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motivation, markets, and manipulation

Sociologists bash economists. It’s one of our few widely solidarity rituals and perhaps the only thing that allows pop center affiliates and Judith Butler devotées to coexist peacefully. But as my research has led me to think more about motivation, it seems to me that sociologists and economists have perhaps more in common than they should. Underneath all the sociological rhetoric about norms, ritual, and so on, there lurks a common theme: follow the benjamins. No-bid Halliburton contracts? Sure, networks matter, but only in service of making cash hand over fist. Myth and narrative in advertising? Of course, but only so corporations can pick your pocket. In the final analysis, it seems like sociologists and economists don’t differ at all in terms of what motivates people, but rather in the ancillary details, for example:

  • For sociologists, rationality is unequally distributed. The people at the top are rational and consciously strategic, but the people at the bottom have “false consciousness.” That is, they “they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them” because they don’t see their real interests (the bottom line, of course).
  • For economists, markets (usually) work to prevent exploitation, while for sociologists, “market fundamentalism” is an unnatural idea that has to be forced on an unwitting public by strategic actors who know the real score.

I realize this is a pretty big oversimplification. And, to be fair, there are subfields in sociology for which this stereotype is less true. (Incidentally, however, cultural sociology is not one of them!) Nevertheless, these are the kinds of ideas I hear from sociologists all the time, if not in their research, then in their teaching and everyday conversation.

My point: I’m starting to think that sociologists’ failure to theorize motivation has caused us to mutate unconsciously into conspiracy theory economists. Perhaps this is why I find psychology so much more interesting these days than either sociology or economics. Psychologists have an inherently pluralistic take on motivation that is refreshingly empirical, if almost always messy.

What do you all think?

Written by Steve Vaisey

August 28, 2008 at 5:32 pm

58 Responses

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  1. I do agree that sociologists (outside of the rational choice subfield) too often fail to theorize motivation and simply assume institutionalized or norm-following behavior. That being said, I find one of the biggest differences between psychology and micro-foundations people in sociology is the emphasis on middle range theory in psychology. Social psych often seems like a collection of empirical findings rather than a research program guided by a particular set of simplifying assumptions. While often frustrating to sift through, one must often wonder if it reflects reality more than general theory.

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    trey1

    August 28, 2008 at 5:53 pm

  2. In the final analysis, it seems like sociologists and economists don’t differ at all in terms of what motivates people, but rather in the ancillary details … For sociologists, rationality is unequally distributed. The people at the top are rational and consciously strategic, but the people at the bottom have “false consciousness.”

    I think this characterization is false. Picking counterexamples at random — at the top end, consider, for instance, work on the construction, legitimation and diffusion of models of rationality for corporate organizational structure, executive hiring practices, or compliance with the law. At the bottom end, consider work on people’s efforts to adapt their classification and use of “the benjamins” to their own ends. If anything, over the past thirty years, sociologists have become highly allergic to any sort of argument that might seem to rest on some variety of false consciousness, and this has led to better work on the relationship between structural constraint, culture and personal motivation. Consider (again, this is just stuff popping into my head; there are plenty of examples) the sophisticated treatment offered in Edin and Kefalas’s Promises I Can Keep.

    I acknowledge that the sort of attitudes you’re characterizing exist, but (given your location) I’d suggest there might be a bit of an availability bias at work that makes this attitude seem more prevalent than it in fact is, especially with respect to central research programs.

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    Kieran

    August 28, 2008 at 6:10 pm

  3. Well, it’s definitely not among economic sociologists that I’ve seen the ideas I’m talking about. It’s the people in other subfields, who have only a tangential connection to economics. (The Edin and Kefalas book is a good counterexample, btw.) You might be right that an availability bias is at work. Or perhaps I’m confusing a “sociology effect” with a “liberal Democrat” effect. The two variables are, after all, nearly perfectly collinear… :-)

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    vaiseys

    August 28, 2008 at 6:23 pm

  4. i’m with kieran on this. the “sociologist” attitude — particularly the asymmetry of rationality/consciousness — that you’re describing is really more a description of naomi klein than of a typical sociologist. there are of course people like this (and they occasionally dominate the official ASA program) but fortunately they don’t seem to characterize the discipline, at least not the research oriented core of the discipline.

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    Gabriel

    August 28, 2008 at 6:25 pm

  5. And Trey, I agree with you that the blooming, buzzing confusion of “theories” in social psych might be closer to reality, but what is the non-expert supposed to do? Are there a few ideas that other sociologists could routinely use to good effect? For example, could we get any traction out of cognitive dissonance theory to understand why people do so much “identity work” in their interactions? For my part, I’m wondering how to incorporate a realistic psychology into my sociological work without becoming a psychologist. Tricky.

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    vaiseys

    August 28, 2008 at 6:27 pm

  6. I agree with Steve’s main point that sociologists don’t really consider multiple sources of motivation. Seems true in organizational theory at least. Most organizational scholars aren’t really concerned with motivation at all. Organizations pretty much all look the same; they want to get the benjamins but they’re not always sure how to do it. Theories are more concerned about the constraints on sorting/processing/using information in the pursuit of wealth maximization than they are on managers deciding between competing goals. There are exceptions of course. The competing institutional logics literature is getting at this (e.g., Thornton and Ocasio 1999; Lounsbury and Marquis 2007) and the resource partitioning literature assumes different sources of valuation motivate entrepreneurs (e.g., Carroll and Swaminathan 2000).

    Maybe the lack of focus on motivation reflects our choices of study though. If you only study for-profits (without making comparisons to other types of organizations) then you’ll likely assume a particular utility function. If, on the other hand, you’re comparing organizations of different types, then you’ll see a lot more heterogeneity in motivation. But I suspect that even within the for-profits, there is more heterogeneity than we typically realize. Last week I interviewed a guy who runs a medium-sized family business and he forcefully stated that his business wasn’t interested in increasing its market share, moving into new markets, or selling itself to a larger corporation (no matter how profitable it would be). The thing that motivates their business was maintaining existing supplier/client relationships and growing slowly so that the business would be around for a new generation of family members to run. Their primary motivation was to keep the company healthy enough that it could maintain its family business status indefinitely. That goal/motivation seems drastically different from the revenue maximization assumption.

