Organizations and Social Systems: Organization Theory's Neglected Mandate
Stern, Robert N., Barley, Stephen R., Administrative Science Quarterly
Academic specialization rarely involves simply redistributing tasks or topics. The emergence of a field almost always involves pruning back an initially broader set of interests. By sloughing off elements of earlier thought in favor of more developed concepts, members of nascent specialties select what they hope will be the most promising areas for roughing out a cumulative line of inquiry. In the process, however, ideas and agendas with value may be set aside and forgotten. Although there is a pause in most disciplines from time to time for researchers to consolidate what they have gained, a form of stock taking institutionalized in the review paper, they rarely inventory what they have lost. Nevertheless, rummaging through a discipline's refuse may occasionally prove prudent, for in sifting through the discards one sometimes uncovers treasures that appear to have been too hastily or unwittingly thrown out. It is in the spirit of such intellectual scavenging that we submit for consideration the rehabilitation of a line of inquiry set adrift by organization theory in its formative years: the study of how organizations affect the social systems in which they are embedded.
Macro-organizational, theorists routinely trace their mandate for studying organizations to the writings of Max Weber. Nearly every introductory text on organizational theory begins by reciting Weber's attributes of an ideal bureaucracy. But what introductory texts frequently fail to note is that Weber was less interested in unraveling the mysteries of bureaucracy than in understanding how Western society was changing. Along with Marx and Durkheim, Weber recognized that formal organizations were integral to the cultural transformation we sometimes call modernity itself. Writing in 1953, Kenneth Boulding (1968: 3-4) penned what remains a striking synopsis of the "organizational revolution":
. . . contrast the situation in 1952 with, say, that of 1852. in 1852 labor unions were practically non-existent. There were practically no employers' associations or trade associations. There were no farm organizations of any importance. There was no American Legion. National governments absorbed . . . an almost infinitesimal part of the total national product. There was no Department of Agriculture, no Department of Labor. . . . Outside of the Masons there were practically no fraternal organizations. There were few corporations and few large businesses. Organizations outside the government were largely confined to the churches, a few local philanthropic societies, and the political parties. . . . In place of the sparse fauna of 1852 we now have what seems like a vast jungle. In the United States 15,000,000 workers are organized into labor unions. At least half the farmers are organized into three large farm organizations. Great corporations dominate many fields of industry. Every trade and every industry . . . has one or more trade associations. Every profession is organized with its professional associations. There are innumerable organizations representing special interest groups, from Audubon societies to Zoroastrians. . . . Not only are there many more organizations . . . but the organizations are larger, better organized, more closely knit. . . . Yet this revolution has received little study, and is not something of which we are particularly conscious. It has crept upon us silently.
Although the revolution's coming may have been muffled, its reverberations echoed to all corners of social life and gradually changed the structure of society. The general contours of the change as it unfolded in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries are well known. The growth of corporations and government agencies triggered a shift in employment from agriculture to manufacturing and administration, irrevocably altering an occupational division of labor that had stood more or less intact for centuries. Because organizations congregated near sources of raw materials, cheap transportation, and existing centers of communication, they channeled waves of immigration and migration to cities, which accelerated urbanization. …