Berle and Means revisited: The governance and power of large U.S. corporations
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In The Modern Corporation and Private Property (1932), Berle and Means warned of the concentration of economic power brought on by the rise of the large corporation and the emergence of a powerful class of professional managers, insulated from the pressure not only of stockholders, but of the larger public as well. In the tradition of Thomas Jefferson, Berle and Means warned that the ascendance of management control and unchecked corporate power had potentially serious consequences for the democratic character of the United States. Social scientists who drew on Berle and Means in subsequent decades presented a far more benign interpretation of the rise of managerialism, however. For them, the separation of ownership from control actually led to an increased level of democratization in the society as a whole. Beginning in the late 1960s, sociologists and other social scientists rekindled the debate over ownership and control, culminating in a series of rigorous empirical studies on the nature of corporate power in American society. In recent years, however, sociologists have largely abandoned the topic, ceding it to finance economists, legal scholars, and corporate strategy researchers. In this article, I provide a brief history of the sociological and finance/legal/strategy debates over corporate ownership and control. I discuss some of the similarities between the two streams of thought, and I discuss the reasons that the issue was of such significance sociologically. I then argue that by neglecting this topic in recent years, sociologists have failed to contribute to an understanding of some of the key issues in contemporary business behavior. I provide brief reviews of four loosely developed current perspectives and then present an argument of my own about the changing nature of the U.S. corporate elite over the past three decades. I conclude with a call for sociologists to refocus their attention on an issue that, however fruitfully handled by scholars in other fields, cries out for sociological analysis.
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