Modern organization theory as a science

1. Sketching the field

The epitome of modern rational organization theory was the program institutional- ized as contingency theory. One reason why functionalist contingency theory became so widely debated was because the Aston Research Programme was so successful. Its findings dominated the pages of the journals, especially the Administrative Science Quarterly, during the 1960s and early 1970s. Ostensibly it said nothing directly about power per se, although its variables could be seen as very much an effect of power: routinization, standardization, centralization and so on. Although, subse- quently, some of these same contingency theorists were to address power (Hickson et al. 1971; Hinings et al. 1974), as were some resource dependence theorists (Pfeffer and Salancik 1974), they did so mostly through concepts of power that remained marginal and somewhat quirky in terms of the broader evolution of social theory. Oddly, they addressed power without once ever addressing its hierarchical qualities.11

Power was placed center field in contingency theory when Child (1972) published his influential article on ‘strategic choice’, in which he drew deeply on debates that Silverman (1970) had sparked in Britain among organization sociolo- gists, drawing on influential sources such as Berger and Luckmann (1967) to rekin- dle an interpretive account of organizations. Silverman (1970) counterpoised an ‘action frame of reference’ to the open systems contingency perspective that was by now dominant in organization analysis. His key point was that organizations were neither natural nor rational systems per se but were socially constructed phenomena. Silverman was an important, but outside Britain largely neglected, early institu- tional theorist (Clegg 1994). The key point that Child and Silverman were making was that organizations were a result of choices, particularly by those whom Selznick (1957) had referred to as the ‘dominant coalition’ (see Colignon 1997).

Institutional theory quickly lost its focus on power after Meyer and Rowan (1977) and DiMaggio and Powell (1983) initiated its renaissance by asking why there are so few types of organizations. Organizations, they suggested, are as they are not for efficiency reasons (as contingency functionalist theorists had argued) but for reasons of social construction. Hence, it is the cultural stock of knowledge rather than functional necessity that determines how and why organizations are as they are. Strangely, given Weber’s pre-eminent role as both a cultural theorist (Clegg 1995) and an analyst of power and domination (Clegg 1975), these latter terms seemed somewhat underdone in the new institutionalism. As Mizruchi and Fein (1999) sug- gested, research programs applying DiMaggio and Powell left out power by concen- trating on mimetic isomorphism whilst downplaying the coercive and normative.

The neglect of power in much institutional theory was made more evident through the work of other contributors, especially the European Aix School (Maurice et al. 1980), who had arrived at similar conclusions to those of the North American institutional scholars, but with a stronger focus on power. They did so through the process of comparative cross-national research, in which they com- pared the organization structures of different countries, seeing the differences not only in terms of contingency factors but also as a ‘societal effect’ (Sorge 1991): dif- ferent relations of power were differently valued in different countries (Whitley 1994). The reason that different institutional structures were valued differently in different countries was that different national elites had formed around different constellations of values and interests, giving rise to quite distinct patterns of elite formation, recruitment and reproduction. To make the connection between insti- tutions and power evident, we can contrast the role of the party in Eastern European states for much of the twentieth century with the role of the market in the United States, or we might look at the way in which Margaret Thatcher’s pro- ject in the United Kingdom sought to defeat not only the institutionalized unions but also the institutionalized ethos of aristocratic disdain for commerce. Of course, as the case of the Eastern European states demonstrates, an interest in the stabiliz- ing effects of institutions has to be balanced with a fascination with the process of institutional change. Newer forms of ‘neo-institutional’ theory (Greenwood and Hinings 1996), with its focus on the ‘institutional entrepreneur’, have an explicit interest in power and agency, as we shall see.

As organization theory became increasingly institutionalized, especially in business schools, it began to develop the traits that we would expect of any institutionalized body of knowledge. Rival camps with competing claims to territory emerged. Definitions of the field became contested. What was regarded as holy writ differed within each citation cartel, centered on different fulcra, whether journals, theories or theorists.12

2. What do organization theories do?

Theories of organizations reflect, systematically, on what occurs organizationally. We can make a distinction between those objects they construct through their concepts, methods, and models, and the ‘naturally’ occurring phenomena that these reflect. The latter would exist irrespective of their theorization or non-theorization as practices – what people do. Hence, any account of power in organizations has to operate on at least two planes: first, the phenomena of changing organization practices; and second, changes in the ways in which organization scientists have theorized these practices.

Theory inhabits its own specialist realm and has its own terms. There is always a gap between theory and the practice it reflects on, which will be an effect of the social constructions, conventions, and grammars of analysis within which trans- lation between them is made. Translations from practice to theory that achieve systematicity and institutionalization can become objects of analysis in their own right, creating their own truths. Theories of organizations – and theories of orga- nization power – are just these sorts of translations. The important question, how- ever, is not so much to identify what it is that they construct as true (on this one should, properly, be agnostic rather than faithful) but to enquire what are the func- tions of the truths that they posit. What is important is to analyze the machinery of truth production. Truth claims that are granted and respected perform an essential function in ordering membership and normalcy in the social contexts in which they pertain, such as business schools and other organizations. They specify the conditions of existence for possibilities and impossibilities; they legitimate rela- tions of domination and subordination. In this sense, what is (taken to be) true is a social fact, as Durkheim (1983: 67) puts it.

Haugaard (1997: 69) suggests that those who benefit from extant machineries of truth production will be least keen to see its mechanisms exposed. Truth is typically taken to be that knowledge indubitably standing as provisional after exposure to robust skeptical procedures of conjecture and refutation (Popper 1965). Thus, the essence of science is to be protected from power at all costs. Rather than conjec- turing and refuting the truths posited within specific ensembles of truth claims, we are interested in demonstrating how these ensembles of truth come to be taken for granted. What the objects of knowledge are, and what they are not; how they are constituted, and how they are not; these are the consequences of power experi- enced as choice and non-choice, decision and non-decision, action and non- action, expressed through relations of knowledge. Hence, at the center of our analysis of power there resides power. We are nothing if not reflexive.

All of the preceding has a direct bearing on the way in which we have constituted the project of this book. We have not dwelt on the minutiae of the various variables constructed in numerous empirical studies, being disinclined to accept their self- evidence as such; rather we have always asked the key sociological question of how is the phenomenon of power, that is being constructed in theory and in practice, possible. And the theory/practice distinction is important – indeed it is essential – because power was inscribed in practice long before it was reflected in theory.

Source: Clegg Stewart, Courpasson David, Phillips Nelson X. (2006), Power and Organizations, SAGE Publications Ltd; 1st edition.

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