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Organizing for Sustainable Investing Dahlman, Sara

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Dahlman, S. (2021). Marginal Alternativity: Organizing for Sustainable Investing. Copenhagen Business School [Phd]. PhD Series No. 28.2021

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Sara Dahlman

CBS PhD School PhD Series 28.2021

PhD Series 28.2021





ISSN 0906-6934

Print ISBN: 978-87-7568-032-0 Online ISBN: 978-87-7568-033-7


Marginal alternativity

Organizing for sustainable investing

PhD dissertation

Sara Dahlman

Department of Management, Politics and Philosophy Copenhagen Business School

Main supervisor Professor Sine Nørholm Just, Copenhagen Business School and Roskilde University Center

Secondary supervisor Associate Professor Liv Egholm,

Copenhagen Business School


Sara Dahlman

Marginal alternativity: Organizing for sustainable investing

1st edition 2021 PhD Series 28.2021

© Sara Dahlman

ISSN 0906-6934

Print ISBN: 978-87-7568-032-0 Online ISBN: 978-87-7568-033-7

The CBS PhD School is an active and international research environment at Copenhagen Business School for PhD students working on theoretical and

empirical research projects, including interdisciplinary ones, related to economics and the organisation and management of private businesses, as well as public and voluntary institutions, at business, industry and country level.

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As this PhD study is about to come to an end, I find myself reflecting upon those who have inspired, encouraged and supported me through the last four years.

First and foremost, I am grateful to have had Sine Nørholm Just as my main supervisor and guiding star in academia. Thank you, Sine, for your endless support and encouragement, for always being engaged and taking time to help, for inspiring discussions, for opening doors and pointing towards solutions. I could not have asked for more! I am also thankful for the other, more or less loosely connected, members of the AlterEcos team. A special thank you to Erik Mygind du Plessis and Emil Husted for good discussions, cold beers, and support. I look forward to exploring the Apocalypse with you! I also want to extend a warm thank you to Liv Egholm, my secondary supervisor, for spreading joy and laughter, for nudging me to think about research questions and research design, and for grounding me in the finalization process of the dissertation. Also, thank you Ib Tunby Gulbrandsen, for an inspiring collaboration: your humor and intellect made co-authoring to a joy! A big thank you goes out to SusPens, for letting me be a part of your journey. It was a great experience, and I am grateful that you became my case organization!

My gratitude to the many people who have contributed to improving the text, through close readings and enlightening discussions, especially Ester Barinaga, Daniel Beunza, Lena Olaison, Simon Parker, and Justine Grønbaek Pors. I am likewise grateful for Karen Ashcraft’s invitation to visit University of Colorado, Boulder, in the spring of 2020. While the visit became much different from what was planned (due to the COVID pandemic), it was a great experience and a well-needed change of scenery. Equally important is the support I have received from fellow PhDs during this period. A warm thank you to DBP PhD group for Friday breakfasts, PILS, and mutual support; to Marcus Lantz, office mate extra ordinaire, for your sharp mind, good humor and sparring; to Dimitra Makri Andersen, PhD partner in crime, for endless support, vivid discussions and friendship; to Jette Sandager for our conversations on affect, both as an academic topic and as a lived experience of navigating academic life; and to Jannick Friis Christensen for our discussions and collaboration on feminist theories and methods.



I am thankful for being included in two different academic environments in the last four years.

A heartfelt thank you to my earlier collogues at the Department of Business and Politics for providing a lively and inspiring academic environment and endless Friday beers at Svejk. A special thanks goes out to Stine Haakonsson for daily chats, encouragement and practical help;

to Lene Tolstrup Christensen for being a good friend and academic role model; and to Mette Grue Nielsen and Lonni Faulch for including me in your fellowship, for your help and support, and for all the laughter. A similarly warm thank you to my collogues at the Department of Management, Politics and Philosophy for welcoming me into your exciting research environment.

I want to thank all my good friends and family that I am luckily surrounded by. This has meant a lot to me during this PhD period. I am especially thankful to my mother who have been a huge help and support. Thank you, Albert and Julian, for grounding me in this process and for showing me that there are things more important than academic concerns. With the diversion you create on a daily basis, you have liberated me from seeking perfection. Jag älskar er! Michael.

Thank you for always believing in me, and for your endless support. “Without your love I'd be nowhere at all, I'd be lost, if not for you” Jag älskar dig för alltid.

Sara Dahlman, July 15, 2021, Frederiksberg




This thesis explores the emergence and maintenance of alternative organizations at the margins of alternativity. An empirical curiosity springing from an in-depth ethnographic study of SusPens (a pseudonym) led to this study, which advances the field of alternative organization studies by seeing the alternative as an oscillation between imagination and actualization, a continuous process of breaking free of societal norms that takes place at the margins of capitalism.

Founded in January 2017, SusPens offers sustainable investment solutions to private customers and institutional investors, its aim being to mobilize pensions savings towards a more sustainable future. During the period of empirical engagement, SusPens developed a machine learning algorithm that uses name-matching to screen investment portfolios. The screening tool is based on––and enables––a simple investment strategy: Exclude any portfolio containing companies engaged in fossil fuels, weapons, or tobacco. In automating the screening process, SusPens sought to mainstream the practice of sustainable investing by lowering its cost, thus pushing the pensions industry in a more sustainable direction. As such, this organization deviates from the typical alternative organization.

In contemporary studies of alternative organizing, the alternative is often negatively defined as the opposite of any mainstream institutional arrangement––usually capitalism. Generally, such organizations therefore tend to be less hierarchical, less bureaucratic, and more concerned with taking responsibility for social and environmental issues. Defining the alternative as the antithesis of the mainstream can lead to a binary thinking that renders organizations as either conventional (capitalist) or alternative. However, SusPens’s position at the intersection of alternativity and capitalism means it is neither. Operating at the very margin that separates the alternative from capitalism––and simultaneously conjoins the two––SusPens is significantly shaped by inherent tensions, ambiguities, and oppositions. Studying these aspects, this thesis seeks to move beyond the binary to instead focus on the relationship between the alternative and the mainstream. To this end, the following research question guides the investigation: How are alternative organizations established and maintained?



