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orgtheory poll: your favorite bourdieu book

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Written by fabiorojas

May 21, 2013 at 12:08 am

Posted in fabio, just theory

bourdieu’s photography of algeria

From the book and exhibition of Bourdieu’s photography, which documents his time in Algeria, “Picturing Bourdieu.”

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Written by fabiorojas

July 14, 2012 at 12:49 am

Posted in culture, fabio, sociology

the different bourdieus

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).

For more orgtheory commentary on Fligstein’s and McAdam’s SAF, see here and here.

Written by brayden king

January 16, 2012 at 5:47 pm

michele lamont vs. fabio & bourdieu, part deux

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Lamont needs to focus on outcomes. Does the creation of excellence have any tangible effects?

Summarizing, here are Professor Lamont’s responses:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Written by fabiorojas

November 22, 2010 at 3:01 am

bourdieu = 75%?

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!

Written by fabiorojas

June 1, 2009 at 12:02 am

michele lamont vs. bourdieu & fabio

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.

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Written by fabiorojas

February 3, 2009 at 12:50 am

Posted in academia, education, fabio

bourdieu vs. heckman, friend or foe?

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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. 

Written by fabiorojas

June 30, 2008 at 5:23 am

Posted in fabio, sociology

bourdieuian organizational studies

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).

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Written by brayden king

May 13, 2008 at 9:32 pm

Bourdieu with Leifer

Omar

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).

Written by Omar

April 2, 2007 at 8:10 pm

a general theory of chest-bursting sociology

To me, learning about a scholar’s intellectual trajectory and philosophy is helpful for understanding the impetus for particular schools of thought.  One of the pivotal moments for me during my grad school days was hearing Neil Fligstein‘s candid perspective about having to advocate for one’s research question, methods, and claims.  In fact, he compared being an academic with being the creature from Alien(s).  That’s right, we’re not the flame-toting Lt. Ripley and the heroic but ill-fated Nostromo crew; we’re more like the chest-bursters who have to keep coming back, no matter how many times we get (spoilers ahead! cover your eyes, young’uns) burnt, ejected from the airlock into outer space, frozen, etc.

Not you.

Not you.

With that imagery in mind, have a look at Fligstein’s discussion of his most recent works. Fligstein talks in an interview with McGill student Nicole Denier about how he decided upon a PhD in sociology (hint: a foray with social movements), where he sees the field headed, and his agenda for grand general theory.

ND: …what do you think are the challenges for sociology to overcome in the next few years?

NF: What I have found most frustrating about sociology is that it is so Balkanized. One of the most depressing things about sociology is when I look at the American Sociological Association and see that there are forty-four sections, which could be reduced to about six. It tends to create these Balkanized theory groups (for lack of a better term) that are engaged in a discourse with ten other people. From a graduate student’s point of view, that’s the hardest thing to face in the field—how fragmented it is. The problem is that there just aren’t that many people. There are only about 15,000 sociologists in North America, I think. It was bad when I was a graduate student twenty-five years ago, it’s much worse now. It’s very frustrating for people and it’s hard to overcome. One of the things I like about the construction of something called economic sociology is that for the first time in 30 years there is a synthetic field – not a field which wants to break the field into smaller and smaller parts—but a field that wants to say that politics and law and economic processes and organizations and social movements are all part of the same thing. So to me, this is what this economic sociology thing is all about. It is more synthetic than breaking it into a smaller piece.

ND: Similarly, your field theory has the possibility to span a number of areas. You’re not so optimistic about it overcoming the differences between the institutionalisms in economics, political science, and sociology. But do you think it can bridge the gaps within sociology?

NF: I’m an optimistic person. I hope that it becomes more synthetic. People have moved so far from (I’ll use a dirty word) a general theory of society or a theory of society that it’s not in their vocabulary any more. It was so discredited so long ago that you’re a bad person if you even have that thought. It’s a big taboo in sociology to say that, you know, there really is a general theory of society. Again, you get off stage with people and you talk to them and a lot of people think there is a general theory of society….[snip!!!]…. Sociologists tend toward understanding action in groups, yet we don’t even think about it most of the time. Field theory is about that: how groups of people and groups of groups do these kinds of interactions and watch other people and reference other people and take positions, a very generic level of social process. I figure a lot of people are ready to hear that message in sociology. Hopefully, it will go a little further beyond where it is right now.

