Universität Bielefeld

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Research Profile

Traditionally, the Bielefeld version of organizational sociology is rooted primarily in Niklas Luhmann’s systems theory and behaviourist decision theory. It is based on a concept of organizations that is simultaneously general and inclusive and that is aware of the specific characteristics that distinguish organizations as social units from others (e.g. groups). Thus, unlike other disciplines, such as business administration, administrative science or pedagogy, sociology is not concerned with individual types of organizations but with the differences and similarities of particular types of organizations.

‘General’ as understood here means that from this perspective organizations are social systems that consists of decisions and reproduce themselves through combinations of their decisions, and assuming the role of a member is equivalent to the declared willingness and commitment to either accept certain formal expectations – that is, expectations that apply to members within the system – or otherwise no longer be able to be a member. ‘Inclusive’ as used above means that the Working Area on Organizational Sociology at Bielefeld is open to other types and approaches of organizational research, a field that is both very complex and confusing for a number of reasons, with their various different theoretical and methodological approaches, their different organizational research paradigms, the wide range of sociological subdisciplines and other disciplines that are closely related to sociology.

Empirically, we are interested primarily in concrete organizational issues of a wide variety of organizations, from force-based organizations and social assistance organizations to rights organizations. In addition, we are interested in what processes of change organizations go through, for example in the context of digitalization.

Our theoretical focus is on systems theory–based approaches to a variety of conceptual foundations of social scientific organizational research and its further refinement; on differences and types of connection among organizations and other types of social systems; and on current and historical complex organizational issues.

As regards methodology, we primarily use qualitative approaches and methods, mainly give attention to individual cases and focus on generating hypotheses.

PfeilForschungsfelder und zentrale Fragen





Current Research Projects


PfeilFlucht und Organisation [Forced Displacement and Organization]

Since October 2015

This research training project approaches the current ‘refugee crisis’ from the perspective of organizational sociology. The participants are conducting their own empirical case studies in relevant organizations, such as government agencies, administrative organizational units, aid organizations, medical aid organizations and volunteer initiatives, as well as churches, schools, private companies, trade unions, the police, and so on. The focus is on how organizations deal with forced displacement (refugees, refugee aid, refugee crisis), how they perceive and define it, and how they devise solutions to displacement-related issues. The ‘refugee crisis’ obviously requires considerable organizational effort and is impossible to manage without organizational measures and inter-organizational coordination. It seems reasonable to assume that, although organizations have sufficient experience in developing solutions in their particular focus area, they are also facing various new kinds of challenges and often are pushed to their limits.

Contact: Veronika Tacke

PfeilMitgliedschaftsbasierte Systeme – Zum Verhältnis von Bewegungen, Gruppen, Organisationen und Familien [Membership-Based Systems: The Relationship of Movements, Groups, Organizations and Families]

Following a proposal by Niklas Luhmann, this project shows that during the Sattelzeit (transition period), between 1750 and 1850, various types of systems emerged between the system of interaction, which is based on mutual perception, and the most complex and comprehensive system of society, which is based on availability for communication, including groups, organizations, families and movements. Groups, organizations, families and movements all have in common that they regard membership as a condition for individuals to be part of their particular system (or not). The difference between the different types of systems is that each has very specific ideas about and approaches to membership. In contrast to the level-based differentiation of interaction, organization and society, not only can groups, movements, organizations and families be imagined as mutually nested, it is also possible to imagine largely equal-ranking combinations and crossovers among the different social systems.

Contact: Stefan Kühl

PfeilOrganisation und Dynamik extensiver Gewalt [Organization and Dynamics of Extensive Violence]

Since November 2015

Extensive violence is one of the major desiderata in the contemporary sociological research on violence. Systematic approaches to explain why violent situations that involve only small groups of individuals may in some cases be extended by several minutes, hours or days and even up to a week are still rudimentary. The aim of this research project is to explain selected cases of such extensive violence from the perspectives of microsociology and organizational sociology. In line with the current state of the sociological research on violence, the projects uses a fairly narrow definition of ‘violence’ that addresses both wilful infliction of injury to human bodies and conscious attempts to attack individuals physically. The primary empirical focus is on the terrorist attacks that occurred on 13 November and 14 November 2015 in Paris and on the attacks carried out, also in Paris, from 7 January to 9 January 2015.

