In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Organizations

  • Introduction
  • Textbooks
  • Critical Overviews
  • Handbooks and Readers
  • Journals
  • Research Methods
  • Foundations
  • Identity
  • Deviance
  • The State as a Regulatory Organization
  • Government, Nonprofit, and For-Profit Organizations
  • Comparative Analysis
  • Social Movements

Sociology Organizations
Saylor Breckenridge, Scott Savage
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 July 2011
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 July 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0039


Organizations are, generally speaking, those stable elements of social life designed and created for the purpose of goal achievement. As empirical units of analysis and as a theoretical framework, they are a central component of sociology. Organizations serve as primary structures within which people work, through which business is conducted, and about which states establish regulatory policy: they affect the daily lives of individuals and the broader communities in which we live, and they intersect and integrate with the institutions of labor, politics, and economics. Discussion of organizations pervades the foundations of sociological inquiry—Karl Marx in addressing labor inequality, Max Weber in considering bureaucracy, and Émile Durkheim and Adam Smith in their takes on the division of labor all address issues of organizations as elemental conditions of social life, and in so doing, introduce ideas that now stand as part of the bedrock of sociology. By the latter half of the 20th century, organizational sociology was an identifiable subfield with a set of theories, empirical evidence, and an aggregate community of scholars writing on the topic. Looking inside organizations, sociologists now understand that organizational operations can affect the effectiveness and happiness of laborers; that systems of stratification within organizations are components of the social landscape of power and inequality; and that leadership and management are a “visible hand” that shapes industrial enterprise. Viewing organizations as unique entities, sociologists have come to see them both as abstract sets of rules and regulations that govern relationships of individuals and groups and as specific establishments with sets of actors and internal suborgans that enable day-to-day operation, which vary along dimensions of formality, longevity, and economic auspices, and which succeed or fail depending on a host of environmental, ecological, and institutional factors. From a broader external perspective, organizations are actors on the economic and political stage: organizations exist together in an environment of resources which may be regulated in terms of access and use but may also be shaped by the political initiatives of organizations in efforts to create advantages. Organizations compete and cooperate in this environment and are tied together within networks and hierarchies of personal, demographic, and legal relationships. The political units that govern these national and international relationships are, themselves, organizations, thus opening the door to an organizational theory and assessment of the state and government. Altogether, the topic of organizations and its related theories permeate sociology as a field.


Textbooks can serve as foundational readings for those entering into the field of organizational inquiry, providing definitions and framing ideas that help guide the reader to see organizations as units of analysis and identifying the foundational theoretical traditions that guide their study. These are thorough, with distinct structures which enable them to be used together without being overbearingly redundant. Hall and Tolbert 2009 is organized around the action of organizations, Scott and Davis 2007 is the most theoretical, and Morgan 2006 is the most discursive and rhetorical. One or more of these are frequently found in the syllabi of Sociology of Organizations courses. Together, these three books would serve as an excellent overview of almost all of the major components of organizational sociology.

  • Hall, Richard, and Pamela S. Tolbert. 2009. Organizations: Structures, processes, and outcomes. 10th ed. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

    This text divides organizational research into topical areas such as the general nature of organizations, organizational structure, process, and environments, with a final section devoted to theory. Each major section has subsections that focus on topics such as organizational outcomes, power, or interorganizational relationships.

  • Morgan, Gareth. 2006. Images of organization. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

    This takes a notably distinct approach to organizations: establishing them as analogs to machines, organisms, brains, cultures, political systems, and psychic prisons (among other concepts). These “images” become a thoughtful perspective from which to assess and pursue organizational research. There are many links to classic theoretical and empirical research as well as popular examples.

  • Scott, Richard, and Gerald F. Davis. 2007. Organizations and organizing: Rational, natural, and open systems perspectives. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

    This is a broad overview of the field of organizational sociology using the framework of rational, natural, and open systems to guide the structure of the book. It is very thorough in its inclusion of the central analytical frames of the area—it considers general organizational structure, strategy, and organizational environments—and does so with substantive examples and consideration of organizational theory.

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