Sociological Paradigms and Organizational Analysis

Interview by Albert Mills

Gareth Morgan is one of the most creative and innovative thinkers within organizational analysis today. Over the last decade his work has served to fundamentally alter the face of organizational thinking.

In this interview we explore some of his major contributions to the field, including his location of Organizational Analysis within Sociological Paradigms, his development of a unique, radical humanist approach, and his recent exploration of the value of metaphor in understanding organization.

For those readers not yet familiar with the work of Morgan, a brief note of explanation is outlined. In Sociological Paradigms and Organizational Analysis, Burrell and Morgan argue that the various approaches to understanding organizations are reducible to four “paradigms.” In the simplest terms, a paradigm refers to a fundamental view on life, a broad view that affects the way particular aspects of reality are understood. For example, the views of a pacifist and of a facist on the question of hanging will vary dramatically due to their different views on life. Within Organizational Analysis, the major ways of viewing life, according to Burrell and Morgan, are. “functionalist” (belief that social structures have discernible purposes, or functions, that are reflected through and contain human action), and “interpretive” (belief that human constructs ultimately reside in and are manifestations of human thought). Both approaches share a common concern with understanding social life as it is presently constructed or conceived. As such they serve to maintain order and the status quo. Radical approaches, on the other hand, challenge existing economic or ideological constraints upon human action and freedom. “Radical structuralism” views human action as rooted within and shaped by socio-economic contradictions. Social change is viewed as arising out of socio-economic class struggle. The fourth paradigm, “radical humanism,” focusses upon consciousness, viewing human ideas as being imprisoned within ideological processes dominated by powerful actors. Here the potential for change is seen as dependent upon making actors aware of patterns of dominance.

Within Organizational Analysis, the radical humanist seeks to expose at every turn the underlying assumptions from which theories of organization are derived. Through a process of awareness we are more able to freely engage in the construction of a social reality dedicated to human liberations as opposed to dominance.

It is in that spirit that Morgan’s latest work Images of Organization aims at using metaphors to explain organization thinking. Briefly, his argument is that metaphor—for example, likening an organization to a machine—can be potentially useful in revealing aspects of organizational life, yet constraining if your thinking is restricted to the limits of a particular metaphor or if the analogy is pursued too literally. Certain organizations may appear “to run like a well-oiled machine,” but they also have other, nonmachine-like qualities, and it would likely be a mistake to treat the people involved as if they were mere pistons or valves. In rescuing the potential of metaphor, Images provides us with a rich and insightful range of metaphors (organizations as organic, as machines, as cultures, as psychic prisons, as theatres, etc.) to draw upon.

Aurora: On reading Sociological Paradigms and Organizational Analysis, there’s a real sense of sympathetic yet critical appreciation of all the competing paradigms. Gibson Burrell sees himself as a radical structuralist. Clearly, you seem to have pursued a radical humanist approach. Is this the sort of magic that made those paradigms come alive in both a critical and appreciative sense?

Morgan: Yes, Gibson and I, throughout the process, had somewhat different, though never deeply divided, views because we were both able to put ourselves in the perspective of the other. In fact, the whole book is based upon the ability to put oneself in different paradigms, to see from within those paradigms. That was the strategy that was used in trying to write the book: you locate yourself in the paradigm, you explore, you try to present in its terms, although a little bit of a critical edge comes in here and there. You cannot edit out entirely what you feel about things. When we were writing the book, we weren’t committed so much to one paradigm over another. We had a phenomenal working relationship, an ability to complement, critique, and learn from each other and to produce work which is entirely shared and which is better than anything that either of us could have done individually. I know that after writing the book I could have tossed coins in terms of whether I pursue, for example, the radical humanist route or whether I could pursue the radical structuralist route. Each one, from an academic standpoint, was very interesting and attractive, but my own drive as an academic and as a person is more consistent with a radical humanist mode. Gibson is much more inclined to the radical structuralist view, and that is the one that he pursues in his later work.

Aurora: Why did you feel the book needed writing?

