is org theory out of touch with sociology?
Recently I was talking to a statistician in a business school and he mentioned that he’d seen my paper about the Matthew effect and status bias in baseball. He said that he knew I was a sociologist as soon as he saw the title of our paper. “All sociologists study status and the Matthew effect right?” He asked me why sociologists care so much about status. The answer I gave him was that sociology as a discipline is very focused on explaining inequality – its antecedents and consequences – and status is one important manifestation of inequality. We have many theories, like the Matthew effect or status characteristics theory, that are fundamentally about explaining the persistence of inequality. Other subfields in sociology – e.g., social movement theory, social networks – try to figure out power imbalances, yet another source of inequality.
Of course, the statistician was partly wrong. Yes, it’s a good assumption that if a scholar studies the Matthew effect he or she is probably a sociologist, but there are still some sociologists – some of whom are in business schools – who are not as interested in studying inequality. Organizational theory, setting aside work and occupations research or status scholars, is one of those subfields within sociology that has historically been less concerned with inequality than with other dynamics. I’ve said in the past that the major contribution of organizational theory is that organizations “become “infused with value” independent of any technical or rational contribution they make to society. They become their own ends.” This insight distinguishes sociological theories of organizations from economics and organizational behavior. The contribution runs deep in the history of organizational theory as well, linking the old institutionalism of Selznick to contemporary theories like new institutional theory, organizational ecology, and identity theory. But this contribution has nothing to do with inequality. I can see how graduate students who are not immersed in organizational theory might even find this insight irrelevant.
Perhaps this disjuncture between what organizational sociologists and the rest of sociology find interesting explains some of the distancing of organizational theory from mainstream sociology. Organizational theory increasingly seems to be going through a long divorce process from sociology as more established scholars leave sociology departments and as top sociology departments fail to replace them with up-and-coming scholars. Now, of course, before I lament too much, I should add that even if there is a disjuncture, it hasn’t prevented organizational scholars from publishing in mainstream sociology journals. Some of the most prolific scholars in ASR and AJS are people who are very much working in the organizational theory tradition. But as I see papers like this get published, I wonder, to what extent do graduate students, outside of those few schools that still teach an organizational theory course in their sociology curriculum, find these studies interesting or relevant? I’m not sure. Perhaps they see them as a weird alien species that occasionally shows up and reproduces in their territory. Adding to this divide is the fact that because many of the organizational scholars who publish in ASR and AJS are now located in business schools, their relational embeddedness in mainstream sociology is quite weak.
I think two trends have taken place that may explain this growing distance between organizational theory and mainstream sociology. The first is that sociology has become more focused on inequality than ever. Although inequality and social problems have always been of interest to sociologists, it has never quite captured the discipline as it has in this moment. Even cultural sociologists are now inequality scholars. The second is that organizational theory has become increasingly abstract and removed from practical issues, such as figuring out how to make organizations more effective for resolving social problems. Selznick believed that this ought to be one of the main motivators for organizational theory. It was the impetus for his TVA study, and he later criticized new institutional theory for losing that practicality. Perhaps as organizational theory has become more focused on generalizable propositions (e.g., see the formal theory of ecology), most sociologists find it less interesting and less relevant to what they do. They certainly see it as being unconcerned with sociology’s bread-and-butter topic – inequality.