Archive for the ‘guest bloggers’ Category
Bayliss J. Camp has graciously agreed to post about his experiences with research beyond the ivory tower. He is Research Manager II with the California Department of Motor Vehicles, where he supervises the Driver Competency and Safety Projects Unit. He serves also as a member of the California Strategic Highway Safety Plan (SHSP) Challenge Area 9 (Improving Safety for Older Roadway Users), the SHSP Traffic Safety Culture Task Force, the Transportation Research Board (TRB) Committee on Safe Mobility of Older Persons (ANB60), and the TRB Roadway Safety Cultures Subcommittee. His recent publications have appeared in the American Journal of Sociology, Journal of Safety Research, Politics and Policy and Sociological Perspectives. He came to California DMV in 2007, after having taught Sociology at Texas Christian University. He currently holds a position as lecturer in Sociology at California State University, Sacramento. He received his Ph.D. (Sociology) from Harvard University in 2003.
Friday marks the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Given this occasion, guest blogger Barry Wellman asked me to post, on his behalf, his 1993 article “Disbelief in Authority: JFK, Milgram and Me.“
Here’s an excerpt from the beginning:
Update: Here’s the entire excerpt, with Barry’s permission:
DISBELIEF IN AUTHORITY: JFK, MILGRAM AND ME
Reminiscences for the 30th Anniversary of Obedience to Authority, Annual Meeting of the American Psychological Association, Toronto
Barry Wellman, Department of Sociology, University of Toronto
Not only was 1963 the year that Stan Milgram’s Obedience to Authority was published, it was also the year that Stan, JFK and I came together for one explosive moment in November.
SOC REL 200 was the centerpiece of Harvard’s Social Relations Department. Each week a Harvard star gave new graduate students the word on his latest masterpiece. Each week, I sat shaking in my seat, a New York City street kid who had never studied sociology before, trying to figure out what was going on and to make believe that I already knew.
You’ll recall that Soc Rel’s raison d’etre was to bring together social and clinical psychologists with sociologists and anthropologists. In no other graduate school, would I have routinely encountered Erik Erikson or Roger Brown, or met Stan Milgram.
Stan was new at Harvard too, an untenured professor. I didn’t know if he was shaking or not. In those days I looked at faculty members with awe, and even addressed them as “Professor”. (Nowadays, when a Toronto student calls me “Professor,” I immediately wonder what s/he wants out of me.) In mid-November, Stan did SOC REL 200. He enthralled us with the shocking news of his then-recent “obedience to authority” experiments. This clearly was a formidable guy; this clearly was a crafty guy. You’d never know when he’d pull an experiment on you.
The following week, Talcott Parsons lectured to SOC REL 200 about the nature of social systems. In the midst of Talcott’s guided tour through the labyrinth of A, G, I and L boxes, Stan Milgram burst into the lecture hall, and rushed to the podium.
“I have horrible news,” he announced. “President Kennedy has been shot in Dallas!”
“Cut the crap, Milgram,” I remember blurting out from my seat, forgetting even to call him “Professor”. “You’re just doing another experiment on us.”
“No, it’s true! Listen, Ed Kelly has it on his radio.”
Sure enough, Ed Kelly (then a psychology graduate student) brought in a transistor radio which kept announcing that President Kennedy had been shot.
“This guy Milgram sure is a great experimenter,” I said to my classmates. “Just like Orson Welles, he’s even rigged up a simulated radio broadcast to convince us that this is true. I wonder what the experiment is really about.”
It was only after we left Emerson Hall, went out into Harvard Yard and talked to others, that we realized that JFK had been shot and that Stan Milgram had only been telling us the truth this time.
The “experiment” had been an inadvertent one: my persistent denial of a painful truth. However, I am sure that if Stan Milgram hadn’t had such a reputation as an imaginative researcher and hadn’t demonstrated it just a week before, I would have accepted the news much more easily.
Stan and I became friendly after this. I was a great fan of his ingenious experiments and noble goals. I especially remember the time in the mid-sixties that he mailed a bunch of envelopes to the southern US. Some of the envelopes had return addresses indicating that they were from racerelations groups; others were more innocuous. Sure enough, many of the race-relations envelopes were opened en route, Milgram had a trick to show that.
Stan and I have kept on dancing around the same issues — similar perspectives, different techniques. His “Small World” research became one of the touchstones of social network analysis. Our communities are far-flung networks. Stan showed that we’re all connected to each other by five (or fewer) interpersonal ties. My students are skeptical of this until I demonstrate that they’re all linked to Wayne Gretzky: one of my students always knows him, or knows someone who knows someone who knows him. They’re even more convinced (although less excited) when I demonstrate our links to Inner Mongolian yak herders (three indirect ties via one of my graduate students).
Stan moved to CUNY and New York City; they taught each other many things. I think warmly of Stan every year when my urban sociology students read “The Experience of Living in Cities” (Ed: see article) — which is about everywhere but reeks of New York. Stan not only talked about the lack of neighborhood community; he showed how to investigate it — simply and neatly. You must remember that Toronto is both the safest and the most uptight city in North America. People here fear interpersonal contact when they have the least reason to do so. Right after reading Stan’s article, I send my students out to do an experiment: “Just look people in the eye and smile at them. Record who smiles back, by age, gender, social circumstances and personal characteristics.” Most
Toronto students find this hard to do, but they plunge in as a wild adventure. They report that almost all of the people they smiled at, violently twist their heads away from them.
We call this experiment, “The Neckbreaker”. Stan would have loved it.
 Sexist pronoun empirically accurate.
 Where Love Story was later filmed.
Folks, Barry Wellman has agreed to share his thoughts, when the “muse strikes” him, as a guest blogger at orgtheory. Like many of our dear readers, Barry is a font of helpful insights and witty to boot. Although he is a native New Yorker, he knows where the interesting restaurants are in Toronto and how to best get to Toronto from NYC. As a networks and community expert, Barry has contributed numerous publications. His latest publication is the book Networked: The New Social Operating System (MIT Press, 2012), co-authored with Lee Rainie, Director of the Pew Research Center’s Internet Project.
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!
This is a guest post by Graham Peterson. He has just finished up his master’s degree in economics at UIC and will begin the PhD program in sociology at the University of Chicago. He is interested in economic sociology
and extended blog comments.
It’s a shame sociology took its final-swoop quantitative turn just about the same time economics reissued its permissions to do comparative history and started publishing discourse studies in its mainstream journals. It’s as if estranged siblings would be forever doomed to blow past one another and reissue each other’s mistakes. Politics.
The turn for sociology was of course both theoretical and empirical, but that damned dissertation in 2021 really sealed it: Foundations of Sociological Analysis (Paul Samuelson glowed proud from his grave). It was as if sociologists had been waiting for someone to come along and resolve all the definitional issues in theory and compose an axiomatic graph-theoretic derivation of sociological principles. Now all the theorists do is applied combinatorics on graphs. Useless.
Single autocatalytic networks generate life, but they do not generate novel forms of life. There is nothing outside of a single decontextualized network to bring in to recombine with what is already there. Self-organizing out of randomness into an equilibrium of reproducing transformations, the origin of life, was a nontrivial accomplishment, to be sure. But this is not quite speciation, which is emergence of one form of life out of another.
Transpositions and feedbacks among multiple networks are the sources of organizational novelty. In a multiple-network architecture, networks are the contexts of each other. Studying organizational novelty places a premium on measuring multiple social networks in interaction because that is the raw material for innovation. Subsequent cascades of death and reconstruction may or may not turn initial transpositions (innovations) across networks into system-wide invention.
Through fifteen empirical case chapters, Padgett and Powell extracted eight multiple-network mechanisms of organizational genesis:
Happy New Years, folks! We’ve made it to 2013, with you, fellow readers, guest bloggers, and the orgtheory crew.
Speaking of guest bloggers, let’s thank Daniel Kreiss for his insightful commentary and analysis of the use of media in the last two US presidential campaigns. You can revisit his posts here, here, here, and here. You can also read more in his recently published book Taking Our Country Back: The Crafting of Networked Politics from Howard Dean to Barack Obama (2012, Oxford University Press).
