Review of Arthur L. Stinchcombe, When Formality Works: Authority and Abstraction in Law and Organizations

American Journal of Sociology, 2004

3 Pages Posted: 22 Mar 2014

See all articles by Frank Dobbin

Frank Dobbin

Harvard University - Department of Sociology

Date Written: 2004

Abstract

Functionalism is alive and well in When Formality Works. Stinchcombe’s avowed goal is to sketch the factors that make formalization — rules, blueprints, and citation practices — effective. Rules have a bad rap among sociologists, who see legal systems, bureaucracies, and corporate handbooks as evil means of denying power to the downtrodden. As the profession, along with law, most interested in formal rules, sociology has been remiss in neglecting what makes formalization effective. Stinchcombe identifies three characteristics. First, formalization must be based on abstractions that are useful representations of the problems and solutions in question—that achieve “cognitive adequacy.” If abstractions do not map well to real situations, they will not be useful guides to action. Second, formalization must be communicable. It helps if rules are transparent, and if they are written in the lingua franca of those subject to them (lawyerese for lawyers, physicsese for physicists). Finally, rules must have feedback systems (a “trajectory of improvement”) that allow them to be updated. Judicial interpretation serves this purpose, allowing for the redefinition of “restraint of trade” or “sexual harassment.”

Suggested Citation

Dobbin, Frank, Review of Arthur L. Stinchcombe, When Formality Works: Authority and Abstraction in Law and Organizations (2004). American Journal of Sociology, 2004 . Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2412598

Frank Dobbin (Contact Author)

Harvard University - Department of Sociology ( email )

33 Kirkland Street
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States

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