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    brayden

    August 28, 2008 at 6:37 pm

  7. These questions were resolved long ago. I encourage you to look at pp. 768-775 of The Structure of Social Action. I’m sure you all know the passages by heart. I’m referring, of course, to his discussion on, “The Place of Sociology”.

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    shakha

    August 28, 2008 at 7:40 pm

  8. “These questions were resolved long ago” — that’s my favorite response at job talks (particularly when made 30 seconds into the presentation).

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    tf

    August 28, 2008 at 9:27 pm

  9. Shamus: Do you mean the part where he says that sociology should be the study “ultimate values” and their bearing on action? If so, although you were joking, I think maybe we’ve moved too far away from Parsons on that one.

    All: So do we have to make any assumptions about motivation to do empirical research? Can any of us meaningfully complete the sentence: “In social life, people generally seek to…”

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    vaiseys

    August 28, 2008 at 9:40 pm

  10. “In social life, people generally seek to…”

    … explain why that seemed like a good idea at the time.

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    Kieran

    August 28, 2008 at 9:49 pm

  11. … explain why that seemed like a good idea at the time.

    Yeah, that’s exactly what C. Wright Mills argued in 1940. Is that really the state of the art in sociological thinking about motivation?

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    vaiseys

    August 28, 2008 at 10:19 pm

  12. Steve, as you well know, I find your approach to the study of values very promising. But as you also know, I find your cynicism about the field somewhat disturbing.

    I realize this is a pretty big oversimplification.
    Uh, yeah….

    … there are subfields in sociology for which this stereotype is less true. (Incidentally, however, cultural sociology is not one of them!)
    Can you provide some justification for this? That is, published or professional work that matches your diagnosis? I’ll concede some hallway chit-chat, but I don’t think there’s much actually existing cultural sociology that buys either into “false consciousness” or market fundamentalism as a conspiracy. (Frankly I think false consciousness is an understudied category, but perhaps that’s for another day.)

    “In social life, people generally seek to…”
    Satisfice.

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    andrewperrin

    August 29, 2008 at 12:10 am

  13. Explain why that seemed like a good idea at the time is pretty good… a vision of sociology as the study of rationalization rather than a science of imputing levels of rationality.

    About the Liberal-Democrat Effect. Conflating Naomi Klein and Barack Obama? Really? So the comment “they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them” crypto-economically argues that bottomline rationality is unevenly distributed– that poor rural Americans are dupes of some moneymakers’ conspiracy? LBH.

    For this example to work, Obama’s story would have to be that rural Americans’ bigotry is causing them economic hardship and not serving their bottom line–that these people are duped into ignoring the bottom line. Not how the example works. The explanandum here is bigotry, not payoffs; and the actors described are rational.

    The comment and the speech it telegraphed are about historically-situated rationality. Good sociology. Yes, the explanation is primarily economic, but it’s not just explaining action by following the money. It’s a story about reactive rationalization and identity work, not an imputation of irrationality.

    A Freakonomics approach wouldn’t care about history or identity, and wouldn’t conceptualize action as reactive or “self”-protective. The structures of inquiry differ. Just because benjamins are in both doesn’t make them the same–acknowledging that material hardship affects identity over time isn’t economic reductionism. I don’t want to have to ignore the benjamins to protect my own sociological identity. Economists may control more b’s in their bank accounts, but that’s another problem…

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    Angela Jamison

    August 29, 2008 at 12:43 am

  14. Three notes on this discussion:

    First, I agree with you all that endoegnizing motivation should be a more central topic for sociology in general, and economic sociology in particular. But I would point you to two recent pieces. The first is a 2002 piece by Fiona Scott-Morton and Joel Podolny in the Journal of Industrial Economics (“For Love or Money”). Ironically, this is a collaboration by an economist and a sociologist and published in an economic journal. But it is a nice piece of sociology (and economics), in my view. Shows different bases for motivation among vintners, with those doing it “for love” essentially paying to do so. I would also toot my own horn and point you to my 2006 piece with Stoyan Sgourev called “Peer Capitalism.” You will find the question of the capitalist’s motivation to be front and center there. I won’t rehearse the details of the argument here. But you can find it in an obscure journal called…. the American Journal of Sociology.

    (BTW, the paper was originally framed more squarely on motivation, but reviewers didn’t like the framing. Alas. Motivation is still there in a major way though. Front and center in the original framing was Foote’s wonderful ASR article, Identification as the Basis for a Theory of Motivation.’ I highly recommend it).

    Second, I completely agree with Kieran and disagree with Steve on the charge that we ascribe rationality to the top and irrationality to the bottom. I just don’t know where this characterization comes from. A rule of mine: beware the claim that has no name attached to it. If you think you heard it but can’t find someone who said it, it just might have been made by the infamous man of straw. In fact, like Kieran, I can think of examples of folks who are suspicious of claims of false consciousness. I’m thinking in particular of a really nice 1990 TS piece by Mark Warren.

    Third, when will the self-loathing by sociologists go out of style? I will be the first to concede that there is a lot of crap produced by sociologists. Could even be that we produce more crap than other fields. And I get depressed when our top journals accept and publish such crap. But I can tell you, from the vantage point of someone who has spent his career in interdisciplinary environments, that there is plenty of crap in every field, and that there is plenty of wonderful work being produced by sociologists. I would also say that this is a strangely self-defeating posture to take. One might even call it a form of… false-consciousness. For better or worse, you cannot escape your disciplinary identity. So you are best off embracing it. Embracing it certainly includes constructive criticism, but this means that you construct such criticism in a careful, considered way and you deliver it in a way that maximizes the chance that they will actually hear it.

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    Ezra Zuckerman

    August 29, 2008 at 12:50 am

  15. when will the self-loathing by sociologists go out of style?
    Hear, hear!

