Theory and Method in Organization Studies: Paradigms and Choices


Antonio Strati

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    To my father, to Filippo, Rita, Silvia, and to the memory of my mother


    The study of organizations as social contexts concerns itself with fragments of organizational life, not with its totality or essential reality, nor with a representative sample of it. These fragments change in the course of the knowledge-gathering process. Organizational phenomena are in constant flux: just like Heraclitus’ river, which cannot be stepped in twice because the water constantly flows and is never the same, so the same organization cannot be ‘known’ twice. This is an epistemological position. To adopt it entails not only awareness of the limited nature of one's knowledge of organizations but also recognition that it is neither correct nor opportune to compare heterogeneous fragments, except for elements so well circumstantiated that they yield some sort of generic information about organizational life.

    This fundamental assumption gives the study of organization as social contexts a character different from that envisioned in the 1960s and 1970s. No longer is there the emphasis of those years on ‘the development and empirical testing of generalizations dealing with the structure and functioning of organizations viewed as organizations’ (Scott, 1992: 9) which constitute a ‘specialized field of inquiry within the discipline of sociology’ (Scott, 1992: 8). This certainty has faded since the demise of the paradigm which underpinned that formulation and the empirical verification of generalizations on the structure and workings of organizations.

    Today, one finds a plurality of methods, ranging from ethnomethodology to grounded theory, no longer of insignificant or marginal importance for the study of organizations as social contexts. The divide between quantitative and qualitative research has narrowed since ethnographic and symbolic analysis gained equal legitimacy with structuralist inquiry. The 1980s saw constant conflict between studies and approaches which employed qualitative methods and those that conversely asserted the scientific value of knowledge acquired using quantitative ones. The history of organization studies and theories has been marked by this clash between so-called ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ analysis.

    The controversy continues, as this book documents. But the way in which the study of organizations as social contexts has internalized the conflict has altered its character, since it is now formulated in more problematic terms. First, the findings yielded by research are not confused with organizational reality in analyses that prefer to measure organizational phenomena; nor is interpretation of organizational life confused with its true nature by those studies which instead explore the organizational knowledge of organizational actors. Second, the study of organizations as social contexts problematizes knowledge and methods as it ranges among generalizations and nuances, from the concrete to the ephemeral. It relies neither on empirical verifiability nor on methodological individualism, neither on statistical explanation nor on interpretation based on direct and prolonged first-hand experience. These are all problems rather than solutions for the organizational researcher who studies society within and without individual organizations.

    Organizational knowledge is therefore as composite, hybrid, confused, paradoxical and multifaceted as the sociological, psychological, anthropological, economic, semiotic disciplinary corpuses, and indeed business administration and management studies. Accordingly, it comprises sophisticated statistical analysis, a large number of organizational contexts and comparison among them, computer-assisted processing, repeatable and re-examinable analytic procedures, probabilistic forecasting, repetition of method by both the same research group and others. It delves into details, and sifts people's words and actions for the interpretations and meanings that they attribute to them. And it seeks out fresh definitions of itself. It draws on developments in interpretative sociology, in phenomenological philosophy and in hermeneutics. It moves freely between analytic and mythical thought in the social construction of the collective constituted by the organization qua organizational culture. It is a new, mercurial and imperfect form of inquiry which does not view the study of organizations as a historico-evolutionary process of knowledge acquisition but behaves as if it were a computer simulation of organizational reality.

    This book therefore describes, not a motorway of organizational knowledge whose route is clearly plotted by the maps of organizational thought, but a labyrinth marked out by the heuristic endeavour of organizational researchers. The definition of the study of organizations as social contexts that results from this rests on approaches whose exploratory intent permits the use of less validated and often less reassuring methods. It is an illusion to imagine this field of inquiry as comprising mutually and clearly distinct sociological or anthropological or management study identities.