Morgan: We were writing in the middle 70s when there wasn’t a great deal of reflectiveness in organization studies. People made assumptions about organization that were never questioned or challenged. For example, you could pick up most organization texts, and on the first page the definition of organization would be something like “a rational co-ordination of people who have come together to pursue a common goal.” That definition swept under the carpet all the interactive problems about organization, what it means to organize, and why it is so difficult. It defined the perfect situation. We tried to explore and expose assumptions on the premise that good social scientists must come to grips with the fact that they do make these assumptions. In their work these assumptions tend to shape everything they write about, what they see, and what they research; yet these assumptions are never made explicit. So the idea was that if we could make an epistemological critique of organization theory, we might widen the epistemological basis of organization theory to open up the different paradigms we were identifying. Basically we were trying to widen the debate at the most fundamental level. We took Kuhn’s notion of paradigm1 as a way of trying to present this because people can understand the notion of paradigms as different representations of a phenomenon. But in retrospect, we probably shouldn’t have selected that term at all. We should have talked about sociological world views and organizational analysis, or reality assumptions and organizational analysis.

Aurora: You said that perhaps instead of using paradigms, you could have used the concept of world views. If you were doing the thing again, is there anything else you would change, that you’d do differently?

Morgan: In retrospect I might change the visual representations of the paradigms and lines between them. Those paradigm drawings were rough drawings, and we were first-time authors. No way in the world had we expected to see our drawings coming back to us in that way. It has given it a concreteness we probably wouldn’t want again. It’s a most serious point because people want to nitpick and argue about which side of the line this guy falls on as opposed to that guy, and how far from the edge would you put this one as opposed to that one. This whole special representation contributes to the interpretation of the book as a classificatory scheme rather than a revelation of the deep structure of social theory. And content-wise there are things that I would change. For example, developments of the last ten years in the fields of interpretive sociology would lead us now to present the interpretive paradigms differently. For example, the section on hermeneutics would look very different. There’s a lot now that’s available that wasn’t then. Moving to the radical humanist paradigm, very clearly there is more that could be done with the anti-organization theory chapters. It’s a question of whether you would ever call it that. It is, of course, a play on the negation of functionalism, which is what radical humanism is all about. Those are things that I would change, but it’s the sort of book that one looks back on with satisfaction.

Aurora: How is the paradigm or worldview idea useful in making sense of organization?

Morgan: We have to draw an important distinction here between the paradigms as structures of thought and as classificatory devices. The basic idea of sociological paradigms is that there are different realities within the world of social science. Different social scientists are living in these different realities, and they’ve made different assumptions about the world. There is a self-contained nature to the theorizing that goes on according to the paradigm that you’re in. Now, when it comes to writing and teaching you have to find a way of communicating that insight. And what we did, not necessarily consciously at the time, was to take the metaphor of a map as a way of trying to lay out social theory and organization theory. As you know, a map is a classificatory device, and, for a lot of people, one of the major strengths of Sociololgical Paradigms is that it is a road map of social theory and organization studies.

The really important distinctions between the paradigms are the ontological ones in terms of whether reality is subjectively constructed or whether it is more objective, real, and independent of the observer or the actor in social life. It’s this ontological division that seems to be critical in distinguishing between the interpretive and the functionalist paradigms. It’s a question of whether social actors act upon a stage which is given to them or whether they act on a stage which they construct. Therefore it’s a very, very different status. It is that ontological difference that separates the functionalist from the truly interpretive theorist who is going the social construction of reality route. It’s the distinction we use for classifying. And it creates problems. Take Silverman’s The Theory of Organizations, which, in Britain at least, opened up the whole debate between phenomenology and positivism in the context of organization theory. We ended up saying that basically this was a functionalist work because it ultimately says that you’ve got to understand the meaning-structures that social actors bring to the interpretation of situations. If you read Silverman’s book, then you see from a paradigm perspective that the stage is a real one. It’s a question of interpreting it. That book doesn’t capture the depth of the social construction of reality that is evident in some of Silverman’s later work, for example, his book Organizational Work with Jill Jones. Reality is made in the here and now setting. It’s not just a question of the ascription of meaning to the situation, but it is the creation of reality, and so Silverman’s earlier and later work follow in different paradigms. In many ways, Silverman turned his back on the Theory of Organizations book after he started to develop his later ideas.

