Working Papers

Durkheim and Organizational Culture

This paper examines the significance of Emile Durkheim’s thought for organization theory, particular attention being given to the concept of organizational culture. We are not the first to take the project on—a number of scholars have usefully addressed the extent and relevance of this giant of Western social science for the study of organization and work. Even so, there is no denying that Durkheim’s name appears with vastly less frequency in the literature on these topics than is true of Marx and Weber, sociology’s other founding fathers. Some intriguing sociology of knowledge reasons exist for this neglect to which we give attention in the pages to follow. It is also true that matters of organization and employment per se were less central to Durkheim’s concerns than to those of Marx and Weber. Little of his writing directly engages the problem of the private sector firm and the employment relationship. Yet the indirect significance of Durkheim’s ideas for organizational study is substantial.

The paper is organized as follows. We begin with a review of Durkheim’s theory of culture and its position in the social sciences. We then consider the implications of Durkheim’s perspectives for the following problems in organizational culture research: (1) whether organizations may genuinely be said to have cultures as opposed to ideologies; (2) the role of culture as a force in social solidarity; (3) the relevance of Durkheim’s concept of anomie to the timely problem of corporate malfeasance; (4) whether culture drives from social structure or vice versa; (5) the role of ritual and ceremony in organizational life; (6) whether culture gestates slowly or explodes into being in a “big bang;” and (7) culture and cultural effects as emergent from and channeled through social networks.