have been broken. Most commonly,
this is the case for government-affiliated actors; representatives of the state often serve as social
control agents (Pound, 1997; Turk, 1972) because they are required to—meaning that they are
formally mandated to monitor and sanction violations of established legal codes.2 Non-government
actors, however, may also intervene in response to perceived violations of laws—for example,
labor groups such as unions (Wiessner, 2016), watchdog organizations such as the ACLU
(American Civil Liberties Union, 2020), and even private companies. The rise and fall of
Napster—a pioneering file-sharing company launched in 1999 which allowed individuals to freely
share and download copyrighted music through a peer-to-peer network—is a relevant example.
Despite growing immensely popular and attracting substantial media coverage, the company went
out of business after losing a lawsuit brought against it by the Recording Industry Association of
America (RIAA), a group of recording labels (Giesler, 2008). Numerous examples also exist of
community-based groups successfully filing lawsuits to block energy firms from engaging in the
controversial practice of fracking (Tabuchi, 2020).
In other circumstances, social actors might decide to intervene because they feel that a
shared norm has been violated—often in ways that threaten morality, health, safety, or the well-
2 In the United States, they include federal agencies at the national level, as well as a variety of state and local entities
such as police and attorney generals.
being of society (Erikson, 1966; Goode & Ben-Yehuda, 1994)—even if no laws are broken. Here,
entities sharing that norm are especially likely to operate as social control agents and often
include—but are not limited to—nonprofits, neighborhood associations, interest groups, labor
organizations, churches, media outlets, or social movement organizations. For example, when two
major United States gun manufacturers announced plans to develop fingerprint guns—a
technology that only allows designated owners to fire by means of fingerprint recognition—the
National Rifle Association and gun rights activists almost drove them out of business through a
boycott, which led the manufacturers to abandon their plans (Selk, 2018).
Social actors, however, can also engage in social control purely out of self-interest, for
instance when deviant behavior is perceived to be a threat to their own motives (Di Stefano, King,
& Verona, 2015; Lazega, 2009). On this front, it is not uncommon for private, for-profit
organizations to seek to curb deviant behavior by other organizations which threatens their bottom
line. As an example, in both the United States and in Europe cattle ranchers hired lobbyists to
prevent producers of plant-based meat and dairy substitutes from using terms such as “burger” and
“sausage” in food labels (Bunge & Haddon, 2019; Piper, 2019, 2020), with such pressure resulting
in laws being passed in the U.S. states of Arkansas and Louisiana prohibiting such labeling.
These motivations are not necessarily exhaustive, of course, and social actors may also
choose to become involved in social control for multiple reasons. Nonetheless, this discussion
underlines that because the scope of the social control construct is remarkably broad, the range of
social actors that can engage in social control efforts—and the reasons why they do so—is
similarly diverse. As our goal is to theorize about the social control of organizational deviance in
general terms, however, in the remainder of the manuscript we abstract away from these
differences in order to paint a parsimonious picture of the form of social control and its associated
outcomes, irrespective of what specific actors may play the role of social control agents.3
Having introduced the actors involved, we build on the above discussion to more closely
explore the characteristics of the social control of organizational deviance and its associated
outcomes. In other words, we describe the process of social control as it unfolds between social
control agents and the organizations they label as deviant. Figure 1 provides a visual overview of
our proposed conceptualization of this process. Additionally, to ground this discussion in real-
world phenomena, Table 1 reports selected examples of organizational deviance and its social
control, which we rely on in our exposition.
[Figure 1. The social control of organizational deviance (process model)]
[Table 1. Selected examples of organizational deviance and its associated social control.]
Empirical observation of the social control of organizational deviance suggests that it can take
various forms. The form of social control can be defined as the “mechanism by which a person or
group expresses a grievance. It is a mode of conducting normative business, such as a court of law,
face-to-face discussion, a public protest, or an act of violence” (Black 1993: 5). In other words,
the form is the means by which social control is—or is attempted to be—enacted. As such, it
encompasses a wide range of behaviors; any means by which a social control agent seeks to exert
control can be referred to as a form of social control.
3 This abstraction is reasonable because all social control agents “are able to inform and educate, to persuade and
organize allies to their points of view, to expose and embarrass, to pressure, to bargain, and even, within the scope of
their charters, to levy significant penalties” (Leavitt, Dill, & Eyring, 1978: 260).
Understanding why different forms of social control come about therefore requires
considering the decisions that social control agents make in their attempts to regulate or eradicate
the deviant behavior. For one, they must consider how to approach the deviant organization; based
on our earlier arguments concerning the social control of organizational deviance being rooted in
dynamics of contestation (Oliver, 1991), social control agents must decide on the extent to which
they will be cooperative (vis-à-vis contentious) in their approach. In other words, social control
agents must decide whether they are willing to work out their differences with deviant
organizations in a negotiated fashion or, conversely, they intend to pursue unilateral action—often
in an oppositional manner.
Second, social control agents must decide on the extent to which they will make use of
legal channels in their efforts of social control. We characterize this as the degree of formality, as
certain means of social control involve a greater use of government representatives, an increased
presence of lawyers, and a greater reliance on the legal system. For example, a social control agent
may seek to organize a boycott of the deviant firm (lower formality) or may seek to stop the deviant
practice through litigation (higher formality). Note that both the dimensions of cooperativeness
and formality should be thought of as continua, rather than discrete categories, as doing so better
captures the wide variety of specific forms that social control can take.
Importantly, the form of social control is not purely a function of the social control agents’
intents or actions. Although social control agents may initially decide the desired level of
cooperativeness and formality in their social control efforts, certain forms of social control are
bilateral (or even multilateral). For example, negotiating with the deviant to curtail or alter a given
behavior also requires the willing participation of the deviant; this cannot be unilaterally imposed.
Yet other forms of social control involve the participation of third parties, such as mediators or
judges (Black 1993).
Although we develop both of these dimensions in detail below, we must also note that they
are not perfectly orthogonal; cooperative forms of social control tend to be less formal, while less
cooperative forms are often—though not always—more formal in nature. Nevertheless, these two
dimensions are to some extent independent; this is evident in Table 2, which presents stylized
forms of social control classified by cooperativeness and formality, both descriptively and visually.
These are meant to be illustrative but not necessarily comprehensive: whether any specific form
of social control is viable may hinge on the involvement of specific social control agents, and
available options may go beyond the stylized forms listed here.4
[Table 2. Stylized forms of social control by cooperativeness and formality]
As will be seen, cooperativeness is largely determined by social structural factors—
including the characteristics of the social control agents, those of the deviant, and their
interrelationships—while formality is largely determined by characteristics of the deviance itself.
