fad and fashion in organizational theory
I could use any opinions (even venomous, acerbic, and anonymous insults), as well as leads to theories, data, examples, personal experiences, and references bearing on the question:
Are there fads or fashions in particular branches of the Social Sciences generally, or in Organizational Theory, in this particular instance?
Note that I assume that current theories of fads and fashions differ substantively, as they draw from very different theoretical traditions in Sociology (ASQ, Abrahamson and Eisenman, 2008).
Why this question about scientific fads or fashions in science? First, addressing it could suggest how helpful or harmful fads or fashions in science influence its evolution or progress. Second, I hope that this question will trigger a heated, pointed and thought-provoking debate on this blog. Third, the question matters greatly to the development of the study of fads or fashions.
Why? A recent study examines fashions in capital punishment; the sequence of fashion waves in techniques ranging from hanging, to electrocuting, to gassing, and to injecting human beings with deadly chemicals (Denver, Best, and Haas, 2008). This study, and a growing number of studies of fads or fashions in social techniques over the last decade, stand out in the history of sociological studies of fads or fashions over the last century.
How? Since the turn of century, social scientists have mostly studied fads or fashions in aesthetic forms, which they considered, therefore, relatively unimportant social entities; fads in streaking or in toys, to site some examples, or fashions in women’s dress or men’s hirsuteness, to site others. They have made passing references to fads or fashions in social techniques, which they considered much more important. But they have rarely pursued these lines of inquiry developing specific theories and research on fads or fashions in these social techniques.
In my dissertation, I employed theories of fads or fashion in aesthetic forms to study fads or fashions in business techniques. For example, I developed a market theory of fashionable business techniques (AMR, Abrahamson, 1996). This market theory, in particular, brought me a steady stream of reasoned and ad hominem insults, particularly from management consultants peddling business techniques in that market. Delighted, for over twenty years now, I have studied fads, fashions or bandwagons in business techniques.
During these two decades, I have been astonished to witness the radiation of careful studies of technical fads or fashions. Studies range across fads or fashions in important techniques belonging to medicine, education, dieting, parenting, national and international government policy, urban design and now capital punishment (as well as many unfounded claims about fads or fashions in these various techniques).
The final frontier in the study of technical fads and fashions, however, seems to be the study of fads or fashions in topics or techniques belonging to the hard and social sciences generally, and to Organizational Theory in this particular instance. A few have touched on the topic very cautiously: Crane (1969), for instance, asks diplomatically “Fashion in science: does it exist?” Others, however, have gone full bore; in those cases, they have been either completely ignored (e.g. Spurber, 1990) or savagely attacked (e.g. Sorokin, 1956).
Sorokin (1956), in particular, had the impudence of entitling his book Fads and Foibles in Modern Sociology, triggering and avalanche of vitriolic assaults. To give the flavor, Horton’s (1956: 338-339) review of Sorokin’s book in the American Journal of Sociology states (and it only gets nastier):
The manner is demagogic rather than scholarly… The derogation and ridicule in this book can be interpreted only as an appeal to third parties against sociology as a science and profession… Only the enemies of rational social inquiry can possibly benefit…
Clearly, the attack is unfair because the aim of understanding useful or harmful fads or fashions in science, was and should be, to help its evolution or progress. Yet, discussing fads or fashions in Organizational Theory (or in Cultural studies, Sociology, Political Science, Economics, Psychology or Social Psychology, for that matter) is a bit like teetering at the top of a tall Sequoia’s canopy and shaking the branch you are standing on. Despite this warning, some heated argumentation will result, I fondly hope.