The Mandate Is Still Being Honored: In Defense of Weber's Disciples

Article excerpt

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to be an apologist for the status quo, but Stern and Barley's message strikes me as non-nuanced, overstated, and either outdated or premature.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. …