[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.
[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.
[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?
[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.
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!