Bourdieu is everywhere in social theory these days. Ranging from practice theory to studies of taste and consumption, you can find Bourdieu lurking in the background and quite often taking center stage. Bourdieu may be the most blogged-about theorist here on orgtheory. He’s so easily transportable because of the generality of his concepts and because he wrote extensively on so many different things during his career. Given the expanse of his theoretical contributions, it can sometimes be hard to pin down Bourdieu as a theorist. The reason for this, suggests my prolific co-blogger Omar Lizardo in this commentary forthcoming in Sociological Forum, is that Bourdieu’s contributions to American sociology have occurred over various stages, creating multiple clusters of Bourdieuian-influenced theorists. Depending on which cluster you’re a part of, you’re getting a slightly different angle on the Bourdieuian perspective. I highly recommend reading Omar’s commentary for anyone who thinks they know (or would like to get to know) Bourdieu’s work. It helps put Bourdieu in historical context.
The final stage of Bourdieuian influence, which is an emerging trend Omar admits, is focused on embodiment, cognition, and action. Although he doesn’t mention it in the essay, I have noticed that a strong community in institutional theory has really grabbed on to this this aspect of Bourdieu. Institutional theory in the late 80s through the mid-90s was heavily influenced by Bourdieu’s field theory (Omar’s stage 2 of Bourdieuian influence), but in recent years institutional theorists have become less interested in the constraining aspects of field forces and more interested in how institutional change bubbles up from below, which places more emphasis on agency and reflexive cognition. Scholars interested in institutional entrepreneurship and institutional work (for example, read Lawrence, Suddaby, and Leca), in particular, seem to be drawing more and more from Bourdieu’s theory of practice. The attractiveness of practice theory is that you don’t have to completely shed your structural view of institutions and fields to develop an endogenous explanations for how people create local worlds of resistance and novelty. Although I think it’s fair to question how well executed many of these studies are, I’ve noticed that a large portion of institutional theory has moved from stage 2 in Omar’s depiction of Bourdieu to stage 3.
Perhaps this is the reason why I’ve heard so many grumblings from people in the institutional theory world about Fligstein’s and McAdam’s work on “strategic action fields.” The F&M conceptualization of institutions and change is still very stage 2 in its understanding of how actors are situated in a field and how fields evolve over time. But this no longer resonates with many institutional theorists, who have already moved beyond this conceptualization of institutions to a stage 3 model in which actors are embedded in multiple fields and possess more agency than the actors of a fixed field world. While the former view is more structural and deterministic, the latter view is more cognitive and stochastic. F&M do very little to bridge stage 2 with stage 3 Bourdieu (although one could argue, but they don’t, that the concept of “social skill” derives from practice theory).
Last week, the Social Science History Association had an “Author Meets Critics” panel about Michele Lamont’s book “How Professors Think,” which we’ve discussed here and here. Based on comments left by readers and my own impressions, I raised the following points:
- Lamont needs to”get tough” with respondents. It seems as if she accepts too much the ethos of “pragmatic professionalism” provided by the respondents. Consensus magically emerges in a room of rival disciplinary culture. That was Thomas’ point.
- Lamont needs to be more careful about what can be accomplished with an ethnography of that field site. The sort of multi-disciplinary consensus is an artifact of that field site. My point is that this is still extremely important. Elite fellowships can set the tone for the rest of the profession.
- Lamont needs to focus on outcomes. Does the creation of excellence have any tangible effects?
Summarizing, here are Professor Lamont’s responses:
- She uses introspection to inform her ethnography. Sure, people sometime have ulterior motives, but they also have other motives. As Benjamin Greer pointed out, this is also an attempt to move away from Bourdieu’s extremely skeptical view, where everything is a lie meant to promote social status. Lamont then aligned herself with Boltanski on that point. Since I am not knowledgeable about Boltanski, I am not sure exactly how that theory gets you beyond the habitus theory. Well versed orgheads should chime in here.
- She did acknowledge that the original title was “Cream Rising,” which suggests a study of elite choice making instead of a broader study of academic culture.
- I can’t remember if she addressed outcomes, but it certainly is a great future project.
Other panelists raised different issues. Steve Epstein raised the issue of generalizability (see point #2); Regina Werum wanted more analysis of the grant screening process; James Evans claimed that Lamont’s quantitative analysis is not as informative as it appears, at least when using information theoretic measures. If you were there, or want to add one last word on the book, please use the comments.
In this post, I want your opinion on the following social theory conjecture: Bourdieu’s sociology is successful because it draws on three of the four main streams of modern sociology. To see why I might say this, consider the following summary of Bourdieu’s main concepts:
- There are “social fields” – socially constructed domains defined by a type of action (e.g., the state, the arts, the market).
- These domains of action have their own “capital” – resources that can be used to further one’s position and create more resources (see Sean’s post).
- These domains also have hierarchies based on the creation and destruction of field specific capital, and even “doxa,” the range of what can be expressed within a social field. In other words, a field is a whole bunch of things.
- Habitus – the deeply help dispositions that reflect an individual’s internalization of the rules and values associated with that domain.
- All of this is terribly endogenous (“self-structuring structrues… yada yada“).
If you buy this thumbnail sketch – and it omits much – then you can easily see that Bourdieu’s theory is highly constructionist. It’s also fairly obvious that he draws on critical theory – Marxian class analysis is obviously one inspiration for how he views capital and habitus (think of “class culture” in Distinction).
The more controversial claim is that Bourdieu draws on a very basic form of rational choice theory. If you read Introduction to Reflexive Sociology, Bourdieu is asked whether this is true and he just says the comparison is off base. I think Bourdieu is sort of wrong, but not totally. Specifically, he responds to Becker’s rational choice theory and I think Bourdieu is correct in drawing the distinction. The homo economicus is very different than the mood driven habitus. Explicit calculation is simply not the main variable of Bourdieu’s theory.
On the other hand, striving for status and attention is an implicit, ecological view of strategic behavior. Field based actors do strategically try to defend their turf using their resources, even if they ways they do it are not always conscious or well articulated. I call this “ecological” competition because biological and social ecology theories depict actors who must compete over space/resources with inherited traits/strategies that do emerge from conscious calculation.
The final claim of this post is that Bourdieu pretty much circumvents a fourth type of sociology – the values/institutions/social structure stream associated with the old & new institutionalists, Parsons, and network analysts. It’s pretty obvious that he’s not a big fan of functionalism or of any theory focusing on the links between values and orgs/networks/institutions. For him, the hierarchy is the principal model of social organization and hierarchies are just visible manifestations of who has the capital. Sociology is about explaining who’s making and breaking these hierarchies and using the capital. If you really believe that, there’s not much point in talking about networks, decoupling, logics, or any other stuff associated with the values & structures branch of sociology, even though Bourdieu gets many “respect citations” from that crowd.
So, orgheads, a fair assessment of Bourdieu? Post your reactions in the comments!
A little while ago at the Michigan orgtheory seminar, Michele Lamont spoke about her research on how professors evaluate things. Her big theoretical goal was to argue against the Bourdieu/Collins view, which is that academics are competing with each other for position (Bourdieu) or attention (Collins). She argues that her analysis of how people make judgments in fellowship competitions shows that there’s more to academic life than competition. Overall, I agree. Academia is about more than jockeying for power.
At the same time, I was skeptical and asked a question. I asked if her case – fellowship and grant evaluation panels – was idiosyncratic. Lamont’s answer (rephrased): No, this is is not idiosyncratic. Academia is built on evaluation panels – graduate admissions, hiring, tenure and promotions. This happens all the time.
There’s a potentially huge intellectual confrontation coming up between two schools of strat/inequality researchers, if it’s not already happening. It’s about rival explanations of family effects on achievement. Here’s the skinny:
- According to the Bourdieu/cultural capital crowd, family affects lifecourse by either (a) providing young people with knowledge and behaviors that give them an advantage in school (e.g., taking your kid to the museum) and (b) using class privilige to protect/guide your kids in school. See Annette Lareau’s famous work on this second point.
- The Heckman/psychometric crowd is starting to congeal around the idea that families affect how people concentrate. The main claim is that socio-emotional skills are a big predictor of how kids do in school. Basically, achievement is IQ + concentration. Then they conjecture that families are a big input into socio-emotional skills. If your family is disruptive, then it undermines your performance because you simply can’t/won’t concentrate.
Now, the question is how to relate these explanations. Personally, my guess is that #2 is probably a stronger explanation of macro trends in acheivement, but #1 is a better explanation of microvariation. For example, position #1 is not able to explain the fact that some low status groups (e.g., Asian immigrants) were able to acheive much with little insider knowledge of American schools. The concentration thesis easily explains how Asian immigrants - through just forcing their kids to just pay attention – can get pretty far in the system. It also explains variation in Asian performance – they do well in math, not language. Math ed research indicates that repitition and concentration are the big factors in math skill acquisition, while language and reading is much more culturally based.
