Some Not So Obvious Ideas from Fligstein/Mcadam’s A Theory of Fields

I thought I would continue my postings on the Fligstein/McAdam book. This time I would like to take up what I consider to be three really important ideas in the book that are the most likely to get the least attention. These are new insights in the book that do not just represent a synthesis of previous work but new ways of thinking about how fields are structured.

All of these ideas are important because they feed research agendas that have so far been underexploited in field studies. They do this in two ways. First they help make the connections between existing streams of research and the theory of fields which many scholars will simply miss. Second, the field theory developed in the book  provide concepts to help empirical work look for and consider the important causal effects of particular features of fields that have so far not been studied. As I said in an earlier posting, theories are observation laden. So, theories that don’t look for things just won’t find them. Let me start more micro and work more macro.

The chapter in the book that has most surprised people who have read it is the one on social skill. I have previously published two versions explicating the idea of social skill and the role it plays in field formation and reproduction. These ideas have spread widely and get invoked mostly to explain how new fields come into existence as skilled strategic actors manage to create unique political coalitions by framing and the use of new identities.

In the book, we embed the issue of social skill in a deeper problem of social life: the problem of meaning, membership, and morality. We argue that what the current research on the origins of humans demonstrates quite clearly that sometime around 40-45,000 years ago, humans began to develop symbols to communicate and that the core thing these symbols were used for was to create a sense of meaning and membership. This was one of the core insights of G.H. Mead’s argument about human evolution and the creation of “mind, self, and society”.

We all have the ability to learn language, interpret the actions of others, and learn to behave appropriately in myriad social situations. We care about what others think of us and when others provide us with identities that we resonate to, we are prepared to follow them and act collectively. We do this because these identities give us meaning, make us feel part of things bigger than ourselves, and help us to what we think is right.

Part of meaning making is dealing with the deepest existential questions: who are we? why are we here? what does it all mean? what is a good and just life? what moral principles make my life meaningful?  Creating meaning for others and thereby attaining cooperation is one of the main problems of forming social fields. It is not surprising that at the moment when fields form, the problem of meaning making and identity are at its core. It is also not surprising that these fluid moments most resemble social movements where things are up for grabs and skilled actors can build coalitions, new meanings, new identities, and hence, invoke new moralities.

By appreciating that at its core, the creation of social fields requires not just power, but meaning, we allow for consideration how moral arguments fit into field formation processes. In many parts of sociology, as disparate as cultural sociology and economic sociology, we find scholars rediscovering the power of moral arguments (values, religion, essential beliefs about human nature and human action) in making sense of what people do. One way to give these movements of thought more structure and to incorporate them better into how people behave is to incorporate them into field making processes. This grounds such arguments and keeps morality or culture from being explanations that seem to float in the air that we invoke when we try to explain something that is hard to explain. By focusing instead on how actors in fields deploy meanings and how those meanings come to be part and parcel of what is going on in the field, we give ourselves a chance to say more about which meanings win out and which ones lose and which ones are consequential to justify and guide behavior.

So, for example, Sarah Quinn’s paper on the growth of viaticals in the AJS a couple of years ago (selling your life insurance policy to someone before you die so you can cash in on it) shows that such a thing only became possible when a moral discourse came into play in a social movement. During the AIDS crisis, activists hit on the idea that people ought to be able to die with dignity. This meant that selling their insurance policies to have money to survive in the face of a cruel death became thinkable. Here, defining a group (membership) of people who were undeservingly sick and therefore deserving of our moral attention (meaning and morality) with a moral argument worked to turn something most of us would shudder at (betting someone else will die so you can benefit) came as a justification for an entirely new market.

A second concept that appears in A Theory of Fields is the idea of internal governance units. Most versions of field theory start with a much stripped down version of fields. We have agents who have positions and fields reflect the common understandings and relative positions in that field. But almost all fields have within them agents or groups who work to maintain the order of the field. These groups play a number of roles in the maintenance of the field. First, and foremost, they are the main form of communication between actors. So, in markets, trade organizations and publications tell field participants what is going on in their world. They can also act as umpires by enforcing standards.

But such units also act to preserve the existing structure of the field. They do this in several ways. First, they can represent the field to outsiders, particularly the government when the field is coming under stress. They will work to get the government to intervene to preserve the power of the main actors in the field by presenting themselves as the representative of the field. Second, they help enforce what is valued in the field and work to maintain the order of the field as a result. So, for example, in artistic fields, critics operate to define genres and what is currently acceptable and avant garde.

In many fields, we have observed a proliferation of rankings. These rankings tend to support the power of the already privileged. On occasion, such rankings can be mobilized by less powerful players to increase their position in the field. Rankings are a form of communication of what actors in the field value, how the “score” is being kept, and who is on top and who is not. We think that the study of fields needs to incorporate the study of internal governance units which work to help bring fields in existence and once in existence to facilitate the playing of the game. Studies which ignore the existence of such units end up sometimes finding them and remarking on their importance. But, in our view, these are part of what keep fields together: i.e. “objective” units who report on, organize, and reinforce the rules and shared understandings of the field. Seeing how they are built, what crises they resolve, and whom they tend to help and hurt provides us with a new way to study field dynamics over time.

Finally, at the most macro, A Theory of Fields opens up a large and almost unexplored research agenda. One of the main new ideas in the book is to try and think about the relationships between fields. Early reviews of the book note that we argue that fields are nested like “Russian Dolls”. But fields are not just contained in one another; they form larger structures that can operate to be either self reinforcing or undermining.