This is the fourth and final post in a blog forum about inequality and organizational theory (see parts 1, 2, and 3). Michael Piore of MIT’s Sloan School of Management and the Department of Economics wrote the post, and Brayden King provided a rather long-winded commentary.
I share the concerns which a number of commentators have expressed here about the increasing inequality of income in the United States, but I see the income distribution as a symptom of a far more fundamental problem, the way in which we in the United States think about the economy and the capacity to manage and direct it through public policy. Two basic ideas now dominate our thinking: The notion of human behavior as motivated by individual self-interest (usually the maximization of monetary rewards) and the competitive market as a template for organizing all social activity. These are the starting point of standard economics, the foundations of a program of scientific research. But in the United States they have become the foundations of a political program as well. In most of the rest of the world, that political program is called neo-liberalism, but the tenets upon which it rests are so buried in contemporary American consciousness that we don’t even have a particular word for this way of thinking. They are widely accepted on the left and on the right of the political spectrum. If there is a difference, it is that the left is willing to revisit and revise the distribution of income through taxes and transfers once the market has played itself out, although it has had only limited success in doing so.
It is not that the insights of economics, even as refracted through the neoliberal lens, are wrong; it is that they are so limited (and in those limits so constraining). Sociology starts from a different set of insights about individual motivation and about social organization, and thus promises to open to the way toward a different set of visions about how we might structure the world in which we live, without sacrificing economic prosperity. And for me at least, the main reason for drawing sociologists into economic debates is to expand those limits.
As an economist, it perhaps ill-behooves me to say exactly what the alternative sociological perspective is. Indeed, there are probably several different perspectives that emerge out of the sociological vision. But the version which appeals to me is that the behavior of individual actors in a social system is directed by the actors’ conceptions of their personal identities; that those identities are, in turn, embedded in a set of narratives which link the stories that individuals tell themselves about their own personal lives to the identities (and historical narratives) of the organizations in which they live and work; and that these organizational narratives are ultimately linked to each other through a set of narratives about the larger society. It is the attempt to be the persons that these narratives identify, to act out the roles which they define, that motivates the actors in the economy. And it is these interlocking narratives—in addition to or possibly in place of, the market—which give the economy cohesion and direction. This “sociological understanding” suggests that what holds together and permits the current income distribution is the narrative of neoliberalism. What we need to create a more equitable and humane distribution is first the conviction that an alternative set of narratives is possible, and second to identify what such an alternative might be.
I worry that sociology is doing neither, that it has become distracted by a debate with economists about what determines individual incomes and is engaged in a project of showing that the market does not explain individual outcomes and that something else is at stake here (e.g., discrimination, social capital, even institutional isomorphism). I worry that in the absence of a broader perspective—about how sociology explains individual behavior and social coherence—and an alternative narrative, the answer to the critique will simply be policies to increase the pressures of the competitive market until outcomes which conform to it are achieved.
Blogging Fast and Slow: Being an Account of the Author’s Misadventures in Guest-Blogging, with Some Musings on the Genre’s Pitfalls and Pathological Forms (and Jonah Lehrer)*
Hi, Tom Medvetz here with my final OrgTheory guest post. I thought I’d bring my discussion full circle in this one by returning to the general theme with which I began—namely, “reflexivity”—albeit now with some reflections on the blogging genre itself. As my earlier posts have illustrated, sometimes with painful clarity, I’m no blogger by training. To be honest, I don’t even read academic blogs very often. So it was with a certain curiosity that I ventured into this arena over the last couple of months—first, by writing a few entries myself, and second by paying attention to some of the top social science blogs. What did I learn from this? If you’re a longtime academic blogger or blog-reader, some of it might seem obvious to you, but hopefully it will also contain a novel twist, like reading an ethnography about your home country.
In the first place, it’s clear that the “rules” of academic blogging are different from—and sometimes even apparently at loggerheads with—the rules of scholarship. Part of a blog’s appeal, in fact, is that its default style is casual, not formal, and its “temporality” is fast, not slow. If you’re a scholar, blogging seems to free you at least momentarily from some of the constraints of academic discourse, and without forcing you to abandon altogether your scholarly authority. As other people have mentioned on this site, blogging can bring certain payoffs that complement the research enterprise nicely. I’ve come to think of the relationship between these payoffs and academic research in terms of a temporal metaphor:
(1) “Pre-scholarly” dividends
On the one hand, blogging offers certain benefits that I’d call “pre-scholarly” because they’re oriented to the goal of generating ideas that can be developed further in research. Here blogging is like “freewriting,” a la 3rd grade English class, wherein the point is to “put some thoughts down on paper” and get them flowing without having to worry too much about whether they’re actually right or wrong. To say something on a blog, after all, isn’t to put it On The Record per se—and in any case it’s very easy to go back the next day and strike it from the record. (In fact, you could even argue that this “zig-zag” style of blogging is very efficient for conveying a sense of thoughtfulness while also doubling your output, which is a real issue if you’re a blogger. My point being: Who has something worthwhile to say every day? Certainly not I.)
(2) “Post-scholarly” dividends
Conversely, blogs can also be a medium for summarizing or disseminating research results in a very authoritative and definitive style. Writing in a quasi-journalistic mode, an academic blogger can report on the scholarly Events of the Day without having been a part of the action itself. To me, the most interesting thing about this payoff is that it appears to be based on a kind of “meta-objectivity,” by which I mean a position of implied distance from the object in which the object is itself a world where authority flows already to those who effectively cultivate a stance of objectivity and distance.
There’s no doubt, then, that blogs have a certain seductive appeal to them, especially in their promise to combine these payoffs. And I should emphasize that I don’t consider either payoff to be “false.” In fact, over the last month I’ve seen some truly virtuoso examples of academic blogging, both on this site and on some related ones. Overall, then, count me as a cautious fan of academic blogging. However, because I’m both an admirer of Durkheim and a confirmed pessimist, my first impulse whenever I see something seemingly innocuous or good is to go looking for its pathological forms. (Yeah, I know what you’re thinking and you’re correct: I am great at parties.)
You don’t have to look very far to find academic blogging’s pathological forms. The most obvious would have to be the hubristic style of blogging which, by imagining itself as merging the pre- and post-scholarly stances I just described, also makes a subtle claim to exist in between them—as if being an academic blogger somehow makes you a better scholar. As a blogger, you can post your anecdotal observation-in-need-of-further-investigation one minute and then switch to your Ted Koppel-style Summarizing Voice of Authority the next, the implication being that you also operate quite comfortably in between those bookends. Now I’m sure that an Inveterate Blogger would say that there’s no such message built into the act of blogging. Fair enough, I’d say, but this only brings us back to our original question: Why blog? Given the focus of my earlier posts, it should come as no surprise that I see in the “will to blog” something other than a megalomaniacal impulse or a straightforward result of the growth of new media technologies. Instead, I think the popularity of academic blogging has to be understood in relation to other developments in the intellectual field over the last four decades, including the proliferation of “new cultural intermediaries” and intellectual bridging figures, the development of a space of “organized punditry,” and the rise of think tanks and “policy experts.”
As I mentioned above, there’s no question that bloggers can, in their best moments, act as intellectual bridging figures between disparate worlds, such as those of policy, media, and research. But I think embedded in the larger story is a cautionary tale, especially for younger scholars. For instance, if you’d asked me to name the quintessential intellectual bridging figure in America just four months ago, I would have named Jonah Lehrer, the now-discredited neuroscience journalist who went from research assistant in a Nobel prize-winning neuroscientist’s lab to a Rhodes Scholarship, and then on to the land of Wired magazine and TED talks. Lehrer skipped the part where you actually master “straightforward” scientific research and moved immediately into the role of an intellectual bridging figure.