In contrast, #2 doesn’t explain differences among groups that put out equal levels of concentration. For example, why are Asians over represented in technical elite education, but not in other areas of the academy, such as the humanities? If they can wing nuclear engineering, why aren’t they over represented in English departments? Part of the reason is that they probably lack the social capital to navigate non-technical areas. There’s more to be said here and I’d be interested in other takes on this issue.
Bourdieu is often cited in organizational studies, but references to Bourdieu, as Omar noted, are usually symbolic gestures meant to bring legitimacy to projects. The real Bourdieu, the sociologist interested in power dynamics and culture, is less often found in our American theories of organizations. This point is made strongly by Mustafa Emirbayer and Victoria Johnson in a recent paper published in Theory and Society, “Bourdieu and organizational analysis.” Emirbayer and Johnson argue that the theorization of Bourdieu’s contribution to organizational theory has been incomplete because it has failed to fully utilize the Bourdieuian concepts – the theoretical triad – of field, capital, and habitus. Since the publication of DiMaggio and Powell (1983) the concept of field has become highly central to organizational theory, particularly in institutional theory, but the authors argue that an understanding of fields is incomplete (and perhaps shallow) without linking it to capital and habitus. Because of this, our theoretical understanding of fields has become detached from Bourdieu’s central insight – that fields are the locations of massive, historical struggles for power.
Emirbayer and Johnson provide a good overview of how Bourdieuian concepts might be more fully utilized in organizational research. The paper is well worth reading. Here are some highlights from the text:
Social network studies, not to mention other approaches often taken to task by Bourdieu, are to be faulted only insofar as they deny that the truth of interactions is to be found always (at least partly) outside those interactions themselves (pg. 10).
For some reason we have been preoccupied with Eric Leifer of late. From Kieran re-interpreting strong performativity in Leiferian terms, to Brayden dredging up some obscure papers, to a synchronized response by Brayden and Fabio to the effect that the cure to dealing with the subjects that are hard to explain in contemporary social science is “robust action” (the concept of robust action is Padgett and Ansell’s (1993) elaboration of Leifer’s (1988) idea of “local action”).
There is good reason to be preoccupied with Leifer. He offers the closest that there is in network structuralism to a “practice theory.” That is a theoretical account, not derogatory to the lay actor, that tell us how networks are “performed” by skillful social agents (as Fabio and Brayden noted, Fligstein has attempted to do something similar for the institutionalist structuralism). It would be no surprise if accounts similar to Leifer had been “adumbrated” (in the Mertonian sociology of knowledge sense) by other practice theorists. I offer you one such adumbration.
Here is a Leiferian quote from The Logic of Practice which might interest econ soc heads out there:
…the anthropologists…would have been less inclined to use the language of the mechanical model [potshot at Levi-Strauss] if, when considering exchange, they had thought not only of the potlatch or the kula but also of the games they themselves play in social life, which are expressed in the language of tact, skill, dexterity, delicacy or savior-faire, all names for practical sense; and exchanges in which hermeneutic errors are paid for instantly, such as the exchange of blows, discussed by George H. Mead (1962: 42-43), in which each stance of the opponent’s body contains cues which the fighter has to grasp while they are still incipient, reading in the hint of a blow or a sidestep the future that it contains, that is, the blow or a ‘dummy’ [fake].
Returning to polite conversation, a stereotyped linking of stereotypes, they would have discovered the unceasing vigilance that is needed to manage this interlocking of prepared gestures and words; the attention to every sigh that is indispensable, in the use of the most ritual pleasantries, in order to be carried along by the game without getting carried away by the game beyond the game, as happens when simulated combat gets the better of the combatants; the art of playing on the equivocations, innuendos and unspoken implications of gestural verbal symbolism that is required, whenever the right objective distance is in question, in order to produce a refusal, and to maintain uncertainty about intentions that always hesitate between recklessness and distance, eagerness and indifference. One thus only has to go back to one’s own games, one’s own playing of the social game, to realize that the sense of the game is at once the realization of the theory of the game and its negation qua theory (Bourdieu 1990: 81).
Sociology is a contact sport, but the really good sociologists, like all other skillful social actors, don’t really have to make contact (all of the time).
When I visited Millsaps College a few weeks ago, I got into a discussion about international relations theory with my host, political scientist Michael Reinhard. I asked him why we (social scientists) needed to study famous political leaders, like Julius Caesar or Winston Churchill. His argument was intriguing. He said that highly successful social actors have often spent a lot of time understanding their social world. They are good at what they do – international relations in this case – because, at the very least, they have an intuition about the world that is important and correct. Some, like Churchill, will even explain their views to others. In other words, political scientists should study great leaders because great leaders actually understand power fairly well.
In sociology, we have no such argument, but it is worth thinking about. We are resistant to great leader stories and for good reason. Great man stories often devolve into hero worship, or they rely on “Whig” history. But that doesn’t mean Great people scholarship is not without use. For example, what did Steve Jobs understand about markets that management scholars should learn? Or, a more sociological example, what does a great religious leader understand about religion that sociologists of religion should know? Taking a turn from Bourdieu, we could look at any social field, identify the “masters,” and then use them as research sites where we can understand how the field is put together.
Last week, I argued that there was kind of a big problem in modern sociology: one of our dominant macro theories is highly inconsistent with many of our favorite micro theories. If we look at various popular account of individual action in cultural sociology (e.g., toolkit theory), many don’t produce isomorphism.
Here’s the outline of the argument:
- The gist of institutional theories of isomorphism is that people working in org fields experience pressures for conformity. If you don’t follow a pre-existing cultural script, you can’t run your organization.
- For this argument to work, you need to assume that people respond to their environment in fairly uniform ways.
- In the original D&P ’83 article, in the hypotheses section, they admit variance when status orders are weak. Otherwise, the prediction is when status orders are well established, or when high status actors propagate norms, you get conformity.
- Different authors offer different social psychological mechanisms. D&P ’83 and ’91 (the intro) often appeal to a wide range of scholarship to justify isomorphism. They appeal to Berger and Luckman, as well as Bourdieu. You can also concoct a rational choice version, which is consistent with resource dependency arguments.
- If you actually read the fine print of these social psychology theories, most do not predict isomorphism, except Bourdieu’s habitus theory. For example, Berger and Luckmann’s book describes how people develop a stock of knowledge that defines their social reality. Fair enough. But nowhere do B&L ever say that this social reality is highly uniform, resistant to change, or otherwise offer a mechanism that acts as an iron cage. The slip is that “taken for granted” is interpreted as “hard to challenge.” Look at Griswold’s theory of cultural objects, or Zelizer, and it’s all about local constructions of meaning. Does not imply isomorsphism. Another case is rational choice institutionalism, where you set up a game theory model to predict norm following. Fair enough, but you have lots of hidden assumptions – uniform agents, low enforce costs, etc. Drop these and you get heterogeneity. Indeed, what you get is from the way less popular Meyer and Rowan ’77 institutionalism.
Of course, I am not the only person who noted these issues. DiMaggio’s idea of the inst entrepreneur is one attempt to get around this problem. The Clemens and Cook ’99 note that even iron cage institutionalism only predict stasis if you assume perfect reproduction. Admit imperfect reproduction and the theory breaks down. In the 2000s, the focus shifted to logics, institutional work, and conflict/movements. Substantively, it’s an implicit rejection of earlier institutional. Theoretically, it’s (almost) a complete reworking of the theory. These may not be institutionalist in the sense of the 70s or 80s, or even early 90s, but at least it is consistent with how many sociologists describe motivation and action.
Ok, let’s start with the Coleman diagram (or the “bathtub” as they call it in Germany). For institutionlaism, the two “macro” states are culture and isomorphism in an organizational field. That’s what the macro states are in DiMaggio and Powell ’83 or world polity theory.
Now, take your favorite micro sociological theory – maybe you are a Swidlerian toolkit person, or a Goffmanian frame theorist, or a Bourdieu habitus person. Then, complete the Coleman diagram. Except for habitus theory, you’ll notice that a lot of these theories don’t really produce isomorpshism on the macro level.
This weekend, Omar wrote a detail post about the “depth” of culture, the degree to which some idea is internalized and serves as a motivation or guide for action. I strongly recommend that you read it. What I’d like to do in this post is use Omar’s comments as a springboard for thinking about organizational behavior.
The reigning theory in sociology of organization is neo-institutionalism. The details vary, but the gist is that the model posits a Parsonsian theory of action. There is an “environment” that “imprints” itself in organizations. Myth and Ceremony institutionalism posits a “shallow imprinting” – people don’t really believe myth and ceremony. Iron cage institutionalism takes a very “deep” view of culture. Actors internalize culture and then do it.
Omar posits, I think, is a view of culture that is constitutive (you are the ideas you internalize) and interactive (your use of the idea modifies the cultural landscape). Omar wants to get away from the metaphor of “deep” vs. “shallow” culture. He also discusses dual process theory, which merits its own post.
