the major contribution of organizational theory?


What is the most significant contribution that organizational theory has made to our understanding of organizations? Peter Klein makes a list of what he sees as the major contributions, at least from an economics perspective. In comments, Fabio Rojas offers some of his own sociological insights. I agree with Peter and Fabio on much of their lists (hey, I think sociologists have a lot to offer too!).

But I think the major contribution of org theory can actually be found in the old institutionalism, surprisingly enough – the idea that organizations become “infused with value” independent of any technical or rational contribution they make to society. They become their own ends. As the great Philip Selznick wrote in TVA and the Grass Roots, “the most important thing about organizations is that, though they are tools, each nevertheless has a life of its own” (1949, 10).

In my mind, this insight underlies most of the major sociological contributions to organizational theory. Population ecology, the “new” institutionalism, political approaches, and certainly organizational identity theory are all based on the premise that the organization is about more than just accomplishing some technical goal or meeting the demands of its customers. The organization is a special kind of social actor that has a unique view of itself (a la Perrow or Coleman in The Asymmetric Society). Almost every major theory in organizational analysis reacts to or springs out of this core idea.


Written by brayden king

August 26, 2006 at 2:23 pm

4 Responses

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  1. As always…ABSOLUTELY right. Of course, if one were to get a little discipline-centric and chauvinistic one might add that the main contribution of sociologists to organization theory, might just be actually coming up with the study of economic organizations in the first place. While some unspecified people in some unspecified discipline were busy copying down the field equations of rational mechanics and changing the labels, Weber was writing what was later to become The Theory of Social and Economic Organization. Of course this is not technically correct, since Weber never held a chair in Sociology, and some Austrians like Peter Boettke actually claim him as one of them.



    August 27, 2006 at 12:44 am

  2. […] It appears that the “Iron Law” does not respect political lines. A formulation initially developed Robert Michels in his classic Political Parties to explain how the socialist party when from well-meaning idealism to a rigid, power-mad bureaucracy. For Michels (in an early–conflict-theoretic–statement of the central insight of organizational theory), while initially leaders of “revolutions” come in with a view toward reform and radical change, once they are embedded in the organizational apparatus of control, their interest shift toward the perpetuation of their own position and thus the reproduction of the power mechanism for its own sake: By a universally applicable social law, every organ of the collectivity brought into existence through then need for the division of labor, creates for itself, as soon as it becomes consolidated, interests peculiar to itself. The existence of these special interests involves a necessary conflict with the interests of the collectivity (Michels 353). […]


  3. […] “infuse[d] with value beyond the technical requirements at hand” (17; an insight that I’ve claimed is the major contribution of organizational theory ). While that statement has become well-known […]


  4. […] great Leadership in Administration; Omar on why Selznick is due for a revival; and the major contribution of organizational theory comes, of course, from […]


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