Archive for the ‘obscure sociological theory’ Category

health care system and waterworks


While following the caucuses, I am reading Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 by Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace. I did not know that New York City suffered from yellow fever outbreaks in the late 18th century. I did not know that the Manhattan Company in charge of supplying fresh water hijacked a municipal waterworks project. The company erected a reservoir far smaller than needed by the city and opted for cheaper technologies, keeping the interests of its stockholders uppermost (p.360-361).

I wonder what the difference is between a national health care system and public waterworks. They are both public goods (a waterworks, by the way, does have health consequences ). And yet the former remains a focus of an election in the 21st century. What explains the difference? The power of interested groups? To put it bluntly, the US appears not very different from other industrialized countries insofar as the provision of public goods other than health care is concerned. It is an interesting puzzle to an inquisitive but ignorant mind.

Written by mito

January 18, 2008 at 7:44 pm

ron paul: court jester of the republican party?



The court jester of the GOP primary? Click here and here for earlier posts about Ron Paul.

Fans of cultural theory should pay close attention to the GOP primary. For the first time in ages, there is no strong leader in the party and different politicians are doing well in different places (Huckabee in Iowa, Romney in NH, Giuliani in FL, etc). There is no obvious hierarchy in the GOP camp and, for you Victor Turner fans, that’s a chance for liminality. The absence of social structure induces vagueness and ambiguity, allowing all sorts of weird stuff to happen. Turner  argued that some cultural figures, like the court jester, thrive in situations where the normal relations of power are suspended, a situation allowing them to say things that most folks would be afraid to say.

Paul is a great example of structurelessness and liminality. Hard core libertarians are normally banished to the far off fringes of mainstream party politics, but the Iraq War and the delegitimizing influence of evangelicals has left the GOP without clear leadership. It’s now possible for fringe elements to make their appearance. All the signs of the jester are in force with Paul – the extreme policy positions, followers engaging in goofy tactics like the Ron Paul blimp. If Huckabee wins Iowa and does well in New Hampshire, Paul will get more traction from voters who are scared of the religious wing of the GOP.

Don’t expect this to last. Once a front runner with mainstream credibility emerges, party time will be over in the GOP. Already, FOX  news has tried to exclude Paul from the NH debates. But until we hit Super Tuesday, we can expect Paul to say in public what a lot of people in the GOP don’t want to hear.

Written by fabiorojas

January 2, 2008 at 5:34 am

talcott parsons sings “brown-eyed girl”


No, really.

Written by Kieran

January 2, 2008 at 4:09 am

on stories (signing off)


Dear co-conspirators, the time for me has come to sign off and leave the stage. I wish to thank you all for having me here and most of all, for your brilliant criticism and insight. As a closing remark, I’d like to share a little experience I have had reading A.-J. Greimas, a french structuralist semiotician and a well-known theorist on stories.

One of the great things about organization studies is their multidisciplinary nature. I am a former engineering and philosophy major, yet did my PhD on a topic which was largely sociological. Since those days, I have found myself reading stuff related to domains possessed by different sciences: antropology, psychology, linguistics, political science. most recently, I have looked into literature studies as I have been studying narratives. For some strange reason, this form of scientific discourse all of a sudden seems almost impenetrable. Sociology seemed like a natural, empirically oriented branch of philosophy. But man, try reading Bakhtin or Greimas! The whole argument structure seems to be encoded into some alien form.

What I have found interesting in Greimas is his theory of actants in narratives. I interpret them to be (note the cautious use of voice) kinds of structural role positions which are played by characters. They are not reducible to characters, however, as they are fundamental building blocks of the narrative structure, and sometimes one character may play many of them, change from one to another, and so on. Structural Semantics, Greimas’s locus classicus, contains what I regard one relatively lucid passage, Chapter X where he reflects upon actantial models. He builds his own actantial model based on a number of previous theories on archetypal characters in stories (for instance the Russian formalist Propp, whose work has been used by, for instance Lamberg et al to analyze decline and turnaround in Finnish paper companies, see here). He is even kind enough to draw a Figure (p. 207, image copied from

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Written by smantere

December 5, 2007 at 4:26 pm

game theory and paranoia


In Machine Dreams, Philip Mirowski provocatively suggests that there might have been more than an accidental connection between John Nash’s paranoid-schizophrenia and the model of the actor implicit in the game-theoretic formalism. It turns out that a similar observation was in fact elaborated by sociologists Marvin Scott and Stanford Lyman (1968) almost 40 years ago, who–drawing on an unpublished paper by Goffman in which he drew on Schelling’s strategic model to analyze self-presentation in social interaction (see here)–noted that the situational “awareness status” of “deviants” (their example was “homosexuals” in heterosexist contexts, which makes it a tad dated, but the point comes across the same) during what for “normals” is everyday interpersonal exchanges, is in fact loosely equivalent to that of a player in a non-cooperative game, which is in its turn loosely equivalent to the mundane reasoning of paranoids. The note that

“Passing” poses another kind of problem for the homosexual, namely, communicating the secret identity he is trying to conceal in order to make contact with a fellow homosexual “passer.” The successful homosexual “passer” must be able to mobilize his sign equipment so that a double identity is available-a normal one for “straight” people, and a homosexual one for those seeking his sexual services. However, the indicators of homosexuality must be capable of withdrawal or redefinition should he have to revert to the “pure” version of the passing identity. The elements of this situation amount to a special kind of information game in which A, a homosexual, seeks to outwardly manifest a heterosexual identity to B, a suspected homosexual, but provide the latter with the necessary information to suggest A’s identity as a homosexual and thus invite B to disclose his own homosexual identity. Of course should B turn out to be “straight,” A is left with the problem of managing the clues already given off to his own true identity so as not to give himself away. Ideally the situation amounts to a reciprocally escalating presentation of relevant information by which each actor enhances the risk of revealing himself in order to ascertain the definite and unambiguous identity of the other. The game is concluded either when both actors recognize one another as homosexuals and drop all pretense as heterosexuals, or when one actor concludes that the other is “straight”….

