I: The Sociology of Informally Embedded Formality

Robert Dingwall

Formality in the Interactional Study of Organizations

[...] Dingwall and Strong recognized the interpretative divide between interactionist and mainstream definitions of organizations.despite the promise of their insight, the work of Dingwall and Strong did not gain much attention in terms of promoting theoretical or methodological innovation in either organizational analysis or interactionist theorizing [.] they were simply ahead of their time (McGinty 2014).

In 1985, Phil Strong and I published a paper in what is now the Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, examining the condition of the interactionist approach to the study of organizations (Dingwall and Strong 1985). The paper had had a long gestation, beginning in lectures given by Strong to undergraduates at the University of Aberdeen in the early 1970s and developed through his ethnography of a clinic serving children with learning disabilities (Strong 1979). Strong supervised my PhD thesis on a professional school training public health nurses (Dingwall 1977) and the paper was also informed by my experiences in a research group in socio-legal studies, studying the inter-organizational system for child protection in England (Dingwall, Eekelaar and Murray 1983). Strong died in 1995, at the age of 49, and I have given little thought to the paper since. However, McGinty’s advocacy persuades me that it is worth revisiting, particularly to explore the path not taken by the new institutionalists. Where they read Meyer and Rowan’s (1977) seminal paper on organizational structures as myth and ceremony and turned to Weber for a future direction (DiMaggio and Powell 1983), we incorporated the same paper into Strong’s scholarship on Goffman, and my reading of Everett Hughes, to develop an interactionist vision for the study of organizations. In the marketplace of ideas, we lost out. However, as McGinty notes, we anticipated problems with the institutionalist account that were never quite resolved and which have recently been underlined by the proposals for an “inhabited institutionalism” (Hallett and Ventresca 2006).

This chapter, then, has three elements. First, it revisits the arguments of the 1985 paper, at least as I understand them, and its debate with the negotiated order approach that dominated interactionist studies at the time. Why did we insist that there was more to organization than the informal relations stressed by negotiated order writers? Second, it considers the history of the new institutionalism and its partial reading of Weber. Finally, it examines the recent work in

“inhabited institutionalism” and discusses whether this is a satisfactory solution to the problems that it identifies - or whether it remains unduly constrained by the interactionist tradition that Strong and I challenged.

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