Archive for the ‘Institutions’ Category
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.
I was recently listening to the podcast, Bad at Sports, which covers the contemporary art world. This episode is a long interview with dealer, writer, and provacteur Matt Gleason. A lot of good stuff, but this caught my ear. Gleason claims that one of the major reasons that Jeffrey Deitch was disruptive as director of LAMOCA was that he pursued “post-curator art.” What does that mean? My translation:
Over the last 50 years, the art world has institutionalized. Museums are run by professionals, artists get MFA, and the art market is centralizing around art fairs. What is so disruptive about Dietch was that rejected the institutionalization of the curator – the people who pick art, stage exhibitions, and manage collections.
In other words, in a world of professionalization, Dietch said: “Screw it, my kid can do this.” And he did it. Dietch fired one of the main curators, had celebrities do shows, and curated many shows himself. Very “post.”
I once asked an art professional what he learned from interacting with Dietch, and he said something like, “I learned that you can hand over an art gallery to teenagers and it’ll work.” Metaphor perhaps, but it captures the spirit. People with degrees don’t have a monopoly over good taste. Gleason notes that this is self-serving. A museum with poor finances, like LAMOCA, might not have the cash for carefully curated shows and it would be easy to have some SoCal celebrity show work. But still, the comment is telling. The art world has institutionalized, but it rests on jello foundations.
In the past couple of weeks, two journalists who I enjoy reading wrote controversial diatribes about the travesties of contemporary higher education. Both Matt Taibbi and Thomas Frank, each in their own brilliantly polemical ways, compared higher education to the housing bubble that led to our last serious financial crisis. Both writers attacked the integrity and ethics of the administrators of the current regime of academia. Both bashed a system that would allow students to acquire more debt than they could possibly pay given the job prospects for which their education prepares them. These are real nuggets that academics ought to consider seriously. Ignore, if it offends you, the abrasive rhetoric, but at the heart of both of their arguments is a logic that ought to resonate with our sociological sensibilities.
Here is Taibbi:
[T]he underlying cause of all that later-life distress and heartache – the reason they carry such crushing, life-alteringly huge college debt – is that our university-tuition system really is exploitative and unfair, designed primarily to benefit two major actors.
First in line are the colleges and universities, and the contractors who build their extravagant athletic complexes, hotel-like dormitories and God knows what other campus embellishments. For these little regional economic empires, the federal student-loan system is essentially a massive and ongoing government subsidy, once funded mostly by emotionally vulnerable parents, but now increasingly paid for in the form of federally backed loans to a political constituency – low- and middle-income students – that has virtually no lobby in Washington.
Next up is the government itself. While it’s not commonly discussed on the Hill, the government actually stands to make an enormous profit on the president’s new federal student-loan system, an estimated $184 billion over 10 years, a boondoggle paid for by hyperinflated tuition costs and fueled by a government-sponsored predatory-lending program that makes even the most ruthless private credit-card company seem like a “Save the Panda” charity.
lifting the crimson curtain: Manufacturing Morals: The Values of Silence in Business School Education
As a grad student, I always found crossing the bridge over the Charles River from Harvard University to the Harvard Business School (HBS) to be a bit like approaching Emerald (or more appropriately, Crimson) City. On the Allston side, the buildings seemed shinier (or, as shiny as New England vernacular architecture allows), and the grounds were undergoing constant replantings, thanks to a well-heeled donor. In addition, HBS has loomed large as an institution central to the dissemination of organizational theory and management practices, including Elton Mayo’s human relations.
HBS has certain peculiarities about teaching and learning, like the use of case studies which follow formulaic structures as the basis for directed class discussion.* Moreover, instructors follow a strict grading break-down: mandatory “III”s assigned to the lowest-performing students of classes – a source of concern, as students with too many IIIs must justify their performance before a board and possibly go on leave.** To help instructors with grading, hired scribes document student discussion comments.***
Such conditions raise questions about the links, as well as disconnects, between classroom and managerial leadership, so I was delighted to see a new ethnography about business school teaching at the UChicago Press book display at ASAs.
With his latest book, Michel Anteby lifts the crimson curtain from HBS with his new book Manufacturing Morals: The Values of Silence in Business School Education (University of Chicago Press, 2013).
Here’s the official blurb:
“Corporate accountability is never far from the front page, and as one of the world’s most elite business schools, Harvard Business School trains many of the future leaders of Fortune 500 companies. But how does HBS formally and informally ensure faculty and students embrace proper business standards? Relying on his first-hand experience as a Harvard Business School faculty member, Michel Anteby takes readers inside HBS in order to draw vivid parallels between the socialization of faculty and of students.
In an era when many organizations are focused on principles of responsibility, Harvard Business School has long tried to promote better business standards. Anteby’s rich account reveals the surprising role of silence and ambiguity in HBS’s process of codifying morals and business values. As Anteby describes, at HBS specifics are often left unspoken; for example, teaching notes given to faculty provide much guidance on how to teach but are largely silent on what to teach. Manufacturing Morals demonstrates how faculty and students are exposed to a system that operates on open-ended directives that require significant decision-making on the part of those involved, with little overt guidance from the hierarchy. Anteby suggests that this model-which tolerates moral complexity-is perhaps one of the few that can adapt and endure over time.”
