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challenging the supremacy of economics

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note: this is my first post in a while and I’m a bit rusty.  I accidentally hit “publish” on a decidedly un-publishable version of this in the midst of editing and writing earlier. Sorry for the confusion.

I was asked a few weeks ago to comment on the fact that a French economist has been awarded the Nobel Prize this year.  Frankly, the answer I gave was kind of lame:

… Sean Safford, an associate professor of economic sociology at Institut d’Études Politiques de Paris, the elite institute for political studies known as Sciences Po, said the awarding of the prize to Mr. Tirole, a professor of economics at the University of Toulouse in France, was notable for coming at a time of economic malaise and brain drain, when so many of the country’s brightest are emigrating elsewhere in Europe or to the United States. “The average French person, who is struggling to pay the bills, is not going to rejoice,” he said.

I’ve been mulling over what I meant to say since then.  It started to come together when I read Paul Krugman’s lengthy reflection yesterday on a recent working paper by my colleagues Marion Fourcade and Yann Algan who, along with their co-author, Ettienne Ollion have written a little incendiary bomb of a paper titled The Supremacy of Economics. The paper documents the striking dominance that economics has achieved since the 1980s over sociology and political science in the United States.  I read The Supremacy of Economics immediately on the heals of another of Marion’s papers, this one with Rakesh Khurana which documents the rise of financial economics within American business schools.  Taken together the two papers paint a clear picture establishing that the discipline of economics — and financial economics in particular — has taken a confidently dominant position at in the United States which has given it unprecedented sway in the halls of policy-making and of commerce and proposes a compelling account of how it got there.

Krugman calls the tone of The Supremacy of Economics “jaundiced”.  I would call it wistful.  You get the sense that it could have gone another way if it weren’t for the social skill of certain individuals and the interlocking of particular ecologies at particular points in time.  (If that wasn’t the tone Marion and the others meant to convey, then I’ll claim it for myself.)

If that alternative is possible anywhere, it should be in France where I now live and work, since — as is the case with its food, its wine and its health care system — here in France the nexus of academic, political and business elites is different.  Very different.

In contrast to the story that Marion and her various colleagues tell about the US, academic disciplines (including economics) have not — yet — assumed the central role in France that they have in the American scene.  As Bourdieu observed with far far greater skill than I could, French grandes ecoles are unapologetic factories of elite self-reproduction.  Most teachers are graying wizened poobahs of their field.  Politicians and policy-makers teach other politicians and policy-makers.  Engineers teach other engineers.  And researchers basically teach and train other researchers on how to be researchers, and thats all.  Period.

As Marion and Rakesh show, American business schools in the 19th and early 20th centuries were organized along lines not all that different from the French model.  There may have been economists at the helm, but the predominant logic was vocational in the sense that the teachers were mainly practitioners who saw their roles as socializing a younger generation to the norms of the field as situated within prevailing moral values of the day.  (Moreover, the “economists” were of the old-school institutionalist variety, not today’s preening quant-jocks).

This begs the question: How did the academics break this pattern to lay claim to teaching, consulting and advice-giving well beyond their home “territory” in America?  And how, ultimately, did the (financial) economists come to dominate it?  The story Marion and Rakesh tell is fascinating and it is well told.  It involves strategic action, social skill and a healthy dose of help from the Ford Foundation all couched within a nuanced theory that mingles Fligstein, McAdam, Bourdieu, MacKensie, Callon and Abbot almost in equal measure.  Briefly put, there are two major steps that led America down that particular path.   The first was the appearance of an alternative model pioneered at Carnegie-Mellon.  Seeking to establish itself in a field dominated by Harvard and Wharton, Carnegie-Mellon hewed to a boldly discipline-based approach to business education.  This alternative was amplified by the Ford Foundation which was seeking to differentiate itself within its own competitively saturated field.  In the aftermath of the Great Depression, it was understood that previous models of training the elite had produced disappointing results.  The Foundation latched on to Carnegie-Mellon’s idea and worked to diffuse it throughout the field.  The second step brings in the University of Chicago which ran with the idea of discipline-based teaching, but focused it much more sharply on economics and in particular, on financial economics.  The GSB then became the leading player in the “performative” turn which has brought financial economics into boardrooms, Wall Street, the halls of government and of course, the annals of social science.

