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.


Written by Eric Abrahamson

November 5, 2009 at 11:45 pm

22 Responses

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  1. Science clearly is an uncertain endeavor and I wonder if fads in science only get identified post hoc, and thus we point to fads but don’t give credit to the ‘best efforts’ made by scientists. In short, what is the difference between just being plain wrong or something being a fad.

    So, to illustrate, if we take the typical bankrun example that frequently gets cited as a bandwagon, people engage in irrational behavior, jump on the bandwagon, but if you have limited information then its seemingly rational to go with that. Getting back to science — sure, an earth-centric view of the universe was wrong post hoc, fine (lots of people were on that bandwagon), but that was the best effort at the time, but there’s also progress over time (from Ptolemy to Kepler). Information gets updated. I suppose one reason to study fads/bandwagons in science might be to speed up the process of informational updating (well, if its the ‘correct’ information). But, with all the conflict and uncertainty, as there tends to be in science, I wonder how the ‘fad’ part of it gets teased out — I think the performativity stuff has essentially tried to do some of this, but I’m not really sold on that argument.



    November 6, 2009 at 2:11 am

  2. It would be hard to support the argument that there are NOT fads in science. Fads are not just in the social sciences, although perhaps they’re more common here since the core problems in our fields are not as obvious as they are in physics.

    The question that came to my mind was, are science fads good or bad? I can see reasons for both. On the good side, they focus people’s attention on a topic long enough that you may actually start to understand the core issues in the topic. For example, studying the properties of networks, a current science fad, is producing a lot of interesting findings and helping to create a body of knowledge that we wouldn’t have otherwise. On a smaller scale, the fad of studying social movements in organizational settings is focusing our attention on change processes that were previously ignored.

    The bad is, I guess, that it may lead to suboptimal learning. If everyone’s attention is drawn to the same topic at the same time, we lose some flexibility and may ignore important solutions to a pressing worldly problem. You might say that this is what’s happened in economics over the past few decades. You can think of EMH as a sort of fad that drew our attention away from systemic risks and other market problems that made the system vulnerable to crisis. Do we understand more about markets as a result of the EMH fad? Yeah, I think so, but the fad also made the body of knowledge less capable of explaining empirical conditions that deviated from the ideal market.



    November 6, 2009 at 2:26 am

  3. I agree with you, if fads were defined as the diffusion of anything bad or as entities whose popularity was transient, we could only detect them after the fact. Worse, since ultimately the earth crashes into the sun, everything is transient, and everything, therefore, is a fad, rendering the term meaningless.

    For these reasons, theries of fads or fashions (from LeBon, to Tard, to Simmel, to Smelser, to Blumer) always define fads or fashion with respect to the social processes that generate them, not by their outcomes. Research might reveal that fad or fashion processes tend to generate the spread of inferior or transient scientific topics or techniques. Now that would be a problem. The speed of diffusion would only make things worse.



    November 6, 2009 at 2:39 am

  4. Right, I see that point. But staying neutral as to what the content (if I understand correctly) of the practice/fad? itself is makes it then hard to identify the fad part, specifically as actors, via social processes, are engaged in best efforts to make sense of their world.



    November 6, 2009 at 2:44 am

  5. Hmmm. Ok lets take a simplified version of Smelser’s theory of fads — a process theory whereby three necessary, though not sufficient conditions must coocur to create a fad — defined, lets say, as an highly uncritical and hopeful tendency of a large number of scholars in a field to launch into a new topic of research. The three conditions would be 1) social strain (e.g. extreme boredom or frustation over the failure of long lasting research topics and methods institutionalized by elites (e.g. questionaires) 2) wish fulfiling beliefs(e.g. a great hope in a magical advance in science resulting from frenology or brain scans for example) and a triggering event (e.g. one study that, using frenology or brain scans seemed to find something).

    Might the conjunctions of these three necessary though not sufficient conditions trigger a bandwagon of extremely hopeful scholars to deluge journal with frenology/brainskan studies? Would reviewers or editors be swept up into the fad?

    This is certainly the kind of faddish process described in Great and Desperate Cures: The Rise and Fall of Psychosurgery, which brought us a rash of lobotomies, insulin comma therapy episodes, and devastating levels of shock treatment.

    I am just using Smelser redux to raise the question, are fad and fashions theories, like those of Smelser or others, institantiated in Organizational Theory?