Check it out! And while you’re at it, have a look at Anteby’s previous book, Moral Gray Zones (2008, Princeton University Press).
Russ Roberts interviews political scientist Mike Munger on the topic of rules and institutions, using sports as an example. One of the most interesting things about sports is that there are informal rules governing fighting. A few key ideas:
- To decrease overall fighting, you allow a little bit. It acts as a deterrent.
- In sports with little protection, like hockey or baseball, you get ritualized fighting.
- In sports with ritualized fighting, you get fight specialists. You don’t want skilled players getting injured.
- In low fighting sports, like football, you need to slow things down with heavy referee intervention.
- Once you protect athletes with equipment, fighting goes up because it is less damaging.
- If sports becomes lucrative, then norms change to reduce fighting. You don’t want your money generating stars missing the game.
A nice discussion of how norms, rules, and technology all affect each other.
Puzzle for higher ed folks and organizational theory types: If you look at US higher education, you’ll notice that there are institutions that serve nearly every niche. Rich students , poor students, historically black colleges, tribal colleges, Biblical colleges, Hispanic students, etc. Heck, even the transcendental meditation movement has an accredited school – Mahavishnu University in Iowa.
But I really had a hard time trying to think of a college that was aimed primarily at Asian Americans. Why is that? Did I overlook something? If not, what is it that prevents such a college from existing? According to wiki, there are roughly 18 million Asian Americans. You’d think that at least a few schools would be aimed at them. If nothing else, perhaps an old liberal arts college in Oakland founded in the early 20th century, aimed at helping Asian Americans get jobs, in a way analogous to the HBC’s like the Tuskegee Institute that helped freedmen and their descendants.
- Cultural – perhaps attitudes toward education somehow make the concept of such an institution seem odd and out of place.
- Density – outside of the West Coast, maybe they simply weren’t present in large enough number to justify such an institution
- Cultural heterogeneity – “Asian American” is a catch all label, there’s a lot of groups and no cohesion needed to pull a college together
- Satisfaction – Maybe Asian Americans simply are satisfied with American institutions
- Vintage – since the bulk of Asian America is post-1965, they simply haven’t had the time to create such an institution.
Neil Gross cements his position as the leading sociologist of American intellectuals with his new book Why are Professors Liberal and Why do Conservatives Care?* This book collects into one text a series of arguments about the American professoriate that Gross and his collaborators have presented in a series of articles. Essentially, Gross argues that American academia, on the average, is liberal because of self-selection on the part of conservatives. The specific issue is that academia, for a number of historically specific reasons, has acquired an aura of extreme liberalism. Thus, conservative students say “Why bother? Academia is for liberals. What’s the point?”
What is impressive about Gross and his confederates is that they test all kinds of alternative hypotheses. For example, one might think that academic skills explain conservatives lower enrollments in PhD programs. But it doesn’t. Differences in values don’t explain much either. In other words, Gross et al systematically test all kinds of hypotheses and show that they are simply not true or that they only explain a small proportion of the differences between conservatives and others.
Eventually, using historical evidence and interview data, Gross makes a good case for self-selection. Sociology is a good example. In principle, there’s lots of places for non-liberal sociologists. For example, one could work on non-ideological aspects of sociology, like research methods. Or, as many conservatives have done, they could work in areas of interest like family sociology, where in some cases (like studies of negative divorce effects on kids), they could work on topics that are consistent with their ideology. But if you sit down and ask a typical conservative undergrad why they didn’t take many soc courses, they’ll tell you an image of evil ultra-liberals who are bent on political correctness.
Now, where I would criticize this book is the study of conservatives. For example, Gross argues that there isn’t much evidence of bias against conservatives. He uses the example of a study he conducted with Jeremy Fresse and Ethan Fosse where they contacted graduate directors with email from fake students. Some emails mentioned working for a GOP candidate, some a Democrat, and other none at all. Gross et al find no differences in how graduate directors responded.
First, there’s the issue, which Gross acknowledges, that graduate directors probably write a lot of boiler plate emails. But there’s a deeper criticism – why didn’t Gross interview people at risk for discrimination from liberal colleagues? For example, why not interview liberal (Keynesian) and conservative economists (monetarists or Austrians)? Or, why not interview Rawlsian philosophers (liberals) and compare their careers with Nozickians (libertarians) or Burkeans (conservatives)? Or, even better, why not collect materials from people who submitted books or articles on conservative topics but were rejected?
I think that Gross is right – anti-conservative bias is not nearly as bad as people think, if it exists at all – but the treatment of conservatives is not nearly as nuanced as the treatment of liberals. This probably speaks to the development of the project, which started with analyzing massive data (like the GSS) that trues to tease out conservative/liberal differences. Developing a theory or map of conservative intellectuals probably came late in the game.
Regardless, this book is massive progress on a central issue in the study of American intellectuals and the academy. This will be required reading for anyone interested in this topic.
* And I’m not saying that because he said nice things about me in the book. But he did. Oh yeah, and I’m not just saying it because he edited another cool forthcoming book about academia with a chapter by moi. But he did. Ok, maybe he buttered up a little. But just a little!