To answer this question, the thesis reports on a nine-month ethnographic study of SusPens, conducted from April 2018 to December 2018 and including observations, interviews, and document analysis. This body of data provides the empirical backdrop for the thesis’s four analytical chapters, each of which highlights a particular aspect involved in establishing and maintaining alternative organizations. To illuminate the role of sociomateriality in establishing an alternative, the first analytical chapter examines the relational process in which SusPens shaped and was shaped by its key algorithmic tool. The second analytical chapter looks at the role affect played in the collaborative practices of the organizational members as they developed SusPens’s algorithm. The chapter shows how affect installs borders and becomes a means for the organizational members to attain power in the organization. The third analytical chapter zooms out from the organization to investigate how alternative discourses relate to societal discourses. Taking a utopian perspective, this chapter focuses on how the organizational practice of sustainable investing is distorted when encountering mainstream financial logics. Taking a more general approach, the fourth analytical chapter explores how alternative organizing can be understood as a constant process of breaking free of societal norms. As such, this chapter moves towards a processual understanding of alternative organizing by emphasizing the unfinished character of the alternative.

The thesis concludes that establishing and maintaining alternatives is an iterative process, a constant movement between imagining and actualizing the alternative. This process of dreaming and doing takes place at the intersection of alternativity and capitalism, and thus at the margin of––and in proximity to––capitalism.




Denne afhandling udforsker etablering og vedligeholdelse af alternative organisationer på kanten af alternativitet. Studiet udspringer af den empiriske nysgerrighed, der opstod i og blev drevet af en etnografisk undersøgelse af SusPens (et pseudonym), en fintech start-up indenfor bæredygtige investeringer. Gennem studiet af SusPens’ tilblivelse og vedligeholdelse, fremmes forståelsen af alternativ organisering, idet alternativet forklares som en bevægelse mellem forestillinger og aktualiseringer. Det alternative kan altså forstås som en kontinuerlig frigørelsesproces fra samfundsmæssige normer, der finder sted på kanten af disse, det vil sige på kanten af kapitalisme.

SusPens blev grundlagt i januar 2017 og tilbyder bæredygtige investeringsløsninger til private kunder og institutionelle investorer med det formål at mobilisere pensionsbesparelser for en mere bæredygtig fremtid. Mens det etnografiske studie fandt sted, udviklede og lancerede SusPens en algoritme til at screene investeringsporteføljer. Screeningsværktøjet er baseret på, og muliggør, en simpel investeringsstrategi; alle porteføljer, der indeholder virksomheder, der beskæftiger sig med fossile brændstoffer, våben eller tobak, er udelukket. Gennem en automatisering af screeningsprocessen ønskede SusPens at effektivisere håndteringen af bæredygtige investeringer for dermed at sænke prisen for bæredygtig pensionsinvestering og skubbe pensionsindustrien i en mere bæredygtig retning. SusPens har både centrale træk fra alternativ og konventionel organisering; som sådan er organisationen ikke den typiske alternative organisation.

I mange studier af alternativ organisering defineres alternativet negativt, som det modsatte af konventionelle institutionelle ordninger og dermed i opposition til den kapitalistiske samfundsorden. Generelt betyder det organisationer, der er mindre hierarkiske, mindre bureaukratiske og mere interesserede i at tage ansvar for mennesker og miljø. Denne definition af alternativet som modsætning til mainstream kan føre til en binær tænkning, hvor organisationer enten kan være konventionelle (kapitalistiske) eller alternative. SusPens er placeret i skæringspunktet mellem alternativitet og kapitalisk organisering, og i henhold til den binære logik er organisationen dermed hverken et alternativ eller en konventionel organisation.

Denne placering på kanten af både kapitalisme og alternativitet fører til iboende spændinger, uklarheder og oppositioner. Ved at studere disse, søger denne afhandling at bevæge sig ud over



den binære logik og i stedet fokusere på forholdet mellem alternativet og mainstream. For at gøre dette, guides studiet af følgende forskningsspørgsmål: Hvordan etableres og vedligeholdes alternative organisationer?

For at besvare dette spørgsmål bygger afhandlingen på en ni-måneders etnografisk undersøgelse af SusPens, fra april 2018 til december 2018, hvilket inkluderer observationer, interviews og dokumentanalyse. Undersøgelsen af SusPens udgør det empiriske fokus i de fire analytiske kapitler, der hver især fremhæver et bestemt aspekt af etableringen og vedligeholdelsen af alternative organisationer. Det første analytiske kapitel undersøger den relationelle proces, hvor SusPens gav form til og tog form fra sin algoritme. Kapitlet belyser således betydningen af sociomaterielle relationer i etablering af et alternativ. Det andet analytiske kapitel ser på affekts rolle i samarbejdspraksisser mellem organisationens medlemmer under udviklingen af SusPens’ algoritme. Kapitlet viser, hvordan affekt opretter grænser mellem organisationens medlemmer og bliver et middel til at opnå magt i organisationen. Det tredje analytiske kapitel zoomer ud fra organisationen for at undersøge, hvordan alternativet relaterer til den samfundsmæssige diskurs. Med et utopisk perspektiv fokuserer dette kapitel på, hvordan den organisatoriske diskurs om bæredygtig investering fordrejes i mødet med konventionelle økonomiske logikker. Det fjerde analytiske kapitel tager en mere generel tilgang og udforsker, hvordan alternativ organisering kan forstås som en konstant frigørelsesproces fra samfundsmæssige normer. Dette kapitel peger mod en processuel forståelse af alternativ organisering ved at understrege alternativets ufærdige karakter.