What we have said about homosexuals in particular applies to paranoids and paranoid- like states in general. Certain individuals-especially but not exclusively persons with something to hide, or bearers of discrediting stigmas-may come to see all or part of their world in terms of a conspiracy in which they must constantly be on guard against physical or financial harm, exploitation, or loss of status. Unlike normals, “paranoids” are more aware of social realities, more alive to contingencies and nuances, more strategic in their responses…The paranoid is suspicious of objects in his social environment. For him, the taken for-granted world is placed under suspicion. The strategic concerns and hyper-awareness of alternative meanings routinely manifested by the theorist in a game of conflict are found among the paranoid, except now the entire social environment is the opponent. Like an intelligence officer continually engaged in doping out the opponent’s real intentions, the paranoid is hyper-conscious of others’ motives. (183-185).

In reference to economics, shall we begin to talk about the “paranoid actor model” (PAM) then? (or maybe “paranoid actor theory” [PAT]).

Written by Omar

November 24, 2007 at 4:29 pm

strategy and philosophical action theory, part III. responsibility and strategy implementation


After many scholars of strategy have grown suspicious of the Chandlerian “structure follows strategy” -maxim, the question arises: how do we conceptualize a model of strategy implementation where implementers are not treated as mindless automatons or “resources” to be “allocated”. One promising concept, where such a model could be built is responsibility, which has been studied by philosophers of action as well as moral philosophers. The former are interested in the role of responsibility as a social glue, whereas the latter ones have built models of “responsibility ethics” to act alongside “rights ethics”.

So, let’s play for a while with the notion that the collective acceptance of responsibility might be a kind of a “performance variable” for successful strategy implementation. Say that we accept this. What would, then, be a definition of responsibility? I’m glad you asked.

Accountability, committed, capability

Responsibility is one of the social glues that enables social action through the creation of shared plans (Bratman, 1999). When we act together, we need to rely on others to succeed. For instance, a police officer requires her partners to ‘cover her back’ in covering dangerous distances. If an agreement exists between the two officers, either through explication or through convention, the police officer has to be able to regard her partner as capable (1) of responsible action for such an agreement to be meaningful. If the partner fails to cover the active officer’s back because of an attention lapse or something else, she is held responsible for failing to act as planned. Thet is, if her partner is in a dangerous situation, the covering policeman is accountable (2) through that responsibility. Furthermore, by agreeing, she has committed (3) herself to carrying out that activity. (Bratman, 1999).

Bovens (1999) has suggested that there are two types of responsibility. Passive responsibility is responsibility based on accountability and the potential for being blamed. Active responsibility is an internalized sense of duty towards some valued object. These two correspond to propertied (2) and (3) of the previous example.

It seems indeed, that the meaning of responsibility is not exhausted by Bovens’s dual account. To account for responsibility solely with external obligation and internal motivation, we would be disregarding situations in which agents were willing and obligated yet unable to carry out their responsibility as agreed. Again building on the case of two police officers, if the partner is overcome by a group of thugs and thus unable to protect her partner, she cannot be held accountable (responsible), nor can we question her commitment through her inaction.


Bovens M., 1999, The quest for responsibility – accountability and citizenship in complex organizations, De Gruyter, Amsterdam.

Bratman M.E., 1999, Faces of intention: selected essays on intention and agency, Harvard University Press, Boston MA.

Written by smantere

November 19, 2007 at 11:49 pm

harrison white, symbolic interactionist


I’ve been an admirer of Harrison White since early in my grad school days. Undoubtedly, White has had a strong influence on the shaping of economic sociology, although it’s possible that most of his influence has been indirect through his students. White has produced many successful students, but his own work seems to evade empirical analysis. In fact, his theoretical propositions (while highly cited) are relatively underexamined, perhaps because of the difficulty in approaching White’s texts or perhaps because White’s theories were never meant to produce testable hypotheses in the same way that other theoretical contributions have.

I think of White as a sort of macro-symbolic interactionist, albeit a very structural one. The basic premise of much of his work is that market actors do not know their own capabilities as well as they know how they relate to others in their vicinity. Therefore, actors impute their own identities based on their relation to other actors and the identities they ascribe to those actors. Symbolic interactionism, right? You learn about your self and create your own identity through interaction with others in your immediate environment.

In a recently published paper in the Strategic Management Journal, Stanislav Dobrev makes this same interpretation of White by connecting White’s view of markets to Mead’s and Cooley’s research on the emergence of self.

The origins of the conjecture that social actors develop a collective identity based on the immediate context in which they exist date back at least to Cooley’s (1919/1909) ‘primary group’ and Mead’s (1962/1934) ‘generalized other.’…Applied to organizational analysis, the notion that perceptions of social actors tend to reflect the ways in which they are perceived by others purports a metaphor of a looking-glass market (Cooley, 1967/1902), constructed through processes of sense-making and reflective interpretations by firms within a reference group.

