richard florida for president

hdr_rich1Hello OrgTheory readers. Thanks to Brayden for the invitation and to Teppo, Omar, Kieran and Fabio for letting me join the party.

Ross Douthat’s debut as the new conservative voice on the New York Times editorial page was eye-catching, to say the least. The title of his first missive: “Dick Cheney for President.” Douthat is known as a thoughtful voice of a new generation on the political right. He recently penned a book with Reihan Salam that critiques the Republican Party from within in light of last November’s defeat. In it, he levels focused, serious criticism on the party that Karl Rove and Dick Cheney built. And so, he was hardly expected to call for Dick Cheney to ascend the ultimate height of American politics; far from it.

Once the reader was drawn into the article, it became clear that electing Dick Cheney President was not his real intent (fyi, his argument is that Cheney would have lost the election but that running would have subjected the Bush administration’s justification of torture/harsh-interrogation-techniques to intense public scrutiny and that electoral defeat would have been a deeper more meaningful repudiation than a truth commission or a trial). The title was a ruse. It contradicted most observers’ expectations leading them to focus more actively on what the speaker is saying and why (on how contradicting identity affects social change: see the Nixon-in-China effect).

Douthat pulled it off: the article shot to the top of the Times’s most read articles list and his debut generated significant (and generally positive) buzz. And, I say if it worked for him, it might just work for me. So, I am starting off my guest stint with a similar stunt: Richard Florida, please run for President. The office of President of the United States may be out of reach for some time (and given you are currently living in Canada, probably impractical). But President of the ASA might be within reach. And I hereby offer you my nomination.

I don’t think Richard Florida would win. But, just as the Republican party seems to be on the back foot, the “relevance” wing of sociology has lost ground of late. And, just as a Dick Cheney candidacy might have generated an open debate and definitive verdict on the prevailing strains of conservative thought, a Richard Florida candidacy would agitate those of us who maintain that relevance is as important as rigor in evaluating sociological work. The question is not really whether relevance should be valued (just as Douthat’s question is not whether conservative ideals should be advanced). Rather, the question is: by what means is achieving relevance acceptable?

Richard Florida is very successful, at least according to some measures. His books sell well. He commands dizzying fees for speaking and consulting. Heck, he has appeared on The Colbert Report. But perhaps most importantly, his ideas have filtered into the public consciousness. People invoke the phrase “creative class” in casual conversation without necessarily knowing who penned it originally. Moreover, Florida’s ideas occupy the frontal cortex of a large number of politicians and policy-makers. In doing so, he joins a long list of some of our field’s most esteemed scholars: Merton (unintended consequences), Coleman (social capital). Selznick’s examination of the Tennessee Valley Authority not only laid the foundation for institutional theory, it provided a blueprint for policy (while also contributing the word “cooptation” to the popular lexicon).

I envy them. But many would chafe at the idea that Richard Florida stands among those giants. He, along with a few other contemporary commentators (to focus solely on New York elite publications: Thomas Friedman, David Brooks, Malcomb Gladwell, and the late Hubert Muschamp come to mind) have both the position and the writing skill to influence conversations around the dinner table. And yet, each of these writers also comes up for criticism from “serious” sociologists who deride their brand of “arm chair” “pop” sociologizing. They are condemned for applying rigorous ideas in a careless manner. (Some of my colleagues here in the rigor-fixated halls of the University of Chicago have a particularly snide way of referring to this kind of work: this is the kind of work they do at Harvard.)

The sweet spot for any sociologist is research that is both relevant and rigorous. But it is the rare scholar who can pull off that feat, at least in a single publication. Compromises, typically, must be made. Relevance requires one to be timely and to communicate complex ideas in ways that are understandable to a lay audience. Rigor takes time and an ability to boil questions down to sometimes infinitesimally small pieces. But the results often miss the mark of public significance by a long shot.

I have written elsewhere on my views of Richard Florida’s empirical and theoretical shortcomings. In achieving relevance, I think he compromises too much rigor. But I don’t fault him the effort. And I don’t think the answer is to run away from relevance. Rather, I think it is incumbent on those of us who strive for (or at least sympathize with the pursuit of) relevance to debate where to draw the line dividing acceptable empirical or theoretical compromises from schlock. Most of us who read this page would agree that Richard Florida crosses the line. But does Robert Putnam? What about my colleague Ron BurtHuggy RaoJerry Davis anyone? All of this would be debated in the course of a hotly contested run for ASA president and so I reiterate my call: Richard, please toss your hat into the ring.