Afhandlingen konkluderer, at etablering og vedligeholdelse af alternativer er en iterativ proces, en konstant bevægelse mellem at forestille sig og aktualisere alternativet. Denne bevægelse finder sted i skæringspunktet mellem alternativitet og kapitalisme, hvorfor alternativet kun kan etableres og opretholdes på kanten af, og i nærheden af, kapitalisme.



Table of content



RESUMÉ ... 7




PREFACE ... 15









An alternative organizing reading of sustainable investing ... 37

A diverse economies reading of sustainable investing ... 39

A utopianism reading of sustainable investing ... 40




Affirmative critique ... 46

Thick descriptions ... 47

Weak theory ... 48










THE DATA ... 58

THE CASE ... 60

Prologue––early aspirations of a sustainable pension fund ... 60

Establishing SusPens as a fintech company ... 62

Launching SusPens ... 63

SusPens as an alternative ... 64

Handling tensions of conflicting goals ... 65

Epilogue––fintech software for institutional investors ... 67




Communication ... 72

Culture ... 72

Organization ... 73


Mapping organizational figurations ... 75


Research context and design ... 76

Analytical strategy ... 79


The formation of a pragmatic hero ... 83

Overachieving, underperforming automation ... 85

Junk input creates junk output ... 87

Becoming an empty shell? ... 88


Relational processes ... 91

Multiple enactments of affordances and agencies ... 92

Material and meaningful arrangements ... 92





Boundary objects as objects of practice ... 100

The circulation of affect and affective objects ... 101

Affective boundaries ... 102


Empirical setting ... 103

Data generation ... 104



Analytical practice ... 107


The Tamagotchi ... 108

The “Model” ... 110

The B2B offer ... 112





Sustainable investing––from value-based to value-seeking ... 120

The concept of sustainability in sustainable investing ... 121

The potential tension between sustainability and financial performance ... 122

Utopia as a cure for ideological blindness in sustainable finance ... 123


Utopian modes of dealing with the good ... 125


Empirical context ... 129

Data collection ... 129

Data coding ... 130


Mobile utopias – accusations and panaceas ... 131

Absolutism – profitable sustainable investments ... 133

Managerialism – where idealism meets pragmatism ... 135

Tinkering ... 138


Sustainable investing as an alternative ... 140

The alternative as critique ... 141

Sustainability as utopia ... 143




Alternativity as principle ... 147

Alternativity as practice ... 148

Alternativity as freedom ... 149


Case presentations ... 152

Data collection ... 154

Coding and analysis ... 155




From rejection to appropriation ... 159

Tactics of emergence: Endurance, germination and reiteration ... 162


Empirical trajectories: Tactics of emergence ... 168

Conceptualizing emergence: Alternativity as freedom ... 171







10. REFERENCES ... 182




List of figures

Figure 1: Structure of the analytical section ... 24

Figure 2: The Pentad ... 80

Figure 3: Data structure ... 81

Figure 4: Figurations overview ... 90

Figure 5: Data structure: rejection and appropriation ... 157

Figure 6: Data structure: emergence ... 158

List of tables

Table 1: Diverse economic practices ... 32

Table 2: Observations ... 77

Table 3: Interviews ... 78

Table 4: Observations ... 106

Table 5: List of interviewees ... 106

Table 6: Overview of utopian modes of dealing with the good ... 128

Table 7: Overview of data sources ... 155






This article-based thesis contains four articles and a framing chapter. The below preface provides an overview of the articles, which are only referred to as such here. Each article functions as a separate analytical chapter of the thesis, which is why I have also compiled all references into a bibliography at the end of the thesis. All articles have been submitted to academic journals, with some already published and others still in the review process.

The article “Algorithms as organizational figuration: The sociotechnical arrangements of a fin-tech start-up” has been published in Big Data and Society (2021, vol 8, issue 1, online first).

The article is co-authored by Sara Dahlman, Ib Tunby Guldbrandsen (Department of Communication and Arts, Roskilde University, Roskilde, Denmark), and Sine Nørholm Just (Department of Communication and Arts, Roskilde University, Roskilde, Denmark). A co- author statement is attached as an appendix.

The single-authored article “Affective boundaries in collaborative practices” has been submitted to Organization, and after its first round of critical review is currently under revision.

The single-authored article “Tinkering towards the good––utopian modes of dealing with sustainability in finance” has been submitted to the Journal of Business Ethics and awaits critical review.

The article “Alternativity as freedom: Exploring tactics of emergence in alternative forms of organizing” has been submitted to a special issue of Human Relations on freedom. The version included in the thesis has been revised in light of the first round of critical review. The paper is co-authored by Sara Dahlman, Erik Mygind du Plessis (Department of Management Politics and Philosophy, Copenhagen Business School, Frederiksberg, Denmark), Emil Husted (Department of Organization, Copenhagen Business School, Frederiksberg, Denmark), and Sine Nørholm Just (Department of Communication and Arts, Roskilde University, Roskilde, Denmark). A co-author statement is attached as an appendix.





1. Marginal alternativity

An introduction

I’m pretty critical of capitalism as a form of organizing in the world, but I’m more critical of those of my friends who criticize capitalism and do nothing. No, that was harsh, but those who don’t do anything about it, they still buy their products and don’t care about where their money is invested; they go fully and happily all-in as they await the revolution … I mean, eventually we could be in the situation where we take in a venture fund and kneel to the core organizing principles of capitalism big time, full-on focus on capitalism, inflating our valuation. And this is where I don’t think we’re compromising our values, because we’re not a critic of capitalism. We’re working on the same terms as capitalism. We don’t tell people they should stop buying stocks or shouldn’t take the opportunity to invest their money and get richer … Keep doing it but change the way you do. So, we’re back to where the essence and heart of SusPens is pretty pragmatic––many call us idealists––but in fact we’re idealists on behalf of the climate, not on behalf of the economy, one could say … This is why a lot of things can slide when it comes to economic values, without me getting nervous.

