Sociology Of Organizations Research Paper

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The sociology of organizations, like its larger sister the theory of organizations, is not a unified field of research. In its already long history, it has seen many different approaches which have left a more or less profound imprint on our way of thinking about organizations. It is beyond the scope of this research paper to attempt a complete account of this diversity.



However, taking a distant view, one can distinguish two sociological templates which structure around two understandings of the word organization. The first sees organizations as structural forms, the nature, characteristics, and dynamics of which have to be explained, whereas the second insists on the processes of structuring, i.e., organizing collective human action. Within certain limits, the explanandum is of course similar. For both, it is the structure and the functioning of organizations but they have different starting points, take different routes, and put the emphasis differently. Thus, the first starts with organizations and will focus on the variation of their forms: as a consequence, organizations are its basic units of analysis and it will analyze the social dynamics on the inter-organizational, sectoral, or societal level in order to explain organizational form. The second, on the other hand, will start with social action and will consider the sheer existence and maintenance of organizations as the basic problem to be addressed: as a consequence, it will concentrate its analysis on interaction processes within organizations, will take individuals (their decisions and their actions) as its basic unit of analysis, and will stress the differences between individual organizations, even if they belong to the same organizational field.

Both strands have their intellectual roots in the seminal work of Max Weber. In his Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft (1964), Weber develops a theory of the forms of legitimate domination in society (traditional, charismatic, and rational–legal forms of domination) which roughly define the bases of the legitimacy of power and influence in a given society and condition the types of organizations to be found within each of these regimes of domination. He then argues that bureaucracy is the organizational form developing within the framework of the rational–legal form of domination and proceeds to give an ideal–typical description of bureaucracy, i.e., a highly formalized and hierarchical form of organization characterized by the predominance of written rules and procedures, formalized tasks, precise definitions of competence, clear lines of subordination, the explicit separation of ownership and management responsibility, and the merit principle as the only legitimate route of access to the different functions in the organization. Weber sees unifying dynamics at work, pushing towards the development and generalization of bureaucratic organizations as they are both legitimate and more efficient. He sees the roots of this greater efficiency essentially in the fact that the arbitrary imposition of power and the resulting interpersonal conflicts are limited by written rules and procedures which allow for more rational, foreseeable, and standardized execution of tasks.

This analysis includes all the themes which organizational sociology has developed and dwelled on through all these years. It also contains the roots for the divide which still structures two traditions in organizational sociology today. One is concerned with the study of organizational forms as they are shaped by the constraints of efficiency (this is the main concern of what has become known as ‘structural contingency theory’) or legitimacy (this is the theme of the ‘neoinstitutional school’ in organizational sociology). The other tradition emphasizes the study of interaction and decision-making processes which ‘produce’ as well as ‘reproduce’ regularities and structure, i.e., organization, and which first developed out of the empirical analysis of public and private bureaucracies.

1. From The Dysfunctions Of Bureaucracy To Organizations As Constructs Of Collective Action

In the 1940s and 1950s, bureaucracy was a central theme of empirical study of organizations, especially in the United States. This has certainly to do with the proliferation of huge administrative bureaucracies and the seemingly unlimited growth of the large corporation which was looked upon with both fascination, and fear. Following Weber’s analyses, this movement was interpreted as the proof of the greater efficiency made possible by the standardization, formalization, and depersonalisation characteristic of this form of organization. However, following R. Michels’ (1914) iron law of oligarchy, this secular movement raised fears because the conditioning powers of these huge organizations and the oligarchic and technocratic tendencies inherent in their functioning were seen as a threat to democracy and the ideals of reform: organizations as means for collective action in favor of reform set free forces which were in contradiction with these ideals.

