Rational Choice Theory and Organizational Theory: A Critique


Mary Zey

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  • Dedication

    To Steve Murdock, one who is truly committed to fair and equal opportunity and treatment for all that does not stop at the conventional lines of gender, race, and poverty


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    I am an organizational sociologist, trained in economic sociology and structural contingency theory at the University of Wisconsin—Madison. For more than two decades, I have benefitted from the teachings and friendships of Michael Aiken, Eric Olin Wright, and Richard Schoenherr, who died prematurely in 1995. From interaction with these structural contingency theorists and neo-Marxists, I developed my political economy contingency model of organizational analysis in the early 1980s with the assistance of Michael Aiken. I have been writing from this perspective for more than two decades.

    My objective when I began this book in the early 1980s was to advance the study of macro-organizational theory, which draws upon the sociological and management traditions. These traditions view the organization as the unit of analysis and focus on the relationships of the organization to entities within and external to the organization.

    This volume is part of a larger program in which I argue for the empirical validity of structural change of organizations as dependent on the political-legal and economic factors in their environment, including change in capital, the state, and competing and supporting organizations. My position has involved arguing against the more conservative functional sociologists, the more liberal economic theorists of the agency theory, institutional economic transaction cost theory, and for capital dependency theory.

    This book has developed over a long period. It began to take form shortly after I began studying and presenting papers in the 1980s about then-evolving fraud networks established by Michael Milken, Ivan Boesky, and various sellers and buyers of junk bonds. In several academic settings, I was faced with shout-downs by organizational economists, who based their objections on the premise that insider trading and securities fraud should not be against the law, and that these actors were merely acting rationally. These scholars, newly socialized as organizational economists, could not understand that the premises from which I was working differed from their premises. In fact, they could not see that organizational entities have any real existence beyond that of benefiting their owners or stockholders.

    This book is written in response to the neoclassical economic rational choice theories and the organizational economic theories, which have developed in the past decade and which have gained center stage in current organizational analysis.


    I would like to express my gratitude to Dr. William Perry, Dean of Faculties at Texas A&M University, who provided me with a semester of faculty leave in the fall of 1996 to recollect data and, unknown to him, complete this book. His support has been of great help to me during this time.

    I would also like to thank Eric Olin Wright for allowing me to attend his graduate seminar in economic sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Madison in the spring of 1996 and to experience for a second time, a decade later, his excellent lectures. In addition, I would like to thank Jane Pillivan for providing a third opportunity for me to enjoy the stimulating environment of the University of Wisconsin —Madison sociology department.

    Some five years ago, in 1991, I was a Visiting Scholar in the Stanford Center for Organizations Research (SCOR). My mentoring host was Dick Scott. Both he and James March asked me to present working draft chapters of my Banking on Fraud book in their seminars. Dick Scott was chairing a research seminar on organizations in the Department of Sociology in which the faculty of the department, including John Meyer, and their graduate students were presenting their work. I also participated in the Scandinavian Consortium for Organizations Research seminar, chaired by James March, during which he and his graduate students critiqued my work. I received comments on my work and discussed it with Jeffery Pfeffer, Robert Sutton, and Joel Podolny. I am indebted to them for the lunch discussions about the intellectual diversity in the foundations of management theory and for their support of my research.

    During my semester at Stanford, I enjoyed the company of a number of other visiting scholars who assisted me in locating the appropriate library in which to collect financial data for my study of the transformation in corporate form in the 1980s (Zey and Camp 1996 and Zey forthcoming) and who provided intellectual stimulation on a daily basis. Lex Donaldson was my constant intellectual antagonist, strongest critic, and friend, as well as my informant about the development of managerial theory. For his friendship and support, I am deeply grateful.

    For their typing and editing, respectfully, the drafts of this manuscript, I would like to thank Charla Adkins and Maveret McClellan. Without their support and friendship, this book would have never been completed. Most important, I would like to thank Harry Briggs, who has supported my work for nearly a decade and, as my editor, flew from California to Texas A&M University in the fall of 1996 and strongly encouraged me to finish this book. His undying support and encouragement have sustained me through the writing of this book as well as my previous book with Sage Publications, Decision Making: Alternatives to Rational Choice Models (Zey 1992).

