Why I’m bullish about organizational sociology

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

As I noted in my remarks at the ASA this past August, I am optimistic about the future of organizational sociology.  Why?  In short, the reason is that over the past several years, I have had the great privilege of serving on dissertation committees of students whose work demonstrates the continuing importance of organizational sociology and who have made significant progress in pushing the subfield forward. I mentioned three such scholars and their work.  If I had time, I would have mentioned a few more.  Of course, I could have followed a more quantitative route in trying to assess trends in the field.  But I care much more about quality than quantity.  That there are even a few young organizational sociologists doing such high-quality work is enough for me to be optimistic about the future.

The first such scholar I mentioned was Catherine Turco, who graduated from Harvard sociology in 2011 and is now a colleague of mine at MIT, in the Sloan School of Management.  It is hard to know where to start when discussing how Turco’s various projects deepen our understanding of organizational phenomena.  In my remarks, I directed our attention to Turco’s 2012 article, “Difficult Decoupling: Employee Resistance to the Commercialization of Personal Settings.”  This paper is a rich and analytically powerful ethnography of a failed attempt to commercialize an area of personal life—maternal care.  A key insight is the “market” is not the agent of commercialization; rather, for-profit organizations are.  Moreover, successful commercialization is difficult because it requires that the organization enlist their employees in executing the organization’s strategy of decoupling between their non-commercial discourse (which in this case is about caring for moms) and their commercial goals (selling moms expensive products).  And this turns out to be quite difficult because employees may have their reasons (e.g., it coheres with their professional goals) for endorsing the discourse rather than the goals.  What emerges is a deeper appreciation for (a) the role of organizations in a process (commercialization of personal and other non-commercial spheres) that has occupied much attention by economic and cultural sociologists; and (b) why organizational decoupling is not as easy to pull off as we thought.

The second scholar I mentioned is Roman Galperin, who is a 2013 alum from the Economic Sociology PhD Program at MIT Sloan and is now on the faculty of the Carey School of Business, at Johns Hopkins.  The paper I summarized is “Organizational Powers: Capture of Professional Jurisdiction in the Case of U.S. Retail Clinics.”  This paper is also centered on an interesting case, the emergence of clinics (typically at drug stores) where nurse practitioners provide primary care that is usually provided by physicians (or a nurse under the supervision of a physician).  What’s strange about this case is that both professions—doctors and nurses—lose, while the organization wins.  This kind of “jurisdictional settlement” does not fit into Andy Abbott’s ecological theory of professions, and it thereby becomes an occasion for reworking the theory.  What emerges is a clearer conceptualization of the notion of “jurisdiction” (involving not just rights but the resources for enforcing such rights) and a key role for organizations (as mobilizers of such resources) in determining the outcome of jurisdictional battles.  I hope that Galperin’s paper will reinvigorate research on professional competition, which has remained largely dormant since Abbott’s 1988 masterpiece, the System of Professions.

The third scholar I mentioned was Phech Colatat, who is a 2014 alum from the Economic Sociology PhD Program at MIT Sloan and is now at the Olin Business School at Washington University.  Colatat’s main dissertation paper “Imprinting Variation: The Diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder at Two Specialty Clinics” is a contribution to the puzzle of the rise of autism diagnosis in the United States.  Colatat uses an array of qualitative and quantitative data from Kaiser Permanente Northern California to demonstrate that the marked upswing in autism diagnosis masks significant intraorganizational variation in diagnosis rates: in particular, some clinics at KPNC consistently diagnose autism at higher rates than others.  And this is so even though the incentives and formal processes are the same and even when he controls for differences between patients.  So why the variation?  Colatat’s analysis of two clinics demonstrates that their persistent difference in diagnosis derives from organizational practices that were “imprinted” in the clinics via organizational routines by their founders, who differed markedly in how “conservative” or “liberal” they were in interpreting ambiguous behavioral markers.  Besides demonstrating the relevance of key organizational processes to a phenomenon of major societal concern, Colatat’s research makes a key contribution to organizational sociology, by showing how processes associated with the “new institutionalism” (i.e., rapid diffusion of a new belief and associated practices; in this case, the idea that autism is common and the protocols for diagnosing it) and the “old institutionalism” (i.e., that their specific histories give each organization [or in this case, an organization subunit] a distinctive character) can work together.

I hope that you will not rely on my quick summaries of the work of Turco, Galperin, and Colatat, and that rather I have inspired you to read these papers yourself.  When you do so, I am confident you will see why I am so optimistic.  If this is not the kind of work we want organizational sociology to be—i.e., based on deep knowledge of the phenomenon under study, demonstrating that organizations matter for outcomes that are of significant societal concern, and making significant theoretical progress in our understanding of organizational processes—I don’t know what is.  And as I mentioned, there is other work by young scholars I could also include as providing reason for optimism about the future of organizational sociology (such as Rodrigo Canales on “Managing Organizational Tensions Between Standardization and Flexibility in Microfinance” ; Canales & Jason Greenberg on “A Matter of Relational Style;” and Ethan Mollick and Venkat Kuppuswamy on “Formal Organizations and the Benefits of Crowdfunding”).

Of course, if you define work as “sociology” only if the scholar works in a sociology department, you may disagree with me.  But I think that is a self-defeating way to define things.  Each of the three scholars I discussed identifies him or herself as a sociologist.  And the kind of work they do– drawing on and extending past ideas in organizational sociology– is exactly what we want and need to push the field forward.  Thus there is every reason to embrace the work I have reviewed and look forward to what comes next.  I certainly am.

Ezra W. Zuckerman Sivan is Professor of Strategic Management at the MIT Sloan School of Management.

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