Ideas about observation and interpretation within a set of proximate peers in market space are also central to White’s (2001) model, where firms determine their trajectories (i.e., strategies) and trial-and-error searches (i.e., position moves) by observing the behavior of their peers. They operate by gathering information made available on a market that resembles a looking glass – a one-way mirror that ‘shows [the producer] the reflection of its comparable peers’ but not of its customers’ (White, 2001: 34). Firms’ apparently deliberate choices are in fact largely shaped by how they interpret their strategies and positions in reference to those with whom they compete. In this way, ‘producers are not just embedded in a market…they actually constitute the market’s inference in, and as the set of, their perceptions and choices’ (White, 2001: 8).

This is perhaps the best interpretation and empirical use of White’s ‘markets-as-networks’ approach that I’ve seen. Dobrev also brings in insights from ecological theory (of course, he is an ecologist) and institutional theory to explain how identities change over time in the context of the automobile manufacturing industry where actors are leaving their positions and attaching themselves to new market segments. This is definitely worth reading.

Written by brayden king

November 7, 2007 at 3:30 pm

is marxist theory making a comeback?


The most recent issue of Organization Studies has a special forum on critical theories of management, with a special focus on the paleo-Marxist view. What, you ask, is paleo-Marxism? No, it is not the study of the alienated ancient Greek labor class. “Paleo” is Paul Adler’s way of describing a more fundamental view of Marxism that returns to the original Marxist texts to uncover core themes. Implicit in his use of the “paleo” prefix is an assumption that neo-Marxists have tainted the original Marxist thesis and that a new generation of scholars should try to uncover or rediscover what Marx was really talking about.

As Adler outlines in an essay in the forum, his paleo-Marxism is focused on the socialization of the labor process, an aspect of Marx’s original work that he feels has been ignored. By socialization, Adler means both a growing interdependence between workers of different specialties that occurs under capitalist systems, similar to Durkheim’s view of organic solidarity, and an emerging consciousness within the worker of belonging to a greater whole, which essentially strips the worker of individuality and narrow self-interest. Adler wants to explain how the labor process socializes the worker and how this socialization leads to the creation of a class of capitalist “gravediggers.”

Adler’s major adversaries are the labor process theorists (e.g., Braverman) – that version of neo-Marxists who saw the labor process as stripping workers of dignity and skills. Adler, in contrast, sees the labor process as leading to an increasingly complex set of workers that are ever more capable of surviving and functioning in a rationalized society. Rather than demeaning workers to the point that they have no other option than to fight against capitalism, capitalism produces a working class with an increasingly sophisticated skill set. (Paul Thompson refers to this process as “upskilling” to note the difference in outcomes between Adler and Braverman.) The result of this skill upgrading is the creation of a working class that is organizationally and socially-skilled enough to mount an insurgency against capitalism.

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Written by brayden king

October 16, 2007 at 11:10 pm

cultural capital: the first adumbration


I was in the process of reading an old (1944) article by anthropologist David Bidney on various conceptualizations of the concept of “culture” in (now) classical anthropological theory, when I suddenly came upon this passage (p. 36):

It is obvious that if human culture consists primarily of acquired forms of behavior, sentiment and thought, no inventions of culture-objects per se are essentially culture; they are products of human culture which must be included in any description of a given culture but they are not constituent elements thereof. Artificats, social institutions….or the accumulated folk-lore…are, so to speak “cultural capital” or the surplus which results form and facilitates cultural living...(italics added).

I was surprised to see the metaphor of cultural capital used in something fairly close to the modern sense popularized by Pierre Bourdieu in such an old article. That led me to search full length articles on JSTOR that had the phrase cultural capital in it, which confirmed what I suspected: this is the oldest (at least on JSTOR) Mertonian adumbration of the modern Bourdieusian concept in a social science publication (there are some early history and humanities articles that use the term in a geographical sense, as in “Athens is the cultural capital of the West”).

Written by Omar

October 6, 2007 at 4:28 pm

frankfurt united vs. team mannheim


One of our brilliant graduate students asked an important question about Karl Mannheim and Norbert Elias: Why were these two social theorists falling off the map in American soc departments? It was suggested in another conversation that social theorists need promoters, such as students and family members, who guarantee their reputation after their deaths. Elias and Mannheim certainly had their influence a few decades ago, but why didn’t they create a generation of cheerleaders?

Here’s an interesting hypothesis – the collective attention of American academia only has enough room for one group of fancy German social theorists. And who crowded out Mannheim and Elias? You guessed it – the Frankfurt School! It’s a vague and sketchy theory, but here’s two bits of evidence suggesting that the Frankfurt gang squeezed the Mannheim-Elias axis from the American academy’s collective mind:

