analyzing “unusual” cases to understand larger phenomena

Howdy, folks!  I just flew back from the annual Burning Man event located in the Nevada Black Rock Desert.  Despite a severe sleep debt and a growing backlog of tasks, I am ready to discuss orgtheory with all of my esteemed colleagues!  Thanks to the organizers of orgtheory for inviting me as a guest blogger.

While at Burning Man, fellow Burners expressed their continuing interest in understanding how organizations, including those that deviate from the “norm,” such as communes and co-ops, can function and thrive.  But some of you may wonder: what can such organizations tell us about organizations in general?

In medicine, unusual cases, such as the neurological abnormalities described by Oliver Sacks, help unveil how normal bodies function.  Likewise, “unusual” organizations can similarly shed insight into how conventional institutions operate. For example, I show how the growing organization behind the Burning Man event uses a mixture of bureaucratic and participatory/collectivist practices to navigate problems common to all organizations.

However, atypical cases can present challenges.  One practical issue involves acclimating an audience with a not-yet-taken-for-granted phenomenon. For example, in writing books or articles, researchers must decide when to introduce what and when, and how much detail to give without obscuring the central focus. Researchers also must make explicit links between their cases and a larger phenomenon; otherwise, their work will be dismissed as interesting but too narrowly focused or even worse, irrelevant.

Those who examine unusual cases face thorny issues about legitimacy.  As I was warned by one senior colleague, timing matters.  Start too far ahead or behind a curve, and you not only may have to self-fund your research, but you also may risk laboring in relative obscurity until the higher beings of your discipline smile upon you, or you form a research/writing support group, whichever comes first.  Fellow scholars may also find it difficult to categorize your work within the accepted canon, forcing you to do more legwork to establish where your research belongs and what audiences would benefit from your work.

To inspire readers to expand their horizons, I’ll showcase several researchers who have used seemingly unusual organizations to explain larger phenomena.

Before she became known for her work on tokenism (Men and Women of the Corporation, 1993, Basic Books) and for her prolific writings as a management guru, Rosabeth Moss Kanter studied communes. Her first book Commitment and Community revealed why some groups dissolved while others thrived, thus uncovering conditions that increase or decrease social cohesion. Some social movements scholars consider this to be her best work.

Similarly, before she became famous for the cultural tool kit and other writings, Ann Swidler produced Organization Without Authority: Dilemmas of Social Control in Free Schools (1979, Harvard University Press).  Swidler showed that in the absence of formal organizational authority, teachers tried – often unsuccessfully – to direct students at two free schools.  These findings are pertinent not just to alternative schools, which still exist, but also to contemporary workplaces that rely upon participatory practices.

In Opposing Ambitions: Gender and Identity in an Alternative Organization (1996, University of Chicago Press), Sherryl Kleinman revealed how gender ideologies are reproduced, even in an organization devoted to egalitarian ideals. She also discussed the difficulties of conducting such research, including her initial concerns about her study of an alternative health clinic, in Feminist Fieldwork Analysis (2007, Sage) and Emotions and Fieldwork (co-authored with Martha A. Copp, 1993, Sage).

Sociology of work scholars have also produced timely research on “unusual” organizations.  Jeff Sallaz’s research shows how workers adapt to the routines imposed by casinos.  In a similar vein, Steven H. Lopez‘s research discusses how nursing home aides reconcile time constraints and routines.

In addition, the sociology of religion has recently produced interesting research on “unusual” organizations.  For instance, Jerome P. Baggett’s research on the voluntary association Habitat for Humanity recounts the difficulties of organizing on the basis of a religion while promoting more secular purposes.

Do you have any other favorites or recommendations of past or up-and-coming research on “unusual” organizations to add? Please put them in the comments!


Written by katherinekchen

September 9, 2009 at 3:28 am

11 Responses

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  1. Peter Leeson has done some interesting work on the organization of pirates in the JPE and a book that just came out while Ben Powell and Ed Stringham have a good survey of public choice and economic analysis of anarchy in one of the newer issues of Public Choice. Of course they’re both more economics than sociology, but quite interesting nonetheless.



