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Panel – Future of Organizational Sociology

head shot june 2013 -- oxford[Ed note: This is the seventh of 14 posts in a virtual panel on The Future of Organizational Sociology.]

In August the American Sociological Association held a panel, organized by Liz Gorman, on “The Future of Organizational Sociology.” I want to follow Liz’s instructions and react to the comments made by the panelists (Howard Aldrich, Lis Clemens, Martin Ruef, Harland Prechel, and Ezra Zuckerman). In doing so, I’ll try to connect their comments and suggest how organizational sociology can have a vibrant future.

Is it really true that organizational sociology has no past? I’m not as pessimistic as Howard Aldrich: I see many very good sociological studies of organizations that are historical, meaning that they are sensitive to both time and place. Let me give you just a few examples. First, my Berkeley colleague Cristina Mora’s book Making Hispanics (2014 University of Chicago Press) reveals how social-movement organizations, the US Census Bureau, and Spanish-language media firms jointly created the ethno-racial category “Hispanic,” despite the fact that Spanish-speaking immigrants to the US differ widely in terms of race and country of origin. This book powerfully demonstrates the effect of organizations in a particular time and place – the United States in the 1970s and 1980s.

Second, let me mention my work on the magazine industry in America from the mid-eighteenth to the mid-nineteenth century. In a series of published papers, all available on my website, and a book entitled Magazines and the Making of America (which will be published in 2015 by Princeton University Press), I demonstrate how, over the first 120 years of their history, magazines connected people: this “old” new media literally mediated between people, facilitating frequent interactions between them even when they were far apart and would otherwise never meet face to face, thus creating many distinct communities whose members had common interests, values, principles, ideas, and identities. These included communities of faith (religion), purpose (social reform), and practice (commerce and specialized occupations). Communities of different types often intersected, which fostered the pluralistic integration that was central to American public culture in this era. In this way, magazines helped make an America that was distinct from European societies: magazines both pushed American society toward a common center and pulled it apart into many distinct subgroups.

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

Organizational sociology may have reached its high water mark 25 years ago, when Chick Perrow penned “A society of organizations.” Perrow argued that organizations had absorbed society, which implied that organizational sociology was now the master key for making sense of society. He stated, “I argue that the appearance of large organizations in the United States makes organizations the key phenomenon of our time, and thus politics, social class, economics, technology, religion, the family, and even social psychology take on the character of dependent variables.” Stratification happened through organizational practices of hiring and promotion. Work went on inside organizations, structured by organizational rules. Social movements increasingly constituted themselves as formal organizations. In a society of organizations, organizational sociology should be the sun around which the other subfields in sociology orbit. Instead, organizational scholars are scarce on the ground in most departments today, as if the Rapture had come and left behind only the demographers and criminologists.

Many or most of the disappeared wound up in business schools. It’s not hard to see why: the money is better, and the jobs were more plentiful. Yet it would be a mistake to imagine that b-schools are crammed full of organizational sociologists, at least in North America. While fancy schools like Stanford, Northwestern, and MIT are strong outposts for organization theory, most schools are not. Hiring is typically driven by teaching needs, and there is surprisingly little demand among MBA students for courses on organization design (much less institutional logics or categorization). Most organization theorists in business schools wind up teaching strategy and, if they want to get tenure, publishing work that can pass for strategy. All of this bodes ill for organization theory, wherever it is done.

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

As I noted in my remarks at the ASA this past August, I am optimistic about the future of organizational sociology.  Why?  In short, the reason is that over the past several years, I have had the great privilege of serving on dissertation committees of students whose work demonstrates the continuing importance of organizational sociology and who have made significant progress in pushing the subfield forward. I mentioned three such scholars and their work.  If I had time, I would have mentioned a few more.  Of course, I could have followed a more quantitative route in trying to assess trends in the field.  But I care much more about quality than quantity.  That there are even a few young organizational sociologists doing such high-quality work is enough for me to be optimistic about the future. Read More

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

In my view, organizational sociology has a past – indeed, a LOT of past.  But it is less clear whether it has a future.

