Organizations as Coercive Institutions

Coercive organizations are the state’s instruments used to ensure safety and public order both of its borders and within its borders. As such, these organizations are authorized to approach the general public in a coercive manner and – in the last resort – they are legitimized to use force and violence against those who intend to harm the interests of the state and its citizens. The military, the gendarmerie (Carabinieri, Guardia Civil, Jandarmerie), and the police as well as fire guards and forest rangers all belong to this specific category of organizations. The police and fire guards traditionally have an internal role, whereas the military has as its primary task protecting the state against threats from abroad. However, these distinctions are not always and everywhere clear. In many countries, including in Western Europe, the military is sometimes called upon to perform internal tasks, whereas police officers increasingly are sent to distant regions outside their own nation state.

Coercive organizations are peculiar, in particular with respect to the way they treat their personnel. Personnel employed by coercive organizations are highly visible because of their uniforms; they are trained in specific educational institutions such as military, police, and firefighting academies; they are on permanent, 24 hour call with rather idiosyncratic working hours, whereby their leave is subject to cancellation; and the work in coercive organizations may be dangerous and potentially life threatening, for which reason personnel are usually armed or at least equipped with protective materials (Soeters 2000).

As the state’s instruments, coercive organizations need to be fundamentally non discriminatory toward citizens and as a principle they need to comply with decisions taken by elected politicians. If coercive organizations fail to do so, they threaten one of the cornerstones of modern democracy (Caforio 2003). In non democratic states, coercive organizations may – and indeed sometimes do – take over power if they deem the political situation to be dangerous to their country. The 1981 attack by a few Guardia Civil officers on the Spanish Parliament was the most recent incident in this respect to have occurred in Western Europe, but in many other parts of the world – particularly in Africa – such threats are still present.

Organizational Features

Coercive organizations are relatively isolated from society, although the level of isolation varies: clearly, the police are more a part of everyday societal life than the military or fire squads. Coercive organizations experience a strong communal life without much privacy, a condition that starts in the training institutes and is continued throughout the whole working career (Lang 1965). Personnel in coercive organizations know each other very well, their personal and working lives tend to overlap, and their career orientation is traditionally internally directed. For instance, traditional police force members tend to see themselves as cops for the rest of their lives. New personnel are frequently recruited from channels related to personnel already in the organization, such as family or friends. Hence, it helps if one has a father who is a police officer. In the military, female personnel very often marry colleagues from within their own organization, even from within their own unit. As such, coercive organizations’ cultures tend to be clearly more collectivistic than organizational cultures in civilian companies (Soeters 2000).

Furthermore, coercive organizations are known for their visible, steep hierarchies and elaborate organizational structures based on a strong, functional division of labor. These structural elements are formalized in documents containing detailed rules and regulations. However, who commands who can even be inferred from the insignia on the uniforms, and there is no discussion about this: rank equals authority. More than in civilian organizations, employees in coercive organizations are used to experiencing relatively high degrees of power asymmetry (Soeters 2000). Relatedly, they know that disobedience can result in overt punishment, and hence discipline is an ingrained characteristic of coercive organizations’ cultures. In addition, rules are important to avoid insecurity concerning how to implement the organization’s policies, and the use of violence in particular. The organizational output may impact on people’s life and death, and for that reason coercive organizations attract considerable political and social attention, through extensive coverage by the mass media.

Coercive organizations do not always maintain an action ready pose: fire guards even know the distinction between “cold” and “hot” organization, but that distinction applies to the police and the military as well. The “cold” organization obviously does not face the heat of fires and crises, and hence it comprises more white collar work (although performed in uniform), more planning, more meetings, paper work, quality and cost control as well as more bureaucratic politics. It is the world of the ”management cops” and the ”office generals.” As such, it conforms to the image of the classical bureaucracy. At the level of the rank and file, the ”cold” organization is continuously preparing for the worst case through exercises and simulations in garrison, barracks, or on routine sailing missions. Personnel in the ”cold” organization often complain about boredom, stimulus deprivation, perceptions of underutilization, and concerns for privacy. Such matters require specific leadership attention. To compensate for the lack of real action, the ”cold” organization attaches high significance to ceremonial practices such as parades and flag showing, events that – again – are based on discipline and obedience.