(See Fligstein’s past orgtheory posts here and here on his work with Doug McAdam on strategic action fields, as well as other colleagues’ reactions here, here, and here.)

You when you finally get a love note.

When you find a like-minded colleague.

Written by katherinechen

December 11, 2013 at 12:08 am

storytelling in organizations, the state of the field of organizations and values, and a freebie article

I’ve recently published two articles* that might be of interest to orgheads, and Emerald publisher has ungated one of my articles:

1. Chen, Katherine K. 2013. “Storytelling: An Informal Mechanism of Accountability for Voluntary Organizations.” Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly 42(5): 902-922.**

Abstract

Using observations, interviews, and archival research of an organization that coordinates the annual Burning Man event, I argue that storytelling is a mechanism by which stakeholders can demand accountability to their needs for recognition and voice. I identify particular frames, or perspectives and guides to action, articulated in members’ stories. Deploying a personalistic frame, storytellers recounted individuals’ contributions toward a collective endeavor. Such storytelling commemorated efforts overlooked by official accounts and fostered bonds among members. Other storytellers identified problems and organizing possibilities for consideration under the civic society or anarchist frames. By familiarizing organizations with members’ perspectives and interests, stories facilitate organizational learning that can better serve stakeholders’ interests. Additional research could explore whether (1) consistent face-to-face relations (2) within a bounded setting, such as an organization, and (3) practices that encourage participation in organizing decisions and activities are necessary conditions under which storytelling can enable accountability to members’ interests.

2. Chen, Katherine K., Howard Lune, and Edward L. Queen, II. 2013. “‘How Values Shape and are Shaped by Nonprofit and Voluntary Organizations:’ The Current State of the Field.” Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly 42(5): 856-885.

Abstract

To advance understanding of the relationship between values and organizations, this review synthesizes classic and recent organizational and sociological research, including this symposium’s articles on voluntary associations. We argue that all organizations reflect, enact, and propagate values. Organizations draw on culture, which offers a tool kit of possible actions supported by institutional logics that delineate appropriate activities and goals. Through institutional work, organizations can secure acceptance for unfamiliar practices and their associated values, often under the logic of democracy. Values may be discerned in any organization’s goals, practices, and forms, including “value-free” bureaucracies and collectivist organizations with participatory practices. We offer suggestions for enhancing understanding of how collectivities advance particular values within their groups or society.

3.  In addition, one of my previously published articles received the “Outstanding Author Contribution Award Winner at the Literati Network Awards for Excellence 2013.”  Because of the award, Emerald publisher has ungated this article (or, as Burners like to say, contributed a gift to the gift economy :) ) to download here (click on the HTML or PDF button to initiate the download):

Chen, Katherine K. 2012. “Laboring for the Man: Augmenting Authority in a Voluntary Association.” Research in the Sociology of Organizations 34: 135-164.

Abstract:

Drawing on Bourdieu’s field, habitus, and capital, I show how disparate experiences and “dispositions” shaped several departments’ development in the organization behind the annual Burning Man event. Observations and interviews with organizers and members indicated that in departments with hierarchical professional norms or total institution-like conditions, members privileged their capital over others’ capital to enhance their authority and departmental solidarity. For another department, the availability of multiple practices in their field fostered disagreement, forcing members to articulate stances. These comparisons uncover conditions that exacerbate conflicts over authority and show how members use different types of capital to augment their authority.

* If you don’t have access to these articles at your institution, please contact me for a PDF.

