Bob Stern and Steve Barley have attempted to seize the moral high ground, pointing to what they see as serious shortcomings in the types of research conducted and the direction of development of organizational studies. They claim that students of organizations have lost sight of an important part of the original agenda, as envisioned by Weber and reinforced by Parsons. It is always more fun to be an aggrieved observer of folly than to be an apologist for the status quo, but Stern and Barley's message strikes me as non-nuanced, overstated, and either outdated or premature. Their essay contains some sense, but much nonsense, and so I am happy to be invited to comment.
Stern and Barley assert that those of us conducting organizational research and building theory have pursued only a severely truncated portion of Weber's and Parsons' intellectual agenda. We are reminded that in his essay in the inaugural issue of the Administrative Science Quarterly, Parsons identified three strands of work, of which we have pursued only two. We have heeded his call to study the goal attainment and implementation processes internal to organizations, and we have pursued his charge to examine organizations' adaptation to their environments, employing increasingly expanded conceptions of environmental scope and content. But, we are told, we have seriously neglected Parsons' call to examine "the role of organizations in the larger sociocultural system" (p. 151) by failing to attend to the ways in which organizations are influenced by society and the ways in which society has been influenced - and transformed - by organizations. If true, this represents a grave oversight and an unconscionable narrowing of the original mandate. But is it true?
What sorts of evidence do Stern and Barley offer in support of their case? First, they supply many examples of studies on organizational effects performed in earlier times, but now, purportedly, no longer conducted. They begin, however, with an odd example: Whyte's (1956) "study" The Organization Man. Whyte as exemplar? The reference is not to William Foote Whyte, justly famous sociologist, but to William H. Whyte, Jr., journalist and contributing editor of Fortune. Study? The Organization Man is not the report of a study, but a typical journalistic tract piling together assorted statistics and illustrative anecdotes depicting the overweening pressures imposed by modern organizations on their participants. While relevant issues were raised by this work, understanding was little advanced. Surely, this is not the study from which to measure our fall; nor has this journalistic tradition suffered neglect. Contemporary hyperbolic journalists provide us with more than enough war stories and prescriptive homilies regarding the impact of organizations on contemporary society and vice versa to fill an ever-expanding demand for airport reading.
Other examples? Stern and Barley lament the demise of studies such as Hunter's, detailing how organizational power translated into community power. But numerous examples of related and updated studies on this topic exist (see Perrucci and Potter, 1989). Researchers are still pursuing studies of how and why schools acquire bureaucratic trappings, including the work of Meyer and numerous collaborators (e.g., Meyer and Scott, 1983; Scott and Meyer, 1994). Stern and Barley remind us that Seeley investigated corporate support for the Community Chest. This interest in the organizational impact on community philanthropy has not been neglected but has been pursued and substantially augmented by Galaskiewcz (1985), among others. Similarly, the tradition of research begun by Wirth on the economic vulnerability' of communities to corporate pressures continues up to the present in research by Friedland and Palmer (Friedland, 1983; Friedland and Palmer, 1984). In short, it is not difficult to cite examples of contemporary research that build usefully on what Stern and Barley declare to be neglected foundations.
It would be easy to provide additional examples to counter Stern and Barley's claim of traditions abandoned, but debate by example is not only tedious but, in the final analysis, fruitless, and worse, endless. Instead, let me shift from the specific to the general. The conclusions Stern and Barley reach appear to rest primarily on a review of the contents of the primary journals devoted to organizations, such as the Administrative Science Quarterly, the Academy of Management Journal, the Academy of Management Review, Review, and Organization Science. If we were to agree to restrict attention to these journals then, I acknowledge, the evidence would support their negative case, for the lion's share of articles in these journals does concentrate attention on organizational structures and processes and/or on organizational adaptation. But is this surprising? I think not.
