[Ed note: This is the 13th of 14 posts in a virtual panel on The Future of Organizational Sociology.]
I organized the panel on “The Future of Organizational Sociology” at the 2014 American Sociological Association annual meeting, which inspired the present virtual panel. The motivation for the original session arose when, in quick succession, I had to update the syllabus for my graduate course on organizations and design a comprehensive examination reading list in the field. Both tasks force the instructor to take stock of recent developments in a field and try to make sense of them for students. Contemplating the work published over roughly the last two decades, I found myself puzzled about what to include. On the one hand, there were active research conversations that seemed to be taking place almost entirely among management faculty and in management journals—and thus arguably outside the disciplinary boundaries of sociology—such as the one on “institutional logics.” On the other hand, there was no shortage of sociological research involving organizations in some way, but most of it seemed better classified under (and was often clearly intended to speak to) another subfield of the discipline such as sociology of work, economic sociology, or social movements.
Work that could be uniquely identified as “organizational sociology” seemed to have largely disappeared.
What happened? Historically, organizational sociology operated at a relatively high level of abstraction. The goal was to understand and explain the structures and practices of complex organizations of all kinds, across multiple spheres of social life—not only business organizations, but also government agencies, schools, hospitals, nonprofits, even voluntary organizations. To be sure, in practice the empirical focus was on businesses and, to a lesser extent, public agencies. Still, there was an underlying assumption that it was possible and worthwhile to identify general concepts, principles, and processes that applied to all types of organizations. As Dick Scott has pointed out, there were always dual intellectual and practical aims, but they dovetailed in supporting the study of “what is” and “what works” across organizations in general. Today, it seems there are few sociologists (and even fewer graduate students) who are interested in developing or extending abstract concepts and theories about why organizations in general exhibit certain structures and practices, or which ones work best from the organization’s point of view. The broad pattern is the same in both sociology departments and business schools, although the institutional details differ.
In sociology departments, work appears to be moving either toward greater specialization, or toward higher or lower levels of analysis. The discipline is becoming increasingly specialized by sphere of social life, such as education, health, work, politics, religion, urban poverty, and so on, rather than by overarching processes or theoretical frameworks. Researchers in each sphere tend to be interested in organizations that are relevant to that sphere—such as schools or hospitals or urban community organizations—not in organizations in general. (Unfortunately, the study of business organizations has been all but entirely ceded to management scholars based in business schools.) For such researchers—as several of the original panelists pointed out–the abstract frameworks of traditional organizational sociology serve as tools to aid in understanding their more specific instances. They utilize organizational tools together with other abstract theoretical ideas drawn from various subfields of sociology.
Interest has also moved down to the individual level or up to the level of markets and entire economies. At the individual level, thriving streams of research examine workplace inequality, the continuing contest between employers and workers over the nature of work, the growing phenomena of professional work, interactive service work, and care work, and the problem of combining work and family. At the level of markets and economies, interest has focused on the cultural, political, and historical influences on market development and evolution. These two bodies of work are usually classified under “sociology of work” and “economic sociology,” respectively. Neither represents a continuation of traditional organizational sociology.
The disappearance of organizational sociology from sociology departments was brought home to me when I set out to organize the original ASA panel, because I wanted the majority of panelists to come from sociology departments. The task of finding them proved to be quite challenging. Indeed, although I was ultimately able to assemble a distinguished panel, several panelists were careful to say that they did not primarily define themselves as organizational sociologists.
In business schools, as Jerry Davis points out in his own contribution to this virtual panel, sociologists constitute a rather small component of the larger interdisciplinary field of management or organization studies (a community primarily affiliated with the Academy of Management, as Howard Aldrich notes in his blog post.) Business-school based sociologists, too, have moved away from the traditional topics and themes of organizational sociology. Because they remain largely focused on business organizations, they have avoided horizontal specialization, but their work shows the same vertical pattern of movement up or down in level of analysis. An example of upward movement is Heather Haveman’s work on the historical and political role of magazines in America (references in her own post to this panel). Business-school-based sociologists have also moved down to the individual level to examine aspects of workplace inequality and the experience of work (see work referenced by Ezra Zuckerman and Brayden King in their blog panel posts).
It is interesting that business-school-based scholars point to these streams of research as evidence that organizational sociology is thriving. I would argue that most of it is not, in fact, “organizational” sociology. Viewed from the standpoint of a business school, I suppose, virtually any sociological research appears to be “organizational” sociology, because business schools are, by definition, concerned with (business) organizations. If the authors were employed in sociology departments, however, their research questions would seem to fall under sociology of work or economic sociology. They would also need to engage more closely with those literatures, whereas currently their work is evolving largely in isolation from them.
Thus, my sense is that organizational sociology as we have known it is fading away. This is not necessarily a bad thing. It may mean that sociology departments stop offering graduate courses and comprehensive examinations in “organizations,” but it doesn’t mean that sociologists will cease to study organizations. Specific types of organizations will be studied in different subfields of the discipline, such as sociology of education and medical sociology. Individual-level workplace inequality and experience will be considered within the sociology of work and occupations, and organizations as actors within markets and economies will be studied under headings such as economic sociology or global and transnational sociology.
I am not sure where I would pigeonhole it, but I hope that sociologists will also reclaim the subject matter of business organizations—but with a new orientation and a new set of questions. Responding to recent calls to do more “public sociology,” sociologists could explore the consequences of business organizations’ structures and actions for societal outcomes that are important to all of us, such as inequality, poverty, health and safety, politics, and the environment (including climate change, as Charles Perrow argues in his post to this panel). Over the years, a smattering of work has paid attention to the broader impacts of business organizations on society: Perrow’s warnings about “normal accidents” and the “society of organizations,” Baker and Faulkner’s work on organizational conspiracies, Prechel’s research on corporate financial malfeasance, McKenzie’s article showing that organizational processes contributed to the production and sale of toxic mortgage-backed securities prior to the recent recession, Davis’ work on the effects of corporate forms on employment and income inequality. Much more could be done along these and similar lines, and this is the kind of research that sociologists excel at doing.
Elizabeth Gorman is Associate Professor and Director of Graduate Studies in the Sociology Department at the University of Virginia.