what we can learn from a theory of fields

First, of all I’d like to thank Neil Fligstein for guest blogging on orgtheory.  Acknowledging his contribution has been long overdue. He wrote 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 institutional theory, the role of agency and change in institutional theory, and the strategic orientation of actors. Rather than rehash that debate I wanted to step back and offer my own take on what I see as some of the most important (potential) contributions of field theory to organizational scholarship.

Even though in his posts Neil framed the book as a response to institutional scholarship, I think the book has more ambitious, broader designs. Their book tries to integrate various research strands and subfields – including, but not limited to, institutional theory and social movement theory – and offer a unified theory of fields and action. In this light, they have more in common with John Levi Martin (JLM), who has written his own treatise on fields and social action, than they do with the hordes of institutional scholars. (Their view of fields certainly owes more to Bourdieu than it does to DiMaggio and Powell’s concept of organizational fields.) They are attempting grand theory in a way that is rarely done in contemporary sociology. The grandness of their theoretical lens is apparent once you consider that they mean for it to apply not only to markets or industries but also to fields that exist within organizations or that describe relations between social movement activists.

The major difference between them (F&M) and JLM or other field theorists is the way they conceptualize fields as sites of collective action (strategic action being the most important form of collective action that actors take to reproduce or change fields). In contrast, JLM is more interested in fields as sites of social action, period. According to F&M, the major problem that faces actors in any field – whether you’re talking about American corporations seeking to deregulate an industry or parents addressing the education needs of their children – is figuring how to cooperate and take collective action so that they can gain advantages over contending groups. Engaging in collective action in order to get an advantage is the motivation that drives field formation, struggle, and change. A strong version of their theory would suggest that changes in meaning systems, rules and norms, or institutional settlements are endogenous to these strategic struggles. In fact, the field itself can be seen as situational, inasmuch as it forms around struggles over ideas and standing. Fields only exist inasmuch as there is some sort of collective action.

A weak version of their theory is that culture exists outside of fields but that meaning becomes situationally contested within fields. Categories, rules, regulation, or other institutions have lives of their own outside of fields, but they become enmeshed within a field inasmuch as actors make them an object of struggle or inasmuch as they form the basis for the advantage one group has over another. So, for example, Jim Crow laws were central to the field of racial segregation that gave white individuals an advantage over black individuals.  Contestation results from attempts by challengers to thwart the advantages held by the more powerful incumbents.

One of the more useful ideas that comes from F&M’s version of field theory is that fields are about action and positional struggles. Rather than defining fields around common membership in a category, consensus about a shared vision of the future, or some nominal characteristic, F&M push us to see fields as oriented around strategic action (i.e., the kind of collective action that actors take to gain advantages over their adversaries). Strategic action doesn’t necessarily need to be obviously conflictual.  Some strategic action is oriented around latent struggles for advantages. For example, when major power disparities exist, it’s unlikely that challengers will be able to mobilize resources sufficiently to do anything about their situation. In those cases, incumbents’ strategic action is geared to maintain their positions, rather than fend off challengers.  Thus, their perspective allows for the possibility that strategic action not only impels change but also underlies field reproduction. “Episodes of contention” only occur during times of uncertainty when the old field order suddenly becomes permeable and capable of change. I think what makes field analysis potentially really interesting is that it not only calls for us to look at the mechanisms that instigate these episodes of contention but also to the mechanisms that facilitate periods of stability.

Another attractive feature of field theory is that it calls on us to pay attention to how actors orient their behavior to the position of other actors and objects in the field.  In F&M’s version of field theory the main positions are incumbents, challengers, and internal governance units (i.e., positions occupied by actors who oversee the smooth reproduction of the field).  Clearly, these are not the only positions that make up a field, but these are the positions that they say matter most to a field’s stability. Importantly, one’s position in the field shapes how an actor understands meanings, rules, and other institutional creations. This is where their perspective differs the most, I think, from most institutional theorists. Individuals can each have a different understanding of the institutional environment (e.g., an institutional logic), depending on their position relative to others in the field. Thus, there is inherent interpretive heterogeneity of institutions in fields.

And now for my critique. My major source of dissatisfaction with F&M’s theory of fields is that it simplifies positional orientation greatly. I think Harrison White’s theory of market order and JLM’s version of field theory offer more nuanced views about field position.  In White’s theory actors in markets/fields are stratified along dimensions of production and pricing, and they adjust their behaviors relative to others adjacent to them.  JLM maintains that an actor’s position relative to others within the field exposes that actor to different forces or imperatives that lead to different kinds of action. There is an endless possibility of positional configurations, which can explain why actors respond so differently in different situations. The multidimensionality of positions in JLM’s view allows for the possibility of surprising kinds of actions that are not reducible to the striving of incumbents or challengers.

So my one big complaint about F&M is that they don’t go far enough in embracing the importance of positions in field theory. Because they’re so focused on the incumbent/challenger distinction, they downplay the divergent positions of actors who occupy the same stratum in a field.  For example, some of the most important sources of field innovation may result from innovations compelled by competition. In fact, there is a surprising lack of focus on competition in F&M’s book. Whereas Neil’s earlier work was all about how actors cooperated to contain competition, this book largely ignores competitive dynamics. This seems like a fairly important omission given that so much of one’s behavior is oriented to competitors. This is true in nearly any setting, whether we’re talking about for-profit businesses competing for market share, students competing for their teachers’ attention, or social movement organizations competing for resources among the activist base.  Another source of positional difference is identity. Actors that occupy the same stratum in a field differentiate by making different claims about “who I am” or “who I am not.” Identity distinctiveness is also positional in the sense that it emerges within a context of comparison to and differentiation from adjacent others.  I bring up competition and identity as examples of kinds of relative position that F&M fail to incorporate in their theory, but the bigger point is that fields are multidimensional and that the incumbent/challenger distinction fails to capture this adequately.

Let me just end by praising F&M for drawing our attention to fields as an important concept that needs further elaboration. Students are hopefully writing dissertations right now that are using the language of fields, positional orientation, and strategic action to explain stability and innovation in social life.  I think the field of organizational scholarship would be greatly improved if scholars began to pay more attention to fields and strategic action.

Written by brayden king

December 12, 2012 at 6:26 pm

2 Responses

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  1. Thanks, Brayden — a very helpful and insightful post on a book that I’m anxious to find time to study more.


    Robert C.

    December 12, 2012 at 7:30 pm

  2. I really love these discussions. I think this is one of the most interesting topics in sociological theory right now. I haven’t had the chance to read the new book but I’m curious as to whether they have any insight as to when actors orient themselves toward profit-seeking (i.e. production, pricing, and innovation) versus rent-seeking.



    December 13, 2012 at 3:02 pm

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