harrison white, symbolic interactionist


I’ve been an admirer of Harrison White since early in my grad school days. Undoubtedly, White has had a strong influence on the shaping of economic sociology, although it’s possible that most of his influence has been indirect through his students. White has produced many successful students, but his own work seems to evade empirical analysis. In fact, his theoretical propositions (while highly cited) are relatively underexamined, perhaps because of the difficulty in approaching White’s texts or perhaps because White’s theories were never meant to produce testable hypotheses in the same way that other theoretical contributions have.

I think of White as a sort of macro-symbolic interactionist, albeit a very structural one. The basic premise of much of his work is that market actors do not know their own capabilities as well as they know how they relate to others in their vicinity. Therefore, actors impute their own identities based on their relation to other actors and the identities they ascribe to those actors. Symbolic interactionism, right? You learn about your self and create your own identity through interaction with others in your immediate environment.

In a recently published paper in the Strategic Management Journal, Stanislav Dobrev makes this same interpretation of White by connecting White’s view of markets to Mead’s and Cooley’s research on the emergence of self.

The origins of the conjecture that social actors develop a collective identity based on the immediate context in which they exist date back at least to Cooley’s (1919/1909) ‘primary group’ and Mead’s (1962/1934) ‘generalized other.’…Applied to organizational analysis, the notion that perceptions of social actors tend to reflect the ways in which they are perceived by others purports a metaphor of a looking-glass market (Cooley, 1967/1902), constructed through processes of sense-making and reflective interpretations by firms within a reference group.

Ideas about observation and interpretation within a set of proximate peers in market space are also central to White’s (2001) model, where firms determine their trajectories (i.e., strategies) and trial-and-error searches (i.e., position moves) by observing the behavior of their peers. They operate by gathering information made available on a market that resembles a looking glass – a one-way mirror that ‘shows [the producer] the reflection of its comparable peers’ but not of its customers’ (White, 2001: 34). Firms’ apparently deliberate choices are in fact largely shaped by how they interpret their strategies and positions in reference to those with whom they compete. In this way, ‘producers are not just embedded in a market…they actually constitute the market’s inference in, and as the set of, their perceptions and choices’ (White, 2001: 8).

This is perhaps the best interpretation and empirical use of White’s ‘markets-as-networks’ approach that I’ve seen. Dobrev also brings in insights from ecological theory (of course, he is an ecologist) and institutional theory to explain how identities change over time in the context of the automobile manufacturing industry where actors are leaving their positions and attaching themselves to new market segments. This is definitely worth reading.

Written by brayden king

November 7, 2007 at 3:30 pm

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  1. […] eine Art Lesezeichen, damit ich es nicht vergesse: Auf Orgtheory findet sich ein aktueller Beitrag über Harrison C. White, ein Autor, den ich auch gerade lese. Diesen Artikel bookmarken These […]

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  2. […] makes it clear that White was equally resistant and even hostile (perhaps this is why I see complementarity between White’s theory and symbolic interactionism). In those days, he was not even a little […]


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