The Relevance of Theory and
a New Approach to Library Structure
D. A. WHITE AND T. D. WILSON
This paper was prompted by a realisation that, after a long period of study,
there seem to be serious gaps in our understanding of the organisational
nature of libraries. There is a real lack of applied, or applicable, theory in this
area and only a limited amount of empirical field-based enquiry. The subject
under immediate study was that of organisational conflict. A review of the
management and sociological literature revealed theoretical complexity and
terminological confusion.There is no general agreement in the literature on a
definition of the term conflict, (Bell and Blakeney, 1977). There is no
coherent body of theory on the subject, (Thomas, 1976). The theories that do
exist seem to have little real basis in fact. Empirical work, as so often
happens in attempts at hypothesis verification, have concentrated on very
small, quantifiable problems. In short there seemed to be little to go on.
Moreover it is questionable as to how useful the constant modification,
application and verification of existing theory is to research in hitherto
unexplored areas of organisational activity.
The problem of borrowed theory and consequent hypotheses is one that
has pervaded the social sciences. It may stem from the way that sociology has
been done in the past. The drive to be recognised as a science led to an
emphasis being placed on quantification as a method: this has brought too
great an emphasis on verification as the chief criterion for excellent research.
The bulk of theory has been the product of sociological imagination and not
always the result of investigation in the field. Hence, its relation to many
areas of behaviour is at least dubious and for the most part irrelevant. Being
able to show some part of a theory to be proveable is no judgement of its
worth. The 'worth' of a theory must be based on its relevance and that will lie
in its applicability to an area of study and its ability to explain particular
problems. Glaser and Strauss (1967) propose 'grounded theory' as a basis for theory generation, that is: "... the discovery of grounded theory from data
systematically obtained from social research ... Then one can be relatively
sure that the theory will fit and work." (
Glaser and Strauss, 1967: 2,3). This approach might meet the requirements of explaining particular social or organisational problems better than the kind of logico-deductive theory that
has been so prevalent. Such theory would appear to hold more value for both
practitioner and researcher.
The most striking thing about the literature of organisational conflict is
that there is a good deal of it. The greatest problem, however, is its sheer
diversity. Much of it is highly specialised, including a number of different
approaches and involving quite different organisational arenas. Conflict studies in organisations, alone, include the interface between union and management, between supervisor and subordinate, among peers, or between different organisational departments or subgroups. Moreover a great deal of
work has been done outside the boundaries of organisations in the areas of
experimental gaming, small group research, social conflict and international
Some body of theory has emerged and some of the major elements of this
work have been succinctly presented in the library literature by Eggleton (
1979). Particular note must be made of the conceptual work of
Pondy (1967), Walton and Button (
1969) and Schmidt and Kochan (1972). All of these have sought to produce some working theory for explaining
conflict within organisations. But for the most part they remain the products
of deduction with little general applicability. This may, in itself be quite
impossible. Only a very abstract model is likely to be applicable to the study
of all organisational conflict phenomena, (
An attempt at producing a. coherent, general model which has not been
reported in the library literature has been made by Thomas (
1976). Working from a large amount of the available literature Thomas suggests two main
models for the description of conflict behaviour. These are described as the
Process and the Structural models. While describing them separately they are
to be considered as interdependent. The Process model builds directly on the
work of Pondy (1967) who saw conflict as being more readily understood if it
were considered a dynamic process. This model is concerned with the internal dynamics of a particular instance of conflict. It breaks conflict down into
its conditions, actions and resultant outcomes or conflict aftermath. A feedback mechanism is built in so that the result of one outbreak of conflict may
form the conditions of another, (Fig. 1). Where the Process Model is concerned with behavioural interaction within specific, discrete instances of
conflict, the Structural Model is concerned with how underlying conditions
shape events and seeks to highlight the central behavioural tendencies withina given dyadic relationship. This in itself may be problematic in that much
small group work relies heavliy on dyadic relationships while organisational
conflict may be more multi-faceted. Rather than identifying events this
model is concerned with the underlying parameters that shape those events,
(Fig. 2). Both parties have behavioural predispositions which stem from their
motives and abilities. Both are subject to pressures from their surrounding
social environments. The parties respond to the conflict incentives (loss/gain)
in the situation. Finally, the interaction occurs within a framework of rules
and procedures which constrain behaviour. The model does not take account
of potential feedback mechanisms. In reality all of these variables would be
affected by the outcomes of particular conflicts.