The main interest of the early studies of bureaucracy (Merton 1940, Selznick 1949, Blau 1955, Gouldner 1954, 1955, Crozier 1961, 1964) was to have considered bureaucracies as a complex social system which had to be studied empirically in order to reconstruct and understand its informal structures and dynamics. Applying the lessons and methods from industrial sociology which developed out of the Hawthorne experiments and the human relations movement sparked by Roethlisberger’s and Mayo’s account of them, these studies produced results which were in contradiction to both the extrapolations and fears mentioned above. They showed that bureaucracies not only were not always efficient, but also produced informal behavior and dynamics which were often dysfunctional, i.e., detrimental to the attainment of their goals and which in any case created a greater diversity in the ways organizations function than would have been expected on theoretical grounds. Thus, Merton shows that the impersonal rules on which bureaucracies are built induce rigid and ritualistic behavior on the part of their members which are dysfunctional for their capacity to respond to the needs of their clients. Blau demonstrates that the efficiency of bureaucracies is not the product of their formal characteristics but bases his argument on the fact that their members take it upon themselves to break the rules in order to enhance the quality and efficiency of their work.

These studies, however, go beyond merely showing the inefficiencies or deviations of bureaucracies. Following Robert Merton’s analysis (1936) of the unanticipated consequences of purposive social action and of the latent functions of social structures, there are two complementary explanations not only for the functioning, but also for the emergence of bureaucracy.

On the one hand, these studies show that bureaucracy is the place (and also the product) of ‘vicious circles of bureaucratization,’ as the attempts at countering unanticipated and dysfunctional consequences of bureaucratic structures lead to an accentuation of the very characteristics which have generated these dysfunctions. This is, for instance, the mechanism analyzed by Gouldner in his study of a gypsum mine: the formal rules instituted to strengthen control over workers and to fight against their low work morale instead increase the latter’s apathy, which management tries to counter by strengthening the surveillance of the workers and an increase in the rules on which this surveillance is based. This attempt, in turn, further increases workers’ apathy and passivity, and so on. Crozier’s analysis (1964) of the vicious circle generated by impersonal rules and the resulting parallel power relations follows a similar pattern. He shows how the proliferation of impersonal rules in view of eliminating the uncertainties which condition the satisfactory functioning of an organization increases the power of those whose contribution is needed in order to cope with the remaining sources of uncertainty. The interpersonal power and dependence relations which are generated around these uncertainties and the (unofficial and illegitimate) privileges they produce, will justify fears of personal power and dependence relations and therefore increase the pressure for further eliminating remaining uncertainties through centralization and new impersonal rules, which in turn will generate new parallel power relations, and so forth.

On the other hand, these studies explain the bureaucratization of organizations by the latent functions it fulfills for their members. Gouldner (1954) distinguishes five latent functions of bureaucracy: impersonal rules allow for distant control, thus creating a filter and a protection by reducing interpersonal relations; they legitimize sanctions but they also restrict the freedom of behavior of the members of the hierarchy by codifying the possibilities of sanction; they make possible apathy, i.e., behavior which restricts itself to the strict application of the rules; and therefore they are a resource for bargaining with members of the hierarchy if they need some extra commitment, which they always do. Moreover, Gouldner shows that bureaucratization is an answer for the problem of succession in organizations, in so far as impersonal rules can at least partially be a substitute for the personal legitimacy which the outgoing managers enjoyed, but which the incoming managers lack. Crozier’s analysis (1964) follows a similar pattern but completes Gouldner’s interpretations with a broader theory: the bureaucratic mode of organization based on the proliferation of written rules and procedures is a way to avoid face-to-face relations and to escape the arbitrariness and uncertainties of direct power and dependence relations. Its latent function is a general one and relates to the necessity of taming and structuring the power and dependence relations which are at the heart of collective action and without which no cooperative endeavor is feasible.

