Sociology of Organized Action

The sociology of organized action (SOA) intends to unveil the actual functioning of an organization beyond the formal rules that codifies it 123.

The organizations under study, for instance a firm or a local political system, are composed by « numerous differentiated actors interacting in a non-trivial way among each others »3. Moreover, these actors are engaged durably in the achievement of the organization’s objectives. Such an organization is an interaction context precisely delimited which structures the cooperation among a set of actors. This structure is admittedly constraining but without removing all freedom in the way of acting. The SOA deals with relatively structured relational contexts and does not aim to relate spontaneous effects like crowd behaviors or riots. However, its application scope exceeds organizations and spreads to all kind of “System of Collective Action” whatever its level of codification or formalization.

The SOA assumes that organizations are social constructs actualized by and within relationships among the organizational actors. Moreover, actors behave strategically though using a bounded rationality (Simon’s theory). Each actor’s behavior is then neither totally conditioned by the organizational rules that constrain him, nor by pure individual or emotional factors. Then the induced actions aim at realizing some objectives, would it be conscious or not. Beyond the achievement of both his own objectives and those given by the organization’s formal norms, each actor aims, as a meta-objective, at having enough power to be able to preserve or increase his autonomy and his action capacity within the organization.
This power results from the mastering of one or several uncertainty zones that enable him to behave in a way that is unpredictable for other actors and consequently to set, more or less, the exchange rules concerning his relations with the others. Each uncertainty zone is a resource for the action, and thus both a constraint and an opportunity. Each social actor both controls some resources  and depends on some others, so that the relations that arise from theses resources are the media of the power relationships between actors. The interactions among actors regulate those power relationships and as a consequence transform the related uncertainty zones, their control as well as their relevance, and then the rules of the social game.

The four main uncertainty zones identified by the  theory and implemented in the frame of power relationships of an organizaition are based upon: competence or expertise; the control of the interactions with the environment of the organization; the control of the internal communication; and the knowledge and the proper use of the organization’s norms and rules.

To summarize, the Sociology of Organized Action is an action theory that explains the running of organizational processes, taking into account the double dependency between the actor and the system, by using the concepts of bounded rationality, power relationships, uncertainty zones. This theory and the related concepts serve as a theoretical basis as well as an analysis grid to study many cases.
Interested readers can refer to the book of Bernoux4, for a detailed analysis of ten case studies.

References and further reading

1 Crozier, M., Friedberg E., L’acteur et le système. Seuil, Paris, 1978.
2 Crozier, M., The bureaucratic Phenomenon. Chicago University Press, 1964.
3 Crozier, M., Friedberg E., Organizations and Collective Action: our Contribution to Organizational Analysis. In: Bacharrach S.B., Gagliardi P., Mundel B. (Eds) Studies of Organizations in the European Tradition. Series « Research in the Sociology of Organizations Vol.13 CT : Jay-Press, Greenwich, pp 71-93
4Bernoux, P.: La sociologie des organisations, Edition du Seuil, Paris, (1985).

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