Herbert Simon’s theories of organizations

Image: detail from Family Portrait 2 1965 
(Creative Commons license, Richard Rappaport)
 

Herbert Simon made paradigm-changing contributions to the theory of rational behavior, including particularly his treatment of “satisficing” as an alternative to “maximizing” economic rationality (link). It is therefore worthwhile examining his views of organizations and organizational decision-making and action — especially given how relevant those theories are to my current research interest in organizational dysfunction. His highly successful book Administrative Behavior went through four editions between 1947 and 1997 — more than fifty years of thinking about organizations and organizational behavior. The more recent editions consist of the original text and “commentary” chapters that Simon wrote to incorporate more recent thinking about the content of each of the chapters.

Here I will pull out some of the highlights of Simon’s approach to organizations. There are many features of his analysis of organizational behavior that are worth noting. But my summary assessment is that the book is surprisingly positive about the rationality of organizations and the processes through which they collect information and reach decisions. In the contemporary environment where we have all too many examples of organizational failure in decision-making — from Boeing to Purdue Pharma to the Federal Emergency Management Agency — this confidence seems to be fundamentally misplaced. The theorist who invented the idea of imperfect rationality and satisficing at the individual level perhaps should have offered a somewhat more critical analysis of organizational thinking.

The first thing that the reader will observe is that Simon thinks about organizations as systems of decision-making and execution. His working definition of organization highlights this view:

In this book, the term organization refers to the pattern of communications and relations among a group of human beings, including the processes for making and implementing decisions. This pattern provides to organization members much of the information and many of the assumptions, goals, and attitudes that enter into their decisions, and provides also a set of stable and comprehensible expectations as to what the other members of the group are doing and how they will react to what one says and does. (18-19).

What is a scientifically relevant description of an organization? It is a description that, so far as possible, designates for each person in the organization what decisions that person makes, and the influences to which he is subject in making each of these decisions. (43)

The central theme around which the analysis has been developed is that organization behavior is a complex network of decisional processes, all pointed toward their influence upon the behaviors of the operatives — those who do the action ‘physical’ work of the organization. (305)

The task of decision-making breaks down into the assimilation of relevant facts and values — a distinction that Simon attributes to logical positivism in the original text but makes more general in the commentary. Answering the question, “what should we do?”, requires a clear answer to two kinds of questions: what values are we attempting to achieve? And how does the world work such that interventions will bring about those values?

It is refreshing to see Simon’s skepticism about the “rules of administration” that various generations of organizational theorists have advanced — “specialization,” “unity of command,” “span of control,” and so forth. Simon describes these as proverbs rather than as useful empirical discoveries about effective administration. And he finds the idea of “schools of management theory” to be entirely unhelpful (26). Likewise, he is entirely skeptical about the value of the economic theory of the firm, which abstracts from all of the arrangements among participants that are crucial to the internal processes of the organization in Simon’s view. He recommends an approach to the study of organizations (and the design of organizations) that focuses on the specific arrangements needed to bring factual and value claims into a process of deliberation leading to decision — incorporating the kinds of specialization and control that make sense for a particular set of business and organizational tasks.

An organization has only two fundamental tasks: decision-making and “making things happen”. The decision-making process involves intelligently gathering facts and values and designing a plan. Simon generally approaches this process as a reasonably rational one. He identifies three kinds of limits on rational decision-making:

  • The individual is limited by those skills, habits, and reflexes which are no longer in the realm of the conscious…
  • The individual is limited by his values and those conceptions of purpose which influence him in making his decision…
  • The individual is limited by the extent of his knowledge of things relevant to his job. (46)

And he explicitly regards these points as being part of a theory of administrative rationality:

Perhaps this triangle of limits does not completely bound the area of rationality, and other sides need to be added to the figure. In any case, the enumeration will serve to indicate the kinds of considerations that must go into the construction of valid and noncontradictory principles of administration. (47)

The “making it happen” part is more complicated. This has to do with the problem the executive faces of bringing about the efficient, effective, and loyal performance of assigned tasks by operatives. Simon’s theory essentially comes down to training, loyalty, and authority.

If this is a correct description of the administrative process, then the construction of an efficient administrative organization is a problem in social psychology. It is a task of setting up an operative staff and superimposing on that staff a supervisory staff capable of influencing the operative group toward a pattern of coordinated and effective behavior. (2)

To understand how the behavior of the individual becomes a part of the system of behavior of the organization, it is necessary to study the relation between the personal motivation of the individual and the objectives toward which the activity of the organization is oriented. (13-14) 

Simon refers to three kinds of influence that executives and supervisors can have over “operatives”: formal authority (enforced by the power to hire and fire), organizational loyalty (cultivated through specific means within the organization), and training. Simon holds that a crucial role of administrative leadership is the task of motivating the employees of the organization to carry out the plan efficiently and effectively.

Later he refers to five “mechanisms of organization influence” (112): specialization and division of task; the creation of standard practices; transmission of decisions downwards through authority and influence; channels of communication in all directions; and training and indoctrination. Through these mechanisms the executive seeks to ensure a high level of conformance and efficient performance of tasks.

What about the actors within an organization? How do they behave as individual actors? Simon treats them as “boundedly rational”:

To anyone who has observed organizations, it seems obvious enough that human behavior in them is, if not wholly rational, at least in good part intendedly so. Much behavior in organizations is, or seems to be, task-oriented–and often efficacious in attaining its goals. (88)

But this description leaves out altogether the possibility and likelihood of mixed motives, conflicts of interest, and intra-organizational disagreement. When Simon considers the fact of multiple agents within an organization, he acknowledges that this poses a challenge for rationalistic organizational theory:

Complications are introduced into the picture if more than one individual is involved, for in this case the decisions of the other individuals will be included among the conditions which each individual must consider in reaching his decisions. (80)

This acknowledges the essential feature of organizations — the multiplicity of actors — but fails to treat it with the seriousness it demands. He attempts to resolve the issue by invoking cooperation and the language of strategic rationality: “administrative organizations are systems of cooperative behavior. The members of the organization are expected to orient their behavior with respect to certain goals that are taken as ‘organization objectives'” (81). But this simply presupposes the result we might want to occur, without providing a basis for expecting it to take place.

With the hindsight of half a century, I am inclined to think that Simon attributes too much rationality and hierarchical purpose to organizations.

The rational administrator is concerned with the selection of these effective means. For the construction of an administrative theory it is necessary to examine further the notion of rationality and, in particular, to achieve perfect clarity as to what is meant by “the selection of effective means.” (72)  

These sentences, and many others like them, present the task as one of defining the conditions of rationality of an organization or firm; this takes for granted the notion that the relations of communication, planning, and authority can result in a coherent implementation of a plan of action. His model of an organization involves high-level executives who pull together factual information (making use of specialized experts in this task) and integrating the purposes and goals of the organization (profits, maintaining the health and safety of the public, reducing poverty) into an actionable set of plans to be implemented by subordinates. He refers to a “hierarchy of decisions,” in which higher-level goals are broken down into intermediate-level goals and tasks, with a coherent relationship between intermediate and higher-level goals. “Behavior is purposive in so far as it is guided by general goals or objectives; it is rational in so far as it selects alternatives which are conducive to the achievement of the previously selected goals” (4).  And the suggestion is that a well-designed organization succeeds in establishing this kind of coherence of decision and action.

 

It is true that he also asserts that decisions are “composite” —

It should be perfectly apparent that almost no decision made in an organization is the task of a single individual. Even though the final responsibility for taking a particular action rests with some definite person, we shall always find, in studying the manner in which this decision was reached, that its various components can be traced through the formal and informal channels of communication to many individuals … (305)

But even here he fails to consider the possibility that this compositional process may involve systematic dysfunctions that require study. Rather, he seems to presuppose that this composite process itself proceeds logically and coherently. In commenting on a case study by Oswyn Murray (1923) on the design of a post-WWI battleship, he writes: “The point which is so clearly illustrated here is that the planning procedure permits expertise of every kind to be drawn into the decision without any difficulties being imposed by the lines of authority in the organization” (314). This conclusion is strikingly at odds with most accounts of science-military relations during World War II in Britain — for example, the pernicious interference of Frederick Alexander Lindemann with Patrick Blackett over Blackett’s struggles to create an operations-research basis for anti-submarine warfare (Blackett’s War: The Men Who Defeated the Nazi U-Boats and Brought Science to the Art of Warfare). His comments about the processes of review that can be implemented within organizations (314 ff.) are similarly excessively optimistic — contrary to the literature on principal-agent problems in many areas of complex collaboration.

