Archive for the ‘Institutions’ Category
I’m in the Poconos this week with old college friends and only intermittently paying attention to the larger world. And I’m hesitant to opine about the latest in the world of online experimentation (see here, here, or here) because honestly, it’s not my issue. I don’t study social media. I don’t have deep answers to questions about the ethics of algorithms, or how we should live with, limit, or reshape digital practices. And plenty of virtual ink has already been spilled by people more knowledgeable about the details of these particular cases.
But I do want to make the case that it’s important to have this conversation at this particular moment. Here is why:
If there’s one thing the history of technology teaches us, it’s that technology is path-dependent, and as a particular technology becomes dominant, the social and material world develop along with it in ways that have a lasting impact.
The QWERTY story, in which an inefficient keyboard layout was created to slow down the users of jam-prone typewriters but long outlasted those machines, may be apocryphal. Perhaps a better example is streetcars.
Historian Kenneth Jackson, in the classic Crabgrass Frontier, showed how U.S. cities were first reshaped by streetcars. Streetcars made it possible to commute some distance from home to work, and helped give dense, well-bounded cities a hub-and-spokes shape, with the spokes made up of rail lines. This was made possible by new technology.
Early in the 20th century, another new technology became widely available: the automobile. The car made suburbanization, in the American sense involving sprawl and highways and a turn away from center cities, possible.
But the car alone was not enough to suburbanize the United States. Jackson’s real contribution was to show how technological developments intersected with 1) cultural responses to the crowded, dirty realities of urban life, and 2) government policies that encouraged both white homeownership and white flight, to create the diffuse, car-dependent American suburbs we know and love. The two evolve together: technological possibilities and social decisions about how to use the technologies. As they lock in, both become harder to change — until the next disruptive technology (((ducking))) comes along.
So what does all this have to do with OKCupid?
The lesson here is that technologies and their uses can evolve in multiple ways. European cities developed very differently from American cities, even though both had access to the same transportation technologies. But there are particular moments, periods of transition, when we start to lock in a set of institutions — normative, legal, organizational — around a developing new technology.
We’re never going to be able to predict all the effects that a particular social decision will have on how we use some technology. Government support of racist red-lining practices is one reason for the white flight that encouraged suburbanization. But even if the 1930s U.S. mortgage policy hadn’t been racist, other aspects of it — for example, making the globally uncommon fixed-rate mortgage the U.S. norm — still would have promoted decentralization and encouraged the car-based suburbs. Some of that was probably unforeseeable.*
But some of it wasn’t. And I can’t help but think that more loud and timely conversation about the decisions and nondecisions the U.S. was making in the early decades of the 20th century might have led the country down a less car-dependent path. Once the decisions are made, though, they become very difficult to change.
Right now, it is 1910. We have the technology to know more about individuals than it has ever been possible to know, and maybe to change their behavior. We don’t know how we’re going to govern that technology. We don’t really know what its effects will be. But this is the time to talk about the possibilities, loudly and repeatedly if necessary. Maybe the effects on online experimentation will turn out to be to be harmless. Maybe just trusting that Facebook and OKCupid aren’t setting us on the wrong path will work out. But I’d hate to think that we unintentionally create a new set of freedom-restricting, inequality-reproducing institutions that look pretty lousy in a few decades just because we didn’t talk enough about what might — or might not — be at stake.
* There is a story that GM drove the streetcars out of business by buying up streetcar companies and then dismantling the streetcars. There are a number of accounts purporting to debunk this story. This version, which splits the difference (GM tried, but it wasn’t a conspiracy, and it was only one of several causes) seems knowledgeable, but I’d love a pointer to an authoritative source on GM’s role.
Over at Scatterplot, Andy Perrin has a nice post pointing to a recent talk by Rodney Benson on actor-network theory and what Benson calls “the new descriptivism” in political communications. Benson argues that ANT is taking people away from institutional/field-theoretic causal explanation of what’s going on in the world and toward interesting but ultimately meaningless description. He also critiques ANT’s assumption that world is largely unsettled, with temporary stability as the development that must be explained.
At the end of the talk, Benson points to a couple of ways that institutional/field theory and ANT might “play nicely” together. ANT might be useful for analyzing the less-structured spaces between fields. And it helps draw attention toward the role of technologies and the material world in shaping social life. Benson seems less convinced that it makes sense to talk nonhumans as having agency; I like Edwin Sayes’ argument for at least a modest version of this claim.