We can get some VC fund onboard, but it doesn’t matter, as long as we get more and more people to invest sustainably, and get divested from shit, and get money sent in the right direction and increase the awareness that we should care and think about where our money is invested.

(John, founder of SusPens)

This is the gospel according to John, a former business school student who quit his job as a management consultant to start a sustainable pensions fund. When I met him and SusPens (a pseudonym), I believed the good organization provided a real and radical alternative to capitalism. I obviously brimmed with this conviction at my first meeting with John, who said:

“It’s idealism meeting pragmatism … That’s the key, and this is where things get a bit controversial with regard to your understanding of SusPens––we’ll never compromise on the return on investment” (John). I quickly realized that SusPens was not exactly the alternative (to capitalism) I knew from the literature and longed to meet in practice. Still, I decided to stick with the organization. Although not the alternative I had anticipated, SusPens continued to



spark my empirical curiosity and shake my theoretical assumptions. Operating at the intersection between alternativity and capitalism, the organization possessed some inherent tensions, ambiguities, and oppositions, the study of which, I felt, could elucidate what enables and constrains the establishment of alternatives.

My interest in alternatives and my preconceptions about what they are go back to the Velux- funded research project of which this PhD thesis was a subproject––AlterEcos, which set out to explore how alternatives to currently dominant forms of economic organizing become possible, and how such alternatives enable change from within the economy generally and from within the financial sector more specifically. Theoretically, the project was rooted in critical management studies (Alvesson & Spicer, 2012; Wickert & Schaefer, 2015), diverse economies (Roelwinkel et al., 2015; Gibson-Graham 1996; 2006a; 2008), and alternative organizing (Parker et al., 2014a; 2014b), a theoretical foundation that had shaped my understanding of what constituted an alternative. In such contemporary accounts of organizational alternatives, the alternative is often negatively defined as the opposite of mainstream, institutional arrangements of capitalism (Parker et al., 2014a), which is to say it is less hierarchical, less bureaucratic and more concerned with taking responsibility for human and environmental issues (Cheney 2014).

Contrasting the alternative with the mainstream in this manner can lead to a binary thinking that renders organizations either conventional (capitalist) or alternative (Gibson-Graham, 1996;

2006a). SusPens, I soon realized, transcended this dichotomy, for it was neither purely alternative nor strictly conventional, but somewhere in between.

Although not based in collective practices, democracy, or anti-capitalism, SusPens nevertheless diverged from mainstream capitalist organizations because it was conceived with the aim of employing passively invested pensions savings in projects supporting the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). This initial idea transformed into a vision of a pensions fund that exclusively invested in sustainable stocks. As such, SusPens sought to challenge the common understanding of pensions as a passive investment in one’s future economic security by actively employing the invested money in stocks that supported such sustainable development as the green transition. This, the organization argued, would make pensions something that mattered today and not just in some nebulous future. To engage clients in this new understanding of pensions, SusPens developed a digital interface that enabled clients to compare the (positive) impact of their investments, say, reduced carbon emissions, with that of conventional pension funds. Also a knowledge bank, the interface gave clients reading material about pensions and



financial matters, thus helping to increase their financial literacy. Indeed, SusPens wanted to spread and democratize sustainable investments, whose high costs tend to make them premium products, so to make them more available, it developed an algorithm that could screen investments for “bad” stocks, thus using automation to lower the high cost of sustainable investing.

Intrigued by the potentials and tensions of this origin story, I ended up following SusPens for nine months, from April 2018 to December 2018, which coincided with the organization’s establishment and consolidation, as it formally launched its sustainable pension product on October 1, 2018. In this period, I met with the organization twice a week, Monday and Wednesday mornings, when it held its bi-weekly status meetings. Throughout my fieldwork, I struggled with how to understand the not-so-alternative. I continuously longed for SusPens to be more radical in its alternativity, to incorporate more collective principles internally or to prioritize sustainability over financial performance, but I also grew increasingly curious about its approach to changing the system from within or its urge to “fiddle with institutions,” as John described his professional motivation. All of this challenged my understanding of alternatives as opting out of the system, as differing more radically from capitalism. If alternatives can only exist in spaces separate from their surroundings, then their transformational potential becomes limited. Consequently, change from within becomes contingent on being within, or at least in proximity to, the mainstream, which SusPens undoubtedly was. This got me thinking: If we cannot have the revolution now, and it may not even be the solution, then tinkering with the current system to help it move beyond just economic concerns may be the best––perhaps our only––recourse.

Inwardly, I struggled with a certain resistance to believing in the possibility of slow and incremental change, and I still do, even as I write this introduction. My resistance is not intellectual, per se, but rather affective, driven by a fear of appearing naive or disillusioned, of not being taken seriously. As a Marxist colleague told me, “It’s a waste of time to explore alternatives, we all know that capitalism will win in the end.” After all, the notion of capitalism as a system that thrives on critique (Chiapello, 2013) is a persuasive explanation of its resilience.

Confronted with this compelling argument, I must constantly resist an impulse to fall back on a capitalocentric position (Gibson-Graham, 2008) and thereby level a full-blown critique of how SusPens failed to provide a “real” alternative to capitalism. The duo Gibson-Graham (2008) warn that studying alternatives is a vulnerable process where one continually risks dismissing the



alternative “as capitalism in another guise or as always already coopted” (p. 618). Refusing to succumb to my affective attachment to resistance, I chose instead to be open to possibility rather than dismissal (Gibson-Graham, 2008), which created an opportunity for an “alternative paradigm for ‘other’ critical research” (Zanoni et al. 2017, p. 582). Gibson-Graham (2008) argue that the choice of “what to think about and how to think about it” (p. 614) is an ethical and political decision at the heart of critical scholars’ academic practice, while Contu (2020) calls such a choice a form of intellectual activism indicating the need for a reflexive practice on how we, as academic subjects, are “implicated in the realities we are co-constituting and reproducing (or maybe changing)” (Contu, 2020, p. 739). By committing myself to an affirmative approach to critique, I can be “‘performative’ in a way that goes beyond the formulation of critique grounded in non-mainstream knowledge bases” (Zanoni et al. 2017, p. 582).

