Family Business Institutionalization, Governance, and Social Distinction Among Colombia’s Elite Business Families

  • Mariana Saavedra-Espinosa Assistant Professor of Global Commerce at Denison University


While the institutionalization of some of Colombia’s largest family-owned businesses is often explained with reference to the global economic liberalization of the 1990s and the need for smooth intergenerational transference of property and management, this article connects the increasing popularity of these specialized managerial measures to long-standing structures of social hierarchy and group formation in the country. Drawing on twenty months of ethnographic research among members of industrial elite business-owning families, I argue that the increasing prevalence of these measures cannot be fully explained without attention to dynamics of symbolic social distinction in the country. I ground family business governance in its social context by considering it in light of three important forms of distinction: in-group and cosmopolitan connections, conspicuous industriousness and enactment of “modern” values, and the adoption of governance as a form of family lineage.

Author Biography

Mariana Saavedra-Espinosa, Assistant Professor of Global Commerce at Denison University
Mariana Saavedra-Espinosa is an economic and cultural anthropologist broadly interested in how human groups come to define the nature of their relationships. With the support of the Wenner Gren Foundation's Hunt Postdoctoral Fellowship, she is currently completing her first monograph, which analyzes the cultural significance of market practices within Colombia's racialized social order. She holds a Ph.D. from Cornell University and is currently an Assistant Professor of Global Commerce at Denison University and Faculty Affiliate at the College of Charleston. 


Abouzaid, Sanaa. 2008. “Manual IFC de gobierno de empresas familiares.” Report no. 45077. The World Bank.

Arenas, Oscar Iván Salazar. 2007. “Tiempo Libre al Aire Libre. Prácticas Sociales, Espacio Público y Naturaleza En El Parque Nacional Enrique Olaya Herrera (1938-1948).” Free Time Outdoors. Social Practices, Public Space and Nature at the Enrique Olaya Herrera National Park (1938-1948)., no. 33 (January): 186–208.

Berrone, Pascual, Cristina Cruz, and Luis R. Gomez-Mejia. 2014. “Family-Controlled Firms and Stakeholder Management: A Socioemotional Wealth Preservation Perspective.” In The SAGE Handbook of Family Business, by Leif Melin, Mattias Nordqvist, and Pramodita Sharma, 179–95. London: SAGE Publications Ltd.

Bourdieu, Pierre. 1986. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Caballero Argaez, Carlos. 2016. La Economía Colombiana Del Siglo XX: Un Recorrido Por La Historia y Sus Protagonistas. Bogotá: Penguin Random House Grupo Editorial.

Carney, Michael. 2005. “Corporate Governance and Competitive Advantage in Family–Controlled Firms.” Entrepreneurship Theory and Practice 29 (3): 249–65.

Casanova, Lourdes. 2009. Global Latinas: Latin America’s Emerging Multinationals. INSEAD Business Press Series. Houndmills, Basingstoke; New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.

Castro-Gómez, Santiago. 2009. Tejidos oníricos: Movilidad, capitalismo y biopolíticas en Bogotá (1910-1930). Bogotá: Editorial Pontificia Universidad Javeriana.

CCB, Supersociedades, and Confecamaras. 2009. “Guía Colombiana de Gobierno Corporativo Para Sociedades Cerradas y de Familia.”

Colli, Andrea, Paloma Fernández Pérez, and Mary B. Rose. 2003. “National Determinants of Family Firm Development? Family Firms in Britain, Spain, and Italy in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries.” Enterprise & Society 4 (1): 28–64.

Corredor, J., M. J. Álvarez-Rivadulla, and C. Maldonado-Carreño. 2019. “Good Will Hunting: Social Integration of Students Receiving Forgivable Loans for College Education in Contexts of High Inequality.” Studies in Higher Education 0 (0): 1–15.

Creed, Gerald W. 2000. “‘Family Values’ and Domestic Economies.” Annual Review of Anthropology 29 (1): 329–55.

Dávila L. de Guevara, Carlos, ed. 2003. Empresas y empresarios en la historia de Colombia: siglos XIX-XX: una colección de estudios recientes. Bogotá: Naciones Unidas, CEPAL: Norma: Universidad de los Andes, Facultad de Administración: Ediciones Uniandes.

. 2012. Empresariado en Colombia: perspectiva histórica y regional. Primera edición. Bogotá, D.C., Colombia: Universidad de los Andes.