I toyed with the possibility of reconciling institutionalism and ANT in an article on the creation of the Bayh-Dole Act a few years back. But really, the ontological assumptions of ANT just don’t line up with an institutionalist approach to causality. Institutionalism starts with fairly tidy individual and collective actors — people, organizations, professional groups. Even messy social movements are treated as well-enough-defined to have effects on laws or corporate behavior. The whole point of ANT is to destabilize such analyses.
That said, I think institutionalists can fruitfully borrow from ANT in ways that Latour would not approve of, just as they have used Bourdieu productively without adopting his whole apparatus. In particular, the insights of ANT can get us at least two things:
1) It not only increases our attention to the role of technologies in shaping organizational and field-level outcomes, but ANT makes us pay attention to variation in the stability of those technologies. It is simply not possible to fully accounting for the mortgage crisis, for example, without understanding what securitization is; how tranching restructured, redistributed and sometimes hid risk; how it was stabilized more or less durably in particular times and places; and so on.
You can’t just treat “securitization” as a unitary explanatory factor. You need to think about the specific configuration of rules, organizational practices, technologies, evaluation cultures and so on that hold “securitization” together more or less stably in a specific time and place. Sure, technologies are sometimes stable enough to treat as unified and causal—for example, a widely used indicator like GDP, or a standardized technology like a new drug. But thinking about this as a question of degree improves explanatory capacity.
An example from my own current work: VSL, the value of a statistical life. Calculations of VSL are critical to cost-benefit analyses that justify regulatory decisions. They inform questions of environmental justice, of choice of medical treatment, of worker safety guidelines. All sorts of political assumptions — for example, that the lives of people in poor countries are worth less than people in rich ones — are baked into them. There is no uniform federal standard for calculating VSL — it varies widely across agencies. ANT sensitizes us not only to the importance of such technologies, but to their semi-stable nature—reasonably persistent within a single agency, but evolving over time and different across agencies.
2) Second, ANT can help institutionalists deal better with evolving actors and partial institutionalization. For example, I’m interested in how economists became more important to U.S. policymaking over a few decades. The problem is that while you can define “economist” as “person with a PhD in economics,” what it means to be an economist changes over time, and differs across subfields, and is fuzzy around the borders.
I do think it’s meaningful to talk about “economists” becoming more influential, particularly because the production of PhDs happens in a fairly stable set of organizational locations. But you can’t just treat growth theorists of the 1960s and cost-benefit analysts from the 1980s and the people creating the FCC spectrum auctions in the 1990s as a unitary actor; you need ways to handle variety and evolution without losing sight of the larger category. And you need to understand not only how people called “economists” enter government, but also how people with other kinds of training start to reason a little more like economists.
Drawing from ANT helps me think about how economists and their intellectual tools gain a more-or-less durable position in policymaking: by establishing institutional positions for themselves, by circulating a style of reasoning (especially through law and public policy schools), and by establishing policy devices (like VSL). (See also my recent SER piece with Dan Hirschman.) Once these things have been accomplished, then economics is able to have effects on policy (that’s the second half of the book). While the language I use still sounds pretty institutionalist—although I find myself using the term “stabilized” more than I used to—it is definitely informed by ANT’s attention to the work it takes to make social arrangements last. Thus I end up with a very different story from, for example, Fligstein & McAdam’s about how skilled actors impose a new conception of a field — although new conceptions are indeed imposed.
I don’t have a lot of interest in fully adopting ANT as a methodology, and I don’t think the social always needs to be reassembled. The ANT insights also lend themselves better to qualitative, historical explanation than to quantitative hypothesis testing. But all in all, although I remain an institutionalist, I think my work is better for its engagement with ANT.
I recently reviewed Joshua Busby’s book social movements and foreign policy. He uses a number of case studies from American and European politics to show how moral pleas, in certain contexts, can move policy. From PS: Perspectives in Political Science:
Busby asks a simple question: How do activists affect a state’s foreign policy? He answers with a two-part theory. First, there is the balance of values and costs. Activists may demand something that is expensive or cheap. Similarly, activists may demand policies that have low or high resonance with moral values. Second, activists must successfully interface with gatekeepers, such as legislators or policymakers, who have the power to legitimize the movement’s demands. The author then goes on to support his theory with empirical studies of a range of policy domains, such as AIDS policy and the international courts.
The importance of Busby’s argument is that it is an alternative to the interest-based view of foreign relations, which asserts that states do what they must to protect a narrowly defined resource such as trade, military power, and so forth. His view is that the beliefs of citizens are very important, not because political leaders follow the whims of voters but because domestic public opinion defines a spectrum of possibilities. The moral resonance of an issue defines the political cost of taking an action.