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    andrewperrin

    August 29, 2008 at 12:58 am

  16. Wow, my first day as a blogger and already my reputation is ruined… ;-)

    I’m getting ready to go to Reno to interview one of the people in my study tomorrow, so just a couple quick thoughts:

    1) I made it clear that the conspiracy theory thing was mostly a conversational thing and NOT made explicit in research. Especially in economic sociology research. So I wasn’t talking at all about the kind of work Ezra references. (He and I have talked about some of it before, actually.) But I find it hard to believe that this informal view doesn’t seep into people’s work. Jeff Alexander’s critique of Bourdieu follows this logic — he doesn’t mean to be an economic reductionist, but he ends up being one despite himself because of his assumptions about what is of ultimate value.

    2) The rationality at the top and false consciousness thing comes from the Obama comment/”What the Matter With Kansas” discussion I have heard so many times from sociologists at UNC and and at ASA — in and out of sessions. (As a first year assistant professor I am obviously not going to name names!) Am I really wrong in thinking that many social scientists think that the working class’ concern with immigration, abortion, gay marriage, etc. is a “distraction” from their objective interests? I really don’t get why this claim is controversial.

    3) There’s nothing self-loathing here at all. I love sociology and think we produce a lot of great work. I’m simply talking about analyzing one specific issue: motivation. It’s an area where I don’t think sociologists have been very successful. If I get more time tonight, maybe I’ll post a couple ideas I’ve been kicking around…

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    vaiseys

    August 29, 2008 at 2:11 am

  17. Yeah, that’s exactly what C. Wright Mills argued in 1940. Is that really the state of the art in sociological thinking about motivation?

    If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard an economist announce — whether as cutting-edge discovery or as a truth universally acknowledged — that People Respond To Incentives, I’d be able to buy every reader of this blog a copy of The Sociological Imagination. But although their orienting platitude is at least 150 years older than mine, they seem to do pretty well for themselves.

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    Kieran

    August 29, 2008 at 3:57 am

  18. I’m not saying you’re wrong, Kieran. I don’t think you are. I’m just asking: is that the best we can do? Is that our thing? Because if it is, then we have a very simple model of social action. People Respond to Incentives and then explain to each other after the fact that what they did “made sense at the time.” I guess I was hoping that we’d have some leverage on the action part rather than just the post hoc explanation part.

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    vaiseys

    August 29, 2008 at 4:05 am

  19. Steve: Thanks for the clarifications. I guess I don’t know what to make though of references to hallway conversations that are strongly suspected of seeping into a discipline’s work. Either they’re there, or they’re not.

    I also don’t really understand the line your taking about how we just say ‘incentives matter’ in the same way economists do. At the very least, I would think that a rough caricature of the difference would be that we emphasize different targets of motivation– e.g., for money vs. status [though of course both show up in each discipline] .

    A final thought is that I just don’t think it’s productive to ask what motivates people in general. In some sense, yes, this leads you naturally to seek out psychologists. That is, you are focused on acontextual, ahistorical features of human beings. I would go to psychology for that too. But we are usually interested in contextual effects, in part because of a disciplinary bias and in part because of a well-justified belief because that is where the action is.

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    Ezra Zuckerman

    August 29, 2008 at 6:20 am

  20. I was able to read the two generalizations thinking “that’s a gross overstatement yet it still probably catches some form of overall truth,” except for the bit on rationality at the top. Actually, if you consider explanations like the poverty trap, many sociologists (and economists) probably emphasize rationality at the bottom of the income distribution.

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    phnk

    August 29, 2008 at 8:19 am

  21. P.S. 19+ comments on your first day is a mark of success!

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    phnk

    August 29, 2008 at 9:03 am

  22. I don’t get the fuss. If there are “false consciousness” vulgar Marxists amongst us (the term was never used by Marx, as you well know), they keep their heads quite low. Talking about “rationality” and this kind of market utilitarian rationalism, at that, is (very) long out of vogue. Do I really need to remind you that Parsons opens the structure of social action by rpeating the question “who now reads Spencer?” (read utilitarianism?).

    Secondly, the Sociology of culture, is not a utilitarian space, unless of course, you vulgarize the notion of “tool kit” beyond belief. which I believe you do. Rather. much like in the work of Bourdieu, the thrust was that we are both enmeshed in the social but also use forms of practice to achieve pragmatic goals (that cannot be severed from the social). this is the level of the furhandenheit in Heidegger, if you will.

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    Iddo Tavory

    August 29, 2008 at 11:59 am

  23. PS. looking at psychologists’ work is, however, a very good idea–at least if you are thinking about those areas in Psych that don’t treat people as if they are monads swimming in an experimental void. Psychoanalysis, for instance, is one such zone. On the other side of the psych spectrum, stuff llike mirror neurons also give interesting clues and directions for thought.

    Problem is, again, the kind of attacks that Sartre leveled in his “Emotions”, the isolation of phenomena from the lived reality of the person (read, for instance, history). In short, though I think the simplifaction of the soc of culture aspect is problematic, I agree with the coda. What kind of psych do you find useful, though?

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    Iddo Tavory

    August 29, 2008 at 12:14 pm

  24. At the risk of protesting too much (pun intended):

    – Viz. political motivations: It is an interesting intellectual question why class (seems to) matter less than classical social theory says it ought to. (Although Gelman’s new book suggests that’s just not true.)

    – I doubt most smart sociologists consider so-called “moral” questions “distractions” from objective interests. I suspect many of us, myself emphatically included, are convinced that attitudes and preferences are made, not given, and that the vast majority of Americans didn’t have preferences on, say, stem-cell research before a political machine made it an issue so they could reap the benefits. That’s not a conspiracy claim, it’s an assertion based on evidence and theory.

    – I will write more about this on the premier social science blog soon, but the assumption that sociologists ought to be devoid of political commitments strikes me as quite problematic, both theoretically and practically. It smacks of what Riesman called “inside-dopesterism” in The Lonely Crowd. To foreshadow one of the themes I’ll write about: this attitude implies that each of the “two” sides to the debate is equally correct, and that the “two” sides adequately define the boundaries of legitimate political debate. Both of these claims are very problematic and deserve sociological examination.

    I feel compelled to say as well that, Steve, I find your work terrific (as you know), I am very proud of your success. This debate is fun and important, and I’m glad you’re getting push-back on what I think is your overly cynical view of sociologists’ modes of thought, but I also hope you keep pushing!

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    andrewperrin

    August 29, 2008 at 12:59 pm

  25. I’m just asking: is that the best we can do? Is that our thing? Because if it is, then we have a very simple model of social action.

