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basic sociological notions

[bureaucracy] [culture] [mechanism] [power] [theory (espoused/in-use) (X/Y/Z)]
advanced sociological notions

[discursive practice] [enactment] [panopticon] [structuration] [surveillance]

These notions are covered in Business and Organizations courses offered by Veryard Projects and Antelope Projects. (First years are expected to master the basic notions only.)

Basic Notions


Bureaucracy refers to a particular form and style of administrative organization. Although it has been subject to strong criticism for a long time, bureaucracy and its variants can still be found in a large number of organizations.

Max Weber described an ideal form of bureaucracy, which he equated with administrative rationality. For Weber, bureaucracy represented modern progress, as against the quasi-mediaeval and feudal patterns of arbitrary authority and corruption. More recent sociologists, however, have identified various forms of bureaucratic dysfunction, including inflexibility, inefficiency and ineffectiveness.


Course Material Structure and Culture: Social Patterns of Business Organization (pdf)
Further Material Reading List (html)


A mechanism is a frequently occurring and easily recognizable causal pattern.

The social sciences donít always follow simple laws and generalizations, and reliable prediction is often not possible. However, this doesnít mean that social scientists are reduced to mere description. Explanation in the social sciences depends on the identification of causal mechanisms.

In contrast with determinate laws, mechanisms are uncertain in their effect. There are three reasons for this.

Management (intervention) may be able to influence (decide) which mechanism gets the upper hand.


Weber The ability of a person in a social context to achieve his/her own goals, despite resistance from others. Equivalent to domination.
Marx A structural relationship, independent of the conscious intentions and desires of individuals.
A positive social capacity for achieving shared goals. Power is distributed through social structures, although some individuals may have more power than others. Individual power reflects a degree of influence, rather than a state of domination.
Course Material Technology: Power, Meaning & Design (pdf)
Further Material Notes on Power (html)

Social Patterns: Market, Hierarchy, Network, Clan


A social system based on horizontal (peer-to-peer) contractual relationships. As social and technological trends (such as e-commerce) bring down the transaction costs of market relationships, this is sometimes thought to provide an economic advantage to market relationships over hierarchical ones.


A social system based on vertical (principal-to-agent) formal relationships.


A social system based on informal (trust-based) horizontal (peer-to-peer) relationships.


A social system based on tradition. Usually inaccessible to outsiders.

Social System

The American sociologist Talcot Parsons defined a social system as two or more social actors engaged in a more or less stable interaction within a bounded environment. According to Parsons, social systems are goal-directed, problem-solving entities with four sub-systems Many critics argue that Parsonís version of systems theory has several weaknesses: However, alternative versions of social systems theory have been proposed, which donít share Parsonís ideological premises. These draw on such thinkers as Marx and Habermas.


A system of beliefs.

Chris Argyris introduced the distinction between the espoused theory and the theory-in-use.
Espoused theory refers to what people say they do Ė what they espouse. Often people genuinely believe that this is what they actually do; sometimes they are merely paying lip-service to it.  Theory-in-use refers to what people actually do, or what they can be independently observed to do.

McGregor introduced the distinction between Theory X and Theory Y, which refer to beliefs about the behaviour and motivation of workers, which may be embedded in management practices and organization culture. Ouchi argued that McGregorís distinction doesnít work for all cultures, and identified a third theory, Theory Z, which he used to explain the behaviour of most Japanese companies and some Western companies.
Theory X refers to a set of beliefs in which workers are lazy, require constant supervision, and are motivated only by financial rewards and penalties.  Theory Y refers to a set of beliefs in which workers can be trusted to pursue the interests of the firm without constant supervision, and respond to a range of motivators. Theory Z refers to a set of beliefs about lifetime commitment between employers and employees. 

Note that these distinctions are independent (orthogonal). Thus for example it is quite possible for a manager to espouse (pay lip service to) theory Y, but to practise theory X. The reverse is also possible.

Advanced Notions

Discursive Practice

A unified way of speaking and acting. A discursive practice typically has an underlying theme, and a (concealed) strategic intention. Professions (such as accounting) often establish a discursive practice, which gives them a position of impartial authority.


Karl Weick introduced the idea that certain phenomena (such as organizations) are created by being talked about.

"Managers construct, rearrange, single out, and demolish many 'objective' features of their surroundings. When people act they unrandomize variables, insert vestiges of orderliness, and literally create their own constraints." [Weick, Social Psychology of Organizing, p243]


Social structure influences the social interactions that take place -- it both constrains and enables. But at the same time, according to Anthony Giddens, social interaction creates the social structure. This recursive theory is known as the duality of structure.


A process of keeping people (typically customers and/or employees) under close supervision.

Jeremy Benthamís panopticon was originally a prison so designed that the warder could watch all the prisoners at the same time. By extension, this term is used to describe any technical or institutional arrangement to watch/ monitor large numbers of people. It provides a useful metaphor for various modern technologies

The panopticon provides surveillance, and may result in a loss of privacy for the people being watched / monitored. If you know youíre being watched, this may trigger various feelings Ė both positive and negative.

Besides the impact on the people being watched, the pantopticon also has an effect on the watcher. The panopticon gives the illusion of transparency and completeness Ė so the watcher comes to believe three fallacies

Course Material Technology: Power, Meaning & Design (pdf)
Further Material Monitoring at Work (UK Data Protection)

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This page last updated on June 25th, 2003
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