Contact: Thomas Hoebel

PfeilDigitalisierung und Organisation [Digitalization and Organization]

Since April 2016

This project explores the interrelationship between organizations as formalized social systems and digitalization as a transformation process. During its first phase, the project reconstructs the fundamental theoretical and conceptual ideas about digitalization in sociological discourse and investigates, from the perspective of organizational sociology, the implications of digitalization as technological change, as a promise and as a political programme. The focus of the second phase is on the functions and consequences of digitalization for organization in general and on the type-specific nature of its efficacy.

Contact: Stefanie Büchner

PfeilOrganisationsprobleme von Start-ups [Organizational Issues of Startup Companies]

Since 2015

Unlike economics, organizational sociology has given little attention to the phenomena of startups and entrepreneurship, both of which are fairly recent concepts in the German-speaking area. This is surprising given that administrations and private companies are the empirical focus of this discipline. Questions addressed by this project include: Why is it interesting to approach startups and entrepreneurship from the perspective of organizational sociology? How can startups and entrepreneurship be conceptualized from this perspective? More specfically, how do startups problematize and resolve the relationship between organization and digitalization? What are the specific organizational issues that startups face, and how do they address these issues? How can these organizational issues be described from the perspective of organizational sociology?

Contact: Rena Schwarting


Doctoral Research Projects


PfeilWorking the Case – Fallbearbeitung im Feld Sozialer Hilfe [Working the Case: Case Management in the Field of Social Assistance]

October 2011 to March 2016

Traditionally, case management has been understood as professional actions ‘in the context’ of organizations. Although the increasing prevalence of control efforts and standardization processes indicates that organizations play a major role in the process of case management, little research has been done from the perspective of organizational sociology to investigate case management in greater detail. The project ‘Working the Case’ uses a perspective based on systems theory to examine how case management is formatted as a result of organization. It involves a qualitative comparison of three youth welfare offices (with a special focus on general social services) to study case management as a precarious organizational effort. The project addresses five questions: How does organization structure the subdivision of cases by specialized service providers? What influence does organization have on case management at the boundary between an organization and its clients? How efficacious are formally introduced terminological standards of case categorization? How can we understand the simultaneity of interventional administration and service administration in the process of case management in the general social services? And how does organization ‘functionalize’ case documentation?

Contact: Stefanie Büchner

PfeilHistorische Organisationsforschung: Wie erforscht man Organisationen, die sich in ihrer Ausdifferenzierung befinden? [Historical Organizational Research: How to Study Organizations That Are in the Process of Differentiation?]

2011 to 2016

Royal courts, universities, municipal administrations, monasteries/convents and guilds are historical institutions that exhibit different types of formalization processes. However, we cannot just assume that historical organizations and their social environments primarily are functionally differentiated phenomena. The first aim of this project is to explore the theoretical and analytical foundations of a historical (organizational) sociology by combining and contrasting insights from the areas of sociology and history. The second aim is to review empirical studies on historical organizations in the early modern period that can benefit a discussion of such organizations from the perspective of organizational sociology and to relate the findings to the Imperial Chamber Court (Reichskammergericht) (1495–1806) of the Holy Roman Empire from the perspective of social theory. Methodologically, the focus is on how to actually study something that is in the processes of differentiation or of dedifferentiation.

