I see dead people

Well, maybe not. But I feel like the most interesting and important long-term benefit of ‘doing’ sociology is the ability to look out into the world and see things that others have trouble seeing. That is, it makes the invisible visible.

A case in point: a friend of mine has a downright logical state of mind. She believes that when presented with an argument, the person who has the better argument and better data – that is, the person who is right should win the argument. So for her, the trick is to find out what the other person’s argument is, what they believe, and then to show them that they are wrong, is the way to get things done. If she is right, and the other person is wrong, it is, well, downright unreasonable for them to persist in their wrongness.

In her dealings at work, she sometimes finds herself arguing with her boss about the long-term strategic position of the organization. Her boss wants to do ‘x’, she wants to do ‘y’. She digs into why her boss wants to do ‘x’, then marshals arguments, evidence, and examples why ‘x’ is the wrong way to go. Boss acknowledges that said arguments are compelling. Then boss decides to continue to do ‘x’. She can’t understand boss.

As an organizational sociologist (and a cultural institutionalist to boot), I believe that organizations are somewhat rational, but in particular fashions. Boss makes decisions through a combination of experience, worldview, competitive pressures and cultural constraints, influence of friends and board members, and sometimes-scant/sometimes-robust empirical evidence. This is difficult to articulate by boss to self and others, and so it is often left inarticulate. Only when pressed will boss (or organizational unit or manager, or whoever) present arguments about the decision, and it is more often than not post-hoc that these reasons come to the fore. And since the articulated reason is never really the reason why boss decides, this reason can and does shift to any number of well-worn and useful – but also absurd on their own – arguments. We know these as things like: short-term versus long-term decision-making; that the decision reflects the ‘overall’ strategy of an organization, not just the organizational unit or particular case you’re interested in; that you don’t have the ‘whole picture’, and so you don’t have access to the information I do about why I’m choosing to do something.

In other words, finding a logical solution to this problem is going to be a frustrating experience. You can convince your boss that decision ‘y’ is in the best interests of the organization, and boss can come back with the argument that ‘y’, while wholly appropriate and apparently wise, doesn’t reflect the overall priorities of the organization; or that ‘y’ doesn’t meet the needs of the organization for the next 2 quarters, even as it makes sense for the health of the organization over the next decade. And these are all true.

The trick is to see that orgs are formally rational, but informally wacky. And that the underlying messiness of organizations, in order to appear rational, get wrapped in reasonable argument and logical discussion even as they remain messy. Embracing this, and working within this framework, would make you a lot less frustrated (or at least differently frustrated).

A main argument made by the sociologist Max Weber is that one of the most enduring shifts in the modern world is an increasing rationalization, with organizational rationalization being a key component of the overall trend. I believe that this is true. But at the very same time, the continuing ghost in the machine is that organizations simultaneously promote increased formal rationality and increased informal zaniness.

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