Archive for the ‘just theory’ Category
When I visited Millsaps College a few weeks ago, I got into a discussion about international relations theory with my host, political scientist Michael Reinhard. I asked him why we (social scientists) needed to study famous political leaders, like Julius Caesar or Winston Churchill. His argument was intriguing. He said that highly successful social actors have often spent a lot of time understanding their social world. They are good at what they do – international relations in this case – because, at the very least, they have an intuition about the world that is important and correct. Some, like Churchill, will even explain their views to others. In other words, political scientists should study great leaders because great leaders actually understand power fairly well.
In sociology, we have no such argument, but it is worth thinking about. We are resistant to great leader stories and for good reason. Great man stories often devolve into hero worship, or they rely on “Whig” history. But that doesn’t mean Great people scholarship is not without use. For example, what did Steve Jobs understand about markets that management scholars should learn? Or, a more sociological example, what does a great religious leader understand about religion that sociologists of religion should know? Taking a turn from Bourdieu, we could look at any social field, identify the “masters,” and then use them as research sites where we can understand how the field is put together.
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 »
Marcel Fournier’s exegesis of Durkheim’s life and work is much more than a biography of a French academic in fin-de-siecle Europe. It offers the reader an intellectual history of ideas, alongside an insight into the process of knowledge production and the craft and method of empirical analysis. The logic of Durkheim’s argumentation is meticulously (and exhaustively) dissected. Fournier’s forensic examination goes further, though, drawing on a wealth of archival documentation, including correspondence, manuscripts and reports, to re-create the energy, excitement and politically charged atmosphere in which academic sociology in France began to take shape.
Durkheim believed that sociology should concern itself with social facts, the external and objective nature of social reality that exists beyond the individual. Social facts are “the substratum of collective life”, he observed in his Rules of Sociological Method (1895), an early attempt to outline a modus operandi for the discipline of sociology. Social facts have a specific character and are discernible in systems of religious, moral and juridical belief. For Durkheim, man (sic) is both an individual and a social being. Ways of thinking and acting are not simply the work of the individual but are invested in a moral power above him.
Check it out.
In mathematics, there’s a very rough distinction between “linear” things and “combinatoric” things. We are all familiar with linear science, but combinatorics is more subtle. Combinatorics simply means the math you need in order to count different combinations of things. For example, you may ask, “if I have ten red balls and twenty green balls, and I randomly draw three balls, how many different combinations of red and green do I get?” That’s a combinatoric question – counting discrete things.
Social science has lots of tools that exploit linear models: utility maximization, regression analysis, scale construction, etc. But we don’t have a lot of tools that address the combinatoric side of social life. To see what I mean, consider the issue of policy formation – why does government make some policies and not others?
- The linear answer (taken from the Median Voter Theorem in economics): Politicians offer policies designed to attract the median voter. Thus, the utility of a policy is approximated by how popular it is.
- The combinatoric answer (taken from Agendas, Alternatives, and Public Policies): Nature produces a stream of political issues and actors. Think of nature as drawing them from a big box of issues and people. If nature happens to simultaneously choose an issue and actor that “match,” then a policy gets made.
These are not inconsistent views, but they require very different toolkits. The first is about studying distributions of voters. The second is an arrival process. Metaphorically, the first model is a world of smoothness with thresholds. The second is chunky. Over the last hundred years or so of quantitative social science, we have lots of tools for smooth things. We have a few tools for chunky discrete things, like network analysis, but not enough. Ambitious quantitative social science PhD students should carefully think about that last sentence.
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:
In response to Kieran and Ezra’s posts, Shreeharsh Kelkar of MIT’s Program in History, Anthropology and STS wrote a lengthy post about the nature of performativity arguments. A representative clip:
To put in yet another way, the difference between constructivists and realists is over the issue of prediction, and in particular over the issue of long-term prediction. Short-term predictions are possible for both the realist and the constructivist. But long-term predictions, say, about housing prices or computer prices 50 years from now, will be more difficult for constructivists to make than realists. It is difficult only because even objective factors that determine prices can be changed by long-term cultural work; and this cultural work is impossible to predict. The more confident you are about prediction, you shift to the realism side of the spectrum. The less confident about prediction you are, will make you more of a constructivist.
And this explains, finally, some of the arguments that have been happening in the Orgtheory comment threads. Would you like your regulator to be a realist or a constructivist? Realists argue that even the existence of regulators is premised on realism; for if there were no objective factors constraining social facts (like prices) then how would one even begin to regulate something in the first place? I would disagree. I think it depends on the time-frame that the regulator is supposed to regulate. A regulator who is thinking about the future 50 years from now is simply deceiving himself or herself. For a regulator who is thinking 5 or 10 years down the line: it simply doesn’t matter whether he is a realist or a constructivist.
