[Ed note: This is the sixth of 14 posts in a virtual panel on The Future of Organizational Sociology.]
Organizational sociology may have reached its high water mark 25 years ago, when Chick Perrow penned “A society of organizations.” Perrow argued that organizations had absorbed society, which implied that organizational sociology was now the master key for making sense of society. He stated, “I argue that the appearance of large organizations in the United States makes organizations the key phenomenon of our time, and thus politics, social class, economics, technology, religion, the family, and even social psychology take on the character of dependent variables.” Stratification happened through organizational practices of hiring and promotion. Work went on inside organizations, structured by organizational rules. Social movements increasingly constituted themselves as formal organizations. In a society of organizations, organizational sociology should be the sun around which the other subfields in sociology orbit. Instead, organizational scholars are scarce on the ground in most departments today, as if the Rapture had come and left behind only the demographers and criminologists.
Many or most of the disappeared wound up in business schools. It’s not hard to see why: the money is better, and the jobs were more plentiful. Yet it would be a mistake to imagine that b-schools are crammed full of organizational sociologists, at least in North America. While fancy schools like Stanford, Northwestern, and MIT are strong outposts for organization theory, most schools are not. Hiring is typically driven by teaching needs, and there is surprisingly little demand among MBA students for courses on organization design (much less institutional logics or categorization). Most organization theorists in business schools wind up teaching strategy and, if they want to get tenure, publishing work that can pass for strategy. All of this bodes ill for organization theory, wherever it is done.
How did things go so wrong? The short answer is that the “society of organizations” described by Perrow has de-composed back into a primordial soup. The ever-expanding, enveloping organizations of the post-War era have reversed course; now, they want to be as “focused” and streamlined as possible, with as few assets and employees as is feasible. Every week brings news of corporations either splitting up into constituent elements (Hewlett-Packard, Symantec, GE, Time-Warner, Procter & Gamble, Abbott Labs, Sony), going private or bankrupt to radically restructure (Dell, GM), or evaporating entirely (Lehman, Countrywide, arguably Kodak). The number of public corporations in the US has dropped by 55% since 1997, and those that remain are generally a lot smaller than they used to be: GM has as many employees today as it did in 1928. Organizations are increasingly hollow shells.
I have argued elsewhere that this shift is largely due to low-cost information and communication technologies that make it possible to rent (rather than buy) components of a supply chain and scale up or down as needed without bearing the cost of maintaining an ongoing organization. (Call it “Nikefication.”) It’s expensive to be Sony, with 150,000 employees. It’s cheap to be Vizio, with 200 employees and flat-screen TVs that are much less expensive and more popular than Sony’s. It’s expensive to be Blockbuster, with 83,000 employees and 9000 stores. It’s relatively cheap to be Netflix, with 2000 employees and server capacity rented from Amazon. (Amazon, in turn, rents temporary employees in bulk from staffing services. The fim plans to temporarily expand by 80,000 workers just for the holiday season this year.) The “society of organizations” increasingly resembles Disney’s Main Street USA, a series of facades with little substance behind them.
Perhaps the reason there are fewer organization-level questions of interest is an ontological one: organizations qua organizations have largely evaporated. Going forward, we are likely to see more pop-ups (like Vizio) and “platforms” (like Uber) and fewer countable, bounded, goal-oriented, hierarchical, employing organizations. The six characteristics of bureaucracy outlined by Weber in Chapter 11 of Economy and Society have little obvious application in this world. (As a reminder, they were: rule-governed jurisdictional areas; hierarchically-organized offices; official written files; specialized training for office-holders; office-holding as a full-time job; and management according to stable, general rules.) Enterprise resource planning software enables “flat” hierarchies by automating employee schedules and performance evaluations. Retail is en route to being even more Taylorized than manufacturing was, with human management replaced by algorithms. Those forced into the TaskRabbit economy (the “precariat”) have an even more marginal connection to regular employment than those in retail. The new book by Dan Clawson and Naomi Gerstel, Unequal Time, highlights some of the difficulties imposed on the working class by unpredictable scheduling and uncertain employment.
Venerating the elders, as sociologists love to do, may be a path to irrelevance. Aiming to document the timeless truths of Weber’s writings is unlikely to lead to a deep understanding of the contemporary organizational landscape and the new world of precarious employment. We may be weighed down by a devotion to the past. (Sociologists also don’t help themselves by endless professional mitosis. 52 sections, srsly? When is Economic Sociology going to spawn Economic Astro-Sociology as a new section?)
Where to next? When Dick Scott and his collaborator updated the classic text in organizational sociology in 2007, the new name was Organizations and Organizing to highlight the verb over the noun. And although network analysis provides some tools for thinking about organizing, theory has not caught up yet with our provisional world. Sociology is in a unique position to contribute to the study of organizing. Mustafa Emirbayer has called for a relational sociology, and there have been various efforts at field theories. These point in the right direction. Perhaps abandoning the countless divisions within sociology among those who study organizations, collective action and social movements, stratification, economic sociology, and other related domains would be a step forward toward understanding how coordinated human action happens today.
Jerry Davis is Wilbur K. Pierpont Collegiate Professor of Management, Professor of Sociology and Co-Director, ICOS (Interdisciplinary Committee on Organization Studies) at the University of Michigan.