Posts Tagged ‘research’
Folks, Barry Wellman has agreed to share his thoughts, when the “muse strikes” him, as a guest blogger at orgtheory. Like many of our dear readers, Barry is a font of helpful insights and witty to boot. Although he is a native New Yorker, he knows where the interesting restaurants are in Toronto and how to best get to Toronto from NYC. As a networks and community expert, Barry has contributed numerous publications. His latest publication is the book Networked: The New Social Operating System (MIT Press, 2012), co-authored with Lee Rainie, Director of the Pew Research Center’s Internet Project.
storytelling in organizations, the state of the field of organizations and values, and a freebie article
I’ve recently published two articles* that might be of interest to orgheads, and Emerald publisher has ungated one of my articles:
1. Chen, Katherine K. 2013. “Storytelling: An Informal Mechanism of Accountability for Voluntary Organizations.” Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly 42(5): 902-922.**
Using observations, interviews, and archival research of an organization that coordinates the annual Burning Man event, I argue that storytelling is a mechanism by which stakeholders can demand accountability to their needs for recognition and voice. I identify particular frames, or perspectives and guides to action, articulated in members’ stories. Deploying a personalistic frame, storytellers recounted individuals’ contributions toward a collective endeavor. Such storytelling commemorated efforts overlooked by official accounts and fostered bonds among members. Other storytellers identified problems and organizing possibilities for consideration under the civic society or anarchist frames. By familiarizing organizations with members’ perspectives and interests, stories facilitate organizational learning that can better serve stakeholders’ interests. Additional research could explore whether (1) consistent face-to-face relations (2) within a bounded setting, such as an organization, and (3) practices that encourage participation in organizing decisions and activities are necessary conditions under which storytelling can enable accountability to members’ interests.
2. Chen, Katherine K., Howard Lune, and Edward L. Queen, II. 2013. “‘How Values Shape and are Shaped by Nonprofit and Voluntary Organizations:’ The Current State of the Field.” Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly 42(5): 856-885.
To advance understanding of the relationship between values and organizations, this review synthesizes classic and recent organizational and sociological research, including this symposium’s articles on voluntary associations. We argue that all organizations reflect, enact, and propagate values. Organizations draw on culture, which offers a tool kit of possible actions supported by institutional logics that delineate appropriate activities and goals. Through institutional work, organizations can secure acceptance for unfamiliar practices and their associated values, often under the logic of democracy. Values may be discerned in any organization’s goals, practices, and forms, including “value-free” bureaucracies and collectivist organizations with participatory practices. We offer suggestions for enhancing understanding of how collectivities advance particular values within their groups or society.
3. In addition, one of my previously published articles received the “Outstanding Author Contribution Award Winner at the Literati Network Awards for Excellence 2013.” Because of the award, Emerald publisher has ungated this article (or, as Burners like to say, contributed a gift to the gift economy :) ) to download here (click on the HTML or PDF button to initiate the download):
Chen, Katherine K. 2012. “Laboring for the Man: Augmenting Authority in a Voluntary Association.” Research in the Sociology of Organizations 34: 135-164.
Drawing on Bourdieu’s field, habitus, and capital, I show how disparate experiences and “dispositions” shaped several departments’ development in the organization behind the annual Burning Man event. Observations and interviews with organizers and members indicated that in departments with hierarchical professional norms or total institution-like conditions, members privileged their capital over others’ capital to enhance their authority and departmental solidarity. For another department, the availability of multiple practices in their field fostered disagreement, forcing members to articulate stances. These comparisons uncover conditions that exacerbate conflicts over authority and show how members use different types of capital to augment their authority.
* If you don’t have access to these articles at your institution, please contact me for a PDF.
** Looking for more storytelling articles? Check out another one here.
On Fri., Graduate Center faculty and affiliates got together to meet with sociology graduate students. In my group, which included Paul Attewell, Pam Stone, Ruth Milkman, Sophia Catsambis, and myself, we discussed what we thought might be hot topics in the areas of labor, organizations, and work. Not only was this an invigorating conversation, but also an opportunity to hear of research in the pipeline and upcoming and recent publications. I’m sharing some of these ideas here.