Check it out.
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.
Ok, let’s start with the Coleman diagram (or the “bathtub” as they call it in Germany). For institutionlaism, the two “macro” states are culture and isomorphism in an organizational field. That’s what the macro states are in DiMaggio and Powell ’83 or world polity theory.
Now, take your favorite micro sociological theory – maybe you are a Swidlerian toolkit person, or a Goffmanian frame theorist, or a Bourdieu habitus person. Then, complete the Coleman diagram. Except for habitus theory, you’ll notice that a lot of these theories don’t really produce isomorpshism on the macro level.
A definition: theory death is when some intellectual group tires of theory based on armchair speculation. Of course, that doesn’t mean that people stop producing theory. Rather, it means that “theory” no longer means endless books based on the author’s insights. Instead, people produce theory that responds to, or integrates, or otherwise incorporates a wealth of normal science research. In sociology, theory death seems to have happened sometime in the 1980s or 1990s. For example, recent theory books like Levi-Martin’s Social Structures or McAdam and Fligstein’s A Theory of Fields are extended discussions of empirical research that culminate in broader statements. The days of endlessly quoting and reinterpreting Weber are over. :(
Now, it seems, theory death is hitting some areas of political science. Consider a recent blog post by political scientists Stephen Saideman called “Leaving Grand Theorists Behind.” Saideman trashes a recent piece by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt (“Leaving Theory Behind: Why Hypothesis Testing Has Become Bad for IR“) that urges international relations scholars to downplay empirical work return to grand thinking. Saideman is pissed:
- My first reaction was: Next title: why too much research is bad for IR….
- As folks pointed out on twitter and on facebook discussions, it seems ironic at the least that someone who made a variety of testable predictions that did not come true (the rise of Germany after the end of the cold war, conventional deterrence, the irrelevance of international institutions, etc) would suggest that testing our hypotheses is over-rated or over-done.
And the critique goes on and on… My take: for reasons that I have yet to understand, political science has not completely washed out old style “theory” in the way that it happened in most other social science disciplines. Therefore you have pockets of people who hold that as their ideal, even in fields that are obviously empirical. When they are very senior and very respected, you get this sort of flare up.
First, of all I’d like to thank Neil Fligstein for guest blogging on orgtheory. Acknowledging his contribution has been long overdue. He wrote a series of really provocative and intriguing posts about his new book, A Theory of Fields (see here and here), which spurred an intense discussion about the various strands of institutional theory, the role of agency and change in institutional theory, and the strategic orientation of actors. Rather than rehash that debate I wanted to step back and offer my own take on what I see as some of the most important (potential) contributions of field theory to organizational scholarship.
Even though in his posts Neil framed the book as a response to institutional scholarship, I think the book has more ambitious, broader designs. Their book tries to integrate various research strands and subfields – including, but not limited to, institutional theory and social movement theory – and offer a unified theory of fields and action. In this light, they have more in common with John Levi Martin (JLM), who has written his own treatise on fields and social action, than they do with the hordes of institutional scholars. (Their view of fields certainly owes more to Bourdieu than it does to DiMaggio and Powell’s concept of organizational fields.) They are attempting grand theory in a way that is rarely done in contemporary sociology. The grandness of their theoretical lens is apparent once you consider that they mean for it to apply not only to markets or industries but also to fields that exist within organizations or that describe relations between social movement activists.
The major difference between them (F&M) and JLM or other field theorists is the way they conceptualize fields as sites of collective action (strategic action being the most important form of collective action that actors take to reproduce or change fields). In contrast, JLM is more interested in fields as sites of social action, period. According to F&M, the major problem that faces actors in any field – whether you’re talking about American corporations seeking to deregulate an industry or parents addressing the education needs of their children – is figuring how to cooperate and take collective action so that they can gain advantages over contending groups. Engaging in collective action in order to get an advantage is the motivation that drives field formation, struggle, and change. A strong version of their theory would suggest that changes in meaning systems, rules and norms, or institutional settlements are endogenous to these strategic struggles. In fact, the field itself can be seen as situational, inasmuch as it forms around struggles over ideas and standing. Fields only exist inasmuch as there is some sort of collective action.
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.
When I went to grad school in the late 90s/early 2000s, organizational sociology/org theory was taught in the following way:
- Two or three major schools of thought –
ecologydemography, institutionalism, and rat choice/neo-rat choice/Carnegie school.
- One “perspective” – networks of/in organizations
- Various topics, such as gender or race in the workplace
What has changed in the last ten years? I’d guess that we’ve deepened our selves a great deal in networks and institutions, people are less interested in ecological arguments, and there are new topics (e.g., movements and orgs). What I find interesting is that were don’t have many new variables, in the same way the ecologists brought us density or institutionalists brought us isomorphism/diffusion.
