Organizational sociology has a past … Does it have a future?

Ruef_Pic[Ed note: This is the fourth of 14 posts in a virtual panel on The Future of Organizational Sociology.]

In my view, organizational sociology has a past – indeed, a LOT of past.  But it is less clear whether it has a future.

Consider a simple word association test. When I say “organizational sociology”, what do you think of? You probably think of core theoretical paradigms such as organizational ecology, the new institutionalism, network theories of organizations, and the neo-Weberian view of bureaucracy.  Perhaps you would be inclined to put evolutionary organizational theory into the mix.  And, if you are feeling a bit more adventurous, you might add organizational ethnography, theories of organizational culture, and even the Carnegie School.  These are the major frameworks that emerged (or were reborn) between the 1950s and the 1970s; and came of age in the 1980s and 1990s.

When I say “organizational sociology”, it is also likely that that you’ll think of the scholars who developed these perspectives. I’ve listed a number of them here, including many familiar names (Ruef – Table).  I have also listed some of their most influential articles and books, as well as the staggering number of citations for them.

The past is about people, not just ideas. So what are these folks doing now?  Unfortunately, we have had a number of leading organizational sociologists pass away over the last few years, including John Freeman in 2008 and Michael Cohen last year.  And a number of our leading luminaries have recently moved to emeritus or emerita status – although some, such as Dick Scott, remain as active as ever.

What about the rest? It is always dangerous to predict retirements, but I will play Social Security Administration and apply a very simple rule:  let’s identify everyone who is within one year of benefit eligibility (61+) as “near retirement”, knowing that we are likely to witness many more productive years ahead.  This status applies to pretty much everyone who is left on the list. Whenever I try to get in touch with Howard Aldrich, I find that he is often traveling somewhere to go fly fishing.  Now the attraction of fly fishing remains a deep mystery to me.  But I have also begun to wonder whether this activity is good for organizational sociology.

So, what happens to organizational sociology when Howard Aldrich goes fly fishing? Or, more generally, what kind of future can we expect in the field once the current wave of retirements and “near retirements” is done?

One possibility is that when Howard goes fly fishing, organizational sociology goes to hell. The underlying thesis is that there was something unique about the organizational scholars who received their Ph.D.’s in the 1960s and 1970s – a genuine cohort effect.  It matters that many of them were trained in sociology departments, not business schools.  And that many of them trained students outside of business schools.  It matters that many of them made their careers at a relatively small number of institutions (places such as Stanford, Chicago, UNC, Cornell, and Michigan).  And that they forged life-long commitments to developing perspectives with strong theoretical assumptions.

While it is plausible that organizational sociology (at least as we know it) would disappear with this cohort, I don’t think that is going to happen. A second scenario is possibly worse – the field could be in limbo!  If you go to the Academy of Management (AOM) conference these days, you know that citations to Meyer and Rowan or Burt are not going away.  The “science” of business administration relies heavily on the disciplines (sociology among them) as a source of its legitimacy.  But once the cohort of scholars who are so often cited go into retirement, something curious may happen.  Their work may be cited in perpetuity, often in a ritual fashion, without any serious effort to rejuvenate organizational sociology.  The fate of the field will be that of an incremental, normal science.

Now, it is not clear that this state of limbo is a new development. Some would say we’ve been here since the 1980s.  Try this as experiment:  go to Google ngram and have it graph the prevalence of “organizational sociology” in the English-language corpus between 1950 and a year close to the present.  You’ll see that there are virtually no mentions of that term in the 1950s, followed by a modest increase beginning in early 1960’s (perhaps spurred by books such as Blau and Scott’s Formal Organizations or Burns and Stalker’s Management of Innovation).  Then you get to the mid-1970s and … bam!  Interest in organizational sociology takes off, particularly with the development of the core frameworks I mentioned earlier.  By the mid-1980s, though, this wave of excitement has subsided and things have settled into the new normal.  If we take the ngram results seriously, perhaps the field has been in limbo for some time.

Okay, let’s try to end on a more positive note — we certainly don’t want Howard to feel guilty about his fly fishing excursions! What if the field of organizational sociology was reborn with this wave of retirements?  Let me offer some predictions (and hopes) for the rebirth of organizational sociology.

The first prediction is that rebirth won’t come from the current leaders in the field (or their students). Speaking for myself, I have consumed too much of the Kool-Aid, having been raised on a steady diet of organizational ecology, new institutionalism, organizational learning theories, and the like.  Folks like me can’t help but think in terms of these well-worn paradigms.  We are looking for a new cohort of scholars that will think in fundamentally different ways.

Second, the emergence of new sociological frameworks for studying organizations may benefit from some of the same structural factors that drove the earlier cohort. In his Sociology of the Philosophies, Randy Collins talks about the law of small numbers.  The prediction is that we get vibrant intellectual fields when scholars are spatially concentrated in a few institutions; and when there is intense competition between a few frameworks.  I can imagine geographic clusters of universities with a strong pedigree of organizational sociology (Harvard-MIT, UNC-Duke, Stanford-Berkeley) that would provide the structural basis for the next generation of paradigms.

Third, the progenitors of the new paradigms will need to ignore their elders. As much as we all adore the influential articles and books listed in the table above, the innovators among us need to stop citing them.  This is not quite the same as claiming that ignorance is bliss – we don’t want a new generation of organizational scholars that simply re-invent the wheel.  But we don’t want to be ham-strung by the past either.

Finally, I believe that the rebirth of organizational sociology should draw on cognate fields in the discipline, but must avoid being subsumed by them. Some of the most exciting developments in the study of organizations over the last fifteen years have occurred at the intersection with other fields – social movement theory, economic sociology, historical sociology, social psychology, to name a few.  This cross-fertilization has been tremendously productive and should continue.  But organizational sociology must also stake out a distinct intellectual identity in the process.

With those hopes in mind, I will return to Howard’s favorite pastime and the following exhortation: organizational sociologists, let’s go fish for new theories!

Martin Ruef is the The Jack and Pamela Egan Professor of Entrepreneurship in the Duke University department of sociology.

  1. Howard Aldrich said:

    Try graphing “organizational evolution” and you’ll see an exponential rise from 1980 right through 2014! Evolution rules! It IS the new paradigm. And thus, I can go fishing with a clean conscience…

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