The end of “organizational sociology” as we know it?

EHG_IMG_1067-2[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.

  1. Ezra Zuckerman Sivan said:


    Thanks for putting this panel together.

    I have to confess though that I find your reaction to Brayden and my posts to be unproductive. You write as follows:

    “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.”

    As I read it, your complaint is that the work we cited are not about organizations and they do not engage with work in sociology of work or economic sociology. But you provide not a shred of evidence to back up these charges. So you will forgive me for being unconvinced. For myself, I think that if the interested reader actually reads this work, they will find them (a) to be very much about organizations and pushing forward our understanding of them; and (b) to be plenty engaged in those areas.

    I understand that you may be reluctant to be more specific lest you offend. But without some evidence to support such charges, they fail to persuade.


  2. Elizabeth Gorman said:

    Ezra, thank you for the opportunity to clarify a few points. First of all, it’s true that I don’t provide many examples; I wanted to describe what I see as the overall trends and to avoid getting bogged down in lots of scholarly cites in this blog format. But let me be clear that I recognize that there are exceptions to the overall pattern.

    Next, I’m a bit perplexed that you see my post as making “complaint[s]” and “charges” concerning the work of business-school-based scholars. Those terms carry a negative valence that I did not at all mean to imply. Again, I’m merely trying to articulate what I think is going on, not to judge it.

    As to the specifics of my characterization of much recent work by business-school scholars, you read me as saying that it is “not about organizations.” That’s not what I said at all. Of course this work is about organizations, but there is a big difference between work that is “about organizations” and work that is “organizational sociology.” Maybe it will be easier to see this if I point to work on the sociology department side of things, where the point is just as true. A few examples of work that is “about organizations” include Celeste Watkins-Hayes’ book on welfare bureaucrats, Min Zhou’s work on Chinese immigrant organizations, Michael McQuarrie’s work on urban community organizations, Mark Chaves’ work on congregations . . . Yet I would argue that if we think of “organizational sociology,” these are not the names that leap to mind.

    I understand you to be saying (both here and in your own blog post), “Good work is good work – why worry about labels?” And I’m sympathetic to that view. But the reality is that labels matter. None of us can keep track of all the good work out there that is potentially relevant to our interests, so we have to apply screening criteria, and we tend to use labels as our screening criteria. Labels determine whom we see as being in “our” research community and thus whose work we pay attention to.

    On the sociology department side, very little work is now being produced that its authors would label uniquely or primarily as “organizational sociology” (because they think of “organizational sociology” as being about organizational structure and design) but lots of work that its authors label as sociology of work, inequality, urban sociology, or economic sociology. In business schools, scholars (if they are sociologically oriented) think of themselves as doing “organizational sociology,” even though they may be addressing the same subject matter areas as the sociology department folks. The result is that scholars on both sides tend not to think of each other as being in the same research community. (And, responding to your second criticism, let me clarify that I am not saying they *never* pay attention to each other.)

    Again, let me give an example from the sociology department side, where the problem is just as bad as on the business school side. In a paper that one of my graduate students recently submitted to a sociology journal, she used the concept of “institutional logics” to frame the way working mothers think about work and family and their resulting work-family strategies. Reviewers reacted negatively to her importation of this unfamiliar concept. After all, why use such an strange concept when there are already perfectly good ones available in the work and family literature?

    To sum up, I’m saying that (1) “traditional” organizational sociology–i.e., focusing on the causes of organizational structure and practices at a highly general, abstract level–is disappearing in both sociology departments and business schools (as to the latter, there’s still plenty of non-sociological work on structures and practices – although where that boundary is is another discussion); (2) in sociology departments, few sociologists label themselves as organizational sociologists; (3) in business schools, they do still label themselves as organizational sociologists; (4) as a result of the differential labeling, scholars on both sides of the sociology department/business school divide are talking mainly to each other.

    • Ezra Zuckerman Sivan said:

      Three quick reactions, Liz:

      a. I do not understand you when you say that you are just describing (“articulating what is going on” and not “judging.” You plainly are not happy with the trend that you describe. If you are not judging it, I don’t know what judging means.

      (And by the way, judge away. What else are we here for? My problem was not with the fact that you were being judgmental. It was that you did not supply evidence to back up your judgments, nor did you really engage with the points that Brayden [and I, but Brayden really spoke to these issues more directly] made.)

      b. You’re right that I coded “not ‘organizational’ sociology” as “not about organizations.” It seemed you were saying that it was sociology, but just not about organizations. Anyway, these semantics seem a distraction.

      c. The examples you gave do help me understand the problem as you see it. I’m skeptical that this issue– i.e., that sociologists who work on organizations do not connect their work to org soc– can be attributed to the absence of sociologists from sociology departments. I think it was always thus. (I don’t think org soc ever had a substantial presence at more than a small handful of major research departments). But I’d be open to seeing evidence that might counteract my skepticism. And I’ll agree that our absence from soc departments does not necessarily help. (Hmm…I wonder if we can run online phd seminars on org soc for students in departments where org soc is weak) As for the other side of the coin– i.e., that we b-school based sociologists think we are doing org soc when we’re not– I’m not sure I fully get that one.

  3. Hi Liz,
    Thank you for initiating this interesting forum at ASA and to Matt and colleagues for continuing it virtually. First let me clarify that I am affiliated with both a sociology department and a business school. Some of the arguments you make do not resonate with the experience I’ve had by seeing both sides of the coin. Since you use the research on institutional logics as an example and I am an author in this research—I will comment on these points. Suggesting that “active research conversations” on institutional logics were taking place “outside the disciplinary boundaries of sociology,” is contrary to the evidence. Yes, it’s great that we are having conferences and “active conversations” on institutional logics. We invite anyone who is interested in institutional analysis at any level of analysis to join in. Come join in at EGOS in Athens Greece this July 2-4

    While I would agree that management scholars have to a greater extent embraced institutional theory, the institutional logics perspective originated and is published in many sociological venues, some of which I note below. Just off the top of my head some of the best institutional logics research has been published in sociological venues, Thornton and Ocasio, 1999, which by the way won the best scholarly paper award granted by OOW, was published in AJS, Haveman and Rao, 1997 and Murray, 2010, also published in AJS and there have been 25 or so papers on institutional logics published in RSO, also see Goodrick and Reay, 2011, in Work and Occupations. Your claims raise the question of what is a disciplinary boundary. I can hardly think it is based on whether one is located in a school versus a department.
    That reviewers on your graduate student’s paper were not familiar with or dare I say not in favor of this sociological literature is an editorial problem. The editor either was not in the know or decided not to select reviewers sympathetic with the institutional logics research. We are all familiar with how difficult the review process can be. What happened to your graduate student has occurred to many scholars who Ptry to integrate literatures in a novel way. Fortunately for the growth of scholarly fields, graduate students persist and continue to strive to be creative.

    In reference to your point on “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,” I would like to point out that business schools are concerned about the influences of organizations on society. Many of them have worked over the last 10 years to develop leadership and ethics and social entrepreneurship centers that are focused on developing leaders who will be consequential in society and businesses with a social mission, focusing on the attributes you identify. I find my business school students are interested in solving social problems. The reason I haven’t responded to your blog sooner is because I have been in intensive teaching with MBA students using a live business case on technologies that replace petro-chemical products with biodegradable products. The difference between my business school and sociology students is that the business school students want to learn skills to eradicate these problems, not just study them. I realize that because I teach entrepreneurship, rather than finance, that I am more likely to have this particular view of the students.
    Patricia Thornton

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