- Rise of precarious work (cf. Guy Standing’s The Precariat, Leah Vosko’s edited volume Precarious Employment: Understanding Labour Market Insecurity in Canada) and how can contemporary labor movements can mobilize workers
- Impact of the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) – ideal for a pre- and post- study!: whether it liberates employees who only stay with a particular workplace for the health insurance, how organizations that would have attracted members for health insurance (i.e., freelancers union) will now adjust
- How do people find jobs? Universities now aggressively push career-building and networking for students. Someone needs to update Granovetter’s research on networks.
- Employment and health: how does chronic illness impact career trajectories and employment?
- How do the so-called “Millenials” conceive of work – how do their parents’ experience with work (i.e., downsizing, long hours, minimal or no rewards for worker loyalty) and governance (weakened state protections) inform adult children’s conceptions of ideal workplaces? For example, are some younger workers viewing workplaces as sites of self-actualization, manageable work hours, and contractual work?
- Transnationalization of work: worker flows via the H1B visa
- Inequality: How do organizations dampen, reinforce, or exacerbate inequalities? Interesting contexts include organizations that deliver healthcare.
- How to imagine alternatives to contemporary hierarchical organizations: the impact of Occupy and other contemporary democratic groups.
Of course, no discussion was complete without stories about dealing with the IRB.
If you’re working on one of the above ideas, or have other ideas for where the discipline can go, please do add them into the comments.
What does it take to pull together a collaborative research project? Howie Becker and Rob Faulkner reveal all, via a reconstruction of their prolific email correspondence collected in a new ebook Thinking Together: An E-mail Exchange and All that Jazz. Prompted by the puzzling observation that younger musicians didn’t know the same repertoire of songs shared among older musicians, Becker and Faulkner, who are both practicing musicians, muscle through hammering out a research design and theoretical explanation for how musicians, including ones who have never practiced together before, can collectively perform.* Their exchanges evidence the gradual refinement of categories with plenty of links to songs, descriptions of illustrative experiences, and recounting of interviews with fellow musicians while practicing in the field. Here’s a blurb penned by Becker:
Would you like to know how people really think their way through all the problems of doing research and writing a book? Watch two old pros in action as they do that in the e-mail correspondence between sociologists Rob Faulkner and Howie Becker as they wrote Do You Know? The Jazz Repertoire in Action.
The book Thinking Together: An E-mail Exchange and All that Jazz shows the authors exchanging ideas and modifying them as the conversation proceeds. It shows them extracting ideas from their experiences in the field: performing in public, collaborating with other musicians, interviewing, using their field notes to generate ideas and test them, to elaborate theories as they go, all the thinking that goes on when you actually do research. No review of the literature—it’s replaced by the two of them drawing in work that seems relevant, that gives them something they can use to explain what they’ve seen and heard: using a study of Mexican witchcraft, for instance, to develop a research strategy, and painfully realizing that they have some substantial musical prejudices that they have to turn into a kind of historical sociology.
This is the way research really gets done, what you do after you write the research proposal and start working and find out that none of your plans are going to work because things were more complicated than you thought they were.
lifting the crimson curtain: Manufacturing Morals: The Values of Silence in Business School Education
As a grad student, I always found crossing the bridge over the Charles River from Harvard University to the Harvard Business School (HBS) to be a bit like approaching Emerald (or more appropriately, Crimson) City. On the Allston side, the buildings seemed shinier (or, as shiny as New England vernacular architecture allows), and the grounds were undergoing constant replantings, thanks to a well-heeled donor. In addition, HBS has loomed large as an institution central to the dissemination of organizational theory and management practices, including Elton Mayo’s human relations.
HBS has certain peculiarities about teaching and learning, like the use of case studies which follow formulaic structures as the basis for directed class discussion.* Moreover, instructors follow a strict grading break-down: mandatory “III”s assigned to the lowest-performing students of classes – a source of concern, as students with too many IIIs must justify their performance before a board and possibly go on leave.** To help instructors with grading, hired scribes document student discussion comments.***
Such conditions raise questions about the links, as well as disconnects, between classroom and managerial leadership, so I was delighted to see a new ethnography about business school teaching at the UChicago Press book display at ASAs.
With his latest book, Michel Anteby lifts the crimson curtain from HBS with his new book Manufacturing Morals: The Values of Silence in Business School Education (University of Chicago Press, 2013).