What is important for organization theorists is that you get away from Parsons’ model:
Note that conceptually the difference is between thinking of “depth” as a property of the cultural object (the misleading Parsonian view) or thinking of “depth” as resulting from the interaction between properties of the person (internalized as dispositions) and qualities of the object (e.g. meaning of a proposition or statement) (the Bourdieusian point).
The implication for orgtheory? Previously, the locus of orgtheory has been the “environment” – all the stuff outside the organization that people care about. That’s highly analogous to “culture” getting internalized deep within the individual. Thus, different institutional theories reflect a deep/shallow dichotomy. If you buy Omar’s post-Swidler/post-Giddens view of things, then what is really interesting is the interaction creating at the point of contact between environment and organization. Orgs don’t passively await imprinting. Rather, there is variance in how they respond to the environment and there is interesting variation in the adoption/importation of stuff from the environment.
The issue of whether some culture is “deep” versus “shallow” has been a thorny one in social theory. The basic argument is that for some piece of culture to have the requisite effects (e.g. direct action) then it must be incorporated at some requisite level of depth. “Shallow culture” can’t produce deep effects. Thus, for Parsons values had to be deeply internalized to serve as guiding principles for action. Postulating cultural objects that are found at a “deep” level requires we develop a theory that tells us how this happens in the first place (e.g. Parsons and Shils 1951). That is: we need a theory about how the same culture “object” can go from (1) being outside the person, to (2) being inside the person, and (3) once inside, from being shallowly internalized to being deeply internalized. For instance, a value commitment may begin at a very shallow level (a person can report being familiar with that value) but by some (mysterious) “internalization” process it can become “deep culture” (when the value is now held unconditionally and motivates action via affective and other unconscious mechanisms; the value is now “part” of the actor).
One thing that has not been noted very often is that the “cultural depth” discussion in the post-Parsonian period (especially post-Giddens) is not the same sort of discussion that Parsons was having. This is one of those instances in cultural theory where we keep the same set of terms—e.g. “deep” versus “shallow” culture–but change the parameters of the argument, creating more confusion than enlightenment. In contrast to Parsonian theorists, for post-Giddensian theorists, the main issue is not whether the same cultural element can be found at different levels of “depth” (or travel across levels via a socialization process). The key point is that different cultural elements (because of some inherent quality) exist necessarily at a requisite level of “depth.”
These are not the same sort of statement. Only the first way of looking at things is technically “Parsonian”; that is Parsons really thought that
…culture patterns are [for an actor] frequently objects of orientation in the same sense as other [run of the mill physical] objects…Under certain circumstances, however, the manner of his [sic] involvement with a cultural pattern as an object is altered, and what was once an object becomes a constitutive part of the actor” (Parsons and Shils 1951: 8).
So here we have the same object starting at a shallow level and then “sinking” (to stretch the depth metaphor to death) into the actor, so that ultimately it becomes part of their “personality.”
Contrast this formulation to the (post-Giddensian) cultural depth story proposed by Sewell (1992). According to Sewell,
…structures consist of intersubjectively available procedures or schemas capable of being actualized or put into practice in a range of different circumstances. Such schemas should be thought of as operating at widely varying levels of depth, from Levi-Straussian deep structures to relatively superficial rules of etiquette (1992: 8-9).
Sewell (e.g. 1992: 22-26), in contrast to Parsons, decouples the depth from the causal power dimension of culture. Thus, we can find cultural schemas that are “deep but not powerful” (rules of grammar) and schemas that are powerful but not deep (political institutions). Sewell’s proposal is clearly not Parsonian; it is instead (post)structuralist: there are certain things (like a grammar) that have to be necessarily deep, while other things (like the the filibuster rule in the U.S. Senate) are naturally found in the surface, and need not sink to the level of deep culture to produce huge effects. Accordingly, Sewell’s cultural depth discussion should not be confused with that of the early Swidler. Swidler (circa 1986) inherited the Parsonian not the post-structuralist problematic (because at that stage in American sociology that would have been an anachronism). Her point was that for the thing that mattered to Parsons the most (valuation standards) there weren’t different levels of depth, or more accurately that they didn’t need to have that property to do the things that they were supposed to do.
The primary aim of recent work on dual process models of moral judgment and motivation seems to be to revive a modified version of the Parsonian argument. That is, in order to direct behavior the point is that some culture needs to be “deeply internalized” (as moral intuitions/dispositions). However, as I will argue below the very logic of the dual process argument makes it incompatible with the strict Parsonian interpretation. To make matters even more complicated we have to deal with the fact that by the time we get to Swidler (2001) the conversation has changed (i.e. Bourdieu and practice theory happened), and she’s modified the argument accordingly. She ingeniously proposes that what Parsons (following the Weberian/Germanic tradition) called “ideas” can now be split into “practices + discourses.” Practices are “embodied” (and thus “deep” in the post-structuralist sense) and discourses are “external” (and thus shallow).
This leads to the issue of how Bourdieu fits into the post-Parsonian/post-structuralist conversation on cultural depth. We can at least be sure of one thing: the Parsonian “deep internalization” story is not Bourdieu’s version (even though Bourdieu used the term “internalization” in Logic of Practice). The reason for this is that habitus is not the sort of thing that was designed to give an explanation for why people “learn” to have “attitudes” (orientations) towards “cultural objects” much less to internalize these “objects” so that they become part of the “personality” (which is, by the way, possibly the silliest thing ever said). There is a way to tell the cultural depth story in a Bourdieusian way without falling into the trap of having to make a cultural object a “constituent” part of the actor but this would require de-Parsonizing the “cultural depth” discussion (which is something that Bourdieu is really good for). There is one problem: the more you think about it, the more it becomes clear that, insofar as the cultural depth discussion is a pseudo-Parsonian rehash, there might not much left after it is properly Bourdieusianized.
More specifically, the cultural depth discussion might be a red herring because it still retains an implicit allegiance to the (Parsonian) “internalization” story, and internalization makes it seem as if something that was initially subsisting outside of the person now comes to reside inside the person (as if for instance, “I disagree with women going to work and leaving their children in daycare” was a sentence stored in long-term memory to which a “value” is attached.
This is a nice Parsonian folk model (shared by most public opinion researchers). But it is clear that if, we follow the substantive implications of dual process models, what resides in the person is not a bunch of sentences to which they are oriented; instead the sentence lives in the outside world (of the GSS questionnaire) and what resides “inside” (what has been internalized) is a disposition to react (negatively, positively) to that sentence when I read it, understand it and (technically if we follow Barsalou 1999) perceptually simulate its meaning, which actually involves running through modal scenarios of women going to work and leaving miserable children behind). This disposition is also presumably the same one that may govern my intuitive reaction to other sorts of items designed to measure my”attitude” towards other related things. I can even forget the particular sentence (but keep the disposition) so that when somebody or some event (I drive past the local daycare center) reminds me of it I still reproduce the same morally tinged reaction (Bargh and Chartrand 1999; Bargh and Williams 2006).
Note that the depth imagery disappears under this formulation, and this is for good reason. If we call “dispositions to produce moral-affective judgments when exposed to certain scenarios or statements in a consistent way through time” deep, so be it. But that is not because there exist some other set of things that are the same as dispositions except that they lack “depth.” Dispositions either exist in this “deep” form or they don’t exist at all (dispositions, are the sorts of things that in the post-Giddensian sense are inherently deep). No journey has been undertaken by some sort of ontologically mysterious cultural entity to an equally ontologically spurious realm called “the personality.” A “shallow” disposition is a contradiction in terms, which then makes any recommendation to “make cultural depth a variable” somewhat misleading, as long as that recommendation is made within the old Parsonian framework. The reason why this is misleading is because this piece of advice relies on the imagery of sentences with contents located at “different levels” of the mind travelling from the shallow realm to the deep realm and transforming their causal powers in the process.
If we follow the practice-theoretical formulation more faithfully, the discussion moves from “making cultural depth a variable” to “reconfiguring the theoretical language so that what was previously conceptualized in these terms is now understood in somewhat better terms.” This implies giving up on the misleading metaphor of depth and the misleading model of a journey from shallow-land to depth-land via some sort of internalization mechanism. Thus, there are things to which I have dispositions to react (endowed with all of the qualities that “depth” is supposed to provide such as consistency and stability) in a certain (e.g. morally and emotionally tinged) distinct way towards. We can call this “deep culture” but note that the depth thing does not add anything substantive to this characterization. In addition, there are things towards which I (literally) have no disposition whatever, so I form online (shallow?) judgments about these things because this dorky, suit-wearing in July interviewer with NORC credentials over here apparently wants me to do so. But this (literally confabulated) “attitude” is like a leaf in the wind and it goes this or that way depending on what’s in my head that day (or more likely as shown by Zaller 1992, depending on what was on the news last night). Is this the difference between “shallow” and “deep” culture? Maybe, but that’s where the (Parsonian version of the) internalization language reaches its conceptual limits.
