relational work and big metal things

Fred Block, Nina, Kieran and Fred Wherry have already outlined some basic stakes to the claim that an economic sociology more attentive to “relational work” might “succeed Granovetter’s ’embeddedness’ framework.” Those stakes are pretty straightforward: the character of exchanges are negotiated by parties in ways that cannot adequately understood absent reference to the cultural, organization, and institutional structures that enable and constrain peoples’ abilities to get what they want out of those exchanges. This makes my task here easier. I’m one of the folks who contributed to the special issue of Politics and Society that Fred Block (and others) mentioned, so I’ve obviously got a view on matters. By coming in after them, I get to avoid some preliminaries. I can just react to/follow up on things that have been said.

I’ll say first that I am wholeheartedly in the camp that sees embeddedness — or at least some variant thereof — and relational work more as complements than alternatives.* But that’s been taken up already. So here I mostly want to take up where Kieran left off (i.e. with trying to develop a research agenda). Kieran argued that those of us interested in relational work should: (1) concerned not just with relational work per se, but with the ways in which that work is conditioned by institutional and organizational context; and (2) we should be cognizant of “awkward relations” where parties negotiate and struggle over who gets to define the tie.

I’m starting there because I took an initial stab at doing both of those things in my own paper in that special issue. So I’ll summarize a bit. I looked, in the specific, at relationships between large manufacturing firms and their suppliers in the American Upper Midwest who work together to make big complicated metal things. This is something I’ve been studying for years, which puts me (I think) in a good position to compare the relative utility of focusing on embedding vs. focusing on relational work. It’s the sort of empirical case — interorganizational relations — that has long been central in discussions of embeddedness (see e.g. Uzzi 1996, 1997). It’s a place where there is ample evidence that patterns of embedding are shaped by institutional and organizational context (see e.g. the whole Varieties of Capitalism debate). And, most importantly for purposes here, it’s a place where few dispute either that relations between the parties are often nasty or that fates are intertwined enough that nobody can exactly just go there separate ways when the going gets rough (see e.g. the explosion of interest in auto supply industries when CAR pointed out that a “disorderly” bankruptcy at GM might shut down auto production across the US for a while).

In the article (with examples rather than just the assertions I have space for here), I try to do what we seem all here to be saying relational work can help us do: I argue that actors’ embedding in a social and institutional surround shapes the “logics” that they then assemble into solutions to their economic problems; and I show how an incorporation of explicit attention to relational work into the analysis helps to understand more concretely how — and to what effect — those logics are intermingled and recombined. Because I’m writing about American manufacturing (big complicated metal things especially), this means that a lot of what I try to do is to trace the ways in which parties negotiate across power imbalances that are significant but not total, and in which everyone is struggling a bit because everyone knows that their own ability to stay in business (i.e. keep their jobs) is hardly guaranteed. Their relationships are a little like abusive marriages in a world with obvious parallels to our own (i.e. one in which some parties have more social and economic power than others). I argue specifically that many such negotiations are characterized by ample gray areas in which meanings are ambiguous but not unconstrained or unknowable. So people try to shape the understandings of the other party as a means to improve their own situations, though are never sure if they’ll be able. Or, in Kieran’s words, social meanings become “means of getting your way” and are therefore the object of struggle.

The relational work comes in because the dyadic relations between companies that I study can’t ever really be dyadic. We think of them as such for analytic purposes. But the middle managers and engineers I’m talking to are reading each others’ actions both against a history and against an array of meanings and experiences gleaned more broadly across an organizational field. An automaker might, for instance, demand potentially sensitive information from its suppliers. Their ability to get that information is favored, on the one hand, by the diffusion of “Japanese” manufacturing practices that have made it routine for companies to exchange more design and costing information than had long been typical in the U.S.; but it is disfavored by a history of misuse of such information in the industry (e.g. Inaki Lopez) that leaves suppliers wary of how that information might be used. How that demand is read is, in actual practice, is shaped by myriad contextual factors. The players themselves know this, and are actively trying to shape how their signals are read. And — I claim at least — careful study of that context (i.e. on-the-ground empirical research by sociologists) can help us to understand how and why things turn out as they do (which is often badly, of course).

That’s just a thumbnail, and one that needs a lot more stories and context to really convince anyone (sorry; trying to keep this short and sorta failing anyway). The goal with this, I should also emphasize, cannot just be to show that this framework we’re all trying to work out can viably be applied to “hard-core economic matters of production of goods and services.” To do that is pretty much just an act of translation (necessary but not sufficient for a research agenda). We do need a “so-what.” For my own answer to that frightening question, I try to show that injecting attention to relational work into analyses can help us see how we might affront problems in the economy in ways that we would not otherwise have caught. I argue, specifically, that the study of relational work can help us to see how the “street-level bureaucrats” working concretely to resolve the sorts of “network failures” that Andrew Schrank and I have shown elsewhere to routinely bedevil American manufacturing industries.

This is just one case, of course. The framework is really only useful, though, if we can think of ways to attack a far broader range of problems and contexts than those discussed in the special issue, in Fred Block’s (and Jesus Hernandez’s) predatory lending example, or in Zelizer’s work to date. I’ll leave that, however, to others….


*We don’t want to repeat the errors of our forebears, who were themselves reacting to a sense that the hegemony of a homo economicus disembedded from relations, deciding alone in light of the situation. There is just no need to draw, this time around, so stark an opposition, to think of a focus on relational work as an “alternative” to a focus on embeddedness so much as the logical next step given where the embeddedness paradigm has taken us (i.e. to develop a joint, rather than opposed, framework). I hope I’m preaching mostly to the converted (and that I’ve read Kieran’s take right) because the other way seems to me a rabbit hole. I might note also that there is support in the literature for a relatively mainstream read of the “embeddedness paradigm” — or at least of Granovetter’s contribution to its founding — that is unhappy with the way it somehow got reduced/misunderstood so that it has been taken to mean  (1)  that network structure matters more than all else!; or (2) to suggest that it amounts to little more than the claim that people have “embedded ties” that differ from their “arms-length” ties, and that this has consequences for an array of outcomes. I don’t say this to denounce critiques of that agenda especially as it developed in the 1990s. To the contrary. I think that Greta Krippner in particular has offered an absolutely essential clarification and corrective. I just mean that I’m writing in a post-Krippner world in which I feel like we all think the economy is “always embedded” now (or maybe I am just overembedded in my own Wisconsin dominated subgraph?).

Written by Josh Whitford

September 4, 2012 at 9:05 pm

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  1. […] also want to thank Fred Block, Kieran Healy, Josh Whitford, Gabriel Rossman and Viviana Zelizer for their important contributions to our discussions about […]


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