favorite org theory books of the last twenty years

The publishing industry is in sad shape, we are told. Some think that newspapers and books may soon become a thing of the past due to the onslaught of free information on the net. The current economy hasn’t helped any. As Andy noted on Scatterplot, university presses are cutting back on costs, inhibiting them from attending academic meetings this year. Still, despite all of this doom and gloom, I have hope. The editor of the University of Minnesota Press recently joked that “the crisis in scholarly communication is now in its fifth decade.” Academic publishing has never been the most profitable business, but it’s been sustainable. Why? Because academics like books. How else would we communicate our academic identities to visitors if not for books adorning our office shelves?

I personally love books. I don’t feel complete if I’m not in the process of reading a book. Journal articles are great, but books are more complete and richer. They give authors the ability to dig deeper into arguments and go off on interesting tangents. I learn a lot from those side trips. Books can also be more emotionally rewarding than articles, which in the end helps me remember the takeaway better. By the end of a book, you feel like you’ve been somewhere. I like academic books for the same reason I like novels. They get me inside the head of someone other than myself.

One unfortunate consequence of the b-school-ization of organizational theory is that we seem to have fewer books on the topic than we used to. The classic books in org. theory haven’t changed much over the years, although perhaps fewer students read them than was true 20 or 30 years ago. Selznick, Gouldner, and March and Simon still deserve reading today. But what about recent history? What’s been written in the last couple of decades that will stand the test of time? Here are a few of my favorite org. theory books written in that time period. As you’ll notice, most of them are not really organizational in the same sense that March and Simon would be, but they’re in the same ballpark and they definitely should be read by organizational scholars of all types.

  • Elisabeth Clemens, The People’s Lobby – Started off a new variant of institutional theory focusing on the heterogeneity of organizational forms and practices; I have a thing for suffragists
  • Wendy Espeland, The Struggle for Water – Commensuration and identity; why we all can’t just get along
  • Diane Vaughan, The Challenger Launch Decision – A tour de force in archival research; organizational culture can kill
  • Robert Jackall, Moral Mazes – Incredibly interesting stories about the inner lives of organizations at the executive level
  • Michael Suk-Young Chwe, Rational Ritual – Probably not on most of your radar screens but it should be; game theory gets cultural
  • Rakesh Khurana, Searching for a Corporate Savior – Why corporations overpay CEOs; all about the irrational pursuit of charisma
  • Neil Fligstein, The Tranformation of Corporate Control – This one was on my prelim list and I can remember several pivotal a-ha moments I had while reading it; Chandler meets conflict theory

I left some obvious classics, like Structural Holes, off the list because the content was first written as articles and later compiled as books. Still great books. I also left off three books written by my co-bloggers because everyone knows I think they’re awesome. What’s on your list?

Written by brayden king

July 20, 2009 at 3:51 pm

Posted in books, brayden

13 Responses

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  1. Frank Dobbins’s Forging Industrial Policy.

    Bill Roy’s Socialializing Capital

    Roger Gould’s Insurgent Identities.


    Sean Safford

    July 20, 2009 at 4:53 pm

  2. I like Podolny’s Status Signals even though it’s a compilation of articles because the intro makes it so much more clear what he’s getting at.
    I’m also a big fan of Lee Clarke’s Mission Improbable, which seems all the more relevant nowadays given that it’s all about the fantasy that we can eliminate risk.



    July 20, 2009 at 4:59 pm

  3. Identity and Control by Harrison White – cryptic,yet strangely rewarding.



    July 20, 2009 at 5:46 pm

  4. Jerry Davis’s Managed by the Markets is both a great read and very insightful – it really helped me think through all the literature on changes in big corporations in the past couple decades. And no, Jerry does not pay me to say these things. But if he would…


    Dan Hirschman

    July 20, 2009 at 8:08 pm

  5. Dan – I believe you even with your suspicious ties to Jerry.

    I had planned on reading Jerry’s book by now but Amazon decided to send me a book about bicycles in Mozambique instead of Managed by Markets. I got the right book jacket, but the wrong book was inside.



    July 20, 2009 at 8:11 pm

  6. Tragedy fewer people haven’t read Vaughan’s book.



    July 20, 2009 at 8:13 pm

  7. oops, typo. “more people” is meant



    July 20, 2009 at 9:37 pm

  8. Bicycles in Mozambique — I’m intrigued, bring your copy to AOM!



    July 21, 2009 at 3:43 am

  9. Wow. I was going to suggest Dobbin, Espeland, Clemens and Fligstein, who are all already listed!



    July 21, 2009 at 2:51 pm

  10. I really enjoy Gideon Kunda’s Engineering Culture, and I’ve assigned Rachel Sherman’s Class Acts a few times now (and really like it as well). The former is culture as a form of normative control in a tech-oriented engineering company, the latter is Burawoy meets service work in high-end hotels. Both are well-executed ethnographies.



    July 21, 2009 at 3:18 pm

  11. For those of us who study organizations with collectivist or democratic practices, this book is THE classic: Joyce Rothschild and J. Allen Whitt’s (1986) The Cooperative Workplace: Potentials and Dilemmas of Organizational Democracy and Participation.

    However, the latest edition of Organizations and Organizing text by Scott and Davis seems to have dropped any mention of Rothschild and Whitt’s work, which seems a little odd considering continuing contemporary interest in democratic forms (co-ops, open source, etc.).



    July 22, 2009 at 3:57 am

  12. Heimer and Staffen, _For the Sake of the Children_ — great theoretically rich account of the social organization of morality in neo-natal intensive care units. Won both the theory and med soc best book section prizes at ASA, so they got both right, it seems.



    July 23, 2009 at 5:04 am

  13. Notes to self: (1) read “blogs” more often–the young people seem to love ’em; (2) give Dan Hirschman a raise; (3) when in rural Uganda, check out the kitchen before eating a big pile of beans and posho.


    Jerry Davis

    July 30, 2009 at 7:41 pm

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