    Well, this is a very good question. I think I agree with phnk that I recognized the stereotypes in the original post but disagreed strongly with the rationality thing.

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    Kieran

    August 29, 2008 at 1:14 pm

  26. I will write more about this on the premier social science blog soon

    I didn’t know Henry had asked you to guest for a week on Crooked Timber.

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    Kieran

    August 29, 2008 at 1:16 pm

  27. I’m in the airport on my phone so this will be brief. I’ll write more tonight when I get back.

    A couple of things:

    1. I think everyone is right to be skeptical of the “rationality up top” claim. What I should have said is that the people on top are seen as especially “strategic.” Not exactly the same thing, but closer to what I meant originally.

    2. In this vein, I can use Andy’s comment about stem cells to show Ezra that I actually have some examples! Andy offhandedly claims that someone (presumably right-wing political elites) can manufacture interests *in order to* reap political gain. That’s exactly what I meant by manipulation.

    3. Ezra, I do think it’s useful to ask about universal motivations in a *formal* sense. That is, we might say that people are motivated to save face (Goffman style) but what “face” means, and the necessary rituals, will differ.

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    vaiseys

    August 29, 2008 at 4:08 pm

  28. Andy offhandedly claims that someone (presumably right-wing political elites) can manufacture interests *in order to* reap political gain.
    Do you find that claim:
    – Implausible;
    – Undocumented; or
    – At odds with some other theory of political motivation?

    I think it’s hard to see it as implausible. Is there evidence that there were anti- or pro-stem-cell voters or citizens before the issue hit presidential politics? I also think Rove et al. have said essentially that they worked explicitly to make it, Schiavo, etc., issues because of their wedge potential. So, claim 1: it’s entirely plausible.

    I agree it’s undocumented, although it would be an interesting study to examine how and when stem cell research entered the list of “issues.” Other candidates would include same-sex marriage, Terry Schiavo, …

    I don’t think it’s at odds with reasonable theories of political motivation. I would add that class, like all these others, has to be “made” discursively; it doesn’t just bubble up of its own accord. Frankly the Democratic convention’s appeals to working-class images and character is an attempt to do just that. For reasons of political philosophy I prefer that kind of made interest to Rove et al.’s, but I don’t dispute that these interests are all made.

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    andrewperrin

    August 29, 2008 at 4:21 pm

  29. I find the claim implausible because it is at odds with a theory of political motivation that takes the structure of ideologies more seriously. I think that if we had taken 100 Republicans and 100 Democrats 20 years ago and interviewed them about stem cell research, we probably would have found existing tendencies to take contrary stands on the issue. I think political elites can try to raise the salience of particular issues, and frame them differently to some extent, but I can’t imagine a universe where Republicans would be more pro stem cell research than Democrats regardless of elite action. Because I’m a believer in the habitus, I don’t think people need elite help to transpose their existing beliefs to new domains.

    The other aspect of this is that there’s no need to assume that the elite actors themselves are solely interested in gaining power. Most of the people who pumped up the Schiavo thing probably actually believed that “pulling the plug” would be objectively wrong. In the same way, I don’t think that people who are pushing for universal health care are using the issue purely for electoral benefit. They probably have a moral commitment to health care as a human right.

    So I don’t think interests are “made,” if by that I am to understand “made out of whole cloth.” I think issues are rendered more and less salient and that frames can partially shape which interests are activated, but I really do believe in more fundamental worldviews that arise out of early social experience.

    To put it another way, particular motives, say to support or oppose stem cell research, arise in situations, but not entirely out of those situations. Disposition and context interact to produce motives. We bring a lot of history with us everywhere we go…

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    vaiseys

    August 30, 2008 at 7:28 pm

  30. I think there are three kinds of criticism towards Steve’s approach here, though it’s not clear how much you intend to instigate for the purposes of instigating, versus instigating for the purposes of thinking through some of these issues more carefully and productively. I’m hoping more of the latter.

    One is the feeling that sociology kinda sucks, or least could really be so much better, more incisive, serious, if it just accepted the truth of some neighboring discipline. Whether it’s genetics/bio, psych, econ, I see this over and over. In this case, I like that Steve lumps us together with econ to make the case for psych – kudos to you for that – but I could well see lumping us together with psych under some other circumstances (soc and psych aren’t convinced that market-micro-mechanisms are efficient and people are rational) to make the case for econ.

    The second is the argument that sociology’s vision of motivation (in this case motivation, but it could have been how organizations work more generally, or inequality, etc.) is on its face simplistic, trite, or worn out. Ironically, I suspect – but honestly don’t know for sure – that there is nothing inherently pluralistic about psych’s take on motivation. Or at least I don’t know why that should be taken as true on its face. Likewise, I suspect that, like sociology though perhaps a bit less like economics, psych’s take on motivation has, you know, changed over time. With fads, research findings, cultural shifts in the world, and the like.

    And third, it’s not that you’re not interested in universals – per Ezra’s comment (which I agree with) that we could say that motivation is variegated depending on the organization, political context, culture, and the like. I mean, there are sociological analyses that on their own mobilize these motivations: ‘saving face’, status, sustaining definition of the situation, all about the money, straight-up altruism, love of family. The challenge is to reconcile pecuniary motivations, Goffman’s saving face, Edin’s kind of altruism. Actually, that sounds like sociology to me, lots of variation, little synthesis. And I would love to make the case for more understanding of the ways that these varied motivations – already present across lots of work in sociology, but rarely integrated across anlayses – come in and out of focus in varying contexts.

    If this is what you are angling at (and it may be given you last comment that particular motives, say to support or oppose stem cell research, arise in situations, but not entirely out of those situations. Disposition and context interact to produce motives.), that actually sounds better to me than sociology is just kind of stale and a pale version of economics.

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    Peter

    August 30, 2008 at 8:27 pm

  31. Steve:

    I agree completely with how you phrased the issue of looking for universal processes, such as face-saving. In Collision of Wills, Gould made exactly this point [on related processes ] quite eloquently, if somewhat pedantically. But phrased in this way, I’m not quite sure why you think sociology has little to say. I was reacting to your earlier phrasing, which asked for general motivators of action without any reference to social context (face-saving is all about social context, even if the form taken by face-saving varies with features of the context; that is, one tries to save face to preserve status in a particular group or community; one does not worry about saving face in private).

