More Fragmentation? Unfinished Business in Linking the Social Sciences and the Humanities

By Zald, Mayer N. | Administrative Science Quarterly, June 1996 | Go to article overview

More Fragmentation? Unfinished Business in Linking the Social Sciences and the Humanities


Zald, Mayer N., Administrative Science Quarterly


What would James D. Thompson think about the state of administrative science today? Thompson, the founding editor of ASQ and the author of the classic Organizations in Action (1967), died prematurely in 1972 at the age of fifty-three.(1) In the inaugural issue of ASQ he laid out what he saw as the basic contours of the field and its problems. Thompson (1956) believed administrative science was an applied field, standing in relationship to the basic social sciences as did engineering to the physical sciences or medicine to the biological sciences. He thought that the major problems of the field stemmed from an overreliance on folklore and too little reliance on solid research findings.

Thompson argued for the development of abstract concepts that would transcend particular organizations, or even organizational types (e.g., hospitals, businesses). Although he did not explicitly say so, at that time in his career he seemed to believe in the possibility of an overarching theoretical framework; at least he wanted concepts to be systematically related to each other. He also thought that much more attention had to be paid to operational definitions, for only then could our casual conceptualizations be given a sharp research edge. Since administrative science was an applied field, he thought that special attention had to be paid to the criteria for evaluating organizations. Moreover, research in applied fields had to examine the side effects of recommended changes and the alternative routes to achieve specific goals. Thompson's own work was not much concerned with prescriptive issues, nor did it focus on operationalization and empirical research. Instead, he was a master at developing typologies and middle-range theories to explain differences between organizations and to think through the dynamics of organizations.

I suspect that Thompson would have a rather mixed view of the current scene. He would have recognized that we are less reliant on administrative lore and that an empirically based research discipline had emerged. Surely, in comparing the state of the art when ASQ was founded with the state of the art today, he would see a great advance; the sheer intellectual density and methodological rigor of current publications ought to have impressed him. Moreover, he would probably have welcomed the interesting theoretical conceptualizations and abstract formulations of some of the newer paradigms, such as transaction cost theory, population ecology, and institutional theory. He probably would have been dismayed, however, by the fragmentation and lack of shared paradigms that have come to characterize the field. He would have greeted Jeffrey Pfeffer's (1993) plea for a paradigmatic consensus with a loud Amen!

It is certainly the case that some research and theoretical traditions have emerged that organize substantial numbers of scholars into invisible colleges. Thus, for instance, a growing number of scholars do research on organizational learning and memory, a community of scholars share a well-defined methodology and theoretical presuppositions in population ecology, a strategically oriented group works on the resource-based theory of the firm, and so on. Yet even though occasionally some scholars, such as Baum and Singh (1994), propose theoretical frameworks that might serve as integrative paradigms across some of these communities, there is little reason to suspect that any current paradigm will in fact come to dominate much of the terrain of organizational studies.(2)

Organizational studies remains a multiparadigmatic field for a number of reasons. As the society changes and as organizations change, scholars turn their attention to new topics; thus, the object stability necessary for sustained attention is absent. For example, when something like total quality management (TQM) emerges on the management agenda, scholars rush in to study its effects and implications. Unlike many fields in natural science, organizational studies cannot fully internalize its language and conceptualizations. …

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