Do you agree with this assessment? What do you think is the new variable in orgtheory? What ought to be the new variable in org theory?
Having taught undergraduate social theory a lot, I’ve come to appreciate that there are four levels of learning:
- Memorization and reading comprehension. For example, students need to know that Weber talked about bureaucracy and that they need to understand his definition.
- The “basic point.” We want students to understand the perspective presented by various theorists. Using Weber as an example, we might say that one of his major ideas was that modern life reflected a rationalization of behavior.
- Applications: We want students to be able to analyze some social phenomena in terms of the underlying variables or concepts found in various theories.
- Theoretical nimbleness: We want students to be able grasp the subtlety of theory, how one set of ideas (e.g., Marxism) connects to another (e.g., Weberian historical soci0logy).
A fair number of students hit a brick wall with #1. The level of reading in a typical social theory course is much, much more demanding than what we teach in intro or social problems. For many students, social theory will be the hardest course they will take. But still, most college students can achieve basic reading comprehension if they get some tutoring or if you boil it down to key words and catch phrases.
The next three levels elude most social theory students. Since they don’t have much experience reading challenging texts, they are stumped when asked to extract the main variable or idea of the theory. Since many sociology programs are disorganized – they don’t built linearly on fundamental principals – many sociology majors have never really been forced to think in terms of variables until very late in their program. Asking for applications of theory to real world examples seems to be a very alien concept for most students. Of course, level 4, facility with theory as theory, is not expected of students, except those aiming for graduate school.
About two weeks ago, there was an interesting post at Econlog about the relative importance of civil rights for libertarians. The issue is that libertarians often hype other issues, like taxes, more than civil rights. Not too much discussion about discrimination, Jim Crow, and so forth. A blogger from the pro-immigration website Open Borders asked how often libertarians argued against, for example, segregation.
I think the commenters (myself included) got it right when we said “some, but not much.” In other words, from time to time, libertarian intellectuals did talk about the evils of segregation. Usually, the issue is couched in terms of the use of state power to prohibit blacks from holding property and practicing certain occupations, like the law. Sometimes it was a commentary on what was good and bad in the Black freedom movement. There is the occasional talk of opposing colonialism. But overall, it was not an overwhelming response.
The relatively weak answer to Black oppression is puzzling. Opposing Jim Crow was a no brainer from the libertarian point of view. Blacks had been slaves, which is the antithesis of personal freedom. Then, after Reconstruction, they had been subjected to humiliating and painful legal regulations in addition to extensive personal violence. While libertarians may disagree with liberals about the remedy for state violence and segregation, you would think that they would have been marching arm and arm with liberals in the 1960s.
But that didn’t happen. Black repression takes a back burner on the libertarian shopping list. But why? I think it has to do with the sociology of elite libertarians. Read the rest of this entry »
Last week, I wondered why there was a decline of “social theorist” as a self-identified niche in sociology. It’s not that people don’t write social theory. On this blog, we spend a lot time discussing books that might be called “theory,” like Reed’s book on interpretive social science or Levi-Martin’s on social structure. Rather, as a whole, social doesn’t produce a lot of people who say “I’m a social theorist.”
In the comments, there was a strong discussion that focused on my hypothesis that empirical work is simply more competitive. Coming up a genuine advance in social theory is much harder than doing solid empirical work. One commenter then responded, if I may paraphrase, that in the long run theory wins out over empirical work.
At first glance, this seems intuitive. We all Weber, but how many of us read, say community studies from the 1920s? I bet John Levi-Martin’s book on structure will be read more than the latest p* article in Social Networks.
Upon further reflection, it’s not clear at all. What we now call “theory” was often “empirical work” in an earlier era. My view is that “theory” is a vague term that is retroactively applied to some sociological work that is highly successful.
For example, most of Durkheim’s major books are considered “theory.” Some are purely theory (e.g., Rule of Sociological Method) while others are doggedly empirical (e.g., Suicide). Some “theorists” write abstract theory (e.g., Parsons) while others mix and match (e.g., Alexander’s book on Neofunctionalism is almost bereft of traditional empirical work, while his recent stuff is motivated by empirical example). Still in others, it’s hard to tell where abstract theory begins and empirical commentary begins (e.g., Simmel).
Maybe that’s the deeper lesson. What becomes canonical theory in the future is hard to predict. So just try to do your best. We’re in a golden age of middle range theory and data and sociology. That’s where the profession it at right now, and that’s where the theory of future is being born.