Davis, Gerald F. 2005. “New Directions in Corporate Governance.” Annual Review of Sociology 31: 143–62.

DiMaggio, Paul J., and Walter W. Powell. 1983. “The Iron Cage Revisited: Institutional Isomorphism and Collective Rationality in Organizational Fields.” American Sociological Review 48 (2): 147–60.

Evans-Pritchard, E. E. 1940. The Nuer, a Description of the Modes of Livelihood and Political Institutions of a Nilotic People. Oxford: At the Clarendon Press.

Farnsworth-Alvear, Ann. 2000. Dulcinea in the Factory: Myths, Morals, Men, and Women in Colombia’s Industrial Experiment, 1905-1960. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Fernández Pérez, Paloma, and Andrea Lluch, eds. 2016. Evolution of Family Business: Continuity and Change in Latin America and Spain. Cheltenham, UK; Northampton, MA: Edward Elgar Pub.

Gersick, Kelin E, John Davis, Marion McCollom Hampton, and Ivan Lansberg. 1997. Generation to Generation: Life Cycles of the Family Business. Boston, Mass.: Harvard Business School Press.

Gersick, Kelin E., and Neus Feliu. 2014. “Governing the Family Enterprise: Practices, Performance and Research.” In The SAGE Handbook of Family Business, by Leif Melin, Mattias Nordqvist, and Pramodita Sharma, 196–225. London: SAGE Publications Ltd.

Gómez Betancourt, Gonzalo. 2014. “Empresas Familiares En Bolsa: Mayor Rentabilidad, Menor Riesgo.” January 20, 2014.

Gómez-Betancourt, Gonzalo. 2005. Son Iguales Todas Las Empresas Familiares? Caminos Por Recorrer. Bogotá, Colombia: Editorial Norma.

Greenhalgh, Susan. 1994. “De-Orientalizing the Chinese Family Firm.” American Ethnologist 21 (4): 746–75.

Han, Clara. 2012. Life in Debt: Times of Care and Violence in Neoliberal Chile. University of California Press.

Harrington, Brooke, and Vanessa M. Strike. 2018. “Between Kinship and Commerce: Fiduciaries and the Institutional Logics of Family Firms.” Family Business Review, June, 089448651878086.

Hetherington, Kregg. 2011. Guerrilla Auditors: The Politics of Transparency in Neoliberal Paraguay. Durham: Duke University Press.

Jaramillo Uribe, Jaime. 1968. “Mestizaje y Diferenciación Social En El Nuevo Reino de Granada En La Segunda Mitad Del Siglo XVIII.” In Ensayos Sobre Historia Social Colombiana, 163–203. Biblioteca Universitaria de Cultura Colombiana. Bogotá: Universidad Nacional de Colombia, Dirección de Divulgación Cultural.

Kondo, Dorinne K. 1990. Crafting Selves: Power, Gender, and Discourses of Identity in a Japanese Workplace. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Leach, Edmund Ronald. 1961. Pul Eliya, a Village in Ceylon; a Study of Land Tenure and Kinship. Cambridge: University Press.

Lomnitz, Larissa Adler de. 1987. A Mexican Elite Family, 1820-1980: Kinship, Class, and Culture. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Marcus, George E., and Peter Dobkin Hall. 1992. Lives in Trust: The Fortunes of Dynastic Families in Late Twentieth-Century America. Boulder: Westview Press.

Melin, Leif, and Mattias Nordqvist. 2007. “The Reflexive Dynamics of Institutionalization: The Case of the Family Business.” Strategic Organization 5 (3): 321–33.

Monje, Camilo. 2013. “Cafés y clubes: espacios de transitoria intimidad.” In Historia de la vida privada en Colombia. Tomo II. Los signos de la Intimidad. El largo siglo XX, ed., Jaime Humberto Borja Gómez, 66–85. Bogotá: Taurus.

Morck, Randall, and Lloyd Steier. 2007. “The Global History of Corporate Governance: An Introduction.” In A History of Corporate Governance around the World: Family Business Groups to Professional Managers. Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press: National Bureau of Economic Research.

Ong, Aihwa. 1999. Flexible Citizenship: The Cultural Logics of Transnationality. Durham: Duke.

Parada, Maria José, Mattias Nordqvist, and Alberto Gimeno. 2010. “Institutionalizing the Family Business: The Role of Professional Associations in Fostering a Change of Values.” Family Business Review, August.