Fueled by the hopefulness and curiosity found in Sedgwick’s (2003) reparative reading, Gibson- Graham’s (2008) performative practices for “other worlds” and Cooper’s (2014) everyday utopias, in this thesis I explore SusPens as an alternative at the margins of alternativity.

Embedded in the capitalist system, SusPens strives to change the way we invest our pension savings, which is to say it is “trying to change things from within the ‘belly of the beast’” (Parker

& Parker, 2017, p. 18). Operating in the gray zone between mainstream organizing and alternative organizing, alternatives at the margin offer other potentialities than more radical alternatives to capitalism do. In this thesis, my interest lies in the process of establishing and maintaining such alternatives at the margin. In the next section I embark on this exploration by discussing alternative ways of organizing and how marginal alternativity can be understood.

Alternative organizing at the margin of alternativity

Defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as “different from the usual or conventional” by

“existing or functioning outside the established cultural, social, or economic system,” the alternative is intrinsically related to the mainstream as its “other.” Although in principle this other could be anything, in organizations studies the alternative organization is typically conceptualized as an alternative to capitalism and managerialism (Cheney 2014, Parker 2002a, Parker et al., 2014b; Zanioni et al., 2017). As such, alternative organizing challenges mainstream assumptions about “growth, profit, externalities and organization in capitalist organizing”

(Parker 2021, p. 5) by rethinking principles and practices of organizing. Because certain principles are held as alternative, such as human dignity (Pal, 2016), post-capitalist futures



(Daskalaki et al., 2019), non-hierarchy (Land & King, 2014) or autonomy, solidarity, and responsibility (Parker et al., 2014a), alternative organizing becomes seen as a political objective in itself, thereby avoiding the risk of becoming yet another means of wealth accumulation.

Similarly, a focus on alternative practices like horizontal decision-making (Daskalaki and Kokkinidis, 2017) and inclusion (Bryer, 2020; Janssens and Zanoni, 2014) enables insights into how alternative organizational practices can prefigure more equal and just societies (Reinecke, 2018). By these tokens, alternative organizing becomes a way of making “politics durable”

(Parker et al., 2014b: 39) and of incrementally transforming society by organizing differently.

In the study of alternatives, the conceptual focus on principles and practices is accompanied by an empirical focus on small, local, and community-oriented alternatives (Parker et al., 2014b;

Gibson-Graham 1996; 2006a; Zanoni et al., 2017), for example, community currencies (Meyer and Hudson, 2017), digital commons (Ossewaarde and Reijers, 2017), worker cooperatives (Webb and Cheney, 2014), and solidarity economy initiatives (Daskalaki et al., 2019). These alternatives often differ radically from capitalism, making use of outspoken political agendas to counteract its negative effects and promote more equitable and responsible ways of organizing.

However, the community focus implies that the activities of the radical alternative have only a local reach, which limits the potential to ignite societal transformation. Comparing two alternatives to economic organizing, a local exchange and trading system (LETS) and a cooperative social bank, serves to highlight the tension between radical difference and societal reach. A LETS, whose reach is local, enables member-to-member trading of goods and services (Collom and Lakser, 2016). As a separate entity disconnected from the mainstream financial system, a LETS does not substitute for a conventional bank but complements other forms of economic organizing. By focusing on the community, however, a LETS is able to renegotiate social relationships in local communities, empower economically marginalized individuals and groups (Collom, 2005), and increase well-being among such community members (Lasker et al., 2011). The other alternative, the cooperative social bank, is less radical, as its functions often resemble those of a conventional bank (for example, credit card services and housing loans).

Unlike conventional banks, however, cooperative social banks follow the principles of social banking (triple-bottom-line, transparency, and human development) (Benedikter, 2011). As such, these banks do not reject the practice of banking but rather promote a more responsible way of doing it. For example, its clients own the bank, its investment processes are transparent, and it encourages investments in the “real” economy. As such, this less radical alternative can have a larger reach, because it can substitute for a conventional bank and thus find a larger



audience. Moreover, because it is embedded in the mainstream banking sector, it can push mainstream banks to move in more sustainable, responsible directions. Still, although a social bank can potentially change the industry from within, that is, act as an institutional entrepreneur (Just et al., 2020), it lacks the profound local and relational impact a LETS can provide. Thus, a LETS is a deep and narrow alternative for economic organizing, its having specific relational effects, whereas the cooperative social bank is a shallow and broad alternative with general institutional effects. One is not preferable to the other, and they clearly complement, not substitute for, each other. This indicates a need for a wide variety of alternatives working at different societal levels to achieve societal change.

A LETS and the cooperative social bank approach their alternatives to mainstream finance divergently, but both are looking to transform the financial system. A LETS operates locally, renegotiating social relationships and empowering community members, whereas the cooperative social bank works at an institutional level, attempting to change the behavior of other financial organizations. Initially focusing on local alternatives, studies of alternative organizing have more recently come to acknowledge a need to switch to the institutional level.