The ”hot” organization, on the other hand, is built around flexible groups having all the characteristics of either the simple (”one leader”) structure or – when explicitly based on self managing – the adhocracy. For employees in the ”hot” organization, local response and flexibility are more important than preplanned and ”packaged” solutions to problems. Street police officers as well as the military in action have a sense of territoriality (”this place belongs to us”), and they develop their own informal codes of conduct that stress safety, comradeship, but often also cynicism and suspicion (Tonry & Morris 1997). They are often full of ”us” and ”them” classifications: ”them” being the enemy, the criminals, the general public, the media, but also the managers in the ”cold” organization. Since personnel in the ”hot” organization generally are rather distressed, they need to stick together emotionally, creating outside groups to resist. Sometimes this leads to improper actions and malfeasance, such as corruption, discrimination, and even the beating up or killing of innocent people. Both the police and the military are occasionally accused of committing such crimes.


Like most other organizations, coercive organizations experience continuous changes in their task environment and are subject to influences exerted by society at large. First, coercive organizations are tending to become more active. Probably this is a result of an increasingly critical attitude among the general public that wants ”value for money.” The police, of course, have always been operational on a day to day basis, but fire guards, who used to wait for the next fire, are currently initiating activities to prevent fires and explosions. For instance, they develop educational programs to help the general public take preemptive measures to preclude dangerous situations. The European military has experienced similar developments since the end of the Cold War. Since the 1990s military forces from all around the world have increasingly been engaged in peacekeeping operations, such as in the former Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, and in various African regions. Being active on an everyday basis provides the military and fire guards with continuous ”reality checks” from outside the organization; nowadays they receive considerably more feedback than before. The general public, local populations, authorities, NGOs, the media, politicians, and other coercive organizations are all likely to circulate indications of the coercive organizations’ performance. According to organization theory (Adler & Borys 1996: 82-3), this particular situation will make the nature of coercive organizations less classically bureaucratic, i.e., less hierarchical and less based on strict compliance with detailed rules and orders from above. This situation, added to the geographical dispersion of the organization’s current activities, necessitates the transfer of responsibilities to lower levels in the organization. Hence, the bureaucratic character of the coercive organization is gradually becoming more ”enabling.” This implies that the rank and file in the organization will need to behave more autonomously and in a self steering way, albeit in concordance with the organization’s general philosophies, standard operating procedures, and frames of references. Such a development is not solely the result of organizational changes. The personnel’s increasing educational level is conducive to this development as well. In this way, coercive organizations, such as the military and fire guards, gradually will start to resemble the police and most civilian organizations, which have always been more influenced by reality checks from outside the organization.

A second development relates to the normative orientation of the employees. Coercive organizations’ employees have traditionally been motivated by the institution itself. The only thing that traditionally mattered in their working life was the military (or the police, or the fire guard) and the values for which it stood: the nation or constitution, the king or the queen, the safety of society and the general public. In the sociology of the military (Moskos & Wood 1988; Caforio 2003) this is indicated as the institutional orientation. On the other hand – and this seems to be a manifestation of modern times – employees increasingly tend to see working with the military (or the police or the fire guard) as ”just another job.” They are progressively becoming more oriented toward continuing their career outside the organization; they are increasingly striving for market wages; and they prefer to acquire educational qualifications that can also be utilized outside the organization. This attitude is labeled as the occupational orientation. It should be noted that this modern work orientation is not the result of changing attitudes among employees only. Increasingly, coercive organizations themselves – the military, in particular – want their personnel (service personnel and officers) to leave the organization after a specific contract period. Such a policy is part of a general organizational ambition to become more flexible and reduce labor costs.

A third development concerns the internationalization of the coercive organizations’ activities. When crime crosses borders, the police should deploy actions on a scale that goes beyond national borders. In the post 1990 era, military operations have become inherently international. The international character of an operation contributes to its legitimacy; furthermore, internationalization has become inevitable, because most of today’s downsized militaries are no longer capable of carrying out large operations independently. This implies that coercive organizations increasingly need to work together with organizations from other nationalities; such collaborations can also create greater legitimacy than if just one power dispatches its troops alone. The problems that arise correspondingly resemble the issues that civilian companies face when getting involved in a multinational merger or acquisition. It has been demonstrated that coercive organizations display their own national styles of organizing and operating (Soeters et al. 1995; Soeters 2000). The interaction between these various national styles need not necessarily be problematic, but if not well managed it may lead to frictions, misunderstandings, and even severe mutual blame behavior. One way to avoid such problems is to separate the various national organizations, allocating to each its own area of responsibility. This has been a dominant strategy in the former Yugoslavia. But often such a solution is impossible. In that instance, proper cultural awareness and sensitivity among commanding officers are required to prevent the operation ending in failure and fiasco.