The distinction between the two dimensions therefore helps to reveal how different aspects of the
deviance and the actors involved differentially affect the form of social control, and consequently
its outcomes.
The cooperativeness of social control
A first dimension that is relevant to the classification of social control forms is whether
social control takes place cooperatively or, conversely, whether the social control agent and
4 For example, mediation and arbitration can be either voluntary or mandated, which affects cooperativeness.
deviant enter a collision course that causes social control to play out in an oppositional fashion
(e.g., Axelrod, 1984; Bundy, Vogel, & Zachary, 2018; Hardy & Phillips, 1998; Odziemkowska,
2021).5 This dimension—which we label cooperativeness—has been featured in theories of social
control, albeit mostly at the individual level. For example, Black (1998) notes that social control
can take place either unilaterally or via joint decision, whereby the social control agent and deviant
seek common ground and reach a negotiated solution. This process can involve only the two
disputing parties or it can take place with the assistance of a third party, such as a mediator or
arbitrator (Goltsman, Hörner, Pavlov, & Squintani, 2009). Beyond the social control literature, this
distinction is also a recurring theme in the literature on interorganizational relationships, and as
such, it has been analyzed via power (Emerson, 1962), resource dependence (Pfeffer & Salancik,
1978), and network perspectives (Galaskiewicz, 2007), among others, giving rise to a substantial
body of work on interorganizational cooperation (Gray, 1985) and conflict (DiStefano, 1984;
Molnar & Rogers, 1979).
We build on these perspectives to argue that the primary antecedents of whether
organizational social control will take a cooperative form are likely to be found in characteristics
of the social control agent-deviant dyad. In so doing, we do not make the argument that the
characteristics of deviant behavior play no role in shaping how cooperative social control is. For
example, it is reasonable to expect that when deviance is seen as particularly harmful, or negatively
received by the public, social control agents might be less inclined to cooperate (Tomasello &
Vaish, 2013). At the same time, we do not believe the nature of deviance to be the primary
determinant of how cooperative social control will be, as empirical observation suggests that
organizations can often engage in egregious acts of deviance while eliciting a cooperative
5 Unlike formality, cooperativeness is less purely the decision of the social control agent. Although deviants are often
welcoming of social control agents that seek a collaborative approach, cooperation requires the consent of both parties.
response, often on account of social structural factors. For example, tech companies such as Apple
have long been criticized for engaging in tax avoidance by holding hundreds of billions of dollars
in profits offshore; after lobbying the government heavily for years, however, in 2017 they
obtained a “sweetheart deal” in the form of a low, one-time tax on repatriated profits, saving Apple
alone $40 billion in taxes (Hoxie, 2018). By contrast, organizations that engage in lesser acts of
deviance are frequently met with an oppositional response when interorganizational conditions are
not conducive to cooperation. On this front, studies on financial regulation have consistently found
that the sanctioning approach taken by regulators is predicated on the relational dynamics and
political connections between firms and regulators, rather than being derived solely from the nature
of rule violations (Correia, 2014).
As noted above, neither the social control agent nor the deviant can decide unilaterally to
cooperate—not unlike in game-theoretic frameworks, both parties must be willing to do so. There
is, however, a spectrum of alternatives between unconditional cooperation and all-out oppositional
conflict. On one side of the spectrum, conflicts between deviant organizations and social control
agents are frequently resolved cooperatively through various forms of negotiation or bargaining,
either implicitly or explicitly (Leavitt, Dill, & Eyring, 1978). In some cases, social control agents
will openly reach out to deviant organizations to strike a deal, or even invite them to the rulemaking
table outright—a process variously known as participatory or negotiated rulemaking (Susskind &
McMahon, 1985). In other cases, deviants might reach out to social control agents themselves with
the goal of pre-empting aggressive enforcement. However they may come about, cooperative
forms of social control create an opportunity for deviants to deploy negotiation tactics to their
advantage (Hardy & Phillips, 1998; O’Toole & O’Toole, 1981; Ring & Van de Ven, 1994), which
other forms of social control typically do not allow. Additionally, approaching social control
cooperatively is “more likely to uncover zones of hidden agreement between the partners, generate
more nuanced settlements, and preserve the exchange relationship beyond the dispute” (Lumineau
& Oxley, 2012: 825).
Conversely, when conflict between deviants and social control agents cannot be resolved
cooperatively between the parties, social control will often take place via unilateral actions. On the
one hand, deviants can adopt a defiant stance (Oliver, 1991), dismissing the possibility of social
control or challenging the authority of social control agents. On the other hand, social control
agents can enact a variety of non-cooperative strategies of their own, including executive action
(in the case of government actors) and pressure tactics such as protests and boycotts. Here, too,
there is also the possibility of a middle ground: while social control agents and deviants may not
be inclined to cooperate directly, they may be willing to do so with the assistance of a third party
(such as a mediator or arbitrator).
Alternatively, it is not uncommon for either deviant organizations or social control agents
to go to court in an attempt to extract concessions from the counterparty (Conlon & Sullivan,
1999), or to only go to court after a cooperative negotiation has proved unsuccessful. A relevant
example comes from the controversy surrounding electric scooters in the Bay Area: in 2018 micro-
mobility startups Bird, Lime, and Spin filled the streets of San Francisco with hundreds of electric
scooters without the city’s permission, leading to hundreds of complaints from city residents
(Matthews, 2018; Newberry, 2018). Eventually, this led the city to regulate scooters by granting
operating permits to select companies; in so doing, however, it excluded Bird, Lime, and Spin, de
facto shutting them out of the market (Griffith, 2018) and leading to the filing of lawsuits against
the city by the scooter companies (Keeling, 2018). Eventually, the pressure tactics enacted by
scooter companies brought the city back to the bargaining table and all three scooter companies
were given permission to operate (Moench, 2019).6
Cross-linkages. We now turn to factors that we believe are likely to play a role in shaping
whether the social control of organizational deviance takes a more or less cooperative form. Cross-
linkages represent preexisting ties between the two parties or joint ties with third-party actors that
the deviant and the social control agent have in common. Preexisting relationships create common
ground between parties and also serve as mediated endorsements of one party to the other, helping
to alleviate concerns about motivation, capability, and character (Larson, 1992). Shared ties also
highlight areas of common interest and might help bridge divergences of opinion between the
parties. Third-party ties facilitate a more cooperative form of social control because “indirect ties
open communication, bridging social gulfs that might otherwise preclude discussion and
bargaining” (Black, 1993: 84). A common source of cross-linkages between deviants and social
control agents is interorganizational mobility, as showcased by the well-known “revolving door”
phenomenon whereby elected officeholders take private sector jobs once out of office, acting as
liaisons between the public and private sectors (Blanes i Vidal, Draca, & Fons-Rosen, 2012).