This is surprising, given Simon’s contributions to the theory of imperfect rationality in the case of individual decision-making. Against this confidence, the sources of organizational dysfunction that are now apparent in several literatures on organization make it more difficult to imagine that organizations can have a high success rate in rational decision-making. If we were seeking for a Simon-like phrase for organizational thinking to parallel the idea of satisficing, we might come up with the notion of bounded localistic organizational rationality”: “locally rational, frequently influenced by extraneous forces, incomplete information, incomplete communication across divisions, rarely coherent over the whole organization”.

Simon makes the point emphatically in the opening chapters of the book that administrative science is an incremental and evolving field. And in fact, it seems apparent that his own thinking continued to evolve. There are occasional threads of argument in Simon’s work that seem to point towards a more contingent view of organizational behavior and rationality, along the lines of Fligstein and McAdam’s theories of strategic action fields. For example, when discussing organizational loyalty Simon raises the kind of issue that is central to the strategic action field model of organizations: the conflicts of interest that can arise across units (11). And in the commentary on Chapter I he points forward to the theories of strategic action fields and complex adaptive systems:

The concepts of systems, multiple constituencies, power and politics, and organization culture all flow quite naturally from the concept of organizations as complex interactive structures held together by a balance of the inducements provided to various groups of participants and the contributions received from them. (27)

The book has been a foundational contribution to organizational studies. At the same time, if Herbert Simon were at the beginning of his career and were beginning his study of organizational decision-making today, I suspect he might have taken a different tack. He was plainly committed to empirical study of existing organizations and the mechanisms through which they worked. And he was receptive to the ideas surrounding the notion of imperfect rationality. The current literature on the sources of contention and dysfunction within organizations (Perrow, Fligstein, McAdam, Crozier, …) might well have led him to write a different book altogether, one that gave more attention to the sources of failures of rational decision-making and implementation alongside the occasional examples of organizations that seem to work at a very high level of rationality and effectiveness.

Gilbert on social facts

I am currently thinking about the topic of “organizational actors”, and Margaret Gilbert’s arguments about social actors are plainly relevant to this topic. It seems worthwhile therefore to reproduce a review I wrote of Gilbert’s book On Social Facts (1989) in 1993. It is a tribute to the power of Gilbert’s ideas that the book has much of the same power thirty years later that it had when it was first published. I also find it interesting that the concerns I had in the 1990s about “collective actors” and “plural subjects” expressed in this review have continued in my thinking about the social world through the current date. I continue to believe that constructs like collective actors require microfoundations that establish how they work at the level of individual “socially constituted, socially situated” individual human beings. I refer to this view as “methodological localism”; link.

I also find it interesting that my own views about social action derive, not from philosophy, but from immersion in the literatures of contentious politics and the concrete pathways through which individuals are led to mobilization and collective action. Unlike the methodological individualism associated with rational choice theory and neoclassical economics, and unlike the social holism that all too often derives from purely philosophical considerations, this literature emphasizes the actions and thoughts of individuals without making narrow and singe-dimensional assumptions about the nature of practical rationality. I learned through my study of the millenarian rebellions of late Imperial China that rebels had many motivations and many reasons for mobilization, and that good historical research is needed to disentangle the organizations, actors, and stresses that led to mobilization and rebellion in a particular region of China. The participants in the Eight Trigrams Rebellion or the Nian Rebellion in North China were not a plural subject. (For exposition of these ideas see chapter five of my Understanding Peasant China: Case Studies in the Philosophy of Social Science (1989), “Theories of peasant rebellion”.) I have included an excerpt from that chapter on the topic of collective action at the end of this post because it illustrates an “actor-centered” approach to collective action. It presents a clear counter-perspective to Gilbert’s views of “plural subjects”.

Readers may also be interested in a post written in 2009 on the topic of “Acting as a Group” (link).

***

[1993]

Margaret Gilbert’s On Social Facts is an intelligent, closely argued and extensively analyzed treatment of the problem of social collectivity. What is a social group? What distinguishes a group from a random set of individuals—e.g. the set consisting of W. V. O. Quine, Madonna, and Napoleon? Is a social class—e.g. the English working class in the 1880s—a social group? Gilbert’s primary contention is that the notion of a collectivity—individuals constituting a group—is the central feature of social ontology and the chief focus of empirical social science. And she maintains that this concept can best be analyzed by the idea of a “plural subject”—the referent of the first-person plural pronoun, “we”.

The core of Gilbert’s theory of social groups involves the idea of the mutual recognition by a set of persons that they are engaged in some joint actions or beliefs. “A set of people constitute a social group if and only if they constitute a plural subject”; and a plural subject is “a set of people each of whom shares with oneself in some action, belief, attitude, or similar attribute” (p. 204). Gilbert argues that the pronouns “us” and “we” are the linguistic elements through which we refer to plural subjects in English. And she believes that plural subjects exist; they are not fictions or constructions, but agents which have beliefs, perform actions, and succeed or fail in carrying out their intentions. In later chapters Gilbert extends her conception of collectivities and plural subjects by considering several other important social notions: the idea of a social fact in Durkheim’s sense, the idea of a collective belief, and the idea of a social convention. In each case Gilbert argues that the concept of a plural subject supports a plausible and intuitively convincing analysis of the social concept in question. According to Gilbert, “social groups are plural subjects, collective beliefs are the beliefs of plural subjects, and social conventions are the ‘fiats’ of plural subjects” (p. 408). Gilbert’s account of social conventions is developed through extensive discussion of David Lewis’s influential formulation of this concept.

Gilbert argues against the individualism of Max Weber (and by implication, the premises of rational choice theory), by arguing that collectivities are the central subject of the social sciences, and that collectivities cannot be subsumed under (narrowly) individualist concepts. Thus Gilbert suggests that her theory offers support for holism over individualism (p. 3). Does it? I think not. An individualist is free to acknowledge that individuals have beliefs that refer to other persons and groups of persons; the position permits reference to shared purposes and actions involving a collection of persons deliberately orienting their actions towards a shared purpose. What individualism requires is simply that these are all the aggregate results of individual states of mind, and that the behavior of the ensemble is to be explained by reference to the beliefs and intentions of the participants.

An important test case for Gilbert’s account is the problem of collective action. Rational choice theory places much emphasis on public goods problems and the phenomenon of free-riding. How does Gilbert’s conception of plural subjects treat the problem? It appears to this reader that Gilbert makes collective action too easy. Plural subjects (groups) have purposes; individuals within these groups express quasi-readiness to perform their part of the shared action; and—when circumstances are right—the group acts collectively to bring about its collective goals. “The people concerned would be jointly ready jointly to perform a certain action in certain circumstances” (p. 409). She speaks of group will or communal will (p. 410). But the actions of a group are still the result of the choices made by constituent individuals. And however much the individual may align him- or herself with the collective project, the collective behavior is still no more than the sum of the actions taken by particular individuals. Moreover, it is necessary to acknowledge the endurance of private, individual interests that remain prominent for individual agents—with the result that we should expect individuals’ actions to sometimes involve free-riding, defection, and favoring of private over collective interests. It seems to this reader, then, that Gilbert leans too far in the direction of the Rousseauvian “general will” interpretation of social action.

How important for the social sciences is the notion of a social group or collectivity? Gilbert’s view is that this concept is foundational; it is the basis for a unitary definition of the subject matter of the social sciences. This overstates the importance of collectivities, it seems to this reader: there are important instances of social explanation that do not involve analysis of groups in Gilbert’s sense, and whose explanatory frameworks do not refer to groups, their behavior, their shared beliefs, or their collective intentions and self-understandings. A few examples might include neo-malthusian analysis of the relation between economic change and demographic variables; analysis of the effects of changes of the transport system on patterns of settlement and economic activity; and explanation of patterns of historical processes of urbanization in terms of changing economic and political institutions. These examples explain social phenomena as the aggregate result of large numbers of rational individual actions. They commonly refer to impersonal social structures and circumstances that function as constraints and opportunities for individuals. And they make no inherent reference to the forms of group collectivity to which Gilbert refers.

