Why we should stop worrying about organizational sociology

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

Following the panel on “The Future of Organizational Sociology” at the 2014 American Sociological Association meeting, there seems to be a worry that we’re a subfield that is out of touch with mainstream sociology. But for a field in trouble, organizational sociology does very well in our discipline’s most important journals. Looking at issues of the American Journal of Sociology and the American Sociological Review published in the last year (since June 2013) and based on my rough coding of abstracts, articles that are primarily about organizations, occupations, and work made up 29% of AJS articles and 32% of ASR articles. The articles cover a diversity of theoretical and empirical issues, from explaining businesses’ responses to economic recessions, the influence of category-spanning on hiring among freelance workers, to the effects of corporate downsizing on management diversity. If I had included all articles that use organizational theories, in some way, to explain a phenomenon, the percentages would be much higher. Based on these numbers, it’s hard to see how anyone could make the case that the future of organizational sociology is anything but bright.

So why is there such fear that organizational sociology’s future is in danger? Clearly, the existence of high quality research on organizations and work is not the problem; rather, I think the fear reflects changes in the constitution of the subfield itself. Our concerns stem mainly from the lack of organizational scholars in sociology departments and an increasing association of organizational sociology with business schools. Some people worry that organizational sociology is being diluted as a category of sociological research due its increasing presence in business schools. If organizational sociology is no longer taught in sociology departments or practiced by people who have PhDs in sociology, the subfield is going to become disassociated from the rest of sociology and lose its relevance.

I have had this same worry myself and wrote about it on orgtheory.net several months ago. Organizational sociology is missing from many top departments. Some of the field’s most prominent scholars are in business schools rather than sociology departments, and the PhD students they produce, although sociological in their training, have degrees from schools of management or business. At the same time, many of the field’s most senior and influential theorists have recently retired or are nearing retirement. Due to these trends, organizational theory is disappearing from sociology graduate school curricula. Without any exposure to it in their graduate training, organizational sociology may seem uninteresting and irrelevant to future sociologists – “a weird alien species that occasionally shows up and reproduces in their territory.”

These structural changes have led to the concern that the content of organizational sociology itself is changing. The abstract for the American Sociological Association session on this issue stated: “Many sociologically-trained scholars have migrated to business schools and become absorbed by the large interdisciplinary field of organization studies, which tends to have a managerial orientation. Little attention is directed to the broader impact of organizations on society.” One interpretation of this statement, whether intended or not, is that business schools corrupt organizational sociology. They force sociologists to translate their work to a management audience, and in the process, their work becomes more managerial. It is this corruption of ideas, not the structural distance between departments, that accounts for organizational sociology’s irrelevance to the rest of the discipline. Or so the argument goes.

But this is where you lose me. I don’t believe that the structural changes in organizational sociology have altered the content of the field. Being managerial, in my view, means that research is primarily done for the benefit of managers (e.g., to help them make better decisions or design better organizations). It’s certainly true that there is a lot of sociology that has managerial implications. That is, after all, why business schools started hiring sociologists in the first place – because sociological knowledge has useful, practical implications. In the MBA class I teach about power and influence in organizations, I draw extensively from sociology and social psychology, especially from research on gender, race, and inequality.

But just because sociology has practical implications doesn’t mean that organizational sociology has become more managerial as a result of moving into the business school world. The sociologists I know in business schools try to draw a very clear line between what they see as basic research and what they teach in the classroom. We’re purists too, and we believe in the integrity of social science. There is also a lot of work by sociologists in business schools that is simply trying to explain social phenomena and problems that happen to take place in organizational settings. For examples, see the work of Lauren Rivera on cultural matching in elite labor markets or research by Giacomo Negro and colleagues about how the expansion of lesbian/gay businesses made communities more likely to pass ordinances banning discrimination. It’s hard to see how you could classify any of this work as managerial. In fact, this research is fundamentally concerned about the broader impact of organizations on society.

So why, then, are we worried about organizational sociology being taught to PhD students in business schools? The first reason is about identity. Sociology is a fragmented discipline. In the same sociology department, you’ll have scholars who research marriage and family, labor unions and social movements, identity and emotions, and intergenerational mobility in China. The only thing sometimes that links all of these people is that they exist under one roof in a sociology department. Belonging to a sociology department becomes the identity marker of a sociologist. Once you have a subfield that is no longer housed primarily in sociology departments, we become concerned about whether it should really count as sociology. In that sense, organizational sociology is going through an identity crisis; although as I experience it, the crisis is occurring among those who don’t belong to the subfield rather than among those of us who identify as such. Concerns about organizational sociology being too managerial are really post-hoc rationalizations for making boundary distinctions.

Another reason for concern is that it’s not clear how organizational sociologists will reproduce themselves if they’re no longer training PhD students in sociology programs. But this is only a problem if you think that having a PhD in sociology is a necessary requirement for contributing to the discipline. As sociologists we know that disciplines need closure, and certifying one’s self as a member of the discipline by the type of PhD you hold helps to maintain that closure. But the reality is that there is a lot of amazing organizational sociology produced by scholars who have PhDs from management schools. Much of this work is published in journals like ASR and AJS, although it finds a place in specialty journals like Administrative Science Quarterly and Organization Science as well. Clearly, you don’t have to have a PhD in sociology to be a major contributor to the field. If our primary goal is to produce sociological knowledge, then does it really matter if organizational sociology is taught in and practiced by scholars in business schools?

The structure of the field has changed and this has created an identity crisis among sociologists who study organizations. But this identity crisis isn’t necessary as long as we all agree that our shared goals are the same – to produce sociological knowledge about organizations, their impact on society, and on the people who work in and around them. The biggest challenge for the future of organizational sociology, as I see it, is to bridge the structural distance between the sociologists in business schools and those in sociology departments. If these two groups stop talking to each other, then a significant social chasm will develop that will eventually lead to a knowledge gap. I don’t think that has happened yet, but if organizational sociologists stop conversing because they’re not in the same departments or because their PhDs aren’t the same, eventually they will stop contributing to a common body of knowledge. I think this is one reason Work in Progress and other forums like this are so important. We need places to seed those conversations and to create connections between sociologists who believe in contributing to sociological knowledge about organizations.

Brayden King is an associate professor of Management and Organizations and is also affiliated with the Department of Sociology.

7 comments
  1. Ezra Zuckerman Sivan said:

    Great post, Brayden. I think you nailed what the issues are. Two notes:

    A. I am quite convinced that I am a *better sociologist* for being in a business school– both because I am pushed to hone ideas as they apply in the real world (not necessarily to make them useful; but to make sure they shed light on real issues that people face) and due to interdisciplinary interactions.

    B. At least at MIT, there is a *lot* of attention to “the impact of organizations on society.” We have a vibrant industrial relations tradition, and there is a broad array of people who do work on health care, sustainability, work-family balance, inequality, and on and on. And as you say, the fact that our ideas might actually help managers is not such an awful thing (not all managers are in the exploitation business, btw)

  2. Elizabeth Gorman said:

    Very insightful post, Brayden, and I agree with most of what you say. But I take issue with you on one point. I would claim that the content of the field has indeed been altered, although not necessarily in the direction of becoming more managerial. (Of course, organizational studies in general is pretty managerial–see any issue of AMJ.) Rather, I would suggest that the unique content of organizational sociology is simply disappearing. Consider the topics of most of the works you cite: category-spanning and hiring, downsizing and management diversity, cultural matching in elite firms, communities passing anti-discrimination ordinances. What makes these “organizational”? Only the fact that the authors are employed in business schools. In sociology departments, these questions would be seen as pertaining to the sociology of work, stratification and inequality, or cultural or economic or political sociology. The world looks different when seen from a business school, because from that perch virtually anything appears to be “organizational sociology.” Not so in sociology departments, where other existing subfields have already staked out much of that turf.

  3. Brayden, I applaud your comments. I invite all organizational sociologists to attend the Academy of Management meetings to see how much scholarship there is concerned with organizations and society and issues that concern sociologists. I agree the goal is to produce good scholarship, not artificial divides. Sociologists who study organizations also exist in other schools, such as education, public policy, medicine, law, social work, among others. We should celebrate that organizational sociology is so useful. Our sociological forefathers heralded this (Lazarsfeld, Sewell, and Wilensky, (1967).

  4. Thanks for the comments. Ezra, I think what we’re seeing is that sociology has influenced the kinds of research topics that management PhD students (in sociology-based programs, anyway) find interesting. I’ve noticed the same trend in the Northwestern program.

    Elizabeth – I agree with your point, but I think this is a slightly different issue. The content of organizational sociology has shifted over time, moving away from the organization as the main object of theorizing and instead focusing more on the environment and individuals. This shift in theoretical focus has occurred in both sociology and management PhD programs. I’ve written a paper about this, which I’m happy to share if you’re interested. Here’s the link: http://pubsonline.informs.org/doi/abs/10.1287/orsc.1090.0443

    • Elizabeth Gorman said:

      Brayden – Yes! That’s exactly what I said in my own post. Thanks for confirming it (despite Ezra’s doubts). I’ll read your paper with interest, and I also note that Greenwood and Miller (2010) have made the same point on the management side (although they call for a return to a focus on organizational design).

      I don’t agree that this is a different issue, though – at least not on the sociology department side. There “organizational sociology” has to stake out its turf vis-a-vis a lot of other subfields. It also has to compete with them for students, as Mark Suchman’s post makes clear. When the distinctive content of “organizational sociology” largely disappears, it is harder to do both. When Lis Clemens went on the job market she was told to label herself as an organizational sociologist because “everyone thinks they are boring, but everyone knows they need one.” Nowadays, everyone still thinks they are boring but nobody thinks they need one.

      But I don’t align myself with Greenwood and Miller. I don’t think the answer is to go back to the organization as the main object of theorizing (although we could certainly do some of that). Instead, perhaps, the discipline should carve up this general subject matter area in a different way and apply a different set of labels. Maybe there should be a “sociology of business” that would encompass aspects of what we now think of as the sociology of work, organizational sociology, and economic sociology.

      The problem is that although subfield and sub-sub-field boundaries are “artificial divides,” as Pat says above, they are also institutionalized and thus have an objective reality. If a job candidate brands him- or herself as a “sociologist of work” he or she will be perceived differently than if the chosen brand is “organizational sociologist.” And if she/he brands her/himself as a “sociologist of business” no one will know what that means, which is likely to impair her/his hiring chances. There is no section of the ASA on “sociology of business” – a sociologist has to join a section with an existing label. If our sociologist wants to offer a course on “sociology of business,” there are no existing textbooks. It’s hard to define yourself in a way that spans multiple existing institutionalized categories (as I think we know from research carried out by some of the folks who have contributed to this discussion . . . 😊).

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