let’s blame econ soc
The 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 some slack since Fabio coauthored their one organizational piece.)
But how did we get here? In the comments, I suggested one reason. Org theory’s main research programs — institutional theory, networks, field theory, population ecology — aren’t about “organizations” anymore and as productive as those may have been, they don’t encourage the reproduction of “organizations” as a distinct subfield. It turns out Brayden and Teppo wrote a whole article on this with David Whetten — very much worth a read.
There’s another factor, too, though, that I’m surprised hasn’t come up yet: economic sociology. Economic sociology usually dates itself to Mark Granovetter’s 1985 article on embeddedness, but no one called themselves an economic sociologist circa 1990. They were, mostly, org theorists.
(Viviana Zelizer has a great piece that talks about how, to her surprise, she found her work being redefined as economic sociology. Fligstein and Dauter’s 2007 ARS piece made a similar move, calling performativity a branch of economic sociology — which must have come as a shock to Michel Callon.)
The earliest you can reasonably call econ soc a subfield is 1994, when Smelser and Swedberg published the first Handbook. And really, the year 2000, when econ soc became an ASA section-in-formation, is a more appropriate date.
Econ soc channeled a lot of the intellectual energy that had been focused on organizations (broadly speaking) in a slightly different direction. The section’s organizing committee included Nicole Woolsey Biggart, Neil Fligstein, Mark Granovetter, Brian Uzzi, Fernanda Wanderley, and Harrison White. Most ASA sections have grown in the last decade. But OOW has been flat, while Econ Soc has grown by 55%.
One result was that a new generation of students who might have studied organizations instead did econ soc. I took my comp exam in organizations in 2001 partly because no one had ever taken one in econ soc. Two years later, that would not have been the case.
The effect is that many sociologists who would have studied organizations ended up studying econ soc instead. The ones who stayed in orgs were more likely to be B-school oriented and to take jobs outside soc departments, and that means that today there are few younger scholars who seem themselves as primarily organizational sociologists.
Now, maybe this is just how disciplines evolve. I do consider myself an economic sociologist too, and I think the emergence of econ soc has been enormously generative for the discipline. But sociology is not the most cumulative of disciplines. And there is lots of important stuff that is taught in orgs classes but not in econ soc classes. My fear is that we just lose all that stuff as students trained in other, orgs-influenced subfields stop learning it. Then we’ll have to wait another 20 or 30 years for another generation of scholars to “bring the organization back in.”