This is a rich book, and one that repays careful reading. It will be of particular interest to philosophers of social science and social philosophers, and the level of philosophical rigor will interest philosophers in other fields as well.

***

Here is a relevant excerpt from Understanding Peasant China, published in the same year as On Social Facts, on collective action as the composition of individual actors who are mobilized around a shared set of goals.

Rebellion is an example of collective action; but this concept requires some analysis, for not all forms of mass behavior constitute collective action. A collective action involves at least the idea of a collective goal (that is, a goal which participants in the event share as the aim of their actions), and it suggests some degree of coordination among individuals in pursuit of that goal. Thus a mass demonstration against the government is a collective action, whereas the panicked retreat through the streets after troops have dispersed the demonstration is not. Both are forms of mass behavior, but only the demonstration has the features of collective intentionality and coordination that would constitute a collective action. We may define a collective action, then, as the aggregation of a number of individuals performing intentional, coordinated actions that are intended to help attain some shared goal or purpose. This account distinguishes collective action from other forms of mass behavior in which the individuals do not intend to contribute to a group effect—for example, a panicked stampede in a football stadium, a run on a bank, or a cycle of hoarding food during a famine.

Collective actions can be classified according to the kind of shared goals that guide the individuals who participate in them—private interests and group interests. In some cases a collective action is inspired by the immediate gains available to each participant through coordinated action; in others, the action is inspired by the shared belief that the action will lead to an outcome that will benefit the group. An example of a collective action motivated by private interest would be a coordinated attack on a granary during a famine. No individual family has the strength to attack the granary by itself, but through coordinated efforts a group of fifty families may succeed. Each participant has the same goal—to acquire grain for subsistence—but the participants’ aims are private. By contrast, a demonstration by Polish workers in support of the Solidarity movement would appear to be motivated by a perception of group interest—in this case, the interest that Polish workers have as a group in representation by an independent labor union.



As we have seen in other contexts, the prospect of collective action raises the possibility of free riding: if the benefits of collective action are indivisible and undeniable to nonparticipants, it would be rational for the self-interested individual to not participate. To the extent that the potential benefits of a collective action are public rather than private, and to the extent that the action is designed to produce distant rather than immediate benefits, collective action theory predicts that it will be difficult to motivate rational individuals in support of the action.

Another important factor in the success or failure of collective action, besides the character and timing of benefits to members, is the idea of assurance: potential contributors’ confidence in the probability of success of the joint enterprise. As Elster, Hardin, and others show, the level of assurance is critical to the decisions of potential contributors. If success is widely believed to be unlikely, potential contributors will be deterred from joining the collective action. An important dimension of assurance is the likelihood that other potential contributors will act. Each must judge the probability that enough people will support the action and so make success more likely. One central task of leadership and organization is to bolster the assurance of each member of the group in the likely support of other members. (UPC 147-149)

Asian Conference on the Philosophy of the Social Sciences

photo: Tianjin, China

A group of philosophers of social science convened in Tianjin, China, at Nankai University in June to consider some of the ways that the social sciences can move forward in the twenty-first century. This was the Asian Conference on the Philosophy of the Social Sciences, and there were participants from Asia, Europe, Australia, and the United States. (It was timely for Nankai University to host such a meeting, since it is celebrating the centennial of its founding in 1919 this year.) The conference was highly productive for all participants, and it seems to have the potential of contributing to fruitful future thinking about philosophy and the social sciences in Chinese universities as well.

Organized by Francesco Di Iorio and the School of Philosophy at Nankai University, the meeting was a highly productive international gathering of scholars with interests in all aspects of the philosophy of the social sciences. Topics that came in for discussion included the nature of individual agency, the status of “social kinds”, the ways in which organizations “think”, current thinking about methodological individualism, and the status of idealizations in the social sciences, among many other topics. It was apparent that participants from many countries gained insights from their colleagues from other countries and other regions when discussing social science theory and specific social challenges.

Along with many others, I believe that the philosophy of social science has the potential for being a high-impact discipline in philosophy. The contemporary world poses complex, messy problems with huge import for the whole of the global population, and virtually all of those challenges involve difficult situations of social and behavioral interaction (link). Migration, poverty, youth disaffection, the cost of higher education, the importance of rising economic and social inequalities, the rise of extremism, and the creation of vast urban centers like Shanghai and Rio de Janeiro all involve a mix of behavior, technology, and environment that will require the very best social-science research to navigate successfully. And if anyone ever thought that the social sciences were simpler or easier than the natural sciences, the perplexities we currently face of nationalism, racism, and rising inequalities should certainly set that thought to rest for good.

Philosophy can help social scientists gain better theoretical and analytical understanding of the social world in which we live. Philosophers can do this by thinking carefully about the nature of causal relationships in the social world (link); by considering the limitations of social-science inquiry that are inherent in the nature of the social world (link); and by assessing the implications of various discoveries in the logic of collective action for social life (link).

When we undertake large technology projects we make use of the theories and methods of analysis about forces and materials that are provided by the natural sciences. This is what gives us confidence that buildings will stand up to earthquakes and bridges will be able to sustain the stresses associated with traffic and wind. We turn to policy and legislation in an effort to solve social problems. Public policy is the counterpart to technology. However, it is clear that public policy is far less amenable to precise scientific and analytical guidance. Cause and effect relationships are more difficult to discern in the social world, contingency and conjunction are vastly more important, and the ability of social-science theories to measure and predict is substantially more limited than the natural sciences. So it is all the more important to have a clear and dynamic understanding of the challenges and resources that confront social scientists as they attempt to understand social processes and behavior.

These kinds of “wicked” social problems occur in every country, but they are especially pressing in Asia at present (linklink). As citizens and academics consider their roles in the future of their countries in Japan, Thailand, China, or Russia, Serbia, or France, they will be empowered in their efforts by the best possible thinking about the scope and limits of various disciplines of the social sciences.

This kind of international meeting organized around topics in the philosophy of the social sciences has the potential of stimulating new thinking and substantial progress in our understanding of society. The fact that philosophers in China, Thailand, Finland, Japan, France, and the United States bring very different national and cultural experiences to their philosophical theories creates the possibility of synergy and the challenging of presuppositions. One such example came up in a discussion with Finnish philosopher Uskali Maki over my use of principal-agent problems as a general source of organizational dysfunction. Maki argued that this claim reflects a specific cultural context, and that this kind of dysfunction is substantially less prevalent in Finnish organizations and government agencies. (Maki also argued that my philosophy of social science over-emphasizes plasticity and change, whereas Maki holds that the fact of social order must be explained.) It was also interesting to consider with a Chinese philosopher whether there are aspects of traditional Chinese philosophy that might shed light on current social processes. Does Mencius provide a different way of thinking about the role and legitimacy of government than the social contract tradition in which European philosophers generally operate (link)?

So along with all the other participants, I would like to offer sincere appreciation to Francesco Di Iorio and his colleagues at the School of Philosophy for the superlative inspiration and coordination they provided for this international conference of philosophers.

Auditing FEMA

Crucial to improving an organization’s performance is being able to obtain honest and detailed assessments of its functioning, in normal times and in emergencies. FEMA has had a troubled reputation for faulty performance since the Katrina disaster in 2005, and its performance in response to Hurricane Maria in Louisiana and Puerto Rico was also criticized by observers and victims. So how can FEMA get better? The best avenue is careful, honest review of past performance, identifying specific areas of organizational failure and taking steps to improve in these areas.

It is therefore enormously disturbing to read an investigative report in the Washington Post ((Lisa Rein and Kimberly Kindy, Washington Post, June 6, 2019); link) documenting that investigation and audits by the Inspector General of the Department of Homeland Security were watered down and sanitized at the direction of the audit bureau’s acting director, John V. Kelly.

