Bureaucracy, Collegiality and Social Change: Redefining Organizations with Multilevel Relational Infrastructures - Sciences Po Access content directly
Books Year : 2020

Bureaucracy, Collegiality and Social Change: Redefining Organizations with Multilevel Relational Infrastructures


Will contemporary societies be able to transform themselves in the coming transitions (socioeconomic, political, ecological, demographic)? This book argues that to answer this question we need to look at contemporary societies as organizational societies (Perrow, 1991). Organizations are important because policy, whether public or private, is designed, implemented and evaluated through them. Organizations are thus tools, but “tools with a life of their own” (Selznick, 1949). Understanding how they operate is not trivial. Our organizational societies create a new kind of technocratic social order constructed through social engineering in which digital platforms – both private and public – increasingly engage, reformatting individual and collective activities. Large-scale changes and reorganizations are in the making by public authorities using digitalization of social control and efficiency afforded by hegemonic and private technology companies. To track these changes, it is important to better understand how these powers operate. This means taking into account the fact that our societies are in a contradictory situation: they have rationalized and bureaucratized themselves so much that power to steer these transformations is now concentrated in the hands of small elites of owners, managers, politicians and technocrats who control these large-scale organizations that were not meant to navigate such transitions. Short of a special kind of revolution, in which organizations carrying out routine tasks are themselves transformed, organizational societies will not be able to transform themselves. How to think about this special kind of revolution is the purpose of this book.In an organizational society, whether through violent impositions or less violent negotiations, at some point social change requires what Reynaud (1989) called joint regulation. To understand joint regulation, it is not sufficient to look at organizations as bureaucracies trying to flexibilize themselves. Joint regulation is not a bureaucratic process but a political one, whether micro-, meso- or macropolitical. We argue that, in order to understand joint regulation, we need to redefine organizations as political communities combining both bureaucracy and collegiality. Instead of proposing possible standalone alternatives to bureaucracy, a second and orthogonal, collegial ideal type must be acknowledged and combined with the first, well-known Weberian bureau-technocratic ideal type. Once this redefinition of organizations as combined bureaucracy and collegiality is accepted as a starting point, sociology of organizations provides a more accurate account of how actors activate collective agency – of coordination between routine work with innovative work, of organizational transformations trying to balance, for their members, both stability and innovation in societal change and transitions. To redefine organizations and steer the sociology of organizations in this direction, we first drastically simplify sociological knowledge on bureaucracy – often presented as the default model of organization in modern societies – and its critique, and on collegiality and its critique. The first carries out routine tasks, with hierarchical coordination and impersonal interactions; the second carries out non-routine tasks and develops innovation with coordination among peers based on deliberation, committee work and personalized relationships, forming relational infrastructures that peers use to navigate these deliberations. We then look at how the two ideal types combine in organizational “stratigraphies”– that is, in an already bureaucratized world where “collegial pockets” and strata always represent various forms of oppositional solidarity. Chapter 2 proposes a multilevel, stratigraphic approach to this combination in which predominantly bureaucratic or predominantly collegial strata coordinate and synchronize across different timescales in order to increase their respective influence in joint regulation. This stratigraphic and multilevel coordination in joint regulation is further described with the concepts of bottom-up collegiality, top-down collegiality and, finally, inside-out collegiality. Social change is presented as the outcome of the permanent struggles between the two logics in joint regulation. In these dynamics, multilevel relational infrastructures are shown to play a central role. Multilevel relational infrastructures redefine the notion of position by considering “pairs” of individuals / organizations as a specific unit of analysis, thus specifying at least two kinds of patterns. The first is that of vertical linchpins – that is, individual actors who are present and active on at least two levels of collective action – tuning action at one level with action at another level. This position in the structure often involves leadership and managerial responsibilities, sometimes even brokerage roles (Burt, 2005) at each of the levels. This pattern creates an often relationally exhausting privilege for the individual, especially in polarized and conflictual strata or settings, but it concentrates enormous influence and mobilization capacity within and across levels. Vertical linchpins are not just horizontal brokers between individuals or even between two organizations; they are activators of multilevel collective agency and synchronizers between these levels of collective agency, often between two kinds of collective agency: one bureaucratic and one collegial. They can avoid the small but disabling bureaucratic knots or bottlenecks by short-circuiting obstruction with their spanning of strata. They are present and active as political managers at two levels simultaneously, which is an advantage in terms of capacity to manage and shape cross-level collective action, especially if one level is collegial. An example can be found, in science, in the case of the “big fish in the big pond” – that is, scientists who are both recognized individuals at the level of individual networks and directors of their laboratory when the latter is a central organization in the interorganizational network of laboratories involved in scientific research in a given field – for example, cancer research (Lazega, Jourda, Mounier, & Stofer, 2008). Other examples are provided by supercentral actors who are sought out for advice by many peers in a new market, and who are at the same time affiliated in organizations that can structure the market by shaping competing consortia of contractual activities (Richard, Wang, & Lazega, forthcoming). The second pattern is what we call multilevel social niches – that is, subsets of “pairs” of individuals/organizations that occupy a common position in the division of work of at least two strata of collective agency. Structurally equivalent individuals (in the interindividual network) affiliated to structurally equivalent organizations (in the interorganizational network) concentrate resources and capacity of coopetition that others cannot reach. An example of this phenomenon is provided by the case, already mentioned above, of the multilevel blocks among cancer researchers. In this case, competing laboratories of hematologists-immunologists must share interorganizational resources (equipment, funding, tissues, personnel, etc.) and set up a social context in which individuals affiliated in them can both perceive each other as direct competitors and seek advice from each other (Lazega, Bar-Hen, Barbillon, & Donnet, 2016). This relationship between multilevel relational infrastructure and coopetition will return in most of our examples and in all chapters. Multilevel and multiplex, interactional and relational infrastructures are key for coopetition and its relational work because they make it possible for individuals to jointly manage, at their interindividual level, tensions and conflicts created by cut-throat competition at the interorganizational level, and the other way around. Interorganizational-level interactional structures can create a context in which destructive personal rivalries characterizing collegiality can be socially managed. Just as social network analysis was necessary to understand collegiality and its cooperation among rival peers, the analysis of multilevel networks is necessary to understand coopetition. The concepts introduced to redefine organization as a stratigraphic combination of bureaucracy and collegiality are then used to revisit the theory of the rapports between the organization and its environment. They help to look at the nature of multilevel relational infrastructures between organizations to account for how joint regulations are affected by the co-constitution of organizations and their environment (Chapter 3). Especially across organizations, collaboration between members of different organizations allows members to access resources and skills in order to exploit opportunities. But this collaboration across organizations is often difficult because these organizations also compete and institutions supporting cooperation between them are not always sufficient on their own to enforce their own norms. This is where such multilevel relational infrastructures are necessary as determinants of coopetition. Specific kinds of vertical linchpins at the interorganizational level are often identified as “big fish in big ponds”, and social change presented as organized to catch up with them. A specific mechanism, “network lift from dual alters”1 – that is, a multilevel extension of opportunity structures – is presented as a condition for such changes when they benefit from specific multilevel Matthew effects. We argue that sociology of organizations analyzing organizations in these terms strengthens and expands our knowledge of this joint regulation as a set of social phenomena that should be taken into account in the current transitions. The implications of this stratigraphic and multilevel approach to activation of organized collective agency are then explored in the fields of political economy (Chapter 4), social stratification (Chapter 5) and the current platform digitalization of society (Chapter 6). The latter further bureaucratizes the world by framing personalized relationships in the language of impersonal interactions and by parametrizing social processes in collegial settings, thus attempting to neutralize its many forms of oppositional solidarity and innovative capacity. Focusing on this neutralization, a revisited organizational sociology should help explain the ways in which digitalization of relational life pushes technocratic bureaucratization of the world much further, with the risk of slowing down if not stifling innovation, neutralizing institutional entrepreneurship – thus shaping social changes and transitions without deliberation, accountability and democracy. Beyond the workplace, this evolution extends to the community, a social change introducing “commons inside out” (Chapter 6). The key issue here is that this digitalization based on the use of big relational data not only standardizes individual behavior, but also collective life. Understanding how it transforms organized collective action in workplaces, markets, communities and politics requires the new understanding of joint regulation mentioned above. Indeed, digitalization often triggers public debates that rightly focus on individual privacy issues and protections. For example, increasingly, the systematic knowledge of the private personal networks of interactions and relationships of billions of individuals can be merged with no less systematic information on these persons’ attributes (i.e., psychological traits, socioprofessional characteristics, economic resources), career paths, tacit knowledge exchanges, work and leisure activities, consumption decisions, perplexity logs (Lazega, forthcoming), and, finally, production outputs, since we upload them to “the cloud”, making them available for higher-level strata to merge and use. It is also important to stress that the existence of this systematic knowledge base raises issues that go beyond individual privacy. It also concerns all forms of emergent collective agency and organization produced by combined bureaucracy and collegiality. In other words, these new platforms accumulating data based on traces left by everyone’s digitalized activities also increasingly build models of society and private sociologies that facilitate new forms of social engineering. They increasingly use knowledge of organizations, collective mobilizations and institutional entrepreneurship for political objectives – for example, concentration of powers in the hands of collegial oligarchies at the top of the bureaucratic pyramids – not just for building academic knowledge. We focus in Chapter 7, the concluding chapter, on this form of digital bureaucratization as a major risk for joint regulation, undermining the capacity to create social innovations needed in contemporary transitions, and ultimately democracy itself. Chapter 6 shows that without new forms of joint regulation at all levels and across levels, these transformations will only take into account the interests of the very few, not those of the many. The right combinations between bureaucracy and collegiality, policy field by policy field and across fields, will need to be created and activated for contemporary societies to be able to transform themselves – especially as democracies – for these transitions.


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hal-02526244 , version 1 (31-03-2020)



Emmanuel Lazega. Bureaucracy, Collegiality and Social Change: Redefining Organizations with Multilevel Relational Infrastructures. Edward Elgar Publishing, 1, pp.336, 2020, Social Networks, Organizations and Markets, 9781839102363. ⟨hal-02526244⟩
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