It’s safe to say that “social theory” is in retreat in sociology as an occupational category. The number of people who identify themselves as primarily “social theory” is shrinking. Let me quote Kieran, who shared with us his graduate level theory syllabus:
Social theory within sociology is in a strange position. The nickel version is: there are no longer any theorists in sociology. There are theories (or things people call theories); there are theory courses and there are people who teach theory; there are theory articles and theory journals; inside papers there are mandatory theory sections; inside the American Sociological Association there is a Theory Section, too; there are career returns to being thought of as a clever sort of person who can do good theory; you cannot get published in a top-flight journal without convincing the reviewers that you have made a theoretical contribution; and there are people who were once hired as theorists and still think of themselves as such. In some related fields on the humanities side there is also capital-`t’ Theory, with its own practitioners. But since the late 1980s or early 1990s there has essentially been no occupational position of “theorist” within American sociology. No-one gets a job as a theorist. (For more on this, see Lamont 2004, and also Healy 2007.) Crudely, the sort of people who once would have thought of themselves—and hoped to be hired—primarily as theorists now think of themselves as sociologists of culture instead, or (less often) as disciplinary historians of ideas.
Well said, Mr. K. Now, a few comments:
- A humanities style moral/social philosophy/history of thought sub-field is in retreat in every discipline. Political science is the exception.
- You can still do theory, as in writing fat books that are praised but rarely read. They get published. There are theory journals, and you can still get career points for them.
- Hypothesis Uno: Old style theory was only advantageous in a data poor environment.
- Hypothesis Dos: Old style theory was only advantageous in a low tech environment.
- Hypothesis Tres: Science is now bigger, which gives an advantage to empirical specialists.
- Conclusion: In a fast paced world where people have real data, high tech tools, and can consume a lot quickly, writing Parsons style magnus opuses is something that few people can pull off.
Final comment: I’ve now spent 9 years between IU and Michigan as faculty and post-doc. Very different departments, but that allows you to see the wide range of sociology. I’ve looked over (and tried to read) *hundreds* of job applications. Very, very few “pure theory” applications. What does that tell me? From time to time, you’ll the fat theory book come out, but the profession collectively says “meh.”
What makes a study interesting? Is it the empirical phenomena that we study or is it the theoretical contribution? For those of who are really paying attention (and I applaud you if you are), you’ll notice that I’ve asked this question before. It’s become a sort of obsession of mine. For the field of organizational theory, it’s an important discussion to have, although it’s not one that will likely yield any consensus. Scholars tend to have very strong opinions about this. Some people feel that as a field we’ve fetishized theory to the point of making our research inapplicable to the bigger world we live in. Others claim that by making “theoretical contribution” such a key component of any paper’s value, we ignore really important empirical problems. But in contrast, some scholars maintain that what makes our field lively and essential is that we are linked to one another (and across generations) via a stream of ideas that constitute theory. What makes an empirical problem worthy of study is that it can be boiled down to a crucial theoretical problem that makes it generalizable to a class of phenomena and puzzles.
At this year’s Academy of Management meetings, I was involved in a couple of panels where this issue came up. It was posed as a question, should we be interested in problems or theory? If we are interested in studying problems, we shouldn’t let theoretical trends bog us down. We should just study whatever real world problems are most compelling to us. If we’re interested primarily in theory, we need to let theory deductively guide us to those problems that help us solve a particular theoretical puzzle. Some very senior scholars in the field threw their weight behind the former view. I don’t want to name any names here, but one of the scholars who suggested we should be more interested in real-world problems is now the editor of a major journal of our field. He offered several examples of papers recently published in that journal that were primarily driven by interesting observations about empirical phenomena.
One of the new assistant professors in the crowd threw a pointed objection to the editor. And I paraphrase, “This all sounds great. I’d love to study empirical problems, but reviewers won’t let me! They keep asking me to identify the theoretical gap I’m addressing. They demand that I make a theoretical contribution.” Good point young scholar. Reviewers do that a lot. We’ve had it drilled into us from our grad school days that this is what makes a study interesting. If the paper lacks a theoretical contribution, reject it (no matter how interesting the empirical contribution may be)! This is a major obstacle, and I don’t think the esteemed editor could offer a strong counter-argument to the objection. Editors, after all, are somewhat constrained by the reviews they get. I think what we need is a new way to think about what makes a study valuable. We need new language to talk about research quality.
I’m teaching our required Graduate Social Theory course again this semester. This year I decided I’d snub not just monomanical German system-builders but French Weberians as well. No Foucault for you! I should have started a “What, no x?” sidebet before posting it. In the syllabus, I present a justification for my sins. An excerpt:
A lot of people have bugged me about Isaac Reed‘s book, Interpretation and Social Knowledge: On the use of theory in the human sciences. It’s a book that offers an explanation (sorry!) of the different ways that social researchers construct explanations. I think this a wonderful and engaging book, but it has some major points that I disagree with. Let’s just say that, me and this book are frenemies.