    November 6, 2009 at 3:11 am

  6. […] here to read the rest: fad and fashion in organizational theory « Friday, November 6th, 2009 at 05:45 Tags: around-us-, dresses-only-, fashion, harmful-fads, […]


  7. Where can I grab your dissertation?



    November 6, 2009 at 1:27 pm

  8. Gary,

    I would be glad to send you a copy of my dissertation. However, two articles in the Academy of Management Review published in 1991 and 1996, an 1997 (I think) article in the Academy of Management Journal, as well as two articles published in the Administrative Science Quarterly in 1999 and 2008 do a much better job of “unpacking” the 1986 dissertation. Would be glad to send you any of these or other stuff on faddish bandwagons.



    November 6, 2009 at 1:35 pm

  9. “a fad — defined, lets say, as an highly uncritical and hopeful tendency of a large number of scholars in a field to launch into a new topic of research.”

    It would be interesting to offer this definition, and a list of research topics/methods, and then survey a bunch of scholars about which, if any, are fads. I predict a lot of disagreement.

    Given your description of how people react to scholars (e.g. Sorokin) who openly disrespect a popular research topic/method, don’t you think people will be hesitant to so boldly challenge ideas/approaches in their own discipline? It would be interpreted as personal disrespect and a lack of solidarity. Perhaps people will post such attacks under pseudonyms?


    Michael Bishop

    November 6, 2009 at 3:49 pm

  10. I agree that a questionnaire would. Suffer from a strong pro-social bias.

    A better approach might be to examine whether easily doable research (readily available data (e.g. word counts), easily learnable methods (e.g. Computer automated text analysis) a theory with lots of facets to explore) might trigger rapid faddish spread and abandonment of these easily doable studies, relative to other kind of studies. (E.g. Grounded theory).

    My general point being that questionnaires might not provide the best research method to study the possible existence of fads or fashions in science.



    November 6, 2009 at 5:01 pm

  11. Does Barley and Kunda’s 1992 “Design and Devotion” article in ASQ on shift between rational and normative ideologies of control count?



    November 6, 2009 at 5:12 pm

  12. You might want to look at my 2008 coauthored article with Eisenman in the Administrative Science Quarterly. The results of our theory development case study suggest that the long-term waves detected by Barley and Kunda may be fashion trends resulting from the accumulation of shoter-term management fashions.



    November 6, 2009 at 6:14 pm

  13. Eric,

    Interesting post, to say the least.

    Of course it raises the question of how you know a fad when you see it. You offer some criteria in your response above. But let me offer another: does it lead to a modification of thinking that opens up further pathways (even if the original concept dies off). Or, does the potentially faddish concept simply get replaced and overturned by another? To make an allusion: does the intellectual current branch off and continue to flow into a new body of water, or does it land in a pool and simply dry up?

    As an example of the former, take “functionalism”. With a few exceptions (and yes, Ezra, I know you are reading this!), not too many people would fully embrace functionalism; it died off as a viable approach to science. But, it wasn’t killed and buried: it spawned new branches of thought. Arguably, one could say that rational choice theory builds on functionalism; it modifies it and may have been poorer, as a theory, had it not been preceded by functionalism. Similarly, symbolic interactionism was “popular” at one point. Its no longer as popular, in its own right, but elements of it were incorporated into neo-institutionalism.

    On the other hand (and of course, it gets dangerous here because one is tempted to call out certain ideas of the last several years as simply fads which will invite insults! so i’ll avoid whole intellectual traditions and shift gears to empirics), the use of instrumental variables had its hey day: every economist worth his or her salt tried to use an instrumental variable. The broader intellectual movement — the identification movement — hasn’t exactly died. But I do see the use of instrumental variables per se being superseded by different techniques.

    Now all that said, are fads really bad things? Ideally, of course, an intellectual current leads into to another current. But, sometimes it doesn’t: it just lands in a pool somewhere and dries in the sun.

    I think of fads in science more or less in terms of a numbers and matching process. Some economists talk about the job market — particularly for youths — as a matching process. We know that young people experience a lot of job movement in their early careers. They are testing out whether they like and are suited to different kinds of jobs. The job they get — if they’ve taken the process seriously — is the most optimal job for them.

    We might think about that in terms of management fads too: some of them take off and burn out (e.g., TQM) and others go on to become institutionalized and persist (lets say, the notion of “core competence”). But its a numbers game: the fewer fads there are, the lower the likelihood that one will see meaningful change in business practice because there’s basically fewer ideas to chose from or fewer ideas that might have what it takes to rise to the level of long-term importance.

