Organizations and Institutions: Reply to Ulman

By Glenn, Sigrid S.; Malott, Maria E. | Behavior and Social Issues, Fall 2004 | Go to article overview

Organizations and Institutions: Reply to Ulman


Glenn, Sigrid S., Malott, Maria E., Behavior and Social Issues


We share Ulman's (2004) interest in large scale social phenomena and the inequities that characterize modern societies concern us. But we are not convinced that an adequate scientific formulation exists for dealing with large scale social change. This should not stop any of us from doing what we can do to improve social conditions and using any conceptual framework available to try to understand how best to do that. We, like Ulman and others, are convinced that the concepts of behavior analysis can help us - both in developing an adequate formulation and in doing now what we can to improve social conditions. Meanwhile, we will try to address Ulman's suggestion that institutional economics provides a more useful approach than ours to analyzing cultural phenomena.

The term organization is so generic that it can be applied to almost any collection of interrelated events or objects. Bodies are organizations of cells, solar systems are organizations of planets, scientific conferences are organizations of paper presentations, etc. The necessary elements of an organization appear to be a set of particulars that relate to each other in such a way that they form a higher order particular that exists as an identifiable, nameable, entity. Organizations are usually classified in terms of their constituent elements. We were interested in cultural organizations, and defined an organization as "a group of people who perform tasks that achieve a product (including service delivery)" (p. 148). Ulman suggested that we defined "organization" too narrowly and that our organizations were a subclass of a more inclusive class of phenomena called institutions, which presumably includes organizations defined in other ways. He did not suggest any alternative definition of organization or explain what other "types of organizations" (his italics) make up the class institutions. We interpret Ulman as saying that institutions (not organizations-by any definition) are the phenomena of interest in cultural analysis. We will return to his discussion of institutions later, but we continue here with our definition of organization and its relevance to cultural analysis in general.

The constituent elements of cultural organizations are the recurring behaviors of people and the material and social environments supporting that behavior. For the most part, the supporting material environment is made up of the products of other cultural organizations. The elements of cultural organizations must be functionally related to one another (organized in a whole of some kind). What holds the elements together despite the gradual replacement of parts with other parts? How does an organization continue to exist when all of its constituent behavioral repertoires are gradually replaced? How does an organization's constituent elements become related into the organized whole that exists at a particular juncture in space and time? It appears to us that the successive iterations of related behaviors continue recurring because they function as a whole. And that brings us to the aggregate product part of our definition of organizations. The product is the organization's function, its reason for existing.

We have taken this descriptive analysis a step further by suggesting that both the structure (component interlocking behavioral contingencies) and the function (products) of organizations exist, change, or cease as a result of external selecting environments. The application of the metacontingency principle to business organizations does not preclude application to other kinds of organizations any more than the application of operant principles to teaching dolphins precludes application to teaching college students. Although the particulars will differ greatly, depending on the type of organization, the principle remains the same.

Consider an organization formed to maintain neighborhood safety. The function (product) of the organization can be measured as rate of neighborhood crime. …

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