orgtheory without weber

There’s a saying at orgtheory conferences. There’s no such thing as an organization, just the activity of organizing. What does that mean?  It’s misleading to think of organizations as rigidly defined things, like buildings. Instead, the word “organization” only refers to a bunch of people doing things together. In The Assymetric Society, James Coleman had a nice metaphor. An organization is like a swarm of gnats – clearly flying together, even if the pattern isn’t so obvious.

Who is responsible for modern sociology’s obsession with organizations as things? That’s right, Max Weber. In that famous passage, he had a nice definition. It’s a hierarchy with clearly defined jurisdictions, written rules, and so forth. What’s the problem with this definition? It’s patterned after the large corporate forms that were emerging in the late 19th century. An “organization” is something that looks like the German state, the Church, and so forth. Of course, that’s what gets transmitted in classes. Weber also emphasized the contingent nature of organizational forms. But alas, that subtly gets tossed.

The result? Once you buy the organization as a very patterned behavior, a hierarchy with certain features, then the theoretical tendency is to see that thing everywhere. For Barnard, it was about how leadership occurs in the hierarchy. For Parsons, the analysis was all about explaining how the organization had different hierarchical subsystems and institutional links to its environment. For the Carnegie school, it was about explaining the limits of hierarchy. For the neo-institutionalists of the 1980s, it was about the social reproduction of the hierarchy and social control of the organization through institutions. The organizational field is just a pile of orgs that need some sense knocked into them.

But there is hope, there’s an alternate organization theory that pops up, but it hasn’t been pieced together. There’s an orgtheory without Weber that really is about organizations as places where organizing happens, not just the big corporate forms that gets taught via the watered-down Weber. I think it goes something like this:

  1. Open systems & Coase: An organization is some stable pattern of work and command in a larger social environment. There’s no reason to think orgs have well defined boundaries.
  2. Goal displacement/principle agent problems: Control is problematic. Some organizations are defined by a lack of clear command. Goals get transformed and changed.
  3. Networks instead of hierarchy/Powell: Control in orgs and fields can happen in many ways, non-hierarchical networks characterize many fields.
  4. Implicit order: Work gets done according to both formal and informal routines.

In other words, the corporate forms that inspired Weber’s definition are simply one end of the spectrum. The military, or GM, is an extremely stable pattern of work where goals are rigidly enforced and hierarchies are strongly institutionalized. But once you realize that classic organizations are an extreme of the spectrum, then you realize there’s a lot more to life in orgtheory.

Of course, if you are on top of the org lit, you alredy know this. For example, our guest Katherin Chen wrote about the burning man organization, which is very un-Weberian and has all kind of crazy organizational issues. Siobhan O’Mahony wrote about the online software community. Clearly organized, but definitely on the far end of the spectrum as well. In my world, social movements seem to straddle the classical Weberian mode and the informal as well. In other words, non-Weberian orgtheory is already being done. It just needs to be pulled together into a new paradigm.

Written by fabiorojas

May 19, 2010 at 3:24 am

10 Responses

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  1. Is Weber to blame, or is this mostly an example of later scholars misunderstanding ideal types? It’s been awhile since I read those passages in Weber, but is he describing actual organizations or rather tendencies in the world against we can judge organizations? If the latter, then it seems like the analysis of how certain organizing processes look like Weber’s ideal type, or look completely different (e.g. Powell’s story about network forms of organization, stories of the persistence of informal rules in the face of formal hierarchies, etc.), would be very Weberian in form. No?

    If that subtlety is getting lost in classes, then what are we teaching about Weber? I’m reminded of a story from a friend of mine who did an Public Policy master’s at UMass. She was taught in a class Weber’s sections on bureaucracy – not as an ideal type, nor a critical analysis of a new feature of modernity, but as a form to aspire to. Oops!


    Dan Hirschman

    May 19, 2010 at 5:16 am

  2. He’s talking about tendencies, but we’ve collectively taken it a bit too literally. The post is one attempt to get beyond that.



