Organizations - Fligstein
more costly to govern. Asset specificity refers to a situation in which resources necessary
to carry out a transaction involve "durable transaction-specific investments" that cannot
be used for another purpose without significant financial loss. This means that once asset
specific investments have been made, neither buyer nor seller can turn to the market as a
viable alternative, and it becomes particularly important to safeguard transactions
involving asset specificity against the (costly) hazards of opportunism.
In Williamson's view, it is the job of the firm (or more generally, of governance
structures) to economize on transaction costs. The firm's system of authority relations is
crucial in this regard, for when transactions are internalized within a firm, opportunism
can be reduced through the exercise of fiat. TCE uses the same general framework to
explain vertical integration, the creation of the multidivisional form and other hierarchies,
the emergence of conglomerates, and the separation of ownership and control in large
firms (1975; 1985). Recently, Williamson tried to explain more complex forms of
contracting such as alliances, networks, and cross ownership patterns that appear in
corporations across the world arguing that such forms of contracting economize on
transaction costs when there is interdependence between organizations, but not enough to
merit full scale merger.
Agency theory views all social relations in economic interaction as reducible to a set
of contracts between principals and agents. Principals are individuals who select agents to
do their bidding in some matter. The key problem is aligning the interests of the agent
such that they do not act against the interests of the principal. This requires writing a
contract (sometimes explicitly, sometimes implicitly) that provides safeguards for both
the principal and the agent. Such contracts must provide principals with a way to monitor
agents, and must create incentives for each side to carry out its part of the bargain (Jensen
and Meckling, 1974).
In agency theory, the firm is seen as a fictitious entity created by a "nexus of
contracts" of the principle-agent variety. In this respect the firm is no different than the
market: it "has no power of fiat, no authority, no disciplinary action any different in the
slightest degree from ordinary market contracting between two people" (Alchian and
Demsetz, 1972: 119). Instead, the firm is a system of property rights that defines a set of
principle-agent relations and divides up claims to assets and residual cash flow (Fama
and Jensen 1983a; 1983b). The principal, an owner, hires employees to do part of the
work. They are paid a wage and in exchange usually, though not always, relinquish
claims on the profits. The contract to which they agree contains specifications of their
duties, their rewards, and the rights of the principal to monitor their performance.
Agency theory argues that different divisions of property rights — the joint stock
company, partnerships, sole proprietorships, non-profit organizations — arise because
these forms of organization are efficient under specific conditions. Basically, depending
on the severity of agency costs (i.e.. the costs of structuring, bonding, and monitoring a
set of contracts among agents with conflicting interests), an alternative division of
property rights makes sense (Fama and Jensen, 1983b). For example, the joint stock
corporation under management control is likely to thrive when the cost of setting up the
firm is prohibitively high, the type of knowledge necessary to manage the firm is
specialized, there are large economies of scale, and there are persons who are willing to
supply capital on the hope of obtaining residual claims that are already discounted for
agency costs (Fama and Jensen, 1983a). Under these circumstances, the classic separation
of ownership and control occurs. But according to agency theory, this arrangement does
not lead to inefficiency. Instead, ownership and management interests are aligned through
three mechanisms. First, managerial pay is linked to firm performance; second, boards of
directors monitor managerial action; third, the market for corporate control effectively
sanctions managers who misuse financial assets, even if boards of directors have been co-
opted. In this account, the firm is efficient, even if product markets are not.
New institutionalist accounts usually retain the assumption that observed markets are
either in or approaching some form of equilibrium. A more radical perspective on this
issue is taken by what we label evolutionary theory in economics. Arthur (1988; 1989)
argues that economic institutions may have random starts. Thus, history and accident will
play some role in the origins of economic modes of organizing. At these originating
moments, there may be several ways to organize production, none of which have any
obvious advantages. Arthur has argued that during the dynamic processes whereby
markets are built, one or another form of organization may have some slight advantage.
Over time, institutions grow up around a certain organization, and they tend to reinforce
that organization's advantage.