A while ago I asked, “what happened to resource dependence theory?” Although resource dependence theory seemed to be the dominant macro-organizational theory of the late 1970s, by the early 1990s the theory was eclipsed by institutional theory and population ecology. In the previous post, I offered some reasons for why this might have happened, but I stopped short of doing any serious analysis or a literature review. So I was happy to see that Tyler Wry, Adam Cobb, and Howard Aldrich have a paper in the latest Academy of Management Annals that tackles this question and offers some thoughts about the future of RD theory. Based on their analysis, the problem is worse than I imagined. Not only is RD theory cited less than those other theories, but it also seems to be the case that most citations to RD theory are fairly superficial. On a positive note, RD theory has become associated with a few fragmented communities of scholars who were interested in studying the particular strategies that Pfeffer and Salancik suggested actors/organizations ought to take when seeking to gain control over dependencies. From the Wry et al. paper:
[W]e conducted a systematic analysis of every study that cited External Control in 29 highly regarded management, psychology, and sociology journals between 1978 and 2011. Given the breadth of empirical domains covered by RD, our analysis focused on identifying how, and to what extent, each article used the perspective. Our results indicate that there is merit in Pfeffer’s assertion that RD serves primarily as a metaphorical statement about organizations. Though External Control continues to be cited at an enviable rate, the vast majority of citations are ceremonial—variously used as a nod toward the environment, resources, or power. Results also show that beneath an ever growing citation count is a fragmented landscape of scholars whose primary interest is in the specific strategies discussed in External Control —mergers and acquisitions (M&A), joint ventures and strategic alliances, interlocking directorates and executive succession—rather than the underlying perspective….To say that RD has been reduced to a metaphorical statement about organizations, however, belies its considerable impact. Indeed, while RD lacks a coterie of followers and has failed to catalyze a dedicated research programin the vein of NIT or OE, it has had a uniquely broad influence within management scholarship. Scholars have drawn on RD to derive key hypotheses in the study of M&A’s, joint ventures and strategic alliances, interlocking directorates, and executive succession, with the hypotheses largely supported (Hillman, Withers, & Collins, 2009).
They also suggest that its time to revive RD theory in organizational analysis. Why should we do that? Read the rest of this entry »
As I posted earlier, I’ll be presiding over a conversation between George Ritzer and Carmen Sirianni from 3:30-5pm on Fri., March 22, 2013 at ESS in the Whittier Room (4th Flr) of the Boston Park Plaza hotel.
In the past several years, disasters like Hurricane Sandy and Katrina have sparked growing interest in what both conventional and innovative organizations can (and cannot) do given conditions of uncertainty vs. certainty. Both featured scholars’ work cover the limits of particular organizing practices (i.e., Ritzer’s work on McDonaldization), as well as the potential of organized action (i.e., Sirianni’s work on collaborative governance). Thus, I’ve given this particular conversation the broad title “Organizations and Societal Resilience: How Organizing Practices Can Either Inhibit or Enable Sustainable Communities.”
What would you be interested in hearing Ritzer and Sirianni discuss about organizations and society? Please put your qs or comments in the discussion thread.
For those unfamiliar with Ritzer and Sirianni, here is some background about their work:
George Ritzer is best known for his work on McDonaldization and more recently, the spread of prosumption in which people are both producers and consumers.
J. Mike Ryan‘s interview of Ritzer about his McDonaldization work:
J. Mike Ryan’s interview of Ritzer about why we should learn about McDonaldization (corrected link):
Carmen Sirianni is known for his work on democratic governance.
A brief video of Sirianni arguing that citizens should be “co-producers” in building society.
A more extensive video of Sirianni presenting on his book Investing in Democracy: Engaging Citizens in Collaborative Governance (Brookings Press, 2009).
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:
Last week, I argued that there was kind of a big problem in modern sociology: one of our dominant macro theories is highly inconsistent with many of our favorite micro theories. If we look at various popular account of individual action in cultural sociology (e.g., toolkit theory), many don’t produce isomorphism.
Here’s the outline of the argument:
- The gist of institutional theories of isomorphism is that people working in org fields experience pressures for conformity. If you don’t follow a pre-existing cultural script, you can’t run your organization.
- For this argument to work, you need to assume that people respond to their environment in fairly uniform ways.
- In the original D&P ’83 article, in the hypotheses section, they admit variance when status orders are weak. Otherwise, the prediction is when status orders are well established, or when high status actors propagate norms, you get conformity.
- Different authors offer different social psychological mechanisms. D&P ’83 and ’91 (the intro) often appeal to a wide range of scholarship to justify isomorphism. They appeal to Berger and Luckman, as well as Bourdieu. You can also concoct a rational choice version, which is consistent with resource dependency arguments.
- If you actually read the fine print of these social psychology theories, most do not predict isomorphism, except Bourdieu’s habitus theory. For example, Berger and Luckmann’s book describes how people develop a stock of knowledge that defines their social reality. Fair enough. But nowhere do B&L ever say that this social reality is highly uniform, resistant to change, or otherwise offer a mechanism that acts as an iron cage. The slip is that “taken for granted” is interpreted as “hard to challenge.” Look at Griswold’s theory of cultural objects, or Zelizer, and it’s all about local constructions of meaning. Does not imply isomorsphism. Another case is rational choice institutionalism, where you set up a game theory model to predict norm following. Fair enough, but you have lots of hidden assumptions – uniform agents, low enforce costs, etc. Drop these and you get heterogeneity. Indeed, what you get is from the way less popular Meyer and Rowan ’77 institutionalism.