Taken together these models seem to offer a reasonably coherent explanation of conflict behaviour. As a conceptual tool they may guide the re-searcher to consider certain behavioural tendencies that may, or may not, be inherent in conflict. But they assumes the existence of conflict without
offering any explanation as to why particular organisational circumstances
might produce it. They can identify the conditions of particular conflicts but
not the reasons for how those conditions have arisen. To do this the everyday
processes of the particular organisation would have to be analysed and
understood. These models, like so many similar "pictures of the world", are
based on reviews and syntheses of the literature. They are, therefore, continual conceptual adaptations of sets of ideas whose relation to the area
under study has become somewhat tenuous. The use of this kind of theory
has two major problems. Firstly, it may produce a tendency to "fit" data
where they are inappropriate. This is not necessarily a concious act on the
part of the researcher. It may be a natural tendency, when armed with a
particular set of hypotheses, to categorise data in those terms. Argyris (
1972, 1980) demostrates the tendency for researchers to match what they see to
their own particular version of social reality. Secondly, the constant urge
towards the verification of existing theory may prevent the development of
theory or ideas that stem directly from the area under study, which may
oppose existing theory and which may be more relevant or true. Theory if it
is to be relevant should stem from the study of the particular organisation.
Such a method should prevent the application of inappropriate concepts and
the "fitting" of data. To explain organisational problems in libraries it is
necessary to develop more library-based organisation theory.
A step towards this would be to reconsider the way that we view libraries
as organisations. Theories set out what we assume to be true about society
and organisations in particular. Our assumptions about the nature of libraries
as formal organisations may be badly misplaced. This is due to the overriding
importance, in research and practice, of organisational structure found in
business and industry. By contrast, it is assumed here that libraries are
Human Service Organisations, (HSO). An alternative view of the nature of
such organisations may facilitate our attempts to understand processes, such
as conflict, that occur within them. Such an alternative is presented here and
the possible implications for conflict are noted.
Inquiry into the nature of formal organisations has been fixated on the
paradigm which Trist (1977) refers to as the "techno-bureaucratic" paradigm.
Organisational research tends to make the normative assumption that the
technocratic bureaucracy is the ideal paradigm for all organised effort. The
validity of this assumption and the applicability of this paradigm to the
dynamics of HSO's are questionable. The dominant paradigm is characterised by its focus on management as the rationalising force in organisations.
It supposes that management is the appropriate domain for the exercise of
influence over the organisational sphere, and it assumes that the most applicable principles for the operation of organisations are those of hierarchical
control and coordination. Classical theory maintains that bureaucratic struc-
ture is the form most conducive to managerial control and coordination;
managers are accountable for subordinates efforts and consequently authority relationships must be clear and explicit.
The technology most appropriate for this vertical system is linear. The
assembly line is the archetype; management by objectives, program, planning, and budgeting systems, management information systems and rational
problem solving are clear technological preferences. The measures of success
for modern organisations are held to be cost efficiency and effectiveness:
useful output must exceed total input and the organisation's objectives must
The industrial paradigm has constraints that restrict the understanding of
the unique reality of HSO's This reality is distinctly different from that of the
world of business and industry. Human service organisations have been
defined as 'the set of organisations whose primary function is to alter the
persons behaviour, attributes or social state in order to maintain or enhance
his well being...' (Hasenfield and English, 1976). Generally speaking these
types of organisations are concentrated in the fields of health, education, and
social welfare. Examples include hospitals, health centres, social service
departments, public health departments, schools and universities. The inclusion of libraries, academic or public, is appropriate here. While having many
structural similarities with other classes of formal organisations, HSO's have
distinctive attributes and problems. They have been perceived as different
from business concerns, commonweal organisations and mutual benefit
organisations (Blau and Scott, 1963; Harshbarger, 1974). New phrases have been coined by some theorists to describe them. Weick (1976) refers to
educational systems as "loosely coupled systems" indicating that organisation
and individuals are somehow attached but retain their identity and separateness. This state has also been refered to as an "organised anarchy" (Cohen, et al., 1972).
