Notes on Selections From: Westoby A  (Ed)  (1988) Culture and Power in Educational Organisations, Milton Keynes: Open University Press.


This is a marvellous collection of critical examinations of organisations, especially of educational ones. It was a reader for a marvellous OU course Educational Professionals and Organisations  (E814), which offered or thoroughly critical analysis of current conceptions of the teacher as a professional  (to be countered by the notion of the teacher as a skilled worker in a labour process), and the conception of the school as educational management tended to see it. This reader exposes models of management and some of the more popular fashions in 'educational management' to some skilled sociological and political critique.

I have included a number of selections from this excellent collection here.  You can jump straight to individual sections by clicking the hyperlinks.

Weick on loose-coupled organisations

Ouchi and Wilkins on organisational culture

Meyer and Rowan on the 'logic of confidence' which replaces real inspection and control 

Bachrach on organisational politics as the main unifying mechanism


Weick K 'Educational organisations as loosely coupled systems' 

The elements in many organisations [especially schools -- the example cited throughout] are not tightly integrated together, but are loosely coupled. This means that simple models, such as those based on rationality or bureaucracy are inadequate: organisations offer different realities to the participants. Rationalise models are rare and there are few actual instances of them, so they can have only a little explanatory power. In terms of metaphors, schooling in particular is probably better seen as an agricultural system rather than a factory. If organisations are so fluid, what makes them function a tall? New research is needed on the persistence of 'soft'  structures. The notion of loose coupling is a sensitising devise, helping us to address Features organizations overlooked by the rational model. 

Events which couple together can be mutually responsive, but those elements can still keep their own identity. Attachments between elements can the 'circumscribed, infrequent, weak in mutual effects, unimportant and/or slow to respond'  (59).. 

Among the new possibilities for research, it seems that two very common coupling mechanisms are the technical core of an organisation, and the authority of office, leading to connections via common tasks, or through a system of positions. Neither need be particularly prominent, leaving lots of room for the intentions and actions of the incumbents, including those which tend to frustrate planning and which baffle and anger administrators.

Educational organisations do not just feature strongly linked means and ends. For one thing, there can often be alternative means. Other important elements include the relations between teachers and materials, voters and school boards  [in the US], administrators and classrooms, processes and outcomes, teacher or relations to other teachers, or to pupils, or to parents each of these relations can be problematic and couple together in fluctuating ways.

Organisations need to vary their activity, for example in slack times, and it is convenient to have lots of means to achieve one end. Loose coupling is also indicated by: a richly connected network where influences are slow to spread, a relative lack of co-ordination and a relative lack of regulation, a planned unresponsiveness, degrees of independence, opacity to an observer, infrequent inspections, decentralisation, systems of delegation, an absence of linkages which are supposed to be there in theory, a disjunction between structure and activity, where outcomes are the same although activities are different, and where there are few prerequisites  (61).

Loosely coupled organisations, loosely coupled elements in loosely coupled systems, can be useful..  For example, it allows some portions of an organisation to persist, rather than having to respond each time to some change. The example here is when elected officials are only loosely coupled to the institutions they run. Of course, this can permit undesirable continuities as well. Further, a more sensitive sensing is possible, just as sand, with lots of independent elements, is more sensitive to the wind than solid rock. However, this can lead to faddishness. Loose coupling can permit a localised adaptation which does not need to work through the whole system. It can permit a greater number of mutations and novel solutions, preserving diversity, although it can also prevent the system wide adaptation of positive elements. Loose coupling can contain the damage of any one sector, but also make it difficult to repair the defective sector. It can allow actors more self determination, although this can be ambiguous, leading to circumstances where, for example, 'the stated intentions of the action serve as surrogates for the consequences'  (64), or where lots of individual negotiations are required. Finally, loose coupling can be a cheaper alternative to an expensive administration trying to generate rules to regulate inconsistency, but can also be non rational in terms of change. Overall, loose coupling can be both functional and dysfunctional, and we need to try to pin down the circumstances in which one rather than the other results. 

This has methodological consequences. Indeed, the apparent predictability of organisations may be simply a function of our current methodology, a measurement error.  If variations are infrequent, they are difficult to observe. Interactional data is unreliable because actors tend to over rationalise  (in schools, activities such as certification are particularly likely to be rationalised, while descriptions of the instructional technology tend to be vague). We need to examine the context, trying to view what is not done as well as what is -- some sort of comparative analysis of different combinations of loose and tight coupling would be best. In educational organisations, it might be the case that the most rational aspects of their activity, such as certification, tends to provide the common elements between educational organisations, leaving other areas open to more loose couplings.[It is not surprising that certification should be the most rational, of course -- it is the most important function of schools, certainly the one that requires the most public justification, as Weick suggests]. Answering these sorts of questions requires none teleological thinking, and we need to be sensitive to the multiple goals of organisations.