** Looking for more storytelling articles?  Check out another one here.

Written by katherinechen

October 15, 2013 at 3:15 pm

new ebook by Howie Becker and Rob Faulkner: Thinking Together: An E-mail Exchange and All that Jazz

New ebook by Howie Becker and Rob Faulkner

New ebook by Howie Becker and Rob Faulkner

What does it take to pull together a collaborative research project?  Howie Becker and Rob Faulkner reveal all, via a reconstruction of their prolific email correspondence collected in a new ebook Thinking Together: An E-mail Exchange and All that Jazz.  Prompted by the puzzling observation that younger musicians didn’t know the same repertoire of songs shared among older musicians, Becker and Faulkner, who are both practicing musicians, muscle through hammering out a research design and theoretical explanation for how musicians, including ones who have never practiced together before, can collectively perform.*  Their exchanges evidence the gradual refinement of categories with plenty of links to songs, descriptions of illustrative experiences, and recounting of interviews with fellow musicians while practicing in the field.  Here’s a blurb penned by Becker:

Would you like to know how people really think their way through all the problems of doing research and writing a book? Watch two old pros in action as they do that in the e-mail correspondence between sociologists Rob Faulkner and Howie Becker as they wrote Do You Know? The Jazz Repertoire in Action.

The book Thinking Together: An E-mail Exchange and All that Jazz shows the authors exchanging ideas and modifying them as the conversation proceeds. It shows them extracting ideas from their experiences in the field: performing in public, collaborating with other musicians, interviewing, using their field notes to generate ideas and test them, to elaborate theories as they go, all the thinking that goes on when you actually do research. No review of the literature—it’s replaced by the two of them drawing in work that seems relevant, that gives them something they can use to explain what they’ve seen and heard: using a study of Mexican witchcraft, for instance, to develop a research strategy, and painfully realizing that they have some substantial musical prejudices that they have to turn into a kind of historical sociology.

This is the way research really gets done, what you do after you write the research proposal and start working and find out that none of your plans are going to work because things were more complicated than you thought they were.

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Written by katherinechen

September 19, 2013 at 10:13 pm

join us in Rotterdam to talk about movements, markets, and fields

The European Group for Organizational Studies is hosting their annual colloquium next year in Rotterdam, Netherlands on July 3-5. Simone Schiller-Merkins, Philip Balsiger, and I are organizing a subtheme entitled, Movements, Markets, and Fields. For those of you who have never been to EGOS before, the format of the conference allows you to hang out with the same group of people in your subtheme for a couple of days, offering in-depth feedback on research projects in a concentrated area of study. EGOS gives you the intimacy of a small conference,while also facilitating interactions with a broader group of organizational scholars from a variety of disciplines. Here’s our Call for Papers:

Sub-theme 22: Movements, Markets and Fields

Convenors:
Brayden King, Northwestern University, Kellogg School of Management, USA
Simone Schiller-Merkens, Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies, Cologne, Germany
Philip Balsiger, European University Institute, Florence, Italy

Over the past decade, scholars have paid increasing attention to movement activism targeting organizations and markets. Pioneering research has studied whether and how this activism matters for the emergence and change of industries, markets, and corporations. These studies have suggested a revised perspective on markets and organizations as fields of political conflict (King & Pearce, 2010). While the field concept has a long tradition in organization theory, scholars have only recently begun to think about fields as sites of continuous struggles over meaning, identities, and positions (Bourdieu, 2005; Beckert, 2010; Fligstein & McAdam, 2012). Fields take shape and evolve as a result of contentious interactions between different kinds of actors. In order to further advance this scholarship, this sub-theme is especially interested in papers that adopt a field approach to study the interactions between movements, organizations, and markets.

We invite papers that address the strategic interactions between (a) movements and firms, (b) between different kinds of social movement organizations, and (c) within firms and social movement organizations. With respect to interactions between movements and firms, we particularly welcome papers that address the counter-strategies used by organizations to react to movement demands, and the market transformations that eventually result from this. Possible research questions to be asked are:

  • How do corporations react to movement activism? Why do firms sometimes comply with a movement’s demands, and at other times treat their demands as irrelevant?
  • How do movement demands, targets, and tactics get transformed in the interactions between social movements and corporations?
  • What consequences do firms’ counter-strategies have on field positions, identities, and market categories?
  • How does the interaction between movements and corporations influence the processes, tools, and standards of valuation and evaluation on which markets are built?

