A Niche Width Model of Optimal Specialization

  • Jeroen Bruggeman
  • Breanndán Ó Nualláin


Niche width theory, a part of organizational ecology, predicts whether “specialist” or “generalist” forms of organizations have higher “fitness,” in a continually changing environment. To this end, niche width theory uses a mathematical model borrowed from biology. In this paper, we first loosen the specialist-generalist dichotomy, so that we can predict the optimal degree of specialization. Second, we generalize the model to a larger class of environmental conditions, on the basis of the model's underlying assumptions. Third, we criticize the way the biological model is treated in sociological theory. Two of the model's dimensions seem to be confused, i.e., that of trait and environment; the predicted optimal specialization is a property of individual organizations, not of populations; and, the distinction between “fine” and “coarse grained” environments is superfluous.

theory reconstruction niche theory specialization organizational ecology bounded flexibility 


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. Barnett, W. (1995), “Population Ecology” in N. Nicholson (Ed.) Encyclopedic Dictionary of Organizational Behavior. Blackwell, Cambridge, MA, pp. 432–435.Google Scholar
  2. Brüderl, J., P. Preisendörfer and R. Ziegler (1996), Der Erfolg neugegründeter Betriebe. Duncker und Humblot, Berlin.Google Scholar
  3. Carroll, G.R. and M.T. Hannan (Eds.) (1995), Organizations in Industry. Oxford University Press, Oxford.Google Scholar
  4. Chandler, A. (1962), Strategy and Structure. M.I.T. Press, Cambridge, M.A.Google Scholar
  5. Freeman, J. and M.T. Hannan (1983), “NicheWidth and the Dynamics of Organizational Populations, ” American Journal of Sociology, 88, 1116–1145.Google Scholar
  6. Grandori, A. (1987), Perspectives on Organization Theory. Balinger, Cambridge, MA.Google Scholar
  7. Hannan, M.T. and J. Freeman (1977), “The Population Ecology of Organizations, ” American Journal of Sociology, 82, 929–964.Google Scholar
  8. Hannan, M.T. and J. Freeman (1984), “Structural Inertia and Organizational Change, ” American Sociological Review, 49, 149–164.Google Scholar
  9. Hannan, M.T. and J. Freeman (1989), Organizational Ecology. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.Google Scholar
  10. Levins, R. (1968), Evolution in Changing Environments. Princeton University Press, Princeton, N.J.Google Scholar
  11. Roughgarden, J. (1979), The Theory of Population Genetics and Evolutionary Ecology. Macmillan, New York.Google Scholar
  12. Scott, W.R. (1992), Organizations: Rational, Natural, and Open Systems, 3rd ed. Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Kluwer Academic Publishers 2000

Authors and Affiliations

  • Jeroen Bruggeman
    • 1
  • Breanndán Ó Nualláin
    • 2
  1. 1.Faculty of Technology and ManagementTwente UniversityNetherlands
  2. 2.CCSOMUniversiteit van AmsterdamAmsterdamNetherlands

Personalised recommendations