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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

(1988; 1989).

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.


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-

Doerr, 1994).

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 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.


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

Economic Theories

Of Firms and Industrial Managerial Sociological

Organization Taylor Max Weber

1910-1930s Commons/Coase

Berle and Means Human Relations

Schumpeter Rational Institutional

1940s Stigler Barnard Selznick,



1950s-60s Convergence around Rational Adaptation

Simon, March

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

Governments Nonprofits





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Corso di laurea: Corso di laurea magistrale in occupazione, mercato, politiche sociali e servizio sociale
Università: Bologna - Unibo
A.A.: 2011-2012

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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