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    Author Index

    • Abell Peter, 8
    • Aichian, A. A., 80
    • Albrow, Martin, 108
    • Aldrich, Howard, 11
    • Allison, Graham T., 88, 94, 95, 106
    • Allison, Michael, ix, 76
    • Ames, Ruth, 112
    • Arendt, Hannah, 72
    • Arrow, Kenneth J., 26, 34
    • Austin, J. L., 70
    • Axelrod, R., 25
    • Bacharach, Samuel B., 91, 106, 107
    • Baker, Wayne, 11
    • Barnard, Chester, 81
    • Barney, Jay B., 11, 35, 37, 78, 79, 81, 102
    • Barton, Michael C, 70
    • Bazerman, Max, 96
    • Becker, G. S., 6, 7, 8, 11, 88, 93
    • Bendix, Reinhard, 73
    • Bentham, Jeremy, 21
    • Berle, Adolph A., Jr., 46
    • Blau, Peter M., 3, 44, 53, 76, 103
    • Bohman, James, 98, 99, 111
    • Bower, Joseph, 87
    • Burk, James, 110
    • Camic, Charles, 41, 96
    • Caves, Richard E., 78
    • Chandler, Alfred D., Jr., 50, 77
    • Child, John, 53
    • Cohen, Michael D., 110
    • Coleman, James S., 2–6, 9, 32, 40, 49–52, 55, 63, 65, 68, 87, 103, 107, 110
    • Davidson, Donald, 15, 20
    • Debreu, Gerard, 22
    • Domhoff, G.W., 49, 69
    • Donaldson, Lex, xii, 35, 37, 77–80, 97, 103
    • Doucouliagos, C, 46, 48
    • Durkheim, Emile, 4, 97
    • Edwards, Richard, 48
    • Edwards, Ward, 90
    • Ehrlich, I., 88
    • Einhorn, Hillel J., 95
    • Elster, Jon, 14, 16–21, 25–27, 32, 34, 101
    • Etzioni, Amitai, 41, 96
    • Fama, Eugene F., 79
    • Fararo, Thomas, J., 4, 32
    • Ferejohn, John, 28
    • Fischoff, Baruch, 90
    • Flam, H., 41
    • Fligstein, Neil, 41, 110
    • Frank, Robert H., 48, 96
    • Freeman, John H., 7, 11
    • French, John R.P., 37, 83
    • Friedman, Deborah, 2, 3
    • Friedman, Jeffrey, 9
    • Friedman, R., 45, 48
    • Galderisi, Peter, 34, 35
    • Goetze, David, 34–35
    • Goitein, Bernard, 90
    • Gordon, David, 49
    • Gouldner, Alvin W., 73, 75–76, 101
    • Granovetter, Mark, 41, 103, 106, 110
    • Green, Donald P., 9, 30, 31, 34
    • Green, Leslie, 92
    • Hage, Jerald, 76, 106
    • Hall, Richard H., 76
    • Hamilton, W.D., 25
    • Hannan, Michael X, 7, 11, 107
    • Hardin, Russell, 14, 15
    • Harsanyi, John C, 34
    • Hausman, Daniel, 22, 26, 27
    • Hechter, Michael, 2, 3
    • Hernstein, Richard J., 111
    • Hesterly, William S., 79
    • Heydebrand, Wolf V., 76
    • Hickerson, Steven R., 102
    • Hickson, D. J., 53
    • Hinings, C. R., 53
    • Hirsch, P., 45, 48
    • Hirschleifer, J., 35, 78, 79, 88
    • Hirschman, A., 28
    • Hobbes, Thomas, 37–40, 50–51, 90
    • Hogarth, Robin M., 95
    • Holsti, O. R., 88
    • Hurwicz, L., 26
    • Jameson, Kenneth P., 42
    • Jensen, Hans E., 98
    • Jensen, Michael C., 7, 37, 40, 46–49, 51, 78–79, 90
    • Kahneman, Daniel, 43, 94–96, 112
    • Kanter, Rosabeth Moss, 97
    • Katz, Jack, 41, 109
    • Klappholz, Kurt, 101
    • Knight, Jack, 8
    • Kuttner, Robert, 33, 43, 53
    • Lane, Robert E., 91
    • Lawler, Edward J., 91, 106, 107
    • Lawrence, Paul R., 106
    • Levi, Margaret, 2
    • Liebeskind, Julia, 79
    • Lorsch, Jay W, 106
    • Luce, Duncan R., 34
    • Mannheim, Karl, 71–72
    • Mansbridge, Jane J., 41
    • March, James C, xi, xii, 81, 109, 110
    • Marini, Margaret Mooney, 92, 94, 96, 98, 100, 107
    • Marwell, Gerald, 112
    • Marx, Karl, 2
    • McKelvey, Richard M., 30
    • Meckling, William H., 40, 46–48, 78–79
    • Merton, Robert, 95
    • Meyer, John, xii, 41, 109
    • Michaels, S., 45, 48
    • Mintz, Beth, 45, 49
    • Mizruchi, Mark S., 69
    • Monroe, Kristen R., 8, 32, 67, 68, 70
    • Morgenstern, O., 90, 94
    • Munch, Richard, 51–52, 107, 110–111