This book argues that there are three types of explanations to be found in the social sciences. There is “naturalism” or “positivism,” where explanations are tied to a social reality that is “out there.” There are normative explanations, which focus on social processes because of what they say about some ideal state derived from ethical theory (e.g., Habermas’ public sphere account vs. the theory communicative action). The third style of explanation situates human action within worlds of meaning, which Reed calls interpretive sociology.
Let’s start with what I like. Despite the occasional wordiness that is typical in the social theory genre, this is actually a short and elegant book. I enjoyed this book. I think Reed’s typology of social research is valuable and on target. If I were to teach graduate theory, I’d assign this book. Substantively, Reed is correct in pointing out that what makes social research distinctive is meaning. Indeed, with the exception of rational choice, nearly every major development in the social sciences addresses the role of meanings and beliefs. Institutionalists talk about cultural stemplates. There’s toolboxes, schema, habitus, and so forth. These are all attempts to integrate theories of action with theory of psychology and beliefs. Reed is also to be applauded in arguing that social explanation, to be effective, must situate an individuals moods or dispositions within a “cultural landscape.”
I level a few criticisms at this book. One is purely stylistic. The book is filled with loving references to the likes of Roy Bhaskar and post-modernism. I don’t think their work adds much to Reed’s main point. I can easily that some sociologists would just stop reading. Why would a demographer or labor market researcher bother with such a book? There’s a lot of preaching to the choir.
Second, there’s a big argument that interpretive sociology is inherently different than the naturalist or positivist sociology that takes it cues from the physical sciences. My view is different. Ideas about falsification, inference, data collection, hypothesis testing, and so forth can be applied to systems of symbols and meaning. In linguistics, for example, there are successful research programs that focus on how systems of language evolve and are put together. No reason that can’t be applied to the historical study of colonialism, Christianity, or whatever. In fact, there is something called schema theory in psychological anthropology, which takes Reed’s idea of “cultural landscapes” and converts it into a positivist research agenda.
The separation of interpretation from naturalism is even more implausible once we consider how the same argument would play out in the natural sciences. Let’s take biology. It’s fairly clear that you can’t understand animal behavior without thinking about the organism’s history and ecosystem. So what should a biologist do? Option A: Develop a general principle that will help us explain variation in ecosystems, organisms, and evolution. Option B: Ditch the ideas of normal science and do ad hoc interpetations of different animals and their ecosystems. I hope that the reader thinks, along with Darwin, that option A is very desirable.
Those that separate qualitative and interpretive research from positivist modes of social science are missing something important. Meaning systems, or cultural landscapes, are complicated systems built up from simpler structures that are embedded in larger systems. “American culture” is emergent from American words, emotions, norms, social practices, and so forth. If you buy that argument, then the link between interpretive work and naturalist social science is obvious. You need a positivist explanation of how these complex systems are born, evolve, and operate. It’s not an easy problem by any means, but it’s one that easily fits within the ideas that we associate with natural science.
Reed does make some points in this direction. For example, in chapter four, he says that interpretations should be “locally consistent.” But he needs to go farther. Interpretation needs to always have an eye on general principles. Interpretations of different groups and historical eras need to be consistent with each in ways that provide guidance for future research. Without such an imperative, interpretive sociology threatens to devolve into the solipsism of historical specificity.
A long time ago (like in the 1990s), I remember reading that a major question among Bourdieu folks was the issue of how capital developed in one field was deployed in other fields They key issue was how economic capital could be converted into cultural capital in non-commercial social domains. I asked Brother O about this, and he provided a few citations to recent stuff. I think there is more out there, buried in the European social theory literature, but I am not sure where to start. Is Brother O right in that this wasn’t discussed much, or is my memory correct and there is a discussion of cross-field capital conversion out there?
Last week, Northwestern poli sci prof Jacqueline Stevens wrote a NY Times op-ed where the main argument is that political science is lousy at predicting things. You can read responses from within the field, like the one at the Monkey Cage.
Stevens makes some good points. For example, social scientists will often dress up common sense in fancy models and jargon. But I do have one major bone of contention with Stevens’ analysis, the social sciences are actually not bad at predicting some things. For example, I can predict, in the future, that college graduates will make a lot more money, on average, than people who didn’t go to college. We’ve known this for decades. This trend will continue. In political science, there are some models that actually predict things pretty well. My favorite is the presidential votes share model, where incumbent two-party vote share is very strongly predicted by the economy.
So what gives? Does a Northwestern professor of political science not know her own field? I can’t speak for Professor Stevens, but I’ll offer a few reasons for Stevens’ skepticism. This may have to do with the lingering conflict in political science over quantitative method. There’s a bigger issue than arguing over method. Stevens picks on areas of political science where prediction is insanely hard. If you have a system with a few moving parts, prediction may be possible (e.g., predicting the correlation between education and income).
Stevens uses examples like the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rise of al-Qaeda. Global politics is a massively complex system. There’s a lot we don’t know and a lot that is hard to measure. It also has billions of moving parts and shows sudden shifts. Physics is the same way. Two billiard balls? Yeah, we got that. Predicting the next earthquake? Umm… still working on that.
Poo-poohing political scientists for not foreseeing al-Qaeda is like saying that medical science is stupid because doctors didn’t predict AIDS. Superficially true, but so very, very misguided.
West 86th has an article by Ben Kafka on the subject of bureaucracy. Kafka’s main point is that philosophers, and political philosophers especially, have consistently misunderstood administration. In the 19th century, there was this belief that if we could just use science, we could administer ourselves to peace and stability. In the 20th century, philosophers, especially those with a left bent, felt that the problem of administration had been solved. It was so easy, anyone could do it. The intuition isn’t crazy. Kafka’s points out that these statements came on the heels of the French Revolution and its aftermath. People simply wanted rational rules that could easily be applied.
So how would a modern orgtheorist respond to the utopian philosophers? I think we’d say that administration is hard (and often brutal in the case of socialist nations) for the following reasons:
- Limited knowledge – aggregation of knowledge is hard, though bureaucracy makes it a little easier
- Self interest – Since administration is set up to deal with massive resources that owners can’t directly supervise, you get principal-agent problems
- Mission creep – a consequence of the principle-agent problem. Since it’s hard to monitor bureaucrats, it’s hard to keep a lid on them.
- Asymmetry – bureaucracies often have the upper hand over individuals because they don’t rely on a single person E.g., if this lawyer can’t fight anymore, a new one will be hired. In contrast, an individual can easily be outlasted in a conflict.
- Myth and ceremony – Rather than solve problems, states and organizations may expand bureaucracies to show they’re dealing with the problem
Thus, administration is a tool with limits and it comes with its own problems.
These questions came up during orgtheory training last week. I did not have good answers:
- A lot of performativity research focuses on stock options, less on futures. Why?
- Are there good studies of performativity of theory that aren’t about the economic profession?
My lame answers: 1. Everyone is taught Black-Scholes first, but no reason performativity theory couldn’t be applied in other types of markets, 2. economics is the most influential intellectual group that has a theory of social behavior that is inaccurate (which makes performativity possible) . Post your answers in the comments.
Why is social theory hard for students? After teaching many sections, I offer a few answers to this question. This is based on teaching a lot of public university students, many of whom postpone theory until the bitter end.
- The difficulty level of the readings is far beyond what is normally encountered in other courses. Compare a passage from Durkheim or Weber with what you find in an intro text or an anthology of readings on race, and you’ll see what I mean.
- Many students in sociology class don’t have an interest, or express an interest, in current events, history, philosophy, or other topics that would lead them to think a lot about the social world in a systematic way.
- A lot of courses are topical in orientation. Thus, there is no systematic discussion of dependent/independent variables, social processes, and so forth. In a lot of big public schools, social theory is a weird stand alone course. It is not integrated with others.
- Social theory books themselves present a problem. Finding a connection between empirical topics and social theories is hard.
One might interpret this post as a complaint against the buffet style sociology major, where students just take a bunch of disconnected courses. That is correct. At many programs, including my own, there is no logical sequencing of courses. Students take intro or social problems, then topics, and then a little stats and theory. Thus, there is no cultivation of systematic thinking.
Another interpretation is that sociology attracts the wrong kind of student. If there are not an appreciable number of students with a strong knowledge of current events, history, or other fields that would facilitate learning social theory, then it means we’re failing to attract these students.We have to do a better job getting the most engaged social science students.
Social theory instructors, please leave your comments.
In a previous post, I suggested that a useful way of (re)specyfying the agency problematic, requires us to understand that most of the time, talk of agency has nothing to do with “freedom to act” but actually pertains to the freedom to conceptualize the world in a way that is indeterminate in relation to objective reality: that is, agency usually means freedom to think (about the world in a way that is not determined or unilaterally constrained). I noted that an advantage of specifying the concept of agency in this way is that it allows us to understand a bunch of quirks in the history of social and cultural theory, in particular the Parsonian conflation of “voluntarism” with the Weberian problematic of “ideas” and the subsequent projection of essentially the same debate in anthropological theory to the “cultural autonomy (from biology and conditions).” Here I would like to go into greater depth into the reasons why it is useful to think of the agency problematic in this way, with an emphasis on implications for contemporary cultural sociology.
