Author Archives: Elizabeth Gorman

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.

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At the 2014 American Sociological Association meeting this past summer in San Francisco, I organized a well-attended panel session entitled, “Does Organizational Sociology Have a Future?” At the panel, we heard thoughtful and provocative talks from five distinguished panelists. Four of them hailed from sociology departments: Howard Aldrich (UNC-Chapel Hill), Elisabeth Clemens (University of Chicago), Harland Prechel (Texas A&M) and Martin Ruef (Duke). The fifth was from a business school: Ezra Zuckerman Sivan (MIT Sloan).

In response to the great audience interest, I have worked with the editors of this blog to continue the discussion here as a virtual panel. The panel begins with short essays from the five original panelists, who recapitulate and in some cases extend their remarks from the ASA session. These will be followed by additional contributions from Gerald F. Davis (University of Michigan), Heather Haveman (UC-Berkeley), Brayden King (Northwestern), Charles Perrow (Yale), W. Richard Scott (Stanford), Mark Suchman (Brown), Patricia H. Thornton (Duke), Matt Vidal (King’s College London) and myself.

We are going to post one essay per day beginning with the original panel and the continuing with the new commentators in alphabetical order.

We hope this panel will kickstart a wider and much-needed debate, and we welcome your comments in the comment section below each post!

I’d like to focus on two issues that are not addressed in-depth in this otherwise wonderful book.  First, the book overlooks the importance of the substantive legal doctrine that emerged between 1966 and the 1980s.  Title VII says that employers may not “discriminate against any individual with respect to . . . employment, because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.”  But what exactly does it mean to “discriminate . . . because of”?  Over time, the courts converged on the view that the employer must have been consciously motivated by the relevant characteristic at the time of making the adverse employment decision.  Under this definition, only a very narrow range of behavior gives rise to legal liability.

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