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Sociology of organizations

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Sociology, scientific study of human social behavior. As the study of humans in their collective aspect, sociology is concerned with all group activities—economic, social, political, and religious. Sociologists study such areas as bureaucracy, community, deviant behavior, family, public opinion, social change, social mobility, social stratification, and such specific problems as crime, divorce, child abuse, and substance addiction.

Sociology tries to determine the laws governing human behavior in social contexts; it is sometimes distinguished as a general social science from the special social sciences, such as economics and political science, which confine themselves to a selected group of social facts or relations.

The Evolution of Sociology

A number of Western political theorists and philosophers, including Plato, Polybius, Machiavelli, Vico, Hobbes, Locke, Montesquieu, and Rousseau, have treated political problems in a broader social context. Thus Montesquieu regarded the political forms of different states as a consequence of the working of deep underlying climatic, geographic, economic, and psychological factors. In the 18th cent., Scottish thinkers made inquiries into the nature of society; scholars like Adam Smith explored the economic causes of social organization and social change, while Adam Ferguson considered the noneconomic causes of social cohesion.

It was not until the 19th cent., however, when the concept of society was finally separated from that of the state, that sociology developed into an independent study. The term sociology was coined (1838) by Auguste Comte.  He attempted to analyze all aspects of cultural, political, and economic life and to identify the unifying principles of society at each stage of human social development. Herbert Spencer Spencer, Herbert, 1820–1903, English philosopher, b. Derby. He projected a vast 10-volume work, Synthetic Philosophy,
  applied the principles of Darwinian evolution to the development of human society in his popular and controversial Principles of Sociology (1876–96).

An important stimulus to sociological thought came from the work of Karl Marx Marx, Karl, 1818–83, German social philosopher, the chief theorist of modern socialism and communism, who emphasized the economic basis of the organization of society and its division into classes and saw in the class struggle the main agent of social progress.

The founders of the modern study of sociology were Émile Durkheim Durkheim, Émile (dûrk`hīm, Fr. and Max Weber Weber, Max (mäks vā`bər) . Durkheim pioneered in the use of empirical evidence and statistical material in the study of society. Weber's major contribution was as a theorist, and his generalizations about social organization and the relation of belief systems, including religion, to social action are still influential. He developed the use of the ideal type—a working model, based on the selective combination of certain elements of historical fact or current reality—as a tool of sociological analysis. In the United States the study of sociology was pioneered and developed by Lester Frank Ward Ward, Lester Frank, 1841–1913, American sociologist and paleontologist, b. Joliet, Ill. Largely self-educated, he eventually took degrees in medicine and law  and William Graham Sumner Sumner, William Graham, 1840–1910, American sociologist and political economist, b. Paterson, N.J.,

The most important theoretical sociology in the 20th cent. has moved in three directions:

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Old News ;-)

[Jul 26, 2012] The Sociology of Organizations

I thought some of these agencies performed much better in the past, e.g. during the Clinton administration. In any case, what seems to be missing from this account is the role of the Republican attack on government (beyond the push for privatization discussed below):
Regulatory thrombosis, by Daniel Little: Charles Perrow is a leading researcher on the sociology of organizations, and he is a singular expert on accidents and system failures. Several of his books are classics in their field... So it is very striking to find that Perrow is highly skeptical about the ability of governmental organizations in the United States to protect the public from large failures and disasters of various kinds -- hurricanes, floods, chemical plant fires, software failures, terrorism. His assessment of organizations such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Department of Homeland Security, or the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is dismal. ...

The level of organizational ineptitude that he documents in the performance of these agencies is staggering... And the disarray that he documents in these organizations is genuinely frightening. ...

What this all suggests is that the U.S. government and our political culture do a particularly bad job of creating organizational intelligence in response to crucial national challenges. By this I mean an effective group of bureaus with a clear mission, committed executive leadership, and consistent communication and collaboration among agencies and a demonstrated ability to formulate and carry out rational plans in addressing identified risks. ... And the US government's ability to provide this kind of intelligent risk abatement seems particularly weak.

Perrow doesn't endorse the general view that organizations can never succeed in accomplishing the functions we assign to them -- hospitals, police departments, even labor unions. Instead, there seem to be particular reasons why large regulatory agencies in the United States have proven particularly inept, in his assessment. The most faulty organizations are those that are designed to regulate risky activities and those that are charged to create prudent long-term plans for the future that seem particularly suspect, in his account. So what are those reasons for failure in these kinds of organizations?

