Does organizational sociology have a future? Leadership matters in shaping the turn of events

Thornton[Ed note: This is the 11th of 14 posts in a virtual panel on The Future of Organizational Sociology.]

A response to the question of what is the future of organizational sociology first depends on understanding how the institutional and organization environment has changed.

In commenting on changes I make some assumptions, i.e., an open systems perspective and competition for attention occurs in an ecology of institutional space.

Below is a partial natural history of observations, not necessarily in an event sequencing order or from systematic research. I don’t know much about blogging and assume that the purpose is to be provocative to raise questions that generate discussion.

  1. In the mid-1990s the name of the “Organizations Section” ASA was changed to “Organizations, Occupations, and Work.” Think about this from the perspective that occupations and organizations are alternative (competing) means to organize. The question I have is did this change shift scholarly interests to focus on what I call variable studies (i.e., gender is a variable) and categorical theories of personal identity related to stratification and distributive justice? Note the recent job search announcement on the OOW list serve for a position in migration and inequality.
  2. In the mid-1990s the “Economic Sociology Section” of ASA was born. This created a home for international and network scholars, but do these scholars self-identify as organizations scholars? As Howard Aldrich reflected on articles published in Administrative Science Quarterly, organizational sociology is predominately American, not international.
  3.  From the mid-1990s the development of entrepreneurship as a field of study has skyrocketed. Innovation and entrepreneurship are golden words on university campuses as witnessed by the rise of business plan challenges and entrepreneurship concentrations and certificate programs. I’m not talking about business schools only, but colleges of liberal arts and arts and sciences—where sociology departments are located. However, organizational sociology speaks more to established organizations than to starting profit-making organizations—not fully embracing the largess and push of the entrepreneurship movement. This is a missed opportunity as entrepreneurship directly addresses issues of interest such as poverty, wealth, and income distribution in society. Check out for example the recent Forbes special edition that defines the network of entrepreneurs that have grown corporations and the billions they are giving back to society, e.g., Gates, Buffett, Zuckerberg and many others.
  4.  The organization and management theory division of the Academy of Management has grown significantly. I agree with Howard Aldrich in that you are more likely to site organizational sociology alive and well at the Academy than at the American Sociological Association. Has anyone thought that maybe many of the organizational sociologists are in business schools because the study of organizations is more appreciated there?
  5.  The rapid and prolific development of network analysis as a field of study has reshaped many areas of study. Network studies are one of the largest categories of submissions to the Organization and Management Theory Division of the Academy of Management. Note networks are often not referred to as organizations and networks are assumed to have advantages over hierarchies (organizations) – see the seminal contributions by Granovetter, Powell, and Saxenian.
  6.  The increasing salience of individual identity and the retreat of corporate sources of identity can be interpreted that it is becoming less of a world of a certain kind of organizations.
  7.  There has been come-back and growing methods development and legitimacy of qualitative research methods and published qualitative research. I benchmark it to Kathleen Eisenhardt on building theories from case studies and the influence of Steve Barley’s seminal work. While a necessary correction to the era of mindless regressions, qualitative research has been critiqued for not systematically accumulating and generalizing. Qualitative research is typically not focused on testing theory; yet note that theory testing was a driving force in the development of organizational sociology and organization theory. Take for example the five strands identified by Scott: institutional, resource dependence, population ecology, transaction cost and contingency. Note that these five strands placed organizational sociology in the position of embracing and reaching out to interdisciplinary scholarship. Knowledge of how theories and research areas grow suggests that separating organizational sociology from organization theory will stunt growth of organizational sociology.
  8.  Harvard economist Michael Porter’s five forces model spearheaded the development of strategy departments in business schools as often distinct from the organizations and management areas. Both the rise of teaching strategy and as previously noted entrepreneurship in business schools caused concern over declining teaching of org theory to MBA students, i.e., org theory lacked applications and MBAs want to solve problems. Jerry Davis led a teaching round tables effort through OMT to engage organizations experts to demonstrate how to teach an org theory version of strategy and entrepreneurship. Is there a counterpart in Sociology departments to keep organizational sociology alive and well?
  9.  Some cultural sociologists used to study organizations, but then the French theorists caught on in American sociology. The question is where are the organizations in their views? Does anyone recall the standing room only Academy of Management symposium on what the French conventionalists can teach organization theorists.
  10.  Institutional theory is developing to focus on explaining agency and institutional heterogeneity by no longer siting phenomena through structuralism and the lenses of the organization and organizational-field levels of analysis, but instead through the lens of societal level institutions. Yet, institutional theory has always been considered under the umbrella of organizational sociology.
  11.  The world is in a time of transformation and organizational sociology may be behind in explaining the transformation. Products are now created without organizations and entrepreneurship is funded by the crowd.

In sum the consequences of these observations are the development of other perspectives that compete for scholars’ attention. Please do not misinterpret my comments. I am not saying any of these observations are necessarily systemically true, good, or bad.

There is one last argument, but important argument. A sequence of events or changes does not by itself determine the health of a field of study. The formation of fields requires leadership. Dick Scott with his multiple edition best-seller text, visiting scholar exchanges, and conference venues was a leader in collecting organizational sociology as an interdisciplinary field. One bright spot is Michael Lounsbury’s editorship of Research in the Sociology of Organizations. There are others coming forth as Ezra Zuckerman cogently points out. But, single publications alone will not create this—it takes the gift of active leadership.

Patricia H. Thornton is Adjunct Professor and an affiliate of the Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation at Duke University Fuqua School of Business.

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