So the problem of classification was difficult because in our earlier conception, we would have probably thought of Silverman as an interpretive theorist; but it’s only when we really got into the interpretive paradigm and began to look at the work of Schutz, of the Hermeneutics School, of Garfinkal’s Ethnomethodology, and Silverman’s later work that we saw that the real gulf is between this kind of work and the work that is characteristic of the neo-Weberman action frame of reference. The latter can be incorporated fairly happily into a positivist model where you take meaning as a variable into the consideration and the construction of quasi-system models. Paradigms do not classify people, and they do not classify theorists. The concept is aimed at classifying the text, writings, and work of theorists. However, a lot of people will claim that they are in many paradigms at once and that they embrace all the different paradigms. Now, in thought and expression we have that ability to roam the intellectual universe at will, taking from here and there and creating a dynamic, flowing synthesis of our ideas and expressions of them. But when it comes to writing, you are committed in black and white to a position, because the whole medium requires that you take a position and define and articulate exactly where you are. It’s very interesting to note the way people write and speak about topics. I think that’s a critical point in the paradigms book: we classify works and not theorists. Theorists roam over much more territory than their writings often do.

Aurora: How do you view radical approaches to organizational analysis?

Morgan: When we come to talk about the radical paradigms you find exactly the same schism in perspectives as you find between the interpretive and the functionalist. It’s a schism that has enormous implications for their social theories. Both paradigms are committed to the idea that society is in process of flux and will inevitably change in dramatic ways. The radical humanists base their ideas on the principle that there will be revolution or transformation through consciousness. Consciousness is the means through which society will change, with people throwing off the chains of psychic impressions which tie them into alienating modes of life. The radical structuralists’ view is a much more realist position that grounds social change in the antagonisms between structural relations, not consciousness at all; consciousness is more suprastructural. Reality is not changed by the consciousness of people, but is changed by the binding together of these contradictions that will transform existing societies into new forms. That is the fundamental distinction between the radical paradigms.

Aurora: Doesn’t your division of radical and Marxist theories into separate radical humanist and radical structuralist paradigms exclude the possibility of a dialectical materialist approach that is able to bridge the structure-agency divide?

Morgan: I think that everyone is always looking for some sort of synthesis, and I guess that the paradigms will be negated by future theories that may actually transcend that subject-object relationship. It was our judgement that no one has ever done that. They tend to follow one side or the other. Here again you have got to go back to the fact that the paradigms are not attempts to create ideas that people say, but what they have written. Some people argue that Marx is a dialectical theorist all the time, and it is just that the focus of the dialectic is somewhat different; they argue for methodological continuity in Marx’s work. I believe that there is a very different interpretation of the way society changes in Marx’s early work compared to his latter. The early Marx and the later Marx, although there is enormous continuity in his work as a whole, are speaking in what I would now describe as the voices of two paradigms; their solutions and the actions they call for are looking to two different paradigms. Obviously Marx didn’t turn his back on the early work; it’s integrated within the new form in the later. It’s just that consciousness is not necessarily the only force that’s going to change things. That’s what is crucial for understanding the difference between the two paradigms. In the radical humanist paradigms, consciousness is the force for change.

Aurora: Hearn and Parkin2 have taken issue with you for constructing what they say is a Hearn, J. and P.W. Parkin, (Gender and Organizations in Organization Studies 4, 1983.) universalist, gender-blind approach. How would you answer that?

Morgan: This is a very good point. There were lots of ways in which you could say that the paradigms are blind. Not only women, but also race, culture, psychology, the unconscious, and psychoanalysis are ignored. Many people would say we’ve missed out dimensions. It is not just a question of missing a variable. I would approach that criticism by saying that basically what we tried to do in the construction of the paradigms and the way we tried to lay them out was to take the main debates that have been going on in social theory, and the subject-object regulation, radical change debate seemed to me to be the fundamental ones that have underpinned social theory. Don’t forget, the paradigms book is a work of history. It’s a historical work which attempts to reveal the structure of social theorizing. I would argue that the gender issue can be approached through the different paradigms. If we take feminist theory and feminist views of the world, which is what the gender argument is all about, then you find that they fall within these paradigms. Women, just like men, do not escape the basic epistemological and ontological forces that shape the way we think about things. If I were to develop this argument even further, I would argue for the gender dialectic as something which I would want to take account of in the radical structuralist and radical humanist paradigms. The gender people argue that gender is the major dialectic in the world rather than perhaps class, as Marx saw, or economics. They are arguing for a new approach to this. The gender issue wasn’t overlooked because we were sexist or blind at the time. We were aware of gender issues, but they didn’t seem central to the epistemological and political debates.

