let’s blame econ soc

The future of organizational sociology may be uncertain, but organizational thinking has diffused widely in sociology. Just look at the most recent ASR. (Less so the current AJS, but we can cut them some slack since Fabio coauthored their one organizational piece.)

But how did we get here? In the comments, I suggested one reason. Org theory’s main research programs — institutional theory, networks, field theory, population ecology — aren’t about “organizations” anymore and as productive as those may have been, they don’t encourage the reproduction of “organizations” as a distinct subfield. It turns out Brayden and Teppo wrote a whole article on this with David Whetten — very much worth a read.

There’s another factor, too, though, that I’m surprised hasn’t come up yet: economic sociology. Economic sociology usually dates itself to Mark Granovetter’s 1985 article on embeddedness, but no one called themselves an economic sociologist circa 1990. They were, mostly, org theorists.

(Viviana Zelizer has a great piece that talks about how, to her surprise, she found her work being redefined as economic sociology. Fligstein and Dauter’s 2007 ARS piece made a similar move, calling performativity a branch of economic sociology — which must have come as a shock to Michel Callon.)

The earliest you can reasonably call econ soc a subfield is 1994, when Smelser and Swedberg published the first Handbook. And really, the year 2000, when econ soc became an ASA section-in-formation, is a more appropriate date.

Econ soc channeled a lot of the intellectual energy that had been focused on organizations (broadly speaking) in a slightly different direction. The section’s organizing committee included Nicole Woolsey Biggart, Neil Fligstein, Mark Granovetter, Brian Uzzi, Fernanda Wanderley, and Harrison White. Most ASA sections have grown in the last decade. But OOW has been flat, while Econ Soc has grown by 55%.

One result was that a new generation of students who might have studied organizations instead did econ soc. I took my comp exam in organizations in 2001 partly because no one had ever taken one in econ soc. Two years later, that would not have been the case.

The effect is that many sociologists who would have studied organizations ended up studying econ soc instead. The ones who stayed in orgs were more likely to be B-school oriented and to take jobs outside soc departments, and that means that today there are few younger scholars who seem themselves as primarily organizational sociologists.

Now, maybe this is just how disciplines evolve. I do consider myself an economic sociologist too, and I think the emergence of econ soc has been enormously generative for the discipline. But sociology is not the most cumulative of disciplines. And there is lots of important stuff that is taught in orgs classes but not in econ soc classes. My fear is that we just lose all that stuff as students trained in other, orgs-influenced subfields stop learning it. Then we’ll have to wait another 20 or 30 years for another generation of scholars to “bring the organization back in.”

Written by epopp

May 23, 2014 at 3:32 pm

Posted in academia, sociology

3 Responses

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  1. Thanks for the great posts, Beth! It is interesting to me that while ‘organizational sociology’ as a whole has been diffusing as you put it, Urban Sociology has really grabbed onto organizations in the past decade. Work I can think of there carries from Sampson, Small, to Marwell. I think one of the reasons why it has had such an appeal is that traditional organizational sociology, like urban sociology, emphasizes the role of context on action. A traditional organizations question would be how managers make decisions or resources get mobilized within an organizational context while an urban question would be what kind of social mobility one has within the city/neighborhood they live within. The implicit debate within the urban scholarship on organizations would seem to be over how much the organization is an entity distinct from it’s local context. Marwell and McQuarrie in particular have embraced this idea, drawing heavily on New Institutionalism and its successors to explain the behavior of organizations. Meanwhile, people like Small and Sampson have placed the primacy on the urban context itself, emphasizing more the networks that organizations create between one another. I am very curious to see where this scholar develops towards as time moves on.



    May 23, 2014 at 3:53 pm

  2. Groundhog Day: see essays by Zuckerman and Davis
    (OOW and Economic Sociology are “like a sociological Minneapolis/St. Paul.”)


    Jerry Davis

    May 25, 2014 at 11:04 pm

  3. That’s a great metaphor — thanks for the link. I think it might be less true in 2014 than it was in 2006, though. The energy in econ soc these days seems to be around valuation, the political-economic interface, categories, finance, culture — areas that are less closely linked to orgs (though obviously there’s overlap). Econ soc has evolved a lot in the last decade in its own direction. But while there’s clearly good work being done in orgs (and I’m planning to write about some of it), the strong new directions don’t jump out to me in the same way.



    May 27, 2014 at 2:39 am

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