where are the phenomena?

More often than not, one is liable to hear that there is a “crisis” in organizational 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 the problem is that there is something wrong with the concepts, ideas and explanatory tools that we bring to bear on the empirical world.

I have a different take on these issues. Mainly, I don’t agree that the problem is at all conceptual (or that it is purely or directly conceptual). In fact, as Fabio mentions in his 1970s sociology post, the problem could be that the concepts developed in the late 1970s might have been too compelling and too effective in having garnered so many disciples, not that they are unconvincing or radically problematic.

Instead I think that the problem is more basic than that. Rather that being in the throes of a theoretical or conceptual shortage, I think that we are in the middle of a phenomenal shortage. Thus, what wrong with “OT” at the moment is the lack of coherent, well-characterized, but most importantly compelling and intellectually stimulating phenomena.

Notice that I said phenomena; not “data.” There is a difference (Bogen and Woodward 1988). In fact, part of the problem for young scholars is that with the digitilization of the world, we are now drowning in data, but ironically, we are experiencing a shortage of well-defined phenomena to explain.

“More data,” like “more cowbell” is not going to solve this issue. In contrast to data, phenomena require cognitive work in order to be characterized and defined. In fact, if we look at the classic strains of OT that were developed in the 1970s, it is clear that all their theoretical effort was spearheaded by concentrating on a single, key phenomenon of interest.

(1) DiMaggio and Powell (1983): how come all organizations are so similar, when functionalist theories predict widespread local variation? Phenomenon: isomorphism.

(2) Hannan and Freeman (1986): how come there are so many different kinds of organizations? (the opposite of phenomenon (1)!) Phenomenon: organizational form genesis and segregation.

(3) Meyer and Rowan (1977): how come there is such disconnect between formal structure and everyday activities in “institutionalized organizations”? Phenomenon: decoupling and ritual conformity.

(4) Tolbert and Zucker (1983): how come organizations adopt certain practices even when their local and functional conditions are distinct from those of the original adopters of the practice? Phenomenon: diffusion of institutionalized practices.

(5) Stinchcombe (1965): how come organizations founded under similar environmental conditions retain their initial structures even after those conditions have changed? (this is one is of course a tremendeosly productive phenomenon; in one interpretation it leads to inertia and today to “cascading change” theory; under another one it serves as the building block of the evolutionary variation-selection-retention schema and the “period-cohort” analysis of organizations recommended by Aldrich). Phenomenon: organizational imprinting.

I submit that the problem with contemporary OT, is that there are no contemporary analogues for these set of foundational, intellectually stimulating phenomena. Without well-defined phenomena to explain, theoretical development for theoretical development’s sake is fruitless. Unfortunately because of the wealth of data and the easy availability of canned “perspectives” from the 70s, there is less of chance for young scholars to take the time to define interesting phenomena that can serve as an impetus for theoretical innovation.

So where are the (interesting! Compelling! Puzzling!) phenomena?

Written by Omar

April 26, 2008 at 6:25 pm

Posted in just theory, omar, sociology

7 Responses

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  1. Omar, interesting post.

    Phenomenon and theory of course are wrapped up with each other. And, is it that there are no new phenomenon or that we are not appropriately spotting them? Also, I agree that the wealth of org data (and then, miscellaneous 70s theories to explain that data), in part, is a problem for theorizing (I have a post in the works related to that point).

    Perhaps a couple points on what might be ‘new’ phenomenon…the following, IMHO, deserve further attention:

    1) the purposive nature of organizations. Most of our theories don’t really have the organization as a purposive actor in any meaningful way, but, clearly, orgs are established for purposes and may even be seen as intentional actors.

    2) the increasingly disaggregated nature of organizing. Our theories reflect slightly antiquated notions of organizing, while there is much highly disaggregated organizational activity going on (so, it ends up that some 35% for example of the US economy works under various “free agent” arrangements rather than permanently for an organization). So, organizing is often much more project-based (Hollywood-like), where disparate individual and collective actors come together and then disband. So, we need theories to explain and further explicate this.

    3) related to above, community forms and stakeholder relations. I think this is one area where we have lots of work coming out — open source, stakeholder theory, community forms etc.

    4) professional services and knowledge-based organizing. Our models of organizations, I think, need to in part reflect the changing nature of work itself, increasingly knowledge and information-intensive. Professional services settings for example in part decouple the principal-agent relationship, as the principle is the agent (nice piece by Greenwood and Empson in Org Studies on this), etc.

    That’s my (very) quick two cents.



    April 26, 2008 at 7:26 pm

  2. For any sociologist of higher ed, the rise and persistence of for profit education is a very important phenomenon. In an institutional environment favoring non-profit org forms, why do University of Phoenix style institutions grow and thrive?


    Fabio Rojas

    April 26, 2008 at 10:11 pm

  3. I think you’re essentially correct about this Omar. The kind of phenomena that Teppo is talking about do not readily lend themselves to operationalization as dependent variables. Fabio’s example could be reframed (and probably would if a neoinstitutional scholar got hold of it, wait didn’t somebody we know try this?) as a question of institutionalizing a new organizational form.



    April 28, 2008 at 1:37 pm

  4. Brayden, are you talking about Martin Hughes’ dissertation?

    I don’t think I can do much better than Teppo and Fabio (which is the advantage of getting to ask the rhetorical question when you write the post), but I think that that’s probably symptomatic of the problem. We can recite organizational theory precepts on command, but we have trouble coming up with interesting phenomena to explain.

    On Teppo’s list: (1) is not a phenomenon, but something like a metatheoretical stance or a sensitizing concept. (2) and (3) are phenomena but probably require sharper characterization to become compelling. Or more charitably (2) is the phenomenon that became grist for Powell’s (1991) mill, so it could easily go on my list above. but which also means that it is disqualified as “new” (or interesting?). (4) is probably not a phenomenon, but a set of candidate mechanisms that are still looking for one to explain.



    April 28, 2008 at 1:54 pm

  5. Good point, guys, I think I’m talking about the institutionalization of a new form, which is clearly the broader issue. And yes, I think Martin Hughes is in the ball park, based on his faculty bio. I think I should get a copy of the dissertation!



    April 28, 2008 at 1:59 pm

  6. This is an interesting question… I would suggest the inability to find interesting questions is in part related to the pedagogical approach of our graduate programs. As a whole, I do not think these programs do a great job in immersing us in the phenomenon. As an org PhD student now, I find that we are very much exposed to the current theories (and methods) and are herded into in a direction where we can incrementally add to that research (add a moderating variable, study in a different context, look at a different IV). While this may increase short-term productivity, it inevitably decreasing the interesting phenomena that we approach with research.


    peter b

    April 28, 2008 at 3:56 pm

  7. I cannot help but noticing that with each of the four phenomena, what appeared to have happend is the launch of a term that describes that what needs to be explained. It is this term that got stuck in the collective org. theory memory and quite often becomes confused with the explanation. So what is considered to be an explanation of ‘how come all organizations are so similar; answer –> isomorphism, etc. In turn this indicates something peculiar when it comes to theorizing. Ask a compelling question and provide a term that explains it. Any usage of this term in subsequent research will give it empirical status, maybe no matter what the findings are and hence, you have made your name. (Is this an example of performativity?)



    April 28, 2008 at 4:16 pm

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