I am, of course, immensely pleased to be honoured by EGOs in this particular way. In fact, even though today I do no longer count among the core group of organization scholars, many of my early publications, empirically based monographs as well as more general theoretical texts have dealt with organizations. And as you have just heard, I have also been among the first to join EGOS. So by sheer dint of longevity, I have witnessed both the development of the field over the past forty years, and the history of EGOS. Both have changed considerably in this time.
When I started to become interested in organization theory, this was because it offered an encompassing analytical framework for a comparative, and hence theoretically more general perspective on the various empirical phenomena I studied – firms, local party organizations, and administrative agencies. The sociological concept of organization developed at that time mainly by American colleagues such as March and Simon, Mason Haire, and Amitai Etzioni refers to a specific type of social units. It was explicitly and emphatically a very wide and abstract concept, designating all formally constituted and purposefully goal-oriented social systems with a clearly defined membership and a role structure that existed independently of the agents filling the roles at any given time. This concept of formal organizations includes firms as well as schools, public agencies as well as interest associations, and government departments as well as hospitals and prisons. In the eyes of scholars like Amitai Etzioni it was the systematic comparison among these very different empirical phenomena that organization theory was all about. The questions asked by an organization theory of this comprehensive scope referred to the emergence and self-maintenance of formal organizations, their structural properties including the relationship between organization and members, and the factors shaping organization structure. These questions could be meaningfully asked of all of the different types of organizations. Though actual research focussed even then on one or a few different kinds of organizations, it was in fact applied to a wide variety of empirical cases, and the analytical approach was inherently comparative and meant to contribute to the growth of a general organization theory.
This, I believe, has meanwhile changed significantly. If you look at the articles published by our major journals during the past ten or so years, and at the papers presented at the two or so most recent EGOS Colloquia, there has obviously taken place a concentration of organization studies on firms, or economic organizations, and the perspective has increasingly become a more managerial one. The field, in other words, has moved closer to Business Administration, and at times the boundary between the two is all but invisible. Parallel to this, there has been a renaissance of administrative sociology, party sociology, and the sociology of associations outside the framework of organization theory. The comparative impulse on which a general theory of organizations is predicated seems to have died down.
What has driven this change is, in my view, a significant shift of perspective from the generalizing and theoretical to the more specific and practical. The wide and encompassing concept of formal organization was meaningful in the context of the theories of social evolution and of modernization. The emergence of the different kinds of formal organizations is at the heart of the process of social differentiation, of the growth of functional subsystems in society, and hence of modernization. Most modern organizations grew out of such dominant pre-modern power structures as feudalism and the medieval church. These multi-functional institutions performed the military, economic, educational and medical tasks that subsequently became the basis for the development of systematically organized and specialized public and private organizations. Thus all modern kinds of formal organizations were united by their common historical roots.
Such observations, however, point in the direction of a theory of modern society as a society of organizations, a line of thinking pursued occasionally by authors like Jim Coleman, Kenneth Boulding, and Victor Thompson. If, in contrast, one is not interested in a theory of society at large, but in the functioning of concrete and single organizations, it is not so much important what all organizations have in common, but what is specific to the type on hand. We are all familiar with the trade-off between theoretical generalization and empirical specificity.
Specificity promises insights of importance for practical action, for the construction and the management of firms, public agencies, or labour unions. And it seems that the field of organization research has responded more and more to the quest for applicability of its results. I shall not hazard to answer the question whether this responsiveness developed endogenously or has been imposed by outside pressures. But whatever caused it, it lies at the heart of the shift in theoretical emphasis that I have observed.
And what has meanwhile happened to EGOS? That is a story not so much about content as about structure. EGOS has developed from a small informal network into a formal organization able to sustain a conference like this, and sufficiently self-assured to confer honorary membership upon senior scholars like me. It still bears the geographical label 'European' in its name, though the boundary this implies is no longer taken so seriously. But what, you may ask, motivated the formation of the first informal nucleus with its emphatically European composition and outlook in the first place? Jean-Claude may have a more precise memory of the early times of EGOS than I do. I vaguely remember an early occasion when Michel Crozier and I, both members of the Committee on Organization Sociology of the International Sociological Association, discussed the matter informally at an ISA Congress reception, I do not exactly recall in which year. Neither of us was motivated by an anti-American affect. What we felt we needed was consolidation of the sparsely developed European organization research, and cooperation among the few persons and centers in Europe where such research did take place. Of course we were also conscious of the fact that a relevant European heritage exists, going back to the period between the two World Wars. But what we wanted was to develop organization studies in Europe, not a specifically European variety of organization theory.
Apparently, as Cor Lammers once corrected me, I did not belong to the small group of persons who first decided to actually found EGOS, but I joined this group very early on. The other members at that time were Franco Ferraresi from Italy, David Hickson from the UK, Cor Lammers from the Netherlands, and Jean-Claude Thoenig from France. EGOS was not formally constituted, it did not have 'members' and statutes, and it had no income of its own. Our meetings were made possible by Clemens Heller from the Maison de Science de l’Homme, who also kindly delegated Elina Almasy to take care of administrative and secretarial needs. We identified other interested colleagues in our countries and tried to develop a functioning network. I remember I even tried to convince the European Science Foundation, to whose Standing Committee on the Social Sciences I belonged at the time, to recognize and support the EGOS network financially. At the time, however, this was an unorthodox idea, and nothing came of my initiative then. Only several years later the ESF adopted the creation and support of research networks as one of its major instruments.
Consolidation of the fragmented and underdeveloped field of organization research within Europe was the goal of EGOS, I said. In this sense, we, the early group of Super-EGOS, as our group jokingly called itself, were fiercely European in outlook. This was supported by the fact that most, if not all of us spoke several European languages more or less fluently; everyone spoke English, or course, and several of us spoke Italian, French, and German in addition. Thus it became customary among us to switch from one language to the other, often in mid-sentence. I recall one incident in a small Paris restaurant where we had dinner after one of our meetings when, at the end of the meal, the waiter who had heard us talk approached us and, excusing himself for his curiosity, asked of what nationality we might be. Surprised, but in gleeful recognition, we replied in a chorus: We are Europeans!
I have attended many EGOS Colloquia since, in Speyer for instance, in Vienna, in Budapest and in Maastricht. It has always been a pleasure to observe the visible success of the organization, the vitality of the field, and last not least to meet again friends from the early days and to make new ones. Your invitation to Barcelona provides me with yet another experience of this sort. Let me thank you for this gift.