Organizational sociology that does not address climate change has little future

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

Does organizational sociology have a future?

The more important question is does mankind have a future in view of climate change. Sociology in general has been slow to deal with this problem, the major one facing mankind, and since organizations are responsible for most of the mounting emissions of greenhouse gases, organizational theorists should be leading the way. As I recall no one at the 2014 ASA panel on the future of organizational sociology mentioned climate change or the role that large polluting organizations play (even though Harland Prechel is doing great work on the topic).

Perhaps it is to be expected. Over the last 10 or so years papers at the annual American Sociological Association meetings that mention climate change (or global warming, as it used to be called before we got politically correct) were in rural sociology or the newly emerging environmental sociology, and dealt the effects of warming on gender, race and poverty, and did not mention the big emitters. It was not until 2012 that we had a thematic session that dealt with organizations and warming. But we have a “society of organizations” and big polluters are among the biggest and the most powerful. Organizational sociology would have a great future if it turned from the themes of the panel and addressed the greatest threat to mankind.

The main reason organizational sociologists have not taken up this issue is structural. The top 10 sociology departments in the US set the agenda for the others. Their senior people matured one or two decades ago before climate change became a major issue. Their best students are trained in the standard topics of sociology, and some find jobs in another top 10 department, continuing the dominance of the traditional topics. Of course, new specialties arose even within organizational sociology such as quantitative methods used to study organizations, network analysis, and new variations on the cultural theme. But these were evolutionary for the field. To study the organizational aspects of climate change would be a sharp break.

That break was not likely to appear in the top tier of apartments, secure in their dominance of acceptable topics. Instead it appeared in second and third tier departments and their many interdisciplinary ventures. Virtually all of the leading organizational sociologists concerned with climate change today are housed in second tier departments or “centers” and the like. They rarely gain admission to the top sociology journals, nor do the students they train gain admission to entry-level jobs in the top 10 departments. There is no decades-long tradition in this area of organizational sociology that can easily grow senior people in the top departments who can, in turn, shape the interests of the top students in those departments.

I am sure that all the senior people in the top departments pursuing their well-worn paths are aware of the problems of global warming and outraged that the US in particular is doing almost nothing about it. But I am not sure that they readily see big organizations as the major culprit. (In fact, most sociologists that are working on climate change do not choose to study the organizational aspects.) This is a failure of organizational sociology to steadily research the impact of organizations upon society, especially as students of organizational sociology migrate to business schools. We do not drill deep enough into many social problems to disclose the organizational sources of perverse social energy. If we did, if we colonized other parts of our sociological terrain and dug deep to into them with an organizational perspective, we could have a brighter future.

I was propelled into the study of organizations and warming by reading an article by Constance Trevor-Tracy entitled “Global Warming and Sociology.” Added evidence of sociological neglect can even be found a year later in Nature. My own writings on organization and warming are mainly in two chapters: one at the request of Levor-Tracy, entitled “Organizations and global warming,” and second, with Simone Pulver, the forthcoming ASA Task Force publication (Oxford) (available on request).

Charles Perrow is an emeritus professor of sociology at Yale University.

  1. Howard Aldrich said:

    As always,Chick has challenged us to consider whether we, as organizational sociologists, are doing enough. His post about organizational sociology’s relative neglect of this question made me curious about whether sociology in general has been neglectful. A quick check via Google found over half a million hits for the combination of “sociology” and “climate change.” Confirming one of Chick’s points, almost none of them were links to articles, courses, or blog posts from “top tier” sociology departments.

    I found a 158 page report from a workshop sponsored by NSF on “sociological perspectives on global climate change” that was held back in May 2008. Of the 33 scholars listed as participating, only one was from a top-tier department. Moreover, none of the people listed were organizational sociologists! The questions posed at the workshop echo Chick’s points: what is the state of sociological research on global climate change and what are the major research questions that sociologists should be asking and seeking to answer about climate change. I wonder if there’s been any follow-up at NSF or by conference participants? Perhaps someone who attended that meeting or has read the report could give us an answer. Or maybe Chick knows?

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