Figure 3. Contrasting attributes of HSO's and Business/Industry (from Kouzes and Mico).
|Primary resource base||Public taxes||Private capital|
|Goals||Relatively ambiguous and problemetic||Relatively clear and explicit|
|Psychological orientation of workforce||Professional||Instrumental|
|Transformation processes||Staff-client interactions||Employee-product interactions|
|Connectedness of events and units||Loosely coupled||Tightly coupled|
|Means-end relation||Relatively indeterminant||Relatively determinant|
|Outputs||Relatively unclear and intangible||Relatively clear and tangible|
|Measures of performance||Qualitative||Quantitative|
|Primary environmental influences||The political and and professional communities>||The industry and suppliers|
Human service organisations have different characteristics from business
organisations and face different problems. Kouzes and Mico (
1979) have compiled a table contrasting some of these distinctive attributes with those of
business and industry (Fig. 3). Not all of the contrasts apply to all HSO's and
industrial organisations. The table is intended to be illustrative rather than
definitive, but it forms a useful guide to the kinds of distinction that need to
A recognition of this difference led Kouzes and Mico to develop a theory
of organisational behaviour based on their experience of working with them
and more applicable to them. They have termed their set of suppositions
Domain Theory. Domain is defined as a "sphere of influence or control
claimed by a social entity". They see HSO's as comprising of three distinct
domains - the Policy Domain, the Management Domain and the ServiceDomain. This seems to bear resemblance to the three-tier model of formal organisation postulated by Talcott Parsons (
1960: 60). The policy, managerial and technical functions suggested by Parsons are very similar, though this has not been noted by the authors. The Policy Domain refers to the organisational level at which governing policies are formulated. This is the highest managerial level of the organisation and involves mediation with the community at large. The policy maker must secure resources for the organisation
but is expected to keep face with the community as a whole. He is responsible
for the public image of the organisation. The policy maker must justify the
existence of the organisation per se and must justify the money being spent.
The policy maker has to vie for political power within the community. Hence
the policy maker is most concerned with organisational survival and is orientated to the community as resource provider and a source of power. The work modes by which policy decisions are reached necessarily involve negotiating, bargaining and voting.
The second domain, that of management, attempts most to mirror the
model of business and industrial management. It is assumed that HSO's
should be businesslike in their approach. Management is concerned with the
control of the organisation's functions. It has a dual function - mediation
between the organisation and the external situation and 'administration' of
the organisation's internal affairs. Those in the Management Domain are
facilitators of the technical or service function. Their responsibility lies with
the disposal of services; their character, adequacy and quality. In carrying
out this role they tend to adopt the businesslike principles of hierarchical
control and coordination. They attempt to rationalise the organisation, accepting cost efficiency and effectiveness as success measures and bureaucracy as the rightful structure. Consequently the orientation of the Management Domain is to internal processes and method and linear work modes, whether
appropriate to the working of HSO's or not, have been imported or adapted.
The third area identified is the Service Domain. Every formal organisation
has certain technical functions - this may be the provision of some service.
The primary exigencies to which this domain is orientated are those imposed
by the nature of the technical task. Members of this domain have two
distinctive characteristics: self-autonomy and client-orientation. After years
of schooling, professionals consider themselves to be capable of selfgovernment and believe that they have the expertise to respond to the needs and demands of their clients. Principles of autonomy and self-regulation thus dominate the service domain. 'Quality of care' and 'professional standards'
are the preferred criteria for measuring success and these quality standards
are related to process not product. The members of this domain are, orientated as their work is orientated, towards the client. Individualised, client-specific problem solving is the predominant work mode with a technology that is loosely determined. A graphic presentation of the major characteristics of each domain is included in Figure 4.
