fligstein/mcadam vs. goldstone/useem – a theoretical heavyweight fight forthcoming in Sociological Theory

A little while ago, Omar blogged about a new article co-authored by Neil Fligstein and Doug McAdam. It’s called “Towards a General Theory of Strategic Action Fields.” The article presents a common framework for organizational analysis and social movement theory. F&M do so by translating everything into a field theory, a la Bourdieu. In essence, F&M claim, like Armstrong and Bernstein, that society is composed of distinct, but overlapping, fields (strategic action fields – SAF’s) where people fight over control. The main variables of the theory are Fligsteinian – social skill and other field specific resources are used to maintain the status quo. The theory is a description of the cycle of field formation, disruption, and stabilization. If you are familiar with either McAdam or Fligstein’s work, you’ll see how the article is a synthesis of the two research streams generated by these scholars. Much like how Dynamics of Contention was a synthesis of Tarrow, Tilly, and McAdam.

Then, last month, I learned that there’s a commentary (here) and rejoinder (here ) that is forthcoming in Sociological Theory. The critique is authored by Jack Goldstone and Bert Useem. Click here and here for orgtheory’s review of Useem and Piehl’s book on prisons. The authors and the folks at Soc Theory gave me permission to post the exchange and comment. As I read it, the critique focuses on the following issues:

  • Don’t reduce everything to incumbent-challenger dynamics. States, and other governing units,* are more autonomous than it appears.
  • All fields do not look the same. There is more to life than a one dimensional distribution allocation of authority between challengers and incumbents.
  • There’s more to life than distribution of social skills and exogenous shocks. Social systems can crumble for many reasons.
  • Cognitive dimensions of social life are ignored. Isn’t it weird that one of the leaders of neo-institutional sociology doesn’t discuss values?
  • G&U claim that the propositions of F&M are too vague to adequately test.

In the rejoinder, there are some plausible responses. For example, F&M just disagree about whether the theory is testable. On another count, they claim that the article doesn’t address values, but their forthcoming book does.** I don’t think that F&M quite grok the importance of G&U’s point about the autonomy of  the state or that field dissolution can be caused by elite actions.

After reading the exchange, and the original article and other works by M, F, G, and U, my gut feeling is that SAF theory represents an assimilation of movement theory and political sociology into neo-institutional theory. Neo-institutional theory is our modern functionalism where all is subsumed into social stability. If Parsons had system maintenance, F&M have “SAF stability.” The theory produced by F&M bears many similarities to that produced by the late Parsons in texts like The Evolution of Societies, which described human communities as cybernetic systems where exogenous shocks shift society into a new equilibrium. What separates SAF’s version of functionalism from the structural functionalism of the 1960s, and its descendants, is a much higher tolerance of conflict and contention, which allows a modern sociologist to discuss the relationship between conflict and stability.

This is an ironic state of affairs. The whole point of post-1970s American sociological theory was ditching functionalism. By swallowing the social movement vocabulary, the new synthesis seems to be functionalism plus conflict minus mindless conformity. I don’t think that’s a necessarily bad thing. It’s actually a substantial improvement. By throwing Parsons under the bus, I think a lot of sociologists forgot that social groups have a temporal continuity that needs to be explained. The down side is that we’ve swapped out “pattern maintenance” for “field stabilization,” which can be a constraining way of viewing things.

Overall, I’m glad that this debate is happening. It signals to me that 1970s post-Parsons sociology has now reached a point of deep maturity in that it can provide a language that’s deep and flexible enough to address multiple areas of sociology, even if that synthesis is amenable to critique. At the same time, it signals that a boundary has been reached. If you have a description of X and Y (e.g., stability and conflict), then saying “X and Y” is an end point. There is something beyond X and Y that hasn’t been articulated yet. Some other process that explains both X and Y. That means that there’s an enterprising young sociologist who is hatching some new variables. Can’t wait to read their paper.

* How Althusserian!! Coming to a structural Marxist position? But I digress…

** Book forum, anyone? Free copy? Puleeeeze!!

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Written by fabiorojas

January 11, 2012 at 12:47 am

7 Responses

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  1. First, thank you Fabio for this blog and many thanks to Sociological Theory for allowing you to post the exchange between Goldstone/Useem and Fligstein/McAdam . I’ve been really excited about the article by McAdam and Fligstein since its publication and am definitely looking forward to the book. I look forward to future exchanges in the hopes that we can find some conceptual unity across different subfields (pun maybe intended).