Thus, we come to a place where a dual process argument becomes tightly linked to what was previously being thought of under the misleading “shallow culture/deep culture” metaphor in a substantive way. I think this will “save” anybody who wants to talk about cultural depth from the Parsonian trap, because that person can then say that “deep= things that trigger moral intuitions” and “shallow=attitudes formed by conscious, on-the-fly confabulation.” Note that conceptually the difference is between thinking of “depth” as a property of the cultural object (the misleading Parsonian view) or thinking of “depth” as resulting from the interaction between properties of the person (internalized as dispositions) and qualities of the object (e.g. meaning of a proposition or statement) (the Bourdieusian point).
First, of all I’d like to thank Neil Fligstein for guest blogging on orgtheory. Acknowledging his contribution has been long overdue. He wrote a series of really provocative and intriguing posts about his new book, A Theory of Fields (see here and here), which spurred an intense discussion about the various strands of institutional theory, the role of agency and change in institutional theory, and the strategic orientation of actors. Rather than rehash that debate I wanted to step back and offer my own take on what I see as some of the most important (potential) contributions of field theory to organizational scholarship.
Even though in his posts Neil framed the book as a response to institutional scholarship, I think the book has more ambitious, broader designs. Their book tries to integrate various research strands and subfields – including, but not limited to, institutional theory and social movement theory – and offer a unified theory of fields and action. In this light, they have more in common with John Levi Martin (JLM), who has written his own treatise on fields and social action, than they do with the hordes of institutional scholars. (Their view of fields certainly owes more to Bourdieu than it does to DiMaggio and Powell’s concept of organizational fields.) They are attempting grand theory in a way that is rarely done in contemporary sociology. The grandness of their theoretical lens is apparent once you consider that they mean for it to apply not only to markets or industries but also to fields that exist within organizations or that describe relations between social movement activists.
The major difference between them (F&M) and JLM or other field theorists is the way they conceptualize fields as sites of collective action (strategic action being the most important form of collective action that actors take to reproduce or change fields). In contrast, JLM is more interested in fields as sites of social action, period. According to F&M, the major problem that faces actors in any field – whether you’re talking about American corporations seeking to deregulate an industry or parents addressing the education needs of their children – is figuring how to cooperate and take collective action so that they can gain advantages over contending groups. Engaging in collective action in order to get an advantage is the motivation that drives field formation, struggle, and change. A strong version of their theory would suggest that changes in meaning systems, rules and norms, or institutional settlements are endogenous to these strategic struggles. In fact, the field itself can be seen as situational, inasmuch as it forms around struggles over ideas and standing. Fields only exist inasmuch as there is some sort of collective action.
Hi, Tom Medvetz here, checking in with my fourth OrgTheory guest post (posts 1, 2, and 3 here). Today I’ll sketch a few notes about one of the big issues my book speaks to: the complex relationship between social knowledge and public action in the US. Perhaps the best-known debate on this topic is the one associated with Russell Jacoby’s 1987 book, The Last Intellectuals, which famously lamented the disappearance of “public intellectuals” from American life. In the years since its publication, Jacoby’s book and the idea of the “public intellectual” have earned enormous attention from journalists, pundits, and scholars.
However, reading over some of the major entries in this debate, it’s hard to shake the feeling that the “public intellectual” discussion has yielded more heat than light. In the first place, it’s striking how much disagreement still attends the central question a quarter-century later: Is public intellectualism declining or thriving in America? It depends on who you ask. Three days ago, Henry Giroux’s Counterpunch essay “The Disappearance of Public Intellectuals” seemed to take the basic truth of Jacoby’s thesis for granted. Meanwhile, many other writers have taken the opposite stance by arguing that public intellectuals are alive and well in the US. A good example is Daniel W. Drezner’s 2008 paper “Public Intellectuals 2.0,” which maintained that “the growth of online publication venues has stimulated rather than retarded the quality and diversity of public intellectuals.”
A second glance at this debate reveals a likely reason for the disagreement. Put simply, there has never been any consensus about the proper definition of the term public intellectual. In fact, it’s fair to say that how a given writer operationalizes the term tends to determine where he or she stands on the issue.
Hi, Tom Medvetz here with Round 2 of my guest stint at OrgTheory.
Here’s a trivia question for you: What do actors George Clooney, Angelina Jolie, and Warren Beatty share in common with former heads of state Mikhail Gorbachev, Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush, and Eduard Shevardnadze?* If you guessed that they’re all members of the Council on Foreign Relations—the think tank with arguably the greatest impact on American foreign policy since its founding in 1921—then you’re correct. Here’s a related query: What does an aging film star like Arnold Schwarzenegger do with himself after having already dabbled in such varied pursuits as bodybuilding; marrying a Kennedy; serving two-terms as governor of California, and alternately threatening and then protecting the human race in its battle against time-traveling cyborgs?†
The answer, of course, is to start a think tank. This week, “the Governator”—together with the University of Southern California—launched the Schwarzenegger Institute for State and Global Policy, a bipartisan center focused on five policy areas: “education, energy and environment, fiscal and economic policy, health and human wellness, and political reform.”‡
“I’ll be back… –ing public policies and conducting research on matters of broad political and economic importance.”
Against all odds, some sort of “think tank chic” seems to have developed in the U.S. in recent years.§ How should we interpret this? And in general, how might we think about a think tank’s role within the broader social relations of power?
On these questions, consider again the Council on Foreign Relations, whose current membership roster includes luminaries from the worlds of business (e.g. Richard Branson, Frederick W. Smith)¶; media (Roger Ailes, Rupert Murdoch, Oprah Winfrey, David Geffen, and Brian Grazer); academia (political scientist Peter Katzenstein, economist Martin Feldstein), and politics. In the latter category are numerous former National Security Advisers (Zbigniew Brzezinski, Henry Kissinger, Colin Powell); past and present Supreme Court Justices (Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sandra Day O’Connor); and former Secretaries of State (Madeleine Albright, Hillary Clinton, Condoleeza Rice).
At first glance, CFR would seem like an organization drawn directly from one of C. Wright Mills’ fevered nightmares—the very nerve center of the “power elite.” It should not be surprising, then, that the first major scholarly studies of think tanks were conducted in the 1970s by political sociologists following closely in Mills’ tradition, including G. William Domhoff. And as anyone familiar with the “power elite” perspective would guess, these scholars portrayed think tanks as instruments in a more or less coordinated ruling class project. (The Council Foreign Relations in particular, in these studies, became something like the Bohemian Grove of the Upper East Side.)
In my recently-published book on think tanks, however, I argue that this view is too simplistic. Crucially, however, I don’t revert to the perspective that became the standard alternative to elite theory in the 1970s and ‘80s: namely, the pluralist approach associated with scholars like Nelson Polsby and Robert Dahl. When the pluralists studied think tanks, they tended to depict them in more or less opposite terms—as lofty sanctuaries for independent reflection and analysis. A “true think tank,” wrote Polsby, “obliges its inhabitants to follow their own intellectual agendas.”**
I agree with the elite theorists on two key points: first, that class interests have a clear primacy in shaping the social relations in which think tanks are embedded; and second, that most think tanks are (and always have been) unambiguously elite in their composition. What’s my quarrel with the elite theory approach, then?
Two things: In the first place, I’d point out that while most of the key figures in the think tank world are indeed elites (however you like to define the term), their organizations never simply represent the “ruling class” as a whole—only specific fractions of it. Put differently, after a certain point, the breadth of the elite concept becomes a major hindrance. The more we expand our notion of “the elite” to include all of the relevant fractions, the less we can simply take for granted their affinity.
Which fraction(s) of the elite think tanks represent, and in what proportions, are always the relevant questions.
Second, the modality of the encounter among think tank-affiliated elites is never one of simple harmony, but also one of “horizontal” struggle. Specific elite subgroups collaborate in the making of think tanks, but often in the context of struggles against other elites. Even within specific think tanks, cooperation often accompanies internecine struggles for control over an organization’s agenda.
Both of these points suggested to me the need for a more open-ended, historical approach. As I show in the book, the most influential think tanks of the postwar era (like the Brookings Institution) were built on partnerships of politically moderate capitalists, aspiring civil servants, and a technocratic fraction of the intelligentsia. In matters of economic policy, they were typically Keynesian—which, crucially, placed them in opposition to certain other elites, especially businessmen committed to an aggressively free market vision of capitalism and libertarian economists. However, the latter groups flooded the think tank arena in the 1970s and ’80s and became its dominant figures.
