Invited Essay: Teaching the Organizational Imagination

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Nicholas Membrez-Weiler

As part of our February newsletter, Nicholas Membrez-Weiler contributes a piece on teaching the sociology of organizations to undergraduate students. Nicholas is a PhD student at North Carolina State University. His work examines the social dynamics of organizational wrongdoing and corporate crime, with current projects focused on the problem of wage theft. He is involved in several projects with topics ranging from transnational mobilization and contested illness, franchise organizations and the fissured workplace, and shifting work relations in the platform/gig-economy.

When I started teaching the sociology of organizations, I noticed that students seemed particularly resistant to letting go of their implicit assumptions about organizations. Most students come into the sociology of organizations with some prior experience in sociology, usually an introductory or social problems course, where they learned to question many of their taken-for-granted assumptions about social life. Students learn early on about the socially constructed nature of race, gender, and class. We drill Mills’ (1959) Sociological Imagination into their heads and teach the importance of connecting biography and history, the macro and the micro, in order to better understand both.

But what of the meso? Formal organizations have come to dominate society, yet organizational dynamics remain invisible within most introductory sociology courses. As I quickly realized in my first go at teaching organizations, my students come with a great grounding in sociology and an understanding of important sociological concepts, yet certain images of organizations seem persistent and immovable in their minds. Especially entrenched are ideas about efficiency as an organizational goal rather than the means to reach that goal and the belief that productive organizations’ primary goal is (and should be) profit. In attempting to address these misconceptions, and in order to present a more complete introduction to the scholarship on organizations, I employ two strategies: semester-long observations of the same organization, and constant experiential immersion in the classroom.

Observing Inequality in Organizations

My students spend the better part of the semester observing and writing about organizations. These assignments usually follow the logic of the rational/natural/open systems paradigm, asking students to observe and discuss various formal aspects of the organization, the control and coordination systems within them, and the environment of the organizations that might all have an influence on one another. Just recently I have also asked them to discuss the issue of inequality within their organizations; I believe this is critical as organizations are responsible for much of the distribution of resources in society. This assignment generally takes the form of either one term paper or 3-4 smaller papers separated by topic. I lean towards the latter approach as it can be less intimidating for most students. Observing these different dimensions in the same organization requires that students shift their viewpoints to different images of what an organization is. Through their own experiences, students are able to perceive and discuss organizations as sites of conflict, and as living organisms dependent and influential on their environments, as well as (the default image of) organizations as sites of productive activity.

The inclusion of inequality as a dimension of organizations was inspired primarily by Relational Inequality Theory (RIT) (Tilly 1998), and the recently published text by Tomaskovic-Devey and Avent-Holt (2019)[1], Relational Inequalities: An Organizational Approach. RIT’s most recent iteration offers an accessible and approachable description of basic concepts that operate in and between organizations and that greatly affect inequality in society. I ask my students to explore how exploitation, claims-making, and social closure occur within their chosen organizations. In doing so, students become aware of more nuanced aspects of their organizations. This task also directs students’ attention toward the moral dimension of organizations, an aspect that is regrettably absent from some instruction in this area (Anteby 2013). To bolster students’ ability to perceive the often-hidden parts of organizations, I also employ experiential immersion, constantly highlighting the classroom as a space in which to examine organizational theory.

Classroom as Organization

At the beginning of the semester we usually discuss a working definition of an organization. This includes aspects such as: deliberately planned, goal-oriented, designed to outlive their participants, and having rules and an authority structure. We spend the semester poking and prodding and modifying this definition, but I like to begin by immediately turning it on the class itself. Is the class an organization? We usually pick at a couple of points, and eventually agree that it is. This forms the basis of exploration for concepts. I constantly ask that the class apply every concept we learn to the classroom, to themselves as participants, and to myself as the instructor and de facto authority figure. It is surprising (and perhaps worrisome) how easily students can apply ideas about organizations oriented toward production to the classroom. Ideas about output and efficiency become tangible in real time to students.

As a reading accountability mechanism, I have students roll a die for a 50/50 chance at taking a brief reading quiz for the day. On the day we were discussing forms of workplace control and resistance, for example, we had a quiz for the third day in a row. Students groaned when they saw the result of the die roll. They dutifully took their quiz and we started class. The first question I asked was how many quizzes in a row it would take for them to refuse or in some way resist. Students looked confused at first; that I would introduce the idea of their revolt seemed silly to them. No one wanted to answer, and I had to ask why. One student responded that it wasn’t my fault that there were three quizzes in a row, that it was just unlucky. A few more responses and students were arguing that the die roll was a form of technological control that legitimated itself through presentation by random chance.

Even though our everyday interactions with one another often occur within organizations, we frequently take these interactions, and their meanings, for granted… sometimes for the sake of efficiency, sometimes because we are blind to it for another reason. So I ask my students throughout the semester to practice their organizational imagination.[2] In other words, I ask them to observe others, and themselves, as participating and making meaning in organizations, altering organizational structures, and being changed by organizations in their environment. This type of awareness is, as C. Wright Mills points out, a magnificent and terrible lesson. I like to think that an organizational imagination eases the terror of a task so daunting as understanding oneself and others as part of some broad sweeping historical narrative. As Tomaskovic-Devey and Avent Holt (2019) point out several times, institutional conditions are often filtered through organizations like a prism; we observe considerable variation in organizational inequality regimes that are embedded in similar institutional environments. When students often pose the difficult questions of “What can we do about any of this?” or “How do we change?”, an organizational imagination offers potential answers to both.

References

Anteby, Michel. 2013. Manufacturing Morals: The Values of Silence in Business School Education. University of Chicago Press.

Mills, C. Wright. 1959. The Sociological Imagination. Oxford University Press.

Mir, Raza and Ali Mir. 2002 “The Organizational Imagination: From Paradigm Wars to Praxis.” Organizaitonal Research Methods 21.

Tilly, Charles. 1998. Durable Inequality. Univ of California Press.

Tomaskovic-Devey, Donald and Dustin Avent-Holt. 2019. Relational Inequalities: An Organizational Approach. Oxford University Press, USA.

 

[1] This is the first semester I am using Tomaskovic-Devey and Avent-Holt’s brand new text, but I am very optimistic about the results!

[2] I am not the first one to use this term, in an essay in Organizational Research Methods, Mir and Mir (2002) make their case to fellow scholars for a more critical approach to organizations, though this characterization was not aimed at pedagogy specifically.

 

 

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