Pedraza Gómez, Zandra. 2008. “La Tenaz Suramericana.” In Genealogías de la colombianidad: Formaciones Discursivas Y Tecnologías De Gobierno En Los Siglos Xix Y Xx, ed., Santiago Castro-Gómez and Eduardo Restrepo, 1st Edition, 172–202. Bogotá: Editorial Pontificia Universidad Javeriana.

Pina-Cabral, João de, and Antónia Pedroso de Lima, eds. 2000. Elites: Choice, Leadership and Succession. Oxford; New York: Berg.

Rawitscher, Peter. 2000. “Vistiendo y desvistiendo la modernidad: el Centro de Bogotá en los siglos XIX y XX.” In Memorias hegemónicas, memorias disidentes: el pasado como política de la historia, ed., Cristóbal Gnecco and Marta Zambrano, 1. ed. Bogotá: Universidad del Cauca.

Rodríguez, Pablo. 2004. “La Familia En Colombia.” In La Familia En Iberoamérica, 1550-1980, ed., Pablo Rodríguez, 1. ed, 247–88. Colección Confluencias. Bogotá: Universidad Externado de Colombia, Convenio Andrés Bello.

Rodríguez-Satizábal, Beatriz. 2014. “Grupos Económicos en Colombia (1974-1998): entre pequeña empresa famliar y gram familia de empresas.” In Grupos económicos y mediana empresa en América Latina, ed., Martin Monsalve Zanatti, 41–85. Lima: Universidad del Pacífico.

Safford, Frank. 1976. The Ideal of the Practical: Colombia’s Struggle to Form a Technical Elite. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Said, Edward W. 1978. Orientalism. First edition. New York: Pantheon Books.

Sangren, P. Steven. 1984. “Traditional Chinese Corporations: Beyond Kinship.” Journal of Asian Studies; Ann Arbor, Mich., Etc. 43 (3): 391–415.

Schuster, Caroline E. 2015. Social Collateral: Women and Microfinance in Paraguay’s Smuggling Economy. Oakland, California: University of California Press.

Schweitzer, Peter P., and Antónia Pedroso de Lima, eds. 2000. “Is Blood Thicker than Interest in Familial Enterprises?” In Dividends of Kinship: Meanings and Uses of Social Relatedness, 151–76. London; New York: Routledge.

Sharma, Pramodita, Leif Melin, and Mattias Nordqvist. 2014. “Introduction: Scope, Evolution and Future of Family Business Studies.” In The SAGE Handbook of Family Business, by Leif Melin, Mattias Nordqvist, and Pramodita Sharma, 1–22. 1 Oliver’s Yard, 55 City Road, London EC1Y 1SP United Kingdom: SAGE Publications Ltd.

Strathern, Marilyn. 1985. “Kinship and Economy: Constitutive Orders of a Provisional Kind.” American Ethnologist 12 (2): 191–209.

Superintendencia de Sociedades (Colombia). 2006. “Sociedades de Familia En Colombia.” Bogotá, D. C.: Superintendencia de Sociedades.

Stewart, Alex. 2014. “The Anthropology of Family Business: An Imagined Ideal.” In The SAGE Handbook of Family Business, 66–82. London: SAGE Publications Ltd.

The Economist. 2018. “Family Offices Become Financial Titans,” December 15, 2018.

Veiga Copo, Abel Benito. 2010. Empresas de familia: estrategias de éxito y permanencia: cómo acrecentar y cuidar el patrimonio. Bogotá, D.C.: Universidad del Rosario.

Vélez, Diego. 2008. “Empresas Familiares y Competitividad.” January 31.

Villalonga, Belén, Raphael Amit, María-Andrea Trujillo, and Alexander Guzmán. 2015. “Governance of Family Firms.” Annual Review of Financial Economics 7 (1): 635–54.

Villaveces, Santiago. 1998. “Colombo-Japanese Mixtures amidst a Coporate Reinvention.” In Corporate Futures: The Diffusion of the Culturally Sensitive Corporate Form, by George E Marcus, 141–76. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Weber, Max. 2003. The Protestant Ethic and Spirit of Capitalism. New York: Dover.

Yanagisako, Sylvia Junko. 2002. Producing Culture and Capital: Family Firms in Italy. Princeton: Princeton University Press.