An introduction to Emmanuel Lazega’s neo-structuralism

My notes on Lazega, E. (2005). A Theory of Collegiality and its Relevance for Understanding Professions and knowledge-intensive Organizations. In Organisation und profession (pp. 221-251). VS Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften.

I came to know Emmanuel Lazega over the last five years through my involvement with the Centre for Social Ontology. I initially found his approach difficult to follow, simply because it was quite different from anything I’ve been exposed to previously, but in recent years I’ve begun to understand it and see it as hugely important. Much of his recent work concerns “[c]omplex tasks that cannot be routinized” and the role they play in “professional and knowledge intensive work” (pg 1) and its relationship to bureaucracy. He is interested in the competition between these two trends, collegiality and bureaucratisation, understood as modes of rationalization which are by their nature in tension. This defines a “theoretical continuum between bureaucracy and collegiality” on which organisations can be located empirically, highlighting their co-existence in compound form within actually existing organisations. In doing so, he breaks from Neo-Weberian theories which identify formal characteristics obtaining to different kinds of organisations (collegial, bureaucratic, monocratic) and instead develops a multi-level approach that looks at “the individual, relational and organizational levels at the same time” (pg 2). He begins with the strategic rationality of actors and builds upwards, as described on pg 2:

Such an approach assumes that individuals have a strategic rationality. It looks at members as niche seeking entrepreneurs selecting exchange partners, carving out a place for themselves in the group and getting involved in various forms of status competition. From this conception of actors, it derives the existence of generic social mechanisms that are needed to sustain this form of collective action, in particular that of generalized exchange, lateral control, and negotiation of precarious values. It is rooted, first, in the analysis of the production process
and task-related resource dependencies; and, secondly, in the analysis of derived governance mechanisms. The latter are theoretically derived from the notion of relational investment.

On this view collegial modes of organising provide solutions to problems of collective action amongst peers i.e. people who are formally equal in power. Such collaboration is a prominent feature of knowledge-intensive organisations, raising the question of how “organizations without permanent bosses and followers, in which all members ultimately have a formally equal say in running operations or exercising control, are able to operate” (pg 2). Examples of where such collaboration can be found include “corporate law firms, engineering and technology firms, architecture firms, advertising agencies, medical wards, consulting firms, investment banks, scientific laboratories, religious congregations, and many other organizations bringing together recognized experts” (pg 2). HHow is agreement reached without resort to coercion in such organisational forms? How is quality ensured without command and control? How does innovation happen without it being directed hierarchically? How does the organisation adapt to legal, technological and social change? As he summarises on pg 18: problems include “getting, organizing, and doing work; maintaining quality; distributing income; preserving unity; reproducing workers; controlling deviance; and balancing continuity with change”.As he puts it on pg 11 “[u]nable to pull rank on peers, members of collegial organizations need decentralized controls”. If I understand him correctly these are just some of the collective action challenges which are generically faced by collegial modes of organisation. However an adequate account of how this operates empirically must recognise the dimension of power, defined on pg 5:

Power is defined as the ability of individuals or groups in the organization to impose their will on others as a result of resource dependencies. In the case of collective action among peers, however, such dependencies are often less permanent and more complex than in bureaucracies. Power is shared, then aggregated upwards to be exercised simultaneously by several positions in a `polycratic’ system. There are also norms concerning this exercise, especially for legitimization of inequality and justification of acceptance of inequality.

Social ties within the collegial organisation facilitate access to resources like good will, advice or friendship that may directly or indirectly have ramifications for the production process. For Weberians these have been seen as “particularistic obstacles to efficient collective action” and consequentially their significance in “help[ing] members cooperate and exchange, monitor, pressure, and sanction each other, and negotiate precarious values” has been missed (pg 5). These are the context within which the strategic rationality of actors plays out, giving rise to generic mechanisms which characterise the operation of social discipline within collegial organisations. This is the point where I start to feel a bit out of my depth so please take these notes with a pinch of salt:

Niche seeking involves the partial suspense of calculative behaviour, producing a ‘bounded solidarity’ in which co-operation can occur without the expectation of immediate reciprocity. Niche seeking produces a proto-group structure which makes it easier for members to access the resources they need (commitment to work together, professional advice, personal support – pg 8) for co-operation and work together in pursuit of a shared objective or cluster of objectives. It can be threatened by status competition which is an endemic tension within collegial organisation, as forms of co-operation (e.g. ‘brainstorming’) depend on the suspension of status for their efficacy but also often require the intervention of someone (usually of higher status) to draw it to a close and define where it goes. If I understand correctly, the problem is one of collective interests (sharing information and experience as much as possible) clashing with individual interests (stressing their own knowledge and experience in order to increase their standing vis-a-vis their peers). The nature of interaction means members compete over the capacity to define the terms of their interaction while collective action requires a converging definition of the situation in order to be succesful. The niche is where this tension can be temporarily and precariously resolved, mitigating the problem of status competition but remaining continually threatened by it.

It is important to stress that status in Lazega’s sense is multidimensional, “not only based on seniority and money; it has a particularly strong dimension of prestige, of symbolic recognition of a member’s contribution, and of ongoing critical judgements about members’ quality” (pg 16). Formal equality constrains the forms which status competition can take and means it unfolds through all manner of routes, including the deployment of the notion of collegiality or professionalism (and attendant ideas) for personal advantage within the organisation:

This implies that informal authority of members with status is based not only on control of all sorts of resources (important clients, workforce, day-to-day operations, technical competence, experience), but also on their capacity to manipulate relationships to create consensus, on their firm-specific strategic culture. By this I mean a political know-how allowing them to be players in a power game deemphasizing unilateral impositions of strength and encouraging learning and mutual prescription in negotiations. This requires a capacity to share with others a certain code of collegial relations and an ideology of collegiality (Frischkopf 1973)–that is, a certain conception of professionalism. For example, the mix of an adversarial and pushy professional culture, on the one hand, and of personalized and unobtrusive lateral control, on the other hand, are not always easy to combine for partners in a corporate law firm. This also requires rhetorical manipulation of an ideology of collegiality in debates about professionalism, especially when members with market power try to pressure others for consensus around their own conception of professionalism.

Lateral control regimes reflect the challenge involved in ensuring compliance, without the exercise of hierarchical relations. If I understand him correctly, collegial organisation tends to preclude formal command-and-control as well informal conflicts likely to destroy bounded solidarity. This is why informal interventions “in order to curb behaviour perceived to be unprofessional or opportunistic”  become so important, motivated by restoration of flow of resources which the problematic behaviour is seen to have impeded. These “start with convergent expressions of normative expectations, unobtrusive and unsolicited advice and the spread of gossip” before escalating (pg 12).

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