Auditors in the Department of Homeland Security inspector general’s office confirmed problems with the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s performance in Louisiana — and in 11 other states hit over five years by hurricanes, mudslides and other disasters. 

But the auditors’ boss, John V. Kelly, instead directed them to produce what they called “feel-good reports” that airbrushed most problems and portrayed emergency responders as heroes overcoming vast challenges, according to interviews and a new internal review. 

Investigators determined that Kelly didn’t just direct his staff to remove negative findings. He potentially compromised their objectivity by praising FEMA’s work ethic to the auditors, telling them they would see “FEMA at her best” and instructing supervisors to emphasize what the agency had done right in its disaster response. (Washington Post, June 6, 2019)

“Feel-good” reports are not what quality improvement requires, and they are not what legislators and other public officials need as they consider the adequacy of some of our most important governmental institutions. It is absolutely crucial for the public and for government oversight that we should be able to rely on the honest, professional, and rigorous work of auditors and investigators without political interference in their findings. These are the mechanisms through which the integrity of regulatory agencies and other crucial governmental agencies is maintained.

Legislators and the public are already concerned about the effectiveness of the Federal Aviation Agency’s oversight in the certification process of the Boeing 737 MAX. The evidence brought forward by the Washington Post concerning interference with the work of the staff of the Inspector General of DHS simply amplifies that concern. The article correctly observes that independent and rigorous oversight is crucial for improving the functioning of government agencies, including DHS and FEMA:

Across the federal government, agencies depend on inspectors general to provide them with independent, fact-driven analysis of their performance, conducting audits and investigations to ensure that taxpayers’ money is spent wisely. 

Emergency management experts said that oversight, particularly from auditors on the ground as a disaster is unfolding, is crucial to improving the response, especially in ensuring that contracts are properly administered. (Washington Post, June 6, 2019)

Honest government simply requires independent and effective oversight processes. Every agency, public and private, has an incentive to conceal perceived areas of poor performance. Hospitals prefer to keep secret outbreaks of infection and other medical misadventures (link), the Department of Interior has shown an extensive pattern of conflict of interest by some of its senior officials (link), and the Pentagon Papers showed how the Department of Defense sought to conceal evidence of military failure in Vietnam (link). The only protection we have from these efforts at concealment, lies, and spin is vigorous governmental review and oversight, embodied by offices like the Inspectors General of various agencies, and an independent and vigorous press able to seek out these kinds of deception.

The 737 MAX disaster as an organizational failure

The topic of the organizational causes of technology failure comes up frequently in Understanding Society. The tragic crashes of two Boeing 737 MAX aircraft in the past year present an important case to study. Is this an instance of pilot error (as has occasionally been suggested)? Is it a case of engineering and design failures? Or are there important corporate and regulatory failures that created the environment in which the accidents occurred, as the public record seems to suggest?

The formal accident investigations are not yet complete, and the FAA and other air safety agencies around the world have not yet approved the aircraft for flight following the suspension of certification following the second crash. There will certainly be a detailed and expert case study of this case at some point in the future, and I will be eager to read the resulting book. In the meantime, though, it is  useful to bring the perspectives of Charles Perrow, Diane Vaughan, and Andrew Hopkins to bear on what we can learn about this case from the public media sources that are available. The preliminary sketch of a case study offered below is a first effort and is intended simply to help us learn more about the social and organizational processes that govern the complex technologies upon which we depend. Many of the dysfunctions identified in the safety literature appear to have had a role in this disaster.

I have made every effort to offer an accurate summary based on publicly available sources, but readers should bear in mind that it is a preliminary effort.

The key conclusions I’ve been led to include these:

The updated flight control system of the aircraft (MCAS) created the conditions for crashes in rare flight conditions and instrument failures.

  • Faults in the AOA sensor and the MCAS flight control system persisted through the design process 
  • pilot training and information about changes in the flight control system were likely inadequate to permit pilots to override the control system when necessary  

There were fairly clear signs of organizational dysfunction in the development and design process for the aircraft:

  • Disempowered mid-level experts (engineers, designers, software experts)
  • Inadequate organizational embodiment of safety oversight
  • Business priorities placing cost savings, timeliness, profits over safety
  • Executives with divided incentives
  • Breakdown of internal management controls leading to faulty manufacturing processes 

Cost-containment and speed trumped safety. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the corporation put cost-cutting and speed ahead of the professional advice and judgment of the engineers. Management pushed the design and certification process aggressively, leading to implementation of a control system that could fail in foreseeable flight conditions.

The regulatory system seems to have been at fault as well, with the FAA taking a deferential attitude towards the company’s assertions of expertise throughout the certification process. The regulatory process was “outsourced” to a company that already has inordinate political clout in Congress and the agencies.

  • Inadequate government regulation
  • FAA lacked direct expertise and oversight sufficient to detect design failures. 
  • Too much influence by the company over regulators and legislators

Here is a video presentation of the case as I currently understand it (link). 

 
See also this earlier discussion of regulatory failure in the 737 MAX case (link). Here are several experts on the topic of organizational failure whose work is especially relevant to the current case:

A plan for philosophy of social science circa 1976

image: Imre Lakatos

 

My Ph.D. dissertation in philosophy was written between 1974 and 1977 and was accepted in 1977. The topic was Marx’s theory of science as embodied in Capital, and it was one of the early attempts to join an analytical philosophical perspective with careful study of Marx’s ideas. The title of the dissertation was Marx’s Capital: A Study in the Philosophy of Social Science. The dissertation proposed a different way of attempting to understand Marx, and it also proposed a different approach to developing the philosophy of social science — an approach that gives greater attention to the details and history of social-science research. This part of the introduction to the dissertation describes the view I then had of the purposes and current deficiencies of the philosophy of science.

The image of Imre Lakatos is used above because his work from the early 1970s was part of the inspiration for the more contextualized and historical view of the philosophy of social science described in this introduction. I found Lakatos much more stimulating than Kuhn in the early 1970s.

The full introduction is posted here. The full dissertation is posted here.

The philosophy of social science
The philosophy of social science is not a particularly strong area within contemporary philosophy. To some degree it suffers from the division between continental and analytic philosophy. Analytic philosophers have stressed the positivist theory of science, and have consequently come to social sciences with some distrust, while continental philosophers have been preoccupied with the relation of social science to philosophy, rather than the more central question of the defining characteristics of social science. Neither approach has been conducive to the project of constructing a viable, systematic, and sympathetic theory of social science. More importantly, however, the philosophy of social science suffers from its proximity to the philosophy of natural science. The analytical theory of science took shape in the hands of philosophers whose primary training was in natural science, and consequently, whose chief examples were drawn from the natural sciences. Philosophers of social science have all too often shown a tendency to merely import into their field the categories and questions formulated with respect to natural science, rather than posing questions and categories more closely tailored to the real outlines of typical social sciences.{6} It may eventually turn out, of course, that all sciences have the same epistemological structure; but that issue ought not be prejudged. The philosophy of social science needs, therefore, to develop a theory of social science which is not parasitic upon theories of natural science.

Ideally, a philosophy of social science ought to contain an analytical theory of social science which directs attention at the particular trouble spots of social knowledge. It ought to include a discussion of the peculiar nature of the subject matter of social science, an account of the characteristics of social explanation, an account of the relation between empirical evidence and theory in social science, and so forth; and more generally, it ought to consist of a set of questions and categories specifically suited to the special problems confronting social explanation and social theory. Contemporary philosophy of social science fails to come forward with such a theory, in large part because it formulates its theory of science in terms of concepts suggested by the philosophy of natural science.

This diagnosis of the weakness of philosophy of social science indicates that the philosophy of natural science bears a large responsibility for that weakness; happily, however, it is now able to provide the beginnings of a method of philosophical inquiry which can begin to undo that damage. For in the past two decades the philosophy of natural science has witnessed an important transformation in its method of inquiry. It has been transformed from an attempt to provide high-level abstractions concerning the basic concepts of explanation, confirmation, empirical significance, theory choice, and the like, to an attempt to provide a more detailed theory of scientific practice through detailed studies of particular examples of scientific inquiry. Historians of science have argued that the philosophy of science will benefit from greater attention to particular scientific theories and programmes of research, and increasingly philosophers have accepted this judgment. And this shift of attention has already begun to pay off in the form of theories of science which correspond more closely to the actual nature of science, and which thereby come closer to explaining science as a form of human knowledge.