Of course, I am not the only person who noted these issues. DiMaggio’s idea of the inst entrepreneur is one attempt to get around this problem. The Clemens and Cook ’99 note that even iron cage institutionalism only predict stasis if you assume perfect reproduction. Admit imperfect reproduction and the theory breaks down. In the 2000s, the focus shifted to logics, institutional work, and conflict/movements. Substantively, it’s an implicit rejection of earlier institutional. Theoretically, it’s (almost) a complete reworking of the theory. These may not be institutionalist in the sense of the 70s or 80s, or even early 90s, but at least it is consistent with how many sociologists describe motivation and action.
This weekend, Omar wrote a detail post about the “depth” of culture, the degree to which some idea is internalized and serves as a motivation or guide for action. I strongly recommend that you read it. What I’d like to do in this post is use Omar’s comments as a springboard for thinking about organizational behavior.
The reigning theory in sociology of organization is neo-institutionalism. The details vary, but the gist is that the model posits a Parsonsian theory of action. There is an “environment” that “imprints” itself in organizations. Myth and Ceremony institutionalism posits a “shallow imprinting” – people don’t really believe myth and ceremony. Iron cage institutionalism takes a very “deep” view of culture. Actors internalize culture and then do it.
Omar posits, I think, is a view of culture that is constitutive (you are the ideas you internalize) and interactive (your use of the idea modifies the cultural landscape). Omar wants to get away from the metaphor of “deep” vs. “shallow” culture. He also discusses dual process theory, which merits its own post.
What is important for organization theorists is that you get away from Parsons’ model:
Note that conceptually the difference is between thinking of “depth” as a property of the cultural object (the misleading Parsonian view) or thinking of “depth” as resulting from the interaction between properties of the person (internalized as dispositions) and qualities of the object (e.g. meaning of a proposition or statement) (the Bourdieusian point).
The implication for orgtheory? Previously, the locus of orgtheory has been the “environment” – all the stuff outside the organization that people care about. That’s highly analogous to “culture” getting internalized deep within the individual. Thus, different institutional theories reflect a deep/shallow dichotomy. If you buy Omar’s post-Swidler/post-Giddens view of things, then what is really interesting is the interaction creating at the point of contact between environment and organization. Orgs don’t passively await imprinting. Rather, there is variance in how they respond to the environment and there is interesting variation in the adoption/importation of stuff from the environment.
I’ve finished writing a brief bibliography on institutionalism, which includes a section on the critics that I blegged about earlier. What did I learn from reading the critics? Well, the critics come in a few flavors:
- Weak model of human behavior – This can be found in Stinchcombe’s Annual Review and the discussion of the “cultural dupe” model. The good news, for institutionalists, is that this problem has been addressed. Between the inhabited institutions folks like Hallett and his buddy Marc Ventresca and the Lawrence/Suddaby institutional work folks (including myself), I think we’ve simply abandoned the DiMaggio and Powell 83 model of behavior and replaced it with an improvement (people have agency, but they must deal with institutions).
- Vague – Jerry and others have claimed that the theory is vague or incoherent. This obviously motivated the Jepperson ’91 chapter and the endless army of books that followed (Scott 2000, the handbook of organizational institutionalism, etc). My verdict is mixed. A lot of basic ideas, like “field,” still retain the “you know it when you see it” flavor and are quite vague.
- Empirically false – No one, I think, has successfully answered the Kraatz and Zaajc (1996) article, which speaks to a major chunk of institutional theory – the view that organizations must act in accordance with cultural scripts to ensure survival. Jerry Davis is right about this. Yet, other rather simple neo-institutional hypotheses have been repeatedly tested. For example, there’s a lot of evidence for mimetic isomorphism in various fields. The recent work by Sauder/Espeland/etc focuses on how practices (such as rankings in higher ed) become taken for granted, which supports a Zucker 77 kind of institutionalism. Also, it seems nearly impossible to test the “B” hypotheses in DiMaggio and Powell 83 because you need to compare fields, which seems hard since fields can only be defined inductively.
My verdict? The haters are correct. New institutionalism has a number of severe issues. The good news is that some problems have been dealt with in positive ways, such as a better model of individual action. It’s really a rejection of late 70s/early 80s organizational institutionalism, but that’s ok . Other areas are mixed. I’d say that at least one major hypothesis has been refuted, while others seem to be ok. Finally, there seems to be some fundamental conceptual issues (e.g., how to know a field, what exactly counts as an institution) that really need to be rethought from the ground up.
I’m trying to collect major (and minor) critiques of either new institutionalism. So far, I’ve got Perrow ’86, Kraatz/Zajac ’96, Hirsch ’97, Mizruchi et al (not quite a critique), Herrigal’s 2005 discussion of recent political science institutionalism in Socio-economic Review, and my own critique of Fligstein’s Architecture on the Journal of Institutional Economics.
What else? What am I missing?
The OMT Blog has a great interview with Roger Friedland, one half of the duo that wrote the now classic 1991 paper about institutional logics. I highly recommend reading the entire interview. In the interview he talks about how the institutional logics paper was inspired by a heated debate with Theda Skocpol, why he’s the Rip Van Winkle of institutional theory, and what organizational scholars can learn from studying religion. I enjoyed this bit:
A few months ago a graduate student approached me in Banff, Canada, where I had been invited to give a talk to a group of management scholars who do institutional research.
