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martin riesebrodt 1948-2014

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Martin Riesebrodt died a few days ago in Berlin. He was an emeritus professor at the University of Chicago and a very prominent scholar of religion and Max Weber. I was lucky to have him as an instructor in the graduate social theory class. He was friendly with students and is remembered well. What I took away from Martin was his view of Weber as a broad thinker with an uncanny ability to grapple with the interaction of culture and history. His best work is probably Pious Passion, which argued that fundamentalism is driven by a desire to reassert patriarchy. My best memory of Martin is when he joked about how the West Coast’s beautiful weather drove people to the beach and made it hard to have great California sociology!

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz/From Black Power

Written by fabiorojas

December 12, 2014 at 12:01 am

Posted in fabio, sociology

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

orgtheory and elizabeth berman in the LA Times

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The LA Times has an article expanding on Elizabeth’s post on airline inequality:

Over at the OrgTheory.net blog and Crooked Timber, sociologists Beth Berman and Kieran Healy spin a couple of neat fantasias about how today’s cabin configurations match up with income inequality in society at large. Their findings hit us where we live, having just completed a 12-hour flight from Asia in United Airlines steerage. (Preliminary finding: You can book an aisle seat and board with a neck pillow, noise-reduction headphones, and a fully-stocked Kindle, and it’s still a killer flight.)

Berman calculates that in the usual configuration for a United transatlantic flight on a Boeing 777, the richest (or highest-paying) passengers account for 21% of those on board and take up 40% of the place; the mid-level (Business Class) comprises 27% of the passenger list and takes up 20%, and the bottom 52% get 40% of the space. As in real life on the ground, the middle gets squeezed the most.

Check it out!

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz/From Black Power

Written by fabiorojas

December 2, 2014 at 7:35 pm

Posted in fabio, inequality, sociology

it’s the economists, stupid

with 13 comments

Orlando Patterson probably didn’t write the title of his Chronicle piece, “How Sociologists Made Themselves Irrelevant.” But it’s great clickbait, even if, as Jeremy noted over at scatterplot, the sociology self-hate “gets frankly tiresome.”

Patterson makes some fair points. But framing the question as “why sociologists failed” points attention away from a question that’s actually more interesting: “why did economists succeed?”

Patterson does gesture toward the centrality of economics to social policy. He talks about economists’ dominance of the Moving to Opportunity study and notes that, unlike sociologists, they’ve “had their say in debates over incarceration, gangs and violence, high-school dropout rates, chronic unemployment, and socioeconomic disconnection.”

But Patterson puts most of his focus on sociologists, who (he says) have turned away from policy. He reserves some secondary annoyance for the policymakers who have neglected sociology’s insights. But this misses an enormous piece of the story.

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by epopp

December 2, 2014 at 1:16 pm

Posted in economics, sociology

“chicago economics,” “chicago sociology,” and “chicago anything else”

with 2 comments

Near the end of James Heckman’s lecture on the scholarly legacy of Gary Becker, Heckman argued that Becker was a fine addition to the legacy of “Chicago economics.” He didn’t mean that Becker was a monetarist – the “Chicago school” of Friedman and his followers. Instead, he meant that Becker fit in well with the long tradition of great Chicago economic thinkers including not only free marketers (like Friedman) but also liberals (Paul Douglas), socialists (Oscar Lange), and weirdos (Thorstein Veblen). But what does that mean? Here is what it means:

  1. People know the whole field of economics, they aren’t just narrow specialists.
  2. Economics is not a parlor game. It is important.
  3. Empirical work is important and it is not devalued.

Thumbs up. But let me extend it. This Chicago attitude should extend to the whole of social sciences. People ask me, for example, why I was so damn harsh on the critical realists and the post-modernists. Why? Because what I do is important. It is empirical and it reflects what I’ve learned from absorbing the hard earned lessons of my predecessors. So when I see scholarship sink into a miasma of words, or the toy tinkering with cuteonomics, I can only conclude that the person is here to play games, not figure out how the world works. Excuse me while I get back to work.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz/From Black Power

Written by fabiorojas

December 1, 2014 at 12:01 am

the Q words

with 10 comments

Regular orgtheory commenter Howard Aldrich has an interesting and provocative piece up at the OOW blog, Work in Progress, and the LSE Impact blog. His plea is that we should abandon the Q words — qualitative and quantitative — in describing our research. They aren’t terribly descriptive of what we’re actually doing, they create unnecessary divisions within social science, and using them inappropriately devalues qualitative work:

I’ve endured this distinction for so long that I had begun to take it for granted, a seemingly fixed property in the firmament of social science data collection and analysis strategies. However, I’ve never been happy with the distinction and about a decade ago, began challenging people who label themselves this way. I was puzzled by the responses I received, which often took on a remorseful tone, as if somehow researchers had to apologize for the methodological strategies they had chosen. To the extent that my perception is accurate, I believe their tone stems from the persistent way in which non-statistical approaches have been marginalized in many departments. However, it also seemed as though the people I talked with had accepted the evaluative nature of the distinction. As Lamont and Swidler might say, these researchers had bought into “methodological tribalism.”

Having recently argued that Sociological Science needs more “qualitative” work, I read this with interest. Certainly the terms are not the most descriptive, and they do reinforce a division within sociology that might better be blurred post-Methodenstreit.

But I think the distinction is likely to persist, despite Howard’s good intentions, for two reasons.

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by epopp

November 28, 2014 at 5:58 pm

non-punishment for sexual assault at virginia?

There is a serious crisis at the University of Virginia after Rolling Stone published an article that, unsurprisingly, argued that the administration failed to punish sexual offenders on campus. Soon, the University president, Teresa Sullivan, announced a suspension of fraternity activities until Jan. 9 but otherwise defended the school.

This is very disappointing. It has become increasingly common knowledge that universities are unable to handle rape allegations, they have almost no control over fraternities, and national fraternity organizations have set themselves up so that they are not liable for student violence. President Sullivan’s punishment is especially disappointing because the suspension only applies, essentially, when VA is out of session. Literally, the suspension applies now (Thanksgiving break), final exams, and the winter break. UVA is out of session until Jan. 12. Some “punishment.”

Here is the difficult discussion that universities have to have if this horrid situation is ever to end:

  • Rape is a felony. It’s something you go to prison for. Thus, colleges are not in a position to investigate or handle these claims. Student/faculty juries for felonies are a joke. All rape allegations should be immediately transferred to the police.
  • Develop new procedures for victims. Instead of going to the dean (who should be supportive in any case), all victims should go to the health clinic or local hospital *immediately* for medical attention and collection of physical evidence. This is especially important as research shows that violence is committed mainly by a small group of serial offenders who exploit the party scene. Even charges are never filed, physical evidence and documentation is needed to expel people suspected of violence.
  • Universities should divest themselves from fraternities because they are extremely dangerous and unaccountable. How bad? Essentially, insurance companies in America won’t ever cover claims related to fraternities any more. It’s that bad.

Sadly, we will always be faced with the challenge of sexual violence. However, universities have allowed a hot house environment for violence to grow on their campuses. Allowing large groups of unsupervised young men to throw alcohol drenched parties with no liability is a recipe for disaster. This has to end.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz/From Black Power 

Written by fabiorojas

November 26, 2014 at 12:01 am

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