Michael Haedicke's book, Organizing Organic: Conflict and Compromise in an Emerging Market, is a welcome contribution to the study of the organic sector, which has seen tremendous growth since the late twentieth century. The growth of the sector, accompanied by the entrance of more traditional agricultural producers and retailers, has led to a significant amount of conflict and compromise among producers of organic food products. Using qualitative data and engaging with organizations scholarship, Haedicke traces the history of organic agriculture in the United States and provides an analysis of the current struggle to define the sector. The author applies the concept of institutional logics to better understand patterns of conflict and compromise in the organic sector and, in turn, uses his findings to engage in further development of organizational theory.
Haedicke argues that there are two, competing, cultural understandings of the organic sector among organic producers. These cultural understandings guide participants’ actions and efforts to determine the structure of organizations and institutions within the organic sector. The first, termed “transformative,” sees the traditional organization of agricultural production as systemically flawed and calls for it to be restructured into a decentralized economy that, among other things, legitimates small-scale production and promotes civic community. The second cultural understanding, termed “expansionary,” embraces traditional business models and identifies market growth of the organic sector as the main goal of organic agriculture. Haedicke analyzes the development of these two cultural understandings; from the early years of organic farming to the battles over federal regulation in the late twentieth century and finally within the context of the current growth of the organic sector. In and of itself, Haedicke's historical account and construction of this cultural framework is useful in regard to how we understand the emergence of “big organic”—the entry of traditional corporations into the organic market—and its influence, for better or worse, on the political economy of food in the contemporary United States.
Haedicke is interested in the role that culture—in addition to economic rationality—plays in market settings and grapples with questions concerning how the presence of opposing cultural understandings of the organic sector affect organization and action and how participants navigate conflict and contradictions to find compromise. Haedicke uses an institutional logics approach, which emphasizes the importance of belief systems to understand human behavior, to explain the consistency and persistence of the two competing cultural understandings. While the institutional logics approach has tended to focus on cognition and rational choice, Haedicke's analysis of the organic sector emphasizes the importance of emotion and moral dilemmas. Both cultural understandings of the organic sector recognize the ethical value of the sector despite their differences in regard to market rationality. Participants share an emotional, non-economic commitment to organic agriculture, which contributes to their ability to contain contention within a sector characterized by cultural pluralism.
Haedicke engages with other dominant themes in organizations scholarship, such as questions raised by new institutionalism concerning the power of institutions to shape and limit the agency of individuals within organizations. The author's analysis of the organic sector reveals the importance of the presence of competing cultural logics to enable agency and effect organizational change. Producers who support a transformative approach to organizing the organic sector and those who hold an expansionary approach are regularly confronted by the ideas, practices, and arrangements of the other. This constant engagement leads to continual self-reflection, which can reaffirm difference as well as create possibilities for organizational innovation and change through compromise. Thus, agency in the organic sector is embedded in the organization logics that define it, but through conflict and compromise actors are able to critically examine and rework the logics.
Haedicke creatively uses food cooperatives as an example of organization “hybridity”—that is, sector participants who illustrate organizational compromise and reflexivity in the face of competing cultural understandings. Food co-ops in the United States have historically been characterized by a transformative cultural understanding of the agricultural industry. But in an effort to maintain core cooperative values in the face of increased competition from large-scale organic retailers, co-op leaders and customers have to find a way to exist within both cultural understandings of the organic sector. While using food co-ops as an example of organizations trying to navigate an organic sector characterized by two competing rationalities is useful and enlightening, it is also limited. Food co-ops are not defined by their relationship to organics, and their place in the sector is not the same as organic producers. As such, co-op leaders’ actions are likely impacted by other factors. For example, co-ops are guided by long-standing cooperative principles that influence their behavior. This introduces variables not entirely addressed by the author.
Although Haedicke focuses on the production side of the organic sector, he thoughtfully considers the place of the consumer as well. Sociologists who study consumption have long been interested in the possibility of civic engagement through consumption and look to ethical markets as a point of study. Haedicke's analysis reveals that consumer influence is surprisingly minimal in the organic sector. Organic producers in favor of transformation of the agrofood industry as well as those in favor of market expansion view consumers as purchasers who merely support (or not) the producers’ organization of the sector and its goals, not as equal participants in the process of defining the organic sector. This limits the true meaning of consumer involvement and, as such, Haedicke encourages those who study ethical markets to think critically about the role of the consumer and not take the meaning of their participation for granted.
Organizing Organic raises important questions looking forward. As the author points out, the expansionary understanding of the organic sector is the dominant understanding. Haedicke has shown how the marginalized transformative understanding has continued to exist and influence the organization of the organic sector throughout rapid and significant change. But this is an ongoing and unfinished process. As the organic sector continues to grow and become increasingly dominated by expansionary goals, supporters of the transformative approach have begun to focus their energy on more localized efforts to promote organic agriculture, which may signal that the organic sector will eventually succumb to a type of isomorphism and fully adopt the practices of the traditional agricultural economy. But of course this is speculation, and as things stand, Haedicke has persuasively argued for the importance of emotional and cultural elements of institutional logics to enable compromise within a sector characterized by conflict.