“Nice to meet you,” he said as he extended his hand. “Can I tell you something. It is a little embarrassing.”
“Go ahead,” I encouraged him.
“Well, I thought you were dead. I didn’t see your name after that 1991 piece.”
I laughed; I loved it.
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:
A few days ago, I posted about Deep Springs College’s decision to admit women in 2013. In the comments, “Frances Quarel,” disputed my contention that the decision reflected institutional pressures (i.e., single ed was a much less legitimate organizational form in the 2000s). Essentially, Quarel argued that Deep Springs reflected *no* response to the institutional environment. Quarel correctly notes that the Deep Springs displays very little resemblance to other colleges. So isomorphism is a bad explanation.
My response: theories of isomorphism are usually arguments about resource dependency. In most formulations, the argument is that the more that an organization requires material or symbolic resources, the more it will be susceptible to external pressures for conformity. If you want to establish a university with thousands of students and tons of research grants, you’ll probably need to conform. If you want to let thirteen dudes clean stables and read Plato on a desert ranch, no need to conform. As long as you have a little pot of money, nothing will prevent you from doing your own thing.
So I’d agree with the general thurst of Quarel’s comment. Deep Springs hasn’t conformed much to the higher ed system. But that doesn’t mean that Deep Springs is completely immune to external pressures. The school just has a very low responsiveness to the outside world. The new co-ed policy reflects one of the ways that the college is connected to a broader institutional environment – the association with Telluride and newer cohorts of students, who turn into the alumni who then pressed for change. The emergence of coed education as a taken for granted standard in higher wasn’t hatched in the deserts of California.
Students of orgtheory should like Philanthropy in America by Olivier Zunz, a well known American historian at the Unviersity of Virginia. PiA is a comprehensive overview of the non-profit sector in America. If I teach a graduate course on the non-profit sector, I’d definitely put this on the reading list. You would be hard pressed to find another book that so deftly conveys the ups and downs of the non-profit world. It’s a nice compliment to more social science approaches like The Non-Profit Handbook that focus on questions that economists and sociologists would ask.
Much of the material will be familiar to students of the non-profit sector, especially the chapters on post-war philanthropy. We get a chapter on the 1969 tax reform act. The various approaches to philanthropy over the years get a lot of coverage (e.g., civil rights oriented charity vs. Cold War era programs of the 1950s). PiA also has some material on the most recent wave of philanthropy driven by the new superwealthy, such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
What orgtheory readers will find most rewarding is the emphasis on the changing nature of the state-non-profit relationship. Zunz correctly points out that Americans have never exactly sorted out how they feel about the non-profits. Sometimes, non-profits are treated as central actors in American social policy. At other time, Americans view philanthropists as wealthy meddlers.
No where is this more apparent than in a highly instructive chapter about the 1920s. Hoover, contrary to popular wisdom, did not respond to the great depression by ignoring people and relying on the free market, though he did engage in laissez-faire rhetoric. Instead, Hoover believed in strong Federal intervention in the economy, but he wanted much of the effort channeled through philanthropic organizations. It’s a view that is not common now, but it might be called “local charities/national direction.” FDR also believed in having a strong welfare state, but his approach was to exclude private third parties and administer relief programs directly through the state.
Overall, a solid book that will lead to more insight into the evolution of the non-profit sector.
Writing from the home office in Switzerland, Tim draws my attention to a conference for management PhD scholars interested in development. From the call for papers for the UNDP Development Academy:
The oikos UNDP Young Scholars Development Academy 2012 provides PhD students and young scholars working on poverty, sustainable development, and the informal economy from an Organisation and Management Theory perspective a platform to present and discuss their on-going research projects with fellow students and senior faculty.
Research on inclusive business models, market development and sustainability between the informal and formal economy is a promising and challenging field for young researchers and PhD students. It calls for a multitude of methods, combination of disciplines in strategy, organisation studies, sociology, anthropology and economics, and new research designs, e.g. market ethnography in organisation studies.
Great opportunity for orgtheory PhD students and tenure track/post docs. Check it out.
Bourdieu is everywhere in social theory these days. Ranging from practice theory to studies of taste and consumption, you can find Bourdieu lurking in the background and quite often taking center stage. Bourdieu may be the most blogged-about theorist here on orgtheory. He’s so easily transportable because of the generality of his concepts and because he wrote extensively on so many different things during his career. Given the expanse of his theoretical contributions, it can sometimes be hard to pin down Bourdieu as a theorist. The reason for this, suggests my prolific co-blogger Omar Lizardo in this commentary forthcoming in Sociological Forum, is that Bourdieu’s contributions to American sociology have occurred over various stages, creating multiple clusters of Bourdieuian-influenced theorists. Depending on which cluster you’re a part of, you’re getting a slightly different angle on the Bourdieuian perspective. I highly recommend reading Omar’s commentary for anyone who thinks they know (or would like to get to know) Bourdieu’s work. It helps put Bourdieu in historical context.
