by Bradley Williams
In Organizations, Strategy, and Society, Rodolphe Durand draws attention to the ways in which organizations affect and provide meaning to peoples’ public and private lives. Organizations are not merely temporary groups of individuals or groups of aggregate interests. Organizations are mediators between people and large scale social, political, and economic processes that create a sense of disorganization and loss of meaning in late modernity. Organizations provide solutions to their problems, while people grant organizations with greater legitimacy. The pattern described by Durand is cyclical, though by providing solutions, organizations help individuals move beyond current crises and forward toward new challenges. Durand’s conception of organizations is similar to both field theory and the linked ecologies perspective, because all three describe largely self-reproducing social orders. This approach is perhaps most similar to Fligstein and McAdams A Theory of Fields which came out in 2012. Durand is, however, singular in his description of the animating drives embedded within modern organizations. In this sense both field theory and the ecological perspective lack by comparison.
Durand introduces readers to a new discipline, termed orgology, which attempts to invigorate the study of organizations. Drawing from current sociological, economic, and management theories, orgology “not only studies the world of organizations, their logics of action, their respective advantages and their internal consistency but also the organization of our known-worlds” (p. 4). Known-worlds are the reality apparent to persons. This perspective is meant to counter both the “glorification of the individual” and the over-socialized concept of the individual characterizing dominant perspectives in both sociology and economics.
The book is fairly short, with 164 pages of text. It is divided into five main parts, with a main section titled Entry and an afterward titled Exit. While the reader could read the Exit sections and get the general approach of the book, the main sections are filled with examples to demonstrate the main argument and a much fuller description of the correlative processes. Adding an element of artistic inspiration, each chapter features an illustration by artist Stéphane Barry.
Durand describes the current state of disorganization which characterizes both macro and global processes and the lived realities of individuals, which he calls ‘known-worlds.’ He uses the example of the 2008 financial crash and subsequent recession to illustrate the perspective which orgology is said to be a corrective. By examining the rhetoric of financial leaders of the time, particularly Alan Greenspan, it becomes clear there is little to no mention of the positive and negative consequences of organizations. Individuals seem to control, or most often not control, the macro-economic processes in which they are embedded. Durand refers to this dominant perspective in economic explanations which renders organizations unspoken and invisible the ‘quant’ thesis. As he shows, even calls for financial caution from within the economic community concern only the individual’s relation to macroeconomic processes. Durand contends that the absence of attention paid to organizations is why systemic crises like the Great Recession are so devastating and why solutions to the problem are largely ineffective at providing usable solutions to people’s sense of lived disorder.
Part One continues with a well-written discussion presenting organizations as the units of investigation. Durand centers his analysis on organizations, which operate as mediators between individual and macro-level phenomena. Similar to Fligstein and McAdams’s strategic action fields, Durand credits organizations with having a great deal of agency. His theory is based on the singular role of organizations, unlike both individualistic and macro-theoretical sources of social solidarity and meaning creation. Starting from the premise that solutions to the personal sense of disorganization within our lives created by organizations, Durand critiques two branches of sociological thought, which he terms the ‘sociology of the social’ and the ‘sociology of association.’ For Bourdieu, the sources of meaning are determined by an individual’s habitus by class, which governs their behavior within a hierarchy of social fields. In this view, fields are much more stable and fixed, with individuals entering and leaving them based on their own competence. In an alternative thesis, Latour is credited with a more fluid theory involving the individual’s embedding within various networks which constitute the individual by association. Orgology offers an alternative perspective to both of these. As mentioned above, orgology pays attention to the work of organizations to mediate between the individual and macro-process levels of analysis. In this view, individuals are credited with having less agency than Latour’s method, though a bit more than in Bourdieu conception.
In Part Two, Durand explicates the two sources of disorganization, loss of legitimacy and competition. Both are a result of the way in which organizations provide solutions. By solutions, Durand means “very broadly, the products, services and deals that are offered for our attention, consumption and use and that drive our everyday actions” (p.39). He terms the meaning intrinsic in the solutions organizations provide ‘res-sources,’ or “reservoirs of meaning” (p.40). When organizations are not able to provide meaningful solutions to individuals’ problems, the result is a loss of legitimacy for the providing organization. This also results in the strengthening competition and meaning depreciation of the providing organization.
Part Three examines the ‘logics of action’ employed by organizations in the public sphere, or public spaces. Here Durand draws from theories of institutional logics to understand how meaning depreciation occurs and is sustained. To demonstrate his argument, Durand analyzes the ubiquitous logic of ‘the market.’ He critiques all notions of markets as autonomous entities which seem to act directly on individuals with no alternative mediation. He finds the market is not autonomous, nor is the sovereign rule of law enforced by states. This is important since the state is seen as the dominant check on market autonomy. The logic of the market is the aforementioned ‘quant’ perspective indoctrinated into economic explanations of social activity. Organizations offer competing logics which provide meaning to individuals, in a mutually-reinforcing relationship, than what the author refers to as ‘performance tests.’ Performance tests cannot provide meaningful solutions. They only reinforce the standards of market calculability, and ultimately increasing the apparent disorganization which destabilizes the peoples’ lives.
Part Four deals with the history of ‘temporary advantages’ and the over-theorized individual. Throughout the book, Durand discusses the competition existing between organizations in relations to the solution they are able to propose. While many organizations manage to create temporary advantages for themselves within the particular production arena they are competing, organizations must make more lasting decisions to overcome both competition and the loss of legitimacy that follows. Concurrently, sociologists and even many organization theorists have focused almost exclusively on the individual as the source of their own welfare and mobility. Durand contends it is the individuals association to organizations which gives their actions direction and meaning. This section deals with many of the assumptions which underlie contemporary failures to account for individual success in relation to large social and economic processes.
In Part Five, Durand shows how a new understanding of the valuable roles people play when they work through organizations and not around them. The ‘organizations individual,’ as he calls it, must constantly re-evaluate their position within the myriad of organizational association they maintain, and seriously utilize those association to make sense of their own known-world. Durand refers to this corrective process as the reprise, or re-ensensing, of known-worlds. Successful organizations provide solutions to these issues and thus contribute this re-contextualization. They learn to manage their resources in order to both meet the needs of employees, partners, shareholders, and other associates, while keeping in pace with the changing competitive market for their products and services. Durand notes the critical role of management within organizations, particularly the management of the various competing logics of action. Organizations respond to the very real needs of associates, while concurrently providing solutions directing them toward new challenges and away from prolonged crises like those experienced during this last great economic recession.
This book is appropriate for both undergraduate and graduate students. While many of insights might not be as revolutionary to scholars, this book should be read by organization theorists wishing to conduct research that takes organizations seriously. Durand has written a great work which promotes an honest look at the principle role organizations play in our lives. This book does not replace most sociological and management literatures on organizations, but supplements much of the confusion within these studies stemming from a lack of organizational understanding, particularly in regards to personalized elements of organizations.
Bradley W. Williams is a doctoral researcher at George Mason University. He studies transnational governance, social movements, peace and organizational processes. Twitter: @B_W_Williams