Social Activism and Practice Diffusion: How Activist Tactics Affect Non-targeted Organizations

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This paper examines how social activist tactics affect the diffusion of social-responsibility practices. Studying collegiate adoptions of a controversial supplier-sanction practice championed by anti-sweatshop activists, we compare how non-targeted organizations are influenced by different types of practice adoptions in their environment. Drawing on interorganizational learning theory, we argue and show that disruption-linked adoptions—those that occur following activists’ disruptive protests against the adopting organization—appear to be taken under coercive pressure and therefore provide non-targeted organizations with poor inferences about the merits of the practice. In contrast, strong inferences are provided by evidence-linked adoptions—those that occur after activists use evidence-based tactics with the adopting organization—and by independent adoptions occurring without any activism. Hence the contagious effect of independent and evidence-based adoptions is greater than that of disruption-linked adoptions. We further explore differences in receptivity to contagious influence, proposing that features of an organization and its proximal environment that increase issue salience also increase susceptibility to diffusion. Our findings demonstrate the importance of including non-targeted organizations in research on social movements and corporate social responsibility. They also offer a new vantage for interorganizational diffusion research, based on how activists and other third parties shape organizational decision makers’ inferences.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)300-332
Number of pages33
JournalAdministrative science quarterly
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jun 5 2015

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)
  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Public Administration


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