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Philip Selznick: Wikis


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Philip Selznick (1919) is professor emeritus of law and society at the University of California, Berkeley. A noted author in organizational theory, sociology of law and public administration, Selznick's work has been groundbreaking in several fields in such books as The Moral Commonwealth, TVA and the Grass Roots, and Leadership in Administration.

Selznick received his PhD in 1947 from Columbia University where he was a student of Robert K. Merton.


Major Contributions

Selznick was a major proponent of the neo-classical organizational theory movement starting in the 1930's [1]. One of his most influential papers entitled, "Foundations of the Theory of Organization" (1948)[2] outlayed his major contributions to organization theory.


Individuals as Independent Agents

In simplified form, Selznick postulated that individuals within organizations can hold dichotomous goal-sets, which makes it difficult for organizations and employees to have the same implicit, rational objectives (as theorized in classical organization movement which was a pre-cursor of Selznick's work)[3].

Cooptation Theory

Selznick's principle of cooptation is an important precursor to the later developments of organizational ecology and contingency theory [4][5].

Sociology of law

Selznick has been a major contributor to the sociology of law [6]., developing his ideas on legal institutions and their problems and possibilities of responsiveness to their constituencies, from his earlier work on the sociology of formal organisations.

Theories of Mass Society

Selznick was first -- anticipating Daniel Bell, Edward Shils, Talcott Parsons, William Kornhauser and a host of American social scientists -- to attack the theory of mass society. His approach, adopted by all the rest, bifurcated the theory and argued that there were two analytically distinct groups of mass society theories: those who were critics of equalitarianism or who emphasized the role of creative and culture-bearing elites; and those who emphasized social disintegration and the quality of participation in mass society and mass organizations. The first group of theorists is best represented by Jose Ortega y Gasset and Karl Mannheim. Each of these theorists located the cause of the advent of mass society in the decline of the social position of creative elites who were responsible for the development and the strength of cultural values. Mass society arose when society was no longer directed by an identifiable and stable structure of elites, when the vulgar appetites of the masses supplanted "the canons of refinement and sober restraint." The masses cannot simply take over the role served previously by elites; they can express desires but not values.

The second group of mass society theorists, those who emphasized social disintegration and the quality of participation, was best represented by Emil Lederer, Erich Fromm, and Sigmund Neumann. Selznick argued that these theorists leave the role of elites largely unexamined. They defined mass society as the era of mass man, a type defined not in terms of any relationship to a formally superior or intrinsically more qualified elite, but as the expression of a wider social disintegration. The homogenous, amorphous, and undifferentiated individĀ¬uals in the mass resulted from radical social changes which rendered old norms obsolete and old roles meaningless. Psychological deterioration followed on social disorganization: 'as family, church, and traditional political ties weaken, a psychological atomization takes place.' This type of mass society theory pictures society as a crowd in which irrational, emotional acts predominate. "The readiness for manipulation by symbols, especially those permitting sado-masochistic releases, is characteristic of the mass as of the crowd."


  1. ^ Shafritz, J.M., & Ott, J.S. (1996). Classics of Organization Theory (4th ed.). Orlando, FL: Harcourt Brace & Company
  2. ^ American Sociological Review, Vol. 13, No. 1. (Feb., 1948), pp. 25-35
  3. ^ American Sociological Review, Vol. 13, No. 1. (Feb., 1948), pp. 25-35
  4. ^ Shafritz, J.M., & Ott, J.S. (1996). Classics of Organization Theory (4th ed.). Orlando, FL: Harcourt Brace & Company
  5. ^ Morgan, G. (1997). Images of Organization (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.
  6. ^ Philippe Nonet/Philip Selznick (1978). Law and Society in Transition. Toward Responsive Law

Other literature

  • Roger Cotterrell and Philip Selznick, 'Selznick Interviewed: Philip Selznick in Conversation with Roger Cotterrell' (2004) 31 Journal of Law and Society 291-317.
  • Robert Kagan/Martin Krygier/Kenneth Winston (eds.) Legality and Community. On the Intellectual Legacy of Philip Selznick. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers: Boston 2002.


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