Arthur terms this process a "lock-in". The process by which this lock-in occurs is a set
of tiny, discrete steps that over time make a given set of arrangements institutionally
embedded. Once in place, they become difficult to dislodge. Economic processes are thus
dynamic up to a point, but once a lock-in occurs around a particular form of organization,
markets become stable and less dynamic. Market processes that evolve in this fashion are
termed "path dependent". Arthur has studied a number of processes with this model
including the introduction of new technology, the location of urban agglomerations, and
the creation of technological centers such as Silicon Valley and Route 128 in Boston
A different view of evolutionary dynamics comes from Nelson and Winter (1982).
They argue that markets are continuously dynamic and never reach equilibrium points.
This means that firms are constantly being confronted by unstable market conditions. In
response, firms attempt to find ways of reproducing themselves over time. They do so by
creating competencies that embed organizational procedures. The standard operating
procedures of a firm both produce products, but also serve to monitor problems. They
provide feedback to decision makers about changing conditions internal or external to the
In this elegant way, Nelson and Winter are able to combine March and Simon's view
of organizations with a dynamic view of market processes. Firms that fail to develop such
competencies go out of business, while firms that do can prosper for relatively long
periods of time. However, market processes can occasionally overwhelm even the most
stable firms. This perspective does not explain which competencies will emerge from the
formation of markets. But, it does suggest that once they emerge, they tend towards
reproduction precisely because they have reliably led to reproduction in the past. A set of
arrangements, once in place, will resist transformation because the owners and managers
of firms will stick to procedures that have brought them success in the past.
SOCIOLOGICAL THEORIES OF ORGANIZATION
I consider five general sociological approaches that are relevant to comparisons of
corporate organization: population ecology (Hannan and Freeman, 1977; 1984), neo-
Marxist approaches (Mintz and Schwartz, 1985; Mizruchi and Schwartz, 1994; Edwards,
1979), political approaches (Pfeffer, 1981; Campbell and Lindberg, 1993; Fligstein, 1990;
1996), and institutional accounts (DiMaggio and Powell, 1983; 1991; Meyer and Rowan,
1978; Scott and Meyer, 1994), and network approaches (for a review, see Powell and Smith-
The population ecology approach begins with the view that the rational adaptation
model focuses too heavily on adaptation. Hannan and Freeman (1977;1984) have argued for
an alternative view of how and why organizations change. They argue that most
organizational change occurs at the population level. That is, when a population of firms
first appears, they begin to compete for scarce resources. Some organizations will flourish
and others will die. Those that have the best fit to the niche will survive precisely because
they will be organized in such a way as to find the resources they need to produce outputs in
a reliable fashion. This is a process whereby the environment or niche selects organizations
that have positive survival characteristics. 27
Population ecology explains several important facts about organizational life. First,
young organizations tend to die more frequently than older organizations. This is called the
liability of newness. This occurs because: 1) there may be too many organizations in the
niche given the resources available, 2) the actors in the organizations have not deployed
their resources in an efficient manner and therefore cannot produce outputs reliably, and 3)
the organization or its products lacks legitimacy. It also explains why established
organizations tend to not change. Organizations that are established have ties to other
organizations, are able to obtain needed resources, and most important, are able to produce
outputs reliably. Changing how a stable organization works is potentially life threatening for
that organization (Hannan and Freeman, 1984).
Marxist approaches begin with the criticism that rational adaptation theory is too
managerialist in focus. There are two sorts of approaches to understanding organizational
dynamics. First, Marxists are interested in how the labor process is organized and
reorganized in order to extract more surplus value from workers. Braverman (1975) made
the case that there had been a general downgrading of skill in work over much of the 20
century. Firms got bigger and needed more managers. But lower level jobs were subdivided
and deskilled. In a historical analysis of firm labor market practices, Edwards (1979) argued
that there have been three sorts of labor regimes in organizations: direct, technical, and
bureaucratic control. Direct control involves direct supervision, technical control involves
the use of machines to organize and “oversee” work” and bureaucratic control implies the
use of job ladders and seniority to give workers careers. He argued that each emerged to
solve problems of the firms related to the conflict between managers and workers.