One objection that you might have is that thinking of agency as “freedom of conceptualization” seems like a counter-intuitive, overly-convoluted, obscure or simply unhelpful way of specifying and dis-aggregating what we mean by agency. If that’s what you think, I think you are wrong. This way of thinking about the agency problematic makes a bunch of sense. First, as I mentioned before, it makes sense of the way that Parsons thought about it. Why should we care about making sense of Parsons? Because a lot of the debates that we are having today are still Parsonian debate in code, this helps us get clearer about what we are talking about. To crack the code, all that you need to do is change the words. As we saw, for Parsons the battle was between “idealism” and “positivism”; change “idealism” to “culture” and change “positivism” to either “materialism” or “structure/structuralism” and you have the modern version of the debate. That’s why when we set up culture to structure, or agency to structure, culture to materiality, agency to social structure, or ideas to the objective world, in an oppositional contrast, the corresponding terms of these interlinked dichotomies match. Second, this way of thinking about culture and agency accounts for why is it that there will always be a conflation between agency and the mental and why is it that theories that deny that the mental (or the cognitive) matter are ipso facto theories that “deny agency.” Third, this way of thinking about it explains the curious contemporary fate of cultural sociology. This is a field that has actually been built on the ruins of the original debate that was had at the level of individual agency.
Culture versus structure.- For instance, cultural sociologists sometimes get made fun of by “structuralists” (let’s say in the study of inequality) because what they are peddling (the mental) seems like fluff in comparison to non-negotiable realities, especially when it comes to the big stuff (large, structured inequalities). That’s why in the agency/structure debate cultural sociologists have to be on the side of (some) agency. The reason for this is that, as I noted before, the “group” version of the debate is no different from the individual version. Culture is just socially patterned conceptualization (or shared ideas). So if we can ascertain that the “mental” matters because different people can conceive of the same “objective” situation in different ways, then when we aggregate individual cognition into the group cognition that we usually refer to as culture, a similar set of inferences follows (see any book by Zerubavel). This is also why in the “culture and poverty” debate there is conflation between culture/agency and judgments of responsibility. In our folk (Western) model, if you had agency, then you are responsible. When the cultural sociologist then brings “culture” into the study of poverty, he or she is ipso facto saying that the poor were somehow (at least partially) “responsible” for their plight. This creates the odd situation in which only the pure structuralist who removes all agency from the poor can claim that he or she is not blaming them for their condition.
The autonomy of culture(s).- In the anthropological version of the agency=freedom of conceptualization formulation, culture is not reducible to (group) biology (e.g. genetic heritage) in the same way that the individual mental process is not driven by biology, culture is not reducible to the (physical) environment or to ecology in the same way that the mental is not reducible to the environmental; finally culture is not reducible to some sort of “rational” calculus, because if the neo-classical presumption was true, there would not be “cultures” in the plural. Instead all cultures would have the same set of beliefs about the world, and cultural variation would simply be a function of variation in the objective features of the world (e.g. the situation of “same worlds different culture” would not arise). Note that I have essentially described the program of “cultural anthropology” initiated by Boas and sustained by such people as Sapir, Whorf, Mead, Kroeber, etc. during the early and mid-twentieth centuries. The inference that agency is the “freedom to think differently” is extended to the group level in the form of cultural relativism: culture is not determined by non-cultural forces, therefore groups have the freedom to think differently in forging distinct cultures. The “autonomy” of culture (from whatever) is formally identical to the autonomy of cognition from conditions. That’s why it is so easy to navigate without conceptual loss, from a position of “voluntarism” at the level of the individual to a position of “autonomism” at the level of cultural analysis (see Wikipedia entry for Alexander, Jeffrey). The reason for that is because they are the same substantive position, and even the bogey-men that Parsons cursed as positivism re-appear in aggregate form: environmental determinism, biologism and neo-classical rationalism. That’s why cultural anthropology fought valiantly against all three. The first two were vanquished pretty early on, but the battle of cultural anthropology against the rationalist conception of the actor continues to this day (this usually happens under the heading of the “cognitive unity of mankind” or the “multiple rationalities” debates in economic and cultural anthropology).
Culture versus Rationality.- This explains an otherwise weird mystery: rational action theories (see e.g. Hedstrom, Goldthorpe) take ideas and beliefs seriously, but they seem oddly “a-cultural.” The reason why RAT has an a-cultural flavor, is because it has trouble accounting for structured variation in beliefs and ideas that is not traceable to objective conditions; by implication this also makes it a theory that denies agency. Thus, you can believe that “ideal” stuff matters and still deny that “agency” (or the cultural) matters (that’s why Parsons understood neo-classical economics to be an incoherent mixture of idealism and positivism). That’s also why rational-choice philosophers (like Elster) have to get into the belief formation problematic and in fact have been the only ones who have advanced the normative problematic of belief justification. Finally, this is why people like Coleman simply don’t make any sense when they think that by bringing action, back-in they are in fact bringing agency. Insofar as they subscribe to a deterministic model of cognition (e.g. the constrained optimization calculus), then you can have all of the action in the world, without having an iota of agency.