Social movement organizations (SMOs) often target the same set of corporations. However, we know little about the interactions between them and the strategies with which they differentiate themselves. We therefore encourage papers that address questions such as:

  • How do different types of SMOs interact in their mobilizing against corporations?
  • When do SMOs coordinate their actions and when are they in conflict? What effects does this have on their outcomes on corporate targets?
  • How do SMOs develop their repertoires of action and identities, in isolation from one another, in competition, or in cooperation with one another?
  • Do (and if so, how) SMOs perpetuate differences in ideology over time in their collective mobilization against the same set of corporate targets?
  • Regarding the identity and practices of SMOs, why do some of these organizations become specialists with a narrow repertoire of activities while others become jacks-of-all-trades?

Finally, organizations are also contested from within and can be seen themselves as fields of contested interactions between different kinds of actors. We therefore invite papers that look at issues surrounding the following questions:

  • What forms does political conflict in firms take? What about political conflict and activism within SMOs?
  • Under which conditions do activists within organizations achieve their aims?
  • What role do extra-organizational factors play for the outcome of internal movement activism?
  • How do firms retaliate against their employees for activism?
  • What consequences do internal conflict and strategic interaction have on the development of organizational identities, goals, and values?

Please consider submitting your short paper to our session!

Written by brayden king

September 10, 2013 at 9:14 pm

Three thousand more words on critical realism

The continuing brouhaha over Fabio’s (fallaciously premised) post*, and Kieran’s clarification and response has actually been much more informative than I thought it would be. While I agree that this forum is not the most adequate to seriously explore intellectual issues, it does have a (latent?) function that I consider equally as valuable in all intellectual endeavors, which is the creation of a modicum of common knowledge about certain stances, premises and even valuational judgments. CR is a great intellectual object in the contemporary intellectual marketplace precisely because of the fact that it seems to demand an intellectual response (whether by critics or proponents) thus forcing people (who otherwise wouldn’t) to take a stance.  The response may range from (seemingly facile) dismissal (maybe involving dairy products), to curiosity (what the heck is it?), to considered criticism, to ho hum neutralism, to critical acceptance, or to (sock-puppet aided) uncritical acceptance.  But the point is that it is actually fun to see people align themselves vis a vis CR because it provides an opportunity for those people to actually lay their cards on the table in way that seldom happens in their more considered academic work.

My own stance vis a vis CR is mostly positive. When reading CR or CR-inflected work, I seldom find myself vehemently disagreeing or shaking my head vigorously (this in itself I find a bit suspicious, but more on that below). I find most of the epistemological, and meta-methodological recommendations of people who have been influenced by CR (like my colleague Chris Smith, Phil Gorski, or George Steinmetz, or Margaret Archer) fruitful and useful, and in some sense believe that some of the most important of these are already part of sociological best practice. I think some of the work on “social structure” that has been written by CR-oriented folk (Doug Porpora and Margaret Archer early on and more recently Dave Elder-Vass) important reading, especially if you want to think straight about that hornet’s nest of issues. So I don’t think that CR is “lame.” Although like any multi-author, somewhat loose cluster of writings, I have indeed come across some work that claims to be CR which is indeed lame. But that would apply to anything (there are examples of lame pragmatism, lame field theory, lame network analysis, lame symbolic interactionism, etc. without making any of these lines of thought “lame” in their entirety).

That said, I agree with the basic descriptive premises of Kieran’s post. So this post is structured as a way to try to unhook the fruitful observations that Kieran made from the vociferous name-calling and defensive over-reactions to which these sort of things can lead. So think of this as my own reflections of what this implies for CR’s attempt to provide a unifying philosophical picture for sociology.

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book spotlight: playing to win by hilary levey friedman

Friedman

Guest blogger emeritus Hilary Levey Friedman has just released her new book, Playing to Win, which is a thoughtful account of competitive children’s activities. Drawing from fieldwork done in three competitive youth circuits (chess, dance, soccer), Hilary provides us with an engaging treatment of the topic. She raises important questions about how we’ve reshaped childhood in response to the growing importance of higher education for young adults.