There also appeared a line of research that was interested in the organization of the
capitalist class. This literature took issue with the managerialist assertion that firms were
under the control of managers not owners. It attempted to show that many firms still had
family ownership (Zeitlin, 1974). It also began to develop the idea that the upper level
managers were very much allied with the remaining capitalist class (Useem, 1984). A large
number of studies appeared that examined board of director interlocks as mechanisms of
coordination for the capitalist class (Mizruchi and Schwartz, 1992). There was also the
assertion that banks, which were central in interlocks, were the main source of control over
firms (Kotz, 1978; Mintz and Schwartz, 1985).
Rational adaptation, resource dependence, and population ecology all assume that the
environment is a fixed hard constraint on organizations. Political and institutional theories
pursue the notion that resource dependence is socially constructed, leading some scholars to
focus more on how firms constructed or enacted their worlds. Pfeffer (1981) opened this line
of argument by demonstrating that power in and around organizations was a reflection of
two factors: real resource dependencies of organizations and the ability of actors to articulate
a position whereby they were uniquely positioned to solve those problems. Pfeffer’s
argument on this question was complex. On the one hand, he was prepared to argue that
those who controlled the organization were those who could deliver stability of the
organization. This stability would be based on their reading of the prime resource
dependencies and the designing of courses of action to coopt those dependencies. On the
other hand, he was prepared to believe that at some level, resource dependencies were
themselves socially constructed and therefore, part of what made certain actors powerful
was their ability to convince a political coalition within the organization that their analysis of
the organization’s problems was correct.
Fligstein has expanded on these arguments and created what he calls a political-cultural
approach (Fligstein, 1990; 1996). He argues that the basic problem facing organizational
actors is to create a stable world so that the organization can continue to exist. This
necessitates the construction of an organizational field in which actors come to recognize
and take into account their mutual interdependence. Fligstein argues that these
understandings are reached through political processes. Generally, the largest organizations
develop a collective way to control the organizational field and they impose it on the smaller
organizations. There are two problems involved in creating a stable organizational field:
finding a set of understandings that allow a political accommodation in the field, and the
legitimation of those understandings by governments. Fligstein (1990, ch. 1) calls such a set
of understandings a conception of control.
From this perspective, states are implicated in all features of organizational life. The
organizations and institutions of the state make and administer the rules governing economic
interaction in a given geographic area, and they are prepared to enforce those rules, in the
last instance through force. The state's claims to set the rules for economic interaction is
social in origin, and as such it is contestable. The process by which these rules are set up,
transformed, and enforced is therefore an inherently political process. It follows from this
that the local politics and existing practices of nations will have profound effects on the
form, content, and enforcement rules in organizational fields (for a similar approach, see
Dobbin, 1994). The formation of organizational fields will depend on the politics in the field
and the relation between the field and the state.
Campbell and Lindberg (1989) argue that the state shapes the institutional organization
of the economy mainly through the manipulation of property rights. It does so in response to
pressures from economic actors, but also as a result of political choices made by actors in
the state. Campbell and Lindberg define governance structures as "combinations of specific
organizational forms, including markets, corporate hierarchies, associations, and networks
(e.g. interlocking directorates, long term subcontracting agreements, bilateral and
multilateral joint ventures, pools, cartels)" (1990: 3), while they see property rights as "the
rules that determine the conditions of ownership and control over the means of production"
(1988: 2). Their basic assertion is that state actors manipulate property rights to help ratify or
select certain governance structures. Using evidence from seven major U.S. industries, they
argue that the American state has actually had a very powerful role in the American
economy by approving or disapproving of varying arrangements (Campbell, Hollingsworth,
and Lindberg, 1991). 30
Institutional theories (DiMaggio and Powell, 1981; Meyer and Rowan, 1977; Scott and
Meyer, 1994; Zucker, 1977; 1987; 1988) complete the conceptual transition away from
environments as fixed entities, focusing almost exclusively on "the socially constructed
normative worlds in which organizations exist" (Orru, Biggart, and Hamilton, 1991: 361).