    • Murphy, Kevin J., 78
    • Myrdal, Gunnar, 101
    • O'Brien, Jodi A., 2
    • Olsen, Johan, P., 110
    • Olson, Mancur, Jr., 15, 23, 31, 90
    • Ordeshook, Peter C., 7
    • Ouchi, William G., 11, 37, 78, 97, 106
    • Pareto, Vilfredo, 19, 94
    • Parsons, Talcott, 2, 75, 95
    • Pennings, Johannes, 53
    • Perrow, Charles, 45, 63, 102
    • Pfeffer, Jeffrey, xii, 49, 83
    • Pitkin, Hanna Fenichel, 70
    • Pugh, D.S., 53
    • Raiffa, Howard, 34
    • Raven, Bertram, 83
    • Rawls, J., 15–16, 32
    • Riker, William H., 8
    • Rosati, J. A., 107
    • Rosenthal, Howard, 30
    • Ross, R. Danforth, 75
    • Rousseau, Jean Jacques, 37, 39, 40
    • Rowan, Brian, 41, 109
    • Ruback, Richard S., 78
    • Rubin, Paul H., 90
    • Samuels, Warren J., 102
    • Satz, Debra, 28
    • Scheff, Thomas J., 96
    • Schoenherr, Richard A., ix, 76, 103
    • Schultze, Charles, 33, 53
    • Schwartz, Michael, 45, 49
    • Scott, W. Richard, xi, 73, 77
    • Sen, A. M., 28–30
    • Seward, J. K., 47
    • Shapiro, Ian, 9, 30, 31, 34
    • Shapiro, Susan P., 97
    • Shils, Edward A., 2, 95
    • Simon, Herbert A., 63–64, 72, 77, 81, 90, 93, 94, 99, 109, 112
    • Slovic, Paul, 95, 112
    • Smith, Adam, 14, 15
    • Smith, Thomas Spence, 75
    • Solo, Robert, 102, 113
    • Stauffer, Robert E., 76
    • Steinbruner, J. D., 106
    • Stigler, George, 11
    • Strauss, Anselm, 91, 106
    • Strom, Gerald S., 34
    • Szanton, Peter, 88
    • Thompson, James, 72
    • Tool, Marc R., 102
    • Tullock, Gordon, 7, 17
    • Tversky, Amos.
      • See
        • Kahneman et al.
    • Udy, Stanley H., Jr., 76
    • Ulen, Thomas S., 90
    • Ullmann-Margalit, Edna, 26
    • Useem, Michael, 70
    • Vaughan, Diane, 109
    • von Neumann, J., 90, 94
    • Wallace, Walter, 91
    • Walsh, J. P., 47
    • Weber, Max, 16, 35, 42, 51–52, 64, 66, 68, 73–77, 84, 94–95, 104–106
    • Weick, Karl E., 110
    • Wilber, Charles K., 42
    • Willer, David, 92, 97
    • Williamson, Oliver E., 7, 11, 37, 39–40, 42, 47–48, 78, 80, 82, 90, 106
    • Woodward, S., 80
    • Wright, Erik Olin, ix, xi
    • Zald, Mayer, 63
    • Zeitlin, Irving M., 38
    • Zeitlin, Maurice, 49
    • Zey-Ferrell, Mary, 64, 73, 103, 108–110
    • Zey, Mary, 4, 11, 41, 45, 51, 64, 76, 77. 82, 109, 110, 113
    • Zenger, Todd R., 79

    About the Author

    Mary Zey is Professor of Economic Sociology and former head of the Department of Sociology at Texas A&M University, where she teaches and conducts research on organizations, especially industrial and financial corporations. In the past, she has studied such organizations as universities, volunteer organizations, and corporations. Her research focuses on the transformation of corporate form, control, mergers and acquisitions, and organizational crime. She is the author of Dimensions of Organizations: Environment, Context, Structure, Process, Performance, Banking on Fraud; and The Transformation of Corporate Control, Strategy, and Structure, 1981–1995; and editor of Decision Making: Alternatives to Rational Choice Models, Complex Organizations: Critical Perspectives, and Readings on Dimensions of Organizations. Her research on corporate structure form and strategy has been published in major sociological and business-related journals as well as Research in the Sociology of Organizations. Over the past two decades, she has collected a longitudinal database on the transformation of industrial and financial corporations from multidivisional to multisubsidiary managed corporations.

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