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“don’t be afraid to push big, bold projects” and “be brave and patient”: Dustin Avent-Holt and Donald Tomaskovic-Devey on producing Relational Inequality Theory (RIT)

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Dustin Avent-Holt and Donald Tomaskovic-Devey, who collaboratively published their book Relational Inequalities: An Organizational Approach (Oxford University Press), graciously agreed to do a joint email interview with orgtheory!  Here, we discuss their book and the process leading up to the production of the book.  Readers who are thinking of how to apply relational inequality theory (RIT), join and bridge scholarly conversations, and/or handle collaborative projects, please take note.

First, I asked Dustin and Don substantive questions about RIT.  Here, both authors describe how they used their workplaces in higher education as laboratories for refining their theory.  Also, Don channeled his disappointment with the limits of Chuck Tilly’s Durable Inequalities into fueling this endeavor.

1. Katherine.  How did you apply the insight of relational inequality in your own lives?  For example, both of you are at public universities – how does knowing relational inequality affect your ways of interacting with other people and institutions?

Dustin. I think for me one of the ways I see this is becoming faculty during the process of writing the book and being in a transitioning institution. I was hired out of grad school to Augusta University when it had just merged with the Medical College of Georgia. With this merger, Augusta University moved from being a teaching-focused college to a comprehensive research university that includes both graduate and undergraduate programs and a mission focused on research. Experiencing this transition  made me think through the daily lives of organizations in a much less structural way as I saw people negotiating and renegotiating the meaning of the institution, the practices and policies, creating new ways of fulfilling institutional roles, etc. I guess in that way it highlighted the work of Tim Hallet on inhabited institutionalism. As university faculty and staff, we didn’t just copy a bunch of templates from the environment, people were translating them and challenging them in the organization. And we still are, 7 years later, and I suspect we will be for a very long time. Organizations at that moment became enactments rather than structures for me, something to be relationally negotiated not simply imported. Don and my endeavor then to understand inequality in this context actually began to make more sense. And in fact during our weekly conversations about the book, I do remember often relating stories to Don of what was going on, and this certainly shaped how I thought about the processes we were thinking through.

I don’t know if that is what you were after in your question, but it is for me this experience shaped how I have come to think about organizations, and became central to how we think about organizations in the book. 

Don. No fair, actually apply a theory in our own lives? Seriously though, I became pretty frustrated with the black hole explanations of local inequalities as reflecting “structure” or “history”. These can be analytically useful, but simultaneously disempowering. Yes, some students come to the University with cultural capital that matches some professors, but this does not make them better students, just relationally advantaged in those types of student-teacher interactions. At the same time the University exploits revenue athletes for its purposes while excluding many others from full participation. The struggles of first gen students and faculty are produced by relational inequalities. 

As a department chair I was keenly aware of the university dance of claims making around status and revenue and that this had to be actively negotiated if our department was going to be able to claim and sequester resources. This sounds and to some extent is harsh, since success might mean taking resources indirectly from weaker or less strategic departments, although it can also feel insurgent if the resource appears to be granted or extracted from the Provost. But the truth is that university resources flow in a complex network of relationships among units, students, legislators and vendors (beware the new administrative software contract!). 

The Dean will pretend this is about your unit’s “productivity”, it’s never that simple.*  It’s also great to have allies, at UMass we have a great faculty union that works to level the playing field between departments and disrupt the administrative inequality dance.

* Katherine’s addition: Check out this satirical twitter feed about higher ed administration for laugh/cries.

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in memory of doug mitchell, jazz drummer

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Most people knew Doug Mitchell as the long serving acquisitions editor of the University of Chicago press. I did know him in this role. He gave me a lot of advice on writing and told me to read Bill Germano’s wonderful book on how to write an academic text. But that is not the way I remember him. I knew him mainly as a jazz drummer.

In Hyde Park, there is a musical community based around playing jazz, blues, and funk. Much of it converged at “Jimmy’s,” a local bar that would have open jam sessions on Sunday nights. A life long jazz fan and amateur player, I quickly found myself in this milieu. I sat in and played (badly) with some folks who went on to become well regarded musicians and music scholars, like Matana Roberts and Paul Steinbeck. The guy behind the trap set a lot of the time was Doug Mitchell.

One day, I was trying to get people together for a gig and I said, “we need a drummer.” Through a friend of a friend, we got Doug Mitchell. For a year or so, he was the guy we’d ask to sit behind the trap set for a gig in Hyde Park. And it was fun. He was a very solid “inside” drummer and a seriously cool dude. He told me the story of how Miles Davis hit on his wife at a Chicago club in the 1960s. He told me about his wild intellectual interests. And, perhaps most crucially, he told me how to sit properly while drumming so that you won’t get back problems. After I graduated, I rarely saw Doug, except at ASA and only in passing, though he once did invite me to a big party people threw for him at the now defunct Hot House music space. It was a good party and his friends chipped in to get him a trip to Paris.

