can powerful, elite-led organizations lessen inequality?

Hi all, I’m Ellen Berrey. I’ll be guest blogging over the next few weeks about inequality, culture, race, organizations, law, and multi-case ethnography. Thanks for the invite, Katherine, and the warm welcomes! Here’s what I’m all about: I’m an assistant professor of sociology at the University at Buffalo-SUNY and an affiliated scholar of the American Bar Foundation. I received my PhD from Northwestern in 2008. This fall, I jet off from the Midwest to join the faculty of the University of Denver (well, I’m actually going to drive the fading 2003 Toyota I inherited from my mom).  

As a critical cultural sociologist, I study organizational, political, and legal efforts to address inequality. My new book, The Enigma of Diversity: The Language of Race and the Limits of Racial Justice (University of Chicago Press)is officially out next Monday (yay!). I’ll dive into that in future posts, for sure. I’m writing up another book on employment discrimination litigation with Robert Nelson and Laura Beth Nielsen, Rights on Trial: Employment Civil Rights in Work and in Court.  These and my articles and other projects explore organizational symbolic politics, affirmative action in college admissions (also here and here), affirmative action activism (and here), corporate diversity management, fairness in discrimination litigation, discrimination law and inequality (and here), gentrification politics, and benefit corporations.

I’ll kick off today with some thoughts about a theme that I’ve been exploring for many years:

How can powerful, elite-led organizations advance broad progressive causes like social justice or environmental protection? I’m not just referring to self-identified activists but also corporations, universities, community agencies, foundations, churches, and the like. Various arms of the state, too, are supposed to forward social causes by, say, ending discrimination at work or alleviating poverty. To what extent can organizational decision-makers create positive social change through discrete initiatives and policies—or do they mostly just create the appearance of effective action? Time and again, perhaps inevitably, top-down efforts to address social problems end up creating new problems for those they supposedly serve.

To the point: Have you come across great research that examines how organizations can bring about greater equality and engages organizational theory?

I think this topic is especially important for those of us who study organizations and inequality. We typically focus on the harms that organizations cause. We know, for example, that employers perpetuate racial, class, and gender hierarchies within their own ranks through their hiring and promotion strategies. I believe we could move the field forward if we also could point to effective, even inspiring ways in which organizations mitigate inequities. I have in mind here research that goes beyond applied evaluations and that resists the Polly Anna-ish temptation to sing the praises of corporations. Critical research sometimes asks these questions, but it often seems to primarily look for (and find) wrongdoing. Simplistically, I think of this imperative in terms of looking, at once, at the good and bad of what organizations are achieving. Alexandra Kalev, Frank Dobbin, and Erin Kelly’s much-cited American Sociological Review article on diversity management programs is one exemplar. There is room for other approaches, as well, including those that foreground power and meaning making. Together with the relational turn in the study of organizational inequality, this is a promising frontier to explore.

More soon. Looking forward to the conversation.


Written by ellenberrey

May 13, 2015 at 2:08 pm

4 Responses

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  1. Interesting question. No, I’m not aware of a lot of research of this type, but it seems obvious to me that organizations can and sometimes do things that improve social welfare. If you consider that most big organizations produce so many negative externalities, all it would take to improve social welfare is seek to reduce a few of them. Wal-Mart, for example, due to its size is capable of doing a lot of good when they make decisions like raising their minimum wage or switching to renewable energy. Sure, there is definitely a PR motive behind some of these changes, but the changes have real consequences.

    I suppose the reason organizational scholars don’t swoon whenever Wal-Mart of McDonald’s makes a positive change like this is because we’re aware that many of society’s inequities and environmental problems result from the externalities they create. For example, wage inequality has increased dramatically, in part, because excessive CEO compensation diffused throughout the corporate world without a simultaneous increase in the wages of lower-level employees. Sure, Wal-Mart is doing its part to reduce its carbon footprint, but the explosion in carbon emissions is heavily correlated with corporate growth. So, for every little improvement big organizations make, they are still greatly in debt on the externality balance sheet.


    brayden king

    May 15, 2015 at 1:24 am

  2. Big organizations systematically reduce inequality by implementing pay systems that constrain how high (or low) pay goes within their boundaries. When more people work within a few organizations, inequality in the broader society is lower. The over-time correlation between the Gini index and the relative size of corporate employers is -.9 in the US: inequality is lowest when firms are bigger (ca. 1969) and higher when firms are smaller (1950; today). Around the world, unequal countries (like Colombia) have tiny firms; more equal countries (Scandinavia) have surprisingly big firms. See

    The craziest inequalities happen OUTSIDE big organizations, not within them. CEOs earn much more than their employees, but hedge fund managers (who work in tiny organizations) make ludicrously more than CEOs. The 5 top hedge fund managers regularly make as much as all the S&P 500 CEOs combined. The 25 top hedge fund managers earned more than all kindergarten teachers in the US put together. So: small is beautiful, if you like inequality.


    Jerry Davis

    May 15, 2015 at 2:54 am

  3. Interesting research by HBS profs Meyerson and Ely about promoting safety amongst oil rig workers that *might* fit your criteria:



    May 18, 2015 at 1:31 pm

  4. Right, Braydon, sometimes corporations can improve equality by implementing the converse of what creates inequality. That seems the most straightforward way to increase income and wealth parity– although the policy implications of Jerry’s work are complicated and it’s less clear what reforms would address gender and (especially) race inequities.

    Katherine- that is interesting. Erin Kelly, Phyllis Moen, and collaborators also are doing great work on mechanisms for creating gender equality at work. There are some similarities with Meyerson and Ely’s study, in that both identify means of changing the workplace culture. This article of theirs also points to policy interventions–specifically, schedule control and supervisor support–as being especially effective.



    May 18, 2015 at 2:58 pm

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