Political Parties and Organization Studies

Emil Husted, Mona Moufahim, Martin Fredriksson

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Except for a few ‘golden’ decades during the post-war era (Mair, 1994: 2), political parties have always had a bad name (Rosenblum, 2008). Although the contours of modern party politics did not appear until the middle of the seventeenth century, when English politicians cautiously began forming parliamentary groups, key figures in Western thought from Plato onwards have shared a disdain for political factionalism, because it corrupts the pursuit of unity and harmony within society (Ignazi, 2017). Today, the strong antiparty sentiment holds sway, not only in academic circles, but also in the wider population were fewer than ever are registered party members (van Biezen et al., 2012). Voter turnout has similarly plummeted on globally since the middle of the twentieth century (Solijonov, 2016), while people’s trust in parties and politicians has hit rock bottom in the wake of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump (Newton et al., 2018).
Nonetheless, parties remain some of the most powerful organizations in contemporary society. Within contemporary political science, however, parties are typically studied in a somewhat constrained manner. Contrary to the way in which many organization scholars approach their study objects, political scientists interested in party organization usually stick to the ‘official stories’ provided by the parties themselves (Katz and Mair, 1992: 6). This means that the data available to political scientists rarely extends beyond authorized material such as organizational diagrams, legal statutes, financial statements, membership statistics, party manifestos, and rules for candidate selection (Scarrow et al., 2017). By sticking squarely to the official story, political scientists thus deprive themselves of the ability to study phenomena that are crucial to understanding the ‘inner life of the party’ (Barrling, 2013), as these phenomena often materialize ‘deliberately out of the public eye’ (Noel, 2010: 63).
All of this would be fine, of course, if only organization scholars would consider political parties worthy study objects. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Across the most prestigious and well-read journals in the field of organization and management studies, only a handful of articles address issues pertaining to political parties; and those that do often reproduce the approach found in political science by relying on the official story (Karthikeyan et al., 2015; Kenny and Scriver, 2012; Moufahim et al., 2015). Although these studies are clearly valuable in their own right, they fail to bring us closer to an understanding of the internal organization of parties. This omission is particularly striking, given the fact that a growing body of literature explores the inner life of many other types of
political organizations. Parties, however, remain almost entirely black-boxed.
In this paper, we not only call for more organizational studies of political parties, but also for a more ‘immersive’ approach to the study of party organization. By immersion, we refer to the research strategy of embedding oneself in the empirical messiness of political organizing. Immersion can be achieved in several ways, but participant observation is usually considered the ‘defining method’ (Kubik, 2009: 27). According to Schatz (2009), immersion contributes to the study of organized politics in at least four ways: It helps challenge generalizations, it expands the boundaries of what is normally considered political, it often leads to epistemological innovations, and it establishes a normative grounding. We concur and add that, by approaching what Mair (1994: 1) once called ‘the empirically grounded study of parties as organizations’ through a strategy of immersion, it is possible to learn something genuinely new about the politics of organization as well as the organization of politics. The primary purpose of this paper is to show precisely what and how we as organization scholars can learn from political parties.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publication11th International Critical Management Studies Conference “Precarious Presents, Open Futures”
Number of pages2
Place of PublicationMilton Keynes
PublisherThe Open University
Publication date2019
Publication statusPublished - 2019
EventThe 11th International Critical Management Studies Conference. ICMS 2019: Precarious Presents, Open Futures - The Open University Business School, Milton Keynes, United Kingdom
Duration: 27 Jun 201929 Jun 2019
Conference number: 11


ConferenceThe 11th International Critical Management Studies Conference. ICMS 2019
LocationThe Open University Business School
Country/TerritoryUnited Kingdom
CityMilton Keynes
Internet address

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