Here’s the official blurb:
“Corporate accountability is never far from the front page, and as one of the world’s most elite business schools, Harvard Business School trains many of the future leaders of Fortune 500 companies. But how does HBS formally and informally ensure faculty and students embrace proper business standards? Relying on his first-hand experience as a Harvard Business School faculty member, Michel Anteby takes readers inside HBS in order to draw vivid parallels between the socialization of faculty and of students.
In an era when many organizations are focused on principles of responsibility, Harvard Business School has long tried to promote better business standards. Anteby’s rich account reveals the surprising role of silence and ambiguity in HBS’s process of codifying morals and business values. As Anteby describes, at HBS specifics are often left unspoken; for example, teaching notes given to faculty provide much guidance on how to teach but are largely silent on what to teach. Manufacturing Morals demonstrates how faculty and students are exposed to a system that operates on open-ended directives that require significant decision-making on the part of those involved, with little overt guidance from the hierarchy. Anteby suggests that this model-which tolerates moral complexity-is perhaps one of the few that can adapt and endure over time.”
Check it out! And while you’re at it, have a look at Anteby’s previous book, Moral Gray Zones (2008, Princeton University Press).
In a previous post’s discussion, Graham Peterson kindly shared a great link of videos with Howie Becker’s thoughts about conducting research, specifically at the graduate level. I found the last video clip of particular interest. In “10. Savoir finir : Comment achever une thèse alors que les données de terrain ne cessent d’affluer ? [Knowing how to end: how to finish a thesis when field data keeps arising?],” Becker discusses the issue of knowing when to end data collection. Some signals make this clear – the funding runs out, the return ticket’s date shows up, or less frequently, the field site closes. (For historians, the re-closure of an archive is the equivalent.)
I would add another possibility – sometimes the data collection doesn’t end, and a researcher continues to analyze, write, and publish along the way, particularly if the phenomena under study changes and sparks additional areas of inquiry. New research questions may arise, or the researcher may add other field sites for comparison. As I tell grad students who are deciding among research projects, it’s likely that a researcher will live with an ethnographic research project for years beyond the dissertation’s completion, particularly if s/he writes a book and needs to publicize it. Of course, out of expedience or boredom, some researchers will quickly move onto another research project. However, with ethnographic research, the researcher who can return to the same field site faces the dilemma of sunk costs – forming relations with informants and developing expertise and local knowledge all take time, and it may be difficult to give all that up, especially when the passage of time starts to reveal dynamics not readily apparent before.
Two uncomfortable, if not disconcerting, realizations of academic publishing is that (1) people don’t read, or (2) if they do read and write, they don’t cite relevant or appropriate work. A hard-working academic’s day can be quickly sent down the dark hole of despair or rage face when reading a manuscript or publication that doesn’t properly cite relevant work or (ahem) one’s own seminal work. Worse, if cited, the work may be cited wrongly, or the minor points override the major takeaways in subsequent research and citations. In these situations, the imperative that one should contribute to standing on the shoulders of giants calls to mind the bleak image of a whale fruitlessly calling out for colleagues in an endless sea.
More whale-calling, channeling Andy Abbott, below the fold…
Read the rest of this entry »
A joke shared by a conference speaker:
“There are 3 kinds of people in the world: 1 that can count and 1 that can’t.”
ARNOVA (Association for Research on Nonprofit Organizations and Voluntary Action) has extended its submission deadline to April 1, 2013.
“ARNOVA’s 42nd Annual Conference 2013 Call for Participation
Recession, Renewal, Revolution? Nonprofit and Voluntary Action in an Age of Turbulence
Marriott Hartford Downtown ● Hartford, Connecticut ● November 21-23, 2013
Since the late 2000s, the world has become a constant changing and turbulent place. Economic crises have arisen across the globe, creating high levels of need at a time when public and philanthropic dollars are becoming scarcer. Advances in technology and communication have facilitated social movements, challenging and even bringing down governments from Wall Street to Cairo. People come together for causes across boundaries-gathering internationally and virtually to try to address wicked problems such as climate change, individual rights, and poverty. In a world that is facing constant change and weathering these turbulent forces, it is important for scholars to reflect on how have nonprofit organizations, NGOs, social movements, and other forms of voluntary action been affected by the economic and social turbulence of the past five years?