  • In the post war era, the Frankfurt school had representatives at major sociology programs – Adorno and Horkheimer at Columbia, Lowenthal at Berkeley, Marcuse at Harvard, Columbia, Brandies, and UC San Diego, Fromm at UNAM and Michigan State psychology. Mannheim? LSE, but died in 1953 holding an appointment in education, not sociology. Elias? Worked as Mannheim’s assistant for a little while, but not before spending time in a British WWII internment camp for Germans. Afterwards, extension classes at Leicester, a few years in Ghana, and some time as an emeritus in an interdisciplinary center at Bielefeld. Their other students don’t seem to have had much of a run in America.*
  • There’s more: There was a bitter intellectual dispute between Horkheimer and Mannheim in the 1930s, leading to a split between Frankfurt United and Team Mannheim. Yes, it is true that Mannheim, Horkheimer, and Paul Tillich formed a community and were considered Frankfrut’s academic left. But it’s also true that the Mannheim group (centered in the soc dept) and Horkheimer’s institute were at odds with each other. Norbert Elias, who was there, claimed that there wasn’t much interaction (Wiggenhaus 1994:111). Here’s the relevant quote from Rolf Wiggenhaus’ magisterial The Frankfurt School: Its History, Theories, and Political Significance: “Horkheimer accused Mannheim of clinging to a diluted variant of classical German Idealism… and of presenting all historically and socially determined truths as being equally relative… A science that took no account of the suffering, misery and limitations of its period would be entirely lacking in practical interest.” (pp. 50-51) And it wasn’t just Horkheimer – the whole Frankfurt gang turned on Mannheim as a hopeless wingnut who didn’t appreciate the absolute truth of Marxist historical categories. For example, on page 162, Wiggenhaus describes how Adorno insulted other social theorists by comparing them to Mannheim. “Herr Rojas, you are pulling a Mannheim.” What a zinger!

That’s my guess: In contrast to Frankfurt United, Team Mannheim was horribly placed in Anglophone academia and was relegated to obscurity, even to the point that the group’s major work – The Civilizing Process – was only translated into English in the late 1960s. By that point, the Frankfurt school migrants had become the arbiters of good theory in many of the top sociology programs. And since Mannheim – and probably by implication his student Elias – was considered a dialectical screw up of historical proportions, they allowed Team Mannheim and their work to quietly slip into obscurity.

* And no, I don’t count Giddens as an Elias student, because while did study with him, he didn’t get his PhD from Elias, nor is Elias cited as a major influence in Gidden’s early work. Giddens didn’t even give Elias a chapter, or even a mention in the index, of the anthology Social Theory Today.

Written by fabiorojas

September 4, 2007 at 2:13 am

theory meets high-stakes spionage


We are usually told that Walter Benjamin–the cool and unstuffy member of the Frankfurt school (as opposed to Adorno, he liked Simmel, strolling through the city and even the Movies)–moved to Paris after the rise of Hitler and later fled Paris after the French surrender to the Nazis toward an obscure Spanish town near the border. According to lore, Benjamin just missed a train the night before which would have taken him to a ship headed to the U.S. and to certain fame and fortune in U.S. academia (he’s famous anyway, imagine how famous he would have been had he made it to America). Instead, believing that the Spanish police had gotten smart as to his identity (Jewish, intellectual, Marxist) and were ready to deport him back to Vichy France and from there to a certain death in a concentration camp, he took his own life by overdosing on morphine. Behind, he left some brilliant short pieces–(the most famous of which is “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”) and disconnected but equally fantastic fragments on the city, modernity, aesthetics, etc., but no magnum opus.

According to this article in The Guardian. This entire story is bogus. Instead, Stephen Schwartz, a Monenegro-based journalist has a different theory.  He claims that there is a much more straightforward explanation:  Benjamin was offed (probably poisoned) by Stalin’s agents in Spain before he could ever make it out.  An added twist to the story:  as Benjamin fled Paris, he was indeed clutching his magnum opus:  a philosophically (and thinly veiled) critique of Stalinism and the failure of the Socialist project as embodied in the Soviet regime, (first previewed as “theses on the philosophy of history”) which he entrusted to another refugee but which was later “lost” on a train ride to Madrid.

Written by Omar

September 2, 2007 at 10:40 pm

the social origins of accounting


The business historian John Steele Gordon, author of Empire of Wealth, has a fascinating little piece in Barron’s looking at the origins of modern accounting standards. In the article, Gordon discusses how accounting was a self-imposed mechanism for ensuring transparency in a market dense with secrecy and corruption.

Accounting, the application of statistics that most concerns the world of business, has encountered damn lies many times since the first accountant put on an eyeshade in ancient times. Today, the rules of accounting are highly elaborated and legally mandated. Sarbanes-Oxley is only the latest attempt in a more than century-long quest to make sure that corporate books are not cooked.

Regulators might wish you believed it was the government that introduced Generally Accepted Accounting Principles and independent auditors to the marketplace — to keep the players there honest. It was not. It was the players in the marketplace themselves….

Few public companies issued annual reports. When in 1866 the New York Stock Exchange asked the Delaware, Lackawanna, and Western Railroad for its financials, the railroad curtly replied that it “makes no reports” and “publishes no statements.” Translation: Drop dead….

Matters were changing. In 1869, the New York Stock Exchange merged with its chief rival, the Open Board of Brokers, and became the overwhelmingly dominant institution on the Street. For the first time it became important for brokerage firms to belong to the exchange and for companies to have their securities listed. The NYSE quickly began to impose rules on both brokers and on the companies that sought listings.

As the country’s industrial economy exploded in size in the last decades of the 19th century, the need for capital exploded as well. Increasingly, that capital could only come from the great Wall Street banks, of which J.P. Morgan & Co. was the apotheosis. These banks needed to be sure the books were honest before floating an issue of securities.

To ensure honesty, the stock exchange and the banks increasingly required that the books be certified by independent accountants, a profession that quickly grew at this time. As late as 1884, only 81 self-employed accountants were listed in the city directories of New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia combined. Five years later, there were 322 listings.

