the decline and fall of institutions


As Brayden noted recently, one of the things sociology and org theory tend to study is how institutions spread, in part because our methods are well-suited for this. For instance, Fabio’s book is about how black studies programs became established in American higher education and my current project is about how both individual pop songs and entire music genres spread across radio. This focus on growth without a parallel inquiry into decline may lead to the impression that society is an institutional packrat, and to a large extent this is true. For instance in Fabio’s case, while universities add new fields like black studies and genomics they rarely drop old departments like classics, which is one of the reasons it’s hard to talk to a dean or department chair for five minutes without hearing about their space problem. Likewise, the aspect of Polanyi’s Great Transformation that I find most fascinating is the notion that the state’s role in the economy generally does not arise from a coherent ideology of statism, but from the accretion of innumerable pragmatic solutions to specific problems (a famous example not mentioned by Polanyi being NYC rent control as a “temporary” measure to prevent inflation in WW2).


Nonetheless, occasionally society does give up on an institution and soc/org theory has generally been rather lax in studying how and why this occurs. One reason we care more about adoption is that we often study intermittent practices and it’s a lot easier to measure the first time something occurs than to measure the last time it does. For instance, I work on radio and with a single “song history” query in a proprietary music database I get a vector of dates on which each commercial radio station in the United States started playing a given pop song. There is no equivalent query to tell me when they stopped playing the song. So if I wanted to describe the process by which, say “My Humps” by Black-Eyed Peas rose up the chart, it would take me about twenty minutes to collect and clean the data and give you a beautiful color-coded stacked diffusion curve organized by format, chain, or region. (In fact I’ve done this and it’s really interesting because it’s one of very few songs to show the statistical signature of a cascade). On the other hand to show how that song fell off the chart it would take me days of effort, in part because the database isn’t set up to conveniently answer that question and in part because it’s an intrinsically more complicated question. If a station used to play “Humps” eighty times a week and goes down to playing it ten times a week has it abandoned “Humps”? What if it doesn’t play it at all for a week but then plays it once? Defining first use is simple but when people want to measure exit they often have to adopt clunky definitions like three consecutive spells with the relevant behavior below a certain threshold. I have a journal article on radio’s abandonment of the Dixie Chicks but it was only possible to write that paper because they went from universal heavy rotation in country and adult contemporary to almost complete abandonment in about three weeks. Abandonments of recurrent behaviors (like spinning a given pop song) are rarely so clean to identify.

You can also have institutions that are hard to measure because they aren’t a single thing but complex sets of behaviors and arrangements. For instance, Ezra Zuckerman has recently been contrasting Hollywood under the old vertically integrated “studio system” versus the current project-based open system arrangement. The hitch to such an analysis is it requires you to define when Hollywood abandoned the studio system. The traditional answer is 1948, when the Supreme Court ruled in Paramount v. US that the studios had to divest and otherwise yield control over theatrical exhibition. A slightly less popular answer is 1945, when the California Supreme Court ruled in de Havilland v. Warner Bros. that certain long-term contracts amounted to indentured servitude and effectively paved the way for the free agent mentality that made keeping a stable of stars under contract prohibitively expensive. But the funny thing is that nobody really believes the studio system ended in the late ’40s since there is a vague sense that the studio system persisted well into the 1950, and indeed it did in the sense of vertically-integrated production and distribution (but not exhibition), though it’s hard to give an exact date of how far into the 1950s, or even 1960s. Ezra has a pretty satisfying solution to this, which is to look at levels of repeat collaboration of given dyads of cultural workers shown as z-scores of the collaboration you’d find in a distribution of random universes. The premise is that in a vertically-integrated studio you should in theory keep making movies with other salaried studio employees, so the repeat collaboration measures the strength of the system. (Though one of his findings is that since the mid-1980s, repeat collaboration has been as high as it was under Louis Mayer and Jack Warner). The problem is that while this is a satisfying solution to read, I can’t imagine it was very pleasant to implement. Whenever I read his methods sections I both admire the solution and get a headache trying to imagine how I would go about writing the code to create random collaborations bound by certain observed parameters and how many days (or weeks) it would take my computer to use this code to bootstrap a distribution on such a massive dataset. (I have a project that does some far simpler recoding/analyses of imdb and it takes about six hours to run through Stata on an extremely fast server, not to mention several hundred hours for my co-author and myself to write the code).

