Fligstein and McAdam on Strategic Action Fields

The most recent issue of Sociological Theory features an article by Fligstein and McAdam entitled “Towards a General Theory of Strategic Action Fields.”  In this paper F & M, attempt a “grand” conceptual synthesis (and also attempt to draw a systematic outline of the empirical implications of) a series of recent trends towards the integration of organizational, institutional and social movement theories.  This is a place where the literature has been kind of awkwardly moving for a while now (e.g. Scheneiberg and Clemens 2006; Armstrong and Bernstein 2008; Rao 2008; Evans and Kay 2008; King and Pearce 2010), but which is finally given a measure of overall conceptual coherence in this piece.

The theoretical motor of the entire paper is very parsimonious version of field theory.  This is also a place where the literature had been awkwardly moving, with various people inventing and re-inventing a field perspective using all sorts of different language and terms such as ecologies, and multiple institutional logics (e.g. Abbott 2005; see also here).  F & M bring order to what could have been some overwhelmingly complicated proceedings through their economical meta-concept of “strategic action fields” (as well as other secondary and very handy distinctions).  This concept is supposed to subsume older versions (including sectors, movement industries, organizational fields and I would add Abbottian ecologies) of the same general thing; essentially SAFs are sites where collective actors struggle for what is at stake (what Bourdieu referred to as “illusio”), taking each other into account while doing so.  The general dynamics of SAFs can then be described using the combined resources of “French” field theory (e.g. dominated/dominant, doxa, struggle for recognition, etc.), American reconceptualizations thereof (e.g. Fligstein’s theory of social skill) and standard concepts taken from social movement (incumbent/challenger, contention, mobilization, framing, etc.) and organizational theory (institutional logics).

This paper is an absolute must-read.  Easily one of the most important conceptual advances in organizational and social movement theory (in fact one of the  ambitious claims of the paper is that these two realms are empirically co-extensive, so there should be brought under a single conceptual framework) in recent memory.


Written by Omar

March 23, 2011 at 6:15 pm

12 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. interesting that they have been working on this paper for 16 years!



    March 23, 2011 at 9:09 pm

  2. Omar,

    I guess I had a different reaction reading the F&M piece and so am wondering if you can clarify what you think the conceptual advances are.

    I very much appreciate the need to step back and synthesize across the social movement and orgs literature to see what we are learning in general about social/collective action. And I see F&M as doing that in one sense – i.e. integrating in one place and with one language a lot of stuff that we already know from a variety of past studies. But I’m less sure of what we learn that is new so I would love to hear more of your thoughts.

    For me at least, it would have helped me if they’d used existing literature more to actually demonstrate some of the analogous dynamics and draw out whatever novel insights they were adding, rather than remain at such a high-level of abstraction. To be sure, they are saying we should add the social movement literature’s focus on contestation and power to org theory, and add org theory’s focus on fields to studies of social movements. However, while I can’t speak to the SM literature, it just seems to me that org theory been moving in this direction since DiMaggio 1988 (as the F&M seem to acknowledge).

    My biggest concern is that I’m left wondering what we can really do with this sort of piece. They say it is middle range theory. But by collapsing the distinctions between social movements, orgs, families, religions, etc. all into one, it feels more like an attempt to build a ‘theory of (almost) everything’ to be honest. I am very much on board with the general insights that there’s more contestation than new institutional theory has suggested, that we need to attend to unintended consequences of action, that interdependencies are hugely important, etc… but in that sense, this piece feels more like an orienting device just telling us we should be on the look out for those. I’m curious if you felt you actually gained a sense for why some specific empirical phenomenon would be better explained by those things than by insights from the existing literature?

    The propositions could have been helpful in making the piece more tractable, but some of them were frankly confusing – e.g., Proposition 12: “The more connected a SAF is to other SAFs, the more stable that SAF is likely to be”…..Yet they said earlier that it was the linkages among SAFs that lead to change when a disturbance in one sets off a ripple effect through others. So I could also imagine predicting the exact opposite of their proposition.

    Finally, I struggled with some of their conceptual distinctions. Their Russian doll metaphor of fields within fields within fields left me wondering what wasn’t a field. Related, they define all collective actors (orgs, families, social movements, supply chains, governmental system) as made up of fields. So I started to lose the sense for who were actors and what were fields. Yet that distinction would seem crucially important. Finally, they seem to make the same mistake they accuse others of making. They say that existing theories assume too much field-level coherence. But then they seem to assume coherent collective actors (who they define as made up of fields). Unless I missed it earlier in the piece, they only seem to mention that social movements and orgs have to fight for internal coherence themselves briefly and toward the very end of the piece. Given their conceptual scheme I’d have expected that insight to have been incorporated throughout.



