Organizations are the fundamental building blocks of modern societies. So it is not surprising that they have always been at the center of sociological research, starting with Marx and Weber. And although Durkheim did not explicitly analyze organizations, his work has clear implications for the study of organizations. We review the insights of these three pioneering sociologists and then discuss ideas about organizations proposed by other scholars, from both management and sociology, from 1910 to the mid-1970s. Marx, Weber, and Durkheim's theoretical frameworks were tools for understanding the transition to modernity. Marx and Weber saw organizations as sites of class struggle and rationalization, respectively, while Durkheim focused on social cohesion and collective sensemaking, both of which underpin organizations. Later theorists focused more closely on the meso-level and micro-level processes that happen within and between organizations. These later theorists emphasized pragmatic concerns of optimizing organizational efficiency and labor productivity (scientific management and human relations theories), processes of affiliation and hierarchy (Simmel), limits to rational decision-making (the Carnegie School), and environmental conditions that shape organizational processes and outcomes (contingency theories). A companion paper describes the three perspectives (demographic, relational, and cultural) that have dominated sociological research on organizations since the mid-1970s.
Our goal is to lay out the history of organizational theory. But before we begin, we want to be clear about terminology—about the meaning of “organization” and “theory” in particular. Organizations are collections of people, material assets, financial resources, and information, whose members have common goals that they cooperate to pursue. People create organizations when they cannot achieve their goals by working alone, in small informal groups, in families, or in dispersed social movements. People create formal organizations when the actions they must undertake to achieve their goals require the joint, sustained, and coordinated efforts of many people. Organizations are more than mere collections of individuals however: they are sovereign actors, with legal powers bestowed by the state (Coleman, 1974, 1982). This gives them autonomy, allowing them to influence individuals inside and outside their boundaries, the communities in which they operate, other organizations, and society at large (King, Felin, & Whetten, 2010).
Theory, to us and many other scholars, is “theories of the middle range,” meaning logically interconnected sets of propositions, derived from assumptions about essential facts and causal mechanisms that yield empirically testable hypotheses and deal with some delimited set of social phenomena (Merton, 1968, pp. 39–72). Because organizations are the fundamental building blocks of modern society (Perrow, 1991), it is not surprising that theories of organizations have been proposed by scholars in many fields: sociology, economics, political science, and management. Here, we focus on theories of organizations developed in sociology and management. While there are differences between the two groups—sociologists tend to focus on how organizations actually operate and how they affect society, while management scholars tend to focus on how and why organizations are effective and efficient—the two groups have interacted for the past 50 years, collectively creating a body of work that is the core of organizational theorizing. We present three starting points for organizational theory in classical sociology, and then discuss the work of other important scholars up to the mid‐1970s. In a companion paper (e.g., Haveman & Wetts, 2018), we introduce the three perspectives on organizations that have dominated contemporary research for the past four decades.
Here, we have summarized the history of organizational theory from the writings of Marx, Weber, and Durkheim up through the mid‐1970s. Given their importance in modern societies, it is not surprising that organizations have been a site of inquiry for sociologists since the beginning of the discipline. Much of social life occurs in the context of formal organizations; people use organizations to pursue their economic, social, cultural, civic, and political goals; and organizations are sites at which valuable resources such as income and educational credentials are conferred. Organizations are therefore central to processes that are at the heart of to sociological inquiry, such as stratification, network formation, and political mobilization.
Observing the emergence of industrial capitalism, Marx, Weber, and Durkheim described organizations within larger theoretical frameworks for understanding modern societies. For Marx, who emphasized class struggle as one of the fundamental drivers of history, workplaces were arenas of alienation, exploitation, and domination of workers, but also places where workers could forge a revolutionary class consciousness. For Weber, the rationalization of human activities that was the hallmark of modernity found its ideal‐typical embodiment in rational‐legal bureaucratic organization. For Durkheim, increasing specialization in the context of differentiated organizations marked the transition from traditional to modern societies, necessitating forms of solidarity characterized by interdependence rather than similarity. Their perspectives on the roles that organizations play in modern society continue to exert broad influence today