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.

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