Contact: Rena Schwarting

PfeilThe Microsociology of Organized Violence (working title)

Since April 2010

The majority of existing approaches of organizational and microsociology to explain collective violence are largely unreconciled and inconsistent. This project involves three case studies – of Reserve Police Battalion 101 (‘Organized Suddenness’), the January 2015 Île-de-France attacks (‘Status Orientation as a Mechanism of Extensive Violence’) and the interrelated recruiting and liquidation logics of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant – to show that explanations of collective violence remain incomplete if they do not also take into account intensification of confrontation, an issue inherent to every violent situation. However, this microsociological perspective, which was mainly developed by Randall Collins, is itself incomplete, in that it neither empirically nor theoretically considers the fact that many violent situations involve both interaction and organization. Thus, the project also shows that situatively overcoming emotional resistance in situations of confrontation, prolonging violent situations over extended periods of time and the brutalization of violence are usually organizational effects. Explaining these phenomena must therefore start with an analysis of the membership of some or all individuals in organizations.

Contact: Thomas Hoebel


Completed Research Projects


PfeilKey Works of Organizational Research

The book that resulted from this project presents more than a hundred key works from the area of organizational research. All articles follow a consistent structure and focus on three questions: In what context was the text in question written (what positions do the authors intend to distance themselves from; which other texts does it connect to)? What are the main arguments of the text? What is the hypothesis it proposes, and how is it substantiated?


Contact: Stefan Kühl

PfeilGenocide and Organization: Sociological Explanations of the Holocaust

There has been a fierce debate in historical research – specifically, in the research on the police battalions – about how to explain the behaviour of the perpetrators during the time of the National Socialist mass murders among the Jewish population. Authors such as Christopher Browning have used the term ‘ordinary men’ to show that in many cases the perpetrators were perfectly normal individuals who were turned into perpetrators by the general conditions. Other authors – most notably Daniel Goldhagen – used the term to show that the mass murder of Jews can only be explained by the ‘eliminatory anti-Semitism’ inherent to German culture. The research question that guided this project was how this behaviour of the perpetrators can be explained from the perspective of organizational sociology.

Contact: Stefan Kühl

PfeilOrganisation und Finanzmärkte – Organisationssoziologische Zugriffsweisen zu Hochfrequenzhandel, Kreditratingagenturen und Derivatehandel [Organization and Financial Markets: Approaches of Organizational Sociology to High-Frequency Trading, Credit Rating Agencies and Derivatives Trading]


The introduction of technological distribution media in the financial markets has created a situation in which the speed with which information is processed is as crucial a factor in transactions as the speed with which it is gathered. How do modern financial organizations adapt to such time-related risks? This project addressed this question, which is loosely based on a question asked by Niklas Luhmann (1986), by examining three empirical phenomena: high-frequency trading (HFT), credit rating agencies and derivates training. This research is situated at the intersection of the sociology of risk, economic sociology and organizational sociology. Based on a specification of the structural conditions of high-frequency trading from the perspective of organizational sociology, the project hypothesized that HFT is that allows for a conditional coupling of three inter-organizational interfaces – namely, the emergence of news in the mass media, the generation of orders in financial organisations and the execution of orders at the trading platforms. This coupling is an expression of an increasing differentiation at modern financial markets and can be understood as a form of adaptation to organized and technological market environments is highly sensitive to issues related to time-related, financial/technological and social aspects. In addition, the project examined how financial organisations – e.g. (investment) banks, investment funds, hedge funds – deal with the uncertainty of credit decisions. It provided a functional comparison of credit rating scores and credit default swap prices to show how financial organizations regard functionally equivalent communication – in this case, organization-based and market-based observations of ‘third parties’ of comparisons concerning uncertain credit decisions as ‘risks’, which they then exploit economically for themselves.

Contact: Rena Schwarting

PfeilEntscheidungsprozesse in diakonischen Unternehmen (‘Diakonische Unternehmensführung’) [Decision-Making Processes at Care Service Providers of the Diakonisches Werk (‘Business Management at Diakonisches Werk’)]

Conducted in collaboration with Prof. Dr. Stefan Jung, YMCA Univesity of Applied Sciences, Kassel, on behalf of the Bundesverband evangelische Behindertenhilfe (BeB).