Between private actors, by contrast, cross-linkages can unfold not only via the transfer of
personnel, but also through joint third parties such as banks, consulting firms, and law firms. Thus:
Proposition 1 (H1): The more cross-linkages exist between deviant and social control
agent, the greater the cooperativeness of social control.
6 Indeed, it is for this reason that we describe litigation as representing a medium level of cooperativeness in Table 2.
In addition to commonly being used as a pressure tactic within a broader negotiation, over 80 percent of lawsuits in
the United States are settled out of court (Eisenberg & Lanvers, 2009; Kiser, Asher, & McShane, 2008).
Potential for mutual benefit. The potential for mutual benefit between deviant
organization and social control agent is also likely to make social control more cooperative
(Lumineau & Oxley, 2012). In principle, this helps to align the incentives of the disputing parties,
providing a way for both parties to gain something. The possibility of creating a win-win scenario
has long been a recurring theme in the emergence of cooperative interorganizational relationships
more broadly. For example, Cook (1977: 283-4) noted that exchange relationships between
organizations are “voluntary transactions involving the transfer of resources within two or more
actors for mutual benefit” (emphasis added). For the purposes of our argument, this suggests that
deviant and social control agents should be especially likely to engage with each other
cooperatively when the possibility for a mutually beneficial agreement exists and when the
opportunities for mutual benefit are greater.7 Examples include providing additional tax revenue
or public services to states (Ebert, 2018); creating a social good for civil society (Odziemkowska
& Dorobantu, 2021); or increasing market share or new revenue streams for competitors (Ingram
& Yue, 2008). For example, after Airbnb proactively extended an olive branch to local
governments by offering to collect lodging taxes on their behalf, myriad local governments
reached out to Airbnb to strike voluntary lodging tax agreements with the company (Lehane,
In light of the above, we posit that the potential for mutual benefit, however it may come
about, will increase the willingness of social control agents to come to terms with deviance—rather
7 The potential for mutual benefit may be obvious to both parties before the form of social control is selected, or it
may emerge during the social control process. For example, contentious litigation may reveal the potential for mutual
benefit, leading to a cooperative settlement. Regardless of when opportunities for mutual benefit are recognized,
however, they are likely to push the social control process in a more cooperative direction.
8 As a further example, Leavitt et al. (1978: 265) notes that the Antitrust Division of the U.S. Department of Justice is
incentivized to settle antitrust cases because “if the accused company were to make the main changes the Division
wants short of a full trial, the Division can settle the case swiftly and release manpower to investigate and charge other
than seek to stamp it out—and in so doing also enhance the odds of social control taking place in
a cooperative fashion. Thus:
Proposition 2 (H2): The greater the potential for mutual benefit between deviant and
social control agent, the greater the cooperativeness of social control.
Relative bargaining power. Similarly important is the relative bargaining power of the
two parties (Michael, 2000; Pfeffer & Salancik, 1978; Porter, 1980). As noted by Black (1993:
83), “negotiation is less likely among unequal parties. Superiors usually obtain what they want
from inferiors with little or no bargaining, whereas the latter may have trouble even initiating
negotiations with the former”. Bargaining power is undoubtedly a function of (relative) resource
availability—for example, larger and better resourced firms tend to have greater bargaining power
with government actors because of their employment headcount and tax base. In a similar vein, a
greater availability of resources should enable firms to hire better legal representation (Conlon &
Sullivan, 1999).9 Bargaining power, however, is arguably also a function of the ability to rally
third-party support, as “allies and supporters […] can transform a conflict between unequal parties
into one between equals” (Black, 1993: 84). For instance, Uber and Lyft were able to mobilize
their user base in their battle supporting California’s Proposition 22, which defined ride-share
drivers as independent contractors (Hawkins, 2020). By contrast, a weak bargaining position can
manifest in a variety of ways; for social control agents, this can mean a lack of sanctioning power
or authority, limits on the extent to which they can restrain deviant behavior, inadequate
organization, insufficient support, or a weak legal case. Along similar lines, deviant firms might
9 Indeed, many firms now proactively seek to build ‘war chests’ for this very purpose (Smith, 2004).
also vary in the degree to which they feel equipped to take on social control agents, in terms of
either resource availability, ability to mobilize support, or both.
The above discussion suggests that when one party’s bargaining power greatly exceeds that
of the other, social control is unlikely to play out cooperatively, as the party with the upper hand
may feel that they can prevail without recourse to negotiation and bargaining (Zartman & Rubin,
2002). Conversely, when neither the deviant firm nor the social control agent feels as though it can
easily prevail over the other, cooperation becomes a more viable social control pathway. Thus:
Proposition 3 (H3): The greater the similarity in bargaining power between deviant and
social control agent, the greater the cooperativeness of social control.
The formality of social control
Discussions of the formality of social control have a long history, dating back to early
sociological work on the topic (Bittner, 1970; Chriss, 2018; Parsons, 1951). This and subsequent
work have generally distinguished between formal and informal social control. Formal social
control—sometimes referred to as governmental social control—is defined as the use of the legal
system, which includes the law, the police, and the courts (Black, 1976; Cohen, 1985; Ellickson,
1991). In contrast, informal social control refers to responses to deviance that take place outside
of legal channels. Most commonly used in the domain of norm violations by individuals, informal
social control often refers to the disapproving words, ostracism, or signals of contempt that
witnesses of deviance use to sanction norm violators (Brauer & Chekroun, 2005; Cook, Hardin, &
Levi, 2005; Elster, 2011; Feinberg, Willer, & Schultz, 2014). Due to the concentration of power
in government, informal social control tends to be less coercive in nature than formal social control
(Meier 1982).
Despite its focus on individual-level deviance, we view the formality of social control as
similarly relevant for the social control of organizations. In this domain, social control is often
highly formal, as many social control agents are explicitly government actors; even when non-
state actors are involved, many social control efforts are adjudicated and enforced by the courts.
Social control can also be informal, however, where social control agents act without recourse to
formal sources of authority. Examples of more informal forms of social control include social
movement activities such as protests or boycotts, shaming campaigns (Bartley & Child, 2014), or
bilateral negotiation between deviants and social control agents without the use of the courts or
other formal authorities. Similar to the cooperativeness of social control, we view the formality of
social control as a continuum, rather than the binary distinction prevalent in theories of the social
control of individuals.
Formality includes multiple dimensions that typically covary but are somewhat distinct:
the extent to which government agents are involved and the extent to which law is directly applied.
Thus, formality is to some extent inexact, but it is typically possible to determine whether different
forms of social control are more or less formal. As can be seen in Table 2, most formal are the use
of the courts to adjudicate a dispute, or the legislation of new laws or statutes in response to the
deviant behavior.10 Least formal are collective behaviors such as boycotts or protests that are
organized informally and do not involve government officials. Negotiations can be more or less
formal depending on the presence of government representatives and the presence of lawyers; for
example, arbitration is typically more formal than mediation.
