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Gary S. Becker, RIP

Gary Becker passed away this weekend at the age of 83. Becker was among the most influential economists in sociology. He was one of the first economists to use economic theories to explain social phenomena, leading the way for contemporary scholars like Steven Levitt.  Interestingly, I think Becker was less influential in organizational theory, despite doing important work on human capital. Over on the evil twin blog, Peter Klein pays a nice tribute to Becker, mentioning his relationship to organizational economics.

Sociologist are fond of citing Becker for saying that he thought about transferring to sociology in grad school but that he found the subject “too difficult.”  One thing that made Becker stand out from sociologists was that could simplify very complex problems/social phenomena – like discrimination – using a equilibrium model. This is not the sort of thing sociologists would do, and I suspect that most sociologists found the language he used to describe preference maximization offensive, but in a world of formal modeling and rational choice theory, Becker’s perspective was elegant. He helped create a tenuous bridge, along with Jim Coleman, between mathematical sociology and economics.

Reading his Nobel speech this afternoon, I was struck by this insight about the impossibility of Utopian dreams.  Becker reminds us just how precious and valuable our time is, especially in a society where so many of our other wants and needs are satisfied.

Different constraints are decisive for different situations, but the most fundamental constraint is limited time. Economic and medical progress have greatly increased length of life, but not the physical flow of time itself, which always restricts everyone to twenty-four hours per day. So while goods and services have expended enormously in rich countries, the total time available to consume has not. Thus, wants remain unsatisfied in rich countries as well as in poor ones. For while the growing abundance of goods may reduce the value of additional goods, time becomes more valuable as goods become more abundant. Utility maximization is of no relevance in a Utopia where everyone’s needs are fully satisfied, but the constant flow of time makes such a Utopia impossible.

Written by brayden king

May 4, 2014 at 8:30 pm

is org theory out of touch with sociology?

Recently I was talking to a statistician in a business school and he mentioned that he’d seen my paper about the Matthew effect and status bias in baseball. He said that he knew I was a sociologist as soon as he saw the title of our paper. “All sociologists study status and the Matthew effect right?”  He asked me why sociologists care so much about status. The answer I gave him was that sociology as a discipline is very focused on explaining inequality – its antecedents and consequences – and status is one important manifestation of inequality. We have many theories, like the Matthew effect or status characteristics theory, that are fundamentally about explaining the persistence of inequality. Other subfields in sociology – e.g., social movement theory, social networks – try to figure out power imbalances, yet another source of inequality.

Of course, the statistician was partly wrong. Yes, it’s a good assumption that if a scholar studies the Matthew effect he or she is probably a sociologist, but there are still some sociologists – some of whom are in business schools – who are not as interested in studying inequality. Organizational theory, setting aside work and occupations research or status scholars, is one of those subfields within sociology that has historically been less concerned with inequality than with other dynamics. I’ve said in the past that the major contribution of organizational theory is that organizations “become “infused with value” independent of any technical or rational contribution they make to society. They become their own ends.” This insight distinguishes sociological theories of organizations from economics and organizational behavior. The contribution runs deep in the history of organizational theory as well, linking the old institutionalism of Selznick to contemporary theories like new institutional theory, organizational ecology, and identity theory. But this contribution has nothing to do with inequality. I can see how graduate students who are not immersed in organizational theory might even find this insight irrelevant.

Perhaps this disjuncture between what organizational sociologists and the rest of sociology find interesting explains some of the distancing of organizational theory from mainstream sociology. Organizational theory increasingly seems to be going through a long divorce process from sociology as more established scholars leave sociology departments and as top sociology departments fail to replace them with up-and-coming scholars.  Now, of course, before I lament too much, I should add that even if there is a disjuncture, it hasn’t prevented organizational scholars from publishing in mainstream sociology journals. Some of the most prolific scholars in ASR and AJS are people who are very much working in the organizational theory tradition. But as I see papers like this get published, I wonder, to what extent do graduate students, outside of those few schools that still teach an organizational theory course in their sociology curriculum, find these studies interesting or relevant? I’m not sure. Perhaps they see them as a weird alien species that occasionally shows up and reproduces in their territory. Adding to this divide is the fact that because many of the organizational scholars who publish in ASR and AJS are now located in business schools, their relational embeddedness in mainstream sociology is quite weak.

I think two trends have taken place that may explain this growing distance between organizational theory and mainstream sociology. The first is that sociology has become more focused on inequality than ever.  Although inequality and social problems have always been of interest to sociologists, it has never quite captured the discipline as it has in this moment. Even cultural sociologists are now inequality scholars. The second is that organizational theory has become increasingly abstract and removed from practical issues, such as figuring out how to make organizations more effective for resolving social problems. Selznick believed that this ought to be one of the main motivators for organizational theory. It was the impetus for his TVA study, and he later criticized new institutional theory for losing that practicality. Perhaps as organizational theory has become more focused on generalizable propositions (e.g., see the formal theory of ecology), most sociologists find it less interesting and less relevant to what they do. They certainly see it as being unconcerned with sociology’s bread-and-butter topic – inequality.