The core strength of the book is that it successfully explains how two organizational fields – higher education and children’s leisure – collide. Since colleges are the “key” for mobility, we recreate childhood in ways that reproduce status via college entrance. Thus, the book is an extension of Bourdieu’s approach to stratification, as expressed through Lareau and her school. This attempt at social reproduction is seen when parents strategize about how much effort to expend and how these activities teach the right life lessons. And, of course, as with all good ethnography, there are lots of juicy bits, such as the discussion of female chess players, which is a great discussion of counter-signalling theory in childhood.

The biggest question I had when reading the book is “does it matter?” In the final chapter, Hilary alludes to arguments made by Dalton Conley (and myself, by the way) that the specific school doesn’t matter much.  In other words, if it doesn’t matter which college you go to, then why should you torture your kid with violin lessons so he’s get into Yale?

Even if I’m wrong, and there is an Ivy League treatment effect, it’s still puzzling. Higher education researchers know that only about 50 colleges in the United States are hard to get into (consistent admit rates below 50%). About 18  million people a year enroll in college, but very competitive schools like the Ivies and the public flagships account for a small fraction of that number. Being a chess champ may be helpful for the smartest kids who have a shot at an elite school but this whole scene is irrelevant for most people who are trying to get into college.

My guess is that parents probably know, on some level, that these activities usually have marginal effects on admission when compared to GPA or SATs, but they still want to show that they are invested in their children. And of course, many of this activities are enjoyable. So in many cases, no harm no foul. If you buy this argument, you can skip soccer camp with a clean conscience.

Overall, great job and a pleasure to read. Recommended!

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Written by fabiorojas

August 26, 2013 at 12:11 am

looking for a reader for cultural sociology? see Matt Wray’s Cultural Sociology

Looking for a reader for a cultural sociology class?  Matt Wray has put together Cultural Sociology: An Introductory Reader, which is an excellent anthology that covers classic and contemporary readings of cultural sociology, including several penned by our very own orgtheory bloggers and guest bloggers like Jenn Lena and Stephen Vaisey.  In addition, Wray has interspersed excerpts with his own essays, which uses Burning Man as a phenomena to help students understand sociological concepts and forms of inquiry. 

Bonus: Wray’s cover art also exhibits good taste in featuring Pepe Ozan‘s (2005) The Dreamer. (Read about Steve Mobia’s account of making the Dreamer and subsequent activities here.)

Here’s official info about Cultural Sociology: An Introductory Reader:
“Available for Fall courses, this brand new reader is a comprehensive and clever mix of classic and contemporary essays on the sociology of culture. This mix of essays is an essential resource for understanding this fast growing, dynamic area of sociology. An introduction outlines the building blocks of a sociological approach to studying culture, and helpful headnotes guide students through each reading. For more information, or to order an exam copy, visit http://books.wwnorton.com/books/978-0-393-93413-7/.”

Click below for the Table of Contents:
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Written by katherinechen

June 25, 2013 at 4:00 am

Posted in books

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theories of great social actors

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.

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Written by fabiorojas

May 8, 2013 at 12:17 am

trouble in institutionalist land

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.

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Written by fabiorojas

January 31, 2013 at 12:01 am

puzzle for hard core institutiuonalists

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.

Discuss.

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Written by fabiorojas

January 25, 2013 at 12:01 am

deep culture and organization theory

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.

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Written by fabiorojas

January 9, 2013 at 12:01 am

Rethinking Cultural Depth

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).

what we can learn from a theory of fields

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.

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Written by brayden king

December 12, 2012 at 6:26 pm

Why the debate on “public intellectuals” is faulty (pt. 1 of 2)

Hi, Tom Medvetz here, checking in with my fourth OrgTheory guest post (posts 12, 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.

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Written by Tom Medvetz

October 12, 2012 at 12:41 am

“From totally geek to totally chic”

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.”‡

Image

“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).

Image

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.‡‡

__________________________________________

NOTES

* 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.)

