forget the environment, everything is endogenous

Teppo is too humble to let us know that he’s the guest editor of a new special issue of Managerial and Decision Economics.  The issue’s theme is the “emergent nature of organization, market, and wisdom of crowds.” The special issue has an impressive lineup of authors, including Nicolai Foss, Robb Willer, Bruno Frey, Peter Leeson, and Scott Page.  Teppo’s introduction, as you might expect, is provocative, challenging learning theory and behavioral theories of the firm. Here’s a little teaser:

My basic thesis is that capabilities develop from within—they are endogenous and internal. In order to develop a capability, it must  logically be there in latent or dormant form. Capabilities grow endogenously from latent possibility. In some respects, capabilities should be thought about as organs rather than as behavioral and environmental inputs. Experience, external inputs and environments are, in important respects, internal to organisms, individuals and organizations. Although environmental inputs play a triggering and enabling role in the development of capability, the environment is not the cause of capability. Furthermore, the latency of capabilities places a constraint on the set of possible capabilities that are realizable. But these constraintsare scarcely deterministic; rather, they also provide the means and foundation for generating noveltyand heterogeneity (285).

Teppo offers a real challenge to the typical “blank slate” approaches that dominate organizational theory and sociology. Social construction has  limits if you assume that some capabilities are simply latent and waiting to be triggered into action. This reminds me of what my graduate school contemporary theory instructor, Al Bergesen, used to say about the deficiency of  most sociological theory. (In fact, he repeated the whole bit to me again when I ran into him in Denver’s airport Monday evening.) Sociology, he’d say, has never fully come to grips with the cognitive revolution of psychology or linguistics. We still assume that individuals are completely shaped by their social world and ignore cognitive structure  and the limits this imposes on how we communicate and who we can become.  Teppo and Al would have a lot to talk about.

Written by brayden king

August 23, 2012 at 1:46 am

7 Responses

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  1. Ahhh there’s so much that makes sense now! I always wondered why Prof. Felin was always posting stuff on Chomsky-type linguistics and philosophy of language. The “behavioralist” tendencies of much of sociology is interesting because it seems to me that many sociologists are quite hostile to B.F. Skinner. And many sociologists are not really rationalist, it seems to me, in their approach to knowledge.

    I myself was heavily influenced by Descartes in the approach to epistemology in my undergraduate years and also had a deep hatred for what little psychology I was introduced to (Freud and some crude social psychology on the tabula rasa, etc. in Psychology 101) before I experienced my own intellectual renaissance upon being introduced to more cognitive psychology (especially Kahneman & co.). But I’m also a believer in social construction, structure, etc.

    So I guess I have my own intellectual chaos when it comes to these issues – which people have pointed out to me is not necessarily a bad thing…


    Andrew B. Lee

    August 23, 2012 at 2:21 am

  2. Oh yeah by the way – I thought that philosophy of science & language and cognitive linguistics was just a side hobby of Prof. Felin’s, so I thought “Wow, what a smart guy – his “for fun” side-hobbies are more intellectually demanding than my own intellectual pursuits!”


    Andrew B. Lee

    August 23, 2012 at 2:23 am

  3. Brayden: Hmm, thanks for the plug. That paper could use a dozen pages of footnotes to further clarify/discuss things. Didn’t have room.

    But, yes, the basic point is that I don’t think the extant, pervasive focus on exogenous and environmental factors is getting us very far. That 1970s org theory, while revolutionary at the time (and still dominant), in my mind just does not help us get at key issues related to nature, individuals, interaction etc (instead focusing us on populations, selection, learning, categories etc). There’s just no way out of that, even if we, post hoc, label something “cognitive” or whatever (as is often done), it still just looks at the environment. And many of our environmental theories use PRECISELY the same external independent variables and mechanisms as the base disciplines from which they are borrowed, for example biology or psych (again, focusing on populations, empiricist variables like “experience” are extremely popular, or external categories, etc), but that comes with associated costs. That has big-time implications in terms of our theorizing, epistemology, methodology etc. We focus on extant, collective givens and their diffusion rather than the origin/nature of these givens.

    So the short of it is that we don’t theorize the nature of the things themselves (the org actor paper, referenced, also makes a this point, from a different angle) – but we punt and simply look at exogenous factors, which tend to be easy to count and seemingly scientific, but I find them to be epiphenomenal rather than causal. Yes, this intuition links with lots of folks, Chomsky in particular, but also a much broader rationalist approach (and certainly Kantian logic) to science and explanation. I also find the meta-theoretical insights of comparative analysis, folks like Lorenz and Tinbergen in ethology, extremely persuasive and enlightening. Note that comparison is not done when we simply extend environmental theories into the domain of the social sciences, the empiricist logic tends to reinforce this (again, we look for evidence in the environment rather than theorizing the thing itself).

