Why before how: “Distinctive and indispensable” beats “sophisticated but superfluous”

[Ed note: This is the 12th of 14 posts in a virtual panel on The Future of Organizational Sociology.]

Organizational sociology, I would argue, has become increasingly sophisticated over the years; but it has done so in ways that make it less interesting to non-organizational sociologists and, hence, less able to survive outside the hothouse microclimate of a self-styled organizational studies program. From my particular vantage point in a sociology department on a campus without a business school, the problem is this: Most of my students – graduate as well as undergraduate – arrive in sociology with interests that they do not see as organizational: Globalization and development, health and medicine, environment (yes indeed Chick!), social movements, inequality, urban structure, science and technology, occasionally law. But only rarely “organizations.” I (like most readers of this blog, I suspect) see all these topics as profoundly and thoroughly organizational. But how do I make that case to the next generation of sociologists?

Of course, I can share my excitement for the ins and outs of organizational ecology and institutional theory, resource dependence and network embeddedness, even institutional economics and competitive strategy. But these conversations all too often end on an awkward note: “Wow,” says the student, “You really seem to like this stuff. So what does org theory tell us about [insert a “non-organizational” topic from the list above]?” I pause and gather my thoughts: “It tells us that organizational practices are institutionally constructed and constrained; that outcomes are shaped by cultural and political forces; that interorganizational exchanges are embedded in social networks; that organizational boundaries are porous; that workplaces are rife with interpersonal dynamics and informal structures and biases; that…” “Wait,” says the student, sounding as though I’ve just plucked away the football that he/she was about to kick, “so why should I study organizations, then, instead of studying institutions or culture or politics or networks or small-group processes?”

“Why should I study organizations?” is not, I suspect, a question that gets debated much in business schools or in interdisciplinary org-studies training programs. Those venues exist solely for that purpose, and by the time people arrive, they have long since resolved the “why organizations?” question to their own and their colleagues’ satisfaction. But in sociology departments, this question deeply matters, and if we can’t answer it, sociology and organizational studies will inevitably drift apart, to both sides’ detriment.

To stay healthy and relevant, I’d posit, a subfield needs to meet three challenges: First, it needs to build an ever more sophisticated understanding of its chosen subject matter (e.g., organizations). Second, it needs to capture distinctive aspects of its subject matter that are not simply reducible to the subjects of other adjacent subfields. And third, it needs to identify ways in which understanding its chosen subject matter is indispensable for fully understanding the adjacent subfields themselves. The first challenge is about internal elaboration; the latter two are about boundary management.

Transplanted into a microclimate where it is a field unto itself, organizational studies risks fixating on the intra-field challenge of sophistication, and losing sight of the equally crucial inter-field challenges of distinctiveness and indispensability. Many of the developments that we most cherish in organizational sociology’s century-long march toward sophistication – the discovery of informal organization, the opening to the environment, the acknowledgement of conflict, the turn toward culture – would seem to imply that organizations are not as distinctive as one might naively expect, and that the study of organizations is therefore not as indispensible for understanding teams, industries, politics and beliefs as we, in our more grandiose moments, might claim.

Within a b-school, this may seem like a fair trade: An emphasis on the continuity between organizations and the rest of social life allows us to assert the importance of sociology and the myopia of managerialism. But within sociology itself, we are left with little to offer except the assertion that organizations simply must be of interest, because we and our b-school friends find them interesting. The problem is not that the shift toward business schools has made organizational sociology more managerial (I see relatively little evidence of this), but that it has made organizational sociology more self-absorbed.

Administrative science can’t save us from this narcissistic tar pit: We cannot escape our self-absorption simply by going back to the days of seeing organizations as closed, rational systems – as things to be managed, not things to be reckoned with. This might “solve” the challenge of distinctiveness, but only by sacrificing our hard-won sophistication and our potential indispensability.

“Society of Organizations” rhetoric fares little better: We cannot merely assert that organizations are powerful and prevalent – crucial “independent variables” in society – and leave it at that. Crassly done, this, too, reflects a closed-system mindset, an unsophisticated assumption that organizations are indispensable simply because they are the “cause without cause” in the modern order. The choir may believe this, but it won’t convince the rest of the populace, who worship at the altar of other forces – class, gender, globalization, culture, politics – with at least as much claim to causal priority as organizations.

Even our beloved open-system theories come up short: Open-systems thinking is a useful corrective, reminding us that organizations are socially embedded, and that the organizational processes that may appear as independent variables in any given social dynamic are themselves the dependent variables of other social dynamics further upstream. Unfortunately, if organizations are nothing more than conduits for external forces, then their independent causal significance is likely to be minor: Understand the external forces, and you will understand the external outcome, no org-soc prelim exam needed!

Rather, to balance sophistication, distinctiveness and relevance, we need to cultivate a stronger sense of organizations as neither independent nor dependent variables, but as mediating and moderating variables. As mediators, organizations matter when they respond not only to exogenous, non-organizational forces, but also to distinctive dynamics and rigidities within the organizational system itself. And as moderators, organizations matter when exogenous, non-organizational forces themselves operate distinctively within an organizational system versus outside it. Mediators and moderators are sociologically interesting precisely because they have independent – distinctive and indispensible – causal significance. They are embedded within the process under study, without being fully reducible to prior features of that process.

Over the years, organizational sociology has offered several such accounts of organizational mediation and moderation: Merton argued that bureaucratic work changes workers’ personalities; the Aston Group argued that size, formalization, centralization, administrative load and the like channel one another into a limited number of viable configurations; strategic contingencies theory argued that organizations exalt uncertainty-reduction as a basis of power, in ways that other social forms may not; organizational ecology argued that industrial change often reflects endogenous organizational population-dynamics rather than exogenous variations in environmental carrying capacity; institutional theory argued that isomorphism does not arise primarily from the (exogenous) demands of efficiency, but from structuration dynamics within fields of mutually-aware and mutually-constitutive organizational players.

None of these theories have gone away. But in our rush to ever-more-macro levels of analysis, perhaps we have become a bit distracted from the distinctively organizational mechanisms that made such accounts seem sophisticated and indispensible to our non-organizational colleagues in the first place.

And, as Jerry’s and Dick’s posts suggest, perhaps we have also become a bit distracted from the crucial task of updating our toolkit of “distinctively organizational mechanisms” to address the new generation of organizational structures and practices now emerging on the scene. Work still shapes personality, even if the nature of the work has changed; size, formalization, centralization, etc., still interrelate, even if information technology has changed the nature of the interrelation. But at the same time, many crucial “organizational” processes may have broken out of the bureaucratic shell, moving to field-level decision-making bodies, network-level interaction-circuits, or profession-level cultures and procedures. Industry standard-setting may be taking the place of organizational rulemaking; referral networks may be taking the place of job ladders; branding may be taking the place of culture-building; and entrepreneurship may be taking the place of employment. This is hardly a harbinger of the death of organizational sociology, however. It is simply a new set of problematics, challenging us to articulate new models of mediation and moderation that can reestablish organizational sociology’s claims to distinctiveness and indispensability.

As long as important social dynamics play out differently within and around organizational systems than outside organizational systems, organizational scholars will have a place at the sociological table. The only question is whether we will make the intellectual effort to fight for that place, or whether instead we will retreat into the easy comfort of our own company, where we can engage in the undistracted pursuit of sophistication, treating distinctiveness as irrelevant and indispensability as self-evident. In a b-school, that latter course may have a certain appeal; but in a sociology department, it may not have much of a future.

Mark Suchman is Professor of Sociology and a member of the steering committee for Business, Entrepreneurship and Organizations at Brown University.

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