Written by Tom Medvetz

September 27, 2012 at 11:05 pm

Some Not So Obvious Ideas from Fligstein/Mcadam’s A Theory of Fields

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.

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Written by fligstein

September 20, 2012 at 11:26 pm

Posted in uncategorized

cutting edge sociology at orgtheory!

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:

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.

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Written by fabiorojas

August 29, 2012 at 12:01 am

Posted in books, fabio, sociology

The “Old” New Institutionalism versus the “New” New Institutionalism

I signed on to blog on Orgtheory a couple of months ago with the express purpose of writing about “A Theory of Fields” (Oxford Press, 2012), my new book with Doug McAdam. So here it goes.

Today I want to explain something about the shape of research in organizational theory for the past 35 years ago in order to situate “A Theory of Fields” in that research. The cornerstones of the “new institutionalism” in organizational theory are three works, the Meyer and Rowan paper (1977), the DiMaggio and Powell paper (1983), and the book edited by Powell and DiMaggio (1991).

I would like to take the provocative position that since about 1990, most scholars have given up on the original formulation of the new institutionalism even though they are ritually fixated on citing these canonical works. It is worth thinking why they found that formulation limited.

The Meyer/Rowan and DiMaggio/Powell position on organizations is that actors in organizations do not have interests and that their actions are “programmed” by scripts. Moreover, actors are unable to figure out what to do, so they either follow the leader (i.e. mimic those they perceive as successful), act according to norms often propagated by professionals, or else find themselves coerced by state authorities. The Meyer/Rowan and DiMaggio/Powell world was not only void of actors; it was also void of change. Once such an order got into place, it became taken for granted and difficult to dislodge. “People” in this world told themselves stories, used myth and ceremony, and they decoupled their stories from what they were doing. This meant that the consequences of their actions were not important.  DiMaggio recognized this problem in 1988 when he suggested that in order to explain change we needed another theory one that involved actors, interests, power, and what he called “institutional entrepreneurs”.

The core of organizational studies since the early 1990s has been to reintroduce interests, actors, power and the problem of change into the center of organizational studies. Indeed, the field of entrepreneurship in management studies is probably at the moment, the hottest part of organizational theory. If one looks at these papers, one still sees ritual citing of DiMaggio/Powell and Meyer/Rowan. But the core ideas of these papers could not be farther from those works. The focus on entrepreneurial studies is on how new fields are like social movements. They come into existence during crises. They invoke the concept of institutional entrepreneurs who build the space and create new cultural frames, interests and identities. In doing so, the entrepreneurs build political coalitions to dominate the new order. Indeed, the gist of the past 15 years of organizational research is entirely antithetical to the “old” new institutionalism.

I submit to you that the time is now right to reject the “old” new institutionalism” entirely, free our minds, and produce a “new” new institutionalism.

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Written by fligstein

August 23, 2012 at 9:19 pm

why i hate post-modernists

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.

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Written by fabiorojas

August 17, 2012 at 12:01 am

capital conversion across fields

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?

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Written by fabiorojas

July 18, 2012 at 12:06 am

Posted in fabio, just theory

new review of fligstein/mcadam’s field theory

David Hess, of Vanderbilt’s soc dept., has a review of Theory of Fields. You can read it at Mobilizing Ideas. A few good choice clips:

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.

And:

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.

See previous orgtheory discussion of Theory of Fields here and here.

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Written by fabiorojas

June 25, 2012 at 12:03 am

Posted in everything, fabio, sociology

An Elaboration on Brayden King’s reaction to Neal Caren’s list of most cited works in sociology

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.

Written by fligstein

June 5, 2012 at 9:32 pm

where is the org. theory in the most cited works in sociology?

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.

Written by brayden king

June 3, 2012 at 11:49 pm

dear andrew perrin: sociobiology is right, you are wrong, deal with it

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.

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Written by fabiorojas

April 1, 2012 at 6:09 am

ideas introduced through ethnography

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.

