The sociology and psychology of organizations

The question is sometimes asked whether an analysis of organizations in terms of decision-making processes is “sociological” or “psychological.” The question is a bit odd; it is like asking whether molecular biology is biology or chemistry. The correct answer in either case is “both.” This book analyzes organizations in terms of the decision-making behavior of their participants, but it is precisely the organizational system surrounding this behavior that gives it its special character. The roles of organization members are shaped by the goals with which they identify, and goal identifications, in turn, depend heavily upon location in the organization and the pattern of organizational communication.

The concept of role provides the standard sociological explanation of behavior—the captain goes down with his ship because he has accepted the role of captain, and that is what captains do in our culture. There is a reason, however, for describing behavior in organizations in terms of decision premises instead of roles. In its original connotation of dramatic part, “role” implies too specific a pattern of behavior. A mother does not speak set lines; her role behavior adapts to and depends upon the situation in which she finds herself. Moreover, there is room for all sorts of idiosyncratic variation in the enactment of a social role.

The difficulties in role theory drop away if we view social influence as influence upon decision premises. A role is a specification of some, but not all, of the premises that underlie an individual’s decisions. Many other premises also enter into the same decision, including informational premises and idiosyncratic premises that are expressive of personality differences. For some purposes it may be enough to know the role premises

Unless the premise is taken as the unit, role theory commits an error that is just the opposite of the one committed by economic theory—it does not leave any room for rationality. If a role is a pattern of behavior, the role may be functional from a social standpoint, but the performer of the role cannot be a rational actor, or even an actor with volition—the performer simply acts his or her part. On the other hand, if a role consists in the specification of value and factual premises, then the enactor of the role will often have to think and solve problems in order to use these facts to attain these values. A role defined in terms of premises leaves room for calculation in behavior, and for the involvement of the actor’s knowledge, wants, and emotions.

Of course, decision-making analysis is not the only approach to the study of organizations, any more than biochemistry is the only approach to the study of organisms. A number of investigators, especially sociologists, prefer to look at more global characteristics of organizations and to relate these to variables like organization size or organizational environment. Such studies have an important place in research on organizations; but ultimately, of course, we wish to find the connections between the various levels of inquiry. If organizations that operate in different industries (e.g., steel companies as compared with advertising agencies) typically take on different structural characteristics, we will want to explain these latter differences in terms of underlying differences in decisionmaking requirements. The differences in requirements will reflect, in turn, differences in the environments in which the organizations operate.

Decision-making in organizations does not go on in isolated human heads. Instead, one member’s outputs become the inputs of another. At each step, the process draws upon the body of knowledge and skills that is stored both in the memories of employees and in the organization’s data bases and computer programs. Because of this interrelatedness, supported by a rich network of partially formalized but partially informal communications, decision-making is an organized system of relations, and organizing is a problem in system design. Readers can decide for themselves, while they continue through the pages of this book, whether they are reading “psychology” or “sociology,” or they can decide that it doesn’t matter. I confess that I hold the latter view.

Source: Simon Herbert A. (1997), Administrative Behavior, Free Press; Subsequent edition.

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