Which brings us back to France.

France today faces what the Times (constantly) refers to as “persistent malaise.”  The economy is flat. The European project is stalled.  Its political elite are perceived as out of touch.  There is a sense that the system around which France has been organized since 1946 is… just kind of disappointing.  And this has led to a broad reflection on the process by which this country produces its political elite.

Sciences Po, where I work, sits at the center of that debate.  In the years after the Second World War, General De Gaulle gave Sciences Po a special status that made it the primary path to entering the bottom rung of France’s administrative and political elite, the Ecole Nationale d’Administration.  Sciences Po’s teachers were largely drawn from the ranks of the political elite itself.  But the school has moved in recent years to beef up its academic credentials and in large part that shift has been justified by a familiar narrative: it is the disciplines, with a dispassionate and theoretically grounded approach, that should take the lead in defining the curriculum of elite education.  (As an example: Dominique Strauss-Kahn taught Sciences Po’s main introduction to economics course up until his appointment at the IMF.  Today its taught by… Yann Algan).

Here’s the thing, while Marion and Rakesh expertly situate their account within a smartly argued and largely persuasive theory of “linked ecologies”, I could not help feeling that there was an element of chance involved in the ultimate rise of financial economics in the US: The University of Chicago happened to become home to a troika of free-market true believers which included Milton Friedman.  The result, ultimately, leads us to The Supremacy of Economics.  Could there have been an alternative?  One that was less dogmatic?  One in which the other disciplines were not isolated and ultimately relegated to the junior leagues?

This brings me back to a French economist winning this year’s Nobel.

When I arrived at Sciences Po, I was impressed by the idea that sociology, political science and economics stood on a more equal footing here than had been the case, certainly, when I was on the faculty of the Chicago GSB.  I felt the conditions existed here in which a real dialogue across these disciplines could produce a richer, more compelling approach.  It was a place where what we call “economic sociology” could find a fresh home.

I still hope that.  But that outcome is by no means inevitable.  Winning the Nobel Prize in economics this year and the phenomenal success of Thomas Pickety’s book raise the profile of economics in this country precisely at a moment when political, business and academic elites are questioning the system and looking for the kinds of concrete answers that disciplinary economics provides.  In other words, the conditions exist for the intermingling of intellectual streams which seems possible here to breakdown and head down a path toward a European version of The Supremacy of Economics.

Yet the very existence of the paper that motivated this post is a prime example of the kind of dialogue which seemed (and still seems) possible here suggestiing that that outcome could turn out differently.  After all, Marion is a prominent young sociologist of world-class capabilities, Yann Algan is very much her equal in economics and the paper was written during Marion’s two-year sabbatical at Sciences Po.  But the lesson that I take from Marion and Rakesh’s work is that economic sociology — or whatever you want to call this more egalitarian approach to social science — needs to “perform” itself.  And it does that by building a curriculum capable of producing the next generation of elites.

My bottom line is: If economic sociology is to amount to anything, this kind of cross-disciplinary dialogue must continue and it must mature into something that does more than simply critique the hegemony of economics.  What it must turn into is a curriculum.

The opportunity is there.  But is economic sociology ready for prime time?  (Oh, and does anyone have a good contact at the Ford Foundation?)

Written by seansafford

December 3, 2014 at 10:49 pm

contradictions and confirmation bias

I don’t envy these people who are tasked with coming up with a memorial quote that is simultaneously pithy and meaningful.  Hendrick Hertzberg, among others, is criticizing the architect of Martin Luther King’s memorial for failing to take the context of King’s speech into account when he decided to use this truncated quote on the side of King’s statue:

Image

If you read the sermon, it becomes clear that, not only did the architect commit a hatched job,  the paragraph he pulled actually contradicts the whole point King was trying to get across.