While there isn’t a ton of research on the sociological aspects of accounting, there is some good stuff out there (mainly coming from the journal Accounting, Organizations, and Society). Wendy Espeland’s and Paul Hirsch’s 1990 paper examines the symbolic effect that accounting had in legitimating the conglomeration movement in the 1960s. In 1991 AJS paper Bruce Carruthers and Espeland argue that accounting practices not only serve a technical function through rationalization (following Weber) but accounting also has a rhetorical function by lending legitimacy to business ventures. And Carruthers’ 1995 AOS paper explores the implications that new institutional theory might have for understanding accounting practices’ effects on organizations.


Written by brayden king

August 22, 2007 at 3:33 pm

YAAP! (Yet Another Adumbration of Performativity!) in the work of Max Weber


This quote comes from an extremely interesting essay by Max Weber entitled “Marginal Utility Theory and ‘The Fundamental Law of Psychophysics’” translated by Louis Schneider for the June 1975 issue of Social Science Quarterly. In the paper, Weber reviews Brentano’s (1908) The Development of Value Theory, and he criticizes Brentano for suggesting that psychological experiments were relevant to establishing the scientific status of marginal utility theory (I guess Weber wouldn’t be a big fan of Neuroeconomics) and he sides with Menger’s view of the purely analytical status of economic generalizations and their autonomy from psychology (for more on the Weber-Austrian connection see Zafirovski 2002).

More interesting is of course Weber’s YAAP:

Yet, the historical peculiarity of the capitalist epoch, and thereby also the significance of marginal utility theory (as of every economic theory of value) for the understanding of this epoch, rests on the circumstances that–while the economic history of some epochs of the past has not without reason been designated as “history of non-economic conditions”–under today’s conditions of existence the approximation of reality to the theoretical propositions of economics has been a constantly increasing one. It is an approximation to reality that has implicated the destiny of ever-wider layers of humanity. And it will hold more and more broadly, as far as our horizons allow us to see (1975: 33, italics in the original).

Written by Omar

May 15, 2007 at 5:40 pm

is las vegas authentic?


I returned last night from a brief getaway with the family to Las Vegas. It was a deserved reward after having spent most of the last two weeks grading final papers and exams and finishing two papers of my own. The kids had never seen sin city before (and, of course, they still haven’t seen the most sinful parts of the city), and so it was a fun trip for all.

During the drive home last night I found myself thinking about our recent discussion of simulacra and reality. A simulacrum is intendedly not real, but rather it is a representation of something that is real. It supposedly lacks authenticity but resembles the authentic. In fact, that is what makes simulacra interesting; they attempt to portray something with which we have familiarity, highlighting or exaggerating certain aspects of it. The Strip of Las Vegas is a series of simulacra – bloated and outrageous portrayals of a reality that exists outside the Vegas world.

But does that make Las Vegas inauthentic in some way? Does classifying something as a simulacrum make that thing not real? I don’t think so. By portraying a familiar reality in a clearly and obviously inauthentic fashion, the creators actually seem to be entering a new category of stuff. The representations simply belong to a different social form. They are authentic according to the rules and standards of the new social form. Authenticity pertains only to a given category of things. When you say that you’re listening to authentic blues, for example, you mean that the music can be judged as real, authentic blues by those people who understand the standards of appropriateness and quality for that musical genre. The same goes for art or for any other artistic form. You can also judge organizations in the same way. An authentic microbrewery has to look a certain way, serve a certain kind of beer, and pass all of the other required hurdles needed to fit into the microbrewery category. Consumers of microbrewery beer who are familiar with those standards and criteria judge the fitness of the organization to the category. They’re the gatekeepers.

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Written by brayden king

May 2, 2007 at 7:58 pm

Bourdieu with Leifer


For some reason we have been preoccupied with Eric Leifer of late. From Kieran re-interpreting strong performativity in Leiferian terms, to Brayden dredging up some obscure papers, to a synchronized response by Brayden and Fabio to the effect that the cure to dealing with the subjects that are hard to explain in contemporary social science is “robust action” (the concept of robust action is Padgett and Ansell’s (1993) elaboration of Leifer’s (1988) idea of “local action”).

There is good reason to be preoccupied with Leifer. He offers the closest that there is in network structuralism to a “practice theory.” That is a theoretical account, not derogatory to the lay actor, that tell us how networks are “performed” by skillful social agents (as Fabio and Brayden noted, Fligstein has attempted to do something similar for the institutionalist structuralism). It would be no surprise if accounts similar to Leifer had been “adumbrated” (in the Mertonian sociology of knowledge sense) by other practice theorists. I offer you one such adumbration.

Here is a Leiferian quote from The Logic of Practice which might interest econ soc heads out there:

…the anthropologists…would have been less inclined to use the language of the mechanical model [potshot at Levi-Strauss] if, when considering exchange, they had thought not only of the potlatch or the kula but also of the games they themselves play in social life, which are expressed in the language of tact, skill, dexterity, delicacy or savior-faire, all names for practical sense; and exchanges in which hermeneutic errors are paid for instantly, such as the exchange of blows, discussed by George H. Mead (1962: 42-43), in which each stance of the opponent’s body contains cues which the fighter has to grasp while they are still incipient, reading in the hint of a blow or a sidestep the future that it contains, that is, the blow or a ‘dummy’ [fake].

Returning to polite conversation, a stereotyped linking of stereotypes, they would have discovered the unceasing vigilance that is needed to manage this interlocking of prepared gestures and words; the attention to every sigh that is indispensable, in the use of the most ritual pleasantries, in order to be carried along by the game without getting carried away by the game beyond the game, as happens when simulated combat gets the better of the combatants; the art of playing on the equivocations, innuendos and unspoken implications of gestural verbal symbolism that is required, whenever the right objective distance is in question, in order to produce a refusal, and to maintain uncertainty about intentions that always hesitate between recklessness and distance, eagerness and indifference. One thus only has to go back to one’s own games, one’s own playing of the social game, to realize that the sense of the game is at once the realization of the theory of the game and its negation qua theory (Bourdieu 1990: 81).