Academic fields are defined primarily on the dependent variable. The core of the field of organization studies is circumscribed by discussions of characteristics of organizational forms, what transpires within their boundaries, and what factors influence their features, processes, and life chances. The focus of organizational studies is, in short, organizations.(1) This does not mean, however, that other questions are not asked, questions like, How do organizations affect the functioning of families or the nature of stratification processes or the behavior of educational, medical, or economic systems? Rather, it means that studies devoted to such questions are more likely to appear either in other, broader sociological journals, like the American Journal of Sociology or the American Sociological Review, or to be published in more specialized journals devoted to, respectively, educational, medical, or economic topics. There now exists a voluminous number of specialized journals and other publishing media reporting studies in each of these specific arenas of application. Rather than as a tale of betrayal and decline, I rather view the recent history of organizational studies as one of substantial growth and, consequently, increased differentiation in audiences and outlets.(2)
To test my sense that a great deal of organizationally informed work devoted to the illumination of broader societal topics is currently being published in the general sociological journals, I arbitrarily selected one such general sociology journal - the American Journal of Sociology - and reviewed its contents for the most recent two-year period: 1994 and 1995. Following is a listing of those articles that, I believe, make significant connections between organizational structures and processes and wider societal phenomena:
Roberto Fernandez and Roger Gould, "A dilemma of state power: Brokerage and influence in the national health policy domains."
William Bielby and Denise Bielby, "'All hits are flukes': Institutionalized decision making and the rhetoric of network prime time program development."
Bruce Western, "Unionization and labor market institutions in advanced capitalism, 1950-1985."
Heather Haveman and Lisa Cohen, "Ecological dynamics of careers The impact of organizational founding, dissolution and merger on job mobility."
Barbara Kilborne, Paula England, George Farkas, Kurt Beron and Dorothea Weir, "Returns to skills, compensating differentials and gender bias: Effects of occupational characteristics on the wages of white women and men."
Kenneth Land, Walter Davis, and Judith Blau, "Organizing the boys of summer: The evolution of U.S. minor-league baseball, 1883-1990."
Laurence Iannaccone, "Why strict churches are strong."
Helmut K. Anheier, Jurgen Gerhards, and Frank P. Romo, "Forms of capital and social structure in cultural fields: Examining Bourdieu's social topography."
Jo Dixon, "Organizational context of criminal sentencing."
Andrew Walder, "Local governments as industrial firms: An organizational analysis of China's transitional economy."
John Sutton, Frank Dobbin, John Meyer, and W. Richard Scott, "Legalization of the workplace."
Peter Hedstrom, "Contagious collectivities: On the spatial diffusion of Swedish trade unions, 1890-1940."
I submit that this wide-ranging collection of articles from a single contemporary journal is not consistent with the claim that current scholars are negligent in their duties. Rather, they appear to be busily engaged in the task of examining the myriad ways in which organizational forms and processes affect contemporary society in all its manifestations.
Having disputed their central thesis, it may not be necessary to consider in detail the causes Stern and Barley adduce to account for the trends they observe. Nevertheless, let me consider a few of their arguments regarding these "constraints" on adopting a wider perspective. They begin by noting that earlier studies examining broader organizational effects may have been more tractable because it was easier to circumscribe the boundary of the system being affected. Such studies usually focused on the local community. It was, of course, community/organizational sociologists like Warren (1967, 1972) who helped us to view community structure as an interorganizational field and first called attention to the extent to which these local fields were linked to and penetrated by wider - vertical - linkages with geographically remote organizations such as corporate headquarters and agencies of the state. Such distant ties rendered localities less meaningful as political, economic, and social entities.
It is obviously the case that as social systems become more interconnected and larger in scale their study becomes increasingly complex and demanding. Rather than retreating in defeat, however, organizational scholars have systematically elevated their levels of analysis and widened their templates to study organizational sets, organizational populations and, most recently, organizational fields (for a review, see Scott, 1992). The organizational field, defined by DiMaggio and Powell (1983: 143) as "those organizations that, in the aggregate, constitute a recognized area of institutional life," has, in my view, been particularly fruitful in enabling us to examine the myriad ways in which organizational actors connect to, influence, and are influenced by wider societal arenas. I think there is much evidence to support DiMaggio's (1986: 337) claim that "the organizational field has emerged as a critical unit bridging the organizational and societal levels in the study of social and community change."
The second constraint Stern and Barley describe concerns turf battles within sociology departments and between sociology and professional schools. To begin, I don't believe that their portrait of the emergence of organizational studies is historically accurate. They give too much emphasis to sociology and not enough to other academic disciplines. Organizational studies emerged during the 1950s and 1960s as a distinctive level/focus of inquiry and, due to its late arrival, encountered an entrenched and institutionalized arrray of academic disciplines in universities. There being little chance to establish a separate disciplinary entity, organizational interests infiltrated all of the social sciences - psychology, political science, economics, and (but not just) sociology. Stern and Barley depict sociology as being inhospitable to these new interests. I disagree. More so than any of the other disciplines, sociology welcomed and incorporated organizational studies, according organizational scholars both equal status (unlike psychology) and allowing their influence to permeate other subfields (unlike political science and economics) within the discipline. Hence, concerns with bureaucratization and formalization and rationalization permeate the many subfields and interstices of sociology.