    On your reaction to AP: I think you’re right to say that elites cannot just get people to believe whatever they want them to believe. That is, such attempts will be limited by the need to get the new beliefs to cohere with the old ones. That being said, I think you’re overstating people’s need for cognitive coherence (i.e., their tolerance for cognitive dissonance) and underestimating the influence of elites due to their control of public discourse and access to desired identities (see Martin’s 2002 AJS piece). One way to make this case is to take an extreme example: which do you think was more important in shaping the views of German citizens under the Nazi regime– existing German habitus or Nazi control of public discourse and legitimate citizenship? There are those who believe the former (see Goldhagen’s book Hitler’s Willing Executioners), but others (including me) think this is a simplistic view. Sure, some history of anti-Semitism was necessary (your point about creating beliefs out of ‘whole cloth’) for Germans to go along, but it is hard to make the case that Germans were any more anti-Semitic than most other European countries in 1933.

    Of course, the risk with such an example is that it seems so extreme as to have no relevance to such mundane issues as stem-cell research (but see Bauman’s Modernity and the Holocaust on how crucial it is for us not to see the Holocaust as a sui generis event). But note that even if you’re right that Republicans were more apt to be anti SC research, the fact that Republican politicians opposed it likely had the effect of reducing possible dissent among Republican-identifiers. And it might even be the case that had Republican politicians found a reason to justify supporting SC research [e.g., framed in terms of saving lives], more Republican-identifers would have supported it. In short, propoganda matters.

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    Ezra Zuckerman

    August 30, 2008 at 8:46 pm

  32. I really am not in it to instigate for its own sake, but I must admit that I thought the conversation would be much more casual than this. This all started for me with an overheard conversation which sparked a thought: “Hey, I could talk about this for my first blog entry!” If I had known how seriously you all were going to take what I said, I probably would have been more careful in my formulation!

    Again, I don’t think sociology sucks at all, but I do think that we would probably do better at explaining things if we weren’t so worried about being “sociological” as opposed to using whatever tools we have to figure out a particular phenomenon. Maybe I’ll get in trouble again for not naming names, but I couldn’t count on fingers and toes the number of times I’ve heard a paper or argument criticized for not being “sociological” enough. As if “sociological” necessarily equalled “true.” So I say, sure, let’s use some psych, econ, genetics, etc. as the case renders them useful. For the issue of motivation specifically, I’ve found at least that psychology is helpful to my thinking.

    My objection to sociology’s take on motivation is that it doesn’t really have one and it really needs one. Christian Smith made this argument to good effect in Moral, Believing Animals and so did Colin Campbell before him in The Myth of Social Action. I can’t do much better than that here.

    I think Peter’s proposal — to “understand the ways varied motivations come in and out of focus in varying contexts” — is exactly the kind of thing I’m trying to advocate. That is, I would argue that motivations have an embodiment in persons and that context activates them or brings them into awareness rather than creating them per se. In any case, I definitely don’t think sociology is a “stale and pale” economics. In fact, my hope is that we could do much better than they have in figuring out exactly what makes people tick.

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    vaiseys

    August 30, 2008 at 8:58 pm

  33. “…we would probably do better at explaining things if we weren’t so worried about being ‘sociological’ as opposed to using whatever tools we have to figure out a particular phenomenon.”

    That’s true if the goal truly is explanation and understanding of phenomena, but the sociology of knowledge says it may not be — it might be more about pushing/defending your cookie [insert favorite theory/discipline — institutional arguments/sociology/economics/etc].

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    tf

    August 30, 2008 at 9:21 pm

  34. “My objection to sociology’s take on motivation is that it doesn’t really have one and it really needs one. Christian Smith made this argument to good effect in Moral, Believing Animals and so did Colin Campbell before him in The Myth of Social Action. I can’t do much better than that here.”

    I haven’t read Chris’s book, but I’ve looked at reviews and generally agree with much of what appears to be the thrust of it. (This exchange has “motivated” me to get ahold of a copy of the book.) HOWEVER, I disagree with the idea that we need “one” theory of motivation. And certainly with the idea that all behavior has to be explained with motivation. I’m on board with Peter’s “understand the ways varied motivations come in and out of focus in varying contexts.” Except that much behavior is not really motivated at all, it is habitual. Or accidental. And any given action is the product of a confluence of many factors: multiple motivations (whatever they are), for starters, but also constraints, decision heuristics, habits, and a bunch of other stuff.
    And, as Kieran said early on, our attempts to study motivations are filtered through the process of post hoc account-giving and the social processes that shape what we understand as an acceptable account of one’s actions.

    It is not that sociologists don’t study this stuff. They do. We do. It is that the object of inquiry is way to complex for a single theory. Theories explain simple processes one at a time (or maybe the interaction of a couple of them), but any theory that explains all behavior is — as they saying goes — tautological, vacuous or wrong.

    My friend Jane Piliavin, a social psychologist trained as a psychologist, thinks of motivations as physiological states of arousal. These are important but, trust me, they are no better able to explain particular instances of behavior without adding in social complexities and context than any sociological theory.

    Like a hammer, rational action theory (especially the more complex versions of it probably better called decision theory or purposive action) is a very useful tool for the right job, and useless for the wrong job. Ditto social constructionist accounts, by the way. You have to decide what question you are trying to answer — what job you are trying to do — before you pick a tool.

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    pamelaoliver

    August 30, 2008 at 10:22 pm

  35. Steve: Sorry for taking you so seriously. (?) I’ll end my part in this fun discussion (getting on a plane soon; ironically, was at a conference at which two elite economic theorists presented models with quite heterodox assumptions about motivation, and the sociologists in attendance were largely on the same page with them [though not necessarily on other issues] by wholeheartedly endorsing your distaste for those who prefer arguments because they are more sociological than others.

    TF: “If the goal is..”

