does organizational sociology have a future? the final part

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.

Ezra Zuckerman closed on an up note with “some reasons to be bullish.” Rather than reviewing the past or summarizing trends, Zuckerman highlighted three pieces of work he’s excited about by younger scholars.

The first is Catherine Turco’s 2012 AJS paper, “Difficult Decoupling: Employee Resistance to the Commercialization of Personal Settings.” Its motivating question is “Will the market eat everything?” Drawing on fieldwork in a organization that set itself up as offering support to new mothers, the paper shows how employees, committed to the organization’s stated goal of serving as a resource, resist being pushed to sell products they don’t think are in the interests of their clients.

The second is Roman Galperin’s paper, “Organizational Powers: Capture of Professional Jurisdiction in the Case of U.S. Retail Clinics.” Here, the question is, What happens when professional control collides with organizational power? The context is big box retailers, which are rapidly expanding the creation of health clinics within their stores, leading to conflicts between the professionals within them and the firms running the clinics. The takeaway is that organizations can, in fact, insinuate themselves into the professional division of labor because they are effective collective actors.

Finally, Phech Colatat’s paper, “Imprinting Variation: The Diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder at Two Specialty Clinics,” uses mixed methods to look at persistent differences in autism diagnosis at two different units of Kaiser Permanente. The big question here is what is driving important shifts in organizational practice. The core insight is that original variation is imprinted in local practices as part of a larger isomorphic process. Founder of the clinics have different takes on the frequency of autism and come up with different routines for diagnosis. These become embedded in practice, leading to persistent differences.

Zuckerman notes that all three of these papers are theoretically innovative but also empirically and practically motivated. All three have a field component. And all, notably, were conducted in a business school. If this is not organizational sociology, why not? And if it’s not read by sociologists, it should be.

And then the Q&A:

Dick Scott had three comments. Of Aldrich, he asked, what about the books? All the interesting work is in books!

To Clemens, he noted that the generation doing this work in the 50s and 60s were themselves experiencing the bureaucratization of the world and trying to understand it. But now the world is one where large vertical organizations are disintegrating. This creates lots of problems, but also opportunities, for the field. Organizations are important units, but they are changing.

Finally, he noted, there is the question of how the knowledge gets transferred. The old networks have disappeared. From the 1960s to the 1990s there were coherent communities of scholars—whole cohorts at Stanford and elsewhere working on similar sets of problems.

Mark Suchman pointed out that one problem was that people were being trained in, or getting their first job in, business schools. But the biggest threat is not the shift to the B-school.

Instead, it’s that in business schools, it’s self-evident that organizations are interesting. What sociologists contributed was bringing in other stuff—culture, political sociology, and so on. But you can’t make this case to grad students in sociology, who don’t necessarily care about organizations. If you tell them social movements or political sociology are interesting for thinking about organizations, they’ll ask, why not just study that?

Selling organizational sociology to sociologists is different from selling it to business schools. The question is what we add that is distinctive to sociology rather than how we add sociology to the study of organizations.

Zuckerman argued that orgtheory folks at AOM still end up wringing their hands over the lack of institutional support for it in business schools, particularly a spot in the MBA curriculum and hiring slots. Organizational behavior is micro, psych-dominated—organizational sociology doesn’t have a natural home. When he was a grad student at Chicago in the 90s, almost nobody became interested in organizational sociology, despite huge cohorts.

Clemens added that beyond the move to business schools, another change has been the erosion of interdisciplinary centers. Many of these were supported by big policy-linked training grants—around healthcare, mental health, education, and so on. The sociology of education should be about organizations—but it is hard to enter that conversation as an organizational sociologist. Fields like education, that used to be important topics for organizational scholars, have lost organizations.

Prechel noted that the problem is that organizational sociology just seems like jargon to students because of the multiplying perspectives. Few grad students are intrinsically interested in organizations. But some become convinced that to do political soc or economic soc, they need to study organizations.

Brian Uzzi responded to Clemens’ hypothesis. Using Web of Science data and machine learning techniques, he looked at when paradigms die. The answer: fields die when they begin to run out of new dependent variables. What reboots a field is collaboration—you have to do it with other people. We are stuck inside organizations, but the reason we care about organizations is because they produce a surplus over what individuals can. Now, though, the surplus is coming from elsewhere as well—e.g. from crowds—and this is what we should be studying.

Another audience member asked, Who do we speak to outside sociology? Maybe more engagement with public sociology is the answer. The question of how much legitimacy organizational sociology has many be more about the impact of sociology in general, rather than organizational sociology specifically.

Clemens pointed out that it’s not just our toolkit; financial journalists, for example, can use it too.

Ruef suggested that we are incrementalist, but perhaps the problem-driven work is the important stuff.

Aldrich pointed to Jerry Davis’s recent work in inner-city Detroit with the maker movement—expanding access, looking at new organizational forms, and so on—and recommended the organization’s website ( And Michigan’s ICOS is a great example of that kind of networking tool.

Gorman noted that several speakers had said that organizational sociology offers useful “tools” for studying a variety of phenomena, including states, social movements, schools, etc. She asked if the future of organizational sociology may be to permeate other subfields of sociology by providing those tools, without retaining a coherent theoretical or empirical agenda of its own.

Zuckerman pointed out that these ills aren’t specific to organizational sociology. The malaise of people framing papers based on received work is both a plus and minus. But don’t start your paper with, “Institutional theorists are doing this lately, and this is how I will extend it.” He wants to know why your question is important and why he, not invested in institutional theory, should care. Still, organizational sociology does need an institutional journal home in order to reproduce.

Prechel closed: the tools of organizational sociology are its strength. Running out of dependent variables shouldn’t be a problem.

Written by epopp

September 4, 2014 at 1:24 pm

Posted in academia, education

3 Responses

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  1. Beth,

    Thanks for your yeoman’s work in summarizing the session.

    Something I wonder about is if and how undergraduate business/commerce programs affect organization studies in sociology departments. Elite colleges and universities tend not to offer business as an undergraduate major, but these institutions represent only a small fraction of total departments (see Kraatz and Zajac, 1996 – ASR). At most universities, particularly as colleges and students become more vocationally-oriented, many students interested in business/work/organizations choose to major in business. In turn, I wonder if most sociology departments have ceded this turf and undergraduate student demand to business departments. This coincides with my impression that organizations and economic sociology tend to be most prominent in sociology departments situated at high-ranking universities. For example, in Canada where there aren’t really any elite universities and undergraduate commerce programs are quite prominent, there is little to no work done with mainstream organizational theory in sociology departments, outside of an anomalous few of us with links to McMaster University.

    If sociology departments have ceded this niche, I think it’s a shame for a number of reasons, particularly given the apparent message of the ASA session that B-schools and sociology departments have a lot to learn from one another. Sociology needs to study business, and business needs to study more than the corporate world.

    I’m realize I’m being a bit speculative here, but that’s what blogs are for, right?


    Kyle Siler

    September 4, 2014 at 9:30 pm

  2. “*I* realize”, that is. I love how easy it is to catch typos as soon as you hit the “send” button…


    Kyle Siler

    September 4, 2014 at 9:32 pm

  3. @Kyle — Hmm, that’s interesting. My hunch would be that not a lot of nonelite undergrads were drawn to sociology by an interest in work/orgs even during the heyday of organizational-sociology-in-sociology. But also totally speculative.

    To be less speculative and more anecdotal (a step up?), I do get a bunch (a quarter? maybe not that many) of business majors in my large undergrad orgs class at my large nonelite state university. Plus a bunch more who are soc majors, business minors.



    September 5, 2014 at 2:39 am

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