Take, for example, what many regard as the central subfield of sociology: stratification. This arena has been invaded by organizational sociologists, who have ushered in "the new structuralism," noting all the ways in which organizational forms serve as the principal modules of contemporary stratification systems, defining the criteria of success and mediating mobility processes in modern societies (see Baron and Bielby, 1980; Stinchcombe, 1986; Rosenfeld, 1992). Similarly, organizational researchers have connected with other subfields, such as the sociology of education (Clark, 1983; Fuller and Rubinson, 1992), social movements (Zald and McCarthy, 1987), and political sociology (Evans, Rueschemeyer, and Skocpol, 1985; Thomas et al., 1987; Campbell and Lindberg, 1990), and more recently with economic sociology. An encyclopedic new handbook, edited by Smelser and Swedberg (1994), attests to the influence of organizational sociologists in this rapidly developing arena: Chapter authors include such central organizational sociologists as Nicole Biggart, James Coleman, Paul DiMaggio, Mark Granovetter, Gary Hamilton, Marshall Meyer, and Charles Tilly, and the bibliography contains extensive references to the works of Wayne Baker, Michael Burawoy, Ron Burt, James Coleman, Randall Collins, Jerry Davis, Paul DiMaggio, John Freeman, Mark Granovetter, Michael Hannan, Rosabeth Kanter, Ivan Light, John Meyer, Mark Mizruchi, Talcott Parsons, Walter Powell, Richard Rubinson, W. R. Scott, Arthur Stinchcombe, and Harrison White.
Concerns about the other constraints - overly scientistic models and career constraints - appear to apply with most force to an earlier stage in the development of organizational studies. As Stern and Barley themselves note, intellectual areas tend to be more rigid intellectually during their early stages of development as they seek to shore up a rigorous, scientific foundation and to secure a legitimate place among the sciences. In a preface to the second edition of my book on organizations, I have commented on this phase:
There was a time, approximately in the mid 1960s, when it appealed as if organizational sociology was in danger of being submerged under administrative science, which addresses the important but narrow issues of rational design and technical efficiency. That danger now appears quite remote. Organizational sociologists have rediscovered their intellectual roots and are enthusiastically addressing the old, central issues of the discipline - the distribution and use of power, the determinants and consequences of inequality, the creation of commitments and of meaning - within a set of new theoretical frameworks. (Scott, 1987: xvi)
It is in this sense that I believe Stern and Barley's judgment to be outdated.
The movement of organizational studies into the professional schools - education, business, and, increasingly, engineering and law - is, in general, a trend to be celebrated. All of these professional schools must relate to and prepare their graduates for working and surviving in organizational environments. At least some faculty research in these settings must necessarily focus more on applied and practical concerns. Thus, the teaching and scholarship conducted by these scholars will necessarily differ somewhat from that pursued in discipline-based departments situated in liberal arts programs. Social contexts provide cognitive frames and normative regimes that influence the activities of their participants. The fact that much research and teaching occurs in diverse settings enlarges the portfolio of organization studies. To the extent that an ever-increasing proportion of organizational sociologists are employed in professional school settings, however, Stern and Barley are right to be concerned about a developing imbalance that could influence the direction of future scholarship. In this sense, their judgments are premature - not currently accurate, but possibly true if current trends continue.
Stern and Barley also opine on the changing media employed by organizational scholars. In this regard, I take strong exception to their off-hand judgment that "organizational studies has also gradually grown to devalue the writing of books" (p. 159). No evidence for this conclusion is presented, and there are ample data to refute their claim.
Clemens et al. (1995) recently presented a useful overview of publication styles in the social sciences generally and sociology specifically. They noted that unlike the physical sciences, which emphasize articles, and history and the humanities, which emphasize books, sociology utilizes both media: It is a two-genre discipline. Moreover, surveys of citations conducted from the 1950s up to the present suggest that books are more influential, as indicated by citation counts, than articles. References in mainstream journal articles tend to favor books over articles in a ratio of roughly 3:2.(3) This is significant, because observers tend to agree that the book genre differs from that of the article: In a sample of sociology books and articles from 1987-88 drawn by Clemens and associates (1995), books were more likely to be based on original or secondary qualitative data, rather than quantitative data, and to utilize textual analysis more than articles (Table 2, p. 459).