I find his story very interesting, not just because he’s the latest inductee into the Pantheon of Disgraced Journalists already inhabited by people like Jayson Blair and Stephen Glass. More interesting, I think, are the striking continuities between Lehrer’s “sins” and the qualities that made him successful in the first place. These continuities in turn reveal the supreme ambiguity of the bridging role he tried to play. The last straw for Lehrer, reputation-wise, was the revelation that he had fabricated quotes in his most recent book. This was an unambiguous ethical breach by any professional code of conduct, be it scholarly, journalistic, or otherwise. However, to focus only on this last stage of his downfall would be to miss its connection to the previous ones. I’m referring, first, to the intermediate stage in which Lehrer was dogged with the awkward charge of “self-plagiarism,” and second, to the earliest critiques of Lehrer, which date roughly to the moment he first stepped into the public eye. Even these critiques, I would argue, contained the seeds of his undoing. In a 2007 review of his first book Proust Was a Neuroscientist (published when Lehrer was just 26), Jonathon Keats presciently charged that Lehrer’s work was governed by “trivial” choices and “reductionist” tendencies; that it “arbitrarily and often inaccurately illustrat[ed] the sciences with works by artists”; and that it “embodie[d] an approach to the humanities and sciences that threaten[ed] the vitality of both.”
The common thread across these critiques, in a word, is shortcuts. Jonah Lehrer took too many shortcuts. But how could you avoid taking shortcuts if your public reputation was based on your supposed ability to synthesize and reinterpret work from numerous fields, translate it into an easily digestible style, and engage in rapid, voluminous production—particularly at such a young age? (Lehrer published four books by the age of 30 and wrote columns and/or blog postings for several major outlets, including Wired, The Wall Street Journal, The Boston Globe, and The Guardian.) Despite all the disfavor heaped on him, no one has ever accused Lehrer of being an out-and-out fraud. I find this, along with the fact that much of the offending work was hidden in plain sight for months (or even years) before anyone called him out on it,† to be very telling. Both points speak to a constitutive ambiguity in the intellectual bridging role Lehrer was attempting to play. His loss of public legitimacy wasn’t sudden, but followed a slow, steady progression from “He’s not quite the virtuoso he wants us to believe he is” to the more concrete but still vague, “He recycled his own material, and that’s… not right, is it?” to the final, damning, “Dude, he just made up that Bob Dylan quote.”
In summary, I hope you can see that my view on academic blogging is double-sided and that this is not a critique of the medium itself. As an Inveterate Blogger would point out, any broad slam against blogging would have to rely on sloppy generalizations, fuzzy and impressionistic thinking, and straw men. I’ll leave aside the obvious retort—namely, that generalizations, fuzzy thinking, and straw men are precisely what blogs enable you to get away with so easily—and focus instead on the main point, which is that academic blogging’s attractions seem to come at the cost of ambiguity: ambiguity about the “rules” of a good blog, ambiguity about the ultimate goals and payoffs, and ambiguity about the proper relationship between blogging and research. When viewed in this light, the “constraints” of scholarly research begin to look more like forms of freedom to me.
* The title of this post refers to two “Daniels”: Kahneman, whose 2012 book you should definitely check out if you haven’t already, and Defoe, whose titles generally had that cool 18th century flair about them and ran roughly the length of a typical blog post.
† And I mean really plain sight, as in New York Times Bestseller List plain sight.
Hello, OrgTheory readers—Tom Medvetz here, returning after a brief blogging-sabbatical* with my fifth and penultimate guest post. As the title indicates, this post is a continuation of my last one, which focused on the status of so-called “public intellectuals” in the U.S. However, one of my main points in that discussion was that the debate itself—having grown zombie-like (by which I mean lurching aimlessly for a quarter-century, well past its natural lifespan)—deserved critique.†
The Talking Dead: some leading figures in the debate on “public intellectuals”
If you didn’t get a chance to read part 1 of this post, here are the main take-home points:
(1) First, I made the far-from-novel observation that any attempt to make meaningful statements about “intellectuals,” public or otherwise, is fraught with all kinds of analytic, theoretical, and conceptual difficulties—the main ones being linked to the concept intellectual itself (and its closest kin: e.g. experts, pseudo-intellectuals, etc.). As Zygmunt Bauman put it, “Any attempt to define intellectuals is an attempt at self-definition.”‡ In fact, you could plausibly argue that making a definitive statement about who “truly” counts as an intellectual is in a sense the ultimate intellectual act inasmuch as it presupposes a kind of meta-level knowledge about what “real” knowledge is, who really has it, etc.
(2) So I dealt with these issues by invoking an analytic framework snatched directly from the work of Gil Eyal—and the purpose of the framework was to give us a coherent way to talk about the relationships among social actors and groups who make claims to expertise. (Really, you should go back and look at the first post.)
(3) The key point of that framework was that it’s useful to think about experts in terms of a field-like space of relations, which Eyal calls the field of expertise. For my purposes, the key opposition in that discussion was between two stances intellectuals can take vis-à-vis their audiences: “openness” and “closure.” In this usage, openness is a willingness to produce knowledge that’s freely accessible to a non-expert “laity,” whereas closure is an expert group’s attempt to exercise proprietary control over its knowledge, especially through credentialization, but also by giving its knowledge a degree of esotericism or “mystery.”
In my own work, this opposition became relevant when I asked where the think tank category came from. Limits of space prevent me from explaining fully why this is a puzzle in the first place, so for the most part you’ll have to trust me. But very briefly: part of the issue is that many of the organizations that we now call “think tanks” (e.g. Brookings, CEIP, CFR, NBER) emerged in the 1910s and ‘20s, decades before anyone classified them as members of the same organizational “species.” Other complexities aside, it wasn’t until the 1970s that the think tank classification developed in anything resembling its present day form, with postwar military planning groups like the RAND Corporation becoming the early prototypes—and the older, Progressive Era-groups getting lumped in afterwards.
In the book, I argue that the think tank classification formed as the result of a merging together of two sets of organizations with competing claims to expertise on matters related to public policy. On the one side were some of the aforementioned organizations, which had by the 1950s claimed for themselves important roles in economic, social, and foreign policy-making affairs. In the absence of a formal technocratic arm of the state, groups like Brookings, CFR, and RAND were centrally involved in devising the social programs of the welfare state, supplying technical assistance to the defense industry, staffing the economic administration, helping to broker deals between management and labor, and so on.
However, the 1960s saw the growth of a major challenge to the authority of technocrats, one led by an emerging set of figures I call activist-experts. Doubtless the most provocative part of this claim is that it counts certain sub-factions of the Left and the Right as two sides of the same coin. This isn’t to say that they were engaged in a secret conspiracy, only that if we momentarily bracket the ideological differences between them, there are certain nontrivial commonalities that help to illuminate the question at hand. The general point is that both the left- and right-wing movements of the 1960s were animated largely by suspicion toward professionalized rationality and its carriers: i.e. “technocrats.”
Of course, the right- and left-wing critiques of technocracy took on very different forms and had different targets. For the New Left, it was the image of the Cold War military planner that became the key symbol of technocracy run amok. (Read the Port Huron Statement for its denunciation of professionalized rationality—or watch the movie Dr. Strangelove for its caricaturized representation of a crazed military adviser.) For conservatives, the main technocratic villain was the New Deal welfare state planner. (Read the Sharon Statement for its denunciation of “government interfere[nce] with the work of the market economy”—or watch the movie Brazil for its dystopian vision of a suffocating state bureaucracy.)§ In both cases, the argument was that technocratic experts had become too powerful, too unaccountable to the public, and too consumed by their own professional self-interests.
Villainy we can agree on: Deranged nuclear scientist Dr. Strangelove (left), a character often said to have been based on Hudson Institute founder Herman Kahn, and a faceless bureaucrat from Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (right).
For me, the idea of the field of expertise became useful as a tool for understanding what happened next. First, it’s important to recognize that both sets of activists faced the same paradox inherent in any attempt to challenge “expertise”: Put simply, to try to undermine the authority of an expert is already to claim for yourself a kind of expertise. It should come as no surprise, then, that with virtually no credentials or academic titles to speak of and no recognized body of authoritative knowledge at their disposal, activists on both sides established hundreds of new nonprofit research centers that served a kind of self-credentialing function. In my formulation, the activists became “activist-experts.” In the language of field analysis, they pursued a strategy of closure by attempting to “certify” their knowledge and constitute themselves as experts of a new breed.