I suggest that the philosophy of social science can benefit from the application of this historical method: its theory of social science can be enriched and corrected through closer attention to actual case studies drawn from the history of social science. Such studies have the potential of suggesting new categories and new questions concerning the nature of knowledge about society and history, and they provide the means by which the analytical theory of science itself may be assessed.

We may get a better idea of the logical relations between case studies of that sort and the formulation of a more general theory of science by working out a rough taxonomy of the logical structure of the philosophy of science.{7} The philosophy of science is (at least in part) a meta-level theory of the epistemological, methodological, and structural characteristics of science. If all scientific theories share certain epistemological characteristics in common, these certainly ought to be part of that theory of science; and if there is diversity, the theory of science ought to indicate the dimensions around which such diversity occurs. The theory of science ought to answer questions like: What is scientific explanation? How are scientific theories organized? How are scientific hypotheses given empirical justification? The theory of science, in other words, attempts to codify the most general characteristics of scientific knowledge.

On this account the theory of science stands at the greatest degree of abstraction: it attempts to make assertions which are true of all or most sciences. At the opposite end of the spectrum stands the particular scientific hypothesis or system: Darwinian evolutionary theory, Newtonian mechanics, Piaget’s psychological theory, and so forth. Each such theory is an attempt to apply empirical rationality to the problem of explaining some complex domain of phenomena; and each advances a theory to the scientific community for some form of evaluation or acceptance. The crucial point to note, however, is that each such theory is an extended and complex argument, in which the principles of inference are almost always left unstated. The scientist engages in a complex form of empirical reasoning, but he does not codify that process of reasoning. For each such example of an empirical hypothesis and explanation, therefore, it is possible to attempt to unravel the implicit standards of empirical rationality, or the implicit conceptions of scientific explanation, inference, evidence, and so forth. This process is in large part the domain of the history of science; however, its results are of plain importance to the general theory of science described above. For if we suppose that any scientific theory rests upon a complex and unstated “grammar” of scientific inference and argument, we may sensibly ask whether there are any regularities among those implicit. theories of science. These particular theories of science embody the set of standards of empirical rationality which guide and regulate the particular scientist, and they constitute part of the raw material for the analytical theory of science. They are what the analytical theory of science is a theory of.

Using this basic taxonomy of the philosophy of science, it is possible to restate the innovation in the practice of the philosophy of science which was described above as having occurred of late: historically minded philosophers of science have argued that we ought to make more explicit the relationship between the two levels of theories of science, and ought to pay more attention to the concrete theories of science implicit in particular scientific systems when formulating and criticizing the analytical theory of science. We ought, that is, to formulate an analytical theory of science which is more sensitive to the particular details of the actual practice of scientific explanation and justification, rather than relying on a priori and unsystematic arguments about science in general.

Notes

1. Consider social theorists like Louis Althusser, Nicos Poulantzas, Lucio Coletti, and Maurice Godelier; empirical sociologists like Tom Bottomore, Ralph Miliband, and J. H. Westergaard; economists like Paul Sweezy, Maurice Dobb, and Ernest Mandel; and historians like E. P. Thompson, Eugene Genovese, Eric Hobsbawm, and Albert Soboul.
2. For a description of a similar project in the biological sciences, consult David Hull, Philosophy of Biological Science (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1974), pp. 5-7. Consider also Norwood Hanson, Patterns of Discovery, An Inquiry into the Conceptual Foundations of Science (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1965, p. 2.
3. Louis Althusser and Etienne Balibar, Reading Capital, trans. Ben Brewster (London: New Left Books, 1970), pp. 30-1;Louis Althusser, For Marx, trans. Ben Brewster (London: New Left Books, 1969), pp. 34-5.
4. David McLellan, Karl Marx (New York: Viking Press, 1975), pp. 303-305; Albrecht Wellmer, Critical Theory of Society (New York: Herder & Herder, 1971), Chap. 2; Carl Boggs, Gramsci’s Marxism (London: Pluto Press,·1976) Chap. 1.
5. Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 2nd ed. ·(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970); Norwood Hanson, Patterns of Discovery; Imre Lakatos, “Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes,” Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge, ed. Imre Lakatos & Alan Musgrave (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970); David Hull, Philosophy of Biological Science. These works share a commitment to constructing a theory of science based on a close reading of some specific scientific theory.
6. Cf. Richard Rudner, Philosophy of Social Science (Englewood Cliffs., N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1966). This is a good example of such studies.
7. Consider Israel Scheffler, The Anatomy of Inquiry (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1963), pp. 3-15, for a similar discussion and taxonomy of the philosophy of science.

My program of research, circa 1976

image: philosopher at work


My Ph.D. dissertation in philosophy was written between 1974 and 1977 and was accepted in 1977. The topic was Marx’s theory of science as embodied in Capital, and it was one of the early attempts to join an analytical philosophical perspective with careful study of Marx’s ideas. The title of the dissertation was Marx’s Capital: A Study in the Philosophy of Social Science. Given the focus and approach of this work, it might be described as a very early contribution to analytical Marxism. Gerald Cohen’s pivotal Karl Marx’s Theory of History appeared in 1978, Elster’s Making Sense of Marx appeared in 1985, and my Scientific Marx appeared in 1986. More than forty years later I now find it somewhat interesting to see how a young graduate student formulated the task of approaching Marx’s theories in a new way, and perhaps it will be of interest to some readers of Understanding Society as well. The dissertation proposed a different way of attempting to understand Marx, and it also proposed a different approach to developing the philosophy of social science — an approach that gives greater attention to the details and history of social-science research. 

Excerpts from Introduction to Little dissertation, 1977

This thesis is an essay in the philosophy of social science. It is an attempt to address Marx’s social theory as an important episode in the history of social science, and to try to uncover in detail its implicit standards of rational scientific practice. Marx advances the social and economic theory of Capital in the spirit of an objective theory in social science with empirical content and justification. That theory purports to explain certain fundamental facts about the capitalist mode of production, and it has stimulated a tradition of research in social science which is active and productive today.{1} It is therefore important to try to discover the epistemological and methodological characteristics which define it, or in other words, to discover in detail the standards of empirical rationality which underlie its scientific practice. How does it define its subject matter? What sorts of explanations does it advance? What assumptions does it rest on concerning the nature of social explanation? What sort of empirical justification does it advance?{2}

My investigation has consequences for two fairly independent families of questions. First, it is relevant to the question of the ultimate significance of Marx’s work. There is controversy in the Marxist literature concerning the relation between the early Marx and the later. Some critics (like Althusser) assert that only the theory contained in Capital represents the mature Marx, whereas the earlier writings are mere juvenilia.{3} Others argue, on the other hand, that the most significant contributions which Marx makes are contained in the early and middle writings– the theory of alienation, historical materialism, and the philosophical concept of socialism–and that Capital represents an unfortunate excursion into positivism and scientism.{4} We will be able to contribute to a better assessment of the relative merits of these opposing positions if we are able to determine in’ detail the scientific significance of the theory articulated in Capital.

Secondly, this essay is relevant to broader concerns in the philosophy of social science more generally. One of the most fruitful tools brought to the philosophy of science in the past two decades has been the application of the methods of the history of science to research in the philosophy of science.{5} Historically minded philosophers of science have shown–particularly in the natural sciences– that the analytical theory of science may be significantly enriched and tested through detailed attention to case studies in the history of science. These philosophers of science have reconsidered the distinction between description and prescription in the philosophy of science, and have sought to produce theories of science which conform more closely to the actual practice of scientific research. The outcome of such studies has frequently been of great significance to questions in analytical philosophy of science (questions like the nature of explanation and the character of empirical justification, for example). It has also cast some doubt on the principle of the unity of science, at least as an a priori assumption, for detailed case studies of different sciences have suggested that there are.important differences in the practices of these sciences, I will argue below that this historical approach is of particular significance for the future development of the philosophy of social science. Consequently, case studies of the sort I now advance will be of great use in furthering the condition of the philosophy of social science in general. In the next few pages I would like to discuss these two lines of significance of my research in somewhat greater detail.

