Archive for the ‘just theory’ Category
I am now old enough that I have seen three traditions in American sociology die. In describing them, I am not necessarily saying that I don’t like them. In fact, I am a published practitioner in one of them. Rather, these traditions have not been able to reproduce themselves at the core of the profession. They may be popular in other fields, but not in soc:
- Rational choice
Each promised a lot and had a moment in American sociology. Munch, Alexander, and others led the charge on neo-functionalism in the 1990s, and Luhmann has a following. Rational choice still has notable adherents, like Doug Heckathorn at Cornell or Richard Breen at Yale. And the AJS and ASR had their share of articles discussing postmodernism (here, for example). But still, it’s hard to say that these traditions aren’t dormant in American sociology. Few students, few placements.
The question is whether there is any commonality. Is American sociology resistant to certain types of theory? If these three cases indicate a deeper process, then I’d make the following guesses:
- “Strong assumptions” – American sociologists don’t like models with what appear to be overly strong assumptions. Rational choice models have smart actors; postmodernism has overly complex actors; and the various functionalisms had actors that were hyper sensitive to social norms and communities were overly structured.
- “High tech” – With the exception of applied statistics, American sociologists don’t like fancy things. The AGIL system in functionalism; math for RCT; European philosophy/social theory for post-modernism.
So the ideal theory would be one with weak assumptions and requires little machinery. Many of the dominant theories these days seem to fit this: institutionalism/field theory; intersectionality theory; theories of racial privilege; etc. Network theory rests on simple, but weak, assumptions and uses only stats.
It is unclear to me if this is a good or bad state of affairs. However, if you think it’s bad, then you have a real problem. The most obvious way to change it is to recruit different kinds of people into the profession who like demanding theory or high tech tools. That seems like a tall order given our undergraduate audience, which is the major talent pool for the profession.
Recently, Elizabeth and Brayden have drawn attention to the institutional position of organizational sociology. Three pertinent facts:
- A lot of organizational sociologists have moved to b-schools.
- The major orgtheory/b-school journal, ASQ, rarely publishes people in sociology programs.*
- The dominance of institutional theory
When I look at these trends, I see two things. One, orgtheory has market value. A low budget discipline like sociology simply won’t retain people. Two, I think there is a “thinning” that is occurring in orgtheory. While orgtheory remains vibrant, it is now, in sociology, a field that has jettisoned much of its heritage. Sociologists have gravitated toward big structural theories, like institutionalism, networks, and ecology (the big three, as Heather might say). But what happened to the rest? Why don’t sociologists care about Carnegie school theory? Why have people stopped working on Blau style middle level theory? Human relations?
The answer is not clear to me. One culprit might be the journal system. To succeed in sociology at the higher levels, you need fast publication in two or three journals and it’s probably easier to just work on well established variables/processes (diffusion/density/networks). I certainly did that and I freely admit that I’d be unemployed if I tried to hatch new variables. Second, there might simply be a new division of labor in academia. The “sociology of organizations” now simply means structural analysis. An “b-school orgtheory” means other features of orgs, like performance, that sociologists care less about.
* That didn’t have to be the case, Don.
Good opens the article by suggesting that Go is inherently superior to all other strategy games, an opinion shared by pretty much every Go player I’ve met. “There is chess in the western world, but Go is incomparably more subtle and intellectual,” says South Korean Lee Sedol, perhaps the greatest living Go player and one of a handful who make over seven figures a year in prize money. Subtlety, of course, is subjective. But the fact is that of all the world’s deterministic perfect information games — tic-tac-toe, chess, checkers, Othello, xiangqi, shogi — Go is the only one in which computers don’t stand a chance against humans.
This is not for lack of trying on the part of programmers, who have worked on Go alongside chess for the last fifty years, with substantially less success. The first chess programs were written in the early fifties, one by Turing himself. By the 1970s, they were quite good. But as late as 1962, despite the game’s popularity among programmers, only two people had succeeded at publishing Go programs, neither of which was implemented or tested against humans.
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 am not well read in Benjamin’s ouevre, but I’ve always been semi-impressed. Moments of brilliance, but I couldn’t quite wrap my head around the big contribution. Well, Walter Laquer makes the argument that Benjamin is an over-rated thing. From the Mosaic:
Yes, his ideas (as in his best-known essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”) were often original, and there were flashes of genius. But in what precisely did his genius consist? Had he produced a new philosophy of history, proposed a fundamentally new approach to our understanding of 19th-century European culture, his main area of concern, or revolutionized our thinking about modernity? The answers I received weren’t persuasive then, and the answers provided in the vast secondary literature of the last decades have done no better.
Wherein lay its originality? The figure of the flâneur had been “discovered” earlier in the novels of Honoré de Balzac and others, and the main themes of Baudelaire’s poems had been studied even by German academics, some of whom had offered analyses not dissimilar to Benjamin’s. Were the Parisian arcades, with or without Baudelaire, the right starting point for a new understanding of modernity? Even the most detailed Benjamin biography, by the distinguished French professor Jean Michel Palmier, reaches no satisfying conclusion on this point. (Palmier’s mammoth book, almost 1,400 pages long, remains, like Benjamin’s work, unfinished—which is a comment in itself.)
Defenders – show me the Benjamins!
There is an intrinsic interest in the philosophy of social science. Ideally, we all want well motivated and logical explanations for how we should do our professional work. However, there is usually one question that you don’t hear much about – why does scholarship seem to progress in the absence of a well motivated philosophy? In other words, doctors probably have a bad philosophy of science, but I don’t see philosophers refusing the services of their physicians.
I don’t have an answer to this, I’ve only started to think about this issue. But I raise it in the shadow of our debate over critical realism and the earlier debate over post-modernism. The claim of some supporters is that social scientists really need a new theory of social science (e.g., critical realism) because social scientists rely on a flawed positivist theory. It may be true that positivist social science is wrong and that we should adopt a newer theory. This view does not take into account two issues: (a) The cost of adopting a new theory is steep. If Kieran can’t quite get critical theory after reading it for 18 months, then I sure won’t get it. (b) A new social science that proceeds along new rules of engagement may not generate enough differences to make it worthwhile. For example, now that Phil Gorski has adopted critical realism, how would his book, The Disciplinary Revolution, be written any differently? Not clear to me since a lot of what Gorski does in that book is apply a specific theoretical lens in reading various developments in state formation. He might sprinkle a discussion of “multiple levels of causation” at the top but then he’d probably proceed to make similar arguments with similar data.
The ultimate puzzle, though, is in areas that seem to make progress even when practitioners work with a bad philosophy. This suggests that the demand for better foundations simply isn’t important for generating knowledge. Another datum is that advances in science, or social science, rarely require entirely new foundations. Take sociology. I don’t need to adopt anything new to, say, appreciate Swidler’s attack on functionalism. And I seem to be able to understand most feminist sociology by using meat and potatoes positivism. The bottom line is that, at the very least, there needs to be an explanation for the ubiquitous disjuncture between foundations and practice.