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Organizations as social structures is a perspective that focuses on the hardware of human association, the durable factors that govern people’s ways of being together as they achieve common goals by coordinated means. As it has been understood in the literature, social structure is what permits the organization’s persistence over time; it describes relations among differentiated positions, and references an agency or institutional will that transcends that of individuals. Structure implies wholeness rather than aggregates, predictable patterns of transformation, self-regulation, and closure. Structure itself is a term borrowed from architecture, hence the spatial emphasis on prescribed places that people can inhabit. Organizational studies would need to be devised to disclose the plans and patterns of the social edifice.
The possibility of identifying structure rested upon a positive disposition toward the nature of society; namely, that the interconnections among persons were an entity in their own right, but also that these fixtures bore the properties of reason. Society is rational, and structures are the register in which rules can be read. The anxieties swirling around the turbulence of market societies derived from the concern that those displaced from traditional beliefs and dispossessed from their ways of life constituted a mass that would devolve into a mob, threatening public order and property. The emerging sociological profile was Janus-faced: modern society was rule giving, but also generated its own forms of unreason; it normalized but engendered abnormality; it imposed association in common but was driven by conflict. As organizational studies coalesced in the twentieth century around the notion of social structure, they undertook the analysis of these societal antinomies in terms that could be either apologetic or critical.
The consolidation of organizations as a generalizable field of study corresponded less to the passage away from industrialization linked to the first half of the century than to a deepening and extension of the industrial model to domains of activity and association hitherto untouched by it. The resonance of structures across what were presented as functionally distinct domains of polity, culture, and economy made the case that society was becoming increasingly rationalized. At the same time, rationality was itself grounded in problems of labor control and inspired by models of decision-making derived from research and development in the military and the stock market. If the key conceptual turn that gave rise to the field of organizations was the use of structure to treat human association as a system, an architectural metaphor was being used to underwrite the idea that society worked like a machine. But if the system metaphor was to serve the legitimating perquisites of a modernizing society grounded in expanding opportunities for wealth and progressive opportunities for participation in general decision-making, it would need to attend some dynamic of change or morphogenesis in its structure.
The dialectic between fixity and contingency, continuity and change was expressed in the dualism of structure and process which oriented organizational sociology during its florescence from the 1950s to the mid-1970s. Over the past 30 years organizational studies have continued within sociology (and perhaps more robustly without). The idea of organizations as bounded entities containing discrete memberships and fixed structures has become untenable, both in concept and in practice. Structure and process have merged and internal and external adaptations have become intertwined. Appropriate to the times, the architectural metaphor that social structure had rested upon may shift its reference from buildings (the internal skeleton) to computers, where the term applies at once to hardware and software. Structure’s future may lie in its ability to transit in between.
- Ahrne, G. (1994) Social Organization: Interaction Inside, Outside, and Between Organizations. Sage, London.
- Blau, P. & Schoenherr, R. (1971) The Structure of Organizations. Basic Books, New York.
- Scott, W. R. (2004) Reflections on a half-century of organizational sociology. Annual Review of Sociology 30: 1-21.