[Ed note: This is the ninth of 14 posts in a virtual panel on The Future of Organizational Sociology.]
Does organizational sociology have a future?
The more important question is does mankind have a future in view of climate change. Sociology in general has been slow to deal with this problem, the major one facing mankind, and since organizations are responsible for most of the mounting emissions of greenhouse gases, organizational theorists should be leading the way. As I recall no one at the 2014 ASA panel on the future of organizational sociology mentioned climate change or the role that large polluting organizations play (even though Harland Prechel is doing great work on the topic).
Perhaps it is to be expected. Over the last 10 or so years papers at the annual American Sociological Association meetings that mention climate change (or global warming, as it used to be called before we got politically correct) were in rural sociology or the newly emerging environmental sociology, and dealt the effects of warming on gender, race and poverty, and did not mention the big emitters. It was not until 2012 that we had a thematic session that dealt with organizations and warming. But we have a “society of organizations” and big polluters are among the biggest and the most powerful. Organizational sociology would have a great future if it turned from the themes of the panel and addressed the greatest threat to mankind.
[Ed note: This is the eighth of 14 posts in a virtual panel on The Future of Organizational Sociology.]
Following the panel on “The Future of Organizational Sociology” at the 2014 American Sociological Association meeting, there seems to be a worry that we’re a subfield that is out of touch with mainstream sociology. But for a field in trouble, organizational sociology does very well in our discipline’s most important journals. Looking at issues of the American Journal of Sociology and the American Sociological Review published in the last year (since June 2013) and based on my rough coding of abstracts, articles that are primarily about organizations, occupations, and work made up 29% of AJS articles and 32% of ASR articles. The articles cover a diversity of theoretical and empirical issues, from explaining businesses’ responses to economic recessions, the influence of category-spanning on hiring among freelance workers, to the effects of corporate downsizing on management diversity. If I had included all articles that use organizational theories, in some way, to explain a phenomenon, the percentages would be much higher. Based on these numbers, it’s hard to see how anyone could make the case that the future of organizational sociology is anything but bright.
So why is there such fear that organizational sociology’s future is in danger? Clearly, the existence of high quality research on organizations and work is not the problem; rather, I think the fear reflects changes in the constitution of the subfield itself. Our concerns stem mainly from the lack of organizational scholars in sociology departments and an increasing association of organizational sociology with business schools. Some people worry that organizational sociology is being diluted as a category of sociological research due its increasing presence in business schools. If organizational sociology is no longer taught in sociology departments or practiced by people who have PhDs in sociology, the subfield is going to become disassociated from the rest of sociology and lose its relevance.
[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.
[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!