We offer an explanation for the expansion of formal organizationin numbers, internal complexity, social domains, and national contextsand of the fact that much expansion lies in domains of the collective good far beyond the traditional foci on technical production or political power – such as protecting the environment, promoting marginalized groups, or behaving with transparency. This expansion is underpinned by cultural rationalization, characterized by scientism, rights and empowerment discourses, and the expansion of higher education. These cultural changes are transmitted through legal, accounting, and professionalization principles, driving the creation of new organizations and internal elaboration of existing formal structures. Dialectically, the cultural roots of expanding organization cause contemporary formal structures to be built less around functional interdependence and more around the construction of organizations as proper social actors. These actors are painted as autonomous and integrated, but depend heavily on legal, accounting, and professional definitions to sustain this depiction. So the expansion of rationalized organizations creates actors that are, whatever their actual effectiveness, structurally rather arational.
John W. Meyer is Professor of Sociology, emeritus, at Stanford. He has contributed to organizational theory and the sociology of education, developing institutional theory. He studies global impacts on national societies (some papers are in Weltkultur: Wie die westlichen Prinzipien die Welt durchdringen, 2005; a more extensive set is in Kruecken and Drori, eds.: World Society: The Writings of John W. Meyer, Oxford 2009).