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goal displacementthe process by which means designed to achieve goals become ends in themselves. The concept was first used by MERTON (1949) to explain how the inflexibility of formal rules can lead to individuals using tactics of survival which displace the official goals of an organization. Merton's example revealed how government officials tended to act in ways which protected their interests rather than served the public. A similar, classic, case study of goal displacement was identified in Selznicks research on the Tennessee Valley Water Authority (1966) which revealed that democratic ideals of the Authority were subverted by officials in furtherance of their own departmental interests. Although MICHELS (1911) did not use the term, his IRON LAW OF OLIGARCHY was an early example of goal displacement, represented by the conflict between democratic principles and bureaucracy.
The concept of goal displacement belongs to the language of functionalism and implies the existence of both ‘organizational goals’ and ‘dysfunctional’ activities. See also MANIFEST AND LATENT FUNCTIONS, BOUNDED RATIONALITY, DYSFUNCTION.
Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000