On the other hand there are many other cases where measurement is not based on recurrent behavior or fuzzy sets of arrangements, but can be based on things more readily observable such as a status. This sounds pretty abstract but put it this way, it’s hard to tell when a person becomes alienated from his job or marriage, but it’s easy to tell when he quits or gets divorced. Likewise, measuring abandonment of a marketing strategy is hard, measuring abandonment of the office of Chief Marketing Officer is easy. Nonetheless, even when measuring abandonment is easy, we don’t do it very often.Another reason for the neglect of abandonment is that abandonment of X can often be framed as adoption of not-X. Did municipalities abandon patronage or adopt civil service? Has higher education abandoned first boy-only, then girl-only colleges, or has it adopted co-education? In one of a series of ASQ articles on radio formats, Greve was able to solve this problem by noting that there is not always a one-to-one correspondence between incumbent strategies being abandoned and new strategies being adopted. When you have a variety of incumbent institutions that all get replaced by a single innovation, this is pretty clearly a case of diffusion. On the other hand, when there is one incumbent and it gets replaced by multiple alternatives, you’re looking at abandonment. In Greve’s case he found that “easy listening” radio stations nearly all abandoned the format in the 1980s, but when they did it was for a variety of alternative formats, and therefore it is more meaningful to describe the shift as the abandonment of easy listening rather than the adoption of soft adult contemporary.

A recent complex study of abandonment is Martin Ruef’s work on the postwar decline of Southern plantations. This is not the “duh” story you probably think it is because a) the freedman’s bureau and union army wanted to preserve the plantations and b) even with a paid labor force large plantations are more technically efficient than small scale farming and share-cropping. Ruef argues that there was a positive feedback cycle where at first a few freedmen left plantations and this led to a greater rate of abandonment until finally the tipping point was achieved and mass abandonment ensued. (See this post for an explanation of tipping points, network externalities, and threshold models). Part of the instigation for early abandonment was freedmen leaving plantations to reunite with family members who had been sold to another estate in the antebellum period. Likewise, plantation management were slow to learn that free labor has to be paid a competitive wage and usually doesn’t appreciate violence. (Note that both of these issues are not problems with plantations per se, but with plantations that were established under slavery). These early abandoners seeking family or fleeing brutal supervision created a precedent for new forms of farming and this institutionalization of alternatives drew more laborers off the plantations which in turn increased competition for labor and made it unfeasible to maintain a critical mass of labor to operate a plantation. So his argument is basically that even in areas like northern Georgia that were subjected to scorched earth strategy during the war, the plantation was directly destroyed not by the union army but from the bottom-up by freedmen who developed alternative options. In other words, the union army’s emancipation of slaves was a necessary, but not a sufficient condition, for the decline of the plantation.

My wife is in a health policy program and she tells me that abandonment is a big deal there since a lot of times doctors practice as they learned to in medical school, and in some cases the literature has reversed itself and found practices to be counter-productive. For instance we could probably benefit from some abandonment of c-sections, estrogen supplements, and gratuitous antibiotics. Apparently the best example is mental health where we now get much more bang for the buck, in part due to the adoption of highly effective anti-psychotics and SSRI antidepressants, and just as much due to the abandonment of tranquilizer antidepressants, psychoanalysis, forcible commitment, and electroshock.I think there is a lot more room for org theory studies of abandonment. I’ll provide two examples that I have no intention of doing but I think would potentially make great dissertations. (If these have in fact already been done, please say so in the comments).