    Whose goals are you talking about? Undoubtedly, there are those who display the bias Steve describes. But surely you would not endorse such a bias as a legitimate goal. And it is sad indeed if we think that we are hopelessly trapped by such biases. Note that (as Sokal and others have pointed out), insofar as (the STS corner of) soc of knowledge argues that we are indeed hopelessly trapped by such biases, such an argument is incoherent– after all, why should we listen to them? They’re just biased! In the end, any radical constructionist position like that devolves into solipsism. What’s more, it’s just cheap talk. Ask any such person if they believe in creationism or evolution– or what they want to teach their children!– and why.

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    Ezra Zuckerman

    August 30, 2008 at 10:44 pm

  36. Right, right, I agree with you — I am a subscriber to a realist program of research; I think science indeed happens to be an effort to truly try to understand and explain, science isn’t just a language/power/etc game. I am just pointing out that there is the other, social constructionist, conception of science as well, a program of research that is very alive and well and it provides the foundation for various programs of research, including some variants of economic sociology (for example the performativity program).

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    tf

    August 30, 2008 at 11:05 pm

  37. TF: Glad that we’re on the same page, though I would clarify that I actually don’t consider myself a realist or a constructionist, but something in the middle– i.e., there is indeed a lot of politics and language games to science [as with lay theorizing], but that does not mean that our ideas are not constrained by reality, and it certainly does not mean that we should not *strive* to have our ideas be constrained by reality. The really interesting and productive project is to understand the processes by which reality does or does not constrain our ideas about it.

    BTW, if such silliness really is the foundation for certain variants of economic sociology, seems like a good reason not to take them seriously. I actually don’t think that’s the main problem with the “performativity program” (insofar as you can make out their arguments, they do seem to be making claims about the real world), but there are plenty of other ones to pick from (see especially Mirowski’s chapter in Do Economists Make Markets?)

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    Ezra Zuckerman

    August 30, 2008 at 11:36 pm

  38. TF: My goal really is to understand. At least as far as I know…

    Ezra: It’s not that I don’t want to be taken seriously, it’s just that I feel like I made a bit of a “genre error,” if that makes sense. I do appreciate serious engagement, for sure.

    On habitus vs. propaganda, I think it’s always going to be an empirical question as to their relative importance for the case at hand. But I would argue that the “right habitus” is a necessary condition for any macro phenomenon, from the advent of rock and roll to stem cell controversy. Tons of attempts at influence through propaganda (probably most) ultimately fail.

    At the micro level, I think dispositions, motives, and unconscious patterns of judgment play a huge role in shaping behavior. Perhaps more important, they shape the contexts and networks we select into, which give them a huge indirect influence.

    Pamela and Ezra: You’re right that no single general theory of motive will do. But I do think we could make more progress toward a helpful list of “usual suspects.” In social movements, for instance, you at least have a shared starting place with frames, resources, and opportunities, right? I guess I’m just looking for a similar typology of useful motive categories. Does that make sense?

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    vaiseys

    August 31, 2008 at 12:17 am

  39. Steve: Your last comment helps put this conversation in perspective for me. We could easily write a list of different motivations for organizational behavior: profit, market growth, legitimacy, status, reputation, etc. Do our theories help us understand how organizations deal with these multiple motivations? Is behavior entirely situational, such that in situation X an organization may try to maximize profit while in situation Y it may seek legitimacy? Or are organizations simultaneously motivated by all of them?

    Most of our explanations are about one or another of these motivations. We begin a paper, for example, by making an assumption about how organizations seek to enhance their status and that this motivation leads to an observable pattern of behavior. Perhaps what we lack are meta-theoretical concepts that would help us tie all of these motivations together. I’m not suggesting that we oversimplify reality (which as Pamela notes is inherently messy); yet I think it’s worthwhile to look for mechanisms (e.g., identity) that facilitate action when and if motivations come into conflict, causing certain motivations take precedence over others.

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    brayden

    August 31, 2008 at 2:43 am

  40. Steve: I don’t really think you made a genre error. OrgTheory does tend to be more deadly serious than the premier social science blog, but note that there’s also been a rather remarkable convergence here as your post stirred up a lot of good discussion. IMHO that’s an outstanding first blog post (but note that I’m very much a blog neophyte myself!).

    If I understand it right, the convergence is something like a theory of motivations matters, but within (perhaps fuzzily) bounded fields. I think the reference to John Martin’s 2002 ASA piece is spot-on viz. opinion constraint. And I agree that elites make issues but not under conditions of their own choosing.

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    andrewperrin

    August 31, 2008 at 3:33 am

  41. Steve: Not sure about the genre either. I think I definitely overreacted to what I took to be yet another sociologist indulging in self-loathing. So sorry about that.

    Not sure I yet understand what I’d be agreeing to when it comes to the multiple motivations bit, so not yet ready to endorse, but that’s perfectly fine.

    AP: Nice use of Marx. BTW, I am amazed how little Marx is used by those who push the performativity cookie. I guess the reason is that it makes the notion that contemporary neoclassical economics is performative, seem kind of quaint when compared to Marxism’s performativity. The great irony of Marx in this regard is that the intellectual who is most famous for saying that intellectuals don’t matter (i.e., their theories are not performative) is the one who mattered the most.

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    Ezra Zuckerman

    August 31, 2008 at 6:59 am

  42. Brayden says: Most of our explanations are about one or another of these motivations. We begin a paper, for example, by making an assumption about how organizations seek to enhance their status and that this motivation leads to an observable pattern of behavior. Perhaps what we lack are meta-theoretical concepts that would help us tie all of these motivations together.

    Ya, that’s what I was trying to get at as well. Though in thinking more, I am concerned about the Healy point (actually the James March point) that while people may be ‘motivated’ by identity or status/utility max, really they are post-hoc explainers more than anything. Using motivation to explain outcomes is going to be wrong quite often regardless of the content of motivation.

    Per AP, I would suggest that the sociology celebrities should understand that you live by the google bomb, die by the google bomb.

    And Ezra, I don’t think I’d back off the criticism about genre. I don’t think you overreacted at all. When MacKenzie writes that he’s not really an economic sociologist, and Venkatesh gets on the Tee-vees and says that sociologists ask poor people multiple choice questions how it feels to be Black and poor (because ‘that’s what sociologists do’), there is a problem there. Other disciplines are able to bat down crappy work without feeling like they have to distance themselves from their own fields. It’s not hard to do so without dissing the discipline itself and, by extension, a lot of really great work within it.

