Negotiated Orders Research Paper

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The negotiated order of an organization is the pattern of activities which has arisen or emerged over time as an outcome of the interplay of the variety of interests, understandings, reactions, and initiatives of the individuals and groups involved in the organization. To examine negotiated orders in any given organization is to turn away from the more traditional way of looking at organizations which give primacy of attention to the pattern or ordering of activities chosen (or ‘designed’) by those officially in charge of the organization. Instead, the influences of people other than administrative designers on structures and patterns are recognized. The influence and power of some individuals or groups will be greater than that of others, but the ordering of activities which arises in practice is always seen as resulting from the contributions of the plurality of parties to the organization as a whole.

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1. Origins Of The Concept

The concept of ‘negotiated order’ first appeared in a study of a psychiatric hospital (Strauss et al. 1963). At that stage, the researchers did not claim a generalized relevance for the concept. However, the leading researcher, Strauss (1978), later showed how it could be used more generally to understand organizational processes, including ones in industrial organizations, and its insights have subsequently been incorporated into a broad stream of thinking about organizations which focuses on processual aspects of organizational life. The approach emerged from the symbolic interactionist tradition of social psychology, a perspective that stresses the two-way relationship between human beings and their social context. People construct their realities through processes of interaction with others, and their identities emerge as part of this process of interacting and reality making. Such a theoretical approach, with its strongly anti-determinist orientation, inevitably leads to a questioning of views of organizations that treat the formal arrangement of roles, rules, and procedures as the major determinants of the activities of organization participants. Indeed, Strauss et al. explicitly identify their study with such a critical stance on orthodoxy: ‘Students of formal organization tend to underplay the processes of internal change as well as overestimate the more stable features of organizations—including its rules and its hierarchical statuses’ (1963).

2. The Negotiated Order Of The Hospital

The study of the psychiatric hospital reported by Strauss et al. (1963) focuses on the interactions of the variety of individuals and groups who are involved in its activities. These include the doctors, nurses, patients, patients’ families, social workers, nutritionists, administrative workers, and so on. Although the rules, policies, official procedures, and hierarchical statuses of the hospital play a part in the patterns which emerge from the interactions which take place, the patterns are shown to be emergent. They emerge from the processes whereby different parties make use of rules, procedures, and information and negotiate between them what actually happens. These negotiations are characterized in a variety of ways, as agreements, contracts, understandings, pacts, and so on. But two things are emphasized throughout. First, it is stressed that these negotiated outcomes are always ‘temporal’ and have to be made and remade over time. A head nurse, for example, may gain agreement to move a patient to another ward, after it is agreed that the first ward has ‘tried for a little longer’ with that patient. In the light of how that patient fares, however, the patient may or may not subsequently be moved. The ‘deal’ will have been remade, implicitly or explicitly. Second, it is stressed that there is a patterning to what might, at first sight, appear to be a series of unique encounters. The deal between the head nurse and the doctor over a particular patient in specific circumstances, for example, takes place in the light of how interactions between members of these two occupational groups generally tend to occur across the hospital.

Out of the ongoing multiplicity of interactions and negotiations a pattern of hospital life, a ‘negotiated order,’ emerges. Order is thus not imposed on social actors by ‘the hospital’ but the ‘order’ which, in effect, is ‘the hospital’ is constructed socially by the interactions of the various individuals and groups. And each of these brings to the negotiation of order their own interests, understandings, loyalties, knowledge, occupational standing, and social origins—all these elements themselves being liable to change as they are taken into processes of reality negotiation.

3. Parallel Early Studies

This broad approach of focusing on interactional processes in organizations was not peculiar to this group of social scientists studying one particular mental hospital. However, the Strauss et al. study, with its concept of ‘negotiated order,’ has produced a valuable analytical ‘handle’ to attach to such processes. Goffman’s classic study, Asylums (1961), with its own interactionist framework, has many parallels with the Strauss et al. study (which was partly influenced by early accounts of Goffman’s research). And the same argument can be made with regard to Dalton’s participant observation study of managerial work in an industrial setting (Dalton 1959). In fact, it was this study that Strauss (1978) used to illustrate the position he later came to take: that the negotiated order concept had a wider currency than had earlier been implied. He notes that Dalton’s detailing of what Strauss calls ‘sub-processes of negotiation’ is especially rich. Many researchers in managerial behavior would probably agree that few studies have surpassed Dalton’s analysis of how managers engage in, as Strauss puts it, ‘trading off, the paying off of accumulated obligations, the covert making of deals and other kinds of secret bargains, the use of additional covering negotiations for keeping hidden the results of previous covert arrangements, the bypassing of negotiations, and the mediating of negotiations; also, a very complex balancing of accumulated favors and obligations, along with the juggling of commitments within the negotiations itself’ (1978).

4. Negotiated Order: Rules And Ethnomethodology

One particular area where Strauss et al. (1963) follow Dalton (1959) is in attending to the frequency with which formal rules are broken, stretched, or ignored, not only to suit sectional purposes, but also to ‘get things done.’ A similar insight is central to ethnomethodological writing on organizations. This contributes to an understanding of how ‘orders’ are produced in organizations by focusing closely on how individuals, in their organizational interactions, ‘work,’ especially through talk, to present what they are doing as ‘sensible’ because it accords with rules (Bittner 1965, Silverman and Jones 1974). The rule (or even ‘the organization’ itself) is not something preexisting or existing outside ongoing organizational interactions. It is, rather, a resource that people draw upon to legitimize their actions and further whatever projects they are pursuing in the work context.

