predecessor selection in organizational theory
One of my favorite papers ever is Camic’s (1992), “Reputation and Predecessor Selection: Parsons and the Institutionalists” (see here for a previous post on the general subject matter). The paper has two general lines of argumentation, one empirical-historical, the other theoretical.
On the empirical front, Camic tackles the long held notion that the primary reason why Parsons “turned to the Euros” (Durkheim, Weber, Pareto, Marshall) as a way to establish the conceptual credentials of his theory of action was because the American intellectual scene of the period consisted of a an a-theoretical wasteland. Camic shows, that this thesis is simply not tenable. Autochotonous conceptual resources existed in the U.S. (including within the very American institutionalist economics that Parsons imbibed at Amherst) that were sufficient to mount an attack on (marginalist) utilitarianism and behaviorism. Thus, Parsons turn to the European masters cannot solely be explained by the reason that he gave, which was that they and only they had converged on a model of action that allowed sociology to transcend the aporias of psychological and economistic reductionism.
On the theoretical front, Camic uses his case study of Parsons to adjudicate between two models of what he refers to as “predecessor selection.” This is a choice that all intellectual entrepreneurs face when they are in the process of establishing a theoretical perspective. Predecessor selection is not just an optional adjunct to crafting a perspective, but a key component in any intellectual entrepreneurship project. Selecting the “right” predecessors is crucial, because the existence of predecessors provide a fledgling theoretical paradigm with the cognitive legitimacy required to outdo competitors.
What are these two models of the predecessor-selection process? One Camic refers to as the “content-fit” model and the other as the “reputational” model. The content-fit model claims that in scientific fields, intellectual entrepreneurs select predecessors based purely on considerations of conceptual content, and how well that content “fits” with the intellectual perspective that is being developed. The reputational model on the other hand, claims that issues of content are secondary (for one, what “some predecessor said” can–within some limits–always be molded to the focal creative project of the entrepreneur as the case of Parsons clearly shows), so what is primary is the reputation of a given set of predecessors on the intellectual entrepreneur’s local intellectual mileu. Ceteris paribus, high reputation predecessors will be selected over low (or uncertain) reputation ones, regardless of issues of content fit.
Not surprisingly, Camic argues that for the case of Parsons and Structure, the reputational model accounts for the historical facts, while the content-fit model leaves a lot to be desired. Various American theorists existed that could be used to establish Parsons’ charter, yet Parsons ignored them in favor of high reputation (in LSE, Heidelberg and Harvard) Euro-theorists. Furthermore, while Parsons claimed (in a letter to Jeff Alexander) that he had left out Simmel from TSA solely due to issues of content, it can also be argued that Simmel got cut due to his uncertain reputation in Parsons local intellectual environment. Thus the reputational model explains not only the European/American difference, but also processes of selection within the set of available European theorists themselves.
While Parsons is certainly today (as per one of this post’s tags) “obscure sociological theory” it is clear that the process of reputation selection happens all of the time in organizational theory. However, because we are all naive, “content-fit model” believers, we miss the (interesting!) reputational dynamics going on right under our noses.
Where do you need to look to see this PS dynamics at work in OT? Well, you need to look at the “grand” statements that introduce a “perspective”! For instance, it is clear that DiMaggio and Powell’s (1991) famous “Introduction” to the Orange Bible, can be interpreted as a giant job of predecessor-selection for the perspective (Bourdieu and Giddens). Prima Facie evidence that is consistent with Camic’s contention that this process is driven by intellectual reputation and not content, is Lounsbury and Ventresca’s (2003) brief for the “new structuralism” in organizational theory. Here, Bourdieu shows up as a predecessor of a paradigm in organizational theory that is in many ways opposed to the New Institutionalism of which, if we believe DiMaggio and Powell, he is also a predecessor. Camic’s reputational model of predecessor selection also explains why Giddens pretty much disappears from L & V’s radar: the reputational fortunes of Bourdieu and Giddens have experienced diametrically opposed trajectories in the American academy of late, with Bourdieu’s reputation soaring, and Giddens’s remaining flat (on this last count see Sallaz and Zavisca 2007).