Complementary and alternative medicine legitimation efforts in a hostile environment: The case of Portugal

Marta Bicho, Ralitza Nikolaeva, Carmen Lages

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This article explores complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) organisations’ legitimation efforts that face extra obstacles as they are subject to more than one institutional logics (hybrids) and operate in a contested organisational space (hostile environment). CAM organisations espouse the health and market logics and their practices are questioned at an institutional level. The study is conducted in Portugal, where the legalisation of CAM therapies was a contested process over 10 years. Taking an abductive approach and drawing on qualitative interviews, the authors analyse CAM managers’ efforts to legitimise their practices and build viable organisations despite hostile conditions. Contrary to prior studies of hybrid healthcare organisations, CAM organisations derive moral legitimacy from the market logic rather than the health logic. The findings show that relationships, trust-building and consumer education appear to be the primary vehicles for establishing pragmatic legitimacy. Thus, pragmatic legitimacy relies on the health logic. The market logic dominates the pursuit of moral legitimacy through financial sustainability, human capital, marketing communications and partnerships, and advocating complementarity with biomedicine. We propose a model through which organisations use pragmatic legitimacy to enhance moral legitimacy and to create recursive feedback between moral and pragmatic legitimacy on the path to cognitive legitimacy.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)890-913
JournalSociology of Health and Illness
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - May 2023


  • complementary and alternative medicine
  • hostile environment
  • hybrid organisations
  • legitimacy


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