This perspective can be illustrated with a small case study. A van driver was overheard explaining to a factory security officer who had stopped him why he and his colleagues regularly took an illegal ‘short cut’ across a large industrial plant. He said, ‘The company says that all employees should use their initiative, always thinking of the customer first. By driving this way we are getting the goods out to the customer as quickly as we can. The other security men know this, and don’t stop us.’ Ethnomethodological analysis would point to the way this driver uses a notion of ‘the organization’ (‘the company’) as one resource and utilizes a ‘rule’ (‘use initiative and put customers first’) as another. And this case equally well illustrates the broad notion of ‘negotiated order.’ Informal negotiations between van drivers and security officers which allowed the driving along an illegal route through the plant to become part of the ‘order’ of the organization had occurred. It suited both parties (a ‘quiet life’ for the security people and a saving of time and effort for the drivers) and it ‘got the job done.’ However, we must remember that negotiated order thinking sees such deals as continually liable to change. In fact such a change was happening on the day these events were observed. A new security man had started work. And he believed that the one-way rule (which made the short-cut ‘illegal’) was a necessary one for protecting the safety of employees working in the plant. He too utilized a notion of ‘the organization’ and drew on a ‘rule’ when he said, ‘You should realize that the company puts employee safety before even customers. Don’t drive down here again.’ He got his way—for the time being.

5. Ambiguity, Interpretation, And Enactment

It might be argued that this case is not looking at ‘rules’ in a proper sense, and that the individuals in the case study were talking simply in terms of inferred rules. But organizational thinking that follows a broad negotiated order approach would accept that all rules, or any other organizational procedure for that matter, are ambiguous. An important work in this tradition by March and Olsen (1976) argues that all organizational choices occur in a context where there is ambiguity about everything, from organizational goals and rules, through to the technologies used and people’s knowledge of the past. Weick (1979), in another important contribution to this broad style of thinking, similarly points to equivocality in every aspect of the work of ‘organizing.’ Members of organizations create the organization (or, rather, achieve ‘organizing’) through continuous processes of interpretation and action based on interpretations: they enact both the organization and the ‘environment’ to which it relates.

Out of a range of partly linked theoretical origins—symbolic interactionism, ‘phenomenology’ and Weberian interpretative sociology—a general style of organizational analysis has developed which, in one way or another, incorporates the ‘negotiated order’ insight. It is a processual style of analysis: it treats organizational patterns as emergent rather than as the creations of their managerial designers. And such an emphasis has been reinforced by the influence on organizational theorizing of postmodern thinkers. Chia, for example, adopting an ‘ontology of becoming’ encourages the analysis of the ‘discursive micropractices which generate (the) stabilized effects’ which constitute ‘organizing’ (1996).

The original way in which the negotiated order concept was used was criticized, even by broadly sympathetic critics like Day and Day (1977), for insufficiently grounding its analysis of interactional processes in their wider political, structural and historical context. Strauss’ later work responded positively to some of these points and, in particular, demonstrated how the approach could handle such allegedly neglected matters as conflicts which are ‘endemic, or essential to relations between or among negotiating parties’ (1978). However, a serious reservation has to remain with regard to what the analysis of negotiated orders within organizations can add to organizational theorizing generally if it focuses primarily on interactional patterns within organizations. It is important to relate the strategic exchanges which occur within organizations to the wider patterns of exchange between organizations and how these exchanges relate to wider patterns of culture and political economy (Watson 1994). The negotiated order perspective has had less impact than it perhaps deserved because it was deemed inadequate as a general perspective for the study of organizations and their management. However, if the significant insights which it offers are incorporated into broader perspectives which link activities at the intra-organizational interactional level to wider societal patterns and processes, then it has considerable and continuing potential as a device for understanding organizational processes.


  1. Bittner E 1965 The concept of organization. Sociology Research 32: 239–55
  2. Chia R C H 1996 Organizational Analysis as Deconstructive Practice. de Gruyter, Berlin
  3. Dalton M 1959 Men Who Massage. Wiley, New York
  4. Day R A, Day J V 1977 A review of the current state of negotiated order theory: An appreciation and a critique. Sociological Quarterly 18: 126–42
  5. Goffman E 1961 Asylums. Anchor Books, Garden City, NY
  6. March J G, Olsen J P 1976 Ambiguity and Choice in Organizations. Universitetsforlagtt, Bergen, Norway
  7. Silverman D, Jones J 1976 Organizational Work: The Language of Grading, and the Grading of Language. Macmillan, London
  8. Strauss A 1978 Negotiations. Jossey Bass, San Francisco
  9. Strauss A, Schatzman L, Ehrlich D, Bucher R, Sabsin M 1963 The hospital and its negotiated order. In: Friedson E (eds.) The Hospital in Modern Society. Free Press of Glencoe, New York
  10. Watson T J 1994 In Search of Management. Routledge, London
  11. Weick K E 1979 The Social Psychology of Organizing, 2nd edn. Addison-Wesley, Reading, MA


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