Some possible questions for the analysis of educational organisations arise:

(a) In areas of certification and inspection, we might be able to predict tight coupling, although a number of combinations are actually possible.

(d) What is the relation between core technology and organisational form in education? In other organisations, whether technology is certain, it might be seen to determine organisation, but teaching is a matter of pursuing diffuse tasks. This could lead to a number of organisational forms, including an 'organised anarchy'.The problem is almost to explain the conformity.

(c) How do members make sense of educational organisations if they are so ambiguous? Perhaps the actors themselves have to impose some order, via a 'great amount of face work and linguistic work, numerous myths... considerable amounts of effort devoted to punctuating this loosely coupled world'  (69).

 In conclusion, we need adequate conceptual tools to understand loosely coupled organisations, richer images, with broader connotations. We should focus on the practical tasks of coupling and will boundary definition. We should develop comparative and longitudinal studies.  Methods should include modes of philosophical inquiry, as well as concrete descriptions of how organisations are stabilised. A focus on core technology, systems of authority and tasks to be pursued might replace one on officially dominant coupling mechanisms. We need to assess the ratio of functions to dysfunctions, to assess whether schools benefit or suffer from different patterns of forms of coupling, and drop our interest in ideology in favour of an examination of how members make sense of their occupational world.

Ouchi W and Wilkins A 'Organisational culture'

There has been a lot of work on organisational cultures, sometimes stemming from interest in Japan and its economic success. Culture seemed important as a variable given that formal organisations looked rather similar whether they were in Japan or the West. Culture is a concept that is also shared between different approaches in social sciences -- anthropology and sociology refer to it, and culture is a concept shared by both action and structure approaches. 

An early influence in developing this interest came from functionalist anthropology. This tended to produce an approach split between structural analysis and participant observation. Culture both shapes and is shaped by individuals, but in studies of organizations, it was often taken as a simple variable, usually an independent one, which simply guided the responses of employees, but which was never fully explained itself. A number of tensions in studies therefore arise

 (a) There are explicit versus implicit approaches. Durkheimian work on the representations of collective life inspired an emphasis on organisational myths.  Goffman was used to explain how organisational symbols were manipulated. Even Berger’s and Luckmann’s work on legitimation became popular  [and the notes tell us that their book was the second most often cited piece in organisational theory in the USA].

(b) Rational versus non rational approaches illustrate the influence of Weber. Some tussles ensued concerning the amounts and nature of irrational behaviour, and some people argued that irrational behaviour could be combined functionally with rational behaviour -- as in the concept of 'bounded rationality'  (cited on page 230). Several case-studies were researched, including those undertaken by Gouldner, Blau, or Hawthorne.

(c) Multivariate analysis became possible with the increasing use of. Not only were various aspects subjected to analysis, including factor analysis, but organisations themselves came to be as information processors.

(d) An increasing interest in anomalous organisations. Schools especially are resistant to interpretation as bureaucracies, and are usually seen as a weakly rational, or ‘loose coupledas in Weick. Comparative study soon revealed Japan as an anomalous case to, and this directed attention especially to the 'ethos' of an organisation. This began the interest of management in symbolic actions, and in organisational cultures.

This new interest was taken up by management schools and management theorists. Initially, an organisational culture was seen as ideally emphasising the rational aspects of organisation. Psychologists began to have an input too, especially to explain non-rational judgments, and aspects such as 'cognitive dissonance', persuasion, people's perceptions and rationalisations. Hence the emphasis on things such as 'climate' at the organisational level, or the role of post hoc justifications or  'popular stories... [rather]... than rules and statistics'  [as a management technique as well as a research item].

 Current developments  [and this piece was written in 1985!] include:

  1. Theoretical studies. Some are macroanalytic and include the analysis of ceremonies, rites and their latent and manifest functions, or 'stories'  as 'managerial paradigms'.  Culture is seen as a result of institutional economics, including property rights and management structures, although there may be factors specific to individual firms. Occupational subcultures have also been studied, again emphasising the role of beliefs, symbols, and language. Sometimes these have not been effectively linked to the macro environment, however.