    In the literature on organizational “capabilities” there is a big-time “behavioral” focus, and I find the whole learning angle embedded in that approach highly problematic. Learning is sort of a catch-all term, but its basic mechanisms are repetition, observation, perception, and reinforcement. (We could have debates about differences between behaviorISM in psych and behaviorALISM in the social sciences – some differences but also lots of similarities.) But the independent variables are simply very basic versions of associationism (e.g., association of experiences, perceptions or observations), supposedly offering a glimpse at the mind (but actually studying env’t), but they don’t really tell us anything about minds nor the nature of organisms themselves, NOR the theory-ladenness of observation/perception – of course a key issue. Also, there is a move toward extending the environmental selection-logic into a Universal Darwinism that encompasses all of the sciences, including social sciences – I also find that angle misguided as it completely abstracts away from studying the nature of entities themselves. I guess I am species chauvinist, and I definitely think that much can be learned from comparative analysis.

    Incidentally, I think that social theories of the past were more focused on internal, endogenous issues – at least the theorizing of folks like Weber and Simmel implied some of this. Also, choice-based social theories imply some of this. So, of course not all theories start with the environment – but many many do. Far more could be done, theoretically and empirically, to move from the extant environmental and empiricist focus to more endogeneity-sensitive social theories of human behavior.

    Naturally, the truth of any debate between endogenous versus exogenous factors in social settings is likely to lie somewhere in between, and in interaction. Perhaps. Though I find it far more logical to start with internal factors, the nature of the thing itself, and then to theoretically and empirically build from there – if that makes sense.

    The special issue papers themselves (mostly) deal with issues of aggregation and emergence—a key matter, I think, related to the above—including some very interesting comparative pieces. Some really great contributions, I think.



    August 23, 2012 at 5:43 pm

  4. Thanks, Brayden, for letting Teppo’s light out from under the bushel. (Apologies to readers who were not raised with country homilies) I have shared four articles, including Teppo’s introduction, with colleagues in the philosophy of biology. I have been trying to learn from them how they view the organism/environment interaction and have succeeded in co-opting them to examine this as a metaphor in the organization sciences. I was pleased to see (especially from Teppo) references to the biology literature.

    Teppo, might I suggest for your post-cycling relaxation one day Richard Lewontin’s The Triple Helix? And then, any of a number of recent pieces by Elliott Sober of UW-Madison?



    August 23, 2012 at 7:48 pm

  5. I think this highlights the limitations of a discipline-based approach towards human inquiry – sociological explanations cannot fully explain all of human behavior. Instead, disciplines have carved up areas of turf (and human experience), e.g., anthropology and culture, psychology and cognition, etc.

    The key contribution from sociology, as I see it, is one which highlights the way in which social forces (e.g., institutions, culture, family background) influence human behavior. In part, this is why intro classes keep coming back to Mills and the sociological imagination – much of what happens to us has little to do with individual choices or preferences and much to do with circumstances and social arrangements beyond our control.

    Re: “We still assume that individuals are completely shaped by their social world and ignore cognitive structure and the limits this imposes on how we communicate and who we can become.”

    Kingsley Davis’ AJS article ‘Notes on Extreme Isolation’ – as well as the PBS documentary on Genie the “wild child” – highlights a connection between social interaction, socialization, and language acquisition, as well as questioning the plasticity of the brain during childhood development. Both suggest that social interaction is the key to language acquisition; deprived of social interaction, human beings’ capability for language lies dormant and perhaps even atrophies permanently (according to Eric Lennenberg’s critical period hypothesis – I have still not yet determined if linguistics has solved the Chomsky v Lennenberg dispute regarding language acquisition).

    Part of the problem is disciplinary – cognition and decision-making is typically taught in the psychology department. Jeremy Freese’s articles on genetics and sociology make a good point in noting that sociology can’t ignore or discount the scientific revolution in genetics. But that doesn’t mean sociologists ought to become geneticists.

    The solution seems to be more cross-disciplinary and collaborative research, though discipline-based graduate programs and journals make this difficult. Otherwise, we end up with economists-cum-anthropologists discovering the insight of using culture to explain irrational economic behavior or economists-cum-sociologists promoting sociology as behavioral economics.

    Re: “capabilities”

    But aren’t capabilities – to some extent – predetermined and shaped by genetic and social factors? Poor prenatal nutrition, sibling order and family size – these are constraining a priori factors that have a significant effect on a variety of outcomes. I think Marx put it best when he stated the following:

    “Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living.”



    August 23, 2012 at 10:20 pm

  6. Stuff like this is why I bought 10 Teppo Felin rookie cards in 2006…


    Ty Mackey

    September 5, 2012 at 3:35 pm

  7. […] Tout serait endogène, sur orgtheory […]


    Baptiste Coulmont » En liste

    September 16, 2012 at 1:30 pm

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