The final stage of Bourdieuian influence, which is an emerging trend Omar admits, is focused on embodiment, cognition, and action. Although he doesn’t mention it in the essay, I have noticed that a strong community in institutional theory has really grabbed on to this this aspect of Bourdieu. Institutional theory in the late 80s through the mid-90s was heavily influenced by Bourdieu’s field theory (Omar’s stage 2 of Bourdieuian influence), but in recent years institutional theorists have become less interested in the constraining aspects of field forces and more interested in how institutional change bubbles up from below, which places more emphasis on agency and reflexive cognition. Scholars interested in institutional entrepreneurship and institutional work (for example, read Lawrence, Suddaby, and Leca), in particular, seem to be drawing more and more from Bourdieu’s theory of practice. The attractiveness of practice theory is that you don’t have to completely shed your structural view of institutions and fields to develop an endogenous explanations for how people create local worlds of resistance and novelty. Although I think it’s fair to question how well executed many of these studies are, I’ve noticed that a large portion of institutional theory has moved from stage 2 in Omar’s depiction of Bourdieu to stage 3.
Perhaps this is the reason why I’ve heard so many grumblings from people in the institutional theory world about Fligstein’s and McAdam’s work on “strategic action fields.” The F&M conceptualization of institutions and change is still very stage 2 in its understanding of how actors are situated in a field and how fields evolve over time. But this no longer resonates with many institutional theorists, who have already moved beyond this conceptualization of institutions to a stage 3 model in which actors are embedded in multiple fields and possess more agency than the actors of a fixed field world. While the former view is more structural and deterministic, the latter view is more cognitive and stochastic. F&M do very little to bridge stage 2 with stage 3 Bourdieu (although one could argue, but they don’t, that the concept of “social skill” derives from practice theory).
Institutional theorists have become obsessed with explaining sources of institutional change in organizations. During neoinstitutional theory’s rise to prominence, it was mostly a theory of stability and homogenization of society, but in the last decade or so more and more institutional scholars have started focusing on change dynamics. There are some obviously good reasons for this, including the purpose of making institutional theory a more useful tool. Theories of institutional change often try to find endogenous explanations, e.g., institutional contradictions, competition between institutional logics. Still most of these explanations, because they give primacy to higher-level processes, ignore what’s going on at the ground level or at least fail to take into account the processes whereby people change their beliefs, adapt values, and alter their identities to make room for a new institutional practice.
In our rush to generate endogenous explanations for institutional change, it seems that some of the obvious micro-level processes of institutional change have been ignored. This research completely ignores the people whose “hearts and minds” must change in order to actually create lasting institutional change, even though for a new routine to become institutionalized people have to put it into action and for a new policy to be seen as “legitimate” people have to be convinced of the policy’s appropriateness. Perhaps the lack of emphasis on these micro-dynamics is the result of methodological biases. Demographic analysis, public opinion research, and experimental methods are mostly outside the toolkit of most institutional theorists. And yet, there’s probably a lot we could get from these analyses.
One potentially very important mechanism of institutional change is cohort replacement. By that I mean the replacement of old guards of organizational members and leaders with newer cohorts who have different beliefs, opinions, and values. It’s strange, when you think about it, that institutional theorists haven’t considered in any serious way how cohort replacement affects organizational practices and policies, even though opinion research indicates that cohort differences explain significant variation in beliefs and attitudes. Cohort differences may often matter more than life stage differences in explaining political opinions and attitudes. Take the case of liberalizing beliefs about same sex marriage. One study indicates that about half of the growth in support for same sex marriage is the result of cohort replacement. Younger generations are simply more open to this practice than preceding generations. We can expect that in a couple of generations, same sex marriage will be legal everywhere due to cohort replacement.
How might cohort replacement explain organizational change? One way to examine this would be to look at how demographic differences across organizations explain openness to new policies/practices or rates of early adoption. Another fruitful path would be to explain how cohort replacement creates identity conflict in organizations, a potentially crucial source of friction underlying change. Cohorts, in this sense, could be conceptualized as the carriers of different identities and logics. A nice illustration of this type of research is Nancy Whittier’s 1997 ASR paper about micro-cohorts and the transformation of the feminist movement. Even though the paper is often cited as an important illustration of how collective identity matters in movements, I think it’s undervalued as a study of institutional change. Another potential line of investigation would be to examine the link between cohort replacement and selection processes at the field level-of-analysis. One of my students pointed out to me yesterday that Haveman’s and Rao’s 1997 AJS paper on the thrift industry relies to an extent on the imagery of cohort replacement to explain why certain forms of thrift were selected.
More generally speaking, there should be a stronger link between research on organizational demography (e.g., see Damon Phillips’s work on law firms; Heather Haveman on managerial tenure) and institutional theory. Obviously, rates of entry and exit of managers affect organizational processes. The question for institutional theory is, how do these demographic changes affect institutional stability and heterogeneity?
Here’s a recent piece that might interest some orgtheory readers (pdf): Boyer & Petersen, 2011. “The naturalness of (many) social institutions: evolved cognition as their foundation.” Journal of Institutional Economics.