Among the best examples are the Institute for Policy Studies and the Worldwatch Institute (on the left) and the Heritage Foundation (1971) and the Manhattan Institute (1978) (on the right). The growth of these organizations had major effects for their technocratic predecessors, which increasingly found themselves under scrutiny for their public unaccountability, their secrecy, and their supposed self-interestedness. In the theoretical language I’ve used, they faced a problem of too much closure. Accordingly, they began moving “vertically’” toward the center of the field of expertise by “opening up” their knowledge. Organizations like Brookings, CFR, and RAND, having once tried to operate entirely “behind the scenes,” increasingly sought media attention, produced shorter and more accessible writing for the general public, and expanded their memberships.
The result was a kind of structural convergence. Notice that this framework allows us to avoid any essentializing labels for either set of organizations. In fact, the main point is that to the degree that the activist-oriented groups succeeded in getting their policy recommendations taken seriously by politicians (i.e. in becoming political “insiders”), they became more “technocratic” themselves. And vice versa: to the degree that the more technocratic groups engaged in public outreach, they became more like the activist-experts. The overarching result of the convergence, I argue, was that the organizations became increasingly interconnected, more oriented to one another in their judgments and practices, and more focused on common goals. By the 1980s, the distinction between them had become muddier—and the political folk category think tank was born to describe all of them.
What does all this have to do with the debate about “public intellectuals”? First, it suggests a wholesale reframing of that debate. The term public intellectual itself is best understood, not as referring to a flesh-and-blood individual, but to a theoretical position in a space of relations. Second, it suggests that the period since the 1960s has been marked neither by the “demise of the public intellectual” in any simple sense, nor by the opposite process (i.e. the flowering of public intellectuals), as others have argued. Instead, it has been marked by the appearance of a new intellectual figure known as a “policy expert.” Commentators who celebrate policy experts as “public intellectuals” invariably overlook the severe economic and political constraints they face in conducting policy research.
On the other hand, commentators who lament the “death” of public intellectualism typically romanticize the late 1950s and early ‘60s as its golden age. This was the era of John Kenneth Galbraith, C. Wright Mills, David Riesman, and Richard Hofstadter. However, if the germ of a public intellectual project was incubating then, it represented the lesser of the two developing challenges to technocracy. Furthermore, the project’s failure cannot be explained in terms of a simple retreat by scholars into the “ivory tower.” Unlike the structural convergence between technocrats and activist-experts that gave rise to the “policy expert,” the relations among academic scholars since the 1960s have been marked by divergence. Whereas some took the path of “hyper-professionalization” (to quote Steve Shapin), others opted to imitate the style of the “policy expert.” Yet others still have persisted in a civic-intellectual mission—only to face a double-marginalization: first, from American public debate, and second, from the mainstreams of their own disciplines. Meanwhile, the main cause of this divergence, and the primary obstacle to the development of a viable civic-intellectual tradition in the US—viz. the institutionalization of “policy expertise” through the blending of activist and technocratic styles of intellectual production—has gone largely unnoticed.
* Much like blog posts themselves, blogging-sabbaticals are inevitably quite short.
† In retrospect, I should have incorporated a zombie angle into the book—zombies currently being a surefire path to the bestseller list.
‡ Zygmunt Bauman. 1992. “Love in Adversity: On the State and the Intellectuals, and the State of the Intellectuals,” Thesis Eleven 31: 81-104. Quoted in Jerome Karabel. 1996. “Towards a Theory of Intellectuals and Politics.” Theory and Society 25: 205-233.
§ Incidentally, one of the original working titles for Brazil was (I’m not making this up) The Ministry of Torture, Or How I Learned to Live with the System—a clear reference to Dr. Strangelove’s full title. Also, I should state outright that I’m not suggesting Brazil is an inherently “conservative” movie (although I would point out that the website Libertarian.com seems to think it is)—and even the somewhat less ideological Cyberpunkreview.com summarizes the film’s point in terms of a critique of the welfare state: “In the end, Brazil shows how the depths of humanity can be crushed in a dystopic future where individuality and human rights become completely subservient to societal ‘welfare.’”
On Tues., some voters endured long lines to do their civic duty, and the media provided relentless coverage. For a brief moment, presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s transition website went live, offering additional insight into his campaign’s symbols and messaging for the US.
Daniel Kreiss‘s research can help viewers decode such imagery, as well as understand the rise of Internet media in past campaigns. Check out Daniel’s book Taking Our Country Back: The Crafting of Networked Politics from Howard Dean to Barack Obama (2012, Oxford University Press). In addition, check back for posts by Daniel – he will be guest blogging at orgtheory!
Daniel is an Assistant Professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. You can read more about Daniel here.
It is my pleasure to announce our guest for the month of November - Rhacel Salazar Parrenas, the chair of USC’s sociology department. Before moving to LA, she taught at Madison, Davis, and Brown. Rhacel is an international figure in the study of migration. Her book, Servants of Globalization: Women, Migration and Domestic Work (Stanford, 2001), is a highly influential account of gender and global migration that was discussed in venues like The Economist. It’s a pleasure to have her with us this November.
This blog post is the third in a blog forum about inequality and organizational theory (see parts 1 and 2). Adam Cobb of Penn’s Wharton School of Management wrote the post and Leslie McCall of Northwestern University provided commentary.
An imbalance between rich and poor is the oldest and most fatal ailment of all republics.
Corporations are the essence of inequality. Within them, workers are sorted into pyramid-shaped hierarchies where a privileged few at the top garner disproportionate perks from their status. Executives benefit from skyrocketing levels of compensation that are not tightly coupled with sustained company performance, while those at the lower rungs of the firm receive stagnant wages, declining benefits, and less security despite overall increases in labor productivity over the past 30 years. At first glance, it’s logical to assume that the prevalence of large-scale corporate enterprises in a society would be associated with greater levels of inequality.
One afternoon, Jerry Davis (my recovering advisor and current co-conspirator in this research) and I began thinking about this question in detail. Jerry had recently finished his book tour for Managed by Markets, which chronicled the decline of the large corporation and concomitant rise of finance as the central institution in US society. We discussed how income inequality rose during a period when financial markets took an increasingly large role in redefining the purpose of the firm – the corporation was no longer a stabilizing institution providing large numbers of quality jobs, retirement and health care, and opportunities for advancement and mobility. Could rising income inequality be a consequence these changes? Our hunch was yes.
Hi, Tom Medvetz here, checking in with my fourth OrgTheory guest post (posts 1, 2, and 3 here). Today I’ll sketch a few notes about one of the big issues my book speaks to: the complex relationship between social knowledge and public action in the US. Perhaps the best-known debate on this topic is the one associated with Russell Jacoby’s 1987 book, The Last Intellectuals, which famously lamented the disappearance of “public intellectuals” from American life. In the years since its publication, Jacoby’s book and the idea of the “public intellectual” have earned enormous attention from journalists, pundits, and scholars.
However, reading over some of the major entries in this debate, it’s hard to shake the feeling that the “public intellectual” discussion has yielded more heat than light. In the first place, it’s striking how much disagreement still attends the central question a quarter-century later: Is public intellectualism declining or thriving in America? It depends on who you ask. Three days ago, Henry Giroux’s Counterpunch essay “The Disappearance of Public Intellectuals” seemed to take the basic truth of Jacoby’s thesis for granted. Meanwhile, many other writers have taken the opposite stance by arguing that public intellectuals are alive and well in the US. A good example is Daniel W. Drezner’s 2008 paper “Public Intellectuals 2.0,” which maintained that “the growth of online publication venues has stimulated rather than retarded the quality and diversity of public intellectuals.”
A second glance at this debate reveals a likely reason for the disagreement. Put simply, there has never been any consensus about the proper definition of the term public intellectual. In fact, it’s fair to say that how a given writer operationalizes the term tends to determine where he or she stands on the issue.
Hi, Tom Medvetz here with my third guest installment for OrgTheory.* In this little excursion, I’ll extend the “Dude, where’s my social theory?” discussion that’s been percolating on the site over the last couple of months. The main points of that conversation, which originated with Kieran Healy’s August 22 post and continued more recently in Fabio’s posts (here and here) were that: (1) the category “theorist” seems to be disappearing as an occupational position in American sociology, and that (2) fewer sociologists identify themselves as theorists.
