Organized Anarchies - Four fundamental ambiguities facing administrators

Dr. Donna L. Roberts
Photo by Jonas Jacobsson on Unsplash

Organizational theories attempt to depict the fundamental characteristics of an organization, including, structure, environment, and processes. Each differing theory provides a unique perspective for interpreting organizational culture and the basic ways in which individual and group behaviors are aligned within the organization.

Organized anarchies represent a fundamental concept in the larger garbage can theory of organizations, and have been characterized by problematic preferences, unclear technology, and fluid participation (Cohen, March & Olsen, 1972).

Educational researchers Michael D. Cohen and James G. March, argue that American colleges and universities represent a prototypical organized anarchy (1974). Specifically, they described institutions of higher education as “many autonomous actors operating with bounded rationality in an environment with ambiguous goals, an unclear link between cause and effect, and fluid participation with the activities and subgroups of the organization.”

They describe four fundamental ambiguities administrators (specifically college and university presidents) face that contribute to an organized anarchy (particularly in higher education).

1) Ambiguity of Purpose

In the realm of administration of higher education ambiguity of purpose exists in relation to the pervasive reality of goals that are dubious and vague, subsequently rendering them operationally meaningless. Often the goal statements generated for universities are so broad and idealistic that they fail to serve as a concrete guiding principle by which to conduct daily operation and/or planning or to establish and assess policy. Cohen and March (1991) state, “College presidents live within a normative context that presumes purpose and within an organizational context that denies it” (p. 400). By this statement they exemplify the oft-noted discrepancy between theory and practice. Nowhere in society is it more expected that both the system and the individuals who operate therein will be involved in the logical, orderly and rational pursuit of clearly defined and measurable goals than in education in general and higher education specifically. Ironically, nowhere else is the objectification of and consensus about shared goals more difficult to obtain. While the formal structure of the university is highly organized on the surface, its true nature is obscure, beginning with its basic declaration of mission and purpose. This contributes to the overall establishment of an “organized anarchy” because, “When purpose is ambiguous, ordinary theories of decision-making and intelligence become problematic” (p. 399).

2) Ambiguity of Power

Power, in general, is an intrinsically ambiguous concept. The most concrete aspect of power is that which is clearly delineated by a position – i.e., that which is outlined in a formal descriptive explanation of duties, responsibilities and benefits. However, this does not necessarily and unequivocally translate into “real” power. Furthermore, the reality in many complex organizations dictates that the individual with the highest position and/or the greatest amount of prescribed power (i.e., the university president) is responsible to a large constituency. This constituency typically holds a significant amount of true power, at least in the aspect of limiting unbridled authority of the designated individual. Additionally, the concept of power in publicly visible positions can often inadvertently equate to popularity, which is not necessarily demonstrative of the most effective leadership. Cohen and March (1991) refer to this as the “social validation of responsibility” and state, “Presidents negotiate with their audience on the interpretations of their power” (p. 401). Similarly, Cohen and March also point out that ambiguity of power can result in a corresponding ambiguity of responsibility – a fact that does not constitute the most effective management structure. Furthermore, they conclude that, “When power is ambiguous ordinary theories of social order and control become problematic” (p. 399).

3) Ambiguity of Experience

Ambiguity of experience with regard to the system of higher education refers to the process of learning and progressive decision–making within the context of the university’s administration. Because of the complex and ambiguous nature of the organization as a whole and the presidential position specifically, the normal process of learning through experience is less stable and less predictable. Therefore, the usual process of learning through experience and modifying behavior on the basis of feedback is tentative at best and completely inaccurate at worst. Cohen and March (1991) explain this in the following way, “Whenever the rate of experience is modest relative to the complexity of the phenomena and the rate of change in the phenomena, the interpretation made if experience will tend to be more persuasive subjectively than it should be” (p.402). This is analogous to the inaccurate practice of assuming causality between phenomena when statistics indicate a correlation. Such false conclusions lead to deceptive assumptions and further contribute to the overall “organized anarchy”. As expressed by Cohen and March, “When experience is ambiguous, ordinary theories of learning and adaptation become problematic” (p. 399).
Photo by Mikael Kristenson on Unsplash

4) Ambiguity of Success

Within the position of university president, ambiguity also exists based upon the generally accepted measures used to judge and evaluate success. As with other high-level positions, promotion is relatively unlikely for the university president. Additionally, the traditional assessment measures utilized in business (i.e., profit-loss analysis, attainment of objectives) are inappropriate, unavailable or intrinsically ambiguous themselves. As discussed in class, “In higher education the bottom line is that there is no bottom line” (Weber, lecture EDAH 5022, Dec 1999 Aviano). Even the concrete measures of a university’s success that do exist (i.e., increasing enrollment, quality of faculty, graduation rates) cannot be directly linked to the specific actions of administration but rather result from a complex interaction of many factors. Cohen and March (1991) suggest that, “the ambiguities of purpose, power and experience conspire to render success and failure equally obscure” (p. 403). Such ambiguity also contributes to the “organized anarchy” because, “When success is ambiguous, ordinary theories of motivation and personal pleasure become problematic” (p. 399).


Cohen, M.D.; March, J.G. (1974). Leadership and Ambiguity: The American College President. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Cohen, M.D.; March, J.G (1991). Leadership in an Organized Anarchy. In Peterson, M. W. (Ed.), Organization and governance in higher education, 4e. New York: Simon & Schuster Custom Publishing.

Cohen, M.D.; March, J.G.; Olsen, J.P. (1972). A garbage can model of organizational choice. Administrative Science Quarterly. 17 (1): 1–25. doi:10.2307/2392088

Comments / 1

Published by

Writer and university professor researching media psych, generational studies, addiction psychology, human and animal rights, and the intersection of art and psychology.


More from Dr. Donna L. Roberts

Comments / 0