organization theory must-read articles


Gordon at the Conglomerate sent me an email a while back requesting the “must-reads” of organization theory.  I think there are several important overview-type books (e.g., see this post on relevant books for example by Scott and Pfeffer), and several classic theory-building books (e.g., see this post on Cyert and March; of course March and Simon, Coleman, Hannan and Freeman, Barnard, McKelvey, Williamson, Weick, etc), but let me here just stick to journal articles (which in part delimits my set to the past 40 years or so).  For now just an alphabetical list of organization theory must-read articles:

Meyer, John and Brian Rowan. 1977. “Institutionalized Organizations: Formal Structure

Meyer, John and Brian Rowan. 1977. “Institutionalized Organizations: Formal Structure

as Myth and Ceremony.” American Journal of Sociology 83: 340-63.

  • Coleman, J. 1986. Social theory, social research, and a theory of action.  American Journal of Sociology, 91: 1309-1335.
  • DiMaggio, P. & Powell, W. 1983. The iron cage revisited: Institutional isomorphism and collective rationality in organizational fields.  American Sociological Review, 48: 147-160.
  • Granovetter, M. 1985. Economic and social action: The problem of embeddedness. American Journal of Sociology, 91: 481-518.
  • Lawrence & Lorsch. 1967. Differentiation and integration in complex organizations. Administrative Science Quarterly, 12: 1-47.
  • Levitt, B. & March, J. 1988. Organizational learning. Annual Review of Sociology, 14: 319-340.
  • March, J. 1991. Exploration and exploitation in organizational learning.  Organization Science, 2: 71-87.
  • Meyer, J. & Rowan, B. 1977. Institutionalized organizations: Formal structure as myth and ceremony.  American Journal of Sociology, 83: 333-363.
  • Powell, W.W., Koput, K.W., & Smith-Doerr, L. 1996.  Interorganizational collaboration and the locus of innovation: Network of learning in biotechnology. Administrative Science Quarterly, 41: 116-145.
  • Walsh, J. 1995. Managerial and organizational cognition: Notes from a trip down memory lane. Organization Science, 6: 280-321.
  • Williamson, O. 1977. Transaction-cost economics: The governance of contractual relations.  Journal of Law and Economics, 22: 233-261.

(For a more comprehensive list of key pieces and theories – see this extensive doctoral readings list by Andy Van de Ven.)

This list is probably not that controversial (the above articles ought to show up in anyone’s top 50 [ok, maybe 100], and these articles tend to be among the most highly cited.  Admittedly “learning” shows up too prevalently given my own research interests, institutional approaches also appear to fair rather well, and, if I consider “strategy” articles – the list would obviously be quite different [Barney, Teece, etc. etc.).  Well, I’ll provide a much more controversial, ‘alternative’ list in a later post (i.e. my “classics” – for example, I am partial to these type of pieces, or these types).  


Written by teppo

December 18, 2006 at 7:16 am

Posted in research, teppo

13 Responses

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  1. Funny, I was thinking about doing a post just like this last night. You be me to it!

    I concur with your choices, but I’d also add a couple more:

    McPherson, J. Miller. 1983. An ecology of affiliation. American Sociological Review, 48: 519-532.

    Stinchcombe, Arthur. 1965. Social structure and organization. Handbook in Organizations, ed. J. March, 142-193.

    I chose the first article because in it Miller presents a fairly systematic way to study organizational niches that has been copied in a number of studies. Moreover, this paper helped the other ecologists figure out just what they meant by niches in the first place.

    The second article is clearly foundational. Some people have said that Stinchcombe’s article led to the birth of our contemporary theoretical hegemons (resource dependence, ecology, and institutional theory), as well as the laying the groundwork for a more general political approach to orgs.



    December 18, 2006 at 3:09 pm

  2. Teppo, That’s a great list! In addition to Brayden’s two additions, which I think are definitely seminal, I would add:

    1) Another Stinchcombe “blue collar” classic:

    Stinchcombe, Arthur L. 1959. “Bureaucratic and Craft Administration of Production: A Comparative Study.” Administrative Science Quarterly 4: 168-187.

    2) Meyer and Rowan’s main source of inspiration:

    Weick, Karl E. 1976. “Educational Organizations as Loosely Coupled Systems.” Administrative Science Quarterly 21: 1-19.

    and (3) the article that helped resuscitate the Selznickian insight of the mid 1950s:

    Zald, Mayer N. and Patricia Denton. 1963. “From Evangelism to General Service: The Transformation of the YMCA.” Administrative Science Quarterly 8: 214-234.



    December 18, 2006 at 4:24 pm

  3. Hmm, Gordon suggests in his post that legal scholars can learn much from org theorists – true, but, the reverse is also true (perhaps even “truer”?). Some folks in the stakeholder org theory space are now spending significant time in the legal literature, and, I’d argue that the field more broadly could learn quite a bit from legal scholarship (specifically, part of this has to do with org theories often being only indirectly about orgs, and mostly about lower [individuals and aggregation] and higher levels [culture, populations, institutions, inter- etc] – something we’ve hinted at several times previously). Coleman’s work in fact was highly sensitive to these matters (in his ’86 article he laments the lack of overlaps, like in the days of yore), but it is hard to find anyone presently in (broadly) mainstream OT that effectively straddles all of this (though there are some). Perhaps with specialization something has been lost.



    December 19, 2006 at 3:25 am

  4. I just finished reading Arthur Stinchcombe’s essay “New Sociological Microfoundations for Organizational Theory: A Postscript,” which is included in this collection (which has inspired a couple of ideas for future posts). In any case, I realize that he’s a tad biased, but in that article he points out that there is an important piece (which he refers as a classic; if it’s a classic for Stinchcombe it is a classic to me) in org theory that we ignored here, so I am going to add it:

    Carol A. Heimer. “Allocating Information Costs in a Negotiated Information Order: Interorganizational Constraints on Decision Making in Norwegian Oil Insurance.” Administrative Science Quarterly 30: 395-417.



    January 11, 2007 at 11:43 pm

  5. […] some academic books and journal articles that would be helpful to the autodidacts among us.  This post points to the must-read organizational theory articles.  And here’s a post about the best […]


  6. […] who want to beef up on organizational theory over the summer. In an earlier post Teppo listed some must-read articles in org. theory, and here are some additional introductory […]


  7. That is getting interesting. Can someone tell me where I can read
    “Stinchcombe, Arthur. 1965. Social structure and organization. Handbook in Organizations, ed. J. March, 142-193” on the web?
    I am from Germany so I don’t look often on this page, please just mail me to

    Thank you if you have a tip.


    Thomas Aki

    August 16, 2008 at 12:30 pm

  8. […] This morning I have been going back to some classic OrgTheory posts on classics – the must read list, some reading recommendations, and the 2008 summer reading list. I am now systematically printing […]


  9. […] organization theory must-read articles « (tags: thinking ReadMe sociology) […]


  10. […] classics of […]


  11. A round of applause for your article post.Really thank you! Much obliged.


    Tayler Hocker

    February 6, 2012 at 10:33 pm

  12. Wow that was unusual. I just wrote an extremely long comment but after I clicked submit my comment didn’t show up. Grrrr… well I’m not writing all that over again.
    Anyways, just wanted to say excellent blog!


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