This jazz tune, Sugar by Stanley Turrentine, is a common song that beginners like me enjoy playing. When Doug played it, he was smiling and sweating hard, and he knew when to drop a big hit for dramatic effect. So thanks for memories. I am glad music allowed our paths to cross.

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September 15, 2019 at 12:09 am

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posts that i’m actually proud of in retrospect

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September 12, 2019 at 12:45 am

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open borders 2019 conference: call for panels

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FMP pic

The Open Borders conference will happen on October 19, 2019 at the New School for Social Research in New York. We’ll have great speakers, but you too can submit a proposal for an activity. Even if you can’t, please consider chipping in some $$$.

So check it out and join us!

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BUY THESE BOOKS!!

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($4.44 – cheap!!!!)
Intro to sociology for just $1 per chapter – INSANE BARGAIN!!!!!
A theory book you can understand!!! Theory for the Working Sociologist (discount code: ROJAS – 30% off!!)
The rise of Black Studies:  From Black Power to Black Studies 
Did Obama tank the antiwar movement? Party in the Street
Read Contexts Magazine– It’s Awesome!!!!

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September 11, 2019 at 12:01 am

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who’s afraid of amazon.com?

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In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Amazon was the industry killer. According to critics, Amazon would wipe out entire entire industries and monopolize online trade. That did happen, but only to one industry. Chain booksellers were destroyed by Amazon. Of the many giants of late 20th century book selling, only one remains – Barnes and Nobles.

Once you move away from chain book stores, the story gets complicated real fast. For example, independent bookstores did contract but now there’s regrowth, especially among used book stores. Then look at other businesses Amazon has targeted. If the business was similar to chain book stores, the business got crushed. For example, most electronics retailers – Radio Shack and Circuit City – got crushed since you can buy stuff like TV’s and laptop computers easily online. But in other areas of Amazon’s business, like video streaming, cloud computing or groceries, there isn’t much evidence that Amazon is becoming the uber competitor.

What’s the lesson? Amazon is run by one of the most talented entrepreneurs in history and he’s not limited to any single business. The first business targeted by Jess Bezos was the book business and it’s a great example of old school retail. The value added by older, smaller firms was service and searching for products. For many products, people don’t need personal service and digitalization makes search very easy. To buy books, all you need is a website, not an old school book store.  That is why the Internet triggered the “retail apocalypse” for chain bookstores.

On the other hand, Amazon has targeted lots of businesses that are not “old school” retail. For example, while Amazon has been successful, it by no means has displaced other grocery stores. Why? Groceries are businesses where the producers matter a ton and you need lots of curation of products and quality control. It’s not just about finding a carrot and shipping it. You gotta find the organic carrot from the right guy, watch it carefully in shipment and then watch it on the floor and then help people eat it… and hope the producer doesn’t disappear next week. Amazon’s video streaming service is another great example. You don’t just find videos and ship them (like selling DVD’s), but you need taste, curation, and you really can’t out compete other content makers to the point of driving them out business. Niches rule.

In a lot of cases, Amazon’s powerful computing resources help them survive in new areas, but it’s probably not enough to turn Amazon into the business killer it was in the book business.

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50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($4.44 – cheap!!!!)
Intro to sociology for just $1 per chapter – INSANE BARGAIN!!!!!
A theory book you can understand!!! Theory for the Working Sociologist (discount code: ROJAS – 30% off!!)
The rise of Black Studies:  From Black Power to Black Studies 
Did Obama tank the antiwar movement? Party in the Street
Read Contexts Magazine– It’s Awesome!!!!

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September 10, 2019 at 12:01 am

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posts that tick people off

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September 9, 2019 at 12:02 am

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emily remler, firefly (1981)

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I am a huge jazz head, so I was embarrassed that I did not know who Emily Remler was. She was a top notch jazz guitarist in the 1970s whose life was cut short due to substance abuse. Before her passing, she was hailed as a major up and coming guitarist. Luckily, most of her work can be found on public platforms. Enjoy.

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BUY THESE BOOKS!!

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($4.44 – cheap!!!!)
Intro to sociology for just $1 per chapter – INSANE BARGAIN!!!!!
A theory book you can understand!!! Theory for the Working Sociologist (discount code: ROJAS – 30% off!!)
The rise of Black Studies:  From Black Power to Black Studies 
Did Obama tank the antiwar movement? Party in the Street
Read Contexts Magazine– It’s Awesome!!!!

 

Written by fabiorojas

September 8, 2019 at 5:50 pm

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