One major part of his assessment focuses on the role that economic and political power plays in deforming the operations of major organizations to serve the interests of the powerful. Regulatory agencies are "captured" by the powerful industries they are supposed to oversee, whether through influence on the executive branch or through merciless lobbying of the legislative branch. Energy companies pressure the Congress and the NRC to privatize security at nuclear power plants -- with what would otherwise be comical results when it comes to testing the resulting level of security at numerous plants. Private security forces are given advance notice of the time and nature of the simulated attack -- and even so half the attacks are successful.

Another major source of dysfunction that Perrow identifies in the case of the Department of Homeland Security is the workings of Congressional politics..., the funds available through Homeland Security become a major prize for lobbyists, corporations, and other interested parties -- with resulting congressional pressure on DHS strategies and priorities.

Another culprit in this story of failure is the conservative penchant for leaving everything to private enterprise. As Michael Brown put the point during his tenure as director of FEMA, "The general idea - that the business of government is not to provide services, but to make sure that they are provided - seems self-evident to me" (kl 1867). ... Activities like nuclear power generation, chemical plants, air travel, drug safety, and residential development in hurricane or forest fire zones are all too risky to be left to private initiative and self-regulation. We need strong, well-resourced, well-staffed, and independent regulatory systems for these activities, and increasingly our scorecard on each of these dimensions is in the failing range.

Overall it appears that Perrow believes that agencies like DHS and FEMA would function better if they were under clear authority of the executive branch rather than Congressional oversight and direction. Presidential authority would not guarantee success -- witness George W. Bush's hapless management of the first iteration of Homeland Security within the White House -- but the odds are better. With a President with a clearly stated and implemented priority for effective management of the risk of terrorism, the planning and coordination needed would have a greater likelihood of success.

It often sounds as though Perrow is faulting these organizations for defects that are inherent in all large organizations. But it seems more fair to say that his analysis does not identify a general feature of organizations that leads to failure in these cases, but rather a situational fact having to do with the power of business to resist regulation and the susceptibility of Congress and the President to political pressures that hamstring effective regulatory organizations. Perrow does refer to specific organizational hazards -- bad executive leadership, faltering morale, inability to collaborate across agencies, excessively hierarchical architecture -- but the heart of his argument lies elsewhere. The key set of problems spiral back to the inordinate power that corporations have in the United States, and the distortions they create in Congress and the executive branch. ... It is specifics of the US political system rather than general defects of large organizations per se that lead to the bad outcomes that Perrow identifies. There are strong democracies that do a much better job of regulating risky industries and planning for disasters than we do -- for example, France and Germany. ...

There isn't much public concern about these risks, and legislators are therefore free to ignore them as well. ... So where will the political demand for strong regulation come from? Will we need to wait for the bad news we've managed by good fortune to have avoided up to this point?

Tired old democrat:

How can you attract good people to work in a federal agency when the administration(Bush) appointed heads who were 1) clearly unqualified and 2) did their best to get rid of anyone competent?

Obama should have required quick management audits of every agency, including stats on turnover.
Bush gutted the civil service, getting rid of the last of those who had responded to the "Ask not..." call of idealism.
Good government isn't hard, you need leaders who want and believe in it.


Having worked with government bureaucrats since the 70s, I would point out:

The primary objective of most bureaucrats is to protect their jobs and their budgets.

Bureaucracy grinds along regardless of who is in the White House. Survival is the first objective of any agency.

Common sense is usually left at the door.

In most agencies 20% of the employees are stars who add 80% of the value.

Patrick said in reply to save_the_rustbelt...

C'mon rusty. You've been around long enough to know that this also describes every single large firm.
The bigger the organization, the more it starts to look like a Soviet central planning nightmare (I do believe someone won the Swedish thing for something along these lines).

cm said in reply to Patrick...

I was considering responding to this in a similar way, but then I decided it was just transparent public sector bashing. The 80/20 rule alluded to had initially been defined for something else, and later came to be applied to all kinds of other things, in the above context as a flippant way of summarily characterizing the people who carry out all the unsexy standard tasks that the worthier people "leverage" in to "value adds" as incompetent loafers.