Sociology is a contact sport, but the really good sociologists, like all other skillful social actors, don’t really have to make contact (all of the time).

Written by Omar

April 2, 2007 at 8:10 pm

great papers that no one has read, pt. 1


We’ve all read papers that just seem to come out of nowhere and surprise us with their potential for scholarly contribution. Earlier this week I found one of these papers. While searching for some unrelated piece of information, I googled my way onto this website for the Institute for the Social Network Analysis of the Economy (also new to me), where I found an excellent paper by Eric Leifer and Walli Rajah, “Getting Observations: Strategic Ambiguities in Social Interaction.” The article was published in a European journal, Soziale Systeme, in 2000 and was probably not immediately available in English, which explains why most U.S. scholars had never read the paper. The only place to cite the paper was a 1998 article by Ann Mische and Harrison White (“Between Conversation and Situation: Public Switching Dynamics across Network Domains”), but in this citation (of a working paper) David Gibson was also a co-author.

The thesis can be summed up nicely on pg. 252. “It is strategically better to receive directed actions than to send them.” Although most strategic literature focuses on the kinds of actions that actors take to acquire or use resources, Leifer and Rajah point out that there is a cost to taking directed actions of this type. By directing actions toward someone else, we reveal something about ourselves that can then be used by the other to better his or her own position. Therefore, the best strategy isn’t to direct action but, rather, to receive directed actions that allow the actor to obtain good information and assert more control in the interaction.

The problem facing the strategic actor is to figure out how to elicit observations from specific others that do not require taking directed action. Leifer and Rajah suggest that strategic ambiguity is the best way to motivate directed action from one’s counterparts:

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Written by brayden king

March 23, 2007 at 4:18 pm

baudrillard is dead: long live baudrillard


Over at O & M Nicolai Foss has a nice farewell post on the death of Jean Baudrillard (accompanied by the obligatory joke of whether his death is “real” or simply a simulacrum). Baudrillard had an interesting career, riding the wave of the semiotic Marxism of the 1970s, then creating his own unique brand of cultural criticism based on the emergence of new information, computational and visual technologies (you can think of this latter part as a pessimistic/French version of McLuhan). The emphasis on simulation came not from his encounter with the mass media and advertising as is usually thought, but with the postwar rise of cybernetics, post-Francis/Crick molecular biology and artificial intelligence. This type of neo-Weberian critique of digital rationalization is kept alive today by architect/cultural/art critic Paul Virilio.

Later Baudrillard shifts from this type of “postmodern social theory” to a post-sociological and kind of weird blend of nihilist Left Durkhemianism (based on the work on exchange by Mauss and Durkheim) and Nietzsche (a logical outgrowth of his earlier structural-Marxist critique of the consumer society, since he was trying to revive a form of exchange that had not been conquered by the instrumental rationality of the market) all really inspired by the work of Georges Bataille, minus the pornography.

Through all of that he had a chance to do his own “travel through America” diary (coming up, predictably enough, with a take that is the exact of opposite of de Tocqueville). Instead of the land of democracy, vibrant civic society and entrepreneurial individualism, he finds a dystopia of soulless consumerism run amock, the commodification of everything (including human relations, and sexual pleasure) and the cult of the shiny surface of the commodity-form, enveloped in the glowing rays of advertising. The city that epitomized all of this was of course, Las Vegas (some would argue that this is of course the logical outgrowth of what Alex had observed 200 years earlier).

Unfortunately for Mr. Baudrillard, he probably died a little too late. Had he checked out in the late 1980s or early 1990s (when the postmodern social theory fad hit its height) he probably would be considered a legend. However, this type of social analysis never really recovered from the Sokal hoax, and was (predictably) discredited, along with anybody associated with it (and there were few people more synonymous with the fad than Mr. B).

Even more ironic (in the correct non-Morrissettean sense), the memory of Baudrillard will forever remain with us thanks to a classic product of mass culture (which of course Baudrillard always refused to actually go see in the theaters): I am talking about the Wachowski brothers’ film The Matrix.

It is well known that the early draft of the screen play had direct quotations (spouted by Morpheus) from Baudrillard’s classic Simulacra and Simulation. All that remained after studio editing for high-falluting language that the masses would have a hard time comprehending was the scene in which VR-dealer/hacker Thomas Anderson, has some “customers” drop by in search of some more VR high. The product is hidden in a fake copy of Mr. Baudrillard’s book.

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I’m not sure what page that is behind the Benjamins, but it is probably the one that contains the line: “Welcome to the desert of the real” (or did he really say that?).

Written by Omar

March 13, 2007 at 12:26 pm

what the heck is ethnomethodology?

We have asked this question ourselves before. The grandfather of ethnomethodology, Harold Garfinkel, in the introduction to this article offers an amusing “tale” in an attempt to answer (or preempt) the question:

Ethnomethodology gets reintroduced to me in a recurrent episode at the annual meetings of the American Sociological Association. I’m waiting for the elevator. The doors open. “Oh, hi Hal!” “Hi.” I walk in. THE QUESTION is asked: “Hey Hal, what IS ethnomethodology?” The elevators doors close. We’re on our way to the ninth floor. I’m only able to say, “Ethnomethodology is working out some very preposterous problems.” The elevator doors open (p. 5).

