In the first month of my PhD, I came across the article by Hambrick and Chen on how academic fields develop. Briefly, they described three processes that fields how to go through to receive acceptance: differentiation, legitimation and mobilization. The first differentiation means that a field should try to set itself apart from other existing fields. At the same time however, it should not stray too far away as it still have to build legitimacy and gain recognition from the wider scientific community. Mobilization refers to the field’s ability to mobilize resources. As I see it, this last process basically serve as the fuel to advance the two other processes. During those days, I found this study to be interesting but set it aside for the next two years not knowing how to incorporate it in my work.
In the past few months, I’ve been thinking of a way to unify the different studies that I’ve been conducting for my PhD. One day, I randomly came across the article again. I then realized that the dynamic of conforming and differentiation occur everywhere. It does not only occur at the field level but also in other levels; not only in scientific development but also in many other facets of life. At the individual level, all of us, in one way or another, conform to the communities we belong to while at the same time, try to make ourselves stand out. To contribute, we try to bring something new or unique to the groups that we are in. Upon looking further, this has been referred to as the theory of optimal distinctiveness in psychology circles, which has been described even as early as 1991.
Recently, this concept has also been gaining more interest at the organizational level, such as this review by Zhao et al. Firms cannot compete by only conforming with other firms in their market, they also have to differentiate themselves from other players in their area. As there can be different dimensions of comparison across firms, the balancing act between conforming and differentiating can be complex. Research then is of value to explore how to orchestrate such dynamics effectively.
Studying in the past two years how new scientific fields develop, I notice the recurring theme of conformation vs. differentiation. Fields have to manage these forces if they want to be established. Big firms have to be aware of these forces if they want to stay relevant. New entrepreneurial firms also have to balance the two to gain resources and find customers. Teams within firms, to stay innovative, have to be in touch with what their colleagues are doing while at the same time, bring new things to the table. Researchers and managers also have to practice optimal distinctiveness.