Micro-level processes: niche theory, adaptation, and survival

While considerable success has occurred in understanding the emergent properties of density and diversity, somewhat less work has been done on the critical micro-level processes that generate the gross characteristics of interest system. That is, the mix of organizations we observe over time and across political systems are presumed by the organization ecology approach to be a function of the foundings and survival of individual interest organizations and, especially, the competition among them as they seek to secure vital resources. As we have noted, much of the "action" in the organization ecology of interest representation takes place at this micro level. The population/organization ecology lever used to understand this "action" is niche theory (Gray and Lowery 1996b, 1997b). It is such competition and the resulting mobilization and survival rates of individual interest organizations that produce the emergent properties of density and diversity. But two chapters in this volume on this topic point to the need, respectively, for both better theory and better data in addressing such micro-level processes. And a third points to important opportunities to address the latter.

In chapter 5, Thomas Holyoke highlights the central theoretical problem in further addressing these issues as one of integrating quite different levels of analysis. He notes correctly that much of the research on the founding and survival of interest organizations is at the level of the individual interest organization. Yet, research on the theoretical core of organization ecology on population density and diversity are conducted at highly aggregated levels. William Maloney noted the same issue of further integration of micro- and macro-level research in chapter 6 while discussing research on the internal structure of interest organizations and how externally driven resource constraints drive organizational professionalization. Integration is surely needed. But what degree of integration is needed? Need there be a fully nested or hierarchical linkage of micro- and macro-level processes as so ably called for by these contributors?

While it certainly would be desirable, the data demands for such full integration would be very significant indeed. To date, perhaps only the INTEREURO Project's analysis of lobbying in the European Union (Beyers et al. 2014) has implemented such an ambitious research design, and its results are only now becoming available. We do not expect such extensive research designs to become common any time soon. Instead, we believe that organization ecology research can more reasonably look for a less demanding form of integration through theoretically establishing consistency across micro- and macro-level research. That is, the theoretical models of the emergent properties of interest systems should better reflect the more nuanced views of organization survival and/or adaptation emerging from scholarship on individual interest organizations. This places the burden squarely on better theoretical elaboration of macro-level models rather than revision of micro-level analyses per se. The micro-level foundations of our macro-level organization ecology models of density and diversity need to better reflect the latest findings from micro-level research analyses of interest organizations.

Just as importantly, however, we clearly need more micro-level research. Since Baumgartner and Leech's 1998 critique of the literature in Basic Interests, research has moved sharply away from the study of individual interest organizations to focusing on large-n research. The organization ecology research program has been a major part of this shift in analytic focus and methods. But have we collectively gone too far in conducting large-n research? In this regard, we acted on what was at best an informed suspicion in commissioning Christopher Witko's chapter 7 exploring the older case study literature on interest organizations to identify concepts that we now associate with niche theory. Our suspicion that there was much that is useful for better understanding the micro-level processes of organizational adaptation and survival from an organization ecology perspective in this older literature was amply rewarded. Too often, new approaches to solving research problems essentially decapitate our appreciation of earlier approaches by assigning them to irrelevance, thereby forcing us to relearn old lessons. The older case study literature provides considerable opportunities for building a more nuanced understanding of the micro-level processes governing individual interest organizations, more nuanced interpretations that the macro-literature needs to be more attentive to.

 
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