In the chapter where we explore two case studies of fields, we argue that to understand the Civil Rights Movement in the U.S. , we cannot study just one field, but instead a set of fields. In the Civil Rights case, we argue that the political field that defined the civil rights of African Americans to the majority population was itself part and parcel of a set of other fields including the organization of the Democratic Party, the organization of Congress, the legal system, the organization of the southern agricultural system, and the existence of a state-federal structure. We demonstrate that following the Civil War, these different fields became reinforcing of a particular order. The dynamics of each of these fields was not entirely about race relations. But taken together, the fields provided support for the onerous system of legal race relations that existed. We show that it was in the breakdown of the various fields surrounding the field of legal civil rights for African Americans that many of the onerous features that supported the system broke down. Much of this breakdown had little to do with race, but obviously to the degree that the system of race relations depended on it, it undermined the material and symbolic support for that field.

For a book long study of field relations, I suggest Bourdieu’s State Nobility which is one of the few studies that takes seriously the interdependence of fields.

The general lesson here is that we have too few studies where we observe the relationships between fields over time. Much of the dynamics of modern life stem from these more macro interactions and the unintended consequences of the links between fields. In the book, we try and theorize the nature of those linkages and how feedback between fields might operate. Field theories are often accused of having an exogenous view of social change, i.e. that change originates in a crisis in a nearby field. Some have pushed for theories of endogenous change as an antidote to such thinking. But, if fields do not exist by themselves or are not really isolated from other fields, then it makes little sense to a priori not seek to understand how these linkages under some conditions strengthen a particular field and under others, weaken it. We think this is a frontier issue for field theory and one that bears a lot of work.

I hope that some of these ideas resonate with readers and inspire scholars to take up their studies of particular fields with more conceptual tools than before.

Written by fligstein

September 20, 2012 at 11:26 pm

Posted in uncategorized

3 Responses

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  1. Thank you for the challenging considerations. As with so much else here, I archived this to the folder from my graduate class in sociology theory, which I still maintain along with other work from school. Although I was disappointed to discover that changes in policy this academic year prevented me from accessing JSTOR either through the Eastern Michigan University or University of Texas libraries (I am not currently enrolled, on staff, or faculty), I did find enough online via Google Scholar to pursue, especially some of Prof. Neil Fligstein’s recent works. Those and others also went into that folder. I now have much to read this weekend.

    One of the citations I found – no PDF available to me – was from the 1939 work by Kurt Lewin,
    “Field Theory and Experiment in Social Psychology: Concepts and Methods,” The American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 44, No. 6. (1939), pp. 868-896. That would seem to be an obscure reference, but for this: Bernard Burnes, Bill Cooke. “Kurt Lewin’s Field Theory: A Review and Re-evaluation,” International Journal of Management Reviews (2012): “Field theory was central to Kurt Lewin’s work yet, after his death, interest in it declined significantly until the 1990s when a variant, force field analysis, became widely used. …”

    That, of course, could be a reference to Pierre Bourdieu who famously wrote about social field. My book of readings from the undergraduate theory class includes an explanation. However, the world standard English language undergraduate survey text by Anthony Giddens has no Index entry for “field” and discusses Bourdieu only on cultural reproduction. Is field theory an obscure undercurrent, or an overlooked resource?

    Assuming an apparently enduring power of field theory, I wonder now how this can be integrated to relational work which we recently discussed here. Are these two different perspectives on the same phenomena, or two different statements of the same assumptions? Are they complementary theories (like structuralism and functionalism), or contrary (like structural functionalism versus Marxist conflict)?

    A recent post noted the lack of active work in theory by those now applying to teach. Does that fact illuminate any contours on these two recent theoretical contributions here? For instance, is theory pursued only by mature scholars? By comparision, we know that mathematicians do their best work when they are young, but in life sciences, you need a large body of learning before you can integrate facts into theories which suggest experiments, so the leaders in life sciences are older than those in mathematics. Is that a fact about relational work in the field of academic sociology?



    September 21, 2012 at 11:36 am

  2. I also want to plug the chapter on microfoundations. The mammoth tusk stuff alone is worth the price of admission.

    (Aside: why aren’t there more sociological accounts of pre-historical social phenomena? I’d study it but the GSS doesn’t go back that far…)

    It’s also interesting to see how ideas about the relationship between meaning making and motivation have been developed over the years in sociology. As F&M point out, Giddens addressed this with his “ontological security” argument derived from Freudian psychology. Giddens, like F&M, recognized that Goffman (or SI-type stuff more generally) makes little sense without some account of motivation. But F&M’s argument is more persuasive (at least to this post-Freudian reader) because it relies on a more realistic model of the human mind. But it ultimately arrives at a pretty similar conclusion to Giddens’: we make meaning with other people to avoid our fear of meaninglessness and death.

    It’s a sobering picture, but I must admit that it seems better than a lot of the alternatives available out there in contemporary sociology. Subtle nuances aside, I think F&M are largely right when they argue that “the image implicit in most sociological work is that of unconscious conformity to norms [or habitus!] or adherence to ‘taken for granted’ routines.” They paint a darker, more realistic (if still incomplete, I think) picture of what people are doing when they “make meaning.”

    This is stuff worth chewing on whether you’re an orgs or movements person or not.


    Steve Vaisey

    September 21, 2012 at 9:32 pm

  3. […] a series of really provocative and intriguing posts about his new book, A Theory of Fields (see here and here), which spurred an intense discussion about the various strands of […]


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