Does organizational sociology have a future?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA[Ed note: This is the first of 14 posts in a virtual panel on The Future of Organizational Sociology.]

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.

We were asked to think about the future. But, how can organizational sociology even have a future when it has no past? By that I mean that it is firmly anchored in the present, given the way that scholars typically construct their explanation of organizational phenomena. The global, comparative, and historical approach we would expect in organizational sociology is just not evident in our publications in the 2nd decade of the 21st century. Almost all the explanations we get are highly contingent upon conditions within the period to which a scholar’s “data” apply, built so that every explanation is essentially idiosyncratically ahistorical and parochial.

For example, a recent study of mine found that among about a decade’s worth of papers published in Administrative Science Quarterly, between 2000 and 2007, nearly 90% were focused on a single country, and 90% of those were based on the United States. I joked with the editor of ASQ that he ought to call the journal “American Studies Quarterly”! Despite years of trying to encourage multinational comparative work, one of our premier organization studies journals is firmly anchored in North America.

These papers also weren’t particularly historical, either. Strangely enough, in about one-third of the 128 papers, the authors reported no information in the methods section on when the data were actually collected! Trust me, I searched long and hard for this information and it was just not reported. What does it say about our discipline’s sense of historical context when editors and reviewers allow authors to get away with reporting on data that apparently are floating timeless in the ether, not tied to any particular historical period? Imagine trying to replicate a study published in the ASQ a decade or so ago and not knowing in which century the data were collected!

To their credit, about two thirds of the papers reported on data collected from more than one point in time, although about half covered only 10 years or less. About one in 7 covered 30 years or more, which one might think is sufficient to uncover any effects of era or epoch, were one using an historically informed institutional approach.

As sociologists, we must acknowledge that organization theory lives and dies in large part because of what happens in the Academy of Management, not what happens in the American Sociological Association. The AOM has almost 20,000 members now, with a vibrant Organization and Management Theory section that every year makes a Distinguished Scholar Award. That event, held early on Monday morning at every AOM annual meeting, attracts a packed house and 2014 was no exception. Royston Greenwood’s presentation on “institutional theory” rocked the house of several hundred people. Whatever its future, organization sociology has lots of enthusiastic followers in the AOM. Sociology gets lots of positive mention at AOM meetings.

Given my fondness for the AOM, it pains me to point out two rather odd features of its publications. First, ignoring Stinchcombe’s stricture concerning the separation of theory from research, the AOM publishes a journal dedicated specifically to “theory.” The Academy of Management Review tolerates no data within its pages. (I am currently working on an R&R for AOM and finding it exceedingly difficult to adhere to the data-free policy.) Second, the AOM has added a new journal every few years to its stable of publications. We now have the AOM Annals, the AOM Perspectives, and the newest journal, the AOM Discoveries. What is missing? There is no AOM Replications!

I use the word “replication” in two senses. First, “replication” in the sense in which it is used in the natural and health sciences to refer to attempts to replicate, insofar as possible, results from previous studies. Investigators look to see whether previous results are valid and can be reproduced by another team of scientists. Second, “replication” in the sense that a single investigator or team conducts replications within a line of investigation that builds a cumulative trajectory of work, based upon their own previous studies. I don’t see a lot of evidence for either type of replication.

We don’t repeat studies and few people do cumulative work, focusing on testing the boundaries of a theory or refining it. For example, most people who have written about resource dependence over the past three decades only produced a paper or two on it, flitting into the domain, publishing a paper or two, and flitting out again. Almost no one fully committed to developing resource dependence theory as a coherent approach with consistently defined terms, basic principles, and replicated research findings.

The incentives just aren’t there to encourage this kind of work. Editors want articles that are new and different, looking for work that breaks new ground or rejects existing findings, rather than extends and refines them. We have the “one and done” model and a fetishizing of the novel and different.

But, how can organization theory get any better if its raw materials are never more than semi-refined? Until we began doing things better, we will be perpetually stuck in the persistent present.

Liz challenged me to consider whether some of the problems I’ve described flow from the persistent loss of organizational sociologists from sociology departments to business schools, leaving only a few of us sociologists behind. Dick Scott and I have talked about this for decades and it is a concern. But I think these problems stem from changes in norms and practices with the academic profession, rather than from the “loss” of organization sociology to the “dark side.”

Wait! What’s that? Darth, you ARE my father?!

Howard Aldrich is Professor of Sociology, and Adjunct Professor of Management in the Kenan-Flagler Business School, the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, USA.

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