Recently, at a faculty meeting of professors and graduate students from several disciplines, discussion turned to the IRB’s interpretation of human subjects guidelines and the implications for students’ efforts to document phenomena for class assignments. Participants pointed out a variety of problems, including changes over the years in IRB decisions about whether results of projects could be publicly shared – in this case, whether students’ videorecorded interview of a retired elected official could be publicly shared under today’s IRB guidelines. Faculty and graduate students also described delays in getting feedback from their IRBs, raising concerns about how the lack of accountability on the part of some IRBs increases the uncertainty of planning class research, students’ timely graduation, and faculty productivity.
At orgtheory, we’ve discussed how researchers face challenges concerning the IRB here and here. Although the IRB offers detailed guidelines that can protect human subjects in medical research, how the IRB and human subjects concerns can contribute to the conduct of qualitative research, particularly organizational ethnography, is less clear.
Several recent publications offer researchers’ experiences with these issues.
Hi, Tom Medvetz here, checking in with my fourth OrgTheory guest post (posts 1, 2, and 3 here). Today I’ll sketch a few notes about one of the big issues my book speaks to: the complex relationship between social knowledge and public action in the US. Perhaps the best-known debate on this topic is the one associated with Russell Jacoby’s 1987 book, The Last Intellectuals, which famously lamented the disappearance of “public intellectuals” from American life. In the years since its publication, Jacoby’s book and the idea of the “public intellectual” have earned enormous attention from journalists, pundits, and scholars.
However, reading over some of the major entries in this debate, it’s hard to shake the feeling that the “public intellectual” discussion has yielded more heat than light. In the first place, it’s striking how much disagreement still attends the central question a quarter-century later: Is public intellectualism declining or thriving in America? It depends on who you ask. Three days ago, Henry Giroux’s Counterpunch essay “The Disappearance of Public Intellectuals” seemed to take the basic truth of Jacoby’s thesis for granted. Meanwhile, many other writers have taken the opposite stance by arguing that public intellectuals are alive and well in the US. A good example is Daniel W. Drezner’s 2008 paper “Public Intellectuals 2.0,” which maintained that “the growth of online publication venues has stimulated rather than retarded the quality and diversity of public intellectuals.”
A second glance at this debate reveals a likely reason for the disagreement. Put simply, there has never been any consensus about the proper definition of the term public intellectual. In fact, it’s fair to say that how a given writer operationalizes the term tends to determine where he or she stands on the issue.
Hi, Tom Medvetz here with my third guest installment for OrgTheory.* In this little excursion, I’ll extend the “Dude, where’s my social theory?” discussion that’s been percolating on the site over the last couple of months. The main points of that conversation, which originated with Kieran Healy’s August 22 post and continued more recently in Fabio’s posts (here and here) were that: (1) the category “theorist” seems to be disappearing as an occupational position in American sociology, and that (2) fewer sociologists identify themselves as theorists.
There’s no denying the basic fact underpinning the first point: namely, that the number of jobs with the label “theorist” attached to them has gone down in American sociology over the last few decades. Kieran posits that one result of this trend is growing semantic confusion over the meaning of the term theory:
As a consequence, many people are not sure what, from a disciplinary point of view, theory in sociology is supposed to be any more, or how it should be done, or what if anything distinguishes it from intellectual history, or philosophy, or normative political theory, or humanities-style ‘Theory,’ or mathematical modeling.
I agree—this is probably true. However, it’s worth pointing out that semantic confusion is neither a necessary nor a ubiquitous feature of the shift being discussed. Furthermore, when we start to think about what it means to “do theory,” the discussion takes on a different cast and the issue of “theory’s” status as an occupational position becomes secondary.