There’s no denying the basic fact underpinning the first point: namely, that the number of jobs with the label “theorist” attached to them has gone down in American sociology over the last few decades. Kieran posits that one result of this trend is growing semantic confusion over the meaning of the term theory:
As a consequence, many people are not sure what, from a disciplinary point of view, theory in sociology is supposed to be any more, or how it should be done, or what if anything distinguishes it from intellectual history, or philosophy, or normative political theory, or humanities-style ‘Theory,’ or mathematical modeling.
I agree—this is probably true. However, it’s worth pointing out that semantic confusion is neither a necessary nor a ubiquitous feature of the shift being discussed. Furthermore, when we start to think about what it means to “do theory,” the discussion takes on a different cast and the issue of “theory’s” status as an occupational position becomes secondary.
I’d begin by noting a seeming exception to proposition #2 above: namely, the recent growth of a vibrant network of young sociologists who identify themselves explicitly as “theorists”—best signaled by the popularity of the ASA Theory section’s Junior Theorist Symposium. Started in 2005 by Neil Gross and Michèle Lamont and resumed in 2008 after a two-year hiatus, the event has grown steadily over the past few years. The list of past “senior theorist” discussants includes Andrew Abbott, Jeffrey Alexander, Craig Calhoun, Randall Collins, Phil Gorski, Richard Swedberg, Ann Swidler, Loïc Wacquant, Andreas Wimmer, and Viviana Zelizer.†
Of course, the popularity of the JTS doesn’t contradict the fact that there are fewer jobs for “theory” specialists. But it does raise another question already anticipated in Kieran’s post: Who are these people, and what do they mean by “theory”? On this general topic, Kieran writes that, “Crudely, the sort of people who once would have thought of themselves. . . primarily as theorists now think of themselves as sociologists of culture instead, or (less often) as disciplinary historians of ideas.” Is this true? Certainly there’s a lot of overlap among these areas—theory, culture, and the history of ideas—in terms of ideas and personnel. Nevertheless, I think there remains, both in the JTS events and in other work done under the banner of “theory” today, a coherent mission that’s not reducible to the sociology of culture per se, or to the history of ideas. It’s also something that can’t be expressed in terms of an opposition between “theoretical” and “empirical” work. I’m referring to the specific focus on the task of analytic construction, including the work of formulating rigorous concepts, historicizing the categories of one’s research (not for its own sake, but as an ongoing feature of their implementation), and taking into account their social effects. And I’d submit that the level of appreciation for these things in American sociology is more important than the specific fate of “theory” as a subdiscipline.
I can clarify this point by returning to the topic I’ve been discussing on this blog: think tanks. Doubtless the two most common questions I get about my research in this area are: (1) “Which think tanks did you study?” and (2) “Would you consider [organization X] a think tank?” These are both perfectly good questions, and they have something important in common: they’re both fundamentally about category boundaries. The first question is essentially, “What is the boundary of your study?”, and the second is, “What is the boundary of the think tank category?” The only thing I don’t like about these questions is that there’s no easy 30-second “elevator version” answer to either of them. That’s because one of the contributions of my study, as I see it, is precisely to build a rigorous analytic concept of a think tank that lays bare some of the hidden features of the reigning political folk concept.
I say ‘build a rigorous concept,’ but I don’t mean build from scratch. In my case, this has meant applying and extending existing sociological concepts like network and field. And while space limitations prevent me from going into detail here, the conception of a think tank that I develop in the book is decidedly “practice-oriented” (to use a fashionable phrase): To be a think tank, I say, is to become ensnared in a never-ending game of separation and attachment vis-à-vis the more established institutions of academia, politics, business, and the media. Think tanks must constantly signal their “independence” from these institutions, on which they depend for resources, personnel, and legitimacy, even as they use their associations with each one to mark their putative separation from the other institutions. It’s from this idea that I develop a description of “policy research” as a hybrid practice of generating policy prescriptions while competing with other think tanks for donations, press coverage, and political attention.
Why the need to be so “theoretical”? At one level, it allowed me to ask certain important but neglected questions about think tanks. By separating the analytic concept from the political folk concept, I could treat the latter’s growing use in American public and political life as something that needed to be explained. And because some of the organizations now included in the folk category predate the think tank classification by more than 60 years, the process I’m referring to isn’t reducible to a simple story of organizational creation. Instead, it was a complex process of network formation. The term think tank became meaningful only when a formerly disparate array of organizations became oriented to one another in their judgments and practices, and only when the members of this network developed novel intellectual products to separate themselves from more established institutions.
So being “theoretical” allowed me to focus on the social relations underpinning the emergence of think tanks. At another level, it allowed me to avoid what I saw as the main pitfall in the study of think tanks: the danger of inadvertently becoming harnessed to the interests of think tanks and their affiliated “policy experts.” As I say in the book, “orphaning the think tank for operational purposes subtly harnesses the scholar to its mission because the think tank’s first goal, even prior to that of exercising political influence, is to differentiate itself from its nearest neighbors in social space.”
What’s the connection between all this and the “Dude, where’s my theory?” discussion? Two summary points:
(1) The status of sociological theory is different from its distinctiveness as an occupational position.
I agree with the gist of the previous discussion as it appears in the posts I linked to above—and there’s nothing in it that contradicts this point. Nor would I deny the importance of the issue raised by Kieran and Fabio. Nevertheless, it seems to me that more relevant than whether or not “theorist” is in decline as an occupational position are some other issues anticipated in Kieran’s original post: inter alia, how strongly do American sociologists appreciate the importance of constructing rigorous analytic concepts? Do we reward those who take seriously the effects of classification systems, including the ones used by social scientists? Is it mandatory or merely optional to subject the conceptual dimension of your own work to relentless self-questioning? The presence or absence of people who specialize in these things might be indicators of theory’s health or sickness. But insofar as we’re all theorists, it’s not a perfect one.
(2) I ♥ empirical data.
The notion of “theory” I’m suggesting here (which is far from original) isn’t built on an opposition between “theoretical” and “empirical” work. In fact, in my own experience, being “theoretical” has meant having to gather more data, not less. Or, to be blunt, I didn’t spend two years in the swamp of Washington, DC visiting dozens of think tanks, interviewing their staff members, rooting through their archives, building a database of the educational and career backgrounds of over 1,000 think tank-affiliated policy experts, attending their public events, and even finagling my way into some of their private ones—like some kind of low-rent Irwin M. Fletcher—to be labeled “non-empirical” (if that’s what’s implied in the term “theoretical”).
The author (left, in disguise) gathering empirical data.
Nevertheless, the theoretical component of my study, by which I mean the work of analytic construction, required its own effort. If nothing else, it should be clear by now that lurking behind questions like, “Which think tanks did you study?” is a whole series of other questions for which commonsense answers aren’t sufficient.‡ As I put it in the book, “for those involved in the world of policy research and advocacy, the practice of calling one’s organization a ‘think tank’ is rarely a neutral act of self-description. It is also a strategic move in a social game, the rules of which we should try to understand…. [T]o become a think tank is to rise above mere interest-group struggles and claim membership in the ranks of experts.”§
† My own connection to the JTS is as follows: I presented at the event in 2008; I co-organized it with Michal Pagis in 2011; and I attended all but one of the others.
‡ It should also be clear why any answer I give to these questions might threaten to make my study look like some kind of exercise in “deconstruction.” On the first question, consider my two best options. Option #1:
Questioner: Which think tanks did you study?
Me: The book is partly a study of the think tank category itself, by which I mean its emergence in public and political life, its changing boundary, and the historical conditions that made the classification possible.
Questioner: Come again?
Me: I mean that the focus is not so much on the members of a clearly defined organizational “species” or “type,” but on the social forces and relations that made this blurry concept thinkable in the first place. Only after having examined this process historically could I identify specific org…
Questioner: Ah… got it. Now go back to your Parisian café, Derrida.
But I’m no poststructuralist—far from it—and insofar as my aim was ever to “deconstruct” anything, including the think tank concept, it was only as a prologue to reconstructing it analytically, with lots of empirical data. Which helps to explain why I’ve become partial to option #2:
Questioner: Which think tanks did you study?