So there you have it.

Written by Omar

March 5, 2007 at 8:58 pm

do organizations have intentions?


Organizations don’t think, they don’t have a consciousness, and they don’t have emotion. They lack all of the cognitive states that we often associate with human intentionality – the will to act. Can we still consider organizations intentional actors? There is good reason to think we can. In one of the most intellectually stimulating and frustrating articles I’ve recently read, “Organizations as True Believers”, Deborah Tollefsen argues that an organization possesses the capability of self-direction because it has a “rational point of view.” In short:

When we attribute intentional states to others we do so on the assumption that they are agents with a rational point of view – a point of view governed by the same sorts of normative constraints we conceive ourselves as governed by and from which certain cognitive activities originate. It is from this rational point of view that one can assess the truth and consistency of beliefs, resolve contradictions between other intentional states, determine means to ends, etc. Thus, it is from this point of view that reasons can be seen as intelligible. Without such a point of view presupposed it would be impossible to make sense of others in the way that we do.

Tollefsen argues that organizations possess this rational point of view because they have developed internal abilities to persuade members to pursue predictable lines of reasoning, to seek certain goals, and to apply specific routines. Through the structural set-up of the organization, its members work in tandem to accomplish a set of rational ends. Thus, the members are merely extensions of this point of view, rather than enacting their own personal points of view. Moreover, one can interpret their actions as reasonable given this point of view, which further establishes the organization’s intentionality, rather than the mere intentionality of the individuals involved.

The frustrating part of the paper, to me, is that Tollefsen also assumes that because these rational structures exist, they must be, in some way, efficient or well-adapted for their goals. Despite the best efforts of scholars to demonstrate efficiency in organizational operations, few would argue that there is a consensus relating to this matter. Many organizational scholars would argue, for example, that data tend to show that organizational routines, rules, etc. persist even after they are clearly not effectively implemented. Thus, relying on the assumption that organizations’ rational points of view is based on rational structures seems tenuous. Moreover its unnecessary.

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by brayden king

January 17, 2007 at 9:37 pm

orgtheory of a sort


Here’s something I’d forgotten I’d written. An early, co-authored publication of mine in ASQ. Sadly, only the first page survives. In case you’re unfamiliar with the topic, I should say that the bibliographical references and quotations are all perfectly accurate. Any resemblance to this paper is wholly accidental.

Written by Kieran

December 28, 2006 at 2:59 am

you say mechanical and I say organic…you say organic and I say mechanical…let’s call the whole thing off!


While recently reading Pitirim Sorokin’s (unfortunately out of print) Contemporary Sociological Theories (the best theory “textbook” I’ve ever seen). I discovered an obscure classical theory factoid that struck me as pretty funny. In Gemmeinschaft und Gesellschaft, as everyone knows, classical German theorist Ferdinand Tonnies distinguished between two types of society: one a close-knit group united by bonds of blood, soil and tradition which was “natural” and therefore “organic,” (Gemmeinschaft) the other one an “artificial” society which was characterized by opportunistic contact and self-seeking behavior in which individuals only connected with one another for purely instrumental purposes (Gesellschaft), because this type of social arrangement is not natural but a product of man-made conventions, Tonnies referred to it as “mechanical.”

Now, as every undergrad sociology major fresh off their theory course knows, Durkheim also distinguished between these two types of social forms, only that he gave them opposite names! Tonnies organic society becomes “mechanical solidarity” and his artificial mechanism becomes “organic solidarity.” Sorokin (1928: 491) wryly notes “[o]ne cannot help thinking that Durkheim intentionally gave to his social types names which were opposite to those given by Tonnies” (italics added).

What probably is not as well known, is of course that Tonnies and Durkheim were of fairly opposite political stripes. Tonnies was a classic German “romantic conservative” who viewed democracy, capitalism, and everything which smelled of modernity as foul and despicable (a recent book by Dick Pels has a great section on this particular political tradition). Durkheim was on the other hand, a progressive, pro-big-government “liberal-democratic socialist” (in a moderate welfare state sense, not in a Marxist sense), who while acknowledging that modernity had its issues (anomie, etc.) viewed the contemporary world as a definite improvement over the past. No surprise therefore (not to get too Derridian) that they gave the “marked” (disliked) term of the binary the “mechanical” epithet and they gave their privileged term the nice “organic” compliment!

Written by Omar

December 21, 2006 at 2:55 pm

do institutions really constrain behavior?*


In Omar’s recent post, he distinguishes between two different conceptions of how institutions work. In one view institutions are myths that organizations implement superficially to demonstrate compliance to a legitimate cultural model. In the other view, institutions actually constrain behavior. Institutions come in the form of scripts, ritualized behaviors, etc. that make people/organizations act in certain ways. Hence, we see a great deal of homogeneity in behavior. Similarity in organizational form doesn’t necessarily imply that people have found the most optimal solution to a problem, as a functionalist theory might suggest; rather, they all act the same because they’re being informed by the same institution.

I have a problem with this latter view of institutionalism. My problem can, in part, be summarized by the common complaint that it depicts managers and other human actors as “cultural dopes.” But I also dislike the constraint-perspective because, so far, we haven’t done a very good job of making our case that it actually works that way. Institutional analysis often begins with the assumption that homogeneity is evidence that culture is at work. If organizations are isomorphic, it must be because some behavior or policy has become institutionalized. We do not distinguish between the outcome (institutionalization as a social fact) from the process (institutionalization as diffusion). Similarity has become our object of analysis. (I have other problems with this line of thinking but I’ll leave it for later.)

