At the 2014 American Sociological Association meeting this past summer in San Francisco, I organized a well-attended panel session entitled, “Does Organizational Sociology Have a Future?” At the panel, we heard thoughtful and provocative talks from five distinguished panelists. Four of them hailed from sociology departments: Howard Aldrich (UNC-Chapel Hill), Martin Ruef (Duke), Harland Prechel (Texas A&M) and Elisabeth Clemens (University of Chicago). The fifth was from a business school: Ezra Zuckerman (MIT Sloan).
In response to the great audience interest, I have worked with the editors of this blog to continue the discussion here as a virtual panel. The panel begins with short essays from the five original panelists, who recapitulate and in some cases extend their remarks from the ASA session. These will be followed by additional contributions from Gerald F. Davis (University of Michigan), Heather Haveman (UC-Berkeley), Brayden King (Northwestern), Charles Perrow (Yale), W. Richard Scott (Stanford), Mark Suchman (Brown), Patricia Thornton (Duke), Marc Ventresca (Oxford), Matt Vidal (King’s College London) and myself.
We are going to post one essay per day beginning with the original panel and the continuing with the new commentators in alphabetical order.
We hope this panel will kickstart a wider and much-needed debate, and we welcome your comments in the comment section below each post!
As teachers, we often hear that the future will be shaped by our students. If this is the case, then the signs are mixed and confusing. On one day, a good omen may appear, typically in the form of an enthusiastic undergraduate. At the University of Chicago, these students are often economics or public policy majors who have encountered a piece of organizational analysis and seized upon it as the key to understanding the complexities of the policy process, firm behavior, or the organization of markets. On less auspicious days, our most dedicated graduate students present a different vision of the future, one in which organizational researchers risk becoming overwhelmed by a meta-literature, focused on agendas, epistemologies, ontologies and reflections.
This tale of two students poses a challenge for organizational sociologists. How can we retain the capacity to inspire while demanding of ourselves the kind of rigor and clarity that are represented by all those discussions of ontology, epistemology, and method? This challenge is not new. As a graduate student, I received the following job market wisdom circa 1990: “Go out on the market as an organizations person. Everyone knows they need one. Everyone thinks they are boring.” If I could pull off a performance as an interesting organizations person, I would do just fine.
These three tales remind us to revisit a key question for any scholar: What makes something interesting?
I think the future of organizational sociology depends on our doing a better job of things that we already know we should be doing, but aren’t. So, I’m going to not recommend we do anything new, but instead that we do some things much better.
As Liz Gorman reminded me, we were asked to talk about organization sociology, not just organization theory. I didn’t want to run afoul of Art Stinchcombe’s jeremiad concerning the division between “theory” and “research” in sociology. In one of his many provocative essays, Art borrowed a sentiment from Groucho Marx, who famously said “any club that would have me as a member I wouldn’t want to join”! In Art’s case he said that he didn’t want to be part of a discipline that allowed some people to call themselves “theorists” rather than just plain “sociologists.” He argued that theory and research were inextricably intertwined, and I share that sentiment. It’s why I think of research and theory when I think of organization sociology, rather than something separate and apart called “theory.” Theory should be research driven, informed by research, and used to guide research.
I’m looking for a more cumulative organizational sociology, focused on systematically building findings and identifying their scope conditions.
I recently found myself sat in a stately home in the UK. A small group of politicians, academics and practitioners were there to explore what the UK could learn from Germany and what Germany could learn from the UK about skills. In short, (for now) the UK has better higher education and Germany (for now) has better vocational education and training.
I sat staring out of the large drawing room windows onto the sun-lit, rolling and very green southern English countryside. It was Downton Abbey on steroids; the past but now vanished glories of the British Empire pervaded the atmosphere. It was the kind of place where the Great Powers once carved up the Middle East – and created some of the problems that now exist there.
Shaken out of my historical reverie, I started to think about today’s employment problems. In the US and Europe unemployment is high, particularly for young workers; the employment participation rates of women and migrants also need to be raised; too many low skilled, low wage workers are stuck in a bad jobs trap; and, as the population ages, ways need to be found to enable older workers to work longer.
From time to time I write about the commercialization of higher education. Some of my writings are even based on actual research, using interviews with administrators and faculty at various universities. Yet, I have to confess that my own administrative involvements –two long stints as chair of large departments– have provided me with insights that no interview could provide, sensitizing me to the commercial pressures affecting virtually everything about higher education these days.
A case in point: the emergence of revenue generating Master’s programs. This is of course a global phenomenon –one in which European universities are actually ahead of their US counterparts. American universities are catching up rapidly, though, largely due to declining levels of state support for higher education and to demographic shifts that have reduced the supply of naïve 18-year olds with access to federal loans. Another factor (which sorely needs attention) is the spread of new budget systems such as “resource centered management” which require each academic division to generate its own revenue, rather than relying on the largesse of the central administration. The results of these pressures have compelled many universities to fetishize enrollments to an unprecedented degree. Thus one exasperated colleague of mine, appalled by the revenue-driven nature of curricular design these days, remarked that she had begun to feel “we’re not trying to educate students so much as capture them.” It seems that we’ve moved beyond seeing students as mere “customers,” and now view them as virtual ATMs.
A new study published by researchers at North Carolina State University tackles the challenge of shopping for, preparing and sharing healthful family meals. In “The Joy of Cooking?,” Sarah Bowen, Sinikka Elliott and Joslyn Brenton describe women in particular as struggling to enact cultural ideals associated with home-cooked meals. Expensive ingredients, time pressures and picky eaters seem to conspire against them, with poor, working-class and middle-class mothers all feeling the pinch.
The study’s findings were hotly debated in recent weeks, with coverage and commentary in outlets such as Slate, PBS and The New York Times focusing almost exclusively on values and priorities. Some praised the study for questioning the idealization of burdensome family dinners. Others called for increased commitment to home-cooked family meals, citing the rewards of time spent together and noting how easy and rewarding meal preparation can be.
Because the debate’s participants have primarily viewed the issues through lenses of family and food rather than work, very little of the debate has broached the root causes of families’ mealtime struggles: deteriorating employment opportunities, stagnant wages, and changing expectations of workers. Read More
by Kristen Schilt
Recently the New Republic featured a story about how the workplace experiences of transgender men and women can shed light on occupational gender equality more broadly. Jessica Nordell interviewed me for the article, and we talked extensively about the research I did for my first book, Just One of the Guys, that focuses on the work lives of transgender men in Texas and California. I argue in the book that trans men can develop what Patricia Hill Collins calls an “outsider-within” perspective from the unique experience of having worked on both sides of the gender binary. This experience can put into high relief the often-invisible social processes that produce and maintain a workplace gender gap. As many of the men I interviewed noted, bringing their appearances in line with their feeling of maleness could bring a noticeable change in their workplace treatment – a change that one man described as going from “bossy” to “take charge.” However, white and heterosexual trans men reported more positive changes in their treatment from co-workers and employers than trans men of color and gay trans men.