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inequality and the sociological narrative

This is the fourth and final post in a blog forum about inequality and organizational theory (see parts 1, 2, and 3). Michael Piore of MIT’s Sloan School of Management and the Department of Economics wrote the post, and Brayden King provided a rather long-winded commentary.

Michael Piore

I share the concerns which a number of commentators have expressed here about the increasing inequality of income in the United States, but I see the income distribution as a symptom of a far more fundamental problem, the way in which we in the United States think about the economy and the capacity to manage and direct it through public policy.      Two basic ideas now dominate our thinking: The notion of human behavior as motivated by individual self-interest (usually the maximization of monetary rewards) and the competitive market as a template for organizing all social activity.  These are the starting point of standard economics, the foundations of a program of scientific research.  But in the United States they have become the foundations of a political program as well.  In  most of the rest of the world, that political program is called neo-liberalism, but the tenets upon which it rests are so buried in contemporary American consciousness that we don’t even have a particular word for this way of thinking.  They are widely accepted on the left and on the right of the political spectrum.  If there is a difference, it is that the left is willing to revisit and revise the distribution of income through taxes and transfers once the market has played itself out, although it has had only limited success in doing so.

It is not that the insights of economics, even as refracted through the neoliberal lens, are wrong; it is that they are so limited (and in those limits so constraining).  Sociology starts from a different set of insights about individual motivation and about social organization, and thus promises to open to the way toward a different set of visions about how we might structure the world in which we live, without sacrificing economic prosperity.  And for me at least, the main reason for drawing sociologists into economic debates is to expand those limits.

As an economist, it perhaps ill-behooves me to say exactly what the alternative sociological perspective is.  Indeed, there are probably several different perspectives that emerge out of the sociological vision.  But the version which appeals to me is that the behavior of individual actors in a social system is directed by the actors’ conceptions of their personal identities; that those identities are, in turn, embedded in a set of narratives which link the stories that individuals tell themselves about their own personal  lives to the identities (and historical narratives) of the organizations in which they live and work; and that these organizational narratives are ultimately linked to each other through a set of narratives about the larger society.  It is the attempt to be the persons that these narratives identify, to act out the roles which they define, that motivates the actors in the economy.  And it is these interlocking narratives—in addition to or possibly in place of, the market—which give the economy cohesion and direction.  This “sociological understanding” suggests that what holds together and permits the current income distribution is the narrative of neoliberalism.  What we need to create a more equitable and humane distribution is first the conviction that an alternative set of narratives is possible, and second to identify what such an alternative might be.

I worry that sociology is doing neither, that it has become distracted by a debate with economists about what determines individual incomes and is engaged in a project of showing that the market does not explain individual outcomes and that something else is at stake here (e.g., discrimination, social capital, even institutional isomorphism).  I worry that in the absence of a broader perspective—about how sociology explains individual behavior and social coherence—and an alternative narrative, the answer to the critique will simply be policies to increase the pressures of the competitive market until outcomes which conform to it are achieved.

An alternative to looking at particular incomes and components of the distribution is to look at other societies and/or other historical periods when a different set of outcomes was achieved.  Here I share with a number of analysts an interest in the earlier postwar decades, from 1945-1980, when incomes in the U.S. across the distribution rose at the same rate, a rate which was equal to the economy-wide rate of increase in labor productivity.  But what I find interesting about this period is not just that it offers a more equitable benchmark against which to measure the distribution of current income, one moreover in which the growth rate of the economy was markedly better than that of recent years.  But that this was not a market outcome.  The period was one in which there was substantial government action on behalf of the productivity standard.  There were legal controls and/or aggressive “moral suasion” in over half the years of these postwar decades.  And in those years when wage determination was nominally free (basically 1945-1950 and 1953-1960), it was conducted in the shadow of the statutory controls which had governed the process in World War II and the Korean War.   Particularly interesting is the way a common set of standards seemed to govern under apparently different policy regimes.  Where did these standards come from? What was the role of the different regimes in transmitting and sustaining them across time?   What kinds of narratives bound the economy together, gave it direction, and motivated the behavior of the actors within it?

Discussion by Brayden King

There was a time when sociology believed in progress, in the possibility of a social equilibrium that would optimize society’s resources and talents. Sociologists believed in modernity and, more importantly, in the inevitability of modernization. Norms and values were integrated in a broader societal system that led to stability and that over time progressed and favorably evolved. This was the view that captured much of post-World War II American sociology. Functionalist and modernization theories not only provided an optimistic and pretty description of society but they were also normative, indicating how society ought to evolve if things are to improve, if people are to be truly fulfilled. They provided a compelling narrative about America’s place in the world as the leader of intellectual and economic development. As Alexander noted, modernization theory, in particular, “functioned as a metalanguage that instructed people how to live.”  If sociology ever had a compelling narrative, it was during this period of intellectual development.

But the 1960s changed all of that. Following Jeffrey Alexander, “Sometime in the later 1960s, between the assassination of President Kennedy and the San Francisco ‘love’ summer of 1967, modernization theory died. It died because the emerging younger generation of intellectuals could not believe it was true” (1994, 175). A belief in modernization wasn’t the only aspect of sociology that died in the 60s (and it should be noted the 1960s in sociology lasted until the end of the 1970s). The overarching narrative about social equilibrium crumbled, as new sociologists found too much dysfunction in social life and too much inequity to believe the story that norms and values necessarily led to a good social order.  But rather than replacing this old narrative with a new one, the new sociologists who were transformed by the 1960s became a fragmented bunch that resisted “grand theory.” The new wave of theoretical dissenters in the post-Parsonian era was united only in that they distanced themselves from a normative/equilibrium-based theory and instead preferred a stance of, as Jeffrey Alexander called it, “moral criticism.” They were more likely to embrace the intellectual heritage of C. Wright Mills – a sociologist who was defined by his outsiderness to the discipline in the 1950s and 60s – than they were to trust their own advisors.

Much of this distrust was embodied in the very politics of the New Left, the political coalition to which many incoming sociologists belonged. The New Left was inspired by the civil rights movement and Students for a Democratic Society. They embraced social justice, hated social inequality, and found refuge in identity politics. They lacked an overarching philosophy, of course, (although some of the New Left affiliated themselves with Marxism and its structural formalism), which may have contributed to the theoretical fragmentation that occurred in sociology during the 1970s and 80s. The Old Left, a mix of liberalism, Communists, and labor organizers, seemed mostly irrelevant to the new wave of students and activists who made up the New Left. At best the Old Left seemed outdated; at worst, they were in collusion with mainstream institutions, of which the New Left was increasingly suspicious. Inasmuch as mainstream sociologists were regarded as part of this liberal establishment, the incoming wave of young sociologists believed the discipline promoted the status quo.

Existing theoretical perspectives, including those like Blau’s and Duncan’s theory of occupational stratification, were not critical enough. As McAdam discussed in Craig Calhoun’s Sociology in America, the “hard leftists” – i.e., the student radicals and Marxists – believed that sociological perspectives on stratification neglected “formal class relations and the structural properties of the economy,” while the “soft leftists – i.e., the espousers of identity politics, like the young feminists – believed stratification research failed to take into account the various dimensions of inequality, such as “race, class, and gender.” By bringing race and gender more directly to the forefront, the soft leftists pointed to deeply-engrained biases and forms of discrimination that couldn’t be accounted for in Blau and Duncan stratification models. Moreover, these new sociologists brought with them skepticism of the discipline itself. Sociology as a field was not exempt from racial or gender discrimination. Feminist sociologists of this generation hoped not just to add a variable or two to stratification analysis; rather, they hoped to transform the field by “putting women at the center of [sociological] knowledge,” per Stacey and Thorne. The value neutrality of their predecessors was laughable. Sociology couldn’t escape the politics of personal and public life. They imported their causes to sociology, which led to a proliferation of new ASA sections, like Sex and Gender (1973), Peace and War (1978), Marxist Sociology (1977), and Racial and Ethnic Minorities (1981).

Wallerstein argued that once you begin to peel away the conventional assumptions of sociology, sociologists had to pay attention to additional layers of power and inequality that had previously been ignored. American sociology was, and continues to be, U.S.-centric; however, growing up in the Cold War and their experience with Vietnam disabused the New Left of the notion that America was either a benevolent or even benign superpower that could be treated as an independent entity. The popularity of World Systems theory and comparative analysis in the 1970s reflects this increased need to situate American society in a global and historical context of complex politics and power relations. Suddenly the idea that we could treat a nation-state as a “society” seemed silly. Inequality existed across national boundaries and, importantly, these national actors were seen as implicitly involved in the perpetuation of disparities.

So, the overarching narrative of sociology no longer exists. We lack a single normative story about how society should be or how people should behave.  We lack a unified theory of inequality that cuts across levels of analysis or analytic categories.  Moreover, we lack a theory that can even tell us what the optimal level of inequality might be (is it politically correct to talk about optimal inequality in sociology?).  The fragmentation of our field makes it difficult to construct a persuasive narrative about inequality. Is that a loss for our field? Michael Piore makes the case, rightly I believe, that it puts sociologists at a disadvantage compared to economics, which has a compelling story that fits nicely with the neoliberal view of society and income distribution. Economists agree on a lot, although they share different views about the best policy interventions governments should take to make markets work optimally. The markets-work narrative is compelling to both policymakers and journalists. Sociology instead, with its proliferation of perspectives and internal fragmentation, cannot offer a similarly coherent story. Most sociologists would probably scoff at the idea that the discipline should seek to explain “social coherence,” let alone offer a normative theory of how to accomplish it while minimizing inequality.

What does sociology offer instead, especially as it relates to debates about inequality? It’s not as if sociology lacks good tools to address the problem of inequality. Despite the politicization of sociological analysis in the 1960s, one of the enduring traits of good sociological research that persisted was a strong emphasis in empirical research (what economists would call “applied” research). Sociologists, whether of the qualitative or quantitative variety, believe in facts and data. The hallmark of good research isn’t necessarily that it contributes to an overarching narrative, but rather that it tells us something about the social world that we didn’t know before. This is really important when we’re actually trying to find ways to solve social problems or when we’re trying to assess the actual consequences of inequality on social life. Finally, I would just add that there is nothing wrong with being a “moral critic” of society. If the main function of sociology is to be the gadfly that continually points out what is wrong and what needs to be fixed, then our field still serves an important purpose.  Sociology may not be very good at explaining how society ought to be, but we are pretty damn good at telling society what’s wrong with it. There’s value in that.

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December 2, 2012 at 11:05 pm

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