Me: All of them.‡*
§ I fully grasp the key methodological question raised here: viz. If the think tank category is constitutively fuzzy and always in flux, as I say, then how does one decide which organizations to leave in or out of the study? This will/would have to be a topic for another post, but (very) briefly, the working solution in my case was to sample from various locations in the organizational network, including its center and periphery, and then to consider more broadly how this network was situated within bigger social structures.
‡* Plus, as a precautionary measure, I carry around with me a copy of the Empirical Loyalty Oath, which quotes liberally from the Sedition Act of 1918 and reads, in part, “I hereby declare that I am not now, nor have I ever been, a poststructuralist.”
Hi, Tom Medvetz here with Round 2 of my guest stint at OrgTheory.
Here’s a trivia question for you: What do actors George Clooney, Angelina Jolie, and Warren Beatty share in common with former heads of state Mikhail Gorbachev, Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush, and Eduard Shevardnadze?* If you guessed that they’re all members of the Council on Foreign Relations—the think tank with arguably the greatest impact on American foreign policy since its founding in 1921—then you’re correct. Here’s a related query: What does an aging film star like Arnold Schwarzenegger do with himself after having already dabbled in such varied pursuits as bodybuilding; marrying a Kennedy; serving two-terms as governor of California, and alternately threatening and then protecting the human race in its battle against time-traveling cyborgs?†
The answer, of course, is to start a think tank. This week, “the Governator”—together with the University of Southern California—launched the Schwarzenegger Institute for State and Global Policy, a bipartisan center focused on five policy areas: “education, energy and environment, fiscal and economic policy, health and human wellness, and political reform.”‡
“I’ll be back… –ing public policies and conducting research on matters of broad political and economic importance.”
Against all odds, some sort of “think tank chic” seems to have developed in the U.S. in recent years.§ How should we interpret this? And in general, how might we think about a think tank’s role within the broader social relations of power?
On these questions, consider again the Council on Foreign Relations, whose current membership roster includes luminaries from the worlds of business (e.g. Richard Branson, Frederick W. Smith)¶; media (Roger Ailes, Rupert Murdoch, Oprah Winfrey, David Geffen, and Brian Grazer); academia (political scientist Peter Katzenstein, economist Martin Feldstein), and politics. In the latter category are numerous former National Security Advisers (Zbigniew Brzezinski, Henry Kissinger, Colin Powell); past and present Supreme Court Justices (Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sandra Day O’Connor); and former Secretaries of State (Madeleine Albright, Hillary Clinton, Condoleeza Rice).
At first glance, CFR would seem like an organization drawn directly from one of C. Wright Mills’ fevered nightmares—the very nerve center of the “power elite.” It should not be surprising, then, that the first major scholarly studies of think tanks were conducted in the 1970s by political sociologists following closely in Mills’ tradition, including G. William Domhoff. And as anyone familiar with the “power elite” perspective would guess, these scholars portrayed think tanks as instruments in a more or less coordinated ruling class project. (The Council Foreign Relations in particular, in these studies, became something like the Bohemian Grove of the Upper East Side.)
In my recently-published book on think tanks, however, I argue that this view is too simplistic. Crucially, however, I don’t revert to the perspective that became the standard alternative to elite theory in the 1970s and ‘80s: namely, the pluralist approach associated with scholars like Nelson Polsby and Robert Dahl. When the pluralists studied think tanks, they tended to depict them in more or less opposite terms—as lofty sanctuaries for independent reflection and analysis. A “true think tank,” wrote Polsby, “obliges its inhabitants to follow their own intellectual agendas.”**
I agree with the elite theorists on two key points: first, that class interests have a clear primacy in shaping the social relations in which think tanks are embedded; and second, that most think tanks are (and always have been) unambiguously elite in their composition. What’s my quarrel with the elite theory approach, then?
Two things: In the first place, I’d point out that while most of the key figures in the think tank world are indeed elites (however you like to define the term), their organizations never simply represent the “ruling class” as a whole—only specific fractions of it. Put differently, after a certain point, the breadth of the elite concept becomes a major hindrance. The more we expand our notion of “the elite” to include all of the relevant fractions, the less we can simply take for granted their affinity.
Which fraction(s) of the elite think tanks represent, and in what proportions, are always the relevant questions.
Second, the modality of the encounter among think tank-affiliated elites is never one of simple harmony, but also one of “horizontal” struggle. Specific elite subgroups collaborate in the making of think tanks, but often in the context of struggles against other elites. Even within specific think tanks, cooperation often accompanies internecine struggles for control over an organization’s agenda.
Both of these points suggested to me the need for a more open-ended, historical approach. As I show in the book, the most influential think tanks of the postwar era (like the Brookings Institution) were built on partnerships of politically moderate capitalists, aspiring civil servants, and a technocratic fraction of the intelligentsia. In matters of economic policy, they were typically Keynesian—which, crucially, placed them in opposition to certain other elites, especially businessmen committed to an aggressively free market vision of capitalism and libertarian economists. However, the latter groups flooded the think tank arena in the 1970s and ’80s and became its dominant figures.
In the book, I break with the Millsian approach by replacing the elite concept with the idea of the field of power. (Briefly, this is Pierre Bourdieu’s term for the social space in which powerful agents and groups collaborate and compete to determine which resources will be considered the most legitimate and valuable in modern societies.) Applied here, the purpose of the concept is to encourage us to think about think tanks as sites of collaboration and struggle among holders of various forms of power. At stake in the encounter isn’t just the accumulation of power (as the elite theorists would have it) but the relative values of its different forms (e.g. money, bureaucratic authority, political expertise, social scientific knowledge, and, increasingly, media access and publicity).
Gene Sperling (JD, Yale University and director, U.S. National Economic Council) and Angelina Jolie (star of Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life) discuss “Iraq, Education, and Children of Conflict” at an April 2008 Council on Foreign Relations event.††
This point brings us back to my original question: Why are think tanks suddenly popular among celebrities, journalists, media moguls, and others who control access to the means of publicity? I believe the trend is indicative of a broader shift in American politics toward growing responsiveness to the media. I’ll return to this theme in a future post, but for now let me recommend two recent books on the topic that deserve more attention: Ron Jacobs and Eleanor Townsley’s The Space of Opinion and Jeffrey Alexander’s The Performance of Politics.‡‡
* Shevardnadze was president of the republic of Georgia from 1995 to 2003.
† Or so I gather from the extraordinarily convoluted Wikipedia synopses of the four Terminator films, three of which featured Schwarzenegger, and only one of which I remember actually watching from start to finish. More vivid in my memory, however, is Schwarzenegger’s synergistically brilliant appearance as the T-800 cyborg in the 1991 Guns N’ Roses video for “You Could Be Mine” (which was also included on the Terminator 2: Judgment Day soundtrack).
‡ The quote is from “USC and Arnold Schwarzenegger Announce New Institute on State and Global Policy.” Retrieved on September 26, 2012.
§ I say “against all odds” because of the manifestly boring work carried out at most think tanks. I remember, for example, the reply given to me by one of my thesis advisers, Jerry Karabel, who was already quite knowledgeable about think tanks, when I suggested doing ethnographic observation at a think tank: “Okay, but I’m just afraid that it would be kind of like watching paint dry.”
¶ Not to mention CFR’s extensive corporate membership list.
** Nelson Polsby. 1983. “Tanks but no Tanks.” Public Opinion April/May: 14–16, 58–59.
†† To be fair, Ms. Jolie has served as a United Nations Goodwill Ambassador, a role that was critical in securing her CFR membership. On the other hand, I have no idea what Warren Beatty did to earn his invitation to CFR (or whether it involved Carly Simon).
‡‡ Bonus trivia question: I did not plan, and am powerless to explain, the emergent film motif in my OrgTheory posts thus far (starting here). And while I should probably rein it in a little, let me point out that the title of this post refers to another late 1980s movie—and that the first commenter to name that movie will earn the title “Distinguished Fellow of Film Policy Studies” at my think tank, should I ever start one. (No Google-cheating allowed.)
Greetings OrgTheory readers—I’m Tom Medvetz, sociologist at UC-San Diego. My thanks to Katherine Chen and the other site members for inviting me to write a few guest posts now that my book Think Tanks in America has come out. I’ll discuss some particulars of the book in later posts, but I want to start out with some broad context.
