Category Archives: Sociological memories

What I learned about virtual conferences from AoM 2020 (click on title to read full post)

[Excerpt] As a first-time experience, I would have to admit that there was much about the virtual AOM that I enjoyed. Regarding the issues I raised in my introduction, I would say that my education was enhanced. I was reminded of ideas that had lain dormant and I was introduced to new ideas that were easy to find in the online format. I truly enjoyed being able to jump in and out of sessions. I think the two-dimensional nature of participants’ involvement was a great equalizer. When managed well, I think this meant that organizers were able to give voice to many participants who otherwise might not have attended or might’ve been implicitly shut out of the discussion. By not having to spend money on traveling to the site and paying for meals and accommodations while there, I believe that many people participated who otherwise would have been found it prohibitively expensive. As for sustainability, I believe that the AoM’s carbon footprint was much reduced, compared to what would’ve happened if we’d all converged on Vancouver in August.

Some Random Memories from My Years with Chick Perrow. On the occasion of a memorial service, spring, 2020.

I met Chick when he presented a seminar at the University of Michigan back in the mid-1960s. I kept in touch with him through occasional letters and meetings at regional, national, and international conferences over the next six decades. How does one encapsulate all those years with just a few observations? I’ve chosen to pick out a few things that came immediately to mind when I thought about what the world has lost.

Chick Perrow holding forth on a panel
Chick always had something to say & he said it well

To start, he’s indirectly responsible for the intellectual turn I took in read more

My Evening with Talcott Parsons

Between 1970 and 1973, Anant Negandhi held a series of conferences at Kent State University, sponsored by the Comparative Administration Research Institute. The conference focus was on “the various conceptual problems encountered in studying the functioning of complex social organizations.” I took part in several of these, including one that led to the publication of a book on Interorganizational Theory, edited by Anant. These conferences attracted a stellar cast of organization scholars, including Richard Hall, Don Hellriegel, David Hickson, Hans Penning, Jeff Pfeffer, Lou Pondy, Jon Slocum, Andy Van de Ven, and Donald Warren. Looking back, I’m astonished that Anant was able to attract this group to a regional State University in the Northeastern corner of Ohio. Up to that point, Kent State was known primarily for the infamous killings of four students by the Ohio National Guard during a peaceful protest against the Cambodian invasion. Indeed, memories of that tragedy were still in my mind when I contemplated whether to accept Anant’s invitation to attend the conferences.

In addition to people known for their contributions to organizational studies, Anant invited Talcott Parsons to the conference because of Parsons’ interest in institutional theory and organizations. In 1956, Parsons published two lead-off articles in two successive issues of the Administrative Science Quarterly, laying out what he called “suggestions for a sociological approach to the theory of organizations.” In our book, Organizations Evolving, Martin Ruef and I gave Parsons a great deal of credit for offering one of the first systematic presentations of a multilevel theory of organizations’ relations with their environments. He anticipated many of the themes that institutional theorists of organizations “rediscovered” many years later.

Parsons had just announced his retirement in the spring of 1973, after 42 years at Harvard.

Fortunately for me, Anant held a small dinner party for Parsons at his house and some of the other speakers at the conference. I wish I could report that Parsons and I enjoyed a spirited exchange about the application of evolutionary theory to organizational studies, but I’m afraid I was so awestruck just being in his presence that I mostly stuck to asking the banal questions that junior professors tend to put to famous scholars.

Jean Boddewyn, from NYU, took pictures at the party and sent several to me, including the one shown below. The photo shows Parsons, cigarette in hand, holding court, while I sit to his left in rapt attention. Thankfully, the photo is not in color, or else you would see that the houndstooth pattern on my jacket is a mix of fire-engine red checks on a white background. We took lots of fashion risks in the early 1970s!

Talcott Parsons Kent State Spring 1973

Parsons chain-smoking is probably what I remember best about that evening. Memories of his habit are confirmed in an interview Parsons did with Robert Reinhold around the time of his retirement, when he was asked about his role in American sociology and the bridge he provided to European sociologist. In reply to a question, he said “it happened to be my particular role as it were to act as an importer,” and Reinhold then noted that Parsons said this as he lit up the first of six cigarettes consumed down to the filter in the course of a one hour interview.  ASA Footnotes, August 1973.

Parsons died in 1979, aged 77.