Works like Moral Movements and Foreign Policy illuminate the relationship between sociology and political science. This book is an example of the use of sociological theory to enrich a topic typically associated with political science. The international relations field has been dominated by arguments among realists, liberals, constructivists, and others over state behavior. Social movements have not usually been at the center of this debate. By itself, Busby’s book does not upend these theories, but it does suggest that there is still unexplored territory in IR theory. Social-movement activists are now recognized as a group of actors who are not state elites, nor are they average voters, nor are they marginalized cranks. Rather, they are specialized political entrepreneurs who use tactics ranging from lawsuits to protest to promote their causes. Research on transnational activism documents a global network of actors who influence and create the policy environment for states. By showing when and how activism leads to changes in foreign policy, Busby shows one way that sociology and political science can enrich each other and expand a research area that may appear to be well covered.
A number of analyses have shown that (a) college tuition has outpaced inflation, (b) administrators have increased in number and in cost, and (c) graduate student and faculty pay have remained flat. This isn’t to say that the only force behind higher tuition is administrative growth, but it’s certainly one important factor. The way that this normally interpreted is that you have greedy administrators who are just voting themselves raises which, in the absence of competition, go unrestrained.
Here is a slightly different framing. Increased college costs are a collective pay increase for faculty. How? It helps to realize that faculty salaries are fairly constrained. In the arts and sciences, salaries top out at, about $95k, for full professors at most colleges. Research profs can add about $10k, liberal arts can subtract $10k. Not bad, but still modest compared to top professionals in other fields. It also helps to realize that people start hitting the full professor rank in their forties, which means you could have 20-30 years of work with few pay increases in real terms.
The solution? Stop being a professor. Switch to a more fluid labor market for executives. Unlike professor jobs, your skills are portable and there is actual demand. Luckily, there has been a recent increase in college cash flows, so the budget is bigger. If you believe this story, then the escalation of tuition and costs is simply society’s way of paying more to people who used to get “stuck” at the full professor level. They’re just called associate deans now.
It’s that time of year, when students and faculty alike sport long faces about the end-of-year crunch of deadlines. Unfortunately, in academia, the lists of to-dos never disappear, as new requests and calls for responsibilities sprout constantly like dandelions after a spring rain. One round-the-year task is planning, particularly for courses to ensure that major areas, student needs’ and/or faculty’s interests are covered.
Stanford magazine recently featured a tongue-in-check illustration of student schedules to go along with a professor’s reflection upon administrative demands for accountability:
Prof. Appelbaum recounts a previous employer’s (Mississippi State University) attempts to get him to publicly account for every moment of his time within a 8am-5pm block:
I taught at Mississippi State University for three years before joining the Stanford faculty in 2000. I found MSU to be an organization dedicated to intercollegiate athletics, but sometimes less inspired when it came to academic and scholarly attainment. One of the things that irked me was the idea that you had to account for your time but not your achievement.
At the start of each semester we found blank schedules tacked to cork bulletin boards on our office doors. I filled mine out on my first day. I had an enormous course load, abundant office hours, copious committee meetings, rehearsals, a bevy of independent studies and a weekly faculty meeting. The generic sheet only accommodated Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. even though, as music professors, we had ensemble rehearsals in the evenings and on weekends, not to mention concerts by our students almost every night of the week. I figured that people understood that we were working more than 60 hours a week, so surely we wouldn’t need to account for every minute of our time.
Upon completion, my schedule looked very thick to me—and this was without any reference to time for composing music, recording CDs, writing articles, designing and constructing new instruments, practicing the piano, writing grants, attending professional conferences, giving guest lectures and all the other enterprises that characterize my research. It didn’t account for course design, class preparation or grading. It made no mention of the student electronic music studio I maintained. So, naïvely, I sat back with a feeling that this schedule conveyed that I was fully committed to my new job.
But my department chair immediately informed me that I must complete my schedule—there couldn’t be any empty spaces left on my sheet. I thought he was joking. With a look of compassionate embarrassment, a “welcome to Mississippi State University” glance, he apologized. Still, he insisted I fill in every blank lest the dean wander down the hall and see that someone had free time.
Shocked, and a bit miffed, I put “lunch” down from noon to 1 as I was told to do. (In Mississippi, everyone eats from noon to 1; if you enter a restaurant at 1:05 you can have your pick of any table.) Even so, I still had four empty spaces: 90 minutes on Monday, an hour on Tuesday, an hour on Thursday and a three-hour block on Friday. I filled them in as follows: Barry Manilow Research Project; Office Nap; Eating Bugs; and, for the three-hour block, Stapling.
My chair never asked me to “complete” my schedule again.