In the coming weeks, I am looking forward to discussing my recently published book. In it, I attempted to find the sweet spot: I ask what I believe to be a relevant and timely question (why have some communities adjusted to post-industrial society while others have not) and I make an effort toward theoretical and empirical rigor in addressing it (I employ network and institutional theory). Personally, I think I do a better job than Richard Florida. But, I’ll concede, the results are open to debate. Some will think I compromised too much, or, more damningly, that I didn’t push hard enough to achieve theoretical and empirical rigor where it could have been achieved. These are valid criticisms (though I hope others will come to my defense!) and I look forward to hearing folks’ views. But I’ll make no apologies for making the effort. I am jazzed by the attempt and one of these days some young scholar will come along who pulls it off. And, when they do, I hope they lead the relevance-leaning wing of organizational sociology back to … relevance.

Written by seansafford

May 4, 2009 at 10:23 pm

15 Responses

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  1. Great opening salvo, Sean! I am indeed chafing at the thought of Florida appearing in the Pantheon with Merton, Coleman, and Selznick. I’d suggest that these giants had impact among policy-makers because in that era the policy-makers could absorb their more serious work. I despair that the current crop of Wash-wonks cannot get past a Charlie Rose interview of Friedman, Gladwell, or Florida.

    In April, my service on a campus committee to establish an all- campus entrepreneurship curriculum (nightmare #1) was punctuated by a dance professor who wanted to require The Rise of the Creative Class (nightmare #2) for all students in the program: “It is foundational”.



    May 5, 2009 at 12:52 am

  2. As someone who the fates have decreed should live in Pennsylvania, I too look forward to the book and posts.

    Now I live in a smaller, rural part Lewisburg, PA , but it is next door to Mifflinburg, the Detroit of the 1820s (buggy industry) and has its own brownsite (Pennsylvania House Furniture) occupying several acres of a town of about 10k.

    Of course there is talk of business incubation and University-led partnerships.

    I am pondering a longitudinal project to examine social networks and entrepreneurial activity. It would be nice to know if certain interventions help or hinder the network-entrepreneur nexus.



    May 5, 2009 at 1:00 am

  3. Great essay!

    But why do you call Florida a sociologist? I think his PhD is in Urban Planning, and he does not teach in a Sociology department (or call himself a sociologist, for that matter).



    May 5, 2009 at 1:13 am

  4. I’d be interested in your take on public sociology.



    May 5, 2009 at 6:18 am

  5. recently i was going through the copy-editing phase of a book chapter and an editor tried to get me to cite Florida on one of the points you criticized in the linked post. my response was basically, no, i don’t trust him for a statement of the facts (i’m perfectly willing to cite him for his opinion as opinion). i don’t think i’d ever said this about anyone else before, certainly not any PhD, but i’m a bit reassured that you have the same take.



    May 5, 2009 at 10:13 am

  6. If you look in the appendix of The Rise of the Creative Class, you’ll find, e.g., that one of the occupations defined as being in the “super creative core” of the economy is “Technical Support Specialist”.



    May 5, 2009 at 12:29 pm

  7. Nice first post Sean.

    I’ve wondered if we’ve become less relevant as sociology (or social science, more generally) has become more technically rigorous. It used to be that some sociologists were perfectly situated to engage with public audiences because the language distance between academia and the educated public was not as great as it is now. Given our current level of statistical sophistication, we need to have specialists whose role is to translate our research to the public; hence, the need for Malcolm Gladwell.

    So I’m not sure that it’s the topical nature of our work that makes us less relevant today than we used to be but rather the professional norms that have distanced us from the public.



    May 5, 2009 at 2:20 pm

  8. […] Exchange EditorTue May 5th 2009 at 9:55am EDTAll in Good Fun Richard Florida for President? makes their plea and nomination simultaneously.“Ross Douthat’s debut as the new […]


  9. I had a similar reaction to Brayden’s; it really depends on whether you evaluate relevance by how “important” the topic is to society or by the reaction it elicits (i.e. is it eventually picked up by those who matter?). Although both criteria should in principle go hand in hand, they often do not. I believe there is a huge amount of relevant (i.e. important) research in sociology nowadays. I certainly would not be studying stratification if I thought it did not matter. But most of it never really gets much publicity. And no wonder, who wants to read a 60 page article full of obscure tables?

    Ultimately, the question is whether we “translate it” ourselves – as Sean has impressively done – or whether we find some sort of division of labor. Certainly the incentive system in academia makes the first route riskier now than it used to be back when the masters wrote their masterworks. This is a pity in many ways, since much can be lost in translation by outsourcing (even by skilled translators like Gladwell).

    And I won’t even go to the issue facing those of us who work in business schools. In MBA land, the struggle to define “relevance” (for whom?) would require several posts by Professor Safford.



    May 5, 2009 at 3:02 pm

  10. […] a comment » Sean remarks below that And yet, each of these writers also comes up for criticism from “serious” sociologists who […]


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  12. […] between management theory and organization theory lays. To some degree, this is the analogue to my earlier post on Richard Florida, only substitute managers for policy-makers. Stewart’s claim—parallel to […]


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