    I gave the G&U comment and F&M rejoinder a quick read this morning and have to say that the biggest takeaway was they agreed more than they disagreed. Outside of the short shrift given to values and identities by F&M, I think all of the criticisms levied by G&U can be dealt with by the F&M theory as laid out in the original Sociological Theory article. Though I agree with G&U that the propositions could be improved, and look forward to seeing the improvements in the book.

    I did want to respond to G&U’s invoking of Skocpol’s autonomy of states argument. Agree with F&M that this criticism seems to be based in a misreading. From my reading, strategic action fields consist of incumbents, challengers, and governing units, but the governing units within the field are entirely different than the say the relationship between the state as a SAF and other nonstate SAFs. As I see it, the state as a set of organizations within any bounded territory would constitute its own SAF, and would itself consist of incumbents, challengers, and governing units, including federal agencies, branches of government, political parties, interest groups, PACs, think tanks, lobbyists, etc. all vying for power and control within the field, but also a set of units who are responsible for ensuring the rules are followed (governing units).

    The beauty of the approach is that it allows for some organizations to active across multiple fields (thus the connection piece). For example, the extent to which the state as a SAF in any one nation state is autonomous, then, would depend on how it is connected to other SAFs. So in the United States, a power structure approach can use an SAF approach to question the state’s autonomy because of evidence regarding the state’s intricate connection to big business, and the ability of business to use resources and skill to pursue and protect its interests in the state SAF. Implementing the SAF logic also allows us to recognize that big business is not some unified whole, but consists of many subfields, and these many subfields have their own incumbents, challengers, and governing units.

    Sure these are things that we already argue and have theoretical traditions to discuss, but I think F&M are trying to give us a conceptual framework to synthesize the work in org theory and political sociology.


    Scott Dolan

    January 11, 2012 at 2:54 pm

  2. Thank you Fabio for bringing this up, I am looking forward to more discussions around SAFs. I very much agree with the starting idea that scholars tend to reify social movements and organizations when both of these are essentially about collective strategic action. What struck me in the article however, is where they say that each SAF emerges with a given situation, typically around a conflict, as collections of actors come to define issues and concerns (p.4). So we cannot know in advance what a particular SAF is or how long it will exist. So far, so good. But it seems to me that we are still not dealing with the problem of settled field, i.e. actors seem to know each other, know their respective positions, know what is at stake, know what the rules and the interpretive frame are. If the SAFs are unsettled, the question of what connections to make, how to define the problem, what roles are to be played, how to judge “success”, etc. are at the core of collective action in new situations. I think SAF tries to emphasize these processes more than alternative theories of fields or structuration but it seems to me that in the application of SAF, there is still a strong temptation to skip easily over these questions in order to quickly get to the dynamics of resource battles.


    orgtheory reader

    January 11, 2012 at 5:57 pm

  3. “I think F&M are trying to give us a conceptual framework to synthesize the work in org theory and political sociology.”

    I guess so, but to what end? If you were to ask a group of political sociologist whether SAF theory offers anything that they don’t already have, I’m fairly certain that most would answer “no.” The tldr version of Goldstone & Useem’s comments is basically that SAF theory removes rather than adds insight.

    If you compare the kind of institutional theory that Fligstein and McAdam references with the kind of institutional theory that people like Goldstone and Skocpol have been associated with one of the most obvious differences is that stuff like power resources and distributive conflicts never really went out of fashion with the latter group (see for example Mahoney and Thelen 2010, Explaining Institutional Change).



    January 13, 2012 at 9:21 am

  4. Aggregate concepts such as SAF might help capture some broad dynamics in an elegant manner. But my feeling is that every organization can be easily defined as operating in a number of alternative SAFs and once the analysis moves into more micro stuff (agency), it may become apparent that SAF is too crude a tool to describe what is happening. Like with institutional logics, people will then find that SAFs “interact” or “blend”, which happens because SAF (institutional logics) was always too high level concept to capture empirical reality at the level of decisions and actions.
    Because we will probably never have a clear empirical method to identify SAFs, they are necessarily identified ex post by researchers as neat labels to capture macro-level regularities. Thus, I am not sure F&McA when say “The potential for innovative social change, however, is most fully realized in the establishment of a new field” they can avoid the problem that for every innovative social change when fully realized, the changes will inevitably construed ex post as the emergence of a new field by the researcher.



    January 13, 2012 at 12:01 pm

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


  6. […] Much of movement theory revolves around the conflict between incumbents and challengers, such as McAdam and Fligstein’s recent field theory. The bypassing argument provides a real alternative. You don’t need to engage in such […]


  7. […] previous orgtheory discussion of Theory of Fields here and […]


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