Organizational sociology has a past and, with luck, it can have a future

scott2[Ed note: This is the tenth of 14 posts in a virtual panel on The Future of Organizational Sociology.]

I was happy that the Organizations, Occupations and Work Section sponsored a panel discussion at the American Sociological Association meeting this year (2014) on this topic—one that has long been of concern to me. I’m old enough to remember when organizational sociology was a major focus of our discipline and occupied a central place in the programs of leading sociology departments. In its modern guise, this field emerged slowly in the late 1950’s, grew to prominence during 1970s, and was still strong well into the 1980s. We then witnessed the sad spectacle of the majority of graduates of these programs being snatched up by business schools, with others moving into various administrative or policy programs. These graduates continue to teach and study many aspects of organization, but their agenda has been curtailed by the context in which they operate and is often inflected by the dominance of economics in these settings. In this brief essay, I propose to respond to and amplify the comments of the some of the panel members, in particular, Howard Aldrich and Lis Clemens.

I was surprised (shocked!) to hear Howard opine that organizational sociology could have no future because it had no past! For evidence, he pointed to the fact that most of the contemporary research on organizations published in the leading sociology and management journals deals with contemporary organizations, mostly located in the U.S. I think this observation is empirically biased because it excludes the large and rich array of studies published as books and monographs. (Sociology is fortunate enough to be a two-literature field: we still write and value books as well as articles!) But, whether or not the evidence is confirmatory, it is irrelevant to the issue of concern. A review of what contemporary sociologists are currently doing tells us nothing about the past history of our area of scholarship!

As most of us know, and as I have been emphasizing through six editions of my textbook on organizations (chaps. 2-5), organization sociology emerged in the latter stages of the social and intellectual upheaval that accompanied the industrial revolution and modernization movements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Marx, Weber, Durkheim, Michels, and Simmel, among others, all pointed to the increasing rationalization, technicization, and differentiation that characterized these changes, as more sectors of society witnessed the rapid increase in the number, size and influence of formalized, special-purpose collectivities. After this promising start, the impetus for development in the field shifted to engineers, such as F.W. Taylor, and industrial psychologists, such as Elton Mayo. Taylor emphasized the impact of technology and advocated the rationalization of work activities; Mayo emphasized the importance of social and political processes. As I have pointed out previously, it was on this rock—a “cleft” rock pairing the technical and the social, the rational and the natural—that the modern field of organization theory was formed. Our history matters because, through path-dependent processes, this tension has remained with us up to the present moment.

During the late 1950s and into the 1960s, sociologists reclaimed the field with a concerted effort stimulated by Merton and including the seminal work of Bendix, Blau, Gouldner, Lipset, and Selznick. Their efforts consolidated the renewed field by stressing middle-range theory and solid empirical research. A number of texts, particularly those by Blau and Scott, Etzioni, Hall, and Perrow, appeared in the early 1960s and provided conceptual frames and agendas for the reemerging field. On this strong foundation, later scholars erected a diverse and productive collection of theoretical paradigms: including contingency theory, resource dependence, population ecology, and institutional theory. There is a history, and it is complex, dynamic, and, in many ways cumulative. (Howard, as an evolutionary theorist, would have to acknowledge this truth!) Lis Clemens correctly pointed out the effects of developments in the broader social context on our work. In the 1940s and 1950s, organizations had become much more salient to a wide range of people—our nation state had grown explosively and its reach into every arena of social life was increasingly apparent; women had entered the work-force in large numbers for the first time; and many men who served in the armed forces experienced for the first time the muscular power of discipline and regimentation. Under these conditions, it is no wonder that scholars and their students would be attracted to a field that could shed light on their present circumstances.

And what of today’s scholars and students? It seems obvious to me that organizations today are no less salient, although I believe our discipline has been slow to recognize, document, and interpret important new developments in the current era. The “industrial bureaucracies” are still here: in the older industries, in most parts of the government, and in our school systems. However, they have been joined by a new wave of industries, associated with new modes of organization. Indeed, as Jerry Davis and I have emphasized (chaps. 10-13), it is time to broaden our attention from the subject of relatively stable organizations to include the more flexible new modes of organizing: network forms, transitory teams, value chains. Many in our field are beginning to track these fundamental changes but, in my opinion, there remains insufficient attention to these innovative forms—both in our empirical work and in our theoretical development. We are in need of a new collection of middle-level theories to help us sort out and understand changes in the ways in which new modes of organizing are developing. We are fortunate that the increasing penetration and cross-learning occurring between social movement and organization/institutional theorists in recent years provides a stimulating flow of new ideas and mechanisms to enliven and inform this work.

Let me conclude with one additional observation. I want to comment on deficits in the institutional context within which new organization scholars are trained. As an organizational scholar and an institutionalist, I take seriously the importance of the contexts within which we work and learn.

In what is arguably the most productive period of organization sociology or, more broadly, organization studies—the 1970s-80s—scholars involved in this work were embedded in interdisciplinary contexts. At that time there existed a sizable number of locations in the U.S. in which some sort of interdisciplinary center provided a node for scholars from psychology, economics, sociology, political science, as well as from business, educational, engineering, health care, and political administration schools, to come together and learn from one another. The case I know best and, I believe, one of strongest of these centers was located at Stanford, but they also operated, during this period, at Carnegie Mellon, Illinois. Northwestern, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, North Carolina, and Texas. Because these programs forced scholars studying public agencies to explain their ideas to others studying for-profit firms, as well as to others studying schools or engineering construction teams, for example, the discourse that emerged had to take place at the more abstract level of “organizations and organizing”—the ways in which activities are structured and the mechanisms by which they operate. Organization theory was the beneficiary of this “more elevated” level of discourse.

Today, sadly, such interaction goes on in fewer places—certainly in ICOS (Interdisciplinary Center for Organization Studies) at U. Michigan; also at COR (Center for Organization Research), UC Irving; at SCANCOR (Scandinavian Consortium on Organizations) at Stanford; increasingly at Harvard-MIT; within the school of business, U. of Alberta; and the IOA Department of Copenhagen School of Business—but not in most university settings. In this age of Skype, tele-conferencing, and other forms of virtual/actual communities, can’t we find ways to reinvent these productive forums?

Dick Scott is Professor of Sociology, Emeritus, at Stanford University.

  1. Ezra Zuckerman Sivan said:


    Very interesting post. Since you wrote this before seeing Brayden’s post, I’ll be curious what you think of it. It is basically a rebuttal– and a very effective one, in my opinion– of the idea that we should be mourning the “sad spectacle” of people like us moving to business schools. As for whether our work is inflected by the dominance of economics in our settings, I hope you’ll forgive me in suggesting that it is much too simplistic (and of course, unsubstantiated). Economics is not equally dominant in all business schools. MIT and Northwestern are not Chicago, for example. Also, any serious attempt to assess what it means to be a sociologist in a bschool has to grapple with the fact that there are so few rational choice sociologists in business schools. That is an uncomfortable fact for the theory that sociologists in bschools are pseudo or wannabe economists. The main reason why rational choice sociologists don’t end up in business schools is because, when business schools hire sociologists, they *want them to be different from economists*! They already have economists, after all.

    (Not to say that there isn’t ambivalence about this in some corners. Just like there are plenty of people in a given university who find sociology departments useless, there are plenty of people in business school who could live without sociologists. But insofar as there is demand for sociologists, it tends to be demand for sociologists qua sociologists. At least in my experience.)



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