The project studied everyday decision-making practices of senior management at care service providers of the Diakonisches Werk. Based on different and partly contradictory decision-making logics, and using expert interviews, the project reconstructed a number of decision-making situations. From this perspective, decisions were regarded as processes that can take a long time and that are influence by a variety of individuals and occurrences. In this respect, service providers of the Diakonisches Werk are perfectly ordinary organizations. However, these organizations also showed a tendency to make straightforward decisions that help people in need of support, even if such decisions carry financial risks for the service providers.


Contact: Thomas Hoebel

PfeilOrganisationskultur – Systemtheoretische Spezifikationen [Organizational Culture: Specifications from the Perspective of Systems Theory]

Identifying similarities and differences between informality and organizational culture in organizational theory is a difficult endeavour. One of the reasons is that in many cases the term ‘informality’ was tacitly replaced by the term ‘organizational culture’ without ever providing a clear and precise defintion of either. Based on considerations by Dario Rodríguez, the project argued that both terms denoted the same phenomenon – an organization’s undecided decision-making premises. However, taking a somewhat more systematic approach than Rodríguez, and based on ideas developed by Luhmann, this project distinguished between ‘undecidable decision-making premises’ and ‘decidable but undecided decision-making premises’, which allowed the project to put some order into the ‘messy lists of characteristics’ in the literature on both informality and in the literature on organizational culture.

Contact: Stefan Kühl

PfeilKooperationen zwischen Regierungsorganisationen, Verwaltungen, Nichtregierungsorganisationen und Unternehmen: Die Umstellung auf Programmfinanzierung in der Entwicklungszusammenarbeit [Collaboration Among Government Organizations, Administrations, Nongovernmental Organizations and Private Companies: The Change to Programme Funding in Development Cooperation]

Kooperationen zwischen Regierungsorganisationen, Verwaltungen, Nichtregierungsorganisationen und Unternehmen: Die Umstellung auf Programmfinanzierung in der Entwicklungszusammenarbeit [Collaboration Among Government Organizations, Administrations, Nongovernmental Organizations and Private Companies: The Change to Programme Funding in Development Cooperation]

Almost as if through a burning lens, in development aid one can observe collaboration among various types of organizations: How do international government organizations, administrations, private companies and nongovernmental organizations work together in the field of development cooperation? This question was addressed with a special focus on the change from project funding to programme funding in development cooperation.

Contact: Stefan Kühl

PfeilZwischen Behörden, öffentlichen Unternehmen und private Firmen - Privatisierungen von Organisationen in Entwicklungsländern [Between Government Agencies, State-Owned Companies and Private Businesses: The Privatization of Organizations in Developing Countries]

There is a general consensus among large national and international development aid organizations that the privatization of services previously provided by the state is one of the key strategies for overcoming ‘organizational weaknesses’ in developing countries. However, only in rare cases are erstwhile government agencies just ‘sold’ to private companies. In fact, there are a wide variety of organizational models that are subsumed under the concept of privatization. The research questions that guided this project were: How does privatization change the functioning of organizations? And what changes can be observed in the communication and decision-making processes, the programmes and the staff of the organizations?

Contact: Stefan Kühl

PfeilParadoxe temporärer Organisationen [Paradoxes of Temporary Organizations]

Labour and interest organizations usually have an indefinite lifespan. The research question addressed by this project was: How do temporary organizations operate knowing that they will be dissolved after a predefined period of time? This project was preceded by a number of preliminary studies of temporary organizations. The next step was to examine temporary organizations such as Olympic bidding committees, urban planning organizations and social funds in developing countries in more detail. The results of the analyses of these special types of organizations were then used to draw conclusions about the mechanisms of project-based organizations and of projects within organizations.

Contact: Stefan Kühl