King’s point was to rail against the “drum major instinct”; the drive in each of us that says “hey look at me!”  But then, toward the end, he sort of makes a verbal personal foul and says: if you want to call me a drum major then at least say I am doing it for the good of mankind because that is not… er… quite as megalomaniacal as… uh… I mean… anyway back to what I was saying….

My take is that the quote came from a moment in which King started down an unfortunate verbal path and was trying to get out of it to get back to his main point.  Oops.

Last April, Caroline Alexander brought up the same question of context regarding the use of a quote on the 9/11 Memorial.  In that case, the quote “No day shall erase you from the memory of time,” actually came from a longer sentence in which the poet Virgil was lauding his own role as a poet recording history in venerating the memory of an amorous pair of soldiers who died in midst of battle.  Virgil is basically saying: it’s a good thing I know what you two were up to, because otherwise you would die in obscurity like every other piker… or something like that.

What is the common thread?   Read the rest of this entry »

Written by seansafford

January 17, 2012 at 2:33 pm

i’m just a silly man who needs a shave

An incisive rebuttal laying bear bare the overdetermined intersection of social identity theory, categorization, hierarchy and agency within organizations.  Bravo.

Clearly, organizational theory would be better off if it had more bears.

 

 

Written by seansafford

January 31, 2011 at 8:52 pm

tunisia: another data point on revolutions

Given the events in Tunisia, I thought it would be worth pointing toward two (lengthy) Org Theory posts written during the “Green Revolution” in Iran last year.

The first is my post “Fisking” Andrew Miller and Gideon Rachman’s dialogue on the factors that lead some revolutions to succeed while others fail.  Events have moved so quickly in Tunisia, that I don’t really have much of a read on what just happened.  But as we learn more about how this revolution unfolded, it will add yet another data point.  For instance, current news reports mention relatively little about internal divisions among the elite, but if previous revolutions have anything to teach us, it would suggest that this must be part of the story.

In addition, I am interested in the government’s violent response to initial protests.  In Tunisia, this spurred further protests.  In Iran, violently putting down protests helped to squelch the movement.  Why?  This points to what I think is probably the most important open question in the social movement literature: why do some cycles of protest catch fire while others peter out?

On this, the evidence so far suggests that new social media played a role and so, I will also point toward Brayden’s post on the role that social media (i.e., Twitter and Facebook) might have played in Iran.  Brayden’s argument, if I can paraphrase, was that Twitter and Facebook may be more important in conveying the voice of movement participants to the outside world — becoming an “audience generation machine” in his words — but that they were not as effective as a coordinating mechanism.  In Tunisia, it does seem that social media helped to coordinate.  The difference, it seems, has to do with how the two regimes regulated social media, but it seems like there is more of a story to be told here.

Indeed, reports are that the role of social network media was to bring outside information in that changed the political opportunity structure: information unveiled by Wikileaks laid bare the corruption of the regime, this spread through social media, and helped to drive people to the street.

Written by seansafford

January 14, 2011 at 7:16 pm

the federal wage freeze

With these words, President Obama announced an across the board pay freeze for Federal workers:

In these challenging times, we want the best and brightest to join and make a difference.  But these are also times where all of us are called on to make some sacrifices.  And I’m asking civil servants to do what they’ve always done — play their part.

Anyone looking at either the politics or the substance of our America’s budget deficits recognizes that something should be done about the federal budget.  But is asking 2.1 million workers to shoulder the burden the right approach?  And even if it is, is doing it in an “across the board” freeze, the right way to go? No it’s not. Here’s why. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by seansafford

December 1, 2010 at 8:05 pm

ah, the little choices we make

Two years ago I did a radio interview about a company called “The Point”.  The name of the company came from Malcolm Gladwell’s “The Tipping Point”.  The idea was to use the web to facilitate collective action.

