does organizational sociology have a future? the answer, part 1

By popular request (really—several!), I’ve written up a summary of the “Does Organizational Sociology Have a Future?” panel, held Monday, August 18th, at ASA in San Francisco. Organized by Elizabeth Gorman, the discussion featured Howard Aldrich, Elisabeth Clemens, Harland Prechel, Martin Ruef, and Ezra Zuckerman. The audience was sizable—perhaps 80 folks, including many established people in the field.

The summary is long, so I’m going to break it into a couple of parts. What follows is part one, sans commentary, from notes I took during the session. The rest will be posted over the next day or two. The panelists have all had a chance to review the summary and make edits. Also, there has been some suggestion that slides may be posted at the Work in Progress blog — I’ll post a link if that happens.

I’m not going to be able to capture the humor and asides, alas, but hopefully this will give a flavor of the main themes. If you don’t have the time or inclination to read, the quick version: does organizational sociology have a future?

  • Prechel: Yes.
  • Zuckerman: Yes.
  • Clemens: Yes, if there’s space for thinking outside the box of professionalization and top journals.
  • Aldrich: I’m going to answer a different question.
  • Ruef: Only if Howard Aldrich doesn’t go fly fishing.

Okay, that’s a bit flip. More below.

Liz Gorman opened things up by distinguishing between two questions. One, does sociology need a distinct subfield called “organizations,” given that it already has subfields like work, economic sociology, and so on? And two, what is the future of organizational sociology in sociology, given its move toward business schools?

Howard Aldrich spoke first. Rather than explain what the future of organizational sociology should be, he focused on what we could be doing better. The future depends on what organizational sociologists accomplish in the present. Citing Art Stinchcombe’s quip that he didn’t want to be part of a field that had a distinct group called “theorists,” Aldrich argued for a more cumulative organizational sociology focused on systematically building findings and identifying their scope conditions.

In particular, he asked how can organizational sociology have a future when it has no past? It is firmly anchored in the present, given the way scholars construct their explanations of organizational phenomena. Almost all are highly contingent on conditions within the period to which their “data” apply, built so that every explanation is essentially idiosyncratically ahistorical & parochial. Among a recent decade’s worth of ASQ papers, 90% were focused on a single country, the U.S. Nor were those U.S. papers historical: the focus was almost always on contemporary organizations. (See his “Lost in Space, Out of Time,” 2009, in a volume edited by Brayden King et al.) Thus we have little to say about the effects of institutional variation.

He then pointed to the list of AOM journals—noting that whereas there’s a Review and Annals and Perspectives and so on, there’s no Academy of Management Replications. He meant “replications” in two senses: (1) a single investigator or team doing replications within a line of investigation that builds a cumulative trajectory of work and (2) contributions by other scholars who attempt to replicate, insofar as possible, the work of previous scholars. We don’t repeat studies, and few people do cumulative work, focusing on testing the bounds of a theory or refining it. Most people who wrote about resource dependence, for example, only did a paper or two on it. Almost no scholars were committed to fully developing RDT, settling instead for “dabbling.” (See his paper with Tyler Wry and Adam Cobb, “More than a Metaphor,” in the AoM Annals, 2013.)

The incentives aren’t there to encourage this kind of work. Editors want what is new and different, breaking ground and rejecting existing findings, not extending and refining. But this, Aldrich argued, is what a better organizational sociology would look like. Until we do things better, we’ll be perpetually stuck in the persistent present.

Lis Clemens was up next. She opened by describing the two types of students of organizations she sees. One is the inspired undergrad, often coming from an econ or policy background, who is super-excited about the promise of organizational theory to explain all sorts of things that econ or policy couldn’t.

The other is the overwhelmed grad student, buried in the many organizations literatures, and (even worse) all the “meta”-literature.

Clemens recalled the advice given to her as a finishing PhD student in 1990: “Go out onto the market as an organizations person. Everyone knows they need one. Everyone thinks they are boring.”

Part of the challenge for organizational sociology is that it’s getting harder to answer Murray Davis’s question, “What’s interesting?” To be interesting, you need to expect one thing, but find another. It was interesting that Marx said it’s the proletariat that drives revolutions: but no—research then shows the key role of peasants, artisans, students or some other social group.

But growth and fragmentation is creating a malaise across sociology. As we accumulate interesting findings, they undermine future possibilities of interestingness—because we have fewer expectations about the world.

The result is research strategies that are paradigm-driven and publication-driven. Both the shift to business schools and the increased professionalization of grad students have increased focus on problems that are analytically tractable, not “interesting.” We look at industries with many rapidly changing organizations—high tech—not Walmart or U.S. Steel.

Murray Davis tells us to celebrate problem-driven research, but what are the problems? Here, we can take lessons from historical sociology, with its three waves. The first wave, led by Marx, Weber, and others, focused on the transition to capitalism. A second wave was shaped by Marxism, even when it challenged it, and studied state formation and revolution (Tilly, Skocpol). For 10 years, Clemens noted, 75% of AJS articles on historical sociology involved the French Revolution or the U.S. between the Progressive Era and the New Deal.

Finally, came a fragmented third wave—a wave that was more like a herd of cats, shaped by the cultural turn but hard to pin down. This fragmentation made the question of “What’s interesting?” hard to answer. But events in the world—events we don’t understand, like the Iraq War (what do we know about empire?) or the global financial crisis (what do we know about capitalism?) have helped revitalize historical sociology, by creating important new problems that generate “interesting” questions.

The lesson for organizational sociology is to focus on the big, important, messy problems. The problem is that publication-driven inquiry shapes the selection of problems. Following big, interesting questions doesn’t fit well with the requirements of business schools and elite universities. Organizations like the NSA may be incredibly interesting and important, but studies of them are unlikely to fit within a business-school environment or have a straightforward path to publication in top journals. Instead, we have journalists doing amazing organizational sociology. But we could be doing it too.

(Tomorrow: Prechel and Ruef.)

Written by epopp

September 2, 2014 at 1:23 pm

Posted in academia, sociology

7 Responses

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  1. Well done! Briefly put, I argued for more global, comparative, historical, and mindful organizational scholarship.


    Howard Aldrich

    September 2, 2014 at 3:31 pm

  2. Thanks for posting this! I will sabotage all of Howard’s efforts to fish.

    Liked by 1 person


    September 2, 2014 at 5:03 pm

  3. Fabio: How many more years do you want me to continue doing this sort of thing?! Can I have weekends off?


    Howard Aldrich

    September 2, 2014 at 6:30 pm

  4. Let’s compromise: From now on, all orgtheory panels will be combined with a fly tying workshop. Ok?



    September 2, 2014 at 6:42 pm

  5. […] is a continuation of the summary of the "Does Organizational Sociology Have a Future?" ASA panel. Part 1 featured Howard Aldrich and Lis Clemens; tomorrow I'll wrap up with a recap of Ezra Zuckerman's […]


  6. […] panel from ASA, featuring Ezra Zuckerman’s presentation and the Q&A. Here’s part 1 and part […]


  7. […] imagine many of you know the article (it’s come up several times before on orgtheory), but for those who don’t, Davis attempts to taxonomize what makes […]


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