    March 24, 2011 at 1:42 pm

  3. Longer than that, really. The acknowledgments mention it being presented at Asolimar Conference in April, 1992.

    This brings up a topic that would make a fascinating blog post: What is the “typical” length of a paper’s life course, from conception to publication? Have others had experience working on a single paper for 10+ years? Does it differ for theoretical vs. empirical papers? Obvsiously i’m referring to journal articles, not book monographs here.



    March 24, 2011 at 1:44 pm

  4. Hi anonymous,

    Actually the single theoretical language thing is a huge one for me and much more important than the “novelty” thing. In fact, the piece is not novel (nor does it claim to be) it is “integrative” and “conceptual order keeping”; although these things tend to be looked at as somehow a lower level of doing theory, I think that they need to be done once in a while. Like you, I was less enamored of the “propositions” part of the paper, mostly because these usually have an arbitrary feel, but I think that’s a relatively small blemish on what is a very strong paper. In terms of their (lack of) use of existing literature, yes I agree that the paper has a strong abstract feel to it, but my sense is that it would be extremely easy to do this by anybody involved (the point of field theory is that it is intuitive so given even cursory familiarity with any social arena, it’s pretty easy to know who’s the incumbent, who’s the challenger what’s the doxa, what’s the oppositional logic, etc.) so I don’t see why that’s a deal-breaker.

    As I mentioned in the post, the cacophony of everybody essentially saying similar things but using different languages, case-studies, etc. wasn’t doing anybody any good. If SM and org. theorists are now essentially describing the same set of empirical phenomena, why do we need different theories and different languages? Even more importantly, why do we need people essentially inventing an entire new language when one is already available? (e.g. So in that respect this paper is bound to provide a huge service to everybody involved and to me that’s why the paper is important. Of course, part of my enthusiasm also stems from the fact that I’m convinced that (some version of) field theory does the analytic job, but maybe you are not. When reading a lot of the recent literature for instance, I re-translate everything into field theory terms in my head anyways, so it was nice to have somebody just do it more formally instead.

    And yes, every social site (of interest) is a field, so I don’t see why that’s an objection. If it’s not a field then the theory doesn’t apply, but it also means that there’s nothing to see there. Also, don’t see why the self-similarity/nested structure thing is confusing. A set of organizations constitutes a field, but within the organization the set of members also constitute a field. I think their point was that what was an actor and what was a field is an empirical not an a priori issue (e.g. in the example of ivy colleges versus the entirety of colleges in the U.S.). Also, as I read it actor coherence is also an empirical matter not an assumption, some actors acquire coherence as part of field level structuration others lose it; analysts have to tell us what’s happening.



    March 24, 2011 at 3:13 pm

  5. Thanks Omar. Appreciate your responding. I think we may ultimately have to agree to disagree. Even if it was both a necessary and productive exercise, I just wouldn’t call a) relabeling and b) summarizing/integrating what we know “easily one of the most important conceptual advances…in recent memory” as you did.

    And, of course, it remains to be seen whether their conceptual relabeling will be taken up by scholars or if it will go the way of all the earlier attempts and simply add more labels to an already crowded field (no pun intended).

    (Finally, if, as you say, it would be ‘extremely easy’ and ‘intuitive’ for ‘anybody’ to see how their concepts relate to existing literature, then query was the whole exercise so necessary in the first place?)



    March 24, 2011 at 3:52 pm

  6. I have long pondered whether there is a political motivation or some unconscious social dynamic of cliques and invisible colleges that is driving the adoption of social movements theory into organizational realm.

    Institutional theory is a mess of disparate observations concerning the institutional context of organizing accumulated through borrowing from other theories and inductive study.

    Social movements theory is the same. The annual reviews paper on social movements convinced me that there is no ‘theory’ of framing (in the strong sense). It is a broad umbrella for empirical observations concerning various strategies and processes. Moreover, a broader reading of books in this domain has convinced me that there are interesting disagreements on both empirical realm (what are social movements) and theoretical approaches (is concept of opportunity structures logically robust). The fact that social movements theory has no strongly connected internal logic to it is absolutely fine; it is a rich tradition based on in-depth analyses of empirical phenomena.

