Towards A Critical Org Theory

Contemporary stratification scholars are unlikely to deny the claim that organizations are the primary site of the production and allocation of inequality in modern societies. Although there is considerable consensus on this point, until recently the use of organizational data to study inequality was rare, due at least in part to the plentiful individual-level data and the relative lack of organizational-level data. — Stanback, Tomaskovic-Devey, and Skaggs. “Organizational Approaches to Inequality: Inertia, Relative Power, and Environments”. 2010. Annual Review of Sociology, 36:225-47

One might ask, why use a European fairy tale to call attention to the exclusion of race in the study of organizations? I have purposefully used a Eurocentric parable to signify this problem through parody, in the African-American tradition of what Gates (11988:82) has called “black signifyin(g)” — the figurative difference between the literal and the metaphorical, between surface and latent meaning. In this article, the emperor is not simply an emperor but the embodiment of the concept of Western knowledge as both universal and superior and white males as the defining group for studying organizations. The court suitors are the organizational scholars who continue the traditions of ignoring race and ethnicity in their research and excluding other voices. All have a vested interest in continuing the procession and not calling attention to the omissions. –Nkomo. 1992. “The Emperor Has No Clothes: Rewrite ‘Race in Organizations'”. AMR, 17(3): 487-513

Opportunity structures are the pathways to success in American culture, and I am specifically referring to the organizational arrangements and processes within institutions and the linkages between organizations that define and mediate individuals’ achievements. — Mcdonough. 1996. “Choosing Colleges: How Social Class and Schools Structure Opportunity”. NY: SUNY Press

[T]he First Amendment protects associations of individuals in addition to individual speakers, and further that the First Amendment does not allow prohibitions of speech based on the identity of the speaker. Corporations, as associations of individuals, therefore have speech rights under the First Amendment. — Hasen, R. L. (2010). Citizens United and the Illusion of Coherence. Mich. L. Rev., 109, 581.

Corporations are people, my friend. — Mitt Romney, 2012 Presidential Candidate.

I have argued that organizational theory does not deal seriously with inequality, particularly as it pertains to racial inequality.

I can discuss the cultural milieu that rewards this kind of academic inertia (and I’m happy to in another post or over drinks) but instead, for now, I would rather focus on how to better theorize organizational theory that contends with inequality and race.

It is no small endeavor but the times demand it.

In the epigraphs above are just a few examples of the readings that have influenced my thinking on this of late.  The idea of corporate personhood figured prominently this presidential election season. As an organizational scholar, it presented a challenge to re-examine the central role of organizations to social and political processes. Corporations are, after all, the ultimate expression of an organization in a culture ruled by a market morality. As corporations’ rights continue to be framed and legally refined to make them “citizens” in the truest sense of the word, our organizational analytical frames strike me as not up to the task of meaningful contemporary analysis. The organization, like whiteness, threatens to remain an unexamined yet pervasive structure against which all other structural forms and processes are implicitly measured.

We have experienced major structural change over the past 30 years. Restructuring of work and financial relationships have acted back on social mechanisms like education. There is a sense of greater individual uncertainty as organizations, empowered by their central role in global finance and the economic world order, shift corporate risk to workers. That uncertainty is grounded in the reality of increasing class and racial inequality in the U.S. Organizational forms and processes are key to how that inequality is (re)produced. Yet, research has focused overwhelmingly on class analysis, when it has focused on inequality at all. This, despite bodies of research that explicate the complicated relationship between class and race. Organizational research has chosen to focus on the consequences of racialization and racism — affirmative action and statistical discrimination — rather than theorizing organizations as a mechanism for the reproduction of a racialized and unequal social structure.

It does not take much sustained inquiry to figure out why this happens. There appears to be no incentive to do otherwise. Journals have no problems finding scholarship. Organizational scholars can produce and publish work without being challenged to consider race or inequality in the larger sense or in any sense, really.

Gender scholars have done a better job of this and perhaps there is a model there for scholars who study race. Are journals and professional organizations who gatekeep scholarship on race pushing contributors and members to consider organizational analysis? What would it look like if they did?

These are considerations are important to my challenge that organizational, inequality, and race scholars move towards a critical organizational theory.

Critical org theory would interrogate the rightness of organizations as a civic form.

Critical org theory would challenge the implicit neutrality of organizations.

Critical org theory would theorize race as a social structure and organizations as a mechanism in the reproduction of that structure.

Critical org theory would be comparative, global, historical, empirical, and theoretical.

What would that look like empirically? I have given an example about how financial syndication rules reshaped the racial make-up of primetime television. I also propose that the effect of organizational change on racial discourse is ripe for study. For example, as the Internet morphs from the wild west to a private-public domain with a corporate oligarchy how are these new “public” spaces employing and redefining racial categories and construction? What does it mean when dana boyd talks about white flight from myspace to facebook? What about threats from elites to flee twitter for fee-based Is that rooted in statistics that say blacks are more likely than whites to use twitter?

In my own area, how does organizational change in higher education calcify the weak structure of higher education that has made it possible for low-income, low-status minorities to drop in and out of education as life demands necessitated? As pressures from market forces, the collapse of an aspirational middle class, and for-profit education models prod traditional higher education to change, will rhetoric about “degree completion” serve to harden access points for minority students who stop out and drop out?

Organizational change abounds. Can we effectively address those changes in ways meaningful for our understanding of contemporary inequality, particularly racial inequality, with current org theories and frameworks? I argue not.

It’s been said before that it is time to “bring the firm” (Baron & Bielby) back into social research. Critical org theory is that but more. It says, do not just bring the theoretically neutral bureaucratic firm back in, bring a critical analysis of the firm with it. Why the firm and not some other organizational arrangement? How the firm? Under what social conditions the firm? To what ends the firm? At what consequences the firm?

These questions reflect an awareness of the organization that is not subsumed to its “taken-for-grantedness” (Johnson et al., 2006) or its assumed social legitimacy.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


There Is No Race in Organizations

I continue to work on a comparative case of organizational structures in higher education. T’is what I do. Central to my theorizing and empirical work is that organizations reproduce racial, gender, and class inequality. You would think that goes without saying but race is seriously under-theorized and researched in organizational studies. For a long time,Read More “There Is No Race in Organizations”