  2. Micro analytic studies examine learned behaviour or unconscious meaning or tension reduction. There is often a Freudian or Jungian emphasis  (page 238).

  3. Empirical studies include ethnographic descriptions and case studies  (listed on page 239). They also include historical or archival research examining organisational sagas, or cultural evolutions. Semiotic analyses include looking at taxonomies in use, metaphors, language changes as styles of management change, and the use of rhetoric by administrators.  Quantitative studies use data gained from attitude scales to chart subcultures, or offer content analysis, for example of some the organisational stories.

  4. 'Work on planned change' can include case studies, and which often show the difficulties of change and why cultures resist. Sometimes they offer advice, concerning how to signal changes in values, help participants, or articulate and embody 'a mission'  [still very popular in UK higher education]. Sometimes they consider the cultural risks of change, such as increased anxiety.

Overall, tussles remain -- is culture a dependent or independent variable? How best can we study it?

Meyer J and Rowan B 'The structure of educational organisations'

Educational organisations in the USA lack close co-ordination, and are best seen as examples of 'loose coupling'-- the 'structure is disconnected from the technical work activity, and that activity disconnected from effects'. This is because educational organisations largely exist to certificate students, and in this activity, they are tightly coupled. Classification of students is the most important function, ideologically and financially, and this can permit less control over the institutional activity as such: this looser control voids democratic inconsistency and maintains a consensus  (page 88). Any further attempt to tight couple education would threaten the validity of classification activities. Instead, educational organisations are regulated by a 'logic of confidence'  (88). 

In terms of patterns of control, models of tight and loose coupling both apply. As examples of loose coupling: 

(a) Evaluation is never taken seriously, there are only weak inspection regimes [at the time of writing. This assertion is based on data taken  from surveys undertaken on school superintendents and what they actually did. In UK higher education, we only have anecdotes of the triviality and bureaucratic numbness of quality inspectors].  [In those days] student achievement data were really used.

(b) In the area or of curriculum and teaching technology, there seems to be no agreement and few specific guidelines  [again in Britain in the UK there have been attempts to codify these]. Systematic evaluation of what has been learnt by students from one stage to the next is rare.

(c) There is very little direct authority over each institution  [This is arguably still the case for UK higher education, although financial controls have multiplied].

 By contrast, there are some areas of tight coupling:

 (a) The credentialling and hiring of teachers, the allocation of space and funds.  Here a number of rituals and myths are enforced, and these are central to public support. Teacher classifications -- into elementary secondary and so on -- are still strong. Inspection of teachers remain strong.

(b) Student classifications in terms of level, grade and programme. Again, however, the system of definitions is patrolled rather than actual capabilities and characteristics. Pupils'  entrance and career stages are elaborate controlled, rather than the actual work they do.

(c) Topic classifications in curricular and programmes of work  [subject boundaries? Module out lines?], but actual work is seldom inspected.

(d) School classifications, including different faculties and different types of school. These are widely understood and they continued to attract support from the public.

Conventional accounts of schooling can be divided into a number of approaches:

  1.  The reform perspective, adopted by modernisers and rationalisers. Here the guiding image is of rational control as in a factory. In fact, there is now less rational control than there was in the 19th century.  This is not a sign that the education system is old fashioned, simply that it is remarkably healthy, strong and popular.

  2. The decentralist view is that schools are oligarchies which need to be made accountable through decentralisation and lay control. But education the US is popular, since the community enjoys many of the benefits, often ritual ones. [In the UK, demands for accountability and lay control have been much more successful, marketed under the slogan of 'parental choice'or the maintenance of 'standards. In the process, schools and teachers became very unpopular].

  3. The professional model celebrates loose coupling and describes it as a so collegial system. However, teacher professionalism is a myth -- teachers themselves often debunk their professional training, and it is hard to separate teaching from administration.

  4. Organisation Theory, which stresses matters such as goal displacement to explain how classifications have become more important than core activities. However, no one seems to be interested in investigating this process: institutions are still supported as a matter of faith.

 Schools must not be seen as a backward or mismanaged, but as actually very successful in the national context. Their main role is to manage societies, to define personnel for the State and the economy, and to offer a kind of standardised nationality. The classifications used by the education system are important in a 'social market'. The success of the school in monopolising these functions is complete. This is why there is such a public focus on the social outcomes of schooling, on classifications. They have to be seen to be valid, and this is more important than whether they actually are valid  (100). Instruction, on the other hand has traditionally been left to decentralised and local controls, and national systems have been resisted. Local control remains popular, since in any community, its is perceived that there will always be some successes and other failures  [there seems to be a fear that in a national system, some areas would be permanently supplying the successes, and others the failures]. 