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    Peter

    August 31, 2008 at 1:13 pm

  43. Very nice discussion! I really enjoyed it.
    About the post: basing an argument for a similarity between sociologists and economists on the assumption that the two groups refer to all economic agents as monetary utility ‘maximisers’ is constructing a straw man. That is because the assumption about utility maximisation as the main motivation behind economic activity is the lifeblood of neoclassical economics (or at least the reactionary part of it). Hence, if economist and sociologist agree on that bit, then the rest is relatively marginal. The problem is, of course, that some economic sociologists do not agree on this. In fact, the diversity of economic agents’ motivations and worldviews is an important part of what is commonly referred to as the performativity approach. Callon’s ‘hybrid forum’ (as well as other elements from ANT), the work of Fabian Muniesa and Millo & MacKenzie’s ‘heterogeneous network’ are just a few examples.

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    Yuval

    August 31, 2008 at 7:16 pm

  44. […] approach and, as a result, sharpen the argument. Actually, having read some of the comments to this post in orgtheory, especially Ezra Zuckerman’s, I think that this follow up corresponds with that […]

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  45. Just added a post in Socializing Finance that discusses some of the issues raised here (especially in Ezra’s comments).
    http://socfinance.wordpress.com/2008/08/31/follow-up-to-the-market-devices-session-in-aom/

    Like

    yuvalmillo

    August 31, 2008 at 7:33 pm

  46. Thanks, Andy and Ezra. Now that I’m back in my office and have a little more time, let me try to clarify a bit more what I mean by motivation and how it might play a role in our analysis.

    Most sociological discussions of motivation that I’ve come across (Mills, Scott and Lyman, Swidler, etc.) make the same mistake Peter is making above, which is that they conflate the category of consciously produced stories with the category of motive. So when we find (as Swidler does, for example, in Talk of Love) that people tell contradictory stories and make things up post hoc, we rush to conclude that “motives don’t matter.” And if motives don’t matter, it must be the situation, networks, the threat of punishment, etc.

    It is precisely at this analytic moment, however, that I find psychology to be so helpful. Psychology has some great tools for thinking through implicit motives — motives that operate outside of conscious awareness. (In particular, I am thinking of Timothy Wilson’s work on the adaptive unconscious and Jon Haidt’s work on implicit moral moral judgments.) When we consider the possibility of unconscious motives (Bourdieu and Giddens had something — albeit less specific — to say about this too) then we don’t have to rule out the motives simply because people tell just-so stories to explain their behavior. The fact that people don’t know their own motives doesn’t mean that they don’t have them! This is also why I’m getting more interested in mixed-method research, because I think you need multiple strategies to get at these processes at different levels of cognition.

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    vaiseys

    September 1, 2008 at 3:51 pm

  47. Hmm… who exactly is rushing to conclude that “motives don’t matter”? I don’t see the authors you mentioned saying that, and certainly not sociologists generally. I think sociologists generally acknowledge that people’s accounts of what they do are not reliable (either because people do not have access to their true motives or because their reports will be self-serving) and so deeper analysis is required. It is ironic that you say this actually, because in a book review of Doormen that just came out (ASQ), I actually praised Bearman for being willing to see his informants’ accounts as data to be explained rather than authoritative reports on why they did what they did, and I suggested that this was a characteristic strength of ethnography by sociologists (another great example that comes to mind is Kleinman’s Opposing Ambitions, which is all about uncovering the true motives that drive behavior in the organization she studies), though not so much among ethnographers in bschools. And note the irony of your second post: all the reactions were essentially about unconscious motives without giving it a second thought! This says to me that sociologists think that motives matter (no one said– people do it out of habit, or some such) and that actors’ accounts are often not the place to find such motives (Note how no one even remotely suggests that we ask people why they do it!).

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    Ezra Zuckerman

    September 2, 2008 at 1:47 am

  48. Ezra: Mills definitely says motives don’t matter; in fact his goal is to define the concept out of the sociological lexicon by appropriating the term to label post hoc accounts. Colin Campbell traces the downfall of the idea of subjective motivations in sociology (going well beyond just Mills) so I refer you to his Myth of Social Action.

    Swidler also makes a similar argument, though I don’t have the space to recapitulate my full reasoning for that here. You can find it in a paper on my website. People love to criticize my reading of Swidler but recall that I’m not arguing with what she herself believes or meant to say, but what her writings on the subject actually say (Talk of Love in particular). In fact, the person least critical of my reading of TofL is Ann herself!

    One final example: it was just the other week at the pre-ASA culture conference that Jeff Alexander expressly said that we shouldn’t concern ourselves with motives at all. (Kieran and Omar, at least, were there to hear this and can confirm.)

    My claim was and is not that sociologists never resort to implicit motives to explain things. My problem is that they have no coherent account of motivation, and therefore have to smuggle in extratheoretical tools to get the job done right in particular cases. I’m just trying to surface the issue so that we can incorporate the issue more explicitly into our analyses.

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    vaiseys

    September 2, 2008 at 2:20 am

  49. Steve:

    Thanks for the clarification. That helps.

    A few quick notes:

    I shouldn’t have included Mills, whose essay I hadn’t read for a long time. Reviewing it again, I agree that he goes overboard in seeing all motivation as nothing more than accounts. I think you and I will agree that this is an incoherent position. After all, unless we think human beings have no agency, there must be something driving their actions, even if neither the actor nor we observers have access to that motivation.

    As for Campbell, I looked at it a bit online and didn’t really recognize the portrait of sociology he was drawing (in part bc it all seemed British and also a bit glib in tarring all of sociology with the same brush; a big, heterogeneous field like ours is hard to capture so easily, which is a good part of the discomfort you’re hearing from me).

    Re your critique of Swidler, my understanding was that your problem with her culture-as-toolkit theory was not that she didn’t think that action was motivated, but that she argued that cultural beliefs/values were not the locus of motivation. (I think you will also recall from our email exchange earlier this year that I am not fully persuaded that you have shown that cultural beliefs do motivate to the extent that you say, but that’s a separate issue). As I recall, Swidler focuses on people’s motivation to cope with problems set before them by institutions. Why is that not motivated action?