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Written by fabiorojas

February 10, 2012 at 12:01 am

fligstein/mcadam vs. goldstone/useem – a theoretical heavyweight fight forthcoming in Sociological Theory

A little while ago, Omar blogged about a new article co-authored by Neil Fligstein and Doug McAdam. It’s called “Towards a General Theory of Strategic Action Fields.” The article presents a common framework for organizational analysis and social movement theory. F&M do so by translating everything into a field theory, a la Bourdieu. In essence, F&M claim, like Armstrong and Bernstein, that society is composed of distinct, but overlapping, fields (strategic action fields – SAF’s) where people fight over control. The main variables of the theory are Fligsteinian – social skill and other field specific resources are used to maintain the status quo. The theory is a description of the cycle of field formation, disruption, and stabilization. If you are familiar with either McAdam or Fligstein’s work, you’ll see how the article is a synthesis of the two research streams generated by these scholars. Much like how Dynamics of Contention was a synthesis of Tarrow, Tilly, and McAdam.

Then, last month, I learned that there’s a commentary (here) and rejoinder (here ) that is forthcoming in Sociological Theory. The critique is authored by Jack Goldstone and Bert Useem. Click here and here for orgtheory’s review of Useem and Piehl’s book on prisons. The authors and the folks at Soc Theory gave me permission to post the exchange and comment. As I read it, the critique focuses on the following issues:

  • Don’t reduce everything to incumbent-challenger dynamics. States, and other governing units,* are more autonomous than it appears.
  • All fields do not look the same. There is more to life than a one dimensional distribution allocation of authority between challengers and incumbents.
  • There’s more to life than distribution of social skills and exogenous shocks. Social systems can crumble for many reasons.
  • Cognitive dimensions of social life are ignored. Isn’t it weird that one of the leaders of neo-institutional sociology doesn’t discuss values?
  • G&U claim that the propositions of F&M are too vague to adequately test.

In the rejoinder, there are some plausible responses. For example, F&M just disagree about whether the theory is testable. On another count, they claim that the article doesn’t address values, but their forthcoming book does.** I don’t think that F&M quite grok the importance of G&U’s point about the autonomy of  the state or that field dissolution can be caused by elite actions.

After reading the exchange, and the original article and other works by M, F, G, and U, my gut feeling is that SAF theory represents an assimilation of movement theory and political sociology into neo-institutional theory. Neo-institutional theory is our modern functionalism where all is subsumed into social stability. If Parsons had system maintenance, F&M have “SAF stability.” The theory produced by F&M bears many similarities to that produced by the late Parsons in texts like The Evolution of Societies, which described human communities as cybernetic systems where exogenous shocks shift society into a new equilibrium. What separates SAF’s version of functionalism from the structural functionalism of the 1960s, and its descendants, is a much higher tolerance of conflict and contention, which allows a modern sociologist to discuss the relationship between conflict and stability.

This is an ironic state of affairs. The whole point of post-1970s American sociological theory was ditching functionalism. By swallowing the social movement vocabulary, the new synthesis seems to be functionalism plus conflict minus mindless conformity. I don’t think that’s a necessarily bad thing. It’s actually a substantial improvement. By throwing Parsons under the bus, I think a lot of sociologists forgot that social groups have a temporal continuity that needs to be explained. The down side is that we’ve swapped out “pattern maintenance” for “field stabilization,” which can be a constraining way of viewing things.

Overall, I’m glad that this debate is happening. It signals to me that 1970s post-Parsons sociology has now reached a point of deep maturity in that it can provide a language that’s deep and flexible enough to address multiple areas of sociology, even if that synthesis is amenable to critique. At the same time, it signals that a boundary has been reached. If you have a description of X and Y (e.g., stability and conflict), then saying “X and Y” is an end point. There is something beyond X and Y that hasn’t been articulated yet. Some other process that explains both X and Y. That means that there’s an enterprising young sociologist who is hatching some new variables. Can’t wait to read their paper.

* How Althusserian!! Coming to a structural Marxist position? But I digress…

** Book forum, anyone? Free copy? Puleeeeze!!

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Written by fabiorojas

January 11, 2012 at 12:47 am

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