In the book, I break with the Millsian approach by replacing the elite concept with the idea of the field of power. (Briefly, this is Pierre Bourdieu’s term for the social space in which powerful agents and groups collaborate and compete to determine which resources will be considered the most legitimate and valuable in modern societies.) Applied here, the purpose of the concept is to encourage us to think about think tanks as sites of collaboration and struggle among holders of various forms of power. At stake in the encounter isn’t just the accumulation of power (as the elite theorists would have it) but the relative values of its different forms (e.g. money, bureaucratic authority, political expertise, social scientific knowledge, and, increasingly, media access and publicity).
Gene Sperling (JD, Yale University and director, U.S. National Economic Council) and Angelina Jolie (star of Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life) discuss “Iraq, Education, and Children of Conflict” at an April 2008 Council on Foreign Relations event.††
This point brings us back to my original question: Why are think tanks suddenly popular among celebrities, journalists, media moguls, and others who control access to the means of publicity? I believe the trend is indicative of a broader shift in American politics toward growing responsiveness to the media. I’ll return to this theme in a future post, but for now let me recommend two recent books on the topic that deserve more attention: Ron Jacobs and Eleanor Townsley’s The Space of Opinion and Jeffrey Alexander’s The Performance of Politics.‡‡
* Shevardnadze was president of the republic of Georgia from 1995 to 2003.
† Or so I gather from the extraordinarily convoluted Wikipedia synopses of the four Terminator films, three of which featured Schwarzenegger, and only one of which I remember actually watching from start to finish. More vivid in my memory, however, is Schwarzenegger’s synergistically brilliant appearance as the T-800 cyborg in the 1991 Guns N’ Roses video for “You Could Be Mine” (which was also included on the Terminator 2: Judgment Day soundtrack).
‡ The quote is from “USC and Arnold Schwarzenegger Announce New Institute on State and Global Policy.” Retrieved on September 26, 2012.
§ I say “against all odds” because of the manifestly boring work carried out at most think tanks. I remember, for example, the reply given to me by one of my thesis advisers, Jerry Karabel, who was already quite knowledgeable about think tanks, when I suggested doing ethnographic observation at a think tank: “Okay, but I’m just afraid that it would be kind of like watching paint dry.”
¶ Not to mention CFR’s extensive corporate membership list.
** Nelson Polsby. 1983. “Tanks but no Tanks.” Public Opinion April/May: 14–16, 58–59.
†† To be fair, Ms. Jolie has served as a United Nations Goodwill Ambassador, a role that was critical in securing her CFR membership. On the other hand, I have no idea what Warren Beatty did to earn his invitation to CFR (or whether it involved Carly Simon).
‡‡ Bonus trivia question: I did not plan, and am powerless to explain, the emergent film motif in my OrgTheory posts thus far (starting here). And while I should probably rein it in a little, let me point out that the title of this post refers to another late 1980s movie—and that the first commenter to name that movie will earn the title “Distinguished Fellow of Film Policy Studies” at my think tank, should I ever start one. (No Google-cheating allowed.)
I thought I would continue my postings on the Fligstein/McAdam book. This time I would like to take up what I consider to be three really important ideas in the book that are the most likely to get the least attention. These are new insights in the book that do not just represent a synthesis of previous work but new ways of thinking about how fields are structured.
All of these ideas are important because they feed research agendas that have so far been underexploited in field studies. They do this in two ways. First they help make the connections between existing streams of research and the theory of fields which many scholars will simply miss. Second, the field theory developed in the book provide concepts to help empirical work look for and consider the important causal effects of particular features of fields that have so far not been studied. As I said in an earlier posting, theories are observation laden. So, theories that don’t look for things just won’t find them. Let me start more micro and work more macro.
The chapter in the book that has most surprised people who have read it is the one on social skill. I have previously published two versions explicating the idea of social skill and the role it plays in field formation and reproduction. These ideas have spread widely and get invoked mostly to explain how new fields come into existence as skilled strategic actors manage to create unique political coalitions by framing and the use of new identities.
Blogs work when there’s a solid community of readers and writers. We’ve been blessed with both. If you haven’t checked in for a while, look at these great discussions by leading scholars and the quality comments by readers:
- Neil Fligstein on the theory of fields, with comments by Useem and Goldstone. Update: Check out the Thornton, Ocasio, and Lounsbury response as well.
- Our two week forum on relational work. Start with Fred and Nina’s intro, and a new post by Fred Block. There will be a lot of good posts in this series.
- Rob Robinson and Nancy Davis discuss their recent book on religious movements and civil society.
Coming up on orgtheory: in September, a review of Gabriel Rossman’s book on the radio industry and in October we’ll do our book forum on Andreas Glaeser’s Political Epistemics book. And don’t forget guest posts by Jenn Lena, Katherine Chen, and Brandy Aven.
In the comments on my discussion of Reed’s recent social theory book, Andrew Perrin wrote “the only thing Bhaskar and Postmodernism actually have in common is that Fabio finds them distasteful, or complicated, or something like that.” Yes, exactly. Different ideas, but they are both cryptic and often wrong. Critical realism and post-modernism were mentioned in my post because they indicate the type of literature that Reed often appeals to. Sometimes Reed appeals to types of scholarship that are clearly written and are valuable, at other times he appeals to types of literature that are obscurantist.
When I evaluate scholarship, I focus on whether it is true, insightful, and informative. By this account, post-modernism fails in because it is simply wrong and hard to read. For example, a common claim of post-modernism is that we have a “decentered self,” a claim that flies in the face of research showing the relative stability of personality over the life course.
I also distrust critical realism because it is extremely cryptic. Let’s take the following Bhaskar quote, which won Philosophy and Literature’s 1996 prize for worst academic writing:
Indeed dialectical critical realism may be seen under the aspect of Foucauldian strategic reversal — of the unholy trinity of Parmenidean/Platonic/Aristotelean provenance; of the Cartesian-Lockean-Humean-Kantian paradigm, of foundationalisms (in practice, fideistic foundationalisms) and irrationalisms (in practice, capricious exercises of the will-to-power or some other ideologically and/or psycho-somatically buried source) new and old alike; of the primordial failing of western philosophy, ontological monovalence, and its close ally, the epistemic fallacy with its ontic dual; of the analytic problematic laid down by Plato, which Hegel served only to replicate in his actualist monovalent analytic reinstatement in transfigurative reconciling dialectical connection, while in his hubristic claims for absolute idealism he inaugurated the Comtean, Kierkegaardian and Nietzschean eclipses of reason, replicating the fundaments of positivism through its transmutation route to the superidealism of a Baudrillard.
It says a lot if you beat out continental philosophers and literary critics. This is the Usain Bolt of bad writing.
I’m willing to deal with tough texts if there’s a pay-off. For example, I have long found Bourdieu to be valuable because once you peel away the wordiness, there’s interesting and testable hypotheses about status and social behavior. But when I peel away the layers of the critical realist onion, I am only left with tears.
A long time ago (like in the 1990s), I remember reading that a major question among Bourdieu folks was the issue of how capital developed in one field was deployed in other fields They key issue was how economic capital could be converted into cultural capital in non-commercial social domains. I asked Brother O about this, and he provided a few citations to recent stuff. I think there is more out there, buried in the European social theory literature, but I am not sure where to start. Is Brother O right in that this wasn’t discussed much, or is my memory correct and there is a discussion of cross-field capital conversion out there?
Field theory is of general importance in the social sciences because it provides a way to balance tendencies toward structural determinism and agency as well as micro and macro scales of analysis. There are many theory traditions of field sociology, and F&M provide a discussion of some of them, but in terms of accumulated symbolic capital such as citations, Bourdieu’s field theory is clearly the leader and arguably the most intellectually significant point of comparison. Having found a somewhat loose appropriation of Bourdieu’s field sociology to be valuable in the study of science, technology, social movements, and society, I am sympathetic with F&M’s use of Bourdieu’s work and willingness to modify it as they see fit.
In summary, the book is likely to have considerable influence for many reasons, including the symbolic, temporal, and social capital of the authors in the field of sociology and their interest in connecting diverse approaches to the concept of fields in several subfields of sociology. Their project explicitly resists the tendency for researchers in, for example, organizational sociology to develop field theories without the benefit of similar work going on in economic sociology and social movement studies. Thus, they see the concept of strategic action fields as enabling a broad intra- and interdisciplinary conversation with related conceptual frameworks, such as work on organizational fields, games, networks, and policy domains and systems.
Several people have pointed out Neal Caren lists of most cited works. I appreciate how hard it is to do something like this and I appreciate the work Neal Caren has done. So my criticism is intended more to get us closer to the truth here and to caution against this list getting reified. I also have some suggestions for Neal Caren’s next foray here.
The idea, as I understand it, is to try and create a list of the 100 most cited sociology books and papers in the period 2005-2010. Leaving aside the fact that the SSCI under counts sociology cites by a wide margin, (maybe a factor of 400-500% if you believe what comes out of Google Scholar), the basic problem with the list is that it is not based on a good sample of all of the works in sociology. Because the journals were chosen on an ad hoc basis, one has no idea as to what the bias is in making that choice. The theory Neal Caren is working with, is that these journals are somehow a sample of all sociology journals and that their citation patterns reflect the discipline at large. The only way to make this kind of assertion is to randomly sample from all sociology journals.
