Social Organisation: Useful Notes on Social Organisations

Here are your notes on Social Organisations!

The American sociologist and specialist in organisational studies, Amitai Etzioni, wrote, ‘Our society is an organisational society’ (Etzioni 1972).

We are born in hospitals, educated in schools employed in business firms, government agencies, universities, etc.

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We join trade unions or professional associations, go to hospitals when we are ill and when we die, we are taken to crematoriums which are run by the municipality or burial grounds run by a church or a mosque. Therefore, in sickness or in health, at work and at play, life in modern industrial society is conducted in organisational settings.

What are social organisations?

Organisations are social units which are predominantly oriented to the attainment of specific goals. They differ from other social units like family, friendship groups, community groups, etc., because they are designed to realise clearly defined goals. For example, schools are designed to transmit knowledge, hospitals to treat the sick, industrial units for manufacturing goods, etc.

Social organisations are not new entities that came into existence because of factory production. But factories or industrial units particularly need organisations for ensuring that work is done in a systematic manner. Without organisations, there would be chaos which in turn would affect production.

Every factory or hospital or school has certain rules for conducting its activities. Though there may be common features in these organisations there are also differences. One cannot run a hospital the way one runs a factory. This is a controversial issue because the earlier scholars stressed on common features of all organisations .


Let us return to the historical aspects of organisations. As suggested above, it may not be an exaggeration to say that organisations have been in existence since the birth of human civilisation. Primitive human beings who depended on hunting and gathering for their survival searched for food by organising themselves into functional groups which they formed so that they could undertake their tasks more efficiently.

In the case of hunting, a group of humans would encircle a prey and kill it when it was trapped. Some animals hunt alone. Tigers do not go in herds to hunt; similarly, carnivorous animals such as leopards, panthers, etc., hunt alone.

An exception is found in the case of lions or rather lionesses who hunt their prey in a group (called a pride) through coordination between two or more lionesses. Other animals that are mainly herbivorous move in herds. These include different types of deer, wild buffaloes, zebras, etc. They do so mainly for protection from any carnivorous animal that preys on them.

The difference between organisations of animals and humans is that while the former are similar as animals have instinctive behaviour, the organisations of humans change according to the situation. Technology is the main instrument that leads to change, the prime motivating factor for human development. In primitive times, humans would encircle their prey and stone it with their bare hands.


When humans invented the spear the organisation of hunting changed; the group would not need to surround the animal but they could position themselves in front of it and throw spears to slay it. Later, with the invention of the bow and arrow the group function again changed. The hunters could stalk their prey from a greater distance with less chance of the animal’s attacking them. We can thus see that group functions of humans changed with the progress of technology.

Technology in effect distinguishes human beings from other animals. Technology is not something static but changes and improves over time. These changes are due to human efforts. For example, following the invention of the spear to help in hunting, further changes were found necessary.

The energy used in throwing a spear was limited. In order to make it more effective it became necessary to transform this energy to some other form. The catapult could be an effective human tool; the missile (usually a stone) travels with greater force and speed and it requires less human effort than throwing a spear.

Further innovations led to the invention of the bow and arrow. Here too with less effort the missile (arrow in this case) could travel with greater speed and hit its mark with greater force; we can think of other inventions that are more effective in killing the prey.

All technologies are not used for killing as man has moved beyond the hunting stage. There could be forms of technology starting with primitive types of production and after centuries becoming more and more sophisticated. The basic necessities of life are food, clothing and shelter. We can see in all cases how human Endeavour improves with the invention of newer and more efficient technology.

Let us take the example of making cloth. In earlier times, women used to weave cloth with a loom that was attached to their waists. They wove while sitting on the floor and the shuttle they used was operated by hand. This was a cumbersome and time-consuming task.

The invention of the shuttle loom (known as handloom) was more efficient as it wove cloth at a faster pace. When power was introduced after the industrial revolution, the handloom was upgraded to the power loom which was more efficient.

A redesigning of the spindles by making more of them operate in unison helped to create the textile mill. From this there was a shift to an even more efficient air-jet loom. We can thus see how with the advancement of technology, there has been a rapid increase in production.

Along with technology, another factor for the spread of organisations is the growing division of labour in society. At the primitive stage when there was a low level of technology in use, human beings performed the same type of activities. All human beings were engaged in attaining the same three objectives of living, namely, food, clothing and shelter.

They jointly collected food or hunted, the garments they wore were obtained either from the skins of animals or the bark of trees and leaves, and their shelter consisted of crude dwellings that could be easily constructed. Since the level of technology was low, it was possible to replicate these activities. There was no division of labour as everyone performed the same types of work.

With improvements in technology, it was possible to have division of labour. In other words, some people could specialise in some types of activities. For example, some people could exclusively make pots and other earthenware for household needs, others could weave cloth and some could be involved in agricultural work.