The oddness of normativity in cognition.- It is astounding how much not a problem (or how bizarre) the notion that we can have a normative theory of the mental (essentially that we can pass judgment on ideas by looking at their causal history) is for cultural sociologists. Cultural sociology inherits the core irrationalism of German Idealism and Boasian anthropology. This is not a “bad” thing; it is just the thing: agency entails a loose-coupling between the world and beliefs about the world, and since the only way to get a “normative” theory of belief is to suggest an unacceptable strong coupling, cultural sociologists are happy to give up on this. In fact, I think that most cultural sociologists don’t even think that this normative question (vis a vis a belief: is it rational or not? is it justified or not?) makes any sense. In this respect the rational action people and the cultural sociologist might as well from different planets. This is also one of the main ways in which we haven’t made much progress since Parsons.
Where do we stand?.- So we come full circle. A lot of agency talk is really talk about the mental. What we really mean by agency is really the capacity to conceptualize the world in different ways irrespective of objective reality and what other people mean by structure is really some sort of non-mental or non-cognitive thing that constrains your capacity to conceptualize the world in this or that way, so that in the limiting case a structuralist can predict what you think without looking into the black box that is your head. So you don’t have agency because you don’t have the freedom to impose your own construal on objective situations (or in the group sense, cultures are not autonomous because they are linked to non-cultural features of the world).
Does this mean that the world does not constrain conceptualization in any way? The answer to this question is more complex, but I would say that the weight of the evidence points to no. So the unrestricted version of social constructionism goes out the window. The best work on comparative and typological linguistics, metaphor theory and cross-cultural studies of categorization overwhelmingly shows that there are objective constraints on conceptualization and cognition although these constraints show up at the level of structure and seldom at the level of content (except when it comes to the so-called basic level). One hypothesis that can certainly be rejected is the unitary constraint hypothesis (e.g. naive reflection, “realist”, of truth-conditional theories of semantics). There are very few features of the world that have a monolithic effect on conceptualization. No domain (space, society, time, etc.) has been found that imposes a non-negotiable structure on our conceptualizations, although there are domains that leave less degrees of freedom than others.
But the job of “ranking” domains in this sense has only begun. The more important point is that the obsession of cultural sociologists with simply making the case for social construction (and leaving the impression that they subscribe to the unrestricted—and ultimately irrationalist—account even though most don’t really) has resulted in a lack of attention to the “limits” of social construction. Here limits should not be interpreted in terms of the traditional bogey-men (what about biology?) but instead in terms of the relation between agents and the world at a level that abstracts from this. We know there have to be limits simply because we are embodied and embedded beings, and it is unlikely for instance that we can use conceptual resources that are not “grounded” in that fact. However, the relationship between embodiment, cognition and action is still something that makes cultural sociologists squirm a bit (because the body is kind of, well, biological), but it is clear that this is where these questions will be asked (and hopefully answered).
We’ve had some nice discussions of high quality ethnography. Here’s my question: which ethnographies have been responsible for introducing a new theoretical ideas into sociology? For example, I do know that early in his career Bourdieu did ethnography and his early theory was inspired by his field work. What other ideas have been brought into sociology this way? I want to distinguish between ethnography as thick/insightful description (e.g., more details on urban poverty) and ethnography as an argument for a new concept.
John Levi Martin’s new book, The Explanation of Social Action, is a riot, meaning I’m thoroughly entertained and intellectually provoked at the same time. The ultimate aim of the book is to provide a new basis for judging the quality of social theory. I’ll say more later about how well he accomplishes this goal. For now I just want to draw attention to one of my favorite footnotes of all time. It appears early in the book when John is talking about theorists he is going to discuss and those he dismisses by their absence:
I might reasonably also be asked why no use is made here of the work of Garfinkel (e.g., 2002), which had many of the same influences and made many of the same critiques of conventional sociological explanation. The answer is simple: Garfinkel chose to write in gobbledy-gook, and although I do not begrudge him the enjoyment he so obviously received from this activity, I also see no reason to wade through the results to extract arguments that were made previously and more clearly by others. Finally, rather than indicate to his sociological readers that there was a wide range of inspiring and dissenting traditions from which they could draw (the approach of the current work), Garfinkel instead attempted to put his own formalizations in between his students and the phenomenological tradition, acting more like a cult leader than a scholar. Even did I not find this somewhat disappointing on a human level, it would make little scientific sense to reward such behavior.
This gives you a taste for the kind of book he has written. You may not agree with everything John writes in this book, but he certainly knows how to make punchy points.