Written by brayden king

April 24, 2014 at 3:05 pm

how field theory can inform strategy research

The field of strategy research could learn something from field theory. Ed Walker and I make this point in a forthcoming paper, “Winning hearts and minds: Field theory and the three dimensions of strategy,” now published online at the journal Strategic Organization.  We argue that strategy researchers too narrowly conceptualizes strategy, focusing almost exclusively on financial performance and ignoring firms’ (or elites’) motivations to attain status and power. When strategy scholars pay attention to status they usually only do so as an independent variable – a precursor to financial performance. Field theory forces us, we think, to consider the broader struggles for control and dominance that propel firms, elites, and other actors to take action. Shaping public perceptions is one of the main ways in which social actors improve their status and attain more power, and so an important component of strategy involves actively managing impressions – i.e., what people think and how they feel about key issues and actors.

Strategy research—and to some degree social movement theory as well—portrays organizations as resource-accumulating machines. The ultimate measure of success is financial performance. Another way to conceptualize organizations is as social actors whose primary function is to manage the impressions and perceptions of their various audiences. Their ultimate goal is to maintain positions of dominance. Resource accumulation depends on the ability of an organization to gain favorability and esteem. Shaping public perceptions about why one organization deserves favor is key, then, to long-term survival. But there exists an alternative and more long-term rationale for shaping public perceptions: for organizations to gain positions of prominence and power in society, they must be able to influence the rules of the game and the cultural norms and belief systems that shape who wins and who does not…

What role does strategy have in this conflict-ridden view of the world? In our estimation, strategy can be conceptualized as having three dimensions. We take inspiration from the ideas of Max Weber (1922 [1978]) in his classic essay on “Class, Status, and Party” in order to understand the features of strategy. We argue that strategy research has focused almost exclusively on financial performance (“class,” in Weber’s resource-based view of economic positions) and management’s role in shaping it. However, Weber’s conceptualization suggests that firms ought to be at least as concerned with prestige or esteem (“status”) or on the relative leverage of various stakeholders and policymakers upon firms’ actions (“party”). ..

[W]e find three major limitations in strategy research. First, it is far too focused upon firm performance at the expense of understanding strategic elements of relative status and sources of power/vulnerability. Second, its perspective is often far too short term and does not pay enough attention to all three of the aforementioned aspects of strategy, especially in the context of the “long game” of business maneuvering. Third, it downplays the extent to which businesses’ capacities for accumulating resources, maintaining reputations, and obtaining political leverage are all subject to conflict with other actors whose own relative position depends on their ability to convince the public of their alternative ideologies and worldviews.

In the paper we talk more about research focused on political influence, in particular, ought to shift away from the specialty areas of “nonmarket strategy” or “political strategy” and move to the forefront of strategy research.

Written by brayden king

April 14, 2014 at 2:22 pm

status bias in baseball umpiring

Jerry Kim and I have an op-ed in Sunday’s New York Times about our new paper on status bias in baseball umpiring. We analyzed over 700,000 non-swinging pitches from the 2008-09 season and found that umpires made numerous types of mistakes in calling strikes-balls. Most notably, we expected that umpires would be influenced by the status and reputation of the pitcher, and this is indeed what we found:

One of the sources of bias we identified was that umpires tended to favor All-Star pitchers. An umpire was about 16 percent more likely to erroneously call a pitch outside the zone a strike for a five-time All-Star than for a pitcher who had never appeared in an All-Star Game. An umpire was about 9 percent less likely to mistakenly call a real strike a ball for a five-time All-Star. The strike zone did actually seem to get bigger for All-Star pitchers and it tended to shrink for non-All-Stars.

An umpire’s bias toward All-Star pitchers was even stronger when the pitcher had a reputation for precise control, as measured by the career percentage of batters walked. We found that pitchers with a track record of not walking batters — like Greg Maddux — were much more likely to benefit from their All-Star status than similarly decorated but “wilder” pitchers like Randy Johnson.

Baseball insiders have long suspected what our research confirms: that umpires tend to make errors in ways that favor players who have established themselves at the top of the game’s status hierarchy. But our findings are also suggestive of the way that people in any sort of evaluative role — not just umpires — are unconsciously biased by simple “status characteristics.” Even constant monitoring and incentives can fail to train such biases out of us.

You can can download the paper, which is forthcoming in Management Science, if you’re interested in learning more about the analyses and their implications for theories about status characteristics and the Matthew Effect.

Written by brayden king

March 29, 2014 at 10:17 pm

how corporations got rights

This week the Supreme Court considered whether corporations ought to have constitutional rights of religious freedom, as given to human individuals, in Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores Inc. For many people, the idea that companies ought to be given all of the rights of humans is absurd. But in recent years, this idea has become more and more of a reality, thanks to game-changing cases such as Citizens United vs. FEC. How did we get to this place?

In an article on Slate, Naomi Lamoreaux and William Novak briefly go over the history of how corporations evolved from artificial persons to real persons with human rights. They emphasize that this change was a slow descent that still seemed unthinkable to justices as late as the Rehnquist court.