Abstract: Most standard social science accounts only offer limited explanations of institutional design, i.e. why institutions have common features observed in many different human groups. Here we suggest that these features are best explained as the outcome of evolved human cognition, in such domains as mating, moral judgment and social exchange. As empirical illustrations, we show how this evolved psychology makes marriage systems, legal norms and commons management systems intuitively obvious and compelling, thereby ensuring their occurrence and cultural stability. We extend this to propose under what conditions institutions can become ‘natural’, compelling and legitimate, and outline probable paths for institutional change given human cognitive dispositions. Explaining institutions in terms of these exogenous factors also suggests that a general theory of institutions as such is neither necessary nor in fact possible. What are required are domain-specific accounts of institutional design in different domains of evolved cognition.
Brayden wrote a very perceptive post about institutional theory’s displacement of resource dependency theory. That post inspired me to think about the history of institutional theory as it is practiced in soc, o.b., and management:
- Paleo or “old” institutionalism: I think this was hatched by various folks like Sumner, Selznick, Merton, and others. Idea was simple. Communities have social practices or mores that shape social change. Selznick famously worked on the co-optation side of the story.
- Proto institutionalism: Somewhere between Parsons, definitely in the old or “paleo” camp, and the DiMaggio/Powell/Meyer/Rowan spectrum, were people shifting from local social processes to global forces. Stinchcombe definitely fits, as does the work that grapples with org structrures and resource flows, even when it is not overtly focused on environments.
- The New Institutionalism: The institutionalism we all know and love. Probably the big dispute was over the sources of structure – rational response to task completion or legitimacy signal? This move completed the switch from local community to polity/field/sector as the source of legitimacy. Rather quickly, this became the “go to” theory for a generation of sociologists who needed to justify their own studies of the social sources of org behavior.
- Disputed Institutionalism: Starting in the late 1990s, perhaps with Davis and Thompson’s work on shareholder revolts or Clemens’ book on lobbying, people started linking conflict with institutions. This blew up with the work of Soule, Schneiberg, and Bartley. I’d also put myself in this camp because I view institutions and new org forms as long term consequences of political mobilization. The focus is still on non-local environments, but conflict revolves around cultural scripts, which is then filtered through statute and custom.
- The New Micro-institutionalism: For a while, I thought that institutionalism was played out. Once you admit people could argue with institutions, there wasn’t much left to say. But then I read the stuff on institutional work by Suddaby & Lawrence. A simple point, we need a better account of the things that are done to create/defend/destroy institutions. My most very recent work employs these ideas.
So what’s next for institutional theory? Every time you think we’re done, some pushes it in a new direction.
On scientific skepticism…why it’s best to double (and triple) check, even when the data fit the profile
The New York Times recently carried a story that highlights the importance of scientific skepticism, even in the face of strong evidence. The author, Dr. Danielle Ofri, was seeing a patient, Mr. S, who had been diagnosed with HIV years prior while incarcerated. Apparently, not only did the medical test offer a positive diagnosis, but Mr. S’s social experiences were thought to be consistent with many of the risk factors associated with HIV. He was an inmate on Rikers Island, one of the most notorious jails in the country. For a variety of reasons, inmate populations in our nation’s jails and prisons have, on average, higher rates of HIV, hepatitis, TB and other communicable diseases than the rest of the population. The man was also a former IV drug user, and using unsterilized needles is a leading mode of HIV transmission. In fact, whenever Mr. S went to visit his doctor, nurses struggled to find healthy veins to draw blood to test his T-cell counts and viral loads, markers of HIV progression in the body. After years of taking HIV medications and doing annual blood work (as the routine blood tests that most HIV-positive individuals have every 3-6 months were deemed impossible given the condition of his veins), a nurse practitioner approached the situation with a healthy dose of scientific skepticism and asked for a new HIV test.
Turns out, Mr. S was never HIV positive.
Rather, the first test was a false positive. Dr. Ofri wondered, “how the misdiagnosis could have persisted for so long — why we chose to explain his vigorous T-cells by classifying him as a nonprogressor, rather than considering that his initial H.I.V. test might have been incorrect.”
Mr. S likely wasn’t retested after the positive test result, Dr. Ofri hypothesizes, partly because his social experiences confirmed a positive HIV diagnosis. In short, he fit the profile due to his drug and incarceration history. Years and thousands of dollars in HIV drugs later, it is discovered that he’s not HIV positive after all. The “profile” didn’t fit the man.
False positives are rare in HIV testing, but they do happen. As a result, many of the respondents in my HIV research describe being tested and retested to make sure that the results are accurate.
I guess the moral of the story is…. respect the science, but test and evaluate again. This applies of course to medicine, in which biological markers and social factors are interpreted together by health professionals to offer a diagnosis. But this also applies to social scientists, so that we can catch those unexpected instances in our data when 2+2 does not in fact equal 4.
As the national unemployment rate continues to hover around 9.1%, I can’t help wondering how individuals are navigating an organization that is now an important part of their lives: their local unemployment office.
The aim of my book, The New Welfare Bureaucrats: Entanglements of Race, Class, and Policy Reform (Univ of Chicago Press 2009), was not solely to talk about welfare caseworkers. Rather, I was interested in using the case of welfare offices to tell a story about a larger set of organizations. Catch-all bureaucracies, I argue in the book, are government agencies called upon to be the societal arms of “help,” broadly defined. In light of ongoing debates about the remedies for high unemployment, these institutions remain central to our understanding of how those who are economically struggling navigate both macro-level economic and political transformations and micro-level conditions and struggles that shape their financial outlooks.