Institutionalists rarely consider the alternative explanations for emerging isomorphism. As Lieberman and Asaba described in a recent AMR article, economists and management scholars (who don’t consider themselves institutionalists) have their own compelling theories to explain why organizations may merge on a common strategy or policy. Contrary to our sometimes naive depiction of economic arguments, most of these theoretical explanations do not rely on some sort of tautological-optimality argument. For instance, one group of scholars note that when firms are in tight competition for the same resources, strategic change by one firm may initiate a series of similar changes by their competitors. None of the competitors want to be put at a disadvantage so, lacking better information, they try to maintain balance with their competitors through imitation. Note that the outcome is the same (isomorphism), but the source of explanation is very different. Striving for legitimacy or reliance on scripts or schemas is completely absent.

Back to the bigger problem – I’m not sure if institutionalists can say with confidence that institutions constrain behavior because 1) we seem to be more interested in demonstrating institutionalization as a process than as an outcome (and thus we don’t really establish the “social fact” aspect of institutions) and 2) we haven’t yet dealt very well with competing explanations for isomorphism.

*By constraint I mean a particular kind of constraint – the ability to elicit certain behaviors through cultural mechanisms. The other view of institutional constraint – the choice-within-constraints variety – assumes that individuals/organizations are rational actors that have to play by the rules to get what they want. Organizations are the rats, and institutions are the cheese mazes.

Written by brayden king

September 27, 2006 at 3:42 pm

melding the public and private


Albert Hirschman is in my opinion one of the greatest living theorists. Categorizing him as any specific kind of theorist, however, is impossible. His ability to escape categorization is perhaps what makes him so great. By focusing on fundamental concepts, Hirschman has wide appeal.

Recently, I’ve been reading some of his more obscure texts. Hirschman has a fun little book, Crossing Boundaries, that contains a couple of previously unpublished essays along with an interview of Hirschman in which he discusses his personal history (which by the way is amazing! very few distinguished scholars can count themselves as former social revolutionaries and anti-fascist freedom fighters). In the first essay in the book, Hirschman does what he does best – explores the tensions and connections that exist in a taken-for-granted conceptual dichotomy. His book Exit, Voice, and Loyalty was largely an exercise of this type. In this particular essay, Hirschman looks at the public/private dichotomy. The essay is also, in Hirschman’s own words, a subversion of an earlier book that he published, Shifting Involvements.

Hirschman’s main concern was that economic scholars often get preoccupied with the realm of the private as the area of personal satisfaction and fulfillment. In the earlier book, Hirschman argued that public life is also a major source of motivation. Individuals participate in politics, embed themselves in organizations, etc. because it is personally fulfilling. What he neglected in the earlier book, however, was a recognition that often the public and private “meld and merge.” In this essay he argues that the dichotomy is overly-simple since many forms of interaction are both necessary from a private standpoint but also publicly beneficial as well.

To illustrate this point, Hirschman turns to our old friend Georg Simmel – an early sociologist (beloved at orgtheory) who “called attention to situations where goods that seem to be wholly private actually have important collective dimensions” (17). This line of reasoning is Simmel’s specialty. An example of this kind of social form is the meal. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by brayden king

September 23, 2006 at 3:30 pm

nightmare on kirkland street part II: simmel’s revenge


Just before his death in 1979, Talcott Parsons sent a letter to Jeffrey Alexander confesing that while initially planning to include Georg Simmel as part of the array of European thinkers (ultimately Weber-Durkheim-Pareto-Marshall) that had allegedly “converged” on the “voluntaristic” theory of action that was outlined in The Structure of Social Action, he ultimately decided to exclude Simmel because his theoretical program “did not fit [the] convergence thesis” (quoted in Camic 1989: 59).

As it turns out, Simmel went on to become the unsung hero of the structuralistas that took over the Harvard department of social relations in the late 1970s (White, Breiger, Boorman, etc.), and in fact to this day continues to be the strongest link of the (structuralist) network-theoretic tradition to classical European sociological theory (with a recently rehabilitated Durkheim a distant second). Ron still tell stories about sitting on Kurt Wolff’s (probably more than any other person responsible for bringing Simmel to the attention of postwar American sociologists) seminars as an undergrad at Brandeis and learning about Simmel from the master himself (thick German accent and all), which probably laid the groundwork for his classic 1974 paper.

After the breakdown of Parsonian hegemony in the late 1950s and early 1960s various contenders for “post-Parsonian” supremacy emerged, including conflict theory (a Mills/Gouldner legacy), Schutzian phenomenology and micro-sociology (Collins, Garfinkel, Goffman), the early socio-linguistics that would become conversation analysis, neo-marxist theories, etc. The funny thing is that it is network theory (currently undergoing its own midlife crisis as pointed out previously) that ended up being the most successful post-Parsonian program in sociology as conflict theory became integrated into the mainstream (or relegated to avant garde pockets in the bay area) and as the ethnomethodological turn ended up being fat in promises but thin in returns.

Thus, ultimately, Simmel won the day and was able to make up for the Parsonian snub in spades. And if a recent AJS issue on computational sociology is any indication (i.e. Cederman 2005), Simmel may become the grand theorist of the digital age, while Parsons recedes into the dustbin of historical arcana.

Written by Omar

September 21, 2006 at 2:08 am


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