The court’s move toward extending liberty rights to corporations is even more recent. In 1978, the court held in First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti that citizens had the right to hear corporate political speech, effectively granting corporations First Amendment speech rights to spend money to influence the political process. But even then, the decision was contentious. Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, in dissent, reminded the court of its own history: Though it had determined in Santa Clara that corporations had 14th Amendment property protections, it soon after ruled that the liberty of the due-process clause was “the liberty of natural, not artificial persons.”

If you find this piece interesting then I would encourage you to read Lamoreaux’s collaboration with Ruth Bloch, “Corporations and the Fourteenth Amendment,” a much more detailed look at this history. One interesting point that emerges from this paper is that our general understanding of how rights became ascribed to corporations is historically inaccurate. Bloch and Lamoreaux assert that although the Court in Santa Clara v. Southern Pacific Railroad  likened corporations to individuals and asserted that they might have some protected rights, they were careful to distinguish between corporate and human civil rights.

During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Supreme Court drew careful distinctions among the various clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment. Some parts it applied to corporations, in particular the phrases involving property rights; but other parts, such as the privileges and immunities clause and the due -
process protections for liberty, it emphatically did not. Although this parsing might seem strange to us today, it derived from a remarkably coherent theory of federalism in which the Court positioned itself both as the enforcer of state regulatory authority over corporations and as the guardian of individual (but not corporate) liberty against state intrusion. To the extent that the Court extended constitutional protections to corporations, it did so to protect the interests of the human persons who made them up.

Read the whole paper. It’s fascinating!

Written by brayden king

March 28, 2014 at 3:15 pm

digital media, connective action, and social movements

The following is a review of W. Lance Bennett’s and Alexandra Segerberg’s The Logic of Connective Action: Digital Media and the Personalization of Contentious Politics. The review is slated to be published in AJS sometime later this year.

One of the most significant changes to social movements is activists’ use of digital technology and media –from texting to Facebook and Twitter. Arab Spring and the Occupy movement brought these technologies’ transformative potential to the public eye. Observers praised activists who relied on digital media to coordinate collective action, to resist authority, and to broadcast their claims to a global audience. Despite the important functions such media have played in movements, sociologists who study social movements have been slow to address their role in activism. Bennett’s and Segerberg’s book is a welcome introduction to the topic and should, I hope, convince more sociologists that our theories of movements should consider social media as a distinctive resource, one that transforms the way people engage in activism rather than simply augmenting traditional communications.

The authors make three main points. First, in contrast to traditional forms of collective action, digital media create a competing logic of connective action. This logic is derived from beliefs in individuality and distrust of hierarchy and authority, a desire to be inclusive, and the availability of open technologies. Second, with digital media people contribute to movements through personalized expression, rather than group actions that coalesce around collective identities. This high level of personalization allows individuals to connect in flexible ways, adapting movements to fit their own lifestyles, beliefs, and meaning. Ideology and shared identity take a backseat to individuality and expression. Third, communication becomes the basic form of organizing, replacing hierarchical structures and professional leaders. Bennett and Segerberg are careful to recognize that in many situations standard models of collective action exist side-by-side with connective action. Yet, their main intent is clearly to explore and uncover the dynamics of this new approach to organizing rather than explicitly compare the two.

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by brayden king

March 10, 2014 at 1:37 pm

the orgtheory psychological contract

At orgtheory we’ve tried to develop a loose environment for scholarly discussion. By loose, I mean a place where people can feel comfortable talking about serious ideas in a fun way, without the formality of a colloquium and more open and inclusive than most professional settings. For the most part we’ve been successful I think at facilitating that sort of feeling among contributors. Over the years we’ve had great conversations that have not been constrained by status, rank, or other forms of exclusivity. A community has formed around orgtheory that, while including a lot of sociologists, is fairly interdisciplinary and broad. Personally, that’s why I keep coming back and, even if I’ll go weeks without posting anything, I place a lot of value on this blog and the people who come here to speak their mind.

Our discussions frequently veer from their intended targets and most of the time that is totally okay and within the norms of orgtheory. This place would be boring if people were required to stay on point all the time. It’s consistent with the loose, collegial atmosphere we’ve tried to create. But occasionally (and I mean very infrequently) discussions turn in a sour direction. This wasn’t a problem for the first few years of the blog, perhaps because in those early years we knew almost everyone who came online to connect with us. We had a small community and it was easy to enforce norms with each other. But in the past couple of years, we’ve had a few posts where commenters have become a little snippy with each other. We’ve talked internally about how best to handle those outbursts. As I see it two ideals compete with each other. On the one hand, we value inclusiveness and believe that the best way to encourage real discussion and debate is not to censor. We want people to feel that their input is valued, regardless of status, rank, expertise, etc. On the other hand, we value civility and believe that if people treat each other according to the “golden rule” a greater variety of people will be more likely to participate. And it does seem to be true that when discussions get especially rancorous, many people drop out of the debate and the more impassioned voices surge to the front line.  The rules of discussion that Fabio posted a few months ago were a response to the rising tide of incivility that we observed on the blog.

And this leads me to the incident lurking behind this post. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by brayden king

March 5, 2014 at 6:57 pm

Posted in blogs, brayden

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