Aurora: Turning to the radical humanist’s perspective. How does a radical humanist perspective envision change?

Morgan: Well, the basic problem of this paradigm is a belief in the ability to change society through changing consciousness, by changing the way people think, see, and understand the world. You try to bring about a new world view, a new paradigm, which allows people individually and in conjunction with others to reorganize their experiences. Consciousness is the driving force; it is the essence of radical humanism.

Aurora: Given your recognition of the role of power and ideology in the construction of reality, how does a radical humanist hope to see this change come about? How do we challenge the structures of domination on an individual basis?

Morgan: The women’s movement offers an example of this. The most successful feminist strategy over the last thirty years has been the radical humanist’ strategy of changing consciousness. Radical structuralist feminists say, okay, so you are conscious of being exploited as a woman, but you still live in a male-dominated society. From a radical humanist point of view, you move and as you change, the grounds for action change, and the problems which require change become deeper. It is one thing to get women in the organization, but it’s another to get them behaving with non-male values. Clearly, through revolution from changing consciousness, you can work on those sorts of phenomena. The call for a change in consciousness to change society is a very important one and very interesting; it’s the one on which all academics rely. It’s one of the great paradoxes. There is a radical humanist dimension to almost all academics because they change through their writings. And what are they trying to do? They are trying to change consciousness and thereby change society. All critical social scientists are radical humanists at heart, and if they don’t accept that argument, they shouldn’t be there.

Aurora: Can we move on with a question on Images of Organization. What do you hope to achieve with that approach, and does it in any sense represent a difference in your thinking?

Morgan: In Images of Organization I attempt two things: to show how we can understand organizations from different metaphorical perspectives, and to show how to design and manage organizations from different perspectives. The book is both descriptive and prescriptive, and ultimately attempts to impact on the way we organize in practice. The continuity with the early work on sociological paradigms rests in the attempt to bring multiple perspectives to bear on our understanding of an issue. The differences stem from the fact that whereas Sociological Paradigms and Organizational Analysis was addressed to an academic audience and primarily concerned with theory, Images of Organization is addressed to an audience that is more concerned with practice, and attempts to bring out the action implications of viewing problems from different perspectives. However, I like to think that despite the difference, there is a common, radical humanist theme in that I seek to change consciousness with regard to the nature of organization and to help develop approaches to organization that can lead to substantial changes in social life.

Aurora: What are you working on the moment? What is your mext project?

Morgan: In my most recent work I have attempted to develop my interest in contributing to practice even further, through a project concerned with emerging managerial competencies and their implications for organizations of the future. Last year, I worked with a number of leading executives in Canada on a project designed to take a critical look at the future, and how managerial competencies need to be transformed. The results are reported in a new book which will be published under the title Riding the Cutting Edge of Change. The book builds on the idea that we need to rethink the nature of organization and management. As in the case of Images of Organization, my attempt to change managerial thinking will be clear, but to the reader acquainted with Sociological Paradigms and Organizational Analysis, Riding the Cutting Edge of Change will come as a great surprise. We would need another interview in order to spell out the links!


1. T.S. Kuhn. The Structure of Scientific Revolution (2nd edition). Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970.

2. Hearn, J. and P.W. Parkin. Gender and Organizations in Organization Studies 4, 1983

Books by Gareth Morgan

Images of Organization. Beverly Hills: Sage Publications, 1986.

Sociological Paradigms and Organizational Analysis. London: Gower, 1979.

Dr. Mills is Associate Professor of Organizational Behaviour at Athabasca University

An Aurora Update

Gareth Morgan is now the author of seven books. He is Distinguished Research Professor at the Schulich School of Business, York University, Toronto, and has been elected Life Fellow of the International Academy of Management in recognition of an outstanding international contribution to the science and art of management.

Related Links:

Gareth Morgan: Research and Writings, York University


Updated February 2002

Citation Format

Mills, Albert (1990). Gareth Morgan: Sociological Paradigms and Organizational Analysis. Aurora Online: