Johan P. Olsen's response

Dear colleages!

I was born and raised in Tromsø, well north of the Arctic Circle, in a working class milieu where the highest praise you could ever expect was: “That was not too bad”. As a result, there was little training in receiving and responding to praise and acclamation. This, however, does not prevent me from enjoying such occasions, and I send my warm thanks to the EGOS Board and its chairperson, Sigrid Quack, for awarding me the EGOS Honorary Membership 2007, to Jean-Claude Thoenig for his laudatio, and to you all for taking part in the event. Praise from colleagues is the highest reward a scholar can get. Therefore, I am very proud of the honour EGOS has given me, and I regret that I could not be with you today!


I am well aware that I now have more of my career behind me than ahead of me. Nevertheless, I want to attend to the future rather than the past, and I will use this occasion to challenge you – the EGOS community.


Much of my work has aimed at building bridges between organization theory and political science, but to my regret the two disciplines have, in spite of parallel agendas and many shared assumptions, been in a state of mutual disregard for years. They have not seen each other as particularly relevant or interesting. Yet, my message is simple: The organization of political life makes a difference. The study of democratic government and politics needs good organization theories, and organization theories will, in turn, benefit from studying formally organized political institutions. In the European context, with an emerging multi-level and multi-centered polity, there is in particular a need for a better understanding of how different forms of organization affect the well-being of citizens; and the conditions under which organizational change is a result of reflection and choice. The European political experiment, with it major institutional and organizational tensions and realignments, also provides special opportunities for learning about organization, organizations and organizing.


As Max Weber observed, a characteristic of modern society is a differentiation in partly autonomous institutional spheres, such as democratic politics an governing, the judiciary, market economy, civil society, science, art, religion, family etc. – institutional spheres based upon different, and partly competing, logics of action, structures and processes, normative and causal beliefs, and legitimate resources.

Even in a period when the main tendency is to give primacy to economic organization and outcomes, theories of organization need to make sense of all these institutional spheres and their interrelations. I will also suggest that understanding current dynamics in Europe, in particular, requires insight into the tensions and collisions between the major institutional spheres of modern society.


I am, furthermore, convinced that improved understanding of European dynamics will not follow from using models purifying a single logic of behavioral action, structural form, or change process, to the exclusion of all others. Rather, I believe that we have to attend to the interdependencies, interrelationships and interactions of competing and co-existing:

  • logics of behavior, such as rational choice and the logic of consequentiality, rule-following and the logic of appropriateness, and temporal sorting, garbage can processes and chance events;
  • organizational structures and processes, including hierarchies, rule-systems, markets, and participatory networks; as well as decision making processes determining who-gets-what, and processes of education, socialization and search for meaning, determining who-becomes-what and what kinds of community democratic citizens may have together.
  • processes of organizational and institutional change, including design and deliberate reform, historical drift through “organic” processes, experiential learning, and competitive selection.


To conclude: First, I am a very thankful man who has very good reasons for being thankful. The honour EGOS gives me tops a series of awards over the last few years, including one from the University of Tromsø. The latter suggests that even if one cannot become a prophet in one’s home town, one can become an Honorary Doctor there.


Second, I am also a very impatient man, who sees a lot of exciting future challenges for students of organization. My hope is that you, my EGOS colleagues, will make a serious effort to convince my political science colleagues about the need for a better understanding of how different organizational and institutional forms affect the democratic and civilizational qualities of our societies.


Thank you all! And go for it!


Johan P. Olsen