10 While formal social control often arises as a response to law-breaking, this is not always the case. Often, it
proceeds from deviance that either does not break the law or could be considered (at best) legally ambiguous, as is
the case for the robot brothel example in Table 1.
A key question is therefore what leads to varying levels of formality in the form of social
control, or rather, what causes social control agents to prefer more or less formal means of
resolution.11 In contrast to the predictors of cooperativeness—which focus on the actors and their
interrelationships—we argue that formality is largely determined by the nature of the deviance
itself. Here, too, we do not intend to argue that other factors—such as characteristics of the deviant
organization, the social control agents, and their relationships—do not matter, but their effect is
arguably less clear-cut. For example, while in many cases preexisting relations between deviant
organization and social control agent can reduce formality, in other cases they can increase it—
e.g., when (formerly) deviant behavior is encoded into law. By contrast, the formality of
organizational social control tracks to the characteristics of deviant behavior much more closely.
In some cases, deviant behavior may be judged by social control agents to be of sufficient
importance and urgency to be addressed through formal means—such as the court system or the
passage of legislation—so as to ensure that it is dealt with appropriately and with the full force of
law. In other circumstances, the relevance of deviant behavior may be more circumscribed, so that
less formal avenues may be preferred, such as a warning letter or an ad hoc agreement.
In this regard, the literature on social problems (Blumer, 1971) offers useful insights
regarding whether certain acts of deviance are configured as social problems or not (Goode & Ben-
Yehuda, 1994) and, by extension, whether social control will play out via formal or informal (ad
hoc) channels. Objectivist perspectives on social problems (Manis, 1974) have held that what
causes deviant behavior to be seen as a social problem is the severity of harm associated with it,
so that deviant behavior that is harmful to more people, whether in a physical, moral, social, or
11 It is important to acknowledge that social control agents, individually and collectively, can use a mixture of
formal and informal strategies. However, as our goal is to provide an initial framework for the social control of
organizational deviance, we stop short of theorizing the interaction of multiple strategies simultaneously.
economic sense, is especially likely to be perceived as a social problem. By contrast, subjectivist
perspectives (Ben-Yehuda, 1980; Erikson, 1966) maintain that social problems are socially
constructed, so that “the objective existence of a harmful condition does not, by itself or in and of
itself, constitute a social problem” (Goode and Ben-Yehuda, 1994: 151); rather, social problems
are defined by the existence of a societal consensus around a given deviant behavior being one. It
follows from this discussion that the likely antecedents of the formality of social control are to be
found in the characteristics of deviance, as well as in societal attitudes towards deviance. Hagan
(1977, 1994) notes two factors that tend to covary with the intensity of the societal response to
deviance, which we view as related to the extent to which social control agents seek to utilize or
activate more formal means of dispute resolution: the severity of the harm associated with
deviance, and the agreement about whether the behavior is deviant. We theorize about each in turn.
Severity. The severity of harm indicates the degree of damage or maltreatment that the
deviance causes to those affected. In other words, given the deviance negatively affects certain
others, severity indicates the degree to which those others are perceived to be harmed, i.e., the
depth, rather than the breadth of the harm. Furthermore, because harm is often subjective in nature,
what counts is arguably the severity of harm that a social control agent perceives the deviance as
causing. These perceptions can be influenced by the media coverage or publicity that particular
acts of deviance receive, beyond the objective facts (Henry and Lanier 1998). Furthermore, harm
is not monolithic and can refer to a variety of types. Echoing the prior discussion of the motivations
of different social control agents, harm can be economic, social, physical, and moral; it can harm
the social control agent directly, their constituents, or others within their purview. Regardless of
the specifics, we argue that greater perceptions of the severity of harm increase the determination
of social control agents to deal with the deviance through legal channels, decrease the willingness
to pursue ad hoc solutions, and diminish sensitivity to the costs of social control. In other words,
greater harm imposes greater costs, and those costs make the value of effective social control more
When perceptions of the severity of harm are high, therefore, the formality of social control
tends to increase. More formal channels have a greater ability to constrain or punish the deviant
behavior, which should become increasingly desirable as harm increases. Even when social control
agents do not inherently have formal power, they are likely to put pressure on more formal actors
to get involved and to act. Such efforts—if successful—can be more coercive and more punitive,
increasing the likelihood that the behavior will be addressed with the force of law. This leads to
the next proposition:
Proposition 4 (H4): The greater the severity of the harm associated with organizational
deviance, the greater the formality of social control.
Note that the fact that the severity of organizational deviance relies on perceptions suggests
that the media, the deviant organization, and other actors can play an outsize role in shaping
whether the impact of any given behavior is seen as more or less severe (Goode & Ben-Yehuda,
1994). Social control agents can be influenced and manipulated in their perceptions (Ross,
Amabile, & Steinmetz, 1977); thus, instances of deviance are likely to involve competing attempts
to frame the behavior in particular ways in order to influence social control agents to take more or
less formal action.
Consensus. Hagan’s framework also posits an important role for the consensus, or
agreement, about the deviance (Hagan 1977; 1994). This represents the extent to which there exists
consistency in individuals’ beliefs about whether the behavior in question is indeed deviant, and
by extension, the harm associated with it. Agreement is often characterized as a continuum ranging
from conflict to consensus (Newman 1976; Henry & Lanier 1998; Rucman 2019) and this
dimension goes beyond the social control agents themselves—who by definition view the behavior
as deviant—to encompass other relevant audiences within the broader society. For example,
widespread public condemnation of organizational deviance indicates relative consensus. In
contrast, widespread public support for organizational deviance, or even support by a very vocal
minority, indicates conflict. Between these extremes lie various gradations of contentiousness and
ambiguity (Parsons, 2017). Similar to the magnitude of harm, public support or condemnation of
the deviant behavior can also be influenced and manipulated by the media, the deviant
organization, and other interested parties.
As above, the formality of social control is likely influenced by the consensus regarding
the deviance. This is because the greater the consensus, the more that social control agents will
feel empowered and pressured to take unequivocal action to deal with the deviant behavior clearly
and decisively—i.e., through more formal channels. For one, this support may lead social control
agents to feel justified in their attempts to forcefully take on the deviance, along with increasing
their expectations of a favorable resolution, empowering them to utilize legal means to a greater
degree. Second, social control agents may experience pressure to take greater—i.e., more formal—
action, as greater consensus may lead to the deviance being broadly viewed as a social problem.
