Fascinating, yet at times confusing, history and analysis of postwar FIA

Cecilia Stenling
Department of Education, Umeå University, Sweden

Hans Erik Næss
A History of Organizational Change: The case of Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA), 1946–2020
293 pages, paperback
London: Palgrave Macmillan 2020
ISBN 978-3-030-48272-5

I admit that I do not know much about cars. For each longer trip our family is about to take, we need to check if the duct-tape holding our 2000 Toyota RAV4 together needs changing. Our fingers are crossed harder each year during the mandatory motor vehicle inspection and the local service station could probably tell us anything and we would have no choice but to believe them due to our complete lack of car knowledge. I must also admit that prior to reading this book I did not know much about motorsport, although I have fond teenage memories of dozing off to that soothing sound the Formula 1 cars make as they circle the arena.

Sport researcher as I am, I was therefore happy for the learning opportunity when I was asked to review Hans Erik Næss’ book on the Fédéderation Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) – the global governing body of motorsport. Sport policy and organisation researcher as I am, I was doubly happy, since the book is an account of the organisational transformations that FIA have undergone since 1946. Even though organisational researchers often assume that organisational change is shaped by the historical context in which it takes place, it is rare for studies to empirically cover such extended time periods as this one does. The longitudinal perspective employed thus contributes greatly towards making this book a worthwhile read, and it is fascinating to learn the various actors and events that have shaped the organisation over the 70+ years that are covered by the book.

Add to this that the history of FIA contains all the ingredients that one would find in a fictional drama: Kings, Princes, Lords, Sirs (although not their female counterparts), cabinet and prime ministers, global and domestic politics, opportunism, allegiances, lies, backstabbing, corruption, bribery, court-cases, sex-scandals, 100-year contracts, and off-shore holding companies. The real-life organisational drama containing these ingredients are told engagingly and in great detail by Næss, making clear the impressive empirical work underpinning the book.

Sergio Perez won the 2021 Azerbaijan Grand Prix in Baku in a two-lap shootout after championship leader Max Verstappen crashed while leading with a tire failure, and Lewis Hamilton went off course trying to seize the win on the standing restart.

As such, this book will be highly appreciated for those interested in the socio-historically situated events that impacted FIA’s development from a mainly European-based (heavily skewed) social collective to a global (although still skewed) player with all the attributes required of contemporary organisations, including outward-directed legitimating actions related to diversity and sustainability, the latter an admittedly hard ‘spin’ for a motorsport organisation. My own knowledge of FIA and motorsport has multiplied several times over by reading the book and the reach and impact of motorsport, along with the moral virtues (e.g., modernity and personal freedom) and vices (environmental damage, safety hazards) associated with it certainly makes FIA an interesting and significant case worthy of scientific attention.

However, motorsport ‘newbies’ like myself might find the empirical storyline somewhat demanding to follow. In addition to the numerous people the author ascribes major or minor roles throughout the book, the number of organisations and parts of organisations figuring in the book (the abbreviations far outnumber the list provided in the beginning) makes it tricky at times simply to keep up with the turn of events. I find myself scrolling back and forth to remind myself who person X or organisation Y was and what role they previously played in the development. The development of FIA is narrated chronologically, with certain events (e.g., the controversial decision to allow Formula 1 races to be run in South Africa during apartheid) highlighted within each time period covered. Perhaps a more analytically driven structure, along with a stricter editing and additional figures and tables outlining events and actors’ (organisational and individual) involvement could have helped at least this reader not to lose sight of the overall storyline.

Ultimately, while it is clear to me that FIA has changed dramatically over the years, it is challenging to get a hold of what exactly that change consists of, what its most important determinants were and how they may be specific to the case or general to the sport federation population.

Unfortunately, the trickiness of following the empirical narrative also has analytical implications. In the introduction, Næss speaks about the necessity of operationalizing theoretical concepts for empirical study. I agree, and creating a bridge between theory and data, thereby facilitating a theoretical contribution (in the widest meaning of the term) from an empirical study can be challenging. On this, the book has some room for improvement.

In particular, rather than paraphrasing, the theoretical literature – rather diverse in its origin – is to a large extent accounted for via direct quotes, which makes me struggle to understand concepts’ meaning in the context of the study, as well as the analytical message the author is trying to convey in the theory-imbued passages that appear throughout the text and in more condensed form in the final chapter.

For example, institutional logics, a key concept used throughout to book, is briefly defined, but the elements of the concept (the so-called Y-axis) is not delineated or discussed. Thus, when Næss speaks about a commercial or federation logic, it is difficult to grasp exactly what is meant by that analytically and empirically, and therefore to assess the character and extent of the change over the studied period. Ultimately, while it is clear to me that FIA has changed dramatically over the years, it is challenging to get a hold of what exactly that change consists of, what its most important determinants were and how they may be specific to the case or general to the sport federation population. Thus, while the author clearly has a theoretical understanding, I believe the text would have benefitted from more space being spent on developing both à priori theoretical considerations and data-driven theoretical reasoning so as to facilitate the communication of that understanding to the reader.

Næss should be commended for his theoretical ambitions, which result chiefly in the launch of a new type of organisational hybrid that he terms Organisational Emulsion. I do hope that he develops this and other theoretical insights of the book in future texts. In any case, prospective readers can look forward to engaging with a book that is fascinating in terms of the unique and intriguing story it tells about an organisation’s continuous attempts to gain and defend legitimacy, and the actors and events that have shaped the development of motorsport from 1946 and up until today.

Copyright © Cecilia Stenling 2021

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