Tom Burns (sociologist)

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Tom Burns
1990s Tom Burns.jpg
Burns in the 1990s
Born16 January 1913 (2023-09-27UTC22:34:37)
Died20 June 2001 (2001-06-21) (aged 88)
EducationParmiter's Foundation School Bristol University
Notable workThe Management of Innovation, 1961; The BBC: public institution and private world, 1977
SpouseElizabeth Burns
Children5 (one son, four daughters)

Tom Burns FBA (1913 - 2001) was an English sociologist, author and founder of the Sociology department at Edinburgh University. [1] [2]


Early life

Burns was born on 16 January 1913 in Bethnal Green, East London. He attended Hague Street LCC elementary school and Parmiter's foundation school before reading English Literature at Bristol University. [3] [4]


A Fellow of the British Academy, [5] 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. This resulted in the 1961 book, "The Management of Innovation."

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." In 1964, he founded the Sociology department at University of Edinburgh.

The 1978 book "The Development of the Modern State: A Sociological Introduction" by Gianfranco Poggi [6] is dedicated to Tom Burns. He retired from the University of Edinburgh in 1981.


First published in 1961, 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 reviews of the book, ESRC News called it "one of the most influential books of organisation theory and industrial sociology ever written"; Christopher Lorenz at The Financial times noted "Written in refreshingly plain English, it is a riveting read and brims with insight after insight."

In 1977, he published The BBC: Public Institution and Private World. John Eldridge in the Independent observed "...The original work for this was done in 1963. To his surprise, an experience he described as "utterly mystifying", the BBC refused to allow him to publish. But in 1972 the decision was changed. Burns used the opportunity to bring the study up to date and show how administrative changes were impinging on concepts of work, public service and commitment to the BBC. It is a book full of thoughtful analysis and sharp insights." [1]

The last work he published during his lifetime in 1991 was an intellectual biography of Erving Goffman. Following his retirement from academic life in 1981, he worked on a comparative history of organization entitled Organisation and Social Order until his death in 2001.


Research reports

Journal articles and book chapters


Burns died on the 20th of June 2001.

In his obituary was published along with his unfinished manuscript said

"Tom Burns was one of those relatively rare people who not only study organisations and institutions but know how to build them. He created a department at the University of Edinburgh which more than 35 years later still to some extent reflects his skill in choosing colleagues with strong talents and skills across the board. He laid the foundation for the department's excellence, which is reflected in its high grades in the Research Assessment Exercises and Teaching Quality Assessments of recent years." [7]


His final book was a comparative history of organization entitled Organisation and Social Order but it was never fully completed. The unfinished manuscript has been published online, [8] together with a complete list of published writings. [9] His work on the BBC has been referred to in the 2016 book, The BBC Myth of a Public Service. [10]

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  1. 1 2 3 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.
  3. "Professor Tom Burns". The Independent. 19 August 2001. Retrieved 24 November 2020.
  4. McCrone, Frank Bechhofer and David (28 June 2001). "Obituary: Tom Burns". the Guardian. Retrieved 24 November 2020.
  5. Fellows [ dead link ]
  6. Press, Stanford University (1978). The Development of the Modern State: A Sociological Introduction | Gianfranco Poggi. ISBN   9780804710428 . Retrieved 24 November 2020.{{cite book}}: |website= ignored (help)
  7. "Professor Tom Burns: Obituary and Appreciation". Retrieved 24 November 2020.
  8. "Professor Tom Burns: Organisation and Social Order". Archived from the original on 6 February 2017.
  9. "Professor Tom Burns: Published Work". Archived from the original on 6 February 2017.
  10. Mills, Tom (2020). The BBC: Myth of a Public Service. Verso Books. ISBN   978-1-78478-483-6.