The distinction between public, nonprofit, and for-profit: Revisiting the "core legal" approach

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In studying the characteristics that determine the public, nonprofit, and/or for-profit nature of organizations, public administration scholarship has elaborated upon the “dimensional” approach (e.g., Bozeman, Barry. 2007. Public values and public interest: Counterbalancing economic individualism. Washington, DC: Georgetown Univ. Press), to the point where it is now furnishing a rich body of theoretical and empirical material on organizational identity. Yet as Bozeman says, there was always another “complementary” approach to the same set of issues, namely the “core legal” approach which, as Bozeman, Barry, and Stuart Bretschneider (1994. The ‘publicness puzzle’ in organization theory: A test of alternative explanations of differences between public and private organizations. Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory 4:197-223) say, is “equally important.” This article revisits the legal approach, showing that it is as complex and theoretically motivated in its own way as the dimensional approach, and setting out its basic structure. Only once the core legal approach is seen as a more equal partner will it be possible to pursue Bozeman and Bretschneider's call for “studies employing both core and dimensional models,” in which the two are fully complementary, and the capacities of each are available for conceptualizing the identity of organizations — both when such identity is settled and when it is contested — and for predicting the consequences for organizational behavior that follow. Reprinted by permission of the publisher.

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  • Andrew Stark

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