    The book consists of two parts. The first deals with definitions of organization. It examines their rich variety, illustrates themes and issues associated with them, and then explores organizations as social contexts, yielding a corpus of knowledge which is viewed as socially and collectively constructed. It marks out the body of research, intellectual currents and theories which seek to understand and to explain everyday life in organizations, their governance, and their action within different societal arrangements. It highlights the pervasiveness of the study of organizations as social contexts in organizational thought, for its distinctive feature is that it examines the social relations created by communities internally to organizations, and externally to them with other organizations and with society at large. This first part of the book, which has an ethnomethodological flavour (in that it works from the standpoint of the criteria adopted while describing the history and subjects of organizational thought), is closely linked to the second. The significance of theoretical paradigms in researching organizations and new awareness of old and new organizational topics, in fact, also require an understanding of methodological choices. The second part of the book takes the reader more deeply into the study of organizations as social contexts, describing some of the main methods of empirical research and providing examples of their use. The questions that organizational analysts ask themselves when they set out to investigate organizational life are numerous and disparate. What, they inquire, is a collectivity, or a formal structure, or a set of interactions among individuals? How do individuals reflect the life of an organization? Do they feel that they belong to it, or do they feel that it belongs to them? How do they define their action within the organization or on its behalf? What memories do they have of the organization, and how do they keep them alive? How do they take decisions? How do they behave at meetings? What skills do they deploy, and how? What beliefs, norms and rules do they construct, deconstruct and reconstruct? What sort of industrial relations system do they set up? There are as many questions as there are aspects of organization to analyse. All of them, though, rest on a corpus of organizational study divided among sundry schools and, more generally, theoretical paradigms which constitute the arena of theoretical debate in which organizational researchers frame their questions and their methodological choices: comparing organizations, compiling case studies, engaging in action research, measuring organizational actors’ thoughts, using computer software to interpret organizational life, trusting their own tacit knowledge and connoisseurship in researching organizations.

    This priority accorded to the exploratory rather than stabilizing nature of the study of organizations as social contexts is borne out by the experience of the present writer. It is my customary practice to question, challenge, refuse to take for granted, the body of organizational knowledge transmitted by sociology of organizations, organization theory and management studies. As a sociologist of organizations I prefer to view research into them as an endeavour to understand the complexity and paradoxes of organizational life, even when I am unsure which sociological theory or sophisticated methodology construes it best. I prefer to look beyond the confines of sociology to developments in anthropology, psychology, linguistics and other disciplines. On this basis I have sought in this book to describe a knowledge-gathering process which sets the study of organizations as social contexts within the broader context of the social sciences. My principal concern, however, is that the book will stimulate the reader to look at organizational studies afresh, prompting him or her on the one hand to seek understanding of organizations and, on the other, to reflect on his or her manner of doing so. We should bear in mind the fact that, as William Gibson (1995: 124) reminds us, an ‘essential fraction of sheer human talent’ is ‘nontransferable’: you cannot put it ‘down on paper’, nor can you load it ‘into a diskette’.

    A book is always the fruit of a collective endeavour. In many respects it is much less of a personal undertaking than the name on the cover claims. My greatest debt of gratitude is to my colleagues in the Faculty of Sociology of the University of Trento. Their support over the years has enabled me to conduct the research and teaching work that provided the basis for this book. I am also grateful to my students, at the universities of both Trento and Siena, and to the heads of the numerous organizations, in both Italy and abroad, who made my empirical research possible. I must also express my thanks to the organization scholars with whom I shared work and friendship at The Tavistock Institute of London (formerly Tavistock Institute of Human Relations), the Department of Business Administration of Lund in Sweden, the Copenhagen Business School, and SCOS (Standing Conference on Organizational Symbolism), an international network of organizational scholars interested in culture and symbolism. Gianluca Mori suggested that I should write this book for La Nuova Italia Scientifica – Carocci, and Rosemary Nixon encouraged me to have it translated into English for Sage. Bruno Bolognini, Marta Calás, Margherita Ciacci, Barbara Czarniawska, Antonio de Lillo, Pasquale Gagliardi, Silvia Gherardi, Vittorio Mortara and Stefano Zan read draft versions of this book. Adrian Belton translated the Italian text into English, Bruno Bazzanella helped with the additional English references, and Mario Callegaro updated the cited softwares for qualitative analysis. None of them bears responsibility for what I have written; to all of them I extend my sincerest thanks.

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