The essential merit of these seminal studies is to enable us to go beyond the sterile opposition inherited from the human relations tradition between, on the one hand, formal structure understood to be the incarnation of rationality as well as efficiency and, on the other, the actual behavior of its members which result from their irrationality, their affectivity, and their conditioning by prior processes of socialization. In their theorizing, the rationality of formal structure is no more opposed to the affectivity of human behavior. On the contrary, they interpret these structures as an answer to the cognitive limits and to the constraints stemming from human affectivity. The structure and the goals of an organization can thus no more be understood as the expression of a logic which could be independent from, and superior to, the relations between the members of an organization. They are created by these relations and draw their significance and their justification from them. In short, they are no longer an exogenous variable. They have been put back into the dealings between the members of an organization and become the endogenous result of them: they cannot be understood independently from the interaction and bargaining processes for which they constitute only the framework. They therefore cannot escape the limits of rationality characterizing the human behavior which produces them, and have to be analyzed together.

One can clearly see the thrust of this line of reasoning. Drawing on these studies of bureaucracy as well as on the seminal work of the Carnegie group around H. Simon on a behavioral theory of decision making in organizations (March and Simon 1958, Cyert and March 1963) and on the analyses of collective action and public or private decision making in the United States and in Europe (see Allison 1971, Crozier and Friedberg 1977, Gremion 1976, Hirschmann 1967, 1970, Lindblom 1959, Olson 1965, Schelling 1961, 1978), it points towards a behavioral conceptualization of organizations which links organizational behavior to the cognitive and relational capacities of their members. An organization, in this view, can be understood as an arena (Cyert and March 1963) or as game structures (Crozier and Friedberg 1977, 1995) where participants are free to choose their behavior, but within limits. The range of their choices is restricted, because if they do not want to lose in the transactions with the other participants, they have to take into account the rules of the game which prevail and which determine the value of the resources of each participant and the appropriate ways of using them in transactions with other participants. But within these limits, which may be variable and leave more or less leeway, they can and will actually choose their behavior which can thus be understood as the way in which they adjust to the constraints of their situation as they see it, while simultaneously trying to further their interests (in whatever way they may define them) by using the resources and opportunities they perceive. Their behavior therefore cannot be considered as completely hazardous: it is the expression of a decision which makes sense to the person who is choosing and therefore is rational in the sense of H. Simon’s bounded rationality (Simon 1957, March and Simon 1958). It is a reasonable adjustment by any participant to his or her situation; i.e., the network of interdependencies within which each participant is located, an adjustment which is reasonable within the limits of his or her perception of the opportunities and constraints contained in this situation and of his or her capacity to make use of these opportunities and constraints.

Such an approach to organizations, which emphasizes the constraints on organization resulting from the limited (but extendable) cognitive and relational capacities of human beings, naturally transcends the usual distinctions between different forms of organizations (hospitals, firms, administration, etc.), and its heuristic value clearly is not limited to the analysis of formal organizations. Its target is, in fact, a much broader issue which all kinds of organizations and all forms of collective action have to solve; i.e., the problem of cooperation and coordination between actors pursuing and continuing to pursue divergent interests. It is, in a way, centered around a theory of the organizational phenomenon which aims to understand how participants who continue to pursue divergent interests can nonetheless organize or accept to be organized in the pursuit of collective goals. Such an approach radically banalizes formal organizations which, in this view, are only one of many possible forms of contexts of action the characteristics of which constrain the collective action of the various participants (Friedberg 1993). Organizations thus become the artificial device which help analyze and understand the general problem of human cooperation and coordination. Organizational sociology becomes a way of theorizing about collective social action.

2. Efficiency And Legitimacy As Unifying Forces Shaping Organizational Forms

The other tradition, to which we will now turn, has a different starting point. It sees organizations as structural forms, the nature, characteristics, and dynamics of which have to be explained. Thus, it starts with organizations and will focus on the variation of their forms: organizations are its basic units of analysis and it will try and analyze the social dynamics on the interorganizational, sectoral, or societal level in order to explain organizational form. These dynamics are traced to two distinct constraints: efficiency and legitimacy, each of which is stressed by a different strand of analysis.

