[Excerpt] Anne Vorre Hansen and Sabine Madsen have published a book summarizing their interviews with eight leading scholars in the organization studies’ field on how to make contributions to the field. Based on their interviews, they identified two common threads: whether it truly was possible to expect that an author could identify a research gap, and whether trying to fill such perceived gaps constituted too narrow a focus on what a scholarly contribution should be.
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!
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.