Marx’s Significance

Marx’s writings encompass a wide range of intellectual activities — philosophical critique, historical analysis, political economy, political commentary. Nonetheless, these disparate activities show a remarkable constancy of direction and pattern of development. Marx’s attention is directed throughout his active career to the problem of comprehending· modern society and its peculiar inadequacies for full human development, what changes from his early contributions to the fully mature position in Capital is chiefly the view he takes concerning the proper method of acquiring such understanding. Marx begins his career as a professional philosopher, trained in the critical dialectics of post-Hegelian Germany. At this stage his social theory is a form of philosophical critique; it is an attempt to diagnose modern society from an abstract and philosophical perspective. This stage of his thought is continuous with Hegel’s social theory in the Philosophy of Right, in method if not in substance, This period includes the Critique of Hegel’s Doctrine of the State and On the Jewish Question as well as lesser articles.

Marx soon transforms this form of philosophical criticism into a methodology for social knowledge which leaves the purely philosophical realm. This transformation begins in the critique of Hegel, where Marx first begins to criticize Hegel’s ”logical mysticism”, or his tendency to try to explain social phenomena solely on the basis of the categories of pure reason. Marx urges in the place of this logical mysticism a methodology for social analysis which turns rather upon concrete historical and empirical investigations rather than purely speculative philosophical critique. This line of thought begins with Marx’s observation that Hegel’s social theory is too abstract, non- historical, and speculative; and it culminates in a full- fledged commitment to concrete historical and social research as ·a method for understanding society. This transformation marks the second stage of Marx’s development as a social theorist: it culminates in the full statement of the principle or historical materialism as a method for social theory in the German Ideology. On this method, if we are to understand the most important characteristics of society, it must be on the basis of detailed empirical and historical research, not philosophical speculation.

Having once posed the question of understanding society in terms of the method of historical materialism, however, Marx is drawn inexorably into a more and more detailed study of history and the most advanced form of social science, political economy. This study leads in turn to the formulation of Marx’s. own analysis of capitalism, Capital, in which he advances an attempt to provide an objective and scientific analysis of the structure and development of modern capitalist society. This represents the third stage of the development of Marx’s distinctive approach to social analysis. Here Marx undertakes a sustained and scholarly attempt to -provide a science of the capitalist mode of production. What has changed from the beginnings of this process of development to its nature form in Capital, however, is not the objective, Marx is still committed to comprehending the essential characteristics of modern society and the nature of its inadequacy as a context for full human development. But now his method is historical, empirical, and scientific rather than speculative and philosophical. Philosophical criticism has been transformed into critical social science.

Capital, then, is the result and culmination of a long process in which Marx constructs a method of inquiry for social theory. It is advanced as an exercise in social science. It is deliberately based upon a method of inquiry securely grounded in historical and empirical research; and it purports to be an objective and scientific theory of the real characteristics of the capitalist mode of production. In Capital Marx attempts to explain the basic structure and historical dynamic of capitalism, and he expects the hypothesis he advances to be evaluated according to the standards of science. His commitment to objectivity and scientific rationality is unequivocal. Social explanation must be objective, empirical, and historically informed, this conviction lies at the heart of his criticisms of Hegel’s method, of Proudhon, and of vulgar political economy, and it defines his criteria of’ successful social analysis.

It is now possible for me to state the aim of my thesis quite precisely: I would like to uncover the implicit theory of science which underlies Marx’s argument in Capital. Capital consists of a complex and extended argument by which Marx attempts to establish a basic hypothesis and show how it explains certain fundamental facts about the capitalist mode of production. This argument implicitly defines a particular set of standards of empirical rationality, it embodies a concept of explanation, justification, and subject matter or social science which underlies and informs the detail of the argument. In this thesis I want to extract as sensitively as possible the details of this conception.

The significance of the thesis can be stated just as succinctly. Having unraveled the theory of science which underlies this particular example of a social science, it will be possible to return to the more abstract and analytical theory of science with a fresher and richer view of what categories and questions are most significant for social science. This thesis, therefore, becomes part of the raw material necessary for the broader enterprise of constructing a theory of science which is adequate to social science.

In what follows I will observe a fairly simple division of labor in attempting to reconstruct Marx’s implicit theory of science. I will focus on three questions: What is Marx’s a theory of, or more generally, what are the principles and assumptions which define its problematic, subject matter, and basic structure? Secondly, what sort of theory is it: a what is the logical structure of the theory? And thirdly, how is it justified: what sort of concept of evidence and the relation of evidence to theory does it rest upon? By answering these questions, we will have established the basic characteristics of Marx’s empirical practice: his conception of explanation and subject matter, the logical structure of his theory, and his concept of empirical justification.

Theorizing about organizations

The fields of organizational studies and organizational sociology originated in the early twentieth century but flourished in the post-war period. This makes a certain amount of historical sense. The emergence in the nineteenth century of large, complex organizations in business and government became a factor in modern society that dwarfed the impact of the organizations of the past — universities, religious societies, and guilds. There was therefore a new sociological topic that demanded study. How do corporations and large government departments work? What concepts permit insightful analysis of large, complex organizations? Max Weber’s theory of bureaucracy provided a beginning, but organizations proved to have greater variety and more perplexing features than Weber’s ideas could account for.

Large, complex organizations are the most pervasive social structure in the modern world. They structure the food we eat, the ways we work, the compensation we receive for our labors, the technologies that inform our daily lives, the ways that wars occur, and the modes through which governments function. And, as any observant person will recognize, large organizations create some of the most important dysfunctions that our modern society confronts. So it is enormously important to have a better idea of what a large organization is and how it works. We need to understand the variety, structures, and dynamics of large organizations if we are to have realistic ideas about how to make a more humane world.

Charles Perrow has been one of the most insightful contributors to organizational sociology since the 1960s. His research on the topic of safety within high-risk industries (space, nuclear power, marine transport, chemicals) has been highly influential, including especially his 1984 book, Normal Accidents: Living with High-Risk Technologies.

In 1972 Perrow published Complex Organizations: A Critical Essay, which was released in its third edition in 2014. The book is a masterful synthesis of the schools of thought that have emerged in organizational sociology since 1945. Perrow describes the human relations school, the neo-Weberian school, the institutional tradition, the technology [contingency] approach, the economic interpretation, and the “power” interpretation of organizations. The book therefore provides a valuable map of the geography of the field today, and the intellectual origins of current research. But more than that, the book is an important and original presentation of how organizations work, in Perrow’s view. Perrow takes a “structural” view of organizations, which amounts fundamentally to the idea that the most important questions have to do with the internal processes of various organizations and the relationships the organization has to powerful external forces. (Perrow quotes March and Simon on organizational structure: “those aspects of the pattern of behavior in the organization that are relatively stable and that change only slowly”; (124). This contrasts with the “human relations” school, which holds that the important properties of organizations derive from features of behavior associated with the individuals who make them up, including leaders, managers, and workers.

An idea that emerges as particularly important in Perrow’s account is the idea of bounded rationality and the limits on rational planning and decision-making within an organization. This part of Perrow’s treatment depends heavily on the theories of Herbert Simon and James March (March and Simon, Organizations and Simon, Administrative Behavior).

Bounded rationality, however, is visited upon the elites as well. Their position is always insecure, for their information, understanding, and goals are never fully rational. This allows for occasional resistance and subtle changes by the controlled. In fact, bounded rationality, by elites or their subjects, creates a great deal of change, for it permits unexpected interactions, new discoveries, serendipities, and new goals and values. (123)

Perrow emphasizes the inherent diversity of goals and purposes that are operative within an organization at any given point. He describes the “garbage can” theory of organizational goal-setting and problem-setting (135). Executives, managers, and other decision-makers are portrayed as unavoidably opportunistic, in the sense that they address one set of problems rather than another without a compelling reason for thinking that this is the best path forward for the organization.