    But why integrate insights (read, vocabulary) of social movements theory into institutional theory? Does it really help us? This is a very U.S. driven phenomenon where organizatinoal sociologists familiar with non-organiztional sociology (soc. mov.) want to exploit their knowledge to provide an injection of novelty to org. theory. I think that’s cool, but why incorporate the vague conceptual apparatus as well? Could we not avoid complexity hazard by taking findings from social movements theory (e.g. role of networks in providing support to proposed changes) without taking the concepts most organization theorists are not familiar with and cannot start using without significant reading of non-org related literature (e.g. resource mobilization). As an example, much of the theoretical work the concept of ‘framing’ does in empirical studies can be done by the conecpt of theorization from Strang & Meyer 1993 paper.

    The inducement of social movements theory into organization theory can potentially help us understand some phenomena better, there is no doubt about that (particularly when empirical reality strongly resembles actual social movements). However, there is a risk that it mainly raises barriers to entry for the field since it creates demands for those making new contributions to know read even more broadly. The incorporation of this vocabulary locks out contributions from those not fascinated by north-american sociology — just as incorporating the vocabulary of Giddens or Bourdieu can potentially lock out those not fascinated by European social theory. And nobody can say that “its the choice of authors themselves what to build on”. Quite certainly I am not the only one advised by reviewers to build on social movements theory (in a paper where empirics incorporated no social movements).

    Ok, this has been a rant that accuses unspecified people of making things too complex for my small brain. In this sense I really very much liked Fabio’s 2010 AMJ paper, as it clearly benefits from broader sociological literature he is intimately familiar with without seeking to (unnecessarily) introduce new vocabalaries.



    March 25, 2011 at 11:03 am

  7. Thanks, Henri! Glad you saw that.



    March 27, 2011 at 4:31 am

  8. I have to agree with Henri that the whole “social movements and organizations” fad seems to have gotten out of hand, and that it seems at least partly driven by a sinister cabal of insiders whose names keep turning up over and over again.

    On the other hand, there is some merit in the idea that organizations and movements can both be described using similar terms WRT collective action, and that similar mechanisms are at play (recruitment and motivation of participants, diffusion, network dynamics, etc.), especially when the product of both movements and post-industrial firms often looks like “changes in the perceptions of audiences.” The opening essay in a special issue of my favorite administrators’ journal put it like this:

    “In recent years, scholars of organizations and social movements have increasingly recognized that these two areas of research would both benefit from greater crossover. Organizations are the targets of, actors in, and sites for social movement activities. Social movements are often represented by formal organizations, while organizations resemble episodic
    ‘movements’ rather than bounded actors. In an increasingly global economy and polity, organizations and movements are growing more transnational. And both movements and organizations are changing their strategies and routines in response to similar social and technological shifts. The same information and communication technologies that enable the management of global supply chains also allow global movement activities: on February 15, 2003, millions of participants marched in over 350 cities on six continents to protest the imminent U.S. invasion of Iraq, marching under the common slogan ‘The World Says No to War.’ As forms of coordinated social action, movements and organizations are ships riding the same waves.”

    So: we don’t necessarily need a single sociological theory-of-everything, and social movement theories are hardly a panacea (since as Henri points out, they suffer a lot of the same deficiencies of new institutional theory) — but there are occasionally gains from trade


    Jerry Davis

    March 27, 2011 at 4:36 pm

  9. I’m curious, though, about the “Russian dolls” analogy. Is there such thing as an “ultimate” SAF -that which contains all others, and is itself not contained by any others? Surely there must be. Maybe not theoretically, but in the “real world?”

    If there is a point at which SAFs can no longer be reduced, what can we say about it?

    It seems to me that there can be no other SAFs without some SAF organizing or consisting of the division of labor -obviously, without food/water/resources/etc, we would all die, and it seems safe to say that human beings “naturally” need some form of social organization in order to survive. Maybe, all other SAFs “spring forth” from this one, the irreducible and necessary SAF?



    May 3, 2011 at 11:59 pm

  10. […] and Doug McAdam. It’s called “Towards a General Theory of Strategic Action Fields.” Read Omar’s commentary here. You should read the […]


  11. […] more orgtheory commentary on Fligstein’s and McAdam’s SAF, see here and here. Advertisement LD_AddCustomAttr("AdOpt", "1"); LD_AddCustomAttr("Origin", "other"); […]


  12. ugg boots, drugs whatever send me i purchase all – ok swell ? here i my adress facts



    February 9, 2012 at 2:57 am

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: