Organizational sociology — just step outside and you’ll see the future

head shot june 2013 -- oxford[Ed note: This is the seventh of 14 posts in a virtual panel on The Future of Organizational Sociology.]

In August the American Sociological Association held a panel, organized by Liz Gorman, on “The Future of Organizational Sociology.” I want to follow Liz’s instructions and react to the comments made by the panelists (Howard Aldrich, Lis Clemens, Martin Ruef, Harland Prechel, and Ezra Zuckerman). In doing so, I’ll try to connect their comments and suggest how organizational sociology can have a vibrant future.

Is it really true that organizational sociology has no past? I’m not as pessimistic as Howard Aldrich: I see many very good sociological studies of organizations that are historical, meaning that they are sensitive to both time and place. Let me give you just a few examples. First, my Berkeley colleague Cristina Mora’s book Making Hispanics (2014 University of Chicago Press) reveals how social-movement organizations, the US Census Bureau, and Spanish-language media firms jointly created the ethno-racial category “Hispanic,” despite the fact that Spanish-speaking immigrants to the US differ widely in terms of race and country of origin. This book powerfully demonstrates the effect of organizations in a particular time and place – the United States in the 1970s and 1980s.

Second, let me mention my work on the magazine industry in America from the mid-eighteenth to the mid-nineteenth century. In a series of published papers, all available on my website, and a book entitled Magazines and the Making of America (which will be published in 2015 by Princeton University Press), I demonstrate how, over the first 120 years of their history, magazines connected people: this “old” new media literally mediated between people, facilitating frequent interactions between them even when they were far apart and would otherwise never meet face to face, thus creating many distinct communities whose members had common interests, values, principles, ideas, and identities. These included communities of faith (religion), purpose (social reform), and practice (commerce and specialized occupations). Communities of different types often intersected, which fostered the pluralistic integration that was central to American public culture in this era. In this way, magazines helped make an America that was distinct from European societies: magazines both pushed American society toward a common center and pulled it apart into many distinct subgroups.

Yet, as my examples of historically sensitive research reveal, Howard is right to point out the great extent to which the evidentiary basis for organizational sociology is US-based. But there are many studies of organizations in other countries – such as work on China by Andy Walder, Victor Nee, Lisa Keister, and Doug Guthrie, for example. The rise of social science in China will, I expect, continue to produce much more research on this huge, fascinating, constantly changing, and highly heterogeneous country.

Should sociologists be in business schools? Harland Prechel says no but I say of course they should! Why would you want to abandon the business school turf to economists and psychologists? Indeed, sociologists should be in all kinds of professional schools – law schools, public-policy schools, medical and public-health schools, education schools, and engineering schools. These professional schools have welcomed such diverse organizational sociologists as Laurie Edelman, Cal Morrill, Marshall Ganz, Steve Shortell, Richard Arum, Woody Powell, Steve Barley, and Pam Hinds.

For my part, being in a business school was immensely invigorating. I had to fight the dominant expectation about what was efficient – and I always love a good intellectual fight. The inherent tension between what Harland calls the sociological imperative and the business/policy/ applied imperative makes visible the assumptions inherent in sociological analysis of organizations and makes us confront the assumptions inherent in economic, psychological, and political science analysis. For example, take the question of what are and should be the main goals of business firms. Do they really seek to maximize shareholder value? What are the consequences and under what conditions is this dynamic manifested?   When did firms start doing this and why? Moreover, the tension between imperatives forces us to ask questions that have practical, real-world implications – to have dependent variables that someone else cares about.

Finally, I think Lis Clemens, Martin Ruef, Ezra Zuckerman, and I agree on a future for organizational sociology: it must become more central and more interesting to sociology writ large, rather than just to members of the Organizations, Occupations and Work section. It can do so by explaining not organizations per se, but organizations’ impact on outcomes that are central to people in other subfields – stratification, political sociology, cultural sociology, social psychology, gender, race and ethnicity, immigration, medical sociology, law and criminology, religion… I could go on and on, but you get my drift.

Ezra highlighted several worthy examples of how studying the impact of organizations on outcomes that people outside of the OOW section care about. Let me add a couple more. My colleague Cristina Mora, whom I mentioned above, is studying social media to probe how several different types of organizations – political parties, government agencies, immigrant voluntary associations, and even media firms – attempt to define, categorize, and promote identity narratives among Latin American immigrants to Spain.  One of the ways she does this is by examining how political parties establish pan-ethnic identity associations – the way that they fund them, advise them, and even create identity narratives for them. Another way she does this is by examining how government agencies make decisions about which projects to fund. She finds that city managers like to fund projects that bring together multiple Latin American subgroups (such as projects by Colombians and Argentines). Facebook provides a great way of keeping track of these groups; for example, she can see how the Colombian group announces joint projects with other groups or how political parties develop Facebook pages to acquire the Latino vote.

Similarly, Chris Bail has studied how a wide array of political, civic, and religious organizations shaped the public understanding of Islam after the September 11 attacks. He showed that the types of claims about the nature of Islam – notably, their emotional tone – determined whether, how, and which members of this organizational ecology (fringe or mainstream) were able to garner attention for their particular political stands and ideologies. In follow-up work, he is analyzing Facebook posts by non-profit organizations to determine how certain messages “go viral.” More important, he is using the data he and his colleagues gather to make detailed suggestions about how non-profits can reach new audiences and maintain the ones they already have.

Marissa King and Peter Bearman have shown that organizational policies have tremendous effects on physicians’ prescribing practices.  Specifically, those who attended medical schools with active conflict of interest policies are less likely to prescribe newly introduced, heavily marketed, and very expensive medications over older, less expensive but comparable alternatives.  Most recently, Marissa and Jennifer Jennings showed that states’ educational policies, school schedules, and insurance company rules jointly affect students’ use of stimulants.  Students were more likely to go off their stimulant medication during the summer months in states with strong educational accountability systems.  The effect was quite large:  students were 30% less likely to ave a prescription filled for stimulant medication during the school year than they are during the summer.  Moreover, this trend was more pronounced among families with private insurance than those with public insurance.

Finally, several scholars, including Toby Stuart and Waverly Ding, Jesper Sørensen, and Tiantian Yang, are working to understand how employing organizations facilitate or hinder employees’ becoming entrepreneurs in the United States, Denmark, and Sweden. Following in the footsteps of Rafe Stolzenberg, Jim Baron, and Bill Bielby, other sociologists (too numerous to list here) are studying how the structures and policies of employing organizations affect gender and racial/ethnic inequality – topics that are central to sociology.

My conclusion from this brief survey is that organizational sociology has a great future – but only if we don’t become insular and ignore the many lessons we can teach our colleagues in other subfields.

Heather Haveman is Professor of Sociology and Business at the University of California, Berkeley.

  1. Howard Aldrich said:

    Heather, great examples of stellar work being done by sociologists everywhere. But the question lingers: as proportionately more people doing “organizational sociology” end up in business & professional schools, who is training the next generation? I have not seen ANY sociologically-trained professional school graduates taking jobs in sociology departments. You & Martin are among just a handful of scholars who’ve ever moved from a professional school to a sociology department. The traffic flow is pretty asymmetric.

    • Howard, you’re right: people trained in business schools don’t typically take jobs in sociology departments. But many people in sociology departments — those who study organizations AND something else — social movements, immigration, medicine/health, media, politics, work, stratification — can teach organizations courses.

      • True enough. BUT (1) we need people who can chair dissertations written in organizational sociology, not just teach courses, and (2) as I look around the country, I see fewer graduate sociology of organizations than before. Of course, that’s also true in Management Departments of b-schools. My b-school OT colleagues have been lamenting for years the decline in “macro OB” courses.

  2. Ezra Zuckerman Sivan said:

    Hi Howard.
    Two notes on this:
    a. Were there ever a lot of departments that were able to train a significant number of sociologists? It seems like that at any point in time since 1950, there were never more than a few.
    b. As I note in my blog post, I don’t believe the move of myself and my colleagues has prevented us from training good students (see list of our recent alums here:, and there are alums from the years prior I could point to as well, such Isabel Fernandez-Mateo). And I think good training of org and econ sociologists is being done by a few of our peer bschools.
    I’m not saying there isn’t a cost to our moving to bschools, but it’s no clear to me it’s as great as is sometimes suggested or that it’s not compensated for by benefits such as those Heather mentions.

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