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    Ezra Zuckerman

    September 2, 2008 at 3:37 am

  50. I don’t know, Ezra. Campbell talks a lot about American, German, British, and French theorists. I agree his style is very British, but his argument covers a lot of ground.

    …a big, heterogeneous field like ours is hard to capture so easily

    That’s true, but the same is true of empirical data. Yet sometimes central tendencies and simple models can tell us a lot without being completely faithful to the data.

    Swidler focuses on people’s motivation to cope with problems set before them by institutions. Why is that not motivated action?

    You’re right. That’s a good point. My critique is not that her account of action is not motivated, but that its implicit account of motivation is an overly simple one that ultimately relies on “rewards and sanctions.” (And it takes some digging to find anything explicit on the subject at all.)

    In my subsequent conversations with Ann, however (and in our Sociological Forum exchange), she seems to situate the source of motivation in identity. I’m fine with that, I just wonder why that’s not also “culture.”

    In any case, my only goal is to persuade my colleagues and friends to be explicit about our assumptions about motive so we can discuss and evaluate them directly. All sociological explanations ultimately rely on some account of motive, and I think it’s an area where we can make real contributions to the social and behavioral sciences.

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    vaiseys

    September 2, 2008 at 4:05 am

  51. Steve:

    I think we’ve gotten to the core of the problem. It is not that you think that there is no motivation in sociological accounts of action, it is that you think the assumptions about are not sufficiently explicit (can’t disagree with you there) and that there is too much (implicit) emphasis on rewards and sanctions– i.e., it’s all about extrinsic motivation, and nothing on intrinsic. And then it seems that your project is to get to a deeper understanding of intrinsic motivation. If that is the case then I’m totally with you that sociologists have little to say about that, certainly relative to psychologists who invented the concept. Not sure though that this is a project that ever will command the energies of many sociologists, who are properly skeptical about intrinsic motivation (deriving, I think, from the fact that we ultimately depend on others for everything), but perhaps you will convince us otherwise.

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    Ezra Zuckerman

    September 2, 2008 at 11:57 am

  52. Interesting conversation.

    To my way of thinking, sociologists have a long history of thinking about motivation, though they don’t usually call it that. Instead, we talk about interests, and fight about whether they are individually determined or shaped by social structure, or membership in all kinds of groups people identify with to varying degrees, for all kinds of reasons. (It’s arguably this link to identity that helps explain motivations, as Nelson Foote argued many years ago–I know Ezra knows of that paper, because he pointed it out to me.)

    Personally, I’m happy to leave the question about when motivations are intrinsic or extrinsic to pyschologists, who are much better at it and arguably not getting very far at sorting it out for the rest of us.

    What commands my energies are questions about how processes for reaching collective agreement–like this blog, for example–direct the attention and resources (and yes, the Benjamin Franklins) of communities and even shape the emergence and decline of communities. This is a topic that interests economists, too, but they tend to believe that the factors driving collective agreement are exogenous to the process itself, which is a convenient over-simplification that misses some ways in which some people can sometimes (but not randomly) rig the process, I think.

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    Mark Kennedy

    September 2, 2008 at 5:25 pm

  53. Yes, I’m a huge fan of the Foote article (note my first post in this conversation; my observations may not be valid, but at least they’re reliable!).

    Foote had a very interesting career. Was on the faculty at Chicago, then worked at GE for many years as a director of a consumer research department (won the ASA award for practice) and now seems to be emertius at Hunter College. BTW, in confirming this, I stumbled upon a fascinating-looking book (http://books.google.com/books?id=CciQK12XW2AC), published by Fortune, essentially forecasting what the sixties culture and economy would be like (says it was published in 71, but this seems to have been a second printing; our library says the first edition was in 1960). Note in particular the number of sociologists who are quoted (Glazer, Gardner, Sapir) and the level of sophistication at which sociology is applied. My experience is that this is representative of Fortune from that period, which was generally very good.

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    Ezra Zuckerman

    September 3, 2008 at 12:47 am

  54. …it seems that your project is to get to a deeper understanding of intrinsic motivation…

    Ezra: I’d say that’s exactly right. Thanks for sticking with me! I would only add that intrinsic doesn’t necessarily mean individual or idiosyncratic. I think for our purposes, we can treat all motivational tendencies as the product of particular kinds of previous social experience. And as I suggested in a previous comment, I completely agree that particular motives arise in person-situation interactions.

    In my research, I am trying to understand better the “value-rational” side of this, which certainly includes the kind of identity processes that would lead a person to act in particular ways “because that’s the kind of person I am” rather than because of rewards or sanctions. That is, I want to understand why people might do things because that’s the way they see the world rather than because of what they’d get out of it. I’d consider that “intrinsic.”

    And incidentally, thanks to everyone for this helpful discussion. It has helped me think through a number of things more clearly…

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    vaiseys

    September 3, 2008 at 5:18 am

  55. Glad that we’re on the same page. One wrinkle I would note (for further discussion sometime!) is that I think the identity processes you describe are very much about reward and sanctions.

    Like

    Ezra Zuckerman

    September 3, 2008 at 7:46 pm

  56. […] Steve Vaisey for the great posts he’s written at orgtheory over the last month.  I think his first post may have set an orgtheory record for number of comments.  You can keep track of what Steve is […]

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  57. […] that human beings are motivated by self-interest.  A related topic came up recently on this blog (the discussion Teppo flagged today seems relevant too) and this discussion was helpful to me, at […]

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  58. It’s funny!

    Yesterday I was talking to my sister about this very same topic and Lauren was telling me that we all naturally feel lazy. But that you can tell your brain what you’d like to create for yourself and let your brain help you create it!

    Which to me was my real Ah Ha! Moment. It maybe common sense to some but your mindsets really determine your actions and emotions towards your goals. Really powerful stuff.

    She reccomends checking this out if your lookin for your own Ah Ha.

    http://calmcoolproductive.com/6-biggest-things-you-procrastinate.html

    Onward and Upward!

    – Steven E. Cooper

    Like

    Steve C.

    December 3, 2009 at 8:56 pm


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