org theory in sociology: diffusing, not disappearing
A couple of weeks ago, Brayden asked about the growing disconnect between org theory and sociology. He argued that 1) sociology is now heavily focused on inequality, and organization theory isn’t, and 2) org theory has become abstract and detached from a Selznick-style effort to make organizations better. Lively discussion ensued.
I have also felt this disconnect, but from the other side of the coin. My training is as an organizational sociologist, and I was hired to teach organizations in a sociology department. My work is mostly framed in terms of organizational fields and institutional logics. But, increasingly, it seems I have trouble finding much to engage with in org theory. (The field, not the blog.)
For a while I thought this was just a natural evolution of interests. My current research, which looks at how economists and the intellectual tools of economics gained a central place in U.S. policy making, doesn’t sound very organizational at all.
But what this misses is how invaluable an organizational approach is for thinking about this problem. For example, if a group of experts wants to influence policy, one way they can try is by providing advice to policymakers—at Congressional hearings, through advisory groups, and so on. But policymakers are bombarded by information, and use it mostly to justify decisions made for other reasons.
For experts, it works much better, though it’s less direct, to establish organizational footholds for yourself. This can mean the creation of new offices that your type of expert runs. So the U.S. Antitrust Division created an Economic Policy Office in the 1970s that became a stronghold for economists. It provided a base for some of the early champions of deregulation, and it gained control over technical decisions affecting which corporate behaviors the Antitrust Division would challenge.
Or it can mean creating entirely new organizations in which you play a major role. Economists were key players in the new schools of public policy founded around 1970, which looked very different from the older public administration departments. They taught a different style of thinking that then made its way into Washington via graduates of those programs.
Thinking organizationally is also important to understanding how such footholds are sustained. The Congressional Budget Office, dominated by economists, was created in 1975. Its mandate wasn’t originally so clear. To become permanent and influential, it had to figure out how to provide services that members of Congress from both parties found useful—while continuing to maintain as much scope as possible to pursue the internally generated studies it cared about. Classic resource dependence.
My point here is that there are many research topics in sociology that don’t look so organizational, but that benefit from an organizational perspective. And lots of scholars who identify primarily with other subfields are drawing heavily on organizational theories and concepts. I think org theory is diffusing, not disappearing, in sociology. Why, and whether that’s a problem, are questions I’ll leave for another day.