More generally, as Wiley (1979: 797) observed, there exists a "split between journal and book sociology, the latter being far more diversified, intellectually open, and close to the pulse of world sociology." I believe this split obtains in organizational studies and, in particular, differentiates work published in core journals like the Administrative Science Quarterly from that published in books devoted to organizations. Recall to mind a few recent contributions to what I regard as an impressive, and societally attuned, literature: In the area of organizational effects on stratification and mobility processes, consider the scholarship of DiPrete (1989) and Blau (1994). On organizational impact on kinship structures, gender roles, and earnings, we have the works of Hochschild (1983, 1989) and Biggart (1989) and the volume edited by Blumberg (1991). March and Olsen (1989) and Heinz et at. (1993) usefully explore the effects of organizational structures and processes on political systems. Important studies that examine the impact of relations among organizations and economic competition include those by Burt (1992) and the collection edited by Nohria and Eccles (1992). Studies examining the effects of corporate organizations on the distribution of economic and political power include those by Zukin and DiMaggio (1990), Fligstein (1990), Knoke (1990), and Mizruchi (1992). The interaction of corporate activity and global competition is examined in papers collected by Gereffi and Korzeniewicz (1994) and by the work of Kanter (1995). And a number of important volumes usefully describe and examine the distinctive features of Asian organizations or evaluate differences among organizational and management systems across societies (see Lincoln and Kalleberg, 1990; Gerlach, 1992; Whitley, 1992; Guillen, 1994).
Whether any or all of these efforts qualify to be designated as the illusive "social systems" perspective that Stern and Barley repeatedly call for, there can be little doubt that they represent serious and systematic attempts by contemporary sociological scholars to probe the changing effects of organizational activities on broader societal systems. I realize that by including the work of scholars such as Gary Gereffi and Mark Mizruchi, I can be accused of expanding the boundaries of organizational scholarship to include all macro-sociological research. I don't believe this to be true, but, in any case, that is partly my point. There is a seamless web of macro-sociological scholarship that constructively links organizational research with broader social, economic, and political studies.
Having indicated some of the differences in my own reading of contemporary organizational sociology from the views of Stern and Barley, let me conclude by indicating one substantial point of agreement. They recommend that as serious students of organizations, we need to "change what we read" (p. 159). They exhort us to refrain from only consulting exclusively what I have termed the core journals and to read more widely in the specialty areas of health care, the family, international relations, and so on. To this instructive suggestion, I would add that we also need to regularly consult the more general scholarly journals to which I have eluded, where much relevant organizational research is published, as well as to peruse the extensive and remarkably active and diverse book literature of our field.
Stern and Barley claim that the glass is more than half empty. I see it as more than half full. Is there a need for additional systematic theorization and investigation of the ways in which organizational structures and processes affect contemporary societies? Of course there is! Given the importance and magnitude of the problems to be addressed, we are a tiny band of scholars. Nonetheless, my own view is that, at least up to the present time, organization theory is alive and well, although it wears coats of many colors, conducts its business under many labels, and distributes its wares through diverse media. It has not turned its back on the larger world. Rather, contemporary macro-sociological and comparative scholarship is much stronger and better informed than in previous times because it has mobilized the intellectual resources and built on the insights of organizational scholars.
1 At the same time, it is important to note that our understanding of what constitutes organizational forms and how to delimit their boundaries has changed greatly over time. We now encounter quasi-firms, virtual organizations, network organizations, etc.
2 The positive effects of size or scale on differentiation is one of the better established generalizations in the organizations literature (see Blau, 1970)
3 In the more limited survey conducted by Clemens and associates (1995: 459) comparing articles published in the American Journal of Sociology and in the American Sociological Review between 1987 and 1988, books were cited more frequently than journal articles by a ratio of 3: 1.
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Clark, Burton R. 1983 The Higher Education System: Academic Organization in Cross-National Perspective Berkeley: University of California Press.
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W. Richard (Dick) Scott ["The Mandate Is Still Being Honored: In Defense of Weber's Disciples"] is a professor of sociology at Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305, with courtesy appointments in the schools of business, education, and medicine (e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org). He is currently studying the evolution of the field of medical care service organizations in the San Francisco Bay region during the 50-year period since the end of World War II. He is the author of Institutions and Organizations (Sage, 1995) and the co-editor with Soren Christensen of The institutional Constuction of Organizations: International and Longitudinal Studies (Sage, 1995). He received his Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Chicago.…