The Family Firm's Exclusion from Business School Research: Explaining the Void; Addressing the Opportunity

Article excerpt

The first thing to know about any theory of organizations is that it is rooted in a particular set of assumptions and way of looking at the world. Reading through many of the books labeled Organization Theory or Organizational Behavior you would hardly have noticed that fact: with minor differences, they reflect a similar view of organizations that is based on the notion of fact or universal truth. But these textbooks can not claim to have captured any kind of universal truth. Rather, they market a dominant interpretation of reality. - Mills and Simmons (1995)

Among organizational theorists, the tacit ideological commitment to the notion that efficiency considerations and bureaucratic rationality... should predominate in the workplace often leads researchers to ignore how the family dynamics of the owners influence managerial behavior. - Lansberg, Perrow, and Rogolsky (1988, p.4)

Science advanced, knowledge grew, nature was mastered, but Reason did not conquer and tribalism did not go away. - Issacs (1975, p. 25)

Boyacigiller and Adler (1991) assert that contemporary management research is implicitly biased to reflect the cultural values and assumptions of North American culture. In their review of the parochial outlook apparent in much of contemporary organizational theory, these authors highlight three significant biases apparent in existing research: first, an implicit orientation toward free will; second, a pronounced slant in favor of rugged individualism; and third, a predisposition to devalue the subtle nuances of "high-context" cultures. These authors conclude that the post World War II expansionary climate enjoyed by U.S. managers, as well as the American culture's pronounced bias for ragged individualism and diminished appreciation for contextual subtlety, result in organizational research of severely compromised external generalizability.

Boyacigiller and Adler's analysis is relevant beyond simply international dimensions. More specifically, their critique is also relevant for the study of family-related considerations in business enterprises. Even the most superficial skimming of virtually any leading outlet of theoretical or empirical research provides ready testimony on the paucity of family firm research (Hoy & Verser, 1994). This is surprising since family control has been estimated to be a factor in over 90% of all firms (Beckhard & Dyer, 1983; Lansberg, 1983; Stern, 1986). While there are notable exceptions (Daily & Dollinger, 1992, 1993; Cromie, Stephenson, & Montieth, 1995; see also Davis & Tagiuri, 1985; Aronoff & Ward, 1991; and Sharma, Chrisman, & Chua, 1995 for extensive bibliographies of family firm research), family businesses remain largely omitted from rigorous empirical and conceptual study. As Brockhaus (1994) and Carsrud (1994) have both noted, this has resulted in the terrain being staked by a more anecdotally driven and prescriptively oriented practitioner community. Why is this so, and what are the practical implications of this omission?

In this paper I seek to address these two questions by providing a general inter- and intraorganizational explanation for the large-scale exclusion of family-related issues from academic research. Considered in the explanation are the unique characteristics of family-controlled firms, privately held corporations, university-based business research institutions, and the career aspirations of individual researchers. I also seek to address the additional issue of what special challenges might be associated with family-firm research. Before addressing either, however, I offer a review of recent definitional work on the conceptual distinctives of the family firm. This is provided in order to clarify the unique and enigmatic nature of the family-controlled enterprise.


Handler (1989) noted several important challenges facing family business researchers. …