After the interview, I contacted the founder.  We had lunch.  He was brimming with ideas.  But he was also really interested in… well…  OrgTheory.  He wanted to take the ideas we talk about on this blog and try to turn them into a company.

We talked a few more times after that. He wanted to know if I wanted to get involved. I decided it would be better to focus on my writing.  But I did mention there were grad students who would love to spend time with his company; to mine it for data and hopefully help tweak the model too.  In the end though, I couldn’t find anyone willing to pull themselves away from studies of status rankings and categorization.

By the by, Andrew Mason and I lost contact and that company became Groupon which has, apparently, been sold for $6 billion to Google.

Oops.

Written by seansafford

December 1, 2010 at 1:25 pm

confessions of a social spatial navigator

Network analysts can roughly be divided into two camps: those who look at the “whole” network and those who concentrate on individuals and their “local” set of network connections.  One problem often raised about network analysis is that the two camps have relatively little to do with each other.

Indulging in my side interest in urban transportation planning, I came across a discussion of the different ways that people navigate physical space.  It got me thinking about parallels to the way people navigate social space and about how different people approach the question of social “navigation”.  It speaks to this bridging of the two network camps.

First, some terminology:

Humans have two methods of navigation.  Spatial navigators can construct maps in their heads as they experience a place, and also tend to be good at using maps as navigational aids.  Narrative navigators navigate by creating or following verbal directions.  For spatial navigators, the answer to the question where? is a position in mapped space.  For narrative navigators, the answer to where? is a story about how to get there.  Obviously, this is a spectrum; many of us are in the middle with partial capabilities in both directions.

The same concept, put differently:

[Giuseppe] Iaria and McGill University researcher Véronique Bohbot demonstrated in a study they published six years ago that our mapping strategies fall into two basic categories. One is a spatial strategy that involves learning the relationships between various landmarks—creating a map in your head, in other words, that shows where the flower shop is in relationship to the movie theater and to the Wendy’s. The other is a stimulus-response approach that encodes specific routes by memorizing a series of cues, as in: Get off the bus when you see the glass skyscraper, then walk toward the big park.

Lets put this in terms of social structural navigation.  Say you have a hipster friend who wants to go on a date with a Polish kid who the friend has been eying for a while, but doesn’t see a route in.   Plenty of people think about social structure in the same way that roughly half of the population thinks about physical space; that is in narrative terms: “So, hipster from Williamsburg, you want to figure out how to ask that Polish kid out on a date?  Well, Pauline used to own the store with Mitch, but they split up and he started his own store.  I think that kid works for Mitch and I am going to dinner with Pauline so I can see if she’d ask Mitch to make an introduction.”

Myself, however, I’m a spatial navigator when it comes to physical geography.  When I ask my phone for directions, it initially pops up with a series of “turn left here, go right there” instructions which I ignore completely as I head straight for the map.  I then assess the whole map and adjust the route the computer gives me in light of information I might have, for instance, that I know there’s a really great cupcake shop on a slightly altered route.  In fact, I do this in a lot of areas involving instructions: for instance, I tend to improvise based on recipes I look up rather than following exactly what the cook-book says.

And, not surprisingly, I do it too when it comes to social space.  Rather than specific individuals and their connections, I tend to think in terms of cliques and the key people within those cliques.  Carrying on the example from before:  “Mitch and Pauline don’t talk any more.  No love lost in that breakup.  But, I’ve noticed that Mitch has a few Polish kids who are here for the summer working for him.  I don’t know if this kid is one of them, but I see a bunch of them downing vodka shots at the Pig Wednesday night.  That’s when you and the rest of the hipsters are normally drinking G&Ts at the Governor Bradford.  I can’t guarantee it, but you might want to consider boogieing across the street.  I bet he’ll be there.”

Both approaches will get you to the destination, but the cognitive map that gets you there is different.

This distinction has the potential to be very useful both for how we teach network concepts and also for pointing toward research directions attempting to bridge individual and network levels of analysis.  Read the rest of this entry »

Written by seansafford

August 24, 2010 at 7:31 pm

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