The idea here is that if Bourdieu’s Distinctions is really the most cited work in sociology (an inference people are drawing from the list), then it should be equally likely to appear in all sociology articles and all sociology journals at a similar rate. The only way to know if this is true, is to sample all journals or all articles, not some subset chosen purposively. Adding ASQ to this, does not matter because it only adds one more arbitrary choice in a nonrandom sampling scheme. .
I note that the Social Science Citation Index follows 139 Sociology journals. A random sample of 20% would yield 28 journals and looking at those papers across a random sample of journals is going to get us a better idea at finding out which works are the most cited in sociology.
Is there any evidence that the nonrandom sample chosen by Neal Caren is nonrandom? The last three cites on his list include one by Latour (49 cites), Byrk (49 cites) and Blair Loy (49 cites). If one goes to the SSCI and looks up all of the cites to these works from 2005-2010, not just the ones that appear in these journals, one comes to a startling result: Latour has 1266 cites, Bryk, 124, and Blair Loy 152. At the top of the list, Bourdieu’s Distinctions has 218 on Neal Caren’s list but the SSCI shows Distinctions as having 865 cites overall. Latour’s book should put him at the top of the list, but the way the journals are chosen here puts him at the bottom. It ought to make anyone who looks at this list nervous, that Latour’s real citation count is 25 times larger than reported and it puts him ahead of Bourdieu’s Distinctions.
The list is also clearly nonrandom for what is left off. Brayden King mentioned that the list is light on organizational and economic sociology. So, I did some checking. Woody Powell’s 1990 paper called “Neither markets nor hierarchies” has 464 cites from 2005-2010 and his paper with three other colleagues that appeared in the AJS in 2005, “Networks dynamics and field evolution” has 267 cites. In my own work, my 1996 ASR paper “Markets as politics” has 363 cites and my 2001 book “The Architecture of Markets” has 454 from 2005-2010. If without much work, I can find four articles or books that have more cites than two of the three bottom cites on the list (i.e. Byrk’s 124 and Blair Loy’s 152 done the same way), there must be lots more missing.
This suggests that if we really want to understand what are the most cited and core works in sociology in any time period, we cannot use purposive samples of journals. What is required is a substantial number of journals being sampled, and then all of the cites to the papers or books tallied for those books and papers from the SSCI in order to see which works really are the most cited. I assume that many of the books and papers on the list will still be there, i.e. things like Bourdieu, Granovetter, DiMaggio and Powell, Meyer and Rowan, Swidler, and Sewell. But because of the nonrandom sampling, lots of things that appear to be missing are probably, well, missing.
Neal Caren has compiled a list of the 102 most cited works in sociology journals over the last five years. There are a lot of familiar faces at the top of the list. Bourdieu’s Distinction, Raudenbush’s and Bryk’s Hierarchical Linear Models, Putnam’s Bowling Alone, Wilson’s The Truly Disadvantaged, and Grannovetter’s “Strength of Weak Ties” make up the top 5. It’s notable that Grannovetter’s 1973 piece is the only article in the top 5. The rest are books. I was also interested to see that people are still citing Coleman. He has three works on the list, including his 1990 book at the number 6 spot. Sadly, Selznick is nowhere to be found on the list (but then neither is Stinchcombe). Much of the work is highly theoretical and abstract. There is a smaller, but still prominent, set of work dedicated to methods (e.g., Raudenbush and Bryk). I’m glad to see there is still a place for big theory.
It’s striking, however, how little organizational theory there is on the list. Not counting Granovetter, whose work is really about networks and the economy broadly, no organizational theory appears on the list until 15 and 16, where Hochschild’s The Managed Heart (which might be there due to the number of citations it gets from gender scholars) and Dimaggio’s and Powell’s 1983 paper show up. There are several highly influential papers in organizational theory that I was surprised were not on the list. One could deduce from the list that sociology and organizational theory have parted ways.
I don’t think this is really true, but I think it speaks to some trends in sociology. The first is that most organizational sociology, excluding research on work and occupations, no longer appears in generalist sociology journals outside of the American Sociological Review and the American Journal of Sociology. Journals like Social Forces or Social Problems just don’t publish a lot of organizational theory. Now, there are a lot of great organizational papers that get published in ASR and AJS, but that is a very small subset of the entire population of sociology articles. The second is that Administrative Science Quarterly no longer seems to count in most sociologists’ minds as a sociology journal anymore. Perhaps its omission leads to some significant pieces of organizational sociology being underrepresented (or perhaps not since ASQ publishes fewer articles than many of the sociology journals). To be fair to Neal, I don’t think he’s unique among sociologists as failing to recognize ASQ as an important source of sociology.* One reason for this, I’m guessing, is because a lot of non-sociologists publish in it. But a lot of non-sociologists publish in other journals that are on the list as well, including Social Psychological Quarterly, Mobilization, and Social Science Research. Another reason may just be that it’s because a lot of organizational sociology is no longer taking place in sociology departments, making the subfield invisible to our peer sociologists. Although I have no data to support this, my intuition is that fewer organizational theory classes are taught in sociology Phd programs today than were taught twenty years ago. Because of this, younger sociologists are not coming into contact with organizational theory, and so they are not citing it. Again, I have no evidence that this is the case.
I don’t think organizational research is waning in quality. A lot of organizational research still gets published in ASR and AJS. But a lot of it is probably not read or consumed by most sociologists.
UPDATE: Neal has updated the analysis to include ASQ. The major effect has been to boost DiMaggio and Powell to number 10.
*And yes, I’m lobbying Neal to include ASQ in future citation analyses.
A recent study provides evidence for a strong effect of biological factors on social behavior. A new article in the journal Pediatrics describes how newborn infants accurately infer their parents’ socio-economic status. From the discussion section of “Social Class Out of the Womb: An Autoethnography of Parent-Newborn Visual Cues:”
“From the moment they open their eyes, newborns can tell if their mother had no other options and was forced to settle for their father, or if their father is a sad sack who has no friends and gets drunk on a single glass of chardonnay,” said researcher Dr. Stuart Lindstrom, explaining that despite their blurry vision, infants can still identify basic loser body types, and have specialized olfactory receptors allowing them to detect the odor of failure.
Given that day old infants haven’t been socialized yet, this is a compelling reason to believe that all people possess an evolved and innate “universal social grammar” that allows people to accurately infer social structure from a handful of facial expressions. Our readers will recognize this as the main prediction of the Chomsky-Bourdieu conjecture, which synthesizes Baguette Theory and Generative Semantics.
Of course, not all sociologists accept the validity of this study. Andrew Perrin of the University of North Carolina said such studies are “an exercise in shoveling fog.” In his blog, Satoshi Kanazawa, a strong defender of sociobiology, said in response to Perrin: “If your baby thinks you are a loser, that’s your problem. If your baby thinks Andrew Perrin is a loser, that’s Andrew’s problem.” The original study in Pediatrics can be read here.
We’ve had some nice discussions of high quality ethnography. Here’s my question: which ethnographies have been responsible for introducing a new theoretical ideas into sociology? For example, I do know that early in his career Bourdieu did ethnography and his early theory was inspired by his field work. What other ideas have been brought into sociology this way? I want to distinguish between ethnography as thick/insightful description (e.g., more details on urban poverty) and ethnography as an argument for a new concept.
Conceptions of what we mean by “agency” abound and are unlikely to constitute a single manageable notion (some ritualistic citation to Emirbayer and Mische would go here). Instead, something like the notion of agency is probably a complex, “radial category.” This means that when we take a position on the various versions of the “agency/structure” or any sort of analogous “debate” we end up having unrelated arguments that use similar words, and sometimes the same argument using different words. More deleteriously, we end up speaking in code, so that instead of saying what we mean in specific terms, we develop the bad habit of speaking in “generics” such as agency versus structure. Positions taken in terms of these generics have a socio-logical function in the field (they serve as emblems of membership in groups and schools) but analytically they leave us at the level of a low cognitive equilibrium, one which is pretty hard to shake out from (which is why it seems like we’ve been having the same conversation for like fifty years now).I think one productive way to proceed is to use a disagreggation and specification strategy, whereby we isolate all of the various sub-arguments that we are having under the agency/structure debate guise (this is roughly the strategy that John Martin used in Social Structures in regards to that concept). After disagreggation and specification we may then have it all out at this lower level of abstraction. Arguments at this level will be bound to be more productive, because here hopes for adjudication regarding the desirability and coherence of one position over another are actually much higher than they would be if we stay at the level of ghostly generics.