As firms interact with each other and with their environments, formal or informal rules
emerge to govern interaction, and organizational fields are formed. Once these fields
become institutionalized, however, they take on an independent status that has a powerful
normative effect on subsequent interaction. Once socially defined institutional environments
are in place, changes in organizational form are driven more by considerations of legitimacy
than by concern for rational adaptation or efficiency. This causes organizations to become
more and more like one another. DiMaggio and Powell (1981) identify three sources of this
isomorphism: coercion, mimicry, and the enforcement of norms. The main actors in this
process are professionals who espouse a certain point of view and influence mimetic or
normative isomorphism, and governments, who can coerce organizations to conform.
The Scott and Meyer volume (1994) contains a set of interesting empirical studies that
illustrate these points. Two sorts of processes are illustrated in these studies. First, the
construction of meanings and the role of organized groups such as firms and states is
usefully elucidated. Second, much of the work concerns the diffusion of shared meanings.
Once institutions are invented, they spread, often with remarkable speed, across settings.
Institutional theory implies that once a set of institutions around these issues were in place,
they would be very difficult to dislodge. Further, new organizational innovations would tend
to spread to organizational fields that were close together, while more distal fields would be
late adopters. Institutional theory would tend to support other theoretical views that unique
institutions might evolve across societies and that they would create stable patterns of
difference impervious to market interactions.
Network approaches have also proliferated in organization theory. Networks can be
broadly conceived as all of the social relationships that exist between a given organization
and other organizations. Network analysis is a strategy to gather data and use techniques to
assess how the structure of social relationships might be consequential for organizations. It
is less of a theory and more of a mechanism. Scholars with very different theoretical
perspectives use network analysis in a variety of ways. So, Marxists interested in the
organization of the capitalist class have used board of director interlocks as network data
that reveal the underlying structure of those relationships (Mintz and Schwartz, 1985,
Mizruchi and Schwartz, 1987). Other scholars have viewed networks as ways to coopt
resource dependencies (Burt, 1983; Stuart, et. al. 1999). Still others have viewed network
relationships as forms of information flow (Davis and Stout, 1992). DiMaggio (1985) has
tried to use network relationships to help specify the structure of an organizational field.
Powell and Brantley (1992) have argued that networks can be a method by which
organizations “learn”. This is a kind of a strategic contingency approach to networks,
whereby firms pay attention to what their competitors are doing in order to learn about what
they should do. Powell and Smith-Doerr (1994) review all of the various theoretical ways in
which people have used network analysis.
THE PROBLEM OF INCOMPATIBLE THEORIES
The great ferment in organizational theory has produced an explosion of empirical
research. There have been attempts at synthesizing theories or trying to test theories as
alternative accounts. My opinion is that these attempts have not succeeded at producing
consensus around theories. It is probably fair to say that there is also not much consensus
about the scope conditions for theories (ie. the conditions under which various theories
should apply). There are two ways theories get used that depend on whether scholars are
being deductive or inductive. Some scholars have overriding intellectual commitments to
one theoretical perspective or another and they find empirical cases to illustrate the relative
explanatory power of their perspective. Other scholars have empirical cases and try and
discover which theoretical or conceptual tools are useful in their case.
To some degree, the various theories are focused on different empirical objects.
Population ecology studies birth and death processes in populations of organizations.
Political approaches study relationships between organizations and the construction of
fields. They also consider how governments and organizations interact. Scholars interested
in innovation, adaptation, or organizational learning, study how particular innovations
diffuse across a set of organizations. Transaction cost analysis focuses on demonstrating
how asset specificity affects transaction costs and how these in turn affect the boundaries of
the firm or internal labor markets. Agency theory concentrates on problems associated with
the writing of contracts and monitoring and the functioning of the market for corporate
control. Marxists are oriented to showing how class struggle informs organization
interactions. In this way, one could argue that theories are observation laden and the very
different organizational theories focus on very different empirical observations.
