Howard Aldrich’s response to Michael Brockelhurst’s review.
I am pleased that Brockelhurst sees my book as an excellent source book and recommends it to people already well-versed in organization studies. However, his review contains a number of statements I wish to contest. In particular, he revisits and perpetuates some myths about the evolutionary approach that have long ago been laid to rest.
I quote the sentences I think need qualification. His remarks are in italics.
1. “But what does it mean to say organizations ‘evolve’? Is it not the case that organizations are nothing more than a social construction, a discursive construction even?
My query: “Nothing more than…” is a difficult concept to grasp. Does this “organizations are ONLY a social construction”? But what would that mean? A product of language games, linguistic moves, etc.? I would argue that organizations are most certainly real, and most assuredly real in their consequences.
Does a professor at Imperial College give any thought to where the students in his next class will come from? Does he design & administer the enrollment system? Set & collect tuition or fees payments? Design & administer the process of allocating credit hours? I suspect not. Real organizational systems are in place to handle these processes, and more. Thinking of organizations as social constructions is not the same thing as thinking of them as unreal, or as subject to the whims of human discourse.
Try walking into the Chancellor’s office at Imperial College, with a group of colleagues, and claiming that your group has now redefined the office as a collectively run operation. But be sure to bring your toothbrush.
2. “Organizations are not analogous to biological species; they have no genetic structure to determine their evolutionary path. Obviously Aldrich is employing a metaphor but just how valuable is the metaphor to understanding organizations?”
My query: I never use the term “analogy” or “metaphor” in my book. This issue was addressed in my 1979 book, and has been extensively reviewed by Daniel Dennett, Geoffrey Hodgson, Boyd and Richerson, and dozens of others scholars working in the field of social scientific and philosophical evolutionary studies. Darwin’s evolutionary scheme is a generic one, as I took pains to point out on pages 21-22 of my book. Darwin’s ideas about evolution were themselves borrowed from economists, as Hodgson and many others have pointed out. I’m disappointed to see this misunderstanding perpetuated, especially since I addressed it in my book.
I highly recommend the work of evolutionary economists Geoffrey Hodgson (Evolution and Economics, 1993) and Nicolai Foss.
3. After a short summary of the four processes of evolution around which the book is built, Brockelhurst notes “This rather stark summary does not do justice however to the subtlety of Aldrich’s argument.”
My query: I appreciate this description, but more attention to what is actually covered in the book’s 12 chapters might have helped readers grasp the scope of my effort. Only one more sentence is actually devoted to the chapter contents.
4. “The problems with Aldrich’s approach can be captured in the opening sentence of the fourth chapter: ‘People construct organizations to accomplish things they cannot do on their own’ (p. 75). In this sentence there is no inkling that an overwhelming majority of the population do not ‘construct organizations.’ Rather they find themselves going to work in organizations created by others and often for purposes in which they have no interest.”
My query: I would be daft, indeed, if I really had meant to say that MOST people are actively involved in creating the organizations for which they work! Clearly, I did NOT mean that, in the sentence quoted. The sentence is the opening sentence in Chapter 4, in which I write about the emergence of new organizations. ‘People’ was used as a way of attributing agency to humans in history, NOT as a way of talking about ‘people as employees.’ It is ironic that in a subsequent paragraph of the review, he mentions a deliberately dramatic example I used – about millions of people going to and from work each day, in organizations they don’t own – to criticize my notion of organizational boundaries.
In Chapter 4 and later, I point out the social skewed nature of the population of people in today’s capitalist societies who found business organizations: women and many ethnic minorities are under-represented, and I provide some reasons for why this might be so. Indeed, Roger Waldinger, Robin Ward, and I wrote a book about this in 1990, Ethnic Entrepreneurs.
5. “In short, there is no consideration of the social structural context in which organizations are ‘created’ and sustained (other than the selective process of a competitive market). Consequently there is no treatment of power in the book.”
My query: I was quite puzzled when I read these two sentences. There are entire chapters of the book devoted to “the social structural context.” Chapter 8, for example, is titled “Organizations and social change” and is chock-full of historical and political examples. Chapter 9, on the emergence of new populations, similarly is heavily historical in its coverage, and makes socio-political legitimacy a key theme! Chapter 10, on the reproduction of existing populations, has a major section on “Societal level factors affecting the reproduction of populations.”
As for the term “power” itself, I gave up including it in the book’s subject index because it occurred so frequently, in various forms, “power,” “powerful,” etc.
6. “Moreover there is a tendency to treat organizations as social facts which I suspect is part of the baggage of employing an evolutionary perspective...For example, a whole chapter of the book is devoted to the need to construct and maintain ‘organizational boundaries.’ Now this is at odds with the recent linguistic turn in organizational analysis which sees organizations as much more of a discursive construction…A linguistic perspective argues that any form of boundary construction is a cognitive act designed to establish meaning rather than recognition of some pre-existing, natural form.”
My query: I don’t see how one can argue, on the one hand, that organizations are social constructions, and on the other, object to thinking about organizations as ‘social facts.’ I believe the reviewer has misunderstood my argument. The chapter is NOT devoted to ‘the need’ to build boundaries, but rather, talks about organizations only surviving IF founders manage to bound their creations, in the face of a skeptical or even hostile environment, with other claims on the resources found wish to use. The concept of “need’ belongs to an outmoded functionalist perspective which I took great pains to avoid. I write about what founders do, not “needs.”
Ironically again, I have extended discussions of cognitive legitimacy as a central concern for new organizations, as in Chapter 9, on new populations. Chapter 4 talks about “stores and visions” as cognitive acts engaged in by founders.
I have no idea where the notion of “some pre-existing natural form” comes from – certainly, no one could come away from reading Chapters 4, 5, and 6 and attribute such a thought to me. The notion of “natural forms” is anathema to an evolutionary perspective, which instead is predicated on the idea that the future is open & unknown.
7. “He describes, for example, how masses of people move from home to work each day (and then back again) (pp. 114-15). Yet modern organizational forms such as remote and contingent working are breaking down these boundaries.”
My query: Actually, scholars in labor studies, and researchers studying occupations and work (see recent issues of Work, Employment, and Society, Work & Occupations, and Human Resource Management) have repeatedly pointed out that contingent workers, and home-based workers, are often the employees excluded from the full benefits that come from being part of the ‘normal’ workforce of a firm. Far from such contingent work showing the breakdown of organizational boundaries, it actually shows the results of creating a two-tier system of employment, where workers fully inside organizational boundaries enjoy benefits and privileges not available to others. (My colleague, Arne Kalleberg, writes about such work in the context of talking about “bad jobs”)