I’d begin by noting a seeming exception to proposition #2 above: namely, the recent growth of a vibrant network of young sociologists who identify themselves explicitly as “theorists”—best signaled by the popularity of the ASA Theory section’s Junior Theorist Symposium. Started in 2005 by Neil Gross and Michèle Lamont and resumed in 2008 after a two-year hiatus, the event has grown steadily over the past few years. The list of past “senior theorist” discussants includes Andrew Abbott, Jeffrey Alexander, Craig Calhoun, Randall Collins, Phil Gorski, Richard Swedberg, Ann Swidler, Loïc Wacquant, Andreas Wimmer, and Viviana Zelizer.†
Of course, the popularity of the JTS doesn’t contradict the fact that there are fewer jobs for “theory” specialists. But it does raise another question already anticipated in Kieran’s post: Who are these people, and what do they mean by “theory”? On this general topic, Kieran writes that, “Crudely, the sort of people who once would have thought of themselves. . . primarily as theorists now think of themselves as sociologists of culture instead, or (less often) as disciplinary historians of ideas.” Is this true? Certainly there’s a lot of overlap among these areas—theory, culture, and the history of ideas—in terms of ideas and personnel. Nevertheless, I think there remains, both in the JTS events and in other work done under the banner of “theory” today, a coherent mission that’s not reducible to the sociology of culture per se, or to the history of ideas. It’s also something that can’t be expressed in terms of an opposition between “theoretical” and “empirical” work. I’m referring to the specific focus on the task of analytic construction, including the work of formulating rigorous concepts, historicizing the categories of one’s research (not for its own sake, but as an ongoing feature of their implementation), and taking into account their social effects. And I’d submit that the level of appreciation for these things in American sociology is more important than the specific fate of “theory” as a subdiscipline.
I can clarify this point by returning to the topic I’ve been discussing on this blog: think tanks. Doubtless the two most common questions I get about my research in this area are: (1) “Which think tanks did you study?” and (2) “Would you consider [organization X] a think tank?” These are both perfectly good questions, and they have something important in common: they’re both fundamentally about category boundaries. The first question is essentially, “What is the boundary of your study?”, and the second is, “What is the boundary of the think tank category?” The only thing I don’t like about these questions is that there’s no easy 30-second “elevator version” answer to either of them. That’s because one of the contributions of my study, as I see it, is precisely to build a rigorous analytic concept of a think tank that lays bare some of the hidden features of the reigning political folk concept.
I say ‘build a rigorous concept,’ but I don’t mean build from scratch. In my case, this has meant applying and extending existing sociological concepts like network and field. And while space limitations prevent me from going into detail here, the conception of a think tank that I develop in the book is decidedly “practice-oriented” (to use a fashionable phrase): To be a think tank, I say, is to become ensnared in a never-ending game of separation and attachment vis-à-vis the more established institutions of academia, politics, business, and the media. Think tanks must constantly signal their “independence” from these institutions, on which they depend for resources, personnel, and legitimacy, even as they use their associations with each one to mark their putative separation from the other institutions. It’s from this idea that I develop a description of “policy research” as a hybrid practice of generating policy prescriptions while competing with other think tanks for donations, press coverage, and political attention.
Why the need to be so “theoretical”? At one level, it allowed me to ask certain important but neglected questions about think tanks. By separating the analytic concept from the political folk concept, I could treat the latter’s growing use in American public and political life as something that needed to be explained. And because some of the organizations now included in the folk category predate the think tank classification by more than 60 years, the process I’m referring to isn’t reducible to a simple story of organizational creation. Instead, it was a complex process of network formation. The term think tank became meaningful only when a formerly disparate array of organizations became oriented to one another in their judgments and practices, and only when the members of this network developed novel intellectual products to separate themselves from more established institutions.
So being “theoretical” allowed me to focus on the social relations underpinning the emergence of think tanks. At another level, it allowed me to avoid what I saw as the main pitfall in the study of think tanks: the danger of inadvertently becoming harnessed to the interests of think tanks and their affiliated “policy experts.” As I say in the book, “orphaning the think tank for operational purposes subtly harnesses the scholar to its mission because the think tank’s first goal, even prior to that of exercising political influence, is to differentiate itself from its nearest neighbors in social space.”
What’s the connection between all this and the “Dude, where’s my theory?” discussion? Two summary points:
(1) The status of sociological theory is different from its distinctiveness as an occupational position.
I agree with the gist of the previous discussion as it appears in the posts I linked to above—and there’s nothing in it that contradicts this point. Nor would I deny the importance of the issue raised by Kieran and Fabio. Nevertheless, it seems to me that more relevant than whether or not “theorist” is in decline as an occupational position are some other issues anticipated in Kieran’s original post: inter alia, how strongly do American sociologists appreciate the importance of constructing rigorous analytic concepts? Do we reward those who take seriously the effects of classification systems, including the ones used by social scientists? Is it mandatory or merely optional to subject the conceptual dimension of your own work to relentless self-questioning? The presence or absence of people who specialize in these things might be indicators of theory’s health or sickness. But insofar as we’re all theorists, it’s not a perfect one.
