Ontological or Epistemological Organisational Structure

Organizations Structure: Modern / Symbolic and Post- Modern perspectives

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There are many different ways at looking at organizations, with each way producing a different insight, knowledge, and perspective. Depending on the ontological as well epistemological assumptions, different theories and perspectives may seem to apply better. The essay will focus on the similarities and differences between the theories through the models of social structure in an organization.

From the philosophical ontological point of view, the modernist sees the material and social world as consisting of structures that exist, regardless of individual awareness. For example, the hierarchy of an organization is regarded as a social fact even if people are not aware of it.

“Organizations … should work like machines, using people, resources, as their parts. With the key design of building “the best” machines to keep organizations productive.” (Han van Diest. 2008)

As such, the modernist approach to an organization can be considered as a well designed, structured entity. Operating organizational success is considered to be the result of well-organized systems that keep people / machines busy and costs under control. (Han van Diest. 2008)

On the other end of the spectrum, the postmodernist would argue that the social world external to individual support is made up of nothing more than mere names, concepts and labels which are then used to form a structured reality. (Burrell and Morgan 1979) Supporters of the postmodernist argue that organizations are ‘imagined’ entities. “A core idea in postmodernism is that we are always making sense of our omniscient reality through a pair of imaginative glasses – glasses based on such factors as our present desire in a given situation, our past experiences, our values and culture, our understanding of what is real, and so forth. It is never possible to take the glasses off altogether and view the world impartially.” (Inkeles A. 1983.)

Taking a more balanced stand in the spectrum, a symbolic interpretive perception would be that social reality is created through communicative interaction between groups of people. Social reality is not a reality or set of facts existing prior to human activity. We create our social world through our language, symbols and behavioral actions. (Steven R Corman, Marshall Scott Poole 2000)

As expressive forms representative of human consciousness, organizations are understood and analyzed not mainly in economic or material terms but in terms of their expressive ideas and symbolism. (Smircich 1983: 347-8). (Hatch, Mary J. and Cunliffe, Ann L., 2006)

Structure of an Organization:

While defining an organization from nuts and bolts point of view such as objects, buildings and elements, one of the key aims of a modernist perspective is to measure the organizational social structure to find out how to improve and contrive the ideal organization. (Hatch, Mary J. and Cunliffe, Ann L., 2006)

Through research and past studies of various organizations, it was found that there is a strong relationship between the internal/external environment and the social structure of an organization in both a cross-tabulated or correlated way. Influences may include the size or bureaucratic structure of the organization. (Lex Donaldson 2001).

The organizational environment has a direct effect on organizational structure, such that unstable environment produce an organic structure system that can react and adapt more quickly, while in the opposite scenario, produces a mechanistic system. The better the match, the higher the effectiveness of the organization. (e.g., Burns & Stalker, 1961; Pennings,1975). (Shmuel Ellis, Tamar Almor, & Oded Shenkar 2002)

The modernist also views the organization through its social structuration. As routines, habits and rules are developed through the mutual interaction and influences between the workers and organization, a structural system is created, re-created and mediated within the organizationa. Realizing that the agency and its structures are both conditions and outcomes of the actions of human action, social relations and practices within the organization (Cohen, 1989, Giddens, 1984), social structure is therefore viewed not a “dead” entity, but a social construction created and maintained by social practices. (Jennifer Wheeler-Brooks 2009)

Again, although the organization structure provides the setting, in which workers fulfill and complete their daily task, the relationship between them, is not cast in stone, as employees remain as knowledgeable, responsive workers who have the ability to choose their own behaviors and thus either continuing or modifying the organization through their actions and behavior.

It is also important to note that the modernist’s view on social structure comprises three mutually supportive dualities of structures and agency (workers), namely signification, domination, and legitimation. Although these three are inseparable in practice (Giddens, 1979, 1984), (Giddens, 1979, 1984), they may be analyzed separately.

