Part 2

Formal Organizations

In April of 2004, images of Iraqi prisoners being humiliated and tortured began making their way into the mass media. These pictures were taken by American soldiers who were serving as prison guards in the Iraqi prison Abu Ghraib. They began to surface when one soldier received them from a friend and turned them in to his commanding officer. According to a report by investigating officer Maj.-Gen. Antonio Taguba, the abuses were the result of a lack of leadership and failure to train the soldiers properly on the rules of how to handle prisoners based on laws from the Geneva Convention.

Zimbardo’s experiment. Almost thirty years earlier, Philip Zimbardo had conducted an experiment in the Psychology Department of Stanford University. He wanted to understand what caused violence in prison, particularly violence between prison guards and prisoners. Zimbardo randomly selected a group of college men who had no previous criminal records to participate in the experiment. With the flip of a coin, each subject was assigned to the role of either prison guard or prisoner. The students were told what to expect in the coming weeks. Those who were selected as prisoners were picked up at their homes by actors posing as police. They were handcuffed, taken into the mock prison, and stripped of their former possessions. They were given a standard uniform to wear with their number printed on it. From that point on, they were referred to by the number rather than their names. The prison guards were given uniforms and told that they had to keep the prisoners under control but could not use physical force.

By the sixth day of the experiment, Zimbardo had to call off the experiment. The subjects had conformed to their roles to the point where some of the guards were humiliating the prisoners and abusing their power. Not only were the guards withholding food and bedding, but they were some of them forced the prisoners to mimic homosexual acts and other humiliating forms of abuse. Some of the guards began to play the role of the sadistic prison guard who enjoyed punishing disobedient prisoners. The prisoners also conformed to their roles and became passive. In the end, Zimbardo realized it was no longer ethical to force the young men to conform to their roles and to allow either guard or prisoner to be a part of the abuse that was taking place.

Both the military and the prison are considered to be formal organizations.formal organization is a large secondary group that is highly organized to meet a specific need. Both the military and prison are considered formal organizations. There are three types of formal organizations listed below:

  • coercive
  • utilitarian
  • normative

coercive organization is one that uses force to create a strict environment of rules and regulations. Once you enter a coercive organization, you are not allowed to leave unless under special circumstances. Membership is usually involuntary. There are strict rules that you must follow once you enter, and individuals usually go through the process of resocialization, being stripped of their former status as an individual and given a new identity. In the case of the Stanford Prison Experiment, the inmates were given a number rather than being called by their name. In the military, uniforms are worn and hair is usually cut short or kept pulled back and out of the way. Another example of a coercive organization is the mental hospital. In all of these examples, you will find that life is very routine, and rules are very important.

The military is a type of coercive

utilitarian organization is one that we join with a specific goal in mind. Sociologists point out that most people join this type of organization with a remunerative goal in mind. In other words, people are seeking to make money or to invest in their future. Examples of utilitarian organizations are businesses, corporations, colleges, and/or universities. A large percentage of Americans spend a great deal of time in this type of organization.

Last, the normative organization is one that individuals join in order to promote an important social cause. Most voluntary organizations are considered normative. Examples of normative organizations include The Sierra Club, the NAACP, the Junior League, MADD, and so on.

Not all organizations fit neatly into each typology. Usually, however, we can understand more about the nature of organizations by comparing each one to the three types mentioned above. While the military is coercive, there are also remunerative goals in mind when individuals join. This gives it qualities that match up with the characteristics of a utilitarian organization. Some might also join the military during war-time because they feel it is their civic responsibility. This matches characteristics of a normative organization as well. But when looking at all of the characteristics of the military, it fits in more with the typology of a coercive organization. There are rigid rules one must follow, it members are isolated somewhat from the rest of the population, and all of its members must undergo the process of resocialization. Therefore, we would consider it as a coercive organization.

Many of us assume that most formal organizations are well-oiled machines. Members of most organizations must follow rules and procedures in their everyday operations and most employees have been hired to work in them because they have received special training or because they possess the right credentials. However, as in any group, there is a chance that bad decisions are made. An informal culture can also be established in some organizations where law-breaking and dishonest practices become the norm.

One example of a condition that can occur in formal organizations is something known as groupthink. This is when poor decisions are made on behalf of an organization despite opposition. Groupthink often occurs when members of an organization are pressured to reach a consensus quickly. Examples of groupthink include the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and NASA’s decision to launch the Challenger Space Shuttle. In most of these cases, decisions were made hastily and group members were discouraged from opposing the views of the leaders. Irving Janis developed a theory about groupthink and pointed out that in most cases, the following conditions are present:

Prior Conditions

  • Isolated, cohesive, homogeneous decision-making group
  • Lack of impartial leadership
  • High stress environment


  • Closed-mindedness
  • Rationalization
  • Squelching of dissent
  • “Mindguards” or “Yes Men”
  • Feelings of righteousness and invulnerability

Due to the public nature of its decisions, examples of groupthink are more likely to be applied to government agencies. Can you think of a more recent example of groupthink?