This type of division of labour needed to be coordinated or else it would give rise to a chaotic situation where people did work in a haphazard manner. The coordination of these activities required what we call ‘social organisation’. Hence we can see that organisations coordinate the activities of large numbers of people aimed at a common objective.

In ancient times, huge monuments were constructed which exist even today. These included the pyramids of Egypt, the Sphinx, large palaces and temples. A large number of labourers were used for such construction. Work on these sites had to be coordinated properly in order to ensure that work was done efficiently.

Similarly, at war, armies were organised to be efficient so that they could effectively fight the enemy. In its absence, armies were likely to be defeated because of lack of coordinated effort. We can take the example from history of the first battle of Panipat (1526) which was fought by the invading army of Babur against Ibrahim Lodi, the last to rule over the Delhi Sultanate.

It is said that Lodi had a huge army of 1, 00,000 foot soldiers and several thousand soldiers on elephants and horses. Babur, on the other hand, had only around 30,000 soldiers on horseback. Despite a smaller force, Babur was able to defeat the vast army of Lodi. The reason, we are told, is organisational coordination and efficiency of Babur’s army. Lodi’s large army, on the other hand, was deficient in this regard.

Hence, when Babur’s force attacked them, they did not know how to retaliate. Moreover, the elephants which were not given any commands ran helter-skelter, and, in most cases, trampled their own people. Amidst the chaos, Babur’s army was able to defeat Lodi’s men. This illustrates how effective organisations are necessary for achieving objectives.

The spread of organisations was related to the division of labour. The French sociologist Durkheim (1947) mentions that solidarity was the basis for human society. There were basically two types of solidarity, namely, mechanical and organic. The simpler societies had little or no division of labour, but there was solidarity among the members.

The members grouped together for various reasons, the most important being the need for protection against wild animals and other elements of nature like fires, floods, rain and so on. This is what Durkheim terms as mechanical solidarity. In such societies, there was hardly any need for superior organisational framework because of similarities among the members.

As division of labour increased, we could find differences arising in occupations. For example, there were peasants, ironsmiths, potters, weavers, priests, cobblers, merchants, etc. In modern societies, the division is even more extensive. People have different professions such as those of lawyers, doctors, teachers, business executives, industrialists, workers, etc.

The solidarity which is seen in such societies is based on differences among the people. Yet, each of these different occupations is important for the functioning of the society. Hence, one finds that societies with such differences come together because of organic solidarity. These two types of solidarities depict the differences between simple and complex organisations.


The other aspect which needs to be stressed is that the differences which occur in societies are not based on equality but on hierarchy. This means that some individuals or groups are superior, and others are inferior. The difference, for instance, between the employer and the employee shows that the employee is lower in hierarchy as compared to the employer.

This form of hierarchy is based on rules that govern society. In sociological terms, the hierarchy is based on social values or shared beliefs which all members of society, whether high or low, have that hierarchy is necessary for the effective functioning of society. Hierarchies can also be based on specialisation.

Specialist tasks require direction and coordination if they are to be combined to produce the end product, and a wide range of specialised tasks needs coordination and also a hierarchy of authority. When these factors are combined in the pursuit of a specific goal, an organisation is formed.

We can examine the work of another sociologist, Max Weber, as an important starting point. Weber’s theory of authority structures characterises organisations in terms of authority relations. The main question which Weber tries to tackle is: why do individuals obey commands? In order to deal with this problem, Weber made a distinction between power and authority.

Power is defined as the ability to impose one’s will over others even when there is opposition to it. Hence, power has a coercive element in it. However, power can be of different types and many times it could be exercised through the use of brute force of through fear. Weber states that when orders are obeyed voluntarily it becomes authority. Under authority, the receiver of orders (the subordinates) sees it as legitimate in receiving orders from the super-ordinate.

Power encompasses authority only if it is legitimate. There can be two ways of imposing one’s will over others. A local goon through his use of force and other means of coercion can force people to obey his commands, he may even collect rent from them which they give to him not willingly but because they are afraid of the consequences if they fail to do so; this is power that is not legitimate.

However, when the police use authority to quell a mob, or to arrest this goon who along with his supporters is terrorising the locality, it is understood as authority. The police may use the same form of brutality as that of the goon, but they do so because their actions are treated as legitimate by the people.

Just as the goon collects rent from the people, the state too collects taxes for its functioning. But the difference is that people pay rent to the goon because they are afraid of him and his gang, whereas the same people would pay taxes to the state because they think it is legitimate. Hence, two similar actions can be viewed differently in terms of legitimacy.

Weber explained that the nature of legitimatisation of authority determines the nature of the organisation. There are three types of organisations with three different types of authority structures; these are the traditional, rational-legal and charismatic structures. Each has its peculiar administrative apparatus. Let us deal with each of these types separately.

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