Various constituencies may therefore put pressure on social control agents to take strong action
and will condemn any efforts viewed as toothless. Similarly, consensus also alleviates potential
concerns social control agents may have regarding subsequent backlash against decisive action, as
they will perceive public opinion to be on their side. For instance, when a Canadian company
proposed opening a “robot brothel” in Houston, Texas in 2018, widespread public outrage ensued
and the Houston mayor and city council swiftly intervened by means of an ordinance to avert the
opening (Shannon, 2018). By contrast, the lack of consensus—i.e., the existence of conflictual
views regarding whether a certain behavior is deviant—is likely to negatively impact the formality
of social control, as social control agents may feel that resorting to legal channels may be unwise.12
Under such conditions, therefore, social control is relatively more likely to take place informally,
in a more ad hoc fashion. Together, this leads to the fifth proposition:
Proposition 5 (H5): The broader the consensus about a given behavior being an instance
of organizational deviance, the greater the formality of social control.
Extensiveness. Henry and Lanier (1998) identify an additional dimension that can be used
to classify deviant behavior and that is particularly relevant to our discussion: its extensiveness. In
essence, the extensiveness of the deviance represents its scope, meaning how widespread the social
control agent perceives its effects to be, holding the perceived severity constant. In other words,
while severity represents the magnitude or depth of harm, extensiveness represents its breadth.
Certain types of deviant behavior may impact only a few individuals or organizations, while others
may affect a broad swathe of society, as is the case when widely held societal norms are threatened.
Furthermore, extensiveness also relates to who is impacted and their social standing; for example,
when well-regarded individuals or organizations are affected, the harm might be seen as more
serious than if only marginalized or stigmatized social actors are harmed. Put together,
extensiveness thus represents both the breadth and variety of actors affected by deviance.
Similar to the two previous propositions, we expect the extensiveness of harm to increase
the formality of the response by social control agents. For one, to the extent to which the
12 This does not mean that contentious issues will never lead to more formal channels, but that relying on such
channels is less likely than when a broader group of people views an instance of organizational behavior as deviant.
For example, lawmakers are likely to be more willing to act against a firm engaging in behavior that is widely
condemned rather than a firm engaging in behavior about which constituents are strongly polarized. Even when
lawmakers legislate on contentious issues, they are taking on greater risks by doing so.
externalities of deviance are broadly distributed— across individuals and geographic locales, for
example—addressing it effectively tends to require relatively more formal avenues of social
control, whose reach and coercive power are arguably greater. Perhaps more importantly, however,
the more widespread the harm, the greater the likelihood that organizational deviance will be
perceived as a social problem requiring a formal response, as a relatively larger segment of society
will be affected. Similarly, the more deviance is viewed as affecting reputable (vis-à-vis
marginalized) individuals or organizations, the more likely it will be seen as a social problem.13 In
both cases, social control agents may put greater pressure on formal institutions—such as the
courts and the legislative system—to take decisive action. Government representatives are
beholden to their constituents and to the public interest, and the more widespread the externalities
of organizational deviance, the greater the odds that deviant organizations will be dealt with
through formal channels. For example, when Hustler magazine started selling in 1974, it was one
of the first United States magazines to feature full frontal nudity and graphic sex acts. In response,
organizations such as Citizens for Decent Literature repeatedly sought formalized legal action in
response to what they viewed as a pervasive negative influence on society (Yoakum, 1977). This
leads to the sixth proposition:
Proposition 6 (H6): The greater the extensiveness of the harm associated with
organizational deviance, the greater the formality of social control.
13 This is especially evident in Uber’s case: because the associated harm appeared to be limited to taxi drivers who are
often regarded as a stigmatized occupation (Phung, Buchanan, Toubiana, Ruebottom, & Turchick‐Hakak, 2021),
Uber’s behavior was initially perceived as a lower-order problem.
Not unlike the form of social control, the outcomes that ultimately result from social control vary.
We conceptualize social control outcomes as settlements (Fligstein & McAdam, 2012; Helms,
Oliver, & Webb, 2012; Rao & Kenney, 2008) that arise from the interaction between social control
agents and deviants—in other words, the end result of the organizational social control process. In
essence, settlements are temporally bounded agreements between social actors on the
appropriateness of organizational activities, practices, or relational arrangements (Helms et al.,
2012) which arise from “concerted efforts […] to fashion a stable consensus regarding rules of
conduct” (Fligstein & McAdam, 2012: 92). We classify the outcomes of organizational social
control along two key dimensions, emerging from the two dimensions of cooperativeness and
formality we used to classify forms of social control.
The first dimension concerns the degree to which a given social control outcome
accommodates the behavior that triggered social control in the first place, thereby allowing it to
persist in whole or in part, or instead results in the behavior being suppressed. Beyond being useful
for analytical purposes, classifying outcomes based on the degree to which deviant behavior is
accommodated also has substantial implications for deviant organizations. By contrast, the second
dimension has to do with the permanence of social control outcomes; that is, the degree of finality
of the settlement that is reached. While all settlements are inherently temporary truces (Rao, 1998),
some are more precarious than others, and thus more likely to be upended. As with the previous
dimension, settlements vary dramatically in terms of their permanence: while some carry the force
of law, and as such are both time-consuming and laborious to alter, others are little more than
informal agreements that are easier and quicker to overturn. Importantly, both dimensions are
closely connected to the forms of social control previously discussed, mapping onto
cooperativeness and formality in ways which we detail below. To help illustrate our arguments,
Table 3 reports stylized examples of social control outcomes along these two dimensions.
[Table 3. Stylized social control outcomes by degree of accommodation and permanence
of deviant behavior]
From cooperativeness to accommodation
Our first argument here is that the degree to which social control takes place
cooperatively—vis-à-vis in an oppositional, unilateral manner—will predict the extent to which
organizational deviance is preserved or suppressed. In other words, the more that a social control
agent and deviant organization are willing to settle their differences in a cooperative fashion, the
more the resulting social control outcome will likely accommodate dimensions of the deviant
behavior. By accommodation we refer to the acceptance of deviance in part or in whole allowing
for its persistence. As social control becomes more cooperative in nature, deviant firms and social
control agents have greater opportunities to exchange information and identify potential areas of
common ground. In turn, this creates openings for both sides to make concessions, which can result
in settlements that allow deviant behavior to continue, albeit in a partial, altered, or limited
capacity. By contrast, when social control instead plays out in a highly contentious manner, parties
are likely to perceive that their concerns and goals are opposed to one another, and as a result,
settlements that allow for the behavior to occur, even in limited form, are less likely.14
14 Occasionally, forms of social control that are not especially cooperative can result in outcomes highly
accommodative of deviance. For example, deviant practices are occasionally greenlighted via court decisions, as is
the case for the 2022 appeals court decision that legalized Web scraping (Smith, 2022). This notwithstanding, a lack
of cooperativeness tends to lead to less accommodative social control outcomes, resulting in riskier prospects for the
In the presence of high levels of cooperation, social control can lead to settlements that are
highly accommodative of deviance. For example, in the early 1980s Italian media company
Fininvest created a nationwide TV broadcasting network, leading to several lawsuits from
competitors since at the time only Italy’s public broadcasting company, RAI, could legally transmit
nationally (Balbi & Prario, 2010). Thanks to the company’s long-standing ties with the
government, however, Fininvest was allowed to continue broadcasting nationally, first by means
of an ad hoc decree and eventually through legislation (Henrekson & Sanandaji, 2011). Thus, we
predict that cooperative forms of social control will typically lead to an outcome that is relatively
more accommodating of organizational deviance. We highlight this relationship in the seventh
Proposition 7 (H7): The greater the cooperativeness of social control, the more the
associated outcome will accommodate (vis-à-vis suppress) organizational deviance.
From formality to permanence
As previously mentioned, formality generally entails the degree to which social control
takes place through legal channels. To the extent to which social control unfolds informally and
does not involve the government—whether as a social control agent, an adjudicator, or an ally—
it tends to produce relatively impermanent settlements, as these will be inherently less codified
and thus susceptible to change. Examples include written and unwritten agreements with varying
degrees of enforceability ranging from “gentlemen’s agreements” to formal contracts, developed
with or without the assistance of non-governmental third parties (such as mediators or arbitrators).
By contrast, relatively more formalized forms of social control that involve government
actors include executive action, judicial decisions, and the passage of legislation, all of which are
likely to produce settlements with varying (but more substantial) staying power (Courtois &
Gendron, 2017). Government agents, representing the authority of the state, have greater power to
make lasting changes to the rules by which constituents—including deviant organizations—are
governed. Executive or regulatory action, for instance, typically has the force of law, but can be
modified at any time and is thus the “least formal” legal channel.
Conversely, judicial decisions lead to relatively more codified precedents that define how
deviance relates to the existing rule system. For example, the technology company Aereo—which
allowed subscribers to view over-the-air television on Internet-connected devices—was forced by
the Supreme Court to shut down following a lawsuit brought by several broadcast networks.
Precedent, however, can be superseded by new legislation, which is why we regard lawmaking as
perhaps the most highly formalized kind of social control, in that it is typically the most permanent
(especially for what pertains to constitutional law).15 Overall, as the formality of social control
increases, the resulting settlements become more permanent and difficult to change through a
reliance on the government’s executive and regulatory authority, the establishment of precedent,
and the difficulty of challenging settled law. This leads to our eighth proposition:
Proposition 8 (H8): The greater the formality of social control, the more permanent (vis-
à-vis temporary) the associated outcome will be.
Implications for organizations: the opportunity structure of deviance
Despite longstanding observations that firms engage in, and benefit from, overt deviance,
organizational theory has traditionally emphasized the importance of firms complying with norms
and rules, theorizing the negative outcomes associated with breaking them. In this paper, we have
15 In many contexts, the executive, legislative, and judiciary branches of government are organized hierarchically, and
formality and permanence arguably both increase the more high-ranking the involved social control actor is. For
example, in the U.S. federal law takes precedence over state law, but it can be overturned by judicial decisions going
all the way to the Supreme Court, whose decisions can in turn be superseded by amendments to the U.S. Constitution.
developed a theory of the social control of organizational deviance to better understand the
conditions under which it is in firms’ strategic interest to engage in deviant behavior—i.e., when
they can “get away with it”. In delineating our model, our goal was not only to explicitly
conceptualize the ways in which deviant behavior by organizations is curbed and policed, but also
to further the scholarly understanding of the variance in social control outcomes, which carries
substantial implications for organizations pursuing non-conforming behaviors. On this front, the
links we have theorized between cooperativeness and accommodation, as well as between
formality and permanence, represent the opportunity structure of organizational deviance (Merton,
1995; Meyer & Minkoff, 2004), defined as those contingent factors that enhance or inhibit
prospects for deviant behavior. A more favorable opportunity structure means that an organization
faces better chances of achieving its goals by engaging in deviant behavior, making the latter a
compelling option from a strategic standpoint.
Primarily, the degree to which social control outcomes accommodate deviance is likely to
result in a more favorable opportunity structure for the deviant. The dividends of deviance can be
manifold; beyond potentially engaging in the provision of novel products and services, additional
benefits range from visibility (Elsbach & Sutton, 1992) to signaling and network benefits (Roulet,
2020). In broad terms, social control outcomes that are more accommodating of deviance are thus
desirable in the sense that the deviant organization is able to “stay the course” and continue
engaging in some—if not all— aspects of the deviant behavior, and thereby continue to enjoy its
associated benefits. From this viewpoint, the opportunity structure of deviance becomes even more
favorable when social control outcomes accommodate deviance and are relatively permanent.
While a favorable short-term or temporary settlement may be beneficial, it is in constant danger of
reversal or expiration; the social control agent might try to “walk it back” at a later date, the deviant
organization may have to constantly renegotiate its terms, or additional social control agents may
get involved and seek to overturn the agreement. This makes strategic planning more challenging
and uncertain, making the opportunity structure associated with a given social control outcome
less favorable.
Second, social control can be relatively uncooperative at times, and by extension, more
contentious and disputed. As a result, settlements can result that preserve very few, and in some
cases, no aspects of the deviant behavior—i.e., the deviant behavior is outright suppressed. Under
such circumstances, it is arguably in the deviant’s best interest that the outcomes of social control
be less permanent. As a result, the less accommodating of deviance social control outcomes are,
the more favorable a non-permanent outcome is to the deviant firm. This provides opportunities
for settlements that are unfavorable from the deviant’s perspective to be renegotiated at a later
date, potentially resulting in a subsequent settlement that is more accommodating of deviant
behavior or even allowing for deviant behavior to be reintroduced after a temporary cessation.
Given the above reasoning, proactive firms will seek to influence the opportunity structure
of deviance by shaping the cooperativeness and formality of social control in a variety of ways in
order to bring about desired outcomes. Such efforts may involve strategies that seek to influence
the hypothesized factors affecting the cooperativeness and formality of social control. For
example, in order to increase the likelihood of cooperation, firms may strive to form cross-linkages
with social control agents, or they might develop war chests to increase the similarity of bargaining
power with social control agents. In order to influence the formality of social control, they may
engage in public opinion campaigns in an attempt to affect perceived levels of consensus or the
magnitude of harm. The opportunity structure of deviance is both influenced by the actions of
social control agents and firms, and it informs the latter’s willingness to strategically engage in
deviance in the first place.
Overall, our work sheds light on deviant behavior as a strategic choice on the part of
firms—that is, on how advantage might be pursued through deviance, defined as the strategic
violation of established laws and norms—complementing existing research on organizations
operating in the so-called “informal economy” (Webb et al., 2009). Deviant firms ranging from
start-ups positioning themselves in outright opposition to the law (e.g., such as those developing
products around Schedule I drugs) to firms engaged in counter normative practices (e.g.,
manufacturers of robot sex dolls) in fact provide an organizational context ripe for exploration,
and their study can undoubtedly help scholars to understand, for example, how and why deviance
can persist and thrive (Hudson, 2008), as well as what its strategic benefits can be (Helms &
Patterson, 2014; Roulet, 2019). In turn, this work can have relevant implications for a broader set
of organizations which may benefit from “breaking free” from rules and norms, or that may have
difficulties pursuing competitive advantage otherwise.
Implications for theory
The social control of organizations. Our work also contributes to theory by extending and
complementing existing work on social control and organizational deviance in several ways.
Primarily, our paper seeks to extend the study of social control to organizational contexts. While
much sociological and organizational research has conceptualized the role that social control plays
in curbing deviance among individuals, less attention has been paid to the social control of
organizations (for notable exceptions see Ermann & Lundman, 1978; Vaughan, 1998; Zald, 1978).
On this front, our theory proposes a counterintuitive role for social control in shaping the trajectory
of organizational deviance. Research on social control has traditionally focused on the ways in
which agents prevent particular types of behavior or punish particular actors (Greve et al., 2010).
As noted by Leavitt et al. (1978: 277), however, “organizations don’t sit quietly waiting for other
people to make the rules, nor do they passively accept whatever government or some other group
imposes.” Social control thus becomes not the mere imposition of penalties, but rather a
complex—and often contentious—process in which both deviants and social control agents play
an active role (Roulet & Pichler, 2020). As a result of this process, deviant behavior is sometimes
curbed and suppressed, while being accommodated and even made permanent at other times,
which suggests that under certain circumstances, deviance can pay off, not in spite of social control,
but because of it—as illustrated, for example, by the Fininvest and MMA examples, where social
control de facto institutionalized (formerly) deviant behavior. Such a conceptualization invites
consideration of the ways in which organizations are able to use resources, relationships, and social
skills to influence the trajectory of deviant behavior, allowing us to advance a more dynamic
perspective on the social control of organizations and its outcomes.
Expanding our understanding of organizational deviance. Along similar lines, our work
also expands on existing scholarly conceptualizations of organizational deviance and deviant
organizations (specifically firms). While the organizational behavior literature has taken a
relatively value-neutral approach to deviant behavior (e.g., Mainemelis, 2010; Spreitzer &
Sonenshein, 2004; Vadera, Pratt, & Mishra, 2013), organization and field-level work on deviance
has prevailingly painted deviant behavior by organizations in a negative light, with an emphasis
on the negative consequences of deviance for the offending organizations (Pozner & Harris, 2016)
and bystanders (Jonsson, Greve, & Fujiwara-Greve, 2009; Paruchuri & Misangyi, 2015; Piazza &
Jourdan, 2018).16
16 Institutional entrepreneurship approaches also tend to be value-neutral, but they focus on systemic change and do
not explicitly conceptualize non-conforming behavior as deviant.
While our framework explicitly allows for the possibility that deviance will be ultimately
repressed, it also fleshes out the ways in which deviance can be accommodated, thereby persisting.
While the literature on social control at the individual level has traditionally devoted little attention
to the agency of the actors that are subjected to social control (Tucker, Orlando, Elliott, & Klein,
2006), organizational deviance presents an interesting opportunity of doing so, inasmuch as
organizational actors typically have access to social and economic resources that often allow them
to mount an effective response to social control attempts. Furthermore, one of the key features of
our approach is that it places theoretical emphasis on the interactions taking place between social
control agents and deviants (Thiemann & Lepoutre, 2017). We are hopeful that this will result in
a renewed focus on public and private arenas of dispute resolution such as the court system and
regulatory agencies, as well as more private dispute resolution systems, such as arbitration, where
interpretation and implementation of rules are negotiated and conflict is resolved (Vaughan, 1998).
Boundary conditions
In our theory development, we have sought to shine a light on understudied types of
organizational actors and processes, and in so doing provide fertile ground for scholarly inquiry in
novel directions. Our framework, however, is also inevitably limited in scope and hinges on a
number of simplifying assumptions. For one, we do not theorize about the conditions under which
a given behavior will be recognized as deviant or not, instead taking as a starting point that social
control agents are activated. This notwithstanding, we recognize that perceptions of deviance can
often be traced back to a number of factors. We do hope that further work will draw on the rich
literature on this topic in sociology and criminology to theorize about the conditions under which
the behavior of organizations may—or may not—come to be seen as deviant. Along similar lines,
we also refrained from addressing the question of what drives firms to engage in behavior that may
be seen as deviant. Frequently, firms do so in the pursuit of cognitive legitimacy (Garud,
Kumaraswamy, Roberts, & Xu, 2020), because they benefit from upending the status quo
(Taeuscher, Bouncken, & Pesch, 2021), or because they seek to burnish their image with an
important stakeholder group, irrespective of the potential consequences of doing so (Helms &
Patterson, 2014; Roulet, 2019). We regard both of these aspects as interesting directions for future
Further, we only looked at instances where social control agents will intervene when
presented with, or made aware of, organizational deviance. While we think this assumption is
reasonable in most cases, we also recognize that there are settings in which social control agents
might not intervene, or only do so in a limited fashion—in inchoate fields such as emerging
industries, for example, or in settings where social control agents are weak (Heese, Krishnan, &
Moers, 2016) or have limited legitimacy (Funk & Hirschman, 2014). Rules might also be contested
because a consensus around them at the field level has not yet formed (Durand & Vergne, 2012).
In this regard, an interesting model extension would relax the assumption of an intervention by
social control agents, instead explicitly including the likelihood of such a response into the model.
In so doing, the agentic dimension of social control could be explicated even further.
In our theorizing, we have also sought to build a model that is agnostic to the motivations
that may drive social control or the specific social control agents involved; in other words, our
arguments deliberately do not hinge on the reasons why specific social actors may wish to take up
the social control mantle, nor about the kinds of organizations that ultimately choose to do so.
While this simplification was necessary for theoretical parsimony and to make our theoretical
framework tractable, social actors undoubtedly differ in terms of both their underlying motivations
for exerting social control and—just as importantly—the forms of sanctioning available to them.
This is especially the case for government actors, whose power generally exceeds that of private
entities, so that certain forms of social control (e.g., executive action) are their exclusive
prerogative. An interesting extension of our work, therefore, would be to explicitly consider how
specific motivations, or the involvement of specific actors as social control agents, relate to the
process of social control. Along similar lines, there may be additional dimensions to social control
beyond cooperativeness and formality that we have not explored. For example, social control could
vary in intensity—similarly to Black’s (1998) conceptualization of the “quantity” of social
control—and it could also be more or less effective in curbing deviant behavior. We regard these
as interesting directions for future inquiry, as well.
Finally, we deliberately left out of the model the possibility that deviants may be able to
evade sanctioning entirely (Elert & Henrekson, 2016; Thiemann & Lepoutre, 2017), so that social
control becomes de facto impossible. This could happen, for example, when “firms engage in novel
activities that are difficult to interpret within existing regulatory frameworks” (Funk & Hirschman,
2017: 32) or when deviance is covertly perpetrated. While opportunities to evade social control
can and do exist, however, they are hardly an equilibrium state and are thus likely to be transient.
Government actors such as regulators can be assumed to eventually catch up with most firm
behaviors, and firms are rarely able to evade scrutiny for long—especially from social control
agents such as competitors and watchdog organizations who have relatively fewer constraints. It
is our belief that behavior that is labeled as deviant will eventually be policed, and the process we
have theorized will play out, albeit on a delayed timeline.
Strategic violations of laws and norms by organizations increasingly make news headlines, shaping
collective understandings of the appropriateness of firms’ choices as judged by social control
agents in the process. Despite its potential upsides, however, organizational deviance typically
triggers the intervention of social control agents whose purpose is to ensure that rule systems are
not upended. As a result, existing work has not offered a clear picture of the trajectory of
organizational deviance or of whether counter normative behavior might ultimately be
advantageous for firms, and if so, under what conditions. We have sought to develop theory aimed
at addressing these issues, grounded in the social control literature. We hope that our efforts will
spark further examination of macro-level deviant behavior, recognizing it not only as an important
source of change in market settings, but also as a potential driver of strategic advantage for firms.
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Figure 1. The social control of organizational deviance (process model).
Table 1. Selected examples of organizational deviance and its associated social control.
Deviant firm(s) Organizational deviance features Social control outcome
Uber Violation of state and local laws regulating taxi and
limo services
Various U.S. cities (NYC, Austin, Houston, San Antonio, Philadelphia) initially banned Uber, then passed
regulations restricting its operations; in some cases, Uber was able to overturn these regulations in part or in
whole through lobbying and legal action
Violation of local housing laws and regulations
concerning temporary accommodations, most notably
in NYC
After Airbnb sued to block a New York State law imposing heavy fines on people who advertise illegal
short-term rentals, a settlement was reached requiring Airbnb to turn over host information
Napster Creation of a service that allowed peer-to-peer
filesharing of copyrighted content Ceased operations, filed for bankruptcy and eventually had to liquidate its assets after losing in court
Aereo Creation of a service that allowed subscribers to view
over-the-air television on Internet-connected devices Had to cease operations following an unfavorable U.S. Supreme Court decision
Fininvest Creation of a nationwide network of private television
stations, in violation of Italian law
Following a lawsuit by the Italian state broadcaster, local judges ordered Fininvest to shut down all
transmissions, but the company exploited government connections to get laws passed allowing it to
continue operations
Scooter companies
Dissemination of thousands of electric scooters over
city sidewalks in San Francisco without permission
The City of San Francisco initially prohibited Bird, Lime and Spin from operating, leading to lawsuits;
eventually an agreement allowing the companies to operate was reached
Proposed opening of a "robot brothel", where human-
like dolls can be rented to be used in private rooms at
the location by the hour
Following protests and public outcry, the Houston City Council banned the "robot brothel" from opening
through an ad hoc ordinance
Ultimate Fighting
Championship (UFC)
Promotion of the controversial, full-contact combat
sport known as Mixed Martial Arts (MMA)
UFC was instrumental to the passage of state legislation regulating MMA, which is now permitted in most
of the United States
Smart gun manufacturers
Development of firearms that allow only their
designated owners to fire through fingerprint
A boycott on the companies manufacturing smart guns led them to abandon the technology in order to
preserve sales of their other products
Producers of plant-based
meat substitutes Labeling of plant-based meat substitutes as meat
Cattle ranchers associations and farm bureaus put pressure on U.S. state governments to pass laws
prohibiting the labeling of plant-based food using terms such as "sausage" or "burger"; producers of plant-
based meat substitutes have sued states--such as Louisiana--that have implemented such measures
Table 2. Stylized forms of social control by cooperativeness and formality.
Low Moderate High
Boycott Mediation Informal agreement
Cease-and-desist letter Arbitration Formal contracting
Unilateral executive or
legislative action Litigation Participatory rulemaking
Table 3. Stylized social control outcomes by degree of accommodation and permanence of
deviant behavior.
Low Moderate High
The deviant behavior is
Aspects of the deviant behavior
are allowed to continue on an
ad hoc basis, others are
The deviant behavior is allowed
to continue as is on an ad hoc
The deviant behavior is
temporarily suppressed
Aspects of the deviant behavior
are temporarily accepted, others
are suppressed
The deviant behavior is
temporarily accepted as is
The deviant behavior is
permanently banned
Aspects of the deviant behavior
are institutionalized, others are
The deviant behavior is
institutionalized as is
Alessandro Piazza is a Jones School Distinguished Assistant Professor of Strategic Management
in the Jones School of Business at Rice University. He received his Ph.D. in management with a
focus on organizational theory from Columbia University. His research interests include activism,
contention, and misbehavior in and around organizations and the social structure of markets.
Patrick Bergemann is an Assistant Professor of Organization and Management at the Paul
Merage School of Business at the University of California, Irvine. He received his Ph.D. in
sociology from Stanford University. His research focuses on social control and the reporting of
wrongdoing within and outside of organizations.
Wesley Helms is an Associate Professor of Strategic Management and the Goodman Social
Innovation Research Scholar at Brock University’s Goodman School of Business. He received his
Ph.D. from the Schulich School of Business at York University. His research focuses on
understanding how marginalized organizational actors negotiate with those around them to
influence their contexts.
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"When capitalism spread along the trade routes toward the Indies...when radio opened an era of mass communication . . . when the Internet became part of the global economy...pirates were there. And although most people see pirates as solitary anarchists out to destroy capitalism, it turns out the opposite is true. They are the ones who forge the path. In The Pirate Organization, Rodolphe Durand and Jean-Philippe Vergne argue that piracy drives capitalism's evolution and foreshadows the direction of the economy. Through a rigorous yet engaging analysis of the history and golden ages of piracy, the authors show how pirates form complex and sophisticated organizations that change the course of capitalism."