Goals may thus emerge in a rather fortuitous fashion, as when the organization seems to back into a new line of activity or into an external alliance in a fit of absentmindedness. (135)

Associated with this idea is the idea advanced by March and Simon that plans and goals are often adopted retrospectively rather than in advance of action.

No coherent, stable goal guided the total process, but after the fact a coherent stable goal was presumed to have been present. It would be unsettling to see it otherwise. (135) 

This recognition of the multiplicity and sketchiness of organizational goals casts profound doubt on the functionalism that observers sometimes bring to organizations (the idea that organizations possess the structures and goals they need to optimize the achievement of their goals). Perrow specifically endorses these doubts:

For those doing case studies of organizations it is also indispensable, checking the tendency of social scientists to find reason, cause, and function in all behavior, and emphasizing instead the accidental, temporary, shifting, and fluid nature of all social life…. Garbage can theory provides the tools to examine the process and not be taken in by functional explanations. The decision process must be seen as involving a shifting set of actors with unpredictable entrances and exits from the “can” (or the decision mechanism), the often unrelated problems these actors have on their agendas, the solutions of some that are looking for problems they can apply them to, the accidental availability of external candidates that then bring new solutions and problems to the decision process, and finally the necessity of “explaining” the outcomes as rational and intended. (136, 137) 

Typology and classification of organizations has been a preoccupation of organizational theory for a century. Perrow believes that we do not yet have a satisfactory basis for classifying organizations, but in his discussion of safety and disaster he provides a typology that has a lot going for it. The scheme sorts organizational tasks along two dimensions: the nature of interactions within the functioning of the organization (linear / complex) and the nature of the coupling of events and processes that exists (loose / tight coupling). His analysis of accidents finds that organizations involving high complexity and tight coupling are most vulnerable to disasters; so nuclear plants, the handling of nuclear weapons, the operations of aircraft, military early warning systems, chemical plants, and genetic research fall in the high-risk category. Motor-vehicle departments, community colleges, assembly-line factories, and post offices fall in the “linear, loose coupling” category and present the lowest risk. The intriguing question that arises here is whether there are organizational features that are best suited to safe and efficient functioning in the four quadrants.

Also interesting is Perrow’s treatment of the institutionalist school, represented here by Philip Selznick’s Leadership in Administration: A Sociological Interpretation and Selznick’s study of the Tennessee Valley Authority. This approach is grounded in structuralist-functionalist sociological theory.

Perrow’s considered theory or organizations is offered in the final chapter of the book. He advocates for an interpretation of organizations as vehicles of power through which some individuals control the behavior and products of others.

In my scheme, power is the ability of persons or groups to extract for themselves valued outputs from a system in which other persons or groups either seek the same outputs for themselves or would prefer to expend their effort toward other outputs. Power is exercised to alter the initial distribution of outputs, to establish an unequal distribution, or to change the outputs. (259)

Two specific examples illustrate this approach. Corporations influence consumers’ palate for products, and they do this in ways that serve the interests of one group in society over another. And corporations and industrial bureaucracies have fundamentally shaped the practices and culture of “work” in ways that fundamentally serve the interests of one group over another. Both are examples of the “social construction” of important categories of social life; and corporations (business organizations) are actively involved in this process of social construction. (This is essentially the approach to the definition of “labor” and “work” offered by Bowles and Gintis in Schooling In Capitalist America: Educational Reform and the Contradictions of Economic Life.) This approach to organizations is mirrored in Perrow’s book about the emergence of the business corporation in the United States in the nineteenth century, Organizing America: Wealth, Power, and the Origins of Corporate Capitalism.

In short, Complex Organizations is an excellent overview of organizational theory today, and it provides many of the conceptual and theoretical tools that help to make sense of these extended and pervasive social constructions that so fundamentally shape our modern experience.

Retelling US history

 
images: Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln (from Jill Lepore, These Truths)

People who mostly learned American history through their high school education have a limited view of the topic. It was a view that paid little attention to the concrete social issues of race, gender, or class in American history. Fortunately there is now a very good way of updating our understandings of the history of our country that rebalances our knowledge of the past. Jill Lepore’s outstanding 2018 book These Truths: A History of the United States provides crucial reading in these troubled times where racism, nationalism, and sexism are proclaimed at the very top of our government. (The book is also available as an audiobook, read by the author (link).)

The book has many virtues. But most importantly, Lepore shows how the reality and legacy of slavery played a fundamental and debilitating role in the evolving history of the United States, from the writing of the Constitution to the political conflicts preceding the Civil War to the politics of Reconstruction and Jim Crow. The realities of race are an essential part of American history.

More broadly, the book gives a full and broad account of disenfranchisement and discrimination in our history. Native Americans, women, freed slaves, and immigrants all find their voices and their struggles in this book — not as secondary walk-on characters, but as shapers of history and actors in the narratives that made us the nation we are. Here is a passage early in the book in which Lepore makes clear the intertwining of liberty and slavery before the American Revolution:

Slavery does not exist outside of politics. Slavery is a form of politics, and slave rebellion a form of violent political dissent. The Zenger trial and the New York slave conspiracy were much more than a dispute over freedom of the press and a foiled slave rebellion: they were part of a debate about the nature of political opposition, and together they established its limits. Both Cosby’s opponents and Caesar’s followers allegedly plotted to depose the governor. One kind of rebellion was celebrated, the other suppressed—a division that would endure. In American history, the relationship between liberty and slavery is at once deep and dark: the threat of black rebellion gave a license to white political opposition. The American political tradition was forged by philosophers and by statesmen, by printers and by writers, and it was forged, too, by slaves. (64)

And the issue of slavery continued to be the key dividing political issue through the Civil War, masked under the rhetoric of “states rights”:

Southern slave owners, a tiny minority of Americans, amounting to about 1 percent of the population, deployed the rhetoric of states’ rights and free trade (by which they meant trade free from federal government regulation), but in fact they desperately needed and relied on the power of the federal government to defend and extend the institution of slavery. The weakness of their position lay behind their efforts to silence dissent. (223)

There are fascinating turns to the story Lepore tells. One concerns America’s most famous poem by its most famous poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in 1849, and the change he introduced into the final version of the poem. Staunchly anti-slavery, Longfellow was deeply concerned for the fate of the Union.

By 1849, Longfellow, like most Americans who were paying attention, feared for the Republic. He began writing a poem, called “The Building of the Ship,” about a beautiful, rough-hewn ship called the Union. But as he closed the poem, he could imagine nothing but disaster for this worthy vessel. In his initial draft, he closed the poem with these lines: . . .

where, oh where, Shall end this form so rare? . . . Wrecked upon some treacherous rock, Rotting in some loathsome dock, Such the end must be at length Of all this loveliness and strength!

But instead of ending on this note of despair and inspired by the political campaign of his friend Charles Sumner under the Free-Soil Party, he wrote: 

Sail on! Sail on! O Ship of State! For thee the famished nations wait! The world seems hanging on thy fate. (259)

Close to the end of the Civil War that Longfellow so dreaded, Lepore quotes the equally poetic and compassionate words of President Abraham Lincoln, from his second inaugural address:

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations. (304)

The third large part of the book is titled “Of Citizens, Persons, and People”, and is very relevant to our current political morass. It tells much of the story of the struggle for full citizenship and voting rights for women, African-Americans, and other disenfranchised Americans. Equally it tells the story of the determined efforts of powerful racist, nationalist, and misogynist parties to prevent this from occurring. And it chronicles the rise of powerful corporations and economic interests which had their own political agendas and which so often worked against the wellbeing of working people.

Finance capitalism had brought tremendous gains to investors and created vast fortunes, inaugurating the era known as the Gilded Age, edged with gold. It spurred economic development and especially the growth of big businesses: big railroad companies, big agriculture companies, and, beginning in the 1870s, big steel companies. (335)

Lepore’s account of the rise of populism and its ambiguous relationship to fundamental progressive values is worth the price of the book all by itself, given the ominous turn that populism has taken in the past few years.

