let’s talk about b-schools and org theory

I’ve always liked b-schools. My first real social science job was working as Berkeley management scholar Thomas Marschak’s research assistant on a project concerning Hurwicz style mechanism design. He was super nice and I learned quite a bit about social science from him. At Chicago, org theory was seen as naturally interdisciplinary – with representatives in the b-school (Burt, Phillips, Stuart, and others), soc (Laumann), ed (Bidwell, Bryk), political science (Padgett) and many other depts. My own adviser, Rafe Stolzenberg wrote some very interesting papers on orgtheory in the 70s, including this one on the effect of firm size on rate of return to education (jstor link here). Orgtheory was well represented in the world of sociology and in many other fields as well. The disciplines and professional schools could easily co-exist.

However, going on the job market in 2002/2003, I found that this was not a view shared by everyone. During an informal interview, a person from a highly regarded program asked bluntly: “Why should we hire you? Isn’t organization theory moving to the business schools?” I was flabbergasted. I then mumbled something like, “Well, my research shows that social movements have important impacts on universities, and the social movement/orgs area will be important.” History shows that I was correct. The movement/orgs field has been a great area.

But years later, the interaction still leaves me with a lingering question – is there any concrete reason to believe that organization studies (and now economic sociology) can’t flourish in both sociology and strategy/org departments? Personally, I think that we can all get along, but I’ve heard other people say that b-schools (and other professional schools) are killing soc of orgs via brain drain. What do you think?

Written by fabiorojas

September 7, 2009 at 12:19 am

8 Responses

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  1. Well…I suppose the pay incentives have begun to mean that anyone who is money-motivated and can make a convincing case that they are appropriately suited for b-schools is being drained. But my perspective is that then you’d have to teach business students, which does not sound compelling.



    September 7, 2009 at 1:27 am

  2. I agree with Mikaila – the pay differences will lead to some level of brain drain. That said, as someone working in a B School, I still think that it’s absolutely critical that org theory exist in multiple locations, and I greatly value the contributions coming from sociology.

    The interview question was either very parochial (and consequently a pretty good indication that would have been a poor department for you to be working in anyway), or very well designed in trying to see how clearly you had thought through the issue…



    September 7, 2009 at 3:02 am

  3. One thing is interesting — teaching-wise org theory scarcely exists in b-schools, which is a shame. I think most org theorists at b-schools teach required strategy classes (sometimes OB or HR), and thus their research is often decoupled from their teaching. While, on the other hand, I’m guessing most soc dpts teach, I hope (though don’t know), required org and soc theory classes. I’ve noted that many MBAs actually yearn for (and could use) org theory-type material (especially design), so hopefully there will be a revival.



    September 7, 2009 at 5:39 am

  4. A few thoughts: first, there are probably enough people from both perspectives that the brain drain would be (perhaps) episodic and/or cyclical, if it is occurring at all. Second, b-school students chasing money is nothing new, but exposure to org theory might be, and therefore wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing. Third, org theory shows up in other schools such as public administration.

    All that is to say that, yes, org theory can and should flourish in different places, and perhaps with broader input to research based on those different perspectives.



    September 7, 2009 at 2:52 pm

  5. Teppo’s point is demonstrably true: few organization theorists in b-schools get to teach organization theory, other than to doctoral students. When I was chair of the Organization & Management Theory division at the Academy of Management, we surveyed several hundred OMT members and discovered that organization theory or organization design are rarely taught at North American b-schools (although they remain popular in East Asia and Europe). We discovered that required “macro” courses (as opposed to “organization behavior” or strategy) seem to have disappeared during the 1980s, and that relatively few of us actually teach what we research. I have a long story about why this happened — the decline in large-scale corporate employers in the US and the MBA migration to consulting and investment banking, where the immediate value of OT is less evident — but that’s for another post.

    This curricular drought creates a problem: doctoral students in b-schools see that the jobs are in strategy and entrepreneurship, so they incline toward more marketable dissertations (e.g., on alliances or IPOs rather than stratification or corporate crime). This is not a good trend for the future of the field. OMT’s solution has been to locate and disseminate “high impact” electives (that is, those that paying customers would take voluntarily) among new faculty, in hopes of documenting the value of organization theory to deans and department chairs that control faculty jobs.

    Some of the results are at I also have a brief write-up of this initiative and its rationale for anyone that’s interested.



    September 8, 2009 at 1:45 am

  6. Many prominent organizational sociologists teach in business schools: Burt, Baron, Carroll, Hannan, Hirsch, Useem, Uzzi, among others. Other prominent organizational sociologists teach in sociology departments: Aldridch, Dobbin,Fligstein, and Galaskiewicz. It seems to me that business school have expanded opportunities for organizational sociologists and continue to make it an attractive career.

    While I agree with Jerry that teaching is decoupled from research in business schools this is not only an org theory phenomenon. And decoupling actually facilitates rather than hinder the role of sociology in business schools. One of the problems of teaching sociology of organization in business school is that the managerial/business implications are not readily apparent. Decoupling makes it easier to hire sociologist or sociologically-inclined academics trained in business schools.

    Now some sociologist believe that studying business organizations makes you pro-business and I now of at least one case where this became a major issue in a decision not to hire a sociologist of organizations in a sociology department. I am not sure how widespread the problem is but I do think it exists.

    Overall, in my view, business schools have helped develop and sustain organizational sociology.

    A bigger threat to organizational sociology is in my mind, economic sociology. For some, not all, economic sociologist, organizationsl are irrelevant, and all we have to study is markets and networks. Now I believe economic sociology and organizational sociology are overlapping and can and should co-exist, but the view by some economic sociologits that organizations do not matter is more of a threat to the vibrancy of the study of organizations in sociology, than whether it is conducted in sociology departments or in business schools.



    September 8, 2009 at 4:36 pm

  7. Dick Scott predicted the demise of organizational sociology in sociology back in the early 90s. For the most part, I think he was right. The org scholars in soc departments that Willie mentioned are hardly young: they came of career age before the boom in b-school positions, so that option wasn’t as viable.

    “Brain drain” is definitely occurring among younger scholars. Also, I can only think of two established orgs scholars who left a b-school in favor of a soc department (Martin Ruef and Trond Peterson), but plenty who have gone the other way.

    I predict that at some point, soc departments are going to stop giving interviews to junior org scholars. There’s only so many times they can fall, Charlie Brown like, for the “oh, but I really want to be in a sociology department” line. (Even if the candidates truly believe their own rhetoric at the time, seeing an offer letter with a six-figure starting salary does wonders for changing their minds.) For soc departments, especially now, opportunities to search are too scare to waste an offer on someone who is going to sit on it until March and then wind up going to a b-school anyway. There are usually plenty of other strong, if not stronger, candidates in other areas who are more likely to come.



    September 11, 2009 at 2:22 pm

  8. Although I am doing work that focuses more on markets (or fields) and networks than on what happens in organizations directly, I second Willie’s comment: economic and organizational should co-exist, informing each other. Done well, research at supra-organizational levels of analysis takes the black box out of environmental selection, which paradoxically has the effect of bringing organizations back in.



    September 22, 2009 at 7:39 am

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