more organizational non-organizational sociology
We’ve been talking about the diffusion of organizational thinking into parts of sociology that don’t identify as “organizational sociology.” Monika Krause’s new book, The Good Project: Humanitarian Relief NGOs and the Fragmentation of Reason, is the latest example of this.
I was familiar with Krause’s name, but the first article of hers I ran into was a 2012 piece on “model systems” in sociology, coauthored with Michael Guggenheim. The paper explores whether sociology has model systems analogous to the fruit fly or E. coli in biology — specific organisms studied by lots of people so that a large body of knowledge can be developed and eventually extended to other organisms.
The paper suggests that yes, sociology does have model systems. Think of Chicago in urban sociology, or the French Revolution in comparative-historical, or doctors in the study of professions. But, due both to the nature of what we study (the city of Chicago can’t be reproduced in a lab in Germany, like mice can) and the difficulty of standardization (there may be many studies of hospitals, but two hospitals will differ more than two C. elegans), cumulation is harder in sociology.
The concept was cool, and it stuck with me. The new book is on a very different topic, although it also touches on the production of knowledge.
The book is an interview-based study of large humanitarian NGOs. It argues that such NGOs are structured to make “good projects” the main goal of desk officers. Because the success of the project is what the organization demands, and officers are rewarded for, they have incentives to provide help that will have measurable short-term effects on groups that are relatively easy to assist. The people who are in need have to compete to show that they are the right kind of population — one that will benefit in the ways desired by donors. This dynamic has a variety of effects on what kind of assistance is provided — some benign, others less so.
I found this particularly interesting because it echoes findings by Joe Gibbons, a PhD student whose committee I’m on. (Defending Tuesday and on the job market — check him out here!) Joe’s dissertation looks at community-based organizations in Newark and Jersey City. He discovered that funding agencies’ focus on maximizing impact — “impact” meaning “numbers of people reached” — meant that when times got tough, groups doing excellent work serving smaller immigrant communities, for example, could lose funding entirely. Others had to adjust their strategies to serve as large a population as possible, even if that didn’t really align with their mission or competency. His quantitative findings also suggested the most disadvantaged neighborhoods tended to be underserved by CBOs — which would be compatible with a donor preference for helping populations likely to show measurable success.
Both of these studies are fundamentally organizational, and find overlapping results. The Good Project is explicitly about how organizations operating within a particular field develop logics that shape those organization’s practices in complex, but comprehensible ways. Joe’s dissertation looks at how city-specific fields of CBOs shape how and to whom services are provided. Yet studies like these — one in the development literature, one in urban soc — are unlikely to be put into conversation with one another.
At any rate, you can preview a nice chunk of The Good Project here. I know I’m looking forward to reading the rest.