So, one thing that I think has been meant by agency in the history of social theory is simply freedom to conceptualize the world in a way that is not dictated by the objective features of the world. While the term agency usually has an affinity to “freedom” (as in freedom of the will or freedom to do whatever you want), so that in a lot of debates agency is conceptualized as freedom of action, I think that one of the core meanings (or the most consequential meaning in the history of various influential debates in social theory) is not about freedom to act but about freedom to think or as I will refer to this from now on, as freedom to conceptualize. So agency is simply freedom of cognition from objective aspects of the world, or more precisely the agent’s freedom (insofar as our cognitive capacities are constitutive of our status as agents) to conceptualize the world in alternative ways. One can recognize this as a strictly Kantian version of what we mean by “agency” and that is no accident. For it is clear that it was the strand of social theory that begins with German-Idealism and which emphasized the creative and constitutive capacities of the subject to conceive of the world in particular ways that injected the most consequential version of the agency problematic in social theory. Under this model, the individual is “free” insofar as the way in which some state of affairs is conceptualized is not completely determined by some sort of non-negotiable feature of the world (e.g. its materiality or brute facticity). Instead, a conceptualization emerges from a negotiation between features of the world and aspects of cognition that are decidedly contributed by the conceptualizer. This mean that a simple inspection of the objective features of the situation is not sufficient to predict the way in which that situation will be understood (read conceptualized) by a person. In this sense, to say that there agency is a property of persons is to say that they have “freedom to” construe a given state of affairs in ways that are not a function of extra-cognitive features of that state of affairs.
As Parsons well understood, a theory that denies agency (or that denies “voluntarism” in his antiquated language) would be a theory that by-passes the mental, or to use more contemporary language, would be a theory that by-passes cognition (or in Weberian terms, a theory that says that ideas don’t matter). In Parsons there were three examples of such theory: instinct theory (biologism), radical behaviorism (environmental determinism) and neo-classical economics; he called all of this stuff “positivism” even though that had nothing to do with how the term had been understood in nineteenth century thought. Regardless, Parsons was right in thinking that any theory that made the cognitive a determinate product of the non-cognitive by definition got rid of the element of “freedom” in action (which he sometimes confusingly referred to as the “value-element”); the reason for that is that–thanks to Kant—in the social theory tradition the only source of freedom left to the person was the freedom to conceptualize the world in a way that was not determined by non-negotiable features of the world. That’s why the “material” is the site of non-agency and the mental (or the cognitive/ideal) is where “agency” resides.
So one way to specify the whole “agency” thing is to actually argue about this rather than about agency: does your actor model makes conceptualization indeterminate given some state of affairs or does it constrain the actor to conceptualize the world in a single way (e.g. the way that “reality” really is). Parsons understood that any theory that reduced cognition to “objectivity” was “positivist” in the sense that it left the actor no conceptual choice to construe the world in independence from non-cognitive features of the world. In neo-classical economics the world is only one way (the way described by “modern science”) and if the actor did not have this conceptualization then by definition the actor was irrational. That’s why in Parsons work (but curiously not in our versions of his debates) there was a clear connection between agency and “the problem of rationality.” Parsons dilemma was that the only theory that had a normative conception of rationality did not leave room for agency (positivism in its neo-classical incarnation) while the only theory that left room for agency (freedom to think otherwise) when taken to its ultimate conclusions resulted in a irrationalist premise (a form of cultural and cognitive relativism). We still haven’t solved that one, but it would be helpful to bring the rationality debate to the fore again.
Note that a lot of “social construction” talk (and debate) has the same structure. So another advantage of what I propose is that disagreggates and re-specifies that debate. I think the term social construction is terrible and misleading. First, if you’ve read Berger and Luckmann you know that it is missing a few words. What they really mean by this phrase is the cognitive construction of (the sense of) reality with categories of thought of social origin. This mouthful is of course unwieldy, but underscores their achievement. In some respects the B&L respecification of the problematic ended up being a better synthesis of German-Idealism with French Social Realism (e.g. Weber and Durkheim) than that produced by Parsons. For the point of social construction (and of cultural sociology) is that this implies an “idealist” version of the Marxian dictum (on this “idealization” of Marx B&L were quite clear): you cognitively make your world but not with categories of thought of your own making (a point obviously central to Bourdieu as well; the phenomenological notion of world-making re-appears in analytic philosophy in Nelson Goodman’s work). I think the reason why we like this formulation is that we can have our cake and eat it too. Note that at the individual level this implies the grossest form of (Durkhemian) determinism (not made any more palatable by the invocation of Mead): the categories with which your think are the product of society; at the group level though we get the benefits of German Idealism: culture is not reducible to (social structure, environment, physical features of the world, universal rationality), so agency re-appears at that level.
This accounts for why social-construction types of debates are so predictable: on the one side you usually have somebody vigorously stomping his/her feet and saying that there are objective features of the world (e.g. and by “objective” the foot-stomper means features of reality that demand that they be conceptualized in ways that leave no freedom for alternative construals). Let’s call these features non-negotiable features. On the other side you have social constructionists carefully denying that such non-negotiable features exist (or more precisely, claiming that they might exist in a neutral ontological sense but they don’t really constrain thought in the way that the non-constructionist claims that they do; i.e. they are epistemically indeterminate). For the (strict) social constructionist everything that the non-constructionist claims is non-negotiable could be construed otherwise, and that’s why culture is autonomous and people have agency.
For instance, Andy Pickering thinks that his work on Quarks demonstrates how (scientific?) “agency” emerges from the “mangle of practice” even though his substantive point is that objective features of the world have not constrained the actual shape of theories about the world in the history of particle physics. Once again, “agency” plays no role in this claim, and we could translate agency as “capacity to conceptualize in divergent ways” without any explanatory loss; agency is a completely decorative term in this whole discussion. Of course, now we can easily explain why it makes this strange appearance; for what Pickering means by “agency” is simply freedom of thought from the slavery of having to reflect a unitary reality. Pickering’s big counter-factual (and this he has in common with every cultural theorist) is that the history of physics (which is essentially a history of conceptualizations) could have been otherwise. Non-constructionists think that he should be comitted to the nearest mental institution. The constructionist immediately points out that the very notion of mental illness is a concept that is not determined by objective features of the world and therefore one that has been cognitively constructed in collective or social way (we can envision an alternative history in which the notion of “mental illness” never arose in the way that it arose in the West, which is the point of Foucault’s early work).
So the point is that a lot of debates about social construction is simply the historical version of the culture/agency thing: the history of collective conceptualizations is contingent and/or driven by the internal features of cultural systems themselves (a point also made by Foucault in his early work). One thing that is not the case is that the history of cultural change can be done as a history of changes in non-cultural features of the world.
The lesson? Agency means many things. One obvious thing that it means is freedom. Yet, a curious quirk in the history of social theory linked “freedom” to cognition or thought (Kant). In the twentieth century this linkage (via Boas who was said to regularly page through his copy of Critique of Pure Reason during cold nights in the arctic) was “blown up” to the group level in the form of the founding problematic of cultural anthropology; so that the “autonomy” (a synonym for “freedom” by the way) of culture from “conditions” (biological, environmental, etc.) is the formal equivalent of the Kantian autonomy of conceptualization from the world, or the Parsonian autonomy of values from conditions. Cultural sociology inherits this whole package of debates, problematics and hasty formulations, but in some sense, cultural sociology is simply the contemporary avatar of a position in this debate (shared by Boas and Parsons): this position is that culture, cognition and thus conceptualization is not reducible to objective or non-negotiable features of the world (so when early network theorists counter-posed “social relations” to culture, they took a stance in this debate, one that they’ve recently reneged); Berger and Luckmann provide us with the modern vocabulary, the one that replaced Parsons’ voluntarism/idealism/positivism lingo: “the social construction of reality.” That’s why this phrase has become shorthand for saying “culture/cognition (depending of whether you are talking about groups or individuals) is not a function on non-negotiable features of reality” or simply another way of saying “agents have the freedom to construct realities in ways that are not a function of the objective features of the world” (the phenomenological input here is clear in the notion of “multiple realities”). Edmund Leach, Mary Douglas and Eviatar Zerubavel provide us with another update of the same position: culture is a grid that cuts the booming, buzzing confusion of the world in group-specific ways. This single fact explains why cultural sociology stands opposed to all sorts of biologism, environmentalism and universalist rationalisms. In these debates the capacity to unhook thought from servitude to some sort of non-mental determinant is essentially an argument for “agency.” But if that’s the case, then we can have the same debates without using the “a” word. It adds nothing to the proceedings, and in fact may actually confuse matters further.
