that 70’s sociology
As Teppo mentioned, the orgtheory crew spent the weekend at the Comparative Organizations conference, gracefully hosted by BYU’s Marriott School of Management and run by Teppo, Brayden, and their friendly colleague David Whetten. In the last post, Teppo brought up the claim that “organization theory is dead.” He doesn’t literally mean that – there’s been no talk of shutting down business schools, or journals like AMJ or ASQ declaring that it’s all been done and we can now stop. What the death mongers mean is that there’s been a serious attempt to de-emphasize the organization itself as a distinct object of social inquiry. Social scientists have either used organizations as instances of psychological processes (e.g., “worker satisfaction in …”) or as things created by macro processes (e.g., institutionalism & ecology). Between the two, there really isn’t much organization left in organizational sociology.
There’s a second dimension of organization’s theory death: the lack of productive offspring. The major branches of organizational sociology have not created credible successors. It was commonly mentioned that there are now three major approcahes – ecology, institutionalism, & networks – but I couldn’t see what the next step would be from these efforts. It’s now been thirty years since each of these schools got off the ground (Hannan & Freeman 1977, Meyer & Rowan 1977, Laumann et al/Harrison White 1970s), and they haven’t generated a synthesis or a second generation of theories.
Sure, there are still many good articles to be written about these ideas – see the various articles on institutional logics, multiplex networks, or non-monotonic logic in ecology. Yet, this is “clean up work” – it’s what you do while working through the implications of a major advance, not what you do while making the advance. That work was done in the 70s. Other branches of org theory seem to be in a similar position. Sure, you might find another great empirical piece fleshing out resource dependency in some new context, or another discussion of garbage can models or natural systems, but you haven’t seen many truly new insights in quite a while.
I don’t think org theory is alone in being stuck in the 1970s (or earlier). If you look around sociology, you will see that the major paradigms were laid out by 1980 or so – whether it be resource mobilization in movement studies (Mayer & Zald 1977), practice theory in culture (Bourdieu – Outline of a Theory of Practice 1977), neo-Marxists in stratification (Burawoy 1979; Olin-Wright 1970s) or affect control theory in social psychology (Heise 1970s). Some other paradigms were articulated earlier, such as status attainment models of the 1960s. Further, many “new” paradigms appear to be the older stuff just applied to new topics , such as the dominance of world polity theory in globalization studies, which assumes much of the intellectual framework of Meyer, Boli & Ramirez, which builds on the Meyer and Rowan articles of the 1970s.
You might find a few exceptions here and there, but the pattern is clear – the sociology we practice now is the sociology created by a generation of scholars from approximately 1965 to about 1980. That isn’t a bad thing. That’s what academics are supposed to do – create ideas and then build emprical projects around them, leading to a second generation who make careers testing and developing these ideas. And the stuff I just mentioned has been very insightful, very much worth doing. In fact, most of my work is based on these ideas. But science is made great by periodic attempts to look at the past, absorb the best, and move on. In a previous post, I mentioned three areas that show great promise for doing so, which is good news. As we approach the end of the normal science sociology emerging from the 70s, there will be many opportunities for younger scholars to create the next generation of sociology. And if they live up to my expectations, it will be a science that I will barely understand, and that bafflement will make me extremely happy.