The organisational responses are predictable from this national and local context. They take the form of decoupling, where the formal structure is necessarily decoupled and from instruction as such. This maintains the myth of overall validity and credibility, avoids close inspection, and increases the commitments of teachers. Instructional success has never been particularly important in terms of gaining prestige -- far more effective, especially for universities, is to invest in high-status and high-cost activities. 

The ‘logic of confidenceemerges too. Classifications of students must be done in good faith, as a 'sacred' activity. This good faith, combined with decoupling, produces a logic of confidence, the organisational equivalent of Goffman's 'face work'  (a matter of avoidance, discretion, and overlooking in the interests of good social relations). This is seen best, perhaps in the myth of teacher professionalism: this takes the form of being conveniently compatible with large bureaucracies, but this is only possible because bureaucracies only pretend to control teaching activities.

It would be interesting to pursue some comparative research, to see how this operates with education systems in different States. Comparisons might also be made with other organisations which are more tightly coupled. It would be interesting to see the links with environments and rates of change. At the same time, it is not just educational organisations that find themselves in this predicament, and many other organisations face similar dualisms at the formal and informal level. There are also forced to engage in myth and faith and actor, and must appear ‘national functionaland rational. Below to achieve this, much work is required to rationalise and to give accounts of organisational activities double - and decoupling becomes necessary.

[There are lots of lovely examples which I have not had time to include here, to illustrate the notion of the logic of confidence, which I think is terribly relevant to modern organisations. As a quick example:

...if systematic safety problems are  "discovered"  by the environment, safety officers are invented: their existence explains how the organisation has  "taken into account" safety problems. (Who actually deals with safety is another matter.) So also with pollution control, labor relations, public relations, advertising, affirmative action, or research and development. Some of these activities may, in a day-to-day sense, actually get done... [but their main purpose is to act as]... legitimating myths... created quite independent of the activities they index  (109).

Much of the irrationality of life in modern organisations arises because the organisation itself must maintain a rational corporate persona: we must find planners and economists who will waste their time legitimating plans we have already made, accounts to justify our prices, and human relations professionals to deflect blame from our conflicts  (110).

Bacharach S 'Notes on a political theory of educational organisations'

There are different emphases in the study of educational organisations in the USA, including a comparative structuralist approach using Max Weber's work (but as a kind of checklist rather than searching for the dynamic and contingent aspects). Research aims at some universal general theory. On the other hand, is a more practical emphasis involving empirical study, with theory generated statistically out of a number of case studies: research here aims for underlying variables, rather than processes which actually involve human actors.

Loose coupling as an approach is a good example which runs against the general pattern, but it does underestimate the sources of order and coupling. The comparative structuralist work is occasionally replaced by qualitative and subjective studies, but these are often equally limited. What we really need is to examine  (a) how organisational structures emerge from individual actions;  (b) how structures stabilise without inhibiting individual behaviour;  (c) how orderly change takes place instead of chaos and the loss of identity.

We can approach this by emphasising practical politics, as a kind of middle ground. In this way, coupling becomes a 'calculated decision'. Micropolitics of this kind run throughout all systems, and the study of it offers:

  1. The analysis of many different kinds of struggle inside schools, for example, those over resources

  2.  The view of organisational participants as political actors with their own goals and their own perceptions

  3.  An understanding of decisions as maximising specific interests rather than following some organisational good in general. Self-interest become central

  4. Explanation of why sub-groups see the structure differently -- different types of sub-groups are outlined on page 283

  5. The way to study whether the structural perceptions of both underdogs and top dogs are congruent, which might affect the speed of decisions

  6.  The study of the emergence of coalitions, and how these are related to structures, ideologies and the environment

  7. An analysis of how actual decisions relate to this structure of coalitions and their perceptions, to explain the underlying logic of real organisational persistence and change

  8. An understanding of how coalitions change and can rotate, for example as one  comes to power which then calls forth a rival

  9. A grasp of the history of the school system in terms of the past conditions and contexts of the formation of current groups.

Overall, we need to focus on the coalition as the unit of analysis rather than either individuals or the organisation. We can use both case-study and comparative studies. This will lead to practical outcomes.