(2) I ♥ empirical data.
The notion of “theory” I’m suggesting here (which is far from original) isn’t built on an opposition between “theoretical” and “empirical” work. In fact, in my own experience, being “theoretical” has meant having to gather more data, not less. Or, to be blunt, I didn’t spend two years in the swamp of Washington, DC visiting dozens of think tanks, interviewing their staff members, rooting through their archives, building a database of the educational and career backgrounds of over 1,000 think tank-affiliated policy experts, attending their public events, and even finagling my way into some of their private ones—like some kind of low-rent Irwin M. Fletcher—to be labeled “non-empirical” (if that’s what’s implied in the term “theoretical”).
The author (left, in disguise) gathering empirical data.
Nevertheless, the theoretical component of my study, by which I mean the work of analytic construction, required its own effort. If nothing else, it should be clear by now that lurking behind questions like, “Which think tanks did you study?” is a whole series of other questions for which commonsense answers aren’t sufficient.‡ As I put it in the book, “for those involved in the world of policy research and advocacy, the practice of calling one’s organization a ‘think tank’ is rarely a neutral act of self-description. It is also a strategic move in a social game, the rules of which we should try to understand…. [T]o become a think tank is to rise above mere interest-group struggles and claim membership in the ranks of experts.”§
† My own connection to the JTS is as follows: I presented at the event in 2008; I co-organized it with Michal Pagis in 2011; and I attended all but one of the others.
‡ It should also be clear why any answer I give to these questions might threaten to make my study look like some kind of exercise in “deconstruction.” On the first question, consider my two best options. Option #1:
Questioner: Which think tanks did you study?
Me: The book is partly a study of the think tank category itself, by which I mean its emergence in public and political life, its changing boundary, and the historical conditions that made the classification possible.
Questioner: Come again?
Me: I mean that the focus is not so much on the members of a clearly defined organizational “species” or “type,” but on the social forces and relations that made this blurry concept thinkable in the first place. Only after having examined this process historically could I identify specific org…
Questioner: Ah… got it. Now go back to your Parisian café, Derrida.
But I’m no poststructuralist—far from it—and insofar as my aim was ever to “deconstruct” anything, including the think tank concept, it was only as a prologue to reconstructing it analytically, with lots of empirical data. Which helps to explain why I’ve become partial to option #2:
Questioner: Which think tanks did you study?
Me: All of them.‡*
§ I fully grasp the key methodological question raised here: viz. If the think tank category is constitutively fuzzy and always in flux, as I say, then how does one decide which organizations to leave in or out of the study? This will/would have to be a topic for another post, but (very) briefly, the working solution in my case was to sample from various locations in the organizational network, including its center and periphery, and then to consider more broadly how this network was situated within bigger social structures.
‡* Plus, as a precautionary measure, I carry around with me a copy of the Empirical Loyalty Oath, which quotes liberally from the Sedition Act of 1918 and reads, in part, “I hereby declare that I am not now, nor have I ever been, a poststructuralist.”
Greetings OrgTheory readers—I’m Tom Medvetz, sociologist at UC-San Diego. My thanks to Katherine Chen and the other site members for inviting me to write a few guest posts now that my book Think Tanks in America has come out. I’ll discuss some particulars of the book in later posts, but I want to start out with some broad context.
Because I study experts, intellectuals, and professionals, I spend a lot of time—too much, probably—thinking about the relationships among sociologists. And while peaceful and collaborative relationships are my favorite kind, it’s the opposite kind—the ones marked by antagonism and mutual suspicion—that tend to capture most of my attention. Let me focus on a specific kind of criticism that seems to have become increasingly common, at least in casual discussions among sociologists. I’m referring to the criticism efficiently conveyed in the term mesearch.* (For other discussions of this topic, see here, here, and here.)
To adapt C. Wright Mills’ language, “mesearch” means stopping your car on Autobiography Avenue somewhere short of the intersection with History Road.† It’s undeniably a term of abuse—and a fundamental one at that—the suggestion being that the work in question is more memoir than social science. No social scientist wants to be accused of having done mesearch.