For sociology in general, this is probably the usual state of affairs. Subfields are defined
by many approaches to a conceptual object. What is unusual in organizational theory is the
number of approaches and the large amount of empirical work that this has generated. Given
the importance of organizations in modern society, we have lots of ways to think about
them. People have studied business, business history, governments, and nonprofits from the
perspectives developed by organizational theory. Given how big of a niche organizational
studies occupies (ie. how many scholars are involved in studying organizations), it is not
surprising that there are lots of schools of thought able to occupy that niche.
USING ORGANIZATIONAL THEORY IN OTHER SUBFIELDS
I began this review by suggesting that organizational theory could prove useful for other
fields in sociology. I would like to end it by considering what conceptual or theoretical tools
various fields might usefully borrow from organizational theory. One of the most useful
ideas in organizational theory is the conception of an organization’s environment as a field
or sector. This alerts scholars to the problems particular organizations have in dealing with
resource dependence, legitimacy, and their relationships to other organizations and if
relevant, the state. Scholars interested in healthcare organizations, educational organizations,
and social movement organizations can benefit by understanding how organized the field is,
the position of various organizations in the field, and the difficulties that those organizations
face. Organizational theory usefully offers concepts to guide the construction of research
designs in such efforts.
Resource dependence and strategies organizational actors use to coopt fields often help
explain organizational behavior. So, for example, Voss and Sherman (2000) have shown
that one of the reasons that many unions have not responded to the downturn in union
organizations, is that for many unions, their has been no downturn. They often live in stable
worlds whereby they continue to do the things that they do, just as organizational theory
would predict. It is only when directly threatened or the possibility exists to open up a new
set of workers to be organized, that unions begin to act.
Institutional theory has much promise for the study of law, politics, and nonprofit
organizations. The role of professionals in organizations, problems of legitimacy, and the
creation of standard legitimating frames for organizations are central to organizational
worlds where it is difficult to judge what is efficient or even effective. This perspective helps
explain that in such fields, one would expect that the problem of appearing legitimate is very
important. Thus, credentials and professionals are involved in certifying that actions are “up
to date” and “modern”.
Organizational theory has produced a large number of theoretical ideas to help make
sense of how much of our society is organized. It offers us insight into the construction of
fields, sectors, and environments, offers us clues as to how to understand what
organizational actors are up to, and considers the types of problems organizations have. It
gives us leverage under when and where organizational change might occur and perhaps,
even more important, why it is so difficult to attain. Theoretical elements do imply very
different mechanisms about how the world works. But, this means that scholars can choose
theoretical elements that seem most relevant to their cases. From the point of view of
scholars who want to use organizational theories, this might be an ideal situation.
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Cambridge: Ballinger. 40
A History of Organizational Theory
Of Firms and Industrial Managerial Sociological
Organization Taylor Max Weber
Berle and Means Human Relations
Schumpeter Rational Institutional
1940s Stigler Barnard Selznick,
1950s-60s Convergence around Rational Adaptation
Managerial Theory Resource Dependence Strategic Structural
Of the firm Pfeffer/Salancik Contingencies Blau/Scott
Marris, Penrose Lawrence, Lorsch
1970s-1990s Reactions to Rational Adaptation
Transaction Cost Agency Theory Marxist Theories Population Ecology
Williamson Fama, Jensen Edwards Hannan, Freeman
Path Dependence Political/Political Institutional
Arthur Cultural: Perrow, Meyer, Rowan
Pfeffer, Fligstein DiMaggio, Powell
Economic evolutionary Network approaches
Nelson, Winter Burt, Powell
Objects of Study Business/Business History Comparative Capitalisms
+1 anno fa
I contenuti di questa pagina costituiscono rielaborazioni personali del Publisher Atreyu di informazioni apprese con la frequenza delle lezioni di Sociologia dell'organizzazione e studio autonomo di eventuali libri di riferimento in preparazione dell'esame finale o della tesi. Non devono intendersi come materiale ufficiale dell'università Bologna - Unibo o del prof Borghi Vando.
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