    May 19, 2010 at 5:38 am

  3. I’d much prefer to have an orgtheory with full-strength Weber than an orgtheory without watered-down Weber, personally. I’m not sure how bullet point number one differs from an institution, though (or is this too much overlap with Brayden’s post below this one?)



    May 19, 2010 at 11:28 am

  4. To paraphrase a line from Erika Summers-Effler’s new book, when you get up close all organizations look messy but when you view them from a distance you see order and stability. Whether you focus on organizing or organizations as things really depends on the level of analysis you’re interested in and the kind of question you’re asking. I hate to prioritize one level over the other, although in my opinion, the last couple of decades have focused much more on the environment or group-level processes than they have on organizations themselves. Teppo, Dave Whetten, and I wrote a paper about this. So, I think there are many good reasons to not lose track of organizations as things (or actors, as I prefer). I love process and organizing and networks as much as the next guy, but failing to notice the entitivity of organizations makes us susceptible to missing the forest in the trees.



    May 19, 2010 at 1:47 pm

  5. @3 on your list: this theme is being referred to in STS as “drift.”

    There is a basic idea stemming from the literature examining how and when repeated attempts to control, for example, an IT system or organizational routine may end-up reducing one’s ability to exercise any control over them (i.e., bend them to your will).

    This implies that there might be a sweet-spot, given an organizational type or one’s position in the hierarchy, where too little control or too much control reduce one’s ability to guide, shape, or control a process or machine.




    May 19, 2010 at 2:02 pm

  6. I wonder if a good paper could compare historical attempts to turn the state into an actor with such attempts in organizational theory to turn the organization into an actor…



    May 19, 2010 at 2:22 pm

  7. I buy that the most general definition of organizations possible is of what people do as a group. But Weber has a point in that the written word has a salience that less formal mechanisms for storing and communicating information — especially rules — do not.


    Michael F. Martin

    May 19, 2010 at 4:36 pm

  8. Keep going on this conversation! Three sociologists and three economists met yesterday to begin deliberations on a new graduate certificate in Organizations and Institutions to be offered to their respective graduate students, plus Law, Poly Sci, Anthro, …

    I argue for a course/seminar in the history of thought that would attempt to mimic this storyline.

    Thanks, again, for what all y’all do there.



    May 19, 2010 at 4:37 pm

  9. Can organizations be both evidence of organizing and actor-like entities?

    In a forthcoming article about such issues related to “the state” we argue:

    “Seeing the state as an actor-network will re-establish the intuitive view that states are – in certain contexts – really actors, but without ignoring powerful insights from the Foucauldian viewpoint, which suggest that states are complex and always changing networks. In a fitting actor-network twist, it is only because states are networks that
    they can appear to be actors.”

    What is it about patterned networked human behavior (and all the “articulation work” necessary to hold it all together) that makes a network appear like an actor?



    May 19, 2010 at 6:41 pm

  10. Colleagues who research social movements, such as Howard Lune’s Urban Action Networks, do the kind of network = actor approach that Nick argues for.

    Randy, I thought the start of your post (“Three sociologists and three economists met yesterday…”) was for a joke that wasn’t going to end well for the sociologists.

    In any case, the way I teach Weber in an orgtheory class is to emphasize his concept of the ideal type. I juxtapose or complement his approach (i.e., the way organizations should work, as argued by management theorists Taylor, Fayol, etc.) with all the seamy stuff (i.e., what actually happens in addition to the formal structures) through readings like Steven Lopez’s mock routinization and Robert Jackall’s Moral Mazes. The students love the two approaches together, as they finally have a way to analyze what happens at their workplace, such as selective rule enforcement, favoritism, loafing, etc. Of course, my students have work experience. Those who don’t may be mystified or even outraged by readings like Jackall’s.



    May 19, 2010 at 9:15 pm

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