Referring to German student activist Rudi Dutchske’s phrase a “long march through the institutions,” Parker (2021) discusses the need for “working within and through the organizations that reproduce the existing social order” (p.7), a need echoed in John’s wish “to fiddle with institutions” by making SusPens a successful organization within its parameters. Not only does Parker (2021) maintain that alternatives need to work on an institutional level, but he also acknowledges “that hierarchy is sometimes useful, that markets can often be used to address problems, that some forms of organizing should be encouraged to grow” (p.6), thus indicating that mainstream institutions and practices could promote social transformation under the right circumstances. Taking a less antagonistic position, Parker’s (2021) auto-critique of his old work points to the need for more affirmative critical positions. Seeking to balance an antagonistic critical position like classical Marxism and an accommodating performative stance, Parker and Parker (2017) argue for an agonistic approach to alternative organizations, one that promotes critical performativity in the study of alternatives. Similarly, Just et al. (2021) offer a perspective on how the critical performativity of and within alternative organizations can be investigated in a way that enables an analysis promoting alternativity while also recognizing its potential dark sides. Thus, as can be seen, research is tending to shift its focus from certain alternative practices or principles to a more pragmatic position of studying each alternative on its own terms.



A similar pragmatism is found in contemporary utopianism, where utopias are conceptualized as oscillating between imaginings and actualizations (Cooper, 2014). In other words, utopia can be understood as an iterative process of finding better ways of living, embedded in the current system. Such practiced utopias are pragmatically “oriented to survival and to doing the best one can” (Cooper, 2014, p.7), while being embedded in mainstream societal norms. The pragmatic orientation undermines any notion of perfection or ideal forms of organizing, underlining “the dynamic, improvised, often flawed quality of many utopian spaces” (Cooper, 2014, p.7). Cooper (2014) argues that the alternative depends on the critical proximity of the mainstream in order both to survive and to achieve the desired social transformation. This thesis focuses on such an alternative positioned at the margins of alternativity and in close proximity to the mainstream.

Embedded in the financial system, this alternative has the potential to create change from within the system, to fiddle with institutions, and to find better ways of doing finance. This alternative, being shallow and broad, may bring neither spectacular change nor radical transformation, but it can contribute to an incremental process of slow and piecemeal change.

Research question and design

Grounded in an empirical curiosity about and the theoretical foundations of alternative organizing, this thesis seeks to answer a seemingly simple and irrefutably broad question:

How are alternative organizations established and maintained?

The question is deceptively simple, as its very simplicity makes it inherently complicated: It asks for a generalizable answer applicable to all alternative organizations. However, as this thesis assumes a reparative mode and employs weak theory with a local reach (Sedgewick, 2003), it denies the possibility of broad generalizations, for which reason the question can only be answered for one alternative organization at a time. I thus go about answering the research question by looking at the establishment and maintenance of the case organization, SusPens.

To this end, I build on an in-depth ethnographic case study of SusPens, including observations, interviews, and documents. The data acquired in this study becomes the empirical focus of the four analytical chapters, with each corresponding to a journal article and guided by an individual



research question highlighting a particular aspect involved in establishing and maintaining alternative organizing. The first two analytical chapters, Chapters 5 and 6, delve into internal relations and organizational practices, highlighting the role of sociomateriality and affect in the process of establishing an alternative. In the third analytical chapter, Chapter 7, I zoom out from the organization to investigate how the alternative relates to the societal discourse. In the last analytical chapter, Chapter 8, I further broaden my perspective, combining organizational practices and societal discourse to explore what tactics, if any, enable alternative organizations to break free from societal norms.

Figure 1: Structure of the analytical section

I have sought to analyze the alternative, SusPens, from various theoretical angles––including sociomateriality, affect, and discourse––and at different analytical levels, thus emphasizing the relational qualities of the alternative (human/technology, human/human, organization/society).

In addition, in Chapter 8, which represents a collective effort by the AlterEcos team, I build on case studies of three different alternative organizations as well as more generally analyze the relationship between organization and societal discourse, thereby conceptualizing alternative organizing as freedom. In what follows, I discuss the four sub-research questions guiding the analytical chapters and preview their main takeaways.



In Chapter 5, my two co-authors and I examine the relational process in which the case organization gave shape to and took shape from its key algorithmic tool. The chapter is guided by the question: What role does sociomateriality play in the establishment and maintenance of alternative organizations? By mapping the shifting sociotechnical arrangements of the start-up, from its initial search for a viable business model through the development of an algorithm to the public launch of its product, we highlight the interdependencies between organizations and their tools.

This shows how SusPens initially created the algorithm to support its sustainable investment strategy, but how at some point the algorithm came to govern what the organization regarded as sustainable investing. This illuminates how sociomateriality impacts actualizations of alternatives––and can be a source of divergence between imaginings and actualizations.

In chapter 6, I focus on the collaborative practices between the two professional groups of the organization––tech developers and business developers––involved in developing SusPens’s algorithm. In this instance I ask: What role does affect play in the establishment and maintenance of alternative organizations? By applying an affective lens to the collaborative process, I underscore how tensions arose as different imaginings of the algorithm clashed when the naming of the algorithm thereby called it into action. I further show that naming the algorithm spurred the algorithm to start circulating as an affective object, which created affective borders in the organization. As such, this chapter highlights how the organizational team members mobilized different imaginings of the algorithm as a way of attaining power in the organization.

In Chapter 7, I address the relation between organization and society by looking at how the organizational discourse of sustainable investing became distorted when it encountered mainstream financial logics. I ask: What role does mainstream societal discourse play in the establishment and maintenance of alternative organizations? By understanding sustainable investing as a utopia, as “a good” that cannot be achieved, I argue for seeing the process of balancing sustainability and financial performance as tinkering, as an iterative process of doing the best one can under the given circumstances. This chapter thus shows how SusPens was forced to compromise its vision in the process of actualizing the sustainable pension product––and how utopian thinking could create a space for experimentation outside of the mainstream financial discourse.



