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.

Written by fabiorojas

October 1, 2007 at 6:02 am

Posted in fabio, just theory

11 Responses

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  1. I think it’s interesting that the most influential organizational theory papers of the last twenty years have been attempts to link fragments from the main theories. Powell’s 1990 paper linked insights from network theory to institutional theory. Zuckerman 1999 drew connections between institutional and ecological theories. The same could be said for Huggy Rao’s influential papers (e.g., Rao, Monin, and Durand). I’m not sure that I would call these papers “clean up work,” but rather, attempts at theoretical synthesis, but I understand your point.

    The last twenty years have also witnessed the emergence of younger scholars who are increasingly ambivalent about loyalty to any particular theory. We don’t want to be given the label institutionalists or ecologists. Many of us are comfortable living in the middle-range. Rather than situating ourselves within a particular theory, the new generation seem more driven by isolating theoretical mechanisms (e.g., interest-based explanations or status).



    October 1, 2007 at 6:28 am

  2. I would add Podolny (1993, 2001) to that list, as a nice way to integrate network (as in Burt’s early work on status topologies induced from network data) and niche theory in ecology.



    October 1, 2007 at 3:18 pm

  3. Were the paradigms that emerged in the 70s immediately seen as paradigms? That is, perhaps we are just engaging in retrospective paradigm-fitting; and there may be nascent paradigms presently out there that we’ll all be heavily citing 10-20 years from now, and bemoaning how things were so much better in the 90s and early 2000s. I can’t really think of any though.

    (That said, I do have my opinions about what ought to be key paradigms, however they are outside the mainstream).



    October 1, 2007 at 5:01 pm

  4. Teppo: “(That said, I do have my opinions about what ought to be key paradigms, however they are outside the mainstream).”

    Dude – don’t leave us hanging! Make it the next post!



    October 1, 2007 at 5:16 pm

  5. “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”

    I think the comments bypass the core of Fabio’s lament. My 2/100ths is that maybe this is the case because, other than people like you and me who hang around or attend orgtheory conclaves, few actually care about organizations in and of themselves, at least relative to the number who care about what organizations “do” or how they “matter?”

    On the future, “tf” is undoubtedly correct.



    October 1, 2007 at 5:39 pm

  6. Well, in order for something to be a paradigm, there has to be a series of empirical inquiries that can be (even if retroactively) thought of as belonging to the same family. This has usually happened by way of some influential edited collection or volume. For the ecologists, this was established by Hannan and Freeman’s (1989) Organizational Ecology. For first generation organizational institutionalism it was Meyer and Scott’s (1983) Organizational Environments: Ritual and Rationality. For World Polity institutionalism it was Thomas, Meyer, Ramirez and Boli’s (1987) Institutional Structure: Constituting State, Society and the Individual, finally for institutionalism more broadly it was DiMaggio and Powell’s (1991) orange bible (which included papers from some of these previous collections). The “network approach” has never had such a statement which might be the reason why its “paradigmatic status” is more contestable. I’m also hard pressed to think of any series of ongoing research programs that (a) are not extensions of the above or (b) if not (a) could in theory be grouped into a forthcoming edited volume as statement of a new approach (although the Lounsbury and Ventresca “new structuralism” was self-consciously modeled after these previous attempts at paradigmatic turf-claiming).



    October 1, 2007 at 7:55 pm

  7. […] theory (see Teppo on the death of organization theory or more generally Fabio on that 70s sociology). Just as often, there is an added impression that this crisis is theoretical. That is, the root of […]


  8. […] garbage can models of organizational theorizing Posted in just theory, teppo, uncategorized by Teppo on April 28th, 2008 I’ve noted a seemingly popular model of organizational theorizing of late: the garbage can model. The garbage can model of theorizing consists of efforts to (randomly) match and unite potential candidate theories with potential correlations in one’s data. What I have seen scholars do, is, first mine their data for various possible correlations. Then scholars sift through various theories for possible explanations for these correlations in their data. And, then, voila!, thats the theory. Yes, that’s it. Not too different from how Cohen et al conceptualized an organization’s efforts to match potential problems (in this case: correlations in data) with extant solutions (in this case: 70s theories). […]


  9. […] the orgtheory folks for all their suggested readings, and for the conversations explicitly about surpassing 70’s organizational theory and the lack of new phenomena. I actually cited those two discussions in answering a question about […]


  10. […] might also try to create new areas, but that’s hard, since we seem to be at the tail end of a normal science cycle in sociology.  Finally, Chicago might give in to isomorpshism. I’ve been told that this has […]


  11. […] 6. The death of post-70s social theory […]


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