Incumbents under pressure: frame inversion as a response to the enduring climate crisis

9 dicembre 2021
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Birthe Soppe - University of Innsbruck


Framing and frames, interpretative schemata that simplify and condense complex social worlds, have been shown to be powerful discursive tools as they can produce tensions on well-entrenched fields and provide the basis for organizational change. Because prior research has tended to focus on framing as a critical tool for initiating processes of change, much is known about change actors’ framing tactics to confront targets. However, we know much less about the framing tactics and interpretations of threatened field incumbents to manoeuvre critical field debates, while simultaneously being concerned about maintaining central positions in their existing fields. Given that many well-established companies have increasingly become subject to scrutiny due to high CO2 emissions and fossil-fuel related operations despite augmented sustainability concerns and the threat of global climate change, it seems timely to investigate what incumbent organizations, those located at the centre of the debate, do and say to mitigate the situation. Seeking to examine both, incumbents’ tangible business changes and the frames they construct around those in response to pressing sustainability concerns, we ask: How do incumbents engage in and frame substantial corporate changes when being under societal attack? Analyzing a large oil major in the Nordics and its collaborative investments in start-ups over a time frame of two decades (2000 to 2020), we find that the intensified societal concerns on resource depletion, environmental degradation, and climate change have offered a discursive opportunity for the incumbent to pursue an ambidextrous collaboration strategy with both environmental (i.e., renewable energy) as well as fossil-fuel based (i.e., oil and gas) start-ups despite augmenting sustainability concerns. Our findings suggest that this duality is legitimated by engaging in frame inversion. Frame inversion integrates, yet co-opts the socially resonant sustainability concerns and inversely rewires them to re-legitimate business investments in oil and gas, hence, servicing ambidextrous lines of action. Our findings contribute to the literature on frames and framing in the context of global climate change, incumbents in contested industries, and meanings ascribed to collaborative practices.

Keywords: oil and gas incumbents, incumbent-entrant relations, framing, climate change, energy sector.