But the idea also contains certain obvious complexities. When I was a sociology graduate student at Berkeley, for example, folkloric tales about Erving Goffman still echoed through the department hallways. And inevitably these stories focused on his notoriously difficult and combative personality.‡ Even more intriguingly, the main point of the stories was often that Goffman’s personal idiosyncrasies, aversions, and predilections were linked in intelligible ways to the insights contained in his work. Consider the following passage from Dmitri Shalin’s interview with former Goffman student Arlene Kaplan Daniels (itself taken from UNLV’s extensive Erving Goffman Archive):
DS: I believe that Erving [Goffman]’s entire corpus is crypto-autobiographical, [starting with] his early article on manipulating class symbols that he wrote when he’d dated Schuyler. . . who came from a high society.
AD: Yes, and he was a guttersnipe.
Now, whether or not Goffman was a “guttersnipe,” the suggestion seems to be that his scholarly insights about subterranean codes of meaning, hidden status struggles, and ulterior motives flowed directly from his own sensitivities and experiences. Put differently, Goffman’s greatness as a sociologist was built, not on a simple distance from mesearch, but on a complex flirtation with it.
What does this have to do with the topic I was enlisted to write about—my research on think tanks? Now that the book is out, I find it easier to reflect on the study’s origins and my own motives for writing it. When I do, it’s clear to me that the book is indeed part of a very personal (and ongoing) attempt to understand what it means to be an “intellectual.”
Why would this question be pressing to me? Without subjecting you to many details of my own autobiography—and without implying that it’s been marked by any particular sort of exclusion or deprivation—I think it’s relevant that the very idea of an “intellectual” remained completely foreign to me at least until I was in college. In the rural setting where I grew up (in which cows outnumbered people, the Appalachian Trail intersected a nearby road, and oceanic cornfields were the main backdrop), aspiring “intellectuals” were few and far between. In 11th grade, a local vo-tech recruiter visited my class to extol the virtues of a career in air-conditioning repair. He opened his spiel with a question: “How many of you think you’ll ever make $100,000 a year?” A few hands went up. “Well,” he said, “I’m here to tell you that you probably won’t.”
To me and my classmates, there was nothing surprising about this exercise in aspiration management, and nothing insulting about the recruiter’s dim view of our earning potential.§ (In fact, having never being a fan of euphemisms, I remember being more irked by the vo-tech guy’s repeated use of the phrase climate control instead of air-conditioning.)
So if, as Loïc Wacquant has suggested, many sociologists enter the field “in reaction to a succession of ‘culture shocks’ at key junctures” in their lives, then my primary culture shock was my aberrant encounter with the world of higher education itself. This was where I first encountered “intellectuals,” by which I mean people who seemed to regard the accumulation of knowledge as a vocation in and of itself.
If I were to tell you, then, that Think Tanks in America is ultimately part of my attempt to understand a social species that remained foreign to me even as I began the study—but also that the study was part of the process of certifying my own membership in that group (since it began as my dissertation), then am I guilty of mesearch? I hope not. I’m not a character in the book, and sociologists in general appear only as shadowy figures at the outskirts. Yet make no mistake: while the book focuses on a set of agents who currently overshadow social scientists in policy debates (viz. self-styled “policy experts”—about which I’ll say more later), my interest in the topic was driven by my relationships to both groups.
The questions remain: What’s the peculiar alchemy through which a set of deeply personal interests and motivations becomes a properly social scientific product? And where’s the line between research and mesearch?
* In the unlikely event that you don’t know this phrase, I’ll define it as the form of scholarly self-absorption that consists in passing off an account of one’s own life experience as social research. For a parodic representation of mesearch, see The Onion. 2001. “Sociologist Considers Own Behavior Indicative Of Larger Trends.” March 7. )
† Or if you happen to share Mills’ vehicular preferences: your motorcycle.
‡ For a more nuanced picture of Goffman, see the wealth of materials (including personal recollections and interviews with friends, students, and confidants) available at UNLV’s Erving Goffman Archive.
§ In 1993, a pretax household income of $100,000 put the earner between the 90th and 95th percentiles in the American income structure.