While the three first analytical chapters focus on specific aspects of the emergence and maintenance of SusPens as an alternative, in Chapter 8 I widen my lens to seek answers to a more overarching question: What tactics of breaking free from societal norms enable the emergence and maintenance of alternative organizing? In this chapter, my co-authors and I explore how alternative organizing can be understood as a constant process of breaking free from societal norms, thus identifying three emergent tactics––endurance, germination, and reiteration. Consequently, we depart from delineating certain principles or practices as alternative towards a more processual understanding emphasizing the unfinished character of the alternative.

In this introductory chapter, I have discussed how empirical curiosity and theoretical positions have guided the formulation of the thesis’s research question. The rest of the thesis is structured as follows: In Chapter 2, I present an overview of the literature on alternative ways of organizing, including alternative organizing as founded in Parker et al.’s (2014) principles, in the practices of diverse economies (Gibson-Graham, 1996; 2006a), and in contemporary utopianism (Levitas 2013; Cooper 2014). The chapter finishes with an illustration of the potentialities and limitations of the three different perspectives, as I later employ them to explore how sustainable investing can be understood as an alternative way of organizing. Chapter 3 provides an in-depth presentation of my methodological considerations, with the first section establishing the affirmative critical position and discussing its implications for the research process. The chapter includes a discussion of my commitment to weak theory and thick descriptions, an account of affective ethnography, and my process of working with data as wonder. Chapter 4 offers a thorough presentation of the data and an extended case description.

The four analytical chapters discussed above, Chapters 5-8, cover four different aspects involved in the emergence and maintenance of alternative organizations. Chapter 9 provides a closing discussion, where I answer the research questions and offer a final consideration of my findings.



2. Alternative ways of organizing

A literature review

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, being alternative means to be “different from the usual or conventional” by “existing or functioning outside the established cultural, social, or economic system.” Alternative forms of organizing often denote organizing that somehow challenges mainstream assumptions of capitalism, like hierarchy, efficiency, or productivity.

Although currently a burgeoning field of study, alternative organizing is hardly a new phenomenon (Schreven et al., 2008). Some examples of alternative conceptualizations of organizing include Follett’s (1918) “group organization,” White’s (1969) “dialectical organization,” and Rothschild-Whitt’s (1979) “collectivist organization.”

Unlike previous contributions to the debate on alternative ways of organizing, today’s contributions are more explicitly political, aimed to find alternatives to capitalist organizing, for example, by dismantling capitalist hegemony (Gibson-Graham, 1996, 2006a), by organizing in ways that oppose capitalism (Parker et al., 2014b), or by focusing on the transformational potential of social dreaming (Parker 2002a, Levitas 2013, Cooper, 2014). Twenty-first-century crises, such as the financial crisis of 2008, the ongoing climate crisis and, most recently, the COVID-19 pandemic, have ignited a sense of urgency that has spurred scholars to seek alternative ways of organizing as a potential locus for responding to these crises (Zanoni et al., 2017). For example, some have suggested organizing around certain principles (Parker et al., 2014) or radically rethinking concepts (Cooper, 2014). More specifically, Just et al. (2021) focus on the intersection between alternative organizing and critical performativity, Zanoni et al.

(2017) highlight post-capitalist politicsand promote an affirmative approach to critique (inspired by Gibson-Graham), while Cruz et al. (2017) focus more strongly on the practices of alternatives and provide an overview of the field.

Many contributions empirically focus on certain types of organizations, such as community currencies (Meyer & Hudson, 2017), digital commons (Ossewaarde & Reijers, 2017), worker cooperatives (Webb & Cheney, 2014), and solidarity economy initiatives (Daskalaki et al., 2019), while only a few contributions attempt to conceptualize alternative ways of organizing. Inspired by anarchism, Parker et al.’s (2014b) principles for alternative organizing sparked a heightened



interest in alternatives organizing that pivots on autonomy, solidarity, and responsibility. The literature review therefore begins with this perspective, its being my first encounter with alternative ways of organizing and the inspiration for much of my early thinking about alternatives. Valuable though this perspective has been, it has also incited a certain paranoid thinking (Sedgewick, 2003), for it creates a binary between the mainstream and the alternative, which, in turn, raises concerns about co-optation and greenwashing. To avoid such binary thinking, I turned to Gibson-Graham, a duo of feminist economic geographers whose diverse economy framework represents another prominent contribution to the debate on alternative ways of organizing. Inspired by feminist economic thinking, Marxism, and a performative orientation to knowledge (Butler, 1993; Callon, 2010), the duo’s project aims to “dislocate the hegemonic framing of capitalism” (Gibson-Graham, 2008, p. 615) by illuminating the diversity of economic practices––a queering of the economy. Although this deliberately descriptive framework enables a move away from a binary thinking, it says little about the dynamics of alternative organizations, as it simply aims to name different economic practices.

Looking for a dynamic understanding of alternative ways of organizing, in the third part of the literature review I present utopianism as a way of capturing their processual qualities.

Contemporary utopian studies shift the earlier focus on blueprints of perfect societies to instead spotlight the tensions, imperfections, and flawed qualities intrinsic to actualizations of imaginary better ways of living.

Thus, the three above perspectives each approach alternative ways of organizing differently:

Alternative organizing focuses on principles, diverse economies center on the practices, and utopianism addresses the movement between imagination and actualization. Seeking to illuminate how alternative organizing, diverse economies, and utopianism relate to the empirical field, I finish the review by using all three theoretical approaches to discuss sustainable investing and thereby show what each perspective can contribute to the understanding of this field as an alternative way of organizing.


29 Alternative organizing

We wish to encourage forms of organizing which respect personal autonomy, but within a framework of co-operation, and are attentive to the sorts of futures which they will produce.

(Parker et al., 2014a, p. 623)

Rooted in both utopian thinking and anarchism, alternative organizing is a “systemic investigation of alternative principles of organizing” (Parker, 2002a, p. 217) that is set to challenge the principles of the current social order. The current social order is dominated by capitalism, which pervades every aspect of society (Lagoarde-Segot & Paranque, 2018).