Structures of signification are institutionalized interpretive schemes that allocate meaning to people’s actions, such as beliefs, and language. Structures of legitimation are organization norms, constituted in the tacitly understood moral and social obligations (Clegg, 1989). Structures of domination are the institutionalized acquisition of power (Giddens, 1984). This can be in the form of, resources domination involving the structured distribution of material resources, such as products, services including right of access and deployment of such resources, as well as institutionalized authority relationships. (Giddens, 1984; Whittington, 1992)

By concentrating on the discontinuities and changing patterns of behavior and relationships of an organization, one cannot help but question and probe deeper on the relationship between agency and structure. (Giddens 1979; Reed 1997). (Paula Jarzabkowski 2008)

It can therefore also be said that formal structures have symbolic as well as action producing attributes. Structures can become injected with socially shared meanings, and thus, apart to their functional roles, can serve to share and bring information about the organization both internally and externally. A symbolic interpretation can therefore help provide a new and different perspective into the causes and consequences of structure within an organization. (Tolbert and Zucker, 1996, p. 177). (Van de Ven, Andrew H.; Dooley, Kevin; Holmes, Michael E. 2004)

The symbolic interpretive perceives that the emergence of the organization social structure needs to include social interaction and human consciousness through social practices, routines and community interaction.

Through the build up of ideas, knowledge and actions of people, a routine is birth and rebirth in response to new experiences observed. (Levitt and March, 1988) Routines may include organizational rules, roles, conventions, strategies, structures, cultural practices and capabilities. (Martin Schulz 2002)

It is therefore incorrect to think of organizations as only departments or system units. Interpersonal correspondence is the crux of any organization as it creates structures and foundations which can then affect what needs to be done, who to do it and what to do after that. (Robert Lawrence Heath, Jennings Bryant 2000)

Organizations are adaptable to their environments in ways such as creating jobs for specific occasions, purposes or people and evaluating and deciding to continue or discontinue the job, based on the new requirement and knowledge acquired. (Miner (1987, 1991). (Martin Schulz 2002)

The Symbolic interpretive views the social structure of an organization through the process of knowledge transference within the organization. (Davenport and Prusak, 1996; Choo, 1998) Knowledge, symbolism and best-practice transfers within and between organizations is not a one-sided activity, but an ongoing process of sharing, involving trial and error, feedback, and the mutual adjustment of both the sender and receiver of knowledge. (Szulanski, 1996; Powell, 1998; Kaeser, 2001). (Georg von Krogh 2003)

It is also viewed that the chief feature of human organization is the use of language and symbolism (including the attribution of meaning to things and making sense of the world). (Robert Cooper 1989)

From the Symbolic interpretive perspective, language such as the use of words, shared vocabulary, the way workers speak about their organization, use of “slangs” and jargons can also be used to define the social structure within the organization.

Such groups of people, “Communities of practice”, bond together due to similar passion for their skills and knowledge, and through regular interaction in order, develop a tacit understanding and meaning with one another, thus enhancing the social structure within an organization. (Etienne Wenger, Richard Arnold Mcdermott, William Snyder, 2002)

The foundational perspectives of postmodernism are that the individuals in the organization do not have an independent consciousness but needs inter-communication with others to develop an identity. Meanings are not given prior to communication but arise from it and are context-dependent; meanings, structure and language are considered temporary due to the ever-changing environment and developments. (Bart Nooteboom, 1992)

Where modern organizations favour bureaucratic structures that emphasis on roles, rules and procedures, postmodern organizations prefers a more democratic approach and views that are informal and based on mutual agreement. Comparing to modern organizations that favour separation of functions and departments, postmodern organizations favour de-differentiation of those elements. This allows the creation of multi-skilled worker that can break traditional structural boundaries and inflexible work processes. (Steve May, Dennis K. Mumby 2004)

The social structure of an organization is viewed simply as a reflection of the built commitment of individuals to help develop a set of “rules” for the organization in order to survive in the ever changing postmodern era. (Jim Barry, 2000)