    September 9, 2009 at 3:55 am

  2. A lot of social movement studies fit the bill as unusual organizations. For instance, Doug McAdam’s Freedom Summer is an exemplary study of the organizing of a specific movement campaign. Marshall Ganz’s Why David Sometimes Wins examines the long-term consequences of the ongoing mobilization of the farm workers. Both cases focus on the internal processes of organizing challenges to the status quo.



    September 9, 2009 at 2:21 pm

  3. i’d like to suggest Donald Chisholm, “Coordination Without Hierarchy: Informal Structures in Multiorganizational Systems” (University of California Press, 1989). it provided an early, pioneering examination of a network form of organization, focused (as i recall) on BART in the s.f. bay area. it fits your call to identify “not-yet-taken-for-granted phenomenon” that go on to generate a lot of interest. unfortunately, it was just a one-off effort by the author.



    September 9, 2009 at 5:36 pm

  4. Kathryn Dudley, Yale anthropology and American studies departments, is currently researching the community of people who manufacture and play ultra high-end, hand-made acoustic guitars.


    Eric Schwartz

    September 9, 2009 at 9:16 pm

  5. From a statistical perspective, we tend to ignore and throw out “unusual”/extreme observations, even though they may actually contain very rich information — this is the Gaussian versus extremes discussion we’ve had here before (Bill McKelvey has been making this argument for organization science for a while).

    From a theoretical perspective I’m also a big fan of extremes and outliers of various types: small/big, young/old, categorically different etc etc — I think theory is pushed forward by looking at these. Other areas do the same thing, for example, physics focuses on the nano/micro-micro and “initial conditions.” The field of astrobiology is another fascinating example of this (study of the forms of life found in seemingly uninhabitable, extreme conditions).



    September 9, 2009 at 9:23 pm

  6. These are all great comments and suggestions.

    As Brayden suggests, social movements studies have been fruitful. For example, Ziad Munson’s The Making of Pro-Life Activists (2009, University of Chicago Press) shows how organizations can radicalize otherwise undecided persons.

    DR, special thanks for your BART suggestion. I’ve put that book on my to-read list. Hopefully it will be helpful for understanding attempts by the City University of New York to centralize activities such as procurement among the senior colleges. (The rationale is to decrease costs such as software licenses and electronic journal subscriptions, but the unintended consequences may include decreased flexibility and timeliness.) To add to DR’s suggestion, I found David Cunningham’s There’s Something Happening Here: The New Left, the Klan, and FBI Counterintelligence, (2004, University of California Press) helpful for understanding the difficulties of coordinating units within a large bureaucracy.

    Eric, good to see you on this board! (For those of who don’t know, Eric is the editor for Sociology and Cognitive Science at Princeton University Press) Some sociology of organizations instructors use guitars as one of the few goods in which a craftsperson makes an item from start to finish, rather than using an assembly line.



    September 11, 2009 at 2:34 am

  7. […] in the “clubhouse” at as a guest blogger – see my first guest blog entry here. I’ll continue to geek out with entries at Orgtheory during the next few […]


  8. Gerardo Marti’s Hollywood Faith: Holiness, Prosperity, and Ambition in a Los Angeles Church gives interesting analysis of congregation working with actors pursuing both “faith” and “fame.”



    September 11, 2009 at 2:00 pm

  9. […] a comment » In my previous posts, I’ve discussed the issues of analyzing “unusual” cases,  gaining access to organizations and dealing with the Institutional Review Board (IRB) about […]


  10. […] For those of you who missed my original posts, you can read my 2009 series of posts on analyzing “unusual” cases, gaining research access to organizations, research, the IRB and risk, conducting ethnographic […]


  11. […] prior posts on analyzing “unusual” cases, gaining research access to organizations, research, the IRB and risk, conducting ethnographic […]


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