In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Resource-Dependence Theory

  • Introduction
  • Foundational Works
  • Classic Treatments
  • Power and Dependence
  • Complexity and the External Environment
  • Organizational Decision Making
  • Corporate Political Action
  • Reviews and Theoretical Intersections

Management Resource-Dependence Theory
Adam Cobb, Tyler Wry
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 June 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 June 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846740-0072


The resource dependence perspective (hereafter RD) refers to a research tradition that emerged from the basic framework of Jeffrey Pfeffer and Gerald R. Salancik’s classic 1978 work, The External Control of Organizations: A Resource Dependence Perspective (Pfeffer and Salancik 1978, cited under Classic Treatments). The theoretical arguments that serve as RD’s foundation can be summarized as follows: (1) an organization’s external environment comprises other organizations, each with their own interests and objectives; (2) organizations hold power over a focal firm—and may thus constrain its behavior—if they control resources that are vital to its ongoing operation and cannot be acquired elsewhere. RD also highlights a number of strategies that organizations can utilize to deal with problematic dependence relationships; empirical research in this tradition has largely focused on this catalog of strategies. This bibliography is organized by the topic areas covered in External Control and displays representative and impactful work associated with each topic. Though RD’s influence has spread to a number of disparate fields beyond management (Gerald F. Davis and J. Adam Cobb’s article “Resource Dependence Theory: Past and Future” (Davis and Cobb 2010, cited under Reviews and Theoretical Intersections), this article focuses on scholarly work published in management journals and related fields such as strategy and economic sociology which collectively comprise the core RD literature.

Foundational Works

RD was an attempt to synthesize two somewhat divergent views concerning the context of organizational change: a diffuse view of “environments” that was being developed by scholars like the author of Thompson 1967 and a more political and power-oriented emphasis on inter-organizational dependence. In this way, RD’s theory of power can be traced to earlier research by the authors of Emerson 1962; Hickson, et al. 1971; and Zald 1970. Yuchtman and Seashore 1967 also linked power to resources in the external environment in a way that anticipated RD. Thus, while External Control is widely considered the crystallizing statement in resource dependence, the theory is crucially informed by a number of earlier works.

  • Emerson, Richard M. “Power-Dependence Relations.” American Sociological Review 27.1 (1962): 31–41.

    DOI: 10.2307/2089716

    Emerson’s theory of power-dependence was that actor A has power over actor B comes when s/he controls resources that B values and are not available elsewhere. Power and dependence are the obverse of each other: B is dependent on A to the degree that A has power over B. Power is not zero-sum: A and B can each have power over each other, making them interdependent.

  • Hickson, David J., Christopher R. Hinings, Charles A. Lee, Rodney E. Schneck, and Johannes M. Pennings. “Strategic Contingencies Theory of Intraorganizational Power.” Administrative Science Quarterly 16.2 (1971): 216–229.

    DOI: 10.2307/2391831

    This paper presents a theory of intra-organizational power that emphasizes the power distribution between organizational subunits. The authors argue that power accrues to those subunits in the organization best able to reduce uncertainties for the organization. This general line of argumentation informed much of the discussion of intra-organizational power in External Control.

  • Thompson, James D. Organizations in Action. New York: McGraw Hill, 1967.

    While each of the sociological theories of organizations (i.e. RD, neo-institutionalism, and organizational ecology) evolved in part from Thompson’s synthesis of organizations and environments, RD pursued the argument that organizations should absorb uncertainty that cannot otherwise be managed. The strategies in External Control for how firms can manage problematic external dependencies extended Thompson’s original insights and provided the foundation for subsequent empirical work.

  • Yuchtman, Ephraim, and Stanley E. Seashore. “System Resource Approach to Organizational Effectiveness.” American Sociological Review 32.6 (1967): 891–903.

    DOI: 10.2307/2092843

    In their theoretical argument, the authors provide an early model that anticipated the subsequent development of RD by conceptualizing the external environments as resource controllers and organizations as competing for scarce resources. The imperative for organizations to avoid dependence on external parties is also implicit in their argument.

  • Zald, Mayer N. “Political Economy: A Framework for Comparative Analysis.” In Power and Organizations. Edited by Mayer N. Zald, 221–261. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 1970.

    The author provides a framework for examining internal and external sources of power that both constrain and confer legitimacy to organizations. Organizations are both economic and political systems, and power and authority are dispersed throughout the web of interactions comprising its environment. Pfeffer and Salancik 1978 leveraged these insights to argue that firms should engage in political activity to alter their environment.

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