Drawing much from the philosophies of language of (the later) Wittgenstein (1976) and de Saussure (1979), in Postmodernism, communication rather than consciousness is viewed as the backbone of knowledge, and hence the philosophy of language occupies a central position. Words are not longer interpreted as names of objects or properties (meanings, concepts) that are given prior to language unlike in the Symbolic interpretive perspective. (Bart Nooteboom, 1992)

Language reveals the organizational reality by showing that it is a process that involuntarily includes its internal differences and conflicts. The social structure of the organization is always in disarray caused by threats and internal fighting. Organizations should therefore be viewed appropriately based on sense, intellect and logical context. This is very much unlike the modern thinking of the notion of an organization stability. (Robert Cooper 1989)

However, despite the difference of “language” opinions, postmodernists still follow the fundamental social structure similar to that of the symbolic interpretive in that interaction between people does not arise from a fixed structural identity, but is formed through interaction between people. In the words of Lyotard: “The self by itself does not amount to much, but it is not isolated. It is taken up in a tissue of relations which is more complex and mobile than ever. It always finds itself in a nexus in communication circuits, however small.”(1979, p. 59, author’s translation). (Bart Nooteboom, 1992)

In conclusion, although the three perspectives differ in their interpretation and views on the dimension of an organizational structure, it can be agreed that all perspectives recognize the importance of the social structure of an organization as the key building block that forms the organization. Blau (1977: 1) “The study of social structure… centres attention on the distribution of people among different positions and their social associations.”

Through the study of structural effects of the various perspectives, we are able to understand the spirit, character and characteristics of social structure within an organization, as well as the effects and outcomes it carries by looking at factors such as formal organization chart, differentiated positions within the structure, relationships among task-relevant roles, languages games used, differentiation, inter-communication, etc.

Thus having a good understanding of the different perspectives and applying a mixture of different “theories” in the right context and environment will help to strengthen the organization as a whole and provide a better picture of what an organization is and why things are happening the way they are.


Andrew H, Dooley, Holmes, Kevin, Michael E, Van de Ven, ‘Handbook of Organizational Change and Innovation’ Cary, NC, USA: Oxford University Press, Incorporated, 2004. p 179.

Bart Nooteboom, ‘A Postmodern Philosophy of Markets, Int. Studies of Mgt. & Org.’, Vol. 22, No. 2, pp. 53-76 M.E. Sharpe, Inc., 1992

Dennis K. Mumby, Steve May, 2004, ‘Engaging Organizational Communication Theory & Research.’

Etienne Wenger, Richard Arnold Mcdermott, William Snyder, 2002, ‘A Guide to management knowledge: Cultivating Communities of Practice’

Georg von Krogh, 2003, ‘Knowledge Sharing and the Communal Resource’

Han van Diest, 2008, ‘Possibilities of Democratisation in Organisations’. Social Epistemology Vol. 22, No. 1, pp. 97-117

Hatch, Mary J. and Cunliffe, Ann L., 2006, ‘Organization Theory’, 2nd edition, Oxford University Press: Oxford

Inkeles A. ‘Exploring Individual Modernity’. New York: Columbia University Press, 1983

Jennifer Wheeler-Brooks ‘Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare’, March 2009, Volume XXXVI, Number 1

Jennings Bryant, Robert Lawrence Heath, 2000, ‘Human Communication Theory and Research.’

Jim Barry, 2000, ‘Organizations and Management’.

Lex Donaldson, 2001, ‘The Contingency Theory of Organizations’

Martin Schulz, 2002, ‘Organizational Learning’

Oded Shenkar, Shmuel Ellis, & Tamar Almor, 2002, ‘Structural Contingency Revisited: Toward a Dynamic System Model’

Paula Jarzabkowski, 2008, ‘Shaping strategy as a Structuration Process’

Robert Cooper, ‘Modernism, Post Modernism and Organizational Analysis 3: The Contribution of Jacques Derrida’

Steven R Corman, Marshall Scott Poole, 2000, ‘Perspectives on Organization Communication’