does organizational sociology have a future? the answer, part 2

[This 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 presentation and the Q&A that followed the panel.]

Harland Prechel spoke third. He described himself as being located outside organizational sociology early in his career but was drawn to its useful analytical tools and incorporated organizational sociology into his research over time. Organizational sociology has a lot to offer. So why is it in decline?

A central problem is there is no integrated theory of organizations. Instead, there are numerous competing perspectives that rise and decline over time.  This occurs, in part, because each perspective has a narrow scope that constrains what can be examined, explained, and predicted. For example, given that the behaviors that contributed to the 2007-2008 financial crisis occurred inside organizations, why did organizational researchers failed to predict or anticipate it? One viable answer is the prevailing theories did not direct researchers’ attention toward the underlying structures that permitted the risk-taking behaviors associated with the crisis.

Another part of the explanation for the decline in organizational sociology is that business schools have begun to produce their own PhDs in organizational studies and have become less dependent on sociology departments. Also, organizational sociology is perceived to be less relevant to managing organizations. Given these conditions, it is likely that the job market for organizational sociology in business schools will decline in the future.

Given all this, should we do more of the same? Or, should we be doing something different?

Prechel emphasized that sociology should do something different and begin by acknowledging that the sociological imperative and the managerial imperative have been intertwined since the inception of organizational studies and the tensions between them are impediments to theory development. He argued that, in the classical tradition, the sociological imperative produces knowledge that explains the origin and nature of society where organizations are conceptualized as a specific instance of social organization. The sociological imperative lends itself toward research questions related to how different structures emerge, how inequality emerges, who holds power, and how power is exercised.  The answers to these questions must conceptualize organizations as embedded in environments and how organizational behavior varies over the long term. In contrast, the managerial imperative is characterized by the production of knowledge that has implications for practical problems related to issues internal to organizations such as effectiveness, efficiency and productivity. It is solution oriented and by necessity focuses on the short or near term.

He emphasized the need to turn the decline in organizational sociology into an opportunity by acknowledging the tension between the managerial and sociological imperatives and separating them conceptually, thereby permitting each field to build on its respective strengths.

By more broadly focusing on sociological issues, organizational sociologists can expand the empirical scope of inquiry. To illustrate, non-firm organizations that merit more attention include political action committees (PACs) and 501(c)4s that are expanding their influence over domestic politics, and nongovernment organizations (NGOs) in less developed societies that are fulfilling government functions.  Currently, much of the research on these types of organizations is conducted in fields outside of organizational sociology.

In summary, one desirable characteristics of theory is it provides a history and memory of knowledge that has been acquired.  More inclusive theories provide a more comprehensive institutional memory of acquired knowledge. This memory is important because it provides direction for future research. Theory should also increase in explanatory power as it develops, which occurs by incorporating new ideas and concepts into existing theory and expanding the scope of the theory (versus creating another perspective with limited explanatory and predictive power). An integrated theory of organizational sociological specifies the conditions under which organizations remain stable, when change occurs, when organizations mobilize political to change their environment, when organizations change their structure, and what conditions are associated with high-risk managerial behavior. These topics are not new to sociology.  But, incorporating them into a more inclusive theory of organizations would be!

Martin Ruef was fourth. Organizational sociology has a past. But does it have a future?

Ruef began with a list of paradigms—institutional theory, ecology, networks, culture, learning/Carnegie school, resource dependence—and a column noting some of their leading proponents. A few of these are deceased: Freeman, Cohen, Salancik. Others are “retired,” though active: Meyer, Scott, Zucker, March. Almost all the rest are within a couple of years of the age at which, at the very least, they will qualify for government benefits. Barley, Van Maanen, DiMaggio, Powell, and so on.

Once you remove all these folks, you are left with one man: Howard Aldrich. And, Ruef noted, lately when he tries to reach Aldrich, he often finds that Aldrich is off fly fishing.

The real question, then, is this: What happens to organizational sociology when Howard Aldrich goes fly fishing?

Here, Ruef painted three future scenarios.

Scenario #1: it goes to hell. The argument here is that organizational sociology was the product of a distinctive cohort: of roughly the same generation, at a handful of institutions, using a handful of paradigms, and typically having a lifelong commitment to them. When that cohort moves on, organizational sociology is basically done for.

Scenario #2 is possibly worse: it enters limbo. Some might say it’s already in limbo. A Google ngram of the term “organizational sociology” shows a big takeoff 1975-80, then turns down a bit, and remains roughly flat from 1985 to the present.

Scenario #3, the hopeful one, is one of rebirth. If this should happen, Ruef suggests, the rebirth will likely have several characteristics. First, it won’t come from current leaders or their students. Second, it will benefit from spatial agglomeration and competition between paradigms: MIT vs. Harvard, Duke vs. UNC. Third, it will only happen if progenitors ignore their elders. And finally, it will draw on cognate fields—social movements, economic sociology, historical sociology—but will find ways to avoid being subsumed by them.


Written by epopp

September 3, 2014 at 4:06 pm

Posted in academia, education

3 Responses

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  1. I find odd that (a) soc of orgs is important and touches on everything else but (b) so much depends on the b-school market and the whims of a few central figures.



    September 3, 2014 at 8:00 pm

  2. […] This is the third and final installment of the “Does Organizational Sociology Have a Future?” panel from ASA, featuring Ezra Zuckerman’s presentation and the Q&A. Here’s part 1 and part 2. […]


  3. Martin could of course have been knowingly joking but just to set the record straight: Aldrich is every bit as close to qualifying for government benefits as Barley and Powell are. :)


    Steve Barley

    September 13, 2014 at 11:08 pm

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