Consider a simple word association test. When I say “organizational sociology”, what do you think of? You probably think of core theoretical paradigms such as organizational ecology, the new institutionalism, network theories of organizations, and the neo-Weberian view of bureaucracy.  Perhaps you would be inclined to put evolutionary organizational theory into the mix.  And, if you are feeling a bit more adventurous, you might add organizational ethnography, theories of organizational culture, and even the Carnegie School.  These are the major frameworks that emerged (or were reborn) between the 1950s and the 1970s; and came of age in the 1980s and 1990s.

When I say “organizational sociology”, it is also likely that that you’ll think of the scholars who developed these perspectives. I’ve listed a number of them here, including many familiar names (Ruef – Table).  I have also listed some of their most influential articles and books, as well as the staggering number of citations for them.

The past is about people, not just ideas. So what are these folks doing now?  Unfortunately, we have had a number of leading organizational sociologists pass away over the last few years, including John Freeman in 2008 and Michael Cohen last year.  And a number of our leading luminaries have recently moved to emeritus or emerita status – although some, such as Dick Scott, remain as active as ever.

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

Organizational scholars have raised a number of questions with regard to the future of organizational theory. Is organizational sociology losing its audience? If so, is it because of the expansion of organizational studies in business schools and the increased interests in questions asked by other subfields in sociology? If organizational theory is losing its audience, is the shift due solely to changes external to the field or can it be explained by the origins and development of organizational theory itself?

Some organizational sociologists may be concerned by the expansion of graduate programs in business schools as undermining job opportunities for organizational sociologist. Although this is a relevant concern, it should not come as a surprise. Despite the interdisciplinary focus of a few graduate programs in organizational studies, business (and public administration) schools have questioned the relevance of the sociology of organizations for years. Many of these questions emerge from the inherently conflicting disciplinary agendas and the failure to confront and resolve these conflicting agendas.

Although organizational theory may be losing some of its audience, there are many reasons to be optimistic about the future of field. Organizational theory has a long and rich history of high-quality empirical studies and useful concepts that explain a wide range of organizational phenomena. Despite these strengths, in my view, if organizational theory is to retain its audience, the primary task is to build on these analytic tools to construct organizational theories with greater explanatory power.

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

As teachers, we often hear that the future will be shaped by our students. If this is the case, then the signs are mixed and confusing. On one day, a good omen may appear, typically in the form of an enthusiastic undergraduate. At the University of Chicago, these students are often economics or public policy majors who have encountered a piece of organizational analysis and seized upon it as the key to understanding the complexities of the policy process, firm behavior, or the organization of markets. On less auspicious days, our most dedicated graduate students present a different vision of the future, one in which organizational researchers risk becoming overwhelmed by a meta-literature, focused on agendas, epistemologies, ontologies and reflections.

This tale of two students poses a challenge for organizational sociologists. How can we retain the capacity to inspire while demanding of ourselves the kind of rigor and clarity that are represented by all those discussions of ontology, epistemology, and method? This challenge is not new. As a graduate student, I received the following job market wisdom circa 1990: “Go out on the market as an organizations person. Everyone knows they need one. Everyone thinks they are boring.” If I could pull off a performance as an interesting organizations person, I would do just fine.

These three tales remind us to revisit a key question for any scholar: What makes something interesting?

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA[Ed note: This is the first of 14 posts in a virtual panel on The Future of Organizational Sociology.]

I think the future of organizational sociology depends on our doing a better job of things that we already know we should be doing, but aren’t. So, I’m going to not recommend we do anything new, but instead that we do some things much better.

As Liz Gorman reminded me, we were asked to talk about organization sociology, not just organization theory. I didn’t want to run afoul of Art Stinchcombe’s jeremiad concerning the division between “theory” and “research” in sociology. In one of his many provocative essays, Art borrowed a sentiment from Groucho Marx, who famously said “any club that would have me as a member I wouldn’t want to join”! In Art’s case he said that he didn’t want to be part of a discipline that allowed some people to call themselves “theorists” rather than just plain “sociologists.” He argued that theory and research were inextricably intertwined, and I share that sentiment. It’s why I think of research and theory when I think of organization sociology, rather than something separate and apart called “theory.” Theory should be research driven, informed by research, and used to guide research.

I’m looking for a more cumulative organizational sociology, focused on systematically building findings and identifying their scope conditions.

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