Each domain operates by different and contrasting principles, success
measures, structural arrangements and work modes. Each is organised in
functional and coherent ways that are appropriate to the performance of the
primary task of the individual domain. The policy makers have developed
structures and work modes to respond to the articulated demands of the
community and to establish enough position in the community for bargaining. The managers have developed mechanisms to respond to their accountability for efficient use of resources and attainment of goals. The professionals at the service/technical level face direct demands from clients and have
developed their own work modes for dealing with them. These difference
serve to separate and disconnect the domains. They promote separate identities - identities that are associated with the domains.
The separateness and incongruence brought by the existence of these
domains within the organisation may account for many organisational problems including conflict. Lack of cohesion within the organisation may be a result of the different perceptions of reality about the organisation. There is a tendency to define as problems only those things closely affecting one's own
domain's criteria of success. One domain's solution may be another domain's
problem. Each domain follows different norms and these norms often legitimate incompatible behaviour. Conformity to rules and procedures is frequently a norm of the Management Domain but it contrasts with the Service Domain's nonconformist norm of individuality.
Where there are such contradictions about principles, norms, success
measures, structures and work modes there is bound to be conflict. Much of
the vertical conflict experienced in HSO's may be explained by the natural
conditions of disjunction and discordance created by the interactions of
conflicting domains. Much of the role conflict of middle managers can be
seen in terms of the discrepancies of role expectations between these domains. This will be especially keen if, as in libraries, the managers are drawn
from the service level.
The paradigm of conflicting domains may serve as a more valuable conceptual guide to explaining conflicts in HSO's and in library organisations. It
has some important characteristcs, in terms of theory, which make it more
relevant to research in this area. It is original and does not claim validity on
the citation and modification of other ideas. Its authors have based their
thought on the direct experience of working within the type of organisations
which they are seeking to describe. Their experience as Organisational
Development consultants within HSO's demonstrated to them the inappropriateness of much of the prevalent theory. It also gave them opportunity
to develop theory out of the realities of the day to day operation of these
organisations. Theory built on this should be more relevant and meaningful
to the practitioner.
A modest test of the model was carried out in the course of interviews with
senior and middle-level library managers in pilot work towards the development of methods for studying conflict. Six chief librarians and eight at the
middle level working in public, university and polytechnic institutions were
interviewed. All respondents recognised the model as a valid description of
the organisations within which they worked. This fact alone is some testimony to the model's theoretical value as a basis for examining library
organisations, although it cannot provide proof of its 'truth'.
The most common reservations on the part of the respondents related to
the hazy distinction between the service and managerial domains that exist in
libraries. Librarians in the service domain often have managerial responsibilities as well as client-serving responsibilities. This in itself may help to
explain the role conflicts often experienced by middle managers in libraries
(Edwards, 1975). The two domains, as noted earlier, make different demands, and when the demands are made in the same person dissonance and
stress may result.
Further work is needed to develop and test the Domain Theory model in
libraries, but the fact of its 'common-sense' force and its immediate recognition by respondents suggests, at the least, that the way in which it was generated has lessons for library research. 'Grounded theory' generated from experience and observation in organisations may have more to offer a field
characterised by its 'pre-theoretical' nature than 'derived theory' where ideas
are extracted from previous work without adequate exploration of their
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This paper was originally published in Representation and Exchange of Knowledge as a Basis of Information Processes, H.J. Dietschmann (ed.) Elsevier Science Publishers B.V. (North-Holland), 1984
How to cite this paper
White, D.A. & Wilson, T.D. (1984) The relevance of theory and a new approach to library structure. Libri, 34(3), 175-185 [Available at http://informationr.net/tdw/publ/papers/1984libri.html]