Fourth, our world is increasingly becoming multicultural (Kymlicka 2001). Within nation states indigenous peoples, migrants, and other cultural minorities are strengthening their identities and claiming their citizen rights. These rights may concern language issues, religious affairs, educational policies, and media facilities. For the police and the armed forces this development has important consequences. Often, coercive organizations have not enlisted many representatives of these minority groups and, due to their lack of educational qualifications, those who are recruited generally do not attain the highest ranks. Until World War II, for instance, African Americans were not allowed to become pilots in the US Airforce, because they were not deemed talented enough to master the complex aircraft. Of course, such policies are highly problematic since they are inherently discriminatory, but they also damage the interests of the coercive organization itself because recruiting pools are reduced as a result (Soeters & van der Meulen 1999). It is hardly surprising that this US Airforce policy was banned as soon as the number of suitable candidates no longer met the increasing demand for pilots during the war. Even more questionable is another aspect. If minority groups are barely represented in the police or the armed forces, it is likely that the coercive organizations’ personnel are prejudiced toward those particular minority groups. This may lead to serious malfeasance when the coercive organization is called upon to take action with respect to these specific groups. In Bolivia such a situation occurred in 2003 when indigenous people protested against rising prices and unemployment; the army (having a better reputation than the police) was ordered to calm the situation, which they did by killing 100 protesting citizens. Since then, the government resigned and the new government has forced the military to open up its organization for young men and women from indigenous groups. In many other ethnic conflicts similar behavior by police and armed forces (including non intervention when one ethnic group attacks another) has been reported (e.g., Tambiah 1996).

A comparable but less problematic issue concerns the integration of women. Due to their affinity with violence and physical action, coercive organizations have always had the reputation of being “masculine” (Soeters & van der Meulen 1999; Caforio 2003). Clearly, until some 25 years ago armed forces, fire guards, and the police were largely the “playground” of men only. Even now, the number of women in the armed forces ranges from a negligible 1 percent (Italy, Turkey) to 15 percent (US). But these numbers are likely to increase, and the police currently have considerably higher numbers of women among their rank and file and commanding officers. This does not imply that problems with respect to the integration of women in coercive organizations are absent; sexual harassment still seems to be more prevalent than in civilian organizations, although its occurrence, if proven, is fiercely punished. However, this issue seems to pale in comparison with the integration of minority groups in coercive organizations.

Remaining Issues

Coercive organizations are in a process of permanent development. Issues with respect to effectiveness and efficiency still remain to be solved. The ratio between input of resources and output – preventing and fighting disorder -is usually vague and often perplexing. The Bolivian army, for instance, is twice as large as the Canadian or the Dutch armies, a size which is legitimized by reference to possible threats from neighboring countries which, in the past, have invaded the country, such as Chile in 1879 and Paraguay in 1932. There is another problem as well. The number of deployed military units or policing units on the street compared to personnel in the office (the “cold” organization) is frequently surprisingly low, a general complaint heard among the general public with respect to the police. As regards the western armed forces, it is an opinion often voiced by NATO officials. In general, remonstrations are expressed concerning the lack of coercive organizations’ flexibility. If the input-output ratio turns out to be too low, it implies that either the number of actions needs to increase or the resources on the input side could be cut. Hence, the current struggle against decreasing resources is likely to continue for most coercive organizations, not only in the western hemisphere.

Coercive organizations are subject to massive attention from the media, politics, and the general public. It is this fact, combined with an almost worldwide aversion to killing and getting killed (the latter is also known as casualty aversion), which restrains coercive organizations from acting in the way they were free to do in recent historical times. The US armed forces suffered 50,000 casualties during the Vietnam War (1975), a number far from being reached in the Iraq operations at the beginning of the twenty first century. People, especially mothers, but also unions, nowadays would never accept the loss of lives that they did only 30 years ago. It is a development that can be seen on a world wide scale, including, for instance, in Russia. If being killed is less acceptable than it used to be, killing is no longer an option either. Every action where not only bystanders but also enemies and criminals die (or are tortured) will be subject to scrutiny. Sometimes this leads to the disbanding of whole units, as happened with a Canadian airborne regiment that saw an innocent boy beaten up and killed during a mission in Somalia.

Permanent downsizing and the cry for more flexibility on the one hand, and an ever increasing critical general public on the other, lead to a situation where privatization of coercive activities tends to become a new solution in both the military and the armed forces (Tonry & Morris 1997; Singer 2004). Private coercive organizations are likely to be more flexible and less scrutinized by the media, politics, and the general public. As far as the military is concerned, private military companies have recently played decisive roles in actions in African and Middle Eastern regions. But those private coercive organizations evade the political and civilian control that democracies have always made a corner stone of their constitutional arrangements.


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