Efficiency is the constraint stressed by structural contingency theory. This paradigm emerged in the middle of the 1960s and developed as a critical reaction to the theoretical and methodological perspective characteristic of organizational sociology of the 1950s. With regard to methodology, the then dominant qualitative case-study method was criticized because it provided merely a thick description but no grounds for generalizations or for the construction of a general theory of organizations. With regard to theory, it was argued that the over-emphasis on motivations and human relations characteristic of organizational thinking so far had had two consequences detrimental to our understanding of organizations: the role of structure and its influence on these relations had been downplayed, while, and this was seen as even more important, the context of an organization and the way its characteristics condition an organization’s structure and functioning had been largely ignored.

As a consequence, structural contingency theory set out on a different program. Its focus was not on action or behavior within organizations, but on organizations as structured entities whose characteristics and change over time have to be explained using quantitative methods for the statistical study of samples of organizations in order to list, describe, and, if possible, measure the influence which the main dimensions of an organization’s context exert on its structures, its functioning, and its performance. In other words, this paradigm was concerned with two main questions: which dimensions of context affect an organization’s (mainly structural) characteristics and to what extent? what is the influence of each of these characteristics on the performance of an organization?

Structural contingency theory has been the dominant paradigm in the field of organization studies from the middle of the 1960s up to the first half of the 1980s, especially in the Anglo-Saxon world. It has generated an immense effort to determine and measure the impact of the various dimensions of context. Let us mention a few particularly significant research programs. The influence of technology on the structure of organizations has been explored by J. Woodward (1958, 1965, 1970) and C. Perrow (1967, 1970); the Aston group around D. Pugh (1963) and D. Hickson et al. (1969), as well as P. Blau in the United States (Blau and Schoenherr, 1971) have explored the link in particular between size (among other, less central variables) and organizational structure. The impact of the technical, economic, and social characteristics of an organization’s environment on its structure and mode of functioning have been independently studied in the seminal work of Burns and Stalker in England (1961) and Lawrence and Lorsch in the Unites States (1967). Last, but not least, the more conceptual work of J. Thompson (1967) has also been very influential, especially in regard to his conceptualization of what he called the ‘task environment’ of an organization. This approach is developed further by the population ecology of organizations, which builds on the seminal work of Aldrich (1979) as well as Hannan and Freeman (1977) and which aims at studying the contextual conditions which explain the emergence, the diffusion, and the disappearance of populations of organizations which share the same characteristics and which fit certain contextual conditions or ecological niches.

The main contribution of this quantitative and apparently more scientific approach to the study of organizations has been to demonstrate empirically the impossibility to define a single best way for structuring an organization. The good, i.e., the efficient structure, cannot be defined in general and beforehand. It is a function of the context and can only be defined after the different dimensions of this context have been recognized and taken into account in the organizational design. However, this very important contribution should not cover up the theoretical and empirical shortcomings of the approach. Indeed, according to the reasoning on which it is based, context becomes a constraint because organizations are viewed as driven by the constraints of efficiency. Indeed, so this reasoning goes, organizations have to adjust to their contexts because their performance depends on this fit: in order to survive, they have to be efficient and, in order to be efficient, they have to adjust to the demands of their context. Although there is certainly some truth in this hypothesis, the empirical diversity of organizations with similar contexts has shown that structural contingency theory has vastly overestimated the unifying power of the constraint of efficiency. It has enlarged our understanding of the forces which shape organizations but in the process has overstated its case and has been proven wrong by empirical analysis.

Against this reductionism, which pretends to analyze organizations from a purely technical or economic viewpoint (the pressure of the constraint of efficiency), the neo-institutional school in organizational analysis has promoted a more sociological perspective. It emphasizes the symbolic and normative dimensions of action in and between organizations, and stresses the role of their culture, i.e., a set of cognitive and normative frames, to explain their mode of functioning. In other words, it puts forward a less intentional and rational perspective on organizations. In this view, organizations are neither the simple tools of their masters nor machines to maximize efficiency. They are also institutions, i.e., social worlds with their specific identity and culture, which, once created, take on a life of their own and develop their own ends which can never be reduced to mere considerations of efficiency.

