Research in the Sociology of Organizations: Volume 17


Table of contents

(9 chapters)

List of contributors

Pages vii-viii
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Pages ix-xiii
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Classical and contemporary theorists are at odds over the structure of power relations in organizations and the relationship between power differences and the distribution of control and benefits. The classical arguments of Marx and Weber describe steep hierarchical structures in which those at the top exercise substantial control over subordinates and gain a disproportionate share of the organization's benefits. Contemporary theories are divided on two counts. Some imply that power is organized hierarchically—although not to the extent claimed by classical scholars—while others claim that power is diffuse. Similarly, the early exchange arguments separated benefit from control, and claimed that power is directly related to the distribution of control but inversely related to the distribution of benefits. Contemporary exchange theorists connect power to the distribution of control and benefit but most imply that power differences weaken, that is, power relations become less hierarchical, with power use.This paper offers the first simultaneous application of Elementary Theory, Status Characteristics Theory, and Legitimacy Theory to the study of organizational dynamics. Each theory describes the process through which differences on a single factor, e.g., power, influence, or organizations. We claim that most organizational analysts either focus on power processes to the exclusion of influence and legitimacy processes or conflate the three ideas and treat their confluence as power. In either case, the result is misspecification of the distribution of power in organizations and/or an underestimation of its effects on the distribution of control and benefit.We untangle the three ideas and use the three arguments to develop new understandings of the distribution of benefits and control in organizations. All three theories describe processes that connect behavior to structural conditions. Elementary Theory infers power differences from exchange structures that permit competitive mobility while Status Characteristic Theory infers influence from status orders. The three theories do not exhaust coverage of power, influence, and legitimacy processes under all conditions. However, when they are applied concurrently, the three describe greater concentrations of power than those implied by conventional organizational theories.Our joint application of Elementary Theory and Status Characteristics Theory offers a new explanation for the commonly described relationship between differences in expertise and the exercise of power. We also explain the relationship between uncertainty and the distribution of benefit and control. As uncertainty increases, the door is opened for subordinates to exercise greater and greater influence over superordinate actors. Our analysis also offers insights into the phenomena of power-at-a-distance and the relation between mobility in hierarchies and domination and obedience. Conditions that block mobility promote power decentralization. Finally, we show how legitimacy processes enhance and/or constrain power and influence processes. The complex interplay of power, influence, and legitimation processes can produce somewhat flatter distributions of benefit and control than separate analyses of the three processes might imply. We end with a cautionary note: some but not all of our applications of the three theories are supported by experimental studies. Especially in that regard, this work is quite preliminary. Our application of structural social psychological theories—and that of our predecessors—to the study of organizational dynamics leaves much work undone.

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Research in the Sociology of Organizations
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Emerald Publishing Limited
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