Books we’ve discussed on orgtheory in the last year or so:
- The Entrepreneurial Group by Martin Reuf
- Implications and Distinctions by Martine Syms
- Politics and Partnerships by Elisabeth Clemens and Dough Guthrie
- The Order of Things by Michel Foucault
- Inventing Inequality by Frank Dobbins
- The New Welfare Bureaucrats: Entanglements of Race, Class, and Policy Reform by Celeste Watkins-Hayes
- Capitalizing on Crisis by Greta Krippner
- The War Room by Bryan Malessa
- Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marable
- Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids by Bryan Caplan
- The Elements of Content Strategy by Erin Kissane
- Valuing the Unique by Lucien Karpik
- Open source psychology books
- Envisioning Utopias by Erik Olin Wright
- How Professors Think by Michel Lamont
- Social Structures by John Levi Martin
- Economic Lives by Viviana Zelizer
- Between Movement and Establishment by Milbrey McLaughlin, W. Richard Scott, Sarah Deschenes, Katherine Hopkins, and Anne Newman
- Salsa Dancing into the Social Sciences by Kristin Luker
- Laughing Saints and Righteous Heroes by Erika Summers Effler
Please list other interesting and noteworthy books in the comments.
The most recent issue of Sociological Theory features an article by Fligstein and McAdam entitled “Towards a General Theory of Strategic Action Fields.” In this paper F & M, attempt a “grand” conceptual synthesis (and also attempt to draw a systematic outline of the empirical implications of) a series of recent trends towards the integration of organizational, institutional and social movement theories. This is a place where the literature has been kind of awkwardly moving for a while now (e.g. Scheneiberg and Clemens 2006; Armstrong and Bernstein 2008; Rao 2008; Evans and Kay 2008; King and Pearce 2010), but which is finally given a measure of overall conceptual coherence in this piece.
The theoretical motor of the entire paper is very parsimonious version of field theory. This is also a place where the literature had been awkwardly moving, with various people inventing and re-inventing a field perspective using all sorts of different language and terms such as ecologies, and multiple institutional logics (e.g. Abbott 2005; see also here). F & M bring order to what could have been some overwhelmingly complicated proceedings through their economical meta-concept of “strategic action fields” (as well as other secondary and very handy distinctions). This concept is supposed to subsume older versions (including sectors, movement industries, organizational fields and I would add Abbottian ecologies) of the same general thing; essentially SAFs are sites where collective actors struggle for what is at stake (what Bourdieu referred to as “illusio”), taking each other into account while doing so. The general dynamics of SAFs can then be described using the combined resources of “French” field theory (e.g. dominated/dominant, doxa, struggle for recognition, etc.), American reconceptualizations thereof (e.g. Fligstein’s theory of social skill) and standard concepts taken from social movement (incumbent/challenger, contention, mobilization, framing, etc.) and organizational theory (institutional logics).
This paper is an absolute must-read. Easily one of the most important conceptual advances in organizational and social movement theory (in fact one of the ambitious claims of the paper is that these two realms are empirically co-extensive, so there should be brought under a single conceptual framework) in recent memory.
The ASA recently released a report claiming that minority PhD students had better job placements if their adviser was White. They analyzed data from students who received MFP awards, fellowships aimed at under represented students to encourage research careers. They found that 37% of MFP recipients got research jobs, while 7% got research jobs if they had a minority adviser. And if you don’t know, a 37% placement rate in research schools is phenomenal and higher than just about any PhD program I know of.
These findings raise an important sociological question. Why? The more generous explanation is that White faculty simply have more clout to start with. There are other explanations. Perhaps White faculty mentors are correlated with more mainstream topics, or White mentors are better at pushing their students to develop marketable or high quality dissertation topics. There might even be a form of signaling. The minority student might be seen as especially strong if they associate themselves with an out-group person.
In my own case, my advisers were White (Charles Bidwell and Rafe Stolzenberg). I don’t think that was deliberate on my part. I thought they did good work and they were supportive of me. But I can see a little of these explanations in my own case. Using organizational sociology to analyze the institutionalization of social movements is a way to mainstream what might be a tough topic. I doubt my committee would have accepted a critical race theory dissertation had I wanted to write one. These scholars have a great deal of respect in the profession, so I certainly benefited from their shadow.
Finally, let me conclude with a comment about teaching. I’m now at a stage of my career where I am attracting graduate students. How do I help my students? My tendency is to be highly supportive, but I also try to give the right advice. “You must show the ability to publish.” “This work has to be grounded in a real sociological question.” “Don’t write like Bourdieu, write clearly.” And so forth. I can’t control the clout I have, but at least I can be honest and prepare people for the market.
My other goal is not to discourage innovative thought. Instead, if a student of color has a wacky idea, I try to see if there is something in there that can speak to the core of the discipline. Can they address a long standing issue in a new way? The answer is usually yes. If they are successful, they’ll advance sociology and their careers, and that’s a good thing.
I want to completely drop post-modernism from my sociological theory teaching. Here’s my argument.
First, a definition. I’ll call someone post-modern if (a) they claim to be post-modern, (b) place themselves within a post-structuralist tradition, or (c) are arguing with post-modernists. This would include Lyotard, Giddens (in his is radical modernity text), Jameson, Derrida and all deconstructionists such as De Man, Foucault, Flax, Baudrillard, the various feminists and sexuality theorists who argue with Foucault. I don’t include people who are just “fancy Europeans,” such as Bourdieu, who never called himself post-modernist and stems from an earlier modernist sociological tradition.
Here are my reasons for cutting post-modernism theory (PMT):
- Professional: American sociology is not really focused on PMT. The major journals simply do not publish much on PMT, at least since the mid-1990s or so. The major books in our field tend not to be the massive “theory” volumes of the past. The one exception is Foucault, who pops up from time to time.
- Cognitive: I find it very, very hard to understand. Also, if one of my goals is to teach clear argument about social behavior, it’s immoral to teach PMT.
- Empirical: I do not know if I can clearly say that I can judge or assess many PMT claims. I find those that I understand bizarre and unsupported (e.g., the lack of self asserted by some PMT). I teach stuff I disagree with, but at least I have to understand the theory and its empirical consequences.
- Substitutes: Why not teach stuff like networks, globalization, or epigenetics as “theory?” These ideas are really changing the way we think about the social world, which is exactly what a theory course should be about.
The two PMT folks I’d continue teaching might be Foucault and Baudrillard, but I don’t need the whole PMT blah-blah-blah apparatus to teach them. They can easily be folded into my teachings on critical theory and Marxism.
Tell me if I am right or wrong.
I read Boltanski and Thevenot’s 1999 article in the European Journal of Social Theory (B&T). Let me state my views up front. First, the basic ideas are actually fairly simple. But in sticking with the genre of European critical theory, simple, yet important, points hide behind poor writing. Second, the paper’s basic observation didn’t strike me as totally original. Third, the paper is still very important because there’s a very important research problem that *could* have been developed further. In more detail:
1. B&T’s basic point is that people employ different ways for justifying certain actions or practices. The main insight is that there are multiple ways that social life can be justified. E.g., something can be justified in terms of its cost or in terms of aesthetics. The consequent problem is how, empirically, people resolve conflicting claims over what is justified.
I have to say that I was very, very underwhelmed by this basic point. Perhaps there is a context that I am missing and that this might be viewed as important in that context. From my view, I thought of work addressing the point that people use different justifications to order or organize social situations. For example, we can go back to Kenneth Burke’s analysis of motives and justifications, or we can reread the many analyses of framing that stem from Goffman’s seminal book. More recently, there’s a lot of work on classification, commensurability, and competing institutional logics. I found Tilly’s approach to justificaiton, Why?, to be interesting. In one way or another, these works all deal with struggles over the legitimate or appropriate valuing of people and objects.
Perhaps B&T is a big deal if you are a hard core Bourdieuian and you think that all people do is parrot the institutional imperatives of their social field. That’s really a problem with Bourdieu. If B&T helps you get beyond that, then great. But if you read other sociology, it’s a lot less impressive.
2. The importance of this paper, in my view, is what is hinted at the end. B&T raise the point that resolution of the conflict stemming from rival justifications is complicated and messy. Sometimes you get compromises, sometimes you get domination, and sometimes the issue is left unresolved.
That’s a very fertile observation. I sure wish that the book deals with that topic because it is truly an open question in social theory. It would be a real accomplishment to come up with a convincing theory of how rival justifications are resolved and back it up with some systematic evidence. I am way more interested in the resolution of justifications than classifying them. Would such a theory employ a rational choice approach? A cognitive approach? Perhaps readers more versed in B&T’s works can tell me if that is addressed in the book length treatment of this argument, or in the articles.
Do you have a nagging suspicion that sociology needs to develop a post-Bourdieusian perspective? Maybe you need a little sociology to help you get through those frustrating family dinners with non-sociologists? Or perhaps you need to vent your Festivus rage.
We here at orgtheory are here to help. I am organizing a “mini-seminar” on a single article, Boltanski and Thevenot 1999 (see cite below). I will download and read this article and post on December 26, 2010. I am just too curious. Some say it’s more Continental clap trap, others say it’s Durkheim on a stick. No harm in actually reading it. Let’s check it out.
Boltanski and Thevenot. “The Sociology of Critical Capacity.” European Journal of Social Theory 2:3 (1999): 359-377.