organization theory

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In practice these terms are used interchangeably, although the former has a slightly wider remit than the latter as it also covers work by non-sociologists, including those who are concerned to provide advice to management on how organizations should be designed and operated.

As various forms of organization pervade social life some difficulty also attaches to the definition of those which are the subject-matter of the sociology of organizations. In a useful discussion of this problem David Silverman (The Theory of Organizations, 1970) has suggested that the ‘formal organizations’ with which this branch of sociology is concerned have three distinguishing features: they arise at an ascertainable moment in time; as artefacts they exhibit patterns of social relations which are less taken for granted than those in non-formal organizations (such as the family) and which organizational participants often seek to co-ordinate and control; consequently, considerable attention is paid to the nature of these social relations, and to planned changes in them.

Early organization theory developed along two parallel tracks, reflecting its dual sociological and managerial origins. The growth of industrial societies in the 19th century involved the expansion of large-scale organizations—especially those of the factory and the state. The former of these gave rise to the doctrines of scientific management, associated with Frederick William Taylor, and the latter provided the exemplar which Weber had in mind when developing his ideal-typical account of the structure of bureaucracy. Both these theories concentrated on analysing the structures of organizations; that is, the nature of the various positions occupied by organizational personnel, the powers and duties attaching to these positions, and their relationship to the work required to carry out the explicitly stated goals of the organization. Both also viewed organizations as hierarchical structures, essential for the managerial control of work.

However, in the 1930s and 1940s, a variety of studies (such as those of the human relations movement, by Chester Barnard, and the now classic study of the Tennessee Valley Authority by the sociologist Philip Selznick) opened up a second area for analysis: the study of the social processes occurring in organizations, often with a particular emphasis on how informal, ‘unofficial’ social relations could constrain or even subvert the official goals of the organization, and with organizations as cooperative rather than hierarchically controlled social institutions.

There now exists an immense variety of sociological studies of organizations and theories about them. Indeed, most of the major schools of sociological theory have contributed to this literature. Stewart Clegg and David Dunkerley (Organization, Class and Control, 1980) identify four major groupings among the diverse approaches. These are as follows.

Typologies of organizations: involving attempts to classify organizations according to a variety of key characteristics, such as who benefits from their operations, or how they obtain compliance from their members. Works by Peter Blau, Amitai Etzioni, Robert Blauner, and Tom Burns and G. M. Stalker are among the best known of such studies.

Organizations as social systems: an approach particularly identified with Talcott Parsons's structural-functionalist theory of action and with Philip Selznick and Robert Merton's more focused work on organizations. Organizations consist of social systems in interaction with other social systems (therefore ‘open systems’) whose values and goals are oriented to those of the wider society. According to Parsons, key requirements for organizational maintenance (which is seen to be the overriding goal of any organization) are those which apply to all social systems; namely, adaptation, goal attainment, integration, and pattern (or value) maintenance. Organizations as empirically contingent structures: an approach particularly associated, in the United Kingdom, with research at the University of Aston. The typological and social systems approaches have difficulty in clearly defining the organization as a theoretical object. (Is it defined solely by a set of typological characteristics? Or, if it is an open system, where are the system boundaries to be drawn?) The Aston Programme applies insights derived from psychology, together with statistical techniques such as scaling and factor analysis, to relate measures of organizational performance to different dimensions of organizational structure (such as the degree of specialization of tasks and centralization of authority). The latter are then related to independent contextual variables such as size, technology, and location of the enterprise. This essentially empiricist approach is subject to all the usual criticisms which apply to such a methodology.


Subjects: Sociology.

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