    In terms of science, ideas (say diffusion, categorization or, dare I even say it, performativity) — or idea platforms, say, population ecology or institutionalism — are the currency. Sometimes these catch on and then burn out. Sometimes, they go on to form the basis on which a large amount of social science is based or from which a new intellectual movement/fad emerges.

    But if there was no bubbling up of ideas or platforms — no excitement about tackling something new — there would be fewer opportunities for real growth.



    November 6, 2009 at 7:10 pm

  14. I am about to go to a soporific meeting, but I wanted to answer now, and at greater length later.

    I think there are three elements that float around in theories of fads or fashions undergirding different parts of your reply.

    1) Secessions of fashions can accumulate to form fashion trends that cause gradually major changes in what we think, say or do.

    2) An idea of Jim March’s that social systems can only pay attention to one major subject at a time (quality, innovation, efficiency, ethics, and employee motivation for instance). So fashions switch attention from one to the other major subjects with a greater likelihood that they will switch to the ones that has been ignored the longest time.

    3) Fads are variation generation mechanism. The greater the number of uncorrelated variations in social entities, the greater the likelihood that some will be selected (transient fad) and retained (institutionalization).

    Eric Abrahamson
    Professor of Management
    Columbia Business School



    November 6, 2009 at 7:21 pm

  15. I’m going to be the first jerk to make an unfounded assertion and say that blaming business schools for the current economic crisis is a silly fad on par with the Macarena.



    November 6, 2009 at 8:41 pm

  16. Business schools were blamed in 1981, when it became clear that US firms were being defeated by foreign competitors, in 1987 when the economy tanked, for the .com bubble and for the current financial crisis. B-school articles celebrating their positive impact on the economy are conspicuously absent. The jury remains out.



    November 6, 2009 at 8:45 pm

  17. If we define “fad” purely on a quantitative basis, then there is no value judgement inherant to calling something a fad. The mere spike in numbers (e.g. of uses of a methodology, of research on a topic, or of pink dress shirts) and subsequent drop in numbers does not imply that the fad behavior was right or wrong. It is the rationalizing of the next fad’s proponents (that their apporach is neede because it is better) that introduces the value judgement. In that sense any current “hot” topic is based on everything else being a fad …



    November 6, 2009 at 9:15 pm

  18. I agree completely. The terms fad or fashion are value neutral in social science (though certain fads can have devastating effects on people, social or economic systems and it would be nice to predict when).

    In fact, fads are interesting social phenomena in that they tend to crash when they start being called “fads”. I wonder if you are correct and that it is institutional entrepreneurs attempting to launch the next “correct, rational, or progressive” technique that use the term “fad” to debunk the previous technique?

    Of course, the point in theory of fads or fashion is not to define them in quantitative terms (a spike in number, for instance) because such spikes could occur for any number of reasons (government funding in area of research could be suddenly granted and then equally suddenly withdrawn, hardly qualifying as a fad).

    Rather, as I mentioned in the third reply to this post, “theories of fads or fashions (from LeBon, to Tard, to Simmel, to Smelser, to Blumer) always define fads or fashion with respect to the social processes that generate them (e.g. one group attempting to push one technique into fashion by debunking the previous technique by calling it a fad). Fads or fashions cannot be defined by theiir outcomes” whether positive, neutral, or negative, or quantitatively transient.



    November 6, 2009 at 10:11 pm

  19. French political science has had a phase where “policy paradigms” were changing in several French policy sectors at once. I think of it as a fad, due to the publication of several articles introducing and discussing the notion. My assertion is unfounded since I have not collected the data to show that there was a boom in paradigmatic policy change; it might just be a bias in my own reading of the French poli-sci literature (although).



    November 7, 2009 at 4:08 pm

  20. This is interesting. I have come across one article which examine governmental policy from a fads and fashions perspective. What Happened to the Popularity of the Polder Model?: Emergence and Disappearance…
    Karsten et al. International Sociology.2008; 23: 35-65.

    Comme ma lange natale et le Français (mon Français, cependant, est très désuet, parce que j’ai quitté la France quand j’avais quinze ans) la notion de « policy paradigm » serai peut être quelque chose à examiner. Cela dépend, souvent, ci il existe des données ASCII qui peuvent êtres analysé avec un logiciel d’ordinateur.


    Eric Abrahamson

    November 7, 2009 at 8:08 pm

  21. […] It seems like a challenge to discern which of these might actually be useful, which might be a fad , and which might be a reinvention of old wisdom that has always been effective. There are very […]


  22. are you referring to fad as in fashion?



    February 6, 2012 at 12:14 pm

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