Because I study experts, intellectuals, and professionals, I spend a lot of time—too much, probably—thinking about the relationships among sociologists. And while peaceful and collaborative relationships are my favorite kind, it’s the opposite kind—the ones marked by antagonism and mutual suspicion—that tend to capture most of my attention. Let me focus on a specific kind of criticism that seems to have become increasingly common, at least in casual discussions among sociologists. I’m referring to the criticism efficiently conveyed in the term mesearch.* (For other discussions of this topic, see here, here, and here.)
To adapt C. Wright Mills’ language, “mesearch” means stopping your car on Autobiography Avenue somewhere short of the intersection with History Road.† It’s undeniably a term of abuse—and a fundamental one at that—the suggestion being that the work in question is more memoir than social science. No social scientist wants to be accused of having done mesearch.
But the idea also contains certain obvious complexities. When I was a sociology graduate student at Berkeley, for example, folkloric tales about Erving Goffman still echoed through the department hallways. And inevitably these stories focused on his notoriously difficult and combative personality.‡ Even more intriguingly, the main point of the stories was often that Goffman’s personal idiosyncrasies, aversions, and predilections were linked in intelligible ways to the insights contained in his work. Consider the following passage from Dmitri Shalin’s interview with former Goffman student Arlene Kaplan Daniels (itself taken from UNLV’s extensive Erving Goffman Archive):
DS: I believe that Erving [Goffman]’s entire corpus is crypto-autobiographical, [starting with] his early article on manipulating class symbols that he wrote when he’d dated Schuyler. . . who came from a high society.
AD: Yes, and he was a guttersnipe.
Now, whether or not Goffman was a “guttersnipe,” the suggestion seems to be that his scholarly insights about subterranean codes of meaning, hidden status struggles, and ulterior motives flowed directly from his own sensitivities and experiences. Put differently, Goffman’s greatness as a sociologist was built, not on a simple distance from mesearch, but on a complex flirtation with it.
What does this have to do with the topic I was enlisted to write about—my research on think tanks? Now that the book is out, I find it easier to reflect on the study’s origins and my own motives for writing it. When I do, it’s clear to me that the book is indeed part of a very personal (and ongoing) attempt to understand what it means to be an “intellectual.”
Why would this question be pressing to me? Without subjecting you to many details of my own autobiography—and without implying that it’s been marked by any particular sort of exclusion or deprivation—I think it’s relevant that the very idea of an “intellectual” remained completely foreign to me at least until I was in college. In the rural setting where I grew up (in which cows outnumbered people, the Appalachian Trail intersected a nearby road, and oceanic cornfields were the main backdrop), aspiring “intellectuals” were few and far between. In 11th grade, a local vo-tech recruiter visited my class to extol the virtues of a career in air-conditioning repair. He opened his spiel with a question: “How many of you think you’ll ever make $100,000 a year?” A few hands went up. “Well,” he said, “I’m here to tell you that you probably won’t.”
To me and my classmates, there was nothing surprising about this exercise in aspiration management, and nothing insulting about the recruiter’s dim view of our earning potential.§ (In fact, having never being a fan of euphemisms, I remember being more irked by the vo-tech guy’s repeated use of the phrase climate control instead of air-conditioning.)
So if, as Loïc Wacquant has suggested, many sociologists enter the field “in reaction to a succession of ‘culture shocks’ at key junctures” in their lives, then my primary culture shock was my aberrant encounter with the world of higher education itself. This was where I first encountered “intellectuals,” by which I mean people who seemed to regard the accumulation of knowledge as a vocation in and of itself.
If I were to tell you, then, that Think Tanks in America is ultimately part of my attempt to understand a social species that remained foreign to me even as I began the study—but also that the study was part of the process of certifying my own membership in that group (since it began as my dissertation), then am I guilty of mesearch? I hope not. I’m not a character in the book, and sociologists in general appear only as shadowy figures at the outskirts. Yet make no mistake: while the book focuses on a set of agents who currently overshadow social scientists in policy debates (viz. self-styled “policy experts”—about which I’ll say more later), my interest in the topic was driven by my relationships to both groups.
The questions remain: What’s the peculiar alchemy through which a set of deeply personal interests and motivations becomes a properly social scientific product? And where’s the line between research and mesearch?
* In the unlikely event that you don’t know this phrase, I’ll define it as the form of scholarly self-absorption that consists in passing off an account of one’s own life experience as social research. For a parodic representation of mesearch, see The Onion. 2001. “Sociologist Considers Own Behavior Indicative Of Larger Trends.” March 7. )
† Or if you happen to share Mills’ vehicular preferences: your motorcycle.
‡ For a more nuanced picture of Goffman, see the wealth of materials (including personal recollections and interviews with friends, students, and confidants) available at UNLV’s Erving Goffman Archive.
§ In 1993, a pretax household income of $100,000 put the earner between the 90th and 95th percentiles in the American income structure.
As many of the contributors to this series will remember, the late Marvin Bressler used to amuse the Princeton grad students with such jokes as saying that all job talk questions were special cases of two general questions: “But, is it really so simple?” or “But, is it really so complicated?” In Kieran’s contribution to this forum he notes that relational work scholarship runs the risk of devolving into an endless series of works that basically ask the first question of a strawman other (be they a garden variety economist, a behavioral economist, an embeddedness/networks economic sociologist, or whatever). A lot of this work ends up basically saying, when you dig into the details of social life you see how it’s all so much richer and more nuanced than it first appears. Much like thick description or history, this can be fascinating when applied by a talented researcher to an interesting case, but in less felicitous circumstances quickly degrades into one damn thing after another. Even under the best circumstances though it’s hard to see how the “is it really so simple” research question builds up to a distinct theoretical perspective rather than a sort of atheoretical empiricism with nihilism towards the idea of theory-building and general mechanisms.
For some people such theoretical nihilism is satisfactory, as the whole point is building a Philippic against the reductionist other. However, as Kieran argues, this isn’t relational work at its best and he draws attention to work by Zelizer herself, Almeling, and Quinn that plays up the institutional and organizational context in which relational work is performed. I fully agree that it is important to treat such contexts as structured ones, and not merely places where tacit understandings are made explicit and documented for the convenience of sociologists who later on dig through case law or other bureaucratic records. Understanding how such contexts shape relational work provides an opportunity for positive contribution by the school rather than just critique of others.
In addition to the institutional context which many of us already do a good job of taking seriously, I think we need to take seriously the idea that relational work can be categorized and schematized. This is the first step to identifying more or less consistent patterns and contingencies in how relational work is applied. That is, going from a (valuable) sensitizing concept to an articulated theory.
In the last few years Zelizer has taken the lead in this issue with the concept of circuits: who exchanges what with whom for what else. This is an important step, but for the most part it remains a sensitizing concept, encouraging us to identify and document circuits where they occur and identify patterns among them. Fortunately, one of our sister disciplines has a long tradition of work closely parallel to circuits and has developed some sophisticated theories for understanding these issues.
Anthropology has been seriously into issues that closely parallel relational work but we don’t cite them very much and are the poorer for it. Now, perhaps I am confessing nothing of more general interest than my own ignorance. Still, I have to confess that to the best of my recollection I never encountered this literature in any of my undergraduate or graduate coursework and until recently I was mostly ignorant of it and so I suspect that my experience is not entirely unique. Likewise I seldom see this work cited in relational work publications (here’s an exception). Fortunately a few things came together for me (a deliberately thin quantitative project provided me with a windfall finding about relational work in payola, a very well-written and much discussed ambitious and insightful book on the subject was published, and I started attending the relational models lab) and so I got interested in the anthro literature, much to my benefit.