Michael Lipsky (1980) famously defined street-level bureaucracies as institutions in which government workers interact directly with citizens and exercise substantial discretion in their jobs. However, it would be a mistake to lump all street-level bureaucracies together—harboring the inaccurate assumption that they contain similar levels and kinds of social meaning and subsequently face similar organizational dilemmas. What separates catch-all bureaucracies from other street-level bureaucracies—such as Departments of Motor Vehicles, City Halls, or public services in the most affluent communities—is how the manifestations of personal and group struggles with economic deprivation are readily apparent within their borders. As clients wrestle with unemployment’s causes and consequences, they in turn bring a myriad of concerns and situations into these institutions, placing unique demands on the employees who work in them.
Did you know that while blacks comprised 10.9 percent of the total labor force in 2006, they constituted one-fourth of the workers determining eligibility for individuals applying for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), food stamps, unemployment benefits, social security, public housing, and other state assistance (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics 2007)?
I have written extensively on the increased racial diversity within the employee ranks of street-level bureaucracies. This focus gives us a window into the lives of public workers (a group that has gotten a lot of attention in light of the efforts to reduce their collective bargaining power); and research in this area also encourages us to think about the elements of professional identities. In the abstracts that follow, I point you to articles written by yours truly that take up the questions, “How are professional identities of workers within organizations informed by their racial, class, and gender identities, and how do these intersecting social and professional identities shape events on the ground?”
Olderwoman has written a fascinating post on Scatterplot about the political conflict brewing (or boiling over perhaps) in Madison as the UW-Madison contemplates separating itself from the larger Wisconsin university system. The move would allow them to raise tuition and would grant the university some autonomy from the state. Of course, the change is complicated by the current, messy politics of Wisconsin and is made even messier, as OW describes in her post, by the conflicts of interest that faculty have as citizens who typically support more progressive policies while also being stakeholders in a research institution striving to maintain its elite status. Here’s a highlight from her post:
As I have debated this issue with grad students (who are mostly lined up in opposition to the plan), I have been trying to unravel the threads of interest involved. The students tend to emphasize concerns about tuition. Issues of access and affordability are real ones. They are issues now, as state funding continues to decline. All predictions about how this issue would play out under different structures are entirely hypothetical. One group argues that to change from being a public university is to give up forever on the idea of more tax dollar subsidies for tuition. Another group argues that the only way to increase affordability is to raise tuition simultaneously with raising financial aid — effectively to charge a sliding scale that depends on family income; people who advocate this disagree about which structure is most likely to do this. As that is all hypothetical, that particular debate is solely one of opinions.
But the whole tuition debate — one I am sympathetic to as a progressive — cuts entirely differently from the issue of what is good for an elite research university. If my goal is access to high quality education for youth of modest means, wouldn’t I just stop funding an elite research university entirely? Wouldn’t that access goal be better met with an institution staffed by lower-paid faculty teaching three or four courses a semester than by an institution staffed by higher-paid faculty whose major interest and time commitment is to their research/scholarship? The trend at elite schools is toward inequality: higher and higher salaries for the high-performing research faculty, and more and more teaching done by lower paid adjunct faculty.
One core value question is whether you support the idea of an elite research institution or not. Should there be major public research institutions at all? And if so, what does it take to maintain them? Can an elite research university survive with an egalitarian ethos in the face of competition from the unapologetic elitist private institutions?
The most recent issue of Sociological Theory features an article by Fligstein and McAdam entitled “Towards a General Theory of Strategic Action Fields.” In this paper F & M, attempt a “grand” conceptual synthesis (and also attempt to draw a systematic outline of the empirical implications of) a series of recent trends towards the integration of organizational, institutional and social movement theories. This is a place where the literature has been kind of awkwardly moving for a while now (e.g. Scheneiberg and Clemens 2006; Armstrong and Bernstein 2008; Rao 2008; Evans and Kay 2008; King and Pearce 2010), but which is finally given a measure of overall conceptual coherence in this piece.
The theoretical motor of the entire paper is very parsimonious version of field theory. This is also a place where the literature had been awkwardly moving, with various people inventing and re-inventing a field perspective using all sorts of different language and terms such as ecologies, and multiple institutional logics (e.g. Abbott 2005; see also here). F & M bring order to what could have been some overwhelmingly complicated proceedings through their economical meta-concept of “strategic action fields” (as well as other secondary and very handy distinctions). This concept is supposed to subsume older versions (including sectors, movement industries, organizational fields and I would add Abbottian ecologies) of the same general thing; essentially SAFs are sites where collective actors struggle for what is at stake (what Bourdieu referred to as “illusio”), taking each other into account while doing so. The general dynamics of SAFs can then be described using the combined resources of “French” field theory (e.g. dominated/dominant, doxa, struggle for recognition, etc.), American reconceptualizations thereof (e.g. Fligstein’s theory of social skill) and standard concepts taken from social movement (incumbent/challenger, contention, mobilization, framing, etc.) and organizational theory (institutional logics).
This paper is an absolute must-read. Easily one of the most important conceptual advances in organizational and social movement theory (in fact one of the ambitious claims of the paper is that these two realms are empirically co-extensive, so there should be brought under a single conceptual framework) in recent memory.