Accordingly, alternative organizing often implies ways of organizing that are alternatives to capitalism (Parker et al., 2014a; Cruz et al., 2017). Indeed, in the literature alternative organizing is seen to de-mediate social relationships currently mediated by capitalist institutions, such as the market (Zanoni, 2020), and this clear anti-capitalist emphasis means certain values or principles are seen as alternative, including justice and human dignity (Pal, 2016), post-capitalist futures (Daskalaki et al., 2018), and non-hierarchy (Land & King, 2014) as well as autonomy, solidarity, and responsibility (Parker et al., 2014).

Parker et al.’s (2014a) manifesto for alternative organizing is among the literature’s most pertinent works, as it identifies autonomy, solidarity, and responsibility as the three guiding principles of alternative organizing. Simultaneously promoting autonomy and solidarity can initially seem counter-intuitive, but the principles are understood to be co-produced in the sense that having the individual freedom that comes with autonomy depends on one’s participation in a collective system based on some form of solidarity. Further, collectivity or solidarity without individual autonomy (as occurs in both communist and national socialist systems) creates fear or conformity and must often be enforced with violence. Responsibility focuses on organizational doings and outputs and is stipulated to address capitalistic externalities. By taking responsibility for the future, an alternative organization needs to consider how its practice impacts the environment and society. Hence, in this approach alternative principles are seen to be the core of alternative organizing, and diverging from such alternative principles can cause alternatives to “lose their soul” (Bousalham & Vidaillet, 2018) and, consequently, their alternativity.



Although Parker et al. (2014a) clearly view principles as the determining factor of alternative organizing, they underline that one cannot judge organizations by their means or ends alone, but that the two are inseparable: How something is done and why it is done are equally important. For example, neither an organic farm using forced labor, nor a cooperatively owned weapons factory can be understood as alternative organizing, for which reason alternative principles have certain implications for alternative organizations’ practices. One such consequence concerns the organization’s size. Without prescribing a one-size-fits-all formula for alternative organizations, Parker et al. (2014a) argue that for these principles to be meaningful, alternative organizing must think locally and be small. To have a sense of responsibility for or solidarity with someone, one needs a specific group of people to refer to, a name or a face to attach to the individual involved in the organization. Without this sense of community, words become mere labels or marketing jargon devoid of meaning (Parker et al., 2014a). This is why one must consider how the size of an organization might compromise its means and ends. Of course, some small organizations reproduce the hegemonic problems of large organizations, but as Parker et al. argue “smallness is less likely to do as much damage as giganticism” (Parker et al., 2014a, p. 635). Cooperative organization is another consequence of the alternative principles;

many alternative organizations are owned by their clients, members, or employees so as to ensure that those affected by the outcome of decisions make those decisions. Finally, the anti- capitalist focus and the related practices have fostered a particular emphasis on empirical cases, such as community currencies (Meyer & Hudson, 2017), digital commons (Ossewaarde &

Reijers, 2017), and workers’ cooperatives (Webb & Cheney, 2014).

Recent writings on alternative organizing have stopped strictly adhering to alternative organizing principles, thus opening up for a broader definition of alternative organizing. Parker and Parker (2017) have prominently called for an agonistic middle ground between critical management scholars’ anti-management position and performative scholars’ all-accommodating stance. The authors therefore move away from an idealistic view of the alternative, underlining that organizing is never finished or perfect. This agonistic approach promotes scholarly engagement with alternatives as allies in the struggle to transform the present (Just et al., 2021).

Although this argument nuances the debate on alternative organizing, making it less dichotomous, alternative organizing in general continues to promote a binary understanding of the alternative and the mainstream, which helps to uphold a capitalistic hegemony. In the next section, I discuss Gibson-Graham’s diverse economies approach, which promotes a queer understanding of the economy.


31 Diverse economies

It is here that we confront a choice: to continue to marginalize (by ignoring or disparaging) the plethora of hidden and alternative economic activities that contribute to social well-being and environmental regeneration, or to make them the focus of our research and teaching in order to make them more “real”, more credible, more viable as objects of policy and activism, more present as everyday realities that touch all our lives and dynamically shape our futures.

(Gibson-Graham, 2008, p. 618)

Disagreeing with alternative organizing’s focus on principles, Gibson-Graham’s (2006a) lifelong project of diverse economies puts economic practice at the fore. In a nutshell, by rejecting a binary understanding of economic practices as either capitalistic or non-capitalistic, Gibson- Graham performatively ontologize economy by examining hidden or dismissed alternative economic activities through an academic lens. The aim is to queer the economy and fight a capitalocentric worldview. The hegemonic discourse of capitalism produces a worldview that disables alternative (to capitalistic) ways of organizing, which in this sense makes capitalist dominance self-fulfilling or performative. Breaking with this view, Gibson-Graham specify a number of non-capitalistic processes following both Marxist thought (independent, slave, feudal, communal) and feminist economics (housework, caregiving, non-market transactions), concluding that current societies contain many more economies than just the commonly portrayed capitalist economy (Gibson-Graham, 1996).

Building on an ontology of economic difference, Gibson-Graham’s (2006a) framework for diverse economies can be used to foreground and uncover organizations and organizational practices usually overseen or deemed irrelevant. Like alternative organizing, this framework challenges the hegemonic capitalist discourse of organizations, meaning the “mechanistic logics of reproduction, growth, accumulation, commodification, concentration, centralizations”

(Gibson-Graham, 2006a, p. 71). An open-ended model, the original framework has three columns: transactions (the conventional market, alternative markets, and non-market transactions), labor (paid, alternatively paid, and unpaid work), and enterprise (capitalist, alternative capitalist, and non-capitalist enterprises that produce, appropriate, and distribute surplus in various ways). A later version of the framework has two additional categories (Gibson- Graham, 2010), namely property (private, alternative private, and open access forms of



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