Early versions of economic anthropology were much like relational work in that they were more a sensitizing concept or critique than an articulated positive theory with a typology of theoretical constructs and mechanisms for their interaction. So in his “Essay on the Gift” Mauss talks about all sorts of gift relationships but is mostly interested in sensitizing us to the contingent nature of market exchange. So while Mauss describes both peer and clientelist gifts he doesn’t really emphasize a schema distinguishing between them as the important thing is that gifts (of whatever variety) are not market exchange. In the 1950s anthro saw the development of a “spheres of exchange” model with publications like Bohannan’s work on the Tiv people. In this work, Bohannan describes three ordinal categories for objects, with exchange of objects within a category being much more acceptable than exchange across categories. So traditionally a Tiv could trade chickens for beans, slaves for brass rods, and brides for brides, but to trade brass rods for either beans or brides could be accomplished only with great difficulty and what we would call elaborate relational work. In Debt, Graeber surveys a wide range of similar cases and argues that such incommensurable exchanges are never really final, being possible only on an “it’s a purchase, not a rental” kind of basis in which the qualitatively inferior good can work to service debt but where the qualitatively superior principal can only be repaid in-kind.
The thing I find to have the most potential to move relational work forward is Alan Fiske’s relational models typology of communal sharing, authority ranking, equality matching, and market pricing.* You can and should follow the link to see what each of those terms covers, but for my purposes the really important point is that there is a typology. Moreover, the typology has a richly articulated set of contingencies and covariates and so it rises to the level of a theory rather than just a sensitizing concept. Of course we all here recognize the “market vs. else” dichotomy, but such a dichotomy accomplishes little more than facilitating a now tired critique of economics so as to pile up a mass of things beyond econ’s purview to serve as a sort of defensive fortifications against that discipline’s occasional imperialist adventurism. To build a positive theory of non-price-theory exchange requires not just treating it as the complement to the market, but disaggregating it into its constituent varieties and identifying systematic properties to these types. It is in this respect that we can move our own model forward by accepting the theoretical gifts of anthropology and reciprocating with citations.
* Note that in Debt Graeber has a closely parallel typology of “communism,” “hierarchy,” and [gift|market] “exchange.” As best as I can tell, Graeber and Fiske did not directly influence each other but rather they drew similar conclusions from a common research tradition.
In her work over the past decade or so, Viviana Zelizer has developed the concept of “relational work” as a way of encapsulating and generalizing some of the lessons of her influential studies of people’s economic lives. Ths goal, as she describes it, is to understand how people connect, or are connected by, four elements in economic life: social ties between people or groups; sets of economic transactions across those ties; various media of exchange used in these transactions; and the social, often moralized meanings associated with particular bundles of these media, transactions, and ties. Relational work “consists in creating viable matches” between these elements. Thus, an economic sociology of relational work seeks to describe, understand, and explain the various ways people bring these elements together.
Recently a group of scholars have begun to explore whether an economic sociology built with these concepts might succeed Granovetter’s “embeddedness” framework. The language of embeddedness in its many forms has dominated research in the field for the past quarter-century. The questions are whether economic sociology needs a new orienting idea, and whether “relational work” is it. My view, developed in a bit more detail in a working paper that I’m in the process of revising, is—maybe. Depending on how it is taken up, “Relational work” could become a productive framework for research (as “embeddedness” was in its early stages) or a catchall catchphrase (as “embeddedness” has now become). Pushing things down the first channel depends mostly on taking seriously aspects of Zelizer’s work that are generally left underdeveloped, in particular the place of self-interest in her account.
In a series of posts about real utopias (see the earlier posts by Gar Alperovitz and Jerry Davis), we’ve invited Fred Block, professor of sociology at UC-Davis, to write about his session that will take place Sunday at 10:30 at the ASA conference.
My Real Utopia proposal for this ASA meeting is on “Democratizing Finance.” It is posted at the Real Utopias website. Writing this was much more difficult than I ever imagined, and this draft still needs a lot of work. It was hard because at the current moment, getting unemployment in the U.S. down to 7% seems unimaginably difficult and unrealistic goal. It follows that major structural changes such as democratizing finance appear to be wildly utopian with no element of realism whatsoever. The other problem is that almost all the work we have in the sociology of finance is focused on what happens in one or another specific market. We have very little work that generates an overview of the financial system as a whole, but serious reform has to look at the entire structure.
My argument proceeds through the following steps:
The theme for this year’s ASA meeting is “Real utopias,” and Erik Wright commissioned a bunch of us to write up utopian blueprints for our particular domains. Erik wanted the essays to be posted months in advance in order to encourage people to read, think about, and comment on them. The annual meeting could then be spent in productive discussions rather than one-way transfers.
My session, “Re-imagining the corporation,” may be of interest to orgtheory types. It’s a morose chronicle of the collapse of the corporation as a social institution in the US, followed by a more cheerful account of how we might deal with apocalyptic climate change and societal collapse using the shrewd insights of organization theory.
The essay is posted at the Real Utopia website, and the session will take place Saturday 12:30-2:10 in the ever-popular “Room TBA.” Hope to see some people there.
Here is an executive summary:
The summer gets better here at orgtheory. Brandy Aven will be our guest this August, taking us into, and away from, the AoM and ASA conferences. She’s an assistant professor organizational behavior and theory at
the Valhalla of Orgtheory Carnegie-Mellon University. She’s published in the AJS on networks and markets. Let’s give a warm round of applause to Brandy!
In Fabio’s November 2011 post about the profit-motivations of college students, he wrote about “why people choose useless majors”:
In 1971, about 50% went to college to make money. In the 1990s, it’s about 70%. Similarly, modern college students are more interested in financial stability, not philosophical issues. I haven’t been able to find more recent data, but I’d be surprised if that trend reversed.
As responsible social scientists, we want to measure the merits of higher education in part on how well it fulfills the expectations of the clientele: students, possibly their parents/guardians, and employers. If students enter college hoping to gain financial stability, and a college degree in some major fails to provide this, we might reasonably decide students need to be warned, and majors need to be redesigned. However, while Fabio cites research indicating students increasingly value financial stability, research on arts majors suggests they may be the exception to the rule.
On-going research on double majors and creativity, done by our colleague Richard Pitt and Steven Tepper, provides an illustrative contrast between art majors and others: while only 35% of art majors describe income as “very important” or “essential” to their careers, a full 64% of engineering majors describe income in this fashion [as I understand it, this data is from their Surdna-funded study (see "Double Majors and Creativity")].
Respondents don’t complete our SNAAP survey until after they graduate from a participating program, and we don’t ask them to tell us what they thought they wanted (financial stability/high income, or something else) when they entered college. However, we do have some information on how debt impacted the job choices of arts graduates, and how income impacts their level of job and program satisfaction. Read the rest of this entry »
I am really excited to join the fray again as a guest contributor, and thankful to the team for inviting me. In my other posts I’ll be speaking on behalf of Steven Tepper and Danielle Lindemann (both of Vanderbilt University), my collaborators in the Strategic National Arts Alumni Project (SNAAP). This one’s just me.
We’ve been asked to post on the state of arts graduates and artistic employment and skills in the contemporary U.S. I think the topic is timely and appropriate for this blog as we’ve discussed the value and relevance of an arts or humanities degree in the past. In particular, OrgTheory hosted a discussion in November titled, “why job hungry students choose useless majors.” The gist of Fabio’s argument, I think, is that college students are practical credentialists who want a BA to avoid service sector and manual labor; the least talented of these are drawn to majors that require the least “academic ability,” namely, the arts and humanities.
I won’t comment on the claim that arts and humanities disciplines require less “academic ability” (except to say that I think it’s bonkers), but I do want to remark upon the fiction that a firewall exists between math and science on the one hand, and the arts on the other. Read the rest of this entry »
Jenn Lena is well known to readers around here. She’s a guest blogger emeritus, has her own blog (What is the What) and it the author of Banding Together, an innovative book on music production. She’s recently been working with Steven Tepper and Danielle Lindemann on another groundbreaking study of cultural industries – the Strategic National Arts Alumni Project (http://snaap.indiana.edu/) . It’s an annual survey designed to track the lives of people who graduate with degrees in the arts.The team has agreed to write a few posts there fascinating work.
It’s my pleasure to announce that Katherine K. Chen will be our guest blogger for July. Katherine is an outstanding organizational ethnographer. A professor of sociology at CUNY, she’s the author of the definitive academic study on the Burning Man organization. Enabling Creative Chaos won the best book prize from ARNOVA in 2011. It’s a real pleasure having her join us.