Little: "Overall it appears that Perrow believes that agencies like DHS and FEMA would function better if they were under clear authority of the executive branch rather than Congressional oversight and direction. Presidential authority would not guarantee success -- witness George W. Bush's hapless management of the first iteration of Homeland Security within the White House -- but the odds are better. With a President with a clearly stated and implemented priority for effective management of the risk of terrorism, the planning and coordination needed would have a greater likelihood of success."

It sounds like somebody has not heard of the separation of powers in the US gov't. (I can't tell whether it is Little or Perrow.) DHS is part of the Executive branch, under the President, and FEMA is part of DHS. (FEMA worked well until Bush II came along and sabotaged it.)

Given American culture, it might be better if Homeland Security were under under the Dept. of Defense, which has a tradition of getting things done.


Politicization is one thing, but especially for the last 1-2 decades, in connection with neoliberal mantras, there has been increasing outsourcing even of things that can be considered the core business, leaving empty administrative shells or an unhealthy proportion between administration and fulfillment leading to conflicts of interest and detachment of the management from the subject matter. This is not a healthy development for any organization, whether public or private. Among other things it also means that with outsourcing of the actual work, there is less scope for merit in the remaining functions. Merit is usually not attributed to administrators.

The outsourced fulfillers have a profit and cost cutting motive and are mercenaries more than anything else.


Contemporary conservatism is first and foremost about shrinking the size and reach of the federal government. This mission, let us be clear, is an ideological one. It does not emerge out of an attempt to solve real-world problems, such as managing increasing deficits or finding revenue to pay for entitlements built into the structure of federal legislation. It stems, rather, from the libertarian conviction, repeated endlessly by George W. Bush, that the money government collects in order to carry out its business properly belongs to the people themselves.

One thought, and one thought only, guided Bush and his Republican allies since they assumed power in the wake of Bush vs. Gore: taxes must be cut, and the more they are cut -- especially in ways benefiting the rich -- the better.

But like all politicians, conservatives, once in office, find themselves under constant pressure from constituents to use government to improve their lives. This puts conservatives in the awkward position of managing government agencies whose missions--indeed, whose very existence--they believe to be illegitimate. Contemporary conservatism is a walking contradiction. Unable to shrink government but unwilling to improve it, conservatives attempt to split the difference, expanding government for political gain, but always in ways that validate their disregard for the very thing they are expanding. The end result is not just bigger government, but more incompetent government.

-Alan Wolfe

Why Conservatives Can't Govern


Not to dispute this, but you are leaving out the aspect of redirecting government funds from serving the general public to corporate rent collection, in tandem with shifting the funding from everybody to the suckers.


Dean Baker's column today makes the point that once you understand that Republicans' solitary governing principle is upward redistribution , everything they do , say , and screw up , makes sense :

"...In other words, the most obvious story here is not that conservatives are opposed to public goods. Rather they are opposed to public goods that could have the effect of less income being redistributed upward...."

"...We could say that these and other interventions that favor the rich are just rules of the game, but that is playing into the right's hands. Yes, they are rules of the game, but they are rules that could easily be set differently.

If we let the right rig the rules in ways that redsitribute income upward and then are forced to argue for government interventions to partially reverse the bad effects, then we have lost. At least in the United States, arguing the case for big government is like arguing the case for killing puppies. (Don't anyone dare try it on my blog!)

It makes much more sense, as both politics and policy, to argue against rules that are rigged to redistribute income upward. In addition to being regressive, these rules are often horribly inefficient, as anyone reading the constant stream of stories about drug company scandals would know..."

"...We are fighting over whether government should serve the interests of the one percent or the broader population. We are doing the right's work for them when we allow them to pretend that the debate is over the principle of limited government."

cm said in reply to Goldilocksisableachblonde...

Thanks. Dean Baker is an astute observer and BS-caller.


{By this I mean an effective group of bureaus with a clear mission, committed executive leadership, and consistent communication and collaboration among agencies and a demonstrated ability to formulate and carry out rational plans in addressing identified risks. ...

And the US government's ability to provide this kind of intelligent risk abatement seems particularly weak.}


So, what else is new ... ?


Symbolic legislation is a primary source of failure for public risk management agencies. First congress demands that the agency eliminate all risk, no matter how uncertain, no matter the cost. This is closely followed by outrage and ritual flogging of the agencies for attempting to fulfill the statutory mandate.

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"The Use of Money in Social Situations," June 1996 (with Lars Stole)

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