Steven F. Freeman

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Dissertation Summary

Dissertation Summary (Steven F. Freeman)

page last modified: 04/07/2013 06:53 PM

Actual Title

The problem of identity in organizational behavior and human decision processes (Why so incomprehensible a title? Pretty much all PhD dissertation titles and, alas, the dissertations themselves are incomprehensible to the uninitiated. It's not, i think, intentional, but rather because we're so engrossed in theories and academic papers for so long, and need to relate our work to this great net of theory, that general comprehensibility goes by the wayside. A dissertation, alas, is written for one's committee, not for any general public. 

Committee Members

John Carroll (chair), Lotte Bailyn, Maureen Scully, and John Van Maanen


Department, School

Organization Studies Group, Sloan School of Management, Massachusetts Institute of Technology: Approved April 1998


Publication Information

May 1998 Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Ph.D. dissertation.

Brief Description

The dissertation began as an attempt to explain why it took the American auto industry so long to respond to Japanese advances in design and production. I developed a methodology and database for measuring organizational attention based on lineage in official documents. The thesis consists of four essays: Chapter (2) reports what Chrysler and GM paid attention for a 25-year period, concluding that they attended primarily to threats made widely public on mass media, while ignoring those that had been quietly transforming their industry. Chapter (3) documents how once the threat was acknowledged, several other impediments to change ensued. I observe through case studies and literature review remarkable similarities between resistance to change on the individual and organizational level.

To explain both attention patterns and resistance to change, I utilize theories of identity and structural niches. In chapter (1), I explore different understandings of how identities and group identifications emerge and how they affect decision-making, attention, and change. The "problem of identity" is that identity under stress is often little more than a loosely coupled collection of conflicting impulses. In chapter (4), I try to explain why my findings and others deviate from economic rationality. I review and analyze the wide discrepancy between prescriptive decision theory, ethics, and actual behavior. I then explain empirical findings from an evolutionary perspective.


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