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.

Written by epopp

May 20, 2014 at 6:05 pm

Posted in academia, sociology

10 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. Beth – thanks for the post. Very interesting take, both your response to my original post and your perspective on how economics is shaping policymaking.

    How common do you think your type of sociology appointment is? I’d be really happy to know that most sociology departments are still teaching complex organizations undergrad classes and org theory graduate classes, regardless who is teaching them. (Like you I’m somewhat of an org theory misfit – I sometimes describe myself as a political sociologist of organizations.) My sense though is that this isn’t the case. That sociology departments have either outsourced org theory teaching to the business school and/or that they’ve simply disappeared from the sociology curriculum entirely. Do you think you’re the exception or the norm?


    brayden king

    May 20, 2014 at 6:23 pm

  2. I’m honestly not sure how unusual it is. I don’t think there are a ton of job listings in “organizations.” But last night when I was thinking about this I looked up the top five soc departments, and all of them offered a graduate orgs class in the last year. (Stanford had three, plus one on institutions!) I think the diffusion thing may mean that people don’t say “We need to hire an orgs scholar.” But are there departments that don’t think they need to offer classes in organizations? I guess that’s an answerable question.



    May 20, 2014 at 6:27 pm

  3. That’s great that the top 5 offer orgs. classes. I’m not that surprised about that though. Orgs. has always done well in the most elite schools. I wonder though to what extent these courses, even if they’re cross-listed, are still being taught outside the department. It’s fine if they are as long as they are cross-listed, but that would be another reason that we don’t see a lot of job listings for an orgs. scholar.

    I imagine that it’s much harder for schools outside the top 10 to outsource their orgs. classes to the business school (or education). The professional schools at these universities are not often as grounded in disciplinary approaches and may not have any sociologists or org. theorists on their faculty who teach PhD classes. Maybe we should create a list sometime of which departments offer org. theory PhD classes at all of the major research universities.


    brayden king

    May 20, 2014 at 6:51 pm

  4. My sense is that most large soc programs (in schools like my own) have orgs as an elective that is taught semi-regularly. In smaller institutions, it’s probably bundled into other courses unless you have a dedicated org sociology prof. But in neither case is it central to the curriculum. At Indiana, rank 10-15ish, you can actually do an orgs diss without ever teaching or taking it.



    May 20, 2014 at 7:00 pm

  5. The concern is that this process of diffusion is leading people away from engagement with the rich past of organizational sociology. You can do an orgs diss without taking or teaching orgs and then you go on the job market and there aren’t a lot of orgs jobs in sociology, but there are in business schools. And as you’re trying to publish, many of the core orgs journals aren’t squarely in sociology. So at all of these stages, you are integrating other fields and sub-fields into your research, which is interesting and dynamic, but makes it harder to maintain a core engagement with the lineage of organizational sociology. So there is this diffusion process, as Beth suggested, but maybe it really is detrimental to this rich tradition and its future.


    hard to chart a path

    May 20, 2014 at 9:49 pm

  6. Thanks for the great comments. For me, it’s the graduate training that seems most important. If departments hire someone in econ soc or a networks person but expect that they’ll teach orgs too, that doesn’t seem like a great loss. Except so far as that implies that orgs isn’t a vibrant research area anymore.

    I think a couple of things are going on. The main research programs are forty years old, and newer work is, in some sense, variation on a theme. I also think that organizations stopped being about organizations. It became about institutions, or networks, or fields, or movements, which encouraged the diffusion/cross-communication with other parts of soc, but didn’t help with the subfield identity. Maybe the question is whether a mature (?) subfield can continue to be taught, or whether it will fail to reproduce itself, and we will lose what we once knew. Too melodramatic?



    May 21, 2014 at 12:17 am

  7. Beth – not too melodramatic at all! Teppo and I (with Dave Whetten) wrote a paper around this very theme:


    brayden king

    May 21, 2014 at 2:30 pm

  8. Thank you for the post, Beth, and everyone else who chimed in on the comments. These issues – and the related discussion – are similar to those that we’ve been having in sociological social psychology for some time. More and more sociologists engage social psychological concepts and theories in their work, but fewer acknowledge (or even realize) that’s what they’re doing. On the one hand it’s great that social psychology is so useful. On the other, many wonder if we really need social psychologists anymore if everyone can do it or if the relevant ideas are so widespread among other subareas. Seeing organizational sociology as experiencing a similar fate is helpful in thinking more about the benefits and drawbacks.

    I wonder if it’s not so much the age of the subfield, but the type of approach. I know little about organizational sociology, but I think of it like social psychology in that I imagine it as an orienting strategy that can be used to understand phenomena a wide-swath of substantive areas, whereas I imagine many other subfields as more discrete bodies of knowledge rather than perspectives. Perhaps the shift over time has been from at one point valuing more paradigmatic approaches (and, in many ways, theory) to valuing familiarity with discrete topics.



    May 21, 2014 at 8:04 pm

  9. @Jessica — That’s really interesting. I also think we (sociologists) have a tendency to push a paradigm or framework for a while. Then as it develops it becomes broader and looser and harder to push forward theoretically in a coherent way. And after a while people become less interested in developing it, and it ultimately is sort of absorbed, sort of forgotten, until someone reinvents it twenty years later under a new name. Although on the other hand, from what little I know about social psych, it’s much more explicitly cumulative than many parts of soc, so perhaps that’s not what’s going on in that case.

    @Brayden — Very cool. I’m glad I’m not the only one with these thoughts!



    May 22, 2014 at 2:12 am

  10. […] future of organizational sociology may be uncertain, but organizational thinking has diffused widely in sociology. Just look at the most recent ASR. (Less so the current AJS, but we can cut them […]


Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: