Tom Burns (sociologist)

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Tom Burns FBA (born 1913, died 2001) was a prominent sociologist, author and founder of the Sociology department at Edinburgh University.[1][2]

Life and work[edit]

A Fellow of the British Academy,[3] Tom Burns was Professor of Sociology at Edinburgh University from 1965 to 1981,[1] and also taught at Harvard and Columbia.

He is best known for his studies of the organization of the BBC, local government, the electronics industry and the National Health Service. He also wrote on his experiences as a non-combatant prisoner of war in Germany during the Second World War.

His early interests were in urban sociology, and he worked with the West Midland Group on Post-War Reconstruction and Planning. While he was at Edinburgh his particular concern was with studies of different types of organization and their effects on communication patterns and on the activities of managers. He has also explored the relevance of different forms of organization to changing conditions - especially to the impact of technical innovation.

In collaboration with psychologist George Macpherson Stalker, Burns has studied the attempt to introduce electronics development work into traditional Scottish firms, with a view to their entering this modern and rapidly expanding industry as the markets for their own well-established products diminished.

He created a term mechanistic organization- and organismic (also called organic organization) organization.

He expressed his approach to research and expressed in the preface to the second edition of The Management of Innovation: "by perceiving behaviour as a medium of constant interplay and mutual redefinition of individual identities and social is possible to begin to grasp the nature of changes, developments and historical processes through which we move and which we help to create."

The book "The Development of the Modern State: A Sociological Introduction" by Gianfranco Poggi is dedicated to Tom Burns.


First published in 1961, Burns' The Management of Innovation remains one of the most influential books of organization theory and industrial sociology. The central theme of the book is the relationship between an organization and its environment - particularly technological and market innovations. The book presents the authors' classifications of "mechanistic" and "organic" systems. For this it became famous, but the book is also a penetrating study of social systems within organizations and organizational dynamics. In 1977 he published The BBC: Public Institution and Private World. His last work published during his lifetime was an intellectual biography of Erving Goffman. Following his retirement from academic life in 1981 he worked until his death in 2001, on a comparative history of organization entitled Organisation and Social Order. The work was never fully completed. The unfinished manuscript has been published online,[4] together with a complete list of published writings.[5]


  1. ^ a b Eldridge, John (20 August 2001). "Professor Tom Burns". The Independent. Retrieved 4 January 2009.
  2. ^ Frank Bechhofer; David McCrone (21 June 2001). "Tom Burns". The Guardian. Retrieved 4 January 2009.
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