Sociological neo-institutionalism builds on, and tries to integrate, several theoretical perspectives: the work of P. Selznick (1943, 1949) on organizations as institutions, the work of H. Simon and his group at Carnegie on bounded rationality and cognitive frames, and the work of Berger and Luckmann on the processes of institutionalization understood as processes of the social construction of reality. In organizational analysis, it brings together the work of American and European sociologists, such as N. Brunsson, P. DiMaggio, N. Fligstein, J. G. March, J. Meyer, J. P. Olsen, W. W. Powell, B. Rowan, W. R. Scott, L. G. Zucker, whose analysis of organizations is based on roughly three main premises.

First, an organization is an institution because it is structured by a set of cognitive, normative, and symbolic frames, which shape the behavior of its members by providing them with the tools necessary to observe and perceive the world around them, to interpret and understand their counterparts’ behavior, and to construct their own interests as well as possible ways to further them. Through their structures— formal (organizational forms, procedures, institutional symbols) as well as informal (myths, rituals, social norms)—organizations shape the perceptions, calculations, reasoning, interpretations, and actions of their members by defining acceptable and legitimate behavior, i.e., behavior which is appropriate in the context of its culture.

Second, no organization exists independently of other organizations which share the same characteristics and which together form an organizational field: e.g., the organizational field of universities, hospitals, schools, airlines, museums, etc. Such organizational fields have their producers and consumers, cognitive and normative frames, their power structures, control mechanisms. In short, they have their own institutional structure and their own dynamics which are brought about by competition as well as interdependence between the constitutive organizations, processes of professionalization, i.e., the establishment of cognitive and normative frames for the field, by government intervention and the like. The dynamics of these organizational fields exert unifying pressures on the individual organizations which, in order to enhance their legitimacy, tend to adopt similar, if not identical, institutional forms and procedures.

Third, while recognizing the importance of the technical and economic environment which was stressed by the structural contingency theory, the neoinstitutionalist perspective is interested mainly in the influence of the societal and institutional environment. The institutional environment concerns the characteristics of the organizational field of which an organization is a part, and of the rules it has to follow if it wants to obtain resources from the field and strengthen its legitimacy in it. The societal environment designates the norms and values of modern societies which, according to DiMaggio and Powell (1983) or Meyer (Meyer and Scott 1994), are characterized by processes of rationalization (to a certain extent, this can be understood as the re-edition of Max Weber’s process of the disenchantment of the world) and the diffusion of standardized norms as a consequence of increased intervention by states, professions, science, and organizational fields. Both institutional and societal environments constitute a sort of unifying matrix for organizations which have to conform to their pressures if they want to be accepted and thus able to draw resources for their functioning.

In short, the neo-institutional perspective stresses the constraint of legitimacy, as opposed to the constraint of efficiency. Rational structures (formal organizations) do not dominate the modern world because they are efficient. They adopt rationalized institutional norms because these will enable them to obtain the resources necessary for their success and their survival as they increase their legitimacy in a wider cultural environment (rationalist western society and culture).

Taken together, the two strands of reasoning mentioned in the opening remarks provide a complete panorama of the forces shaping organizations: efficiency and legitimacy are the constraints, within which the games being played in and between organizations are embedded, but the games that depend upon the cognitive and relational capacities of the individuals playing them are in turn mediating these constraints. The unifying forces stressed by contingency theory and the neo-institutionalist perspective should therefore never be overestimated: they are themselves subject to differentiating pressures stemming from the cognitive and relational capacities of the humans who play games in contexts structured by constraints of efficiency and legitimacy. These relational and cognitive capacities are never determined and are never final: they are the motor for the infinite variance which is observable in organizational life, they are the motor of innovation which succeeds in destabilizing even the best established technical or institutional environments.


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