Populism entered American politics at the end of the nineteenth century, and it never left. It pitted “the people,” meaning everyone but the rich, against corporations, which fought back in the courts by defining themselves as “persons”; and it pitted “the people,” meaning white people, against nonwhite people who were fighting for citizenship and whose ability to fight back in the courts was far more limited, since those fights require well-paid lawyers. (348)

And the conservative willingness — even eagerness — to discredit scientific knowledge emerges as a century-old impulse, not something invented in the climate-change-denial generation. In general, it is striking how consistent the anti-progressive voice is throughout the past century and more, and how deeply it informs the conservative agenda today. Further, it is hard to miss the nationalism and racism that have historically been part of that rhetoric. William Randolph Hearst seems strikingly contemporary, and McCarthyism, Nixon, weaponized media, and the decades-long struggle against universal health care resonate with today’s headlines as well.

These Truths is an excellent work of historical synthesis that does not oversimplify, and distinctly does not portray US history as a steady march of progress. It makes it clear, really, that the values of equality, liberty, and mutual respect that many of us value so profoundly have been contested throughout our history, and that durable institutions embodying democracy and equality are still to be made, not simply celebrated.

(A good resource for high school history teachers who want to do a more adequate job of bringing difficult issues of race into their curriculum can be found at Facing History and Ourselves.)

Organizations and dysfunction

A recurring theme in recent months in Understanding Society is organizational dysfunction and the organizational causes of technology failure. Helmut Anheier’s volume When Things Go Wrong: Organizational Failures and Breakdowns is highly relevant to this topic, and it makes for very interesting reading. The volume includes contributions by a number of leading scholars in the sociology of organizations.

And yet the volume seems to miss the mark in some important ways. For one thing, it is unduly focused on the question of “mortality” of firms and other organizations. Bankruptcy and organizational death are frequent synonyms for “failure” here. This frame is evident in the summary the introduction offers of existing approaches in the field: organizational aspects, political aspects, cognitive aspects, and structural aspects. All bring us back to the causes of extinction and bankruptcy in a business organization. Further, the approach highlights the importance of internal conflict within an organization as a source of eventual failure. But it gives no insight into the internal structure and workings of the organization itself, the ways in which behavior and internal structure function to systematically produce certain kinds of outcomes that we can identify as dysfunctional.

Significantly, however, dysfunction does not routinely lead to death of a firm. (Seibel’s contribution in the volume raises this possibility, which Seibel refers to as “successful failures“). This is a familiar observation from political science: what looks dysfunctional from the outside may be perfectly well tuned to a different set of interests (for example, in Robert Bates’s account of pricing boards in Africa in Markets and States in Tropical Africa: The Political Basis of Agricultural Policies). In their introduction to this volume Anheier and Moulton refer to this possibility as a direction for future research: “successful for whom, a failure for whom?” (14).

The volume tends to look at success and failure in terms of profitability and the satisfaction of stakeholders. But we can define dysfunction in a more granular way by linking characteristics of performance to the perceived “purposes and goals” of the organization. A regulatory agency exists in order to effectively project the health and safety of the public. In this kind of case, failure is any outcome in which the agency flagrantly and avoidably fails to prevent a serious harm — release of radioactive material, contamination of food, a building fire resulting from defects that should have been detected by inspection. If it fails to do so as well as it might then it is dysfunctional.

Why do dysfunctions persist in organizations? It is possible to identify several possible causes. The first is that a dysfunction from one point of view may well be a desirable feature from another point of view. The lack of an authoritative safety officer in a chemical plant may be thought to be dysfunctional if we are thinking about the safety of workers and the public as a primary goal of the plant (link). But if profitability and cost-savings are the primary goals from the point of view of the stakeholders, then the cost-benefit analysis may favor the lack of the safety officer.

Second, there may be internal failures within an organization that are beyond the reach of any executive or manager who might want to correct them. The complexity and loose-coupling of large organizations militate against house cleaning on a large scale.

Third, there may be powerful factions within an organization for whom the “dysfunctional” feature is an important component of their own set of purposes and goals. Fligstein and McAdam argue for this kind of disaggregation with their theory of strategic action fields (link). By disaggregating purposes and goals to the various actors who figure in the life cycle of the organization – founders, stakeholders, executives, managers, experts, frontline workers, labor organizers – it is possible to see the organization as a whole as simply the aggregation of the multiple actions and purposes of the actors within and adjacent to the organization. This aggregation does not imply that the organization is carefully adjusted to serve the public good or to maximize efficiency or to protect the health and safety of the public. Rather, it suggests that the resultant organizational structure serves the interests of the various actors to the fullest extent each actor is able to manage.

Consider the account offered by Thomas Misa of the decline of the steel industry in the United States in the first part of the twentieth century in A Nation of Steel: The Making of Modern America, 1865-1925. Misa’s account seems to point to a massive dysfunction in the steel corporations of the inter-war period, a deliberate and sustained failure to invest in research on new steel technologies in metallurgy and production. Misa argues that the great steel corporations — US Steel in particular — failed to remain competitive in their industry in the early years of the twentieth century because management persistently pursued short-term profits and financial advantage for the company through domination of the market at the expense of research and development. It relied on market domination instead of research and development for its source of revenue and profits.

In short, U.S. Steel was big but not illegal. Its price leadership resulted from its complete dominance in the core markets for steel…. Indeed, many steelmakers had grown comfortable with U.S. Steel’s overriding policy of price and technical stability, which permitted them to create or develop markets where the combine chose not to compete, and they testified to the court in favor of the combine. The real price of stability … was the stifling of technological innovation. (255)

The result was that the modernized steel industries in Europe leap-frogged the previous US advantage and eventually led to unviable production technology in the United States.

At the periphery of the newest and most promising alloy steels, dismissive of continuous-sheet rolling, actively hostile to new structural shapes, a price leader but not a technical leader: this was U.S. Steel. What was the company doing with technological innovation? (257)

Misa is interested in arriving at a better way of understanding the imperatives leading to technical change — better than neoclassical economics and labor history. His solution highlights the changing relationships that developed between industrial consumers and producers in the steel industry.

We now possess a series of powerful insights into the dynamics of technology and social change. Together, these insights offer the realistic promise of being better able, if we choose, to modulate the complex process of technical change. We can now locate the range of sites for technical decision making, including private companies, trade organizations, engineering societies, and government agencies. We can suggest a typology of user-producer interactions, including centralized, multicentered, decentralized, and direct-consumer interactions, that will enable certain kinds of actions while constraining others. We can even suggest a range of activities that are likely to effect technical change, including standards setting, building and zoning codes, and government procurement. Furthermore, we can also suggest a range of strategies by which citizens supposedly on the “outside” may be able to influence decisions supposedly made on the “inside” about technical change, including credibility pressure, forced technology choice, and regulatory issues. (277-278)

In fact Misa places the dynamic of relationship between producer and large consumer at the center of the imperatives towards technological innovation:

In retrospect, what was wrong with U.S. Steel was not its size or even its market power but its policy of isolating itself from the new demands from users that might have spurred technical change. The resulting technological torpidity that doomed the industry was not primarily a matter of industrial concentration, outrageous behavior on the part of white- and blue-collar employees, or even dysfunctional relations among management, labor, and government. What went wrong was the industry’s relations with its consumers. (278)

This relative “callous treatment of consumers” was profoundly harmful when international competition gave large industrial users of steel a choice. When US Steel had market dominance, large industrial users had little choice; but this situation changed after WWII. “This favorable balance of trade eroded during the 1950s as German and Japanese steelmakers rebuilt their bombed-out plants with a new production technology, the basic oxygen furnace (BOF), which American steelmakers had dismissed as unproven and unworkable” (279). Misa quotes a president of a small steel producer: “The Big Steel companies tend to resist new technologies as long as they can … They only accept a new technology when they need it to survive” (280).

*****

Here is an interesting table from Misa’s book that sheds light on some of the economic and political history in the United States since the post-war period, leading right up to the populist politics of 2016 in the Midwest. This chart provides mute testimony to the decline of the rustbelt industrial cities. Michigan, Illinois, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and western New York account for 83% of the steel production on this table. When American producers lost the competitive battle for steel production in the 1980s, the Rustbelt suffered disproportionately, and eventually blue collar workers lost their places in the affluent economy.

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