1. Artillery. In 2002 Rumsfeld canceled the army’s contract for the unfortunately named “Crusader” self-propelled howitzer and that was pretty much the beginning of the end for traditional gunnery. For several hundred years, wars were basically fought by artillery with infantry being mostly spectators. This was so because war was rather conveniently arranged around set-piece battles where armies lined up on either side of a field and tried to blow each other up — a task for which artillery is well-suited. If you read the newspaper you’ll know that America doesn’t really fight wars like that anymore but a mix of airstrikes for which the big guns are too far from the target and small wars in which even modern highly accurate artillery would cause politically unacceptable collateral damage. The only places where it is conceivable that we might do anything like traditional field warfare against another regular military is the Korean DMZ or the Taiwan Strait, but if this happens it will be with mostly tactical nukes (in Korea) or fighter jets and anti-ship missiles (in Taiwan) and in either case artillery will be a footnote. All this places a gunner today in roughly the same position as a cavalryman in 1914. Indeed, in Iraq the DOD has cannibalized many artillery units for use as infantry. This raises the question of when the army will give up the pretense and shut down most of its artillery schools and what bureaucratic fights will happen in the meantime.

2. American Communism. Based on our memories of the Cold War, we tend to think of the CPUSA as fundamentally oppositional to mainstream politics, but during the “red decade” of the 1930s they were considered eccentric but more or less respectable and in some ways merely at the leading edge of contemporary political trends. In today’s terms, joining the CP in 1936 was much more similar to joining the Libertarian Party than joining Al Qaeda. Partly this was because the Great Depression and New Deal made a vastly greater peacetime economic role for the state into a mainstream notion and partly it was because of the Comintern’s short-lived “popular front” strategy which allowed local Communist parties to form tactical alliances with non-Communists to oppose fascism and promote the labor interests. By the mid-1950s, the CPUSA was basically dead. I think it’s fair to say that people abandoned Communism rather than adopted new alternative ideology in part because former Communists adopted such a wide range of positions ranging from hawkish conservatives to Cold War liberals to pinks and the only thing they have in common is giving up on the CP rather than being drawn to something new. For instance, in Witness Whitaker Chambers describes growing disenchanted with the cynicism and brutality of Communism about a year before a religious epiphany motivates him to finally quit his job as a spy and offer to inform on his contacts. Generally, there were a lot of things that diminished the CPUSA membership. You had a lot of rather disenchanting news coming from Russia of show trials, the suppression of the kulaks, the Hitler-Stalin pact, and eventually Khrushchev publicly denouncing the memory of Stalin. In the United States you had both push from HUAC /McCarthy/FBI and pull from mainstream liberals co-opting issues like civil rights that Communists had been early to champion. There’s so much going on that one could write a really cool analysis of how much each of them led to abandonment. There’s also an interesting comparative case of why Communism remained reasonably popular in much of Western Europe throughout the Cold War, despite Italians being just as informed about Stalinist atrocity as Americans. (btw, Gary Alan Fine has written several great articles on American Communism, but in the pieces of his work that I’ve read the emphasis is on how the rest of us see Communists rather than why the movement collapsed).

I thought that abandonment would be a fitting subject for my last post as a guest blogger on org theory. With the exception of a now infamous misunderstanding, I’ve really enjoyed posting here and I want to thank the permanent orgheads for inviting me to do this guest stint. I’ll continue to be a regular reader and commenter.


Written by GR

October 20, 2007 at 9:43 pm

7 Responses

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  1. Excellent post to finish up with Gabriel! I’ve really enjoyed having you as a guest blogger.



    October 20, 2007 at 10:18 pm

  2. […] Check it out! While looking through the blogosphere we stumbled on an interesting post today.Here’s a quick excerpt […]


  3. […] Check it out! While looking through the blogosphere we stumbled on an interesting post today.Here’s a quick excerptThis is not the “duh” story you probably think it is because a) the freedman’s bureau and union army wanted to preserve the plantations and b) even with a paid labor force large plantations are more technically efficient than small … […]


  4. OMG I guessed it! and I am soooooooooooooooo jealous of you. I (heart) Ithaca.



    October 22, 2007 at 9:13 am

  5. […] all the details here […]


  6. […] all the details here […]


  7. […] active repertoire. I loved this article, and as I’ve argued before, we need more studies of abandonment. Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)Baby NamesThe Fastest Rising Baby Names of the […]


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