Organizations as Overlapping Jurisdictions: Restoring Reason in Organizational Accounts

Article excerpt

The social systems perspective, as Stern and Barley argue, offers something of profound significance for contemporary organizational theorists. We oldsters have an obligation, however, to provide some hindsight on Parsons' writings in the light of contemporary developments. First of all, consider that his total opus is worth about six months of concentrated study. Second, Parsons' work must be historicized. The intellectual, social, technological, and economic transformations that have intervened since Parsons (1951, 1956) wrote about the "social system" have been too profound for us now to accept the coinage. New concepts may very well explicitly incorporate Parsonian assumptions, but Parsons' structural-functionalism is a world view that did not stand the test of time. It might be useful to ask why, and, in my opinion, this relates to Parsons' assumptions about the overly taut integration of the systems' components (personality, social, and cultural), his Western-centric view of values, and a teleological account of social change. In this essay, I shall also stress how his dichotomous oppositions have left us with a legacy of confusion.

I share Stern and Barley's view that we have failed in organizational studies to sustain Parsons' view about the primacy of social organizations and that we need to advance theoretical work along these lines. Reviving the term "social system" has obvious advantages, as Stern and Barley suggest. It recognizes the dynamic relation between social organization and the environment, while maintaining a certain integrity of the analytical features of organizations (such as part-whole relationships). The implications of the term, however, invite a too-easy acceptance of organizational legitimacy and integration. Underlying heterogeneity, continual restructuring, and hidden hierarchies pose difficulties for conceptualization in the terms of a social system (Smith, 1994). I draw instead on the concept of "jurisdiction" and reexamine the concept of rationality, which has a far more complex role in Weber's writings than in Parsons'.


Having witnessed the postindustrial crisis and the unrelenting advance of global markets, we, as scholars, rushed to testify about the emergence of nonlinear processes and instantaneous communications, the disappearance of the actor-subject - lost in the huge processes of global transformation, the consumption of commodities, and the irrationalities produced by technological change - the crises of legitimate authority, and the triumph of consumerism (Harvey, 1989; Touraine, 1995). In organizational studies this emerged as an increasing disregard of what is social about organizations. Prominent themes in organizational theory emphasize institutional processes (Perrow, 1991; Hannan and Carroll, 1992; Baum and Powell, 1995), the atomistic, rational actor (Coleman, 1990; for a summary, see North, 1990), narration (White, 1992; Hirsch, 1986), and matrices of successful competition (Burt, 1992). Without making overly strong claims for shared values (Parsons, 1951; Etzioni, 1996), is it possible to reinstate a sociological view of social organizations? More fundamentally, what is the point?

The human and environmental implications of the global economy, as Stern and Barley imply, are enormous. We have not figured out how social organizations are implicated in the global economy and how they will adapt. In part this may be because we have lost our conceptual moorings about the nature of social organizations. Piecing together a language and set of concepts to understand the human dimensions of contemporary economic organizations is a task we have increasingly left to economists (Bernstein and Adler, 1994; Mishel, 1994) and anthropologists (Newman, 1988). While sociologists have tackled these problems from the standpoint of employment issues (Beck, Horan, and Tolbert, 1978; Baron, Davis-Blake, and Bielby, 1986; Knoke and Kalleberg, 1994), the divide between labor-market research and organizational studies appears to persist. …