inequality perpetuated via organizations – a view from cultural sociology

Sociologists are increasingly recognizing how  organizations facilitate and perpetuate inequality.  Check out the recently published Socio-Economic Review paper, “What is Missing? Cultural Processes and Causal Pathways to Inequality” by Michèle Lamont, Stefan Beljean, and Matthew Clair.

Building on Weber’s concept of rationalization, the authors argue that organizations’ propensity for standardization and evaluation (along with other processes) contribute to inequalities.  Standardization flattens inputs and outputs, subjecting these to comparisons along narrow dimensions.  In addition, those that conform to standards can receive needed resources, leaving outliers to scrap for the remainders:

Standardization is the process by which individuals, groups and institutions construct ‘uniformities across time and space’ through ‘the generation of agreed-upon rules’ (Timmermans and Epstein, 2010, p. 71). While the process implies intention (‘agreed-upon rules’) on the part of social actors, standardization as a process in everyday life frequently has unintended consequences.  The construction of uniformities becomes habitual and taken for granted once the agreed-upon rules are set in place and codified into institutional and inter-subjective scripts (often formal, albeit sometimes also informal). In its industrial and post-industrial manifestations, the process of standardization is part and parcel of the rationalization and bureaucratization of society (Carruthers and Espeland, 1991; Olshan, 1993; Brunsson and Jacobsson, 2000; Timmermans and Epstein, 2010).

….Moreover, the effects of standardization on inequality are often unintended or indeterminate. Indeed, standards are often implemented with the intent of developing a common benchmark of success or competence and are frequently motivated by positive purposes (e.g. in the case of the adoption of pollution standards or teaching standards). Yet, once institutionalized, standards are often mobilized in the distribution of resources. In this process, in some cases, those who started out with standard relevant resources may be advantaged (Buchmann et al., 2010). In this sense, the consequences of standardization for inequality can be unintentional, indirect and open-ended, as it can exacerbate or abate inequality.Whether they are is an empirical issue to be assessed on a case-by-case basis.

One example of this interaction between standardization and social inequality is the use of standards in education as documented by Neckerman (2007). Among other things, her work analyses the rise of standardized and IQ testing in the 1920s in American education and local Chicago education policy. It shows how standardized test scores came to be used to determine admission to Chicago’s best vocational schools, with the goal of imposing more universalist practices. Yet, in reality, the reform resulted in diminished access to the best schooling for the city’s low-income African-American population…. (591-592).

Similarly, evaluation facilitates and legitimates differential treatment of individual persons:

Evaluation is a cultural process that—broadly defined—concerns the negotiation, definition and stabilization of value in social life (Beckert and Musselin, 2013). According to Lamont (2012, p. 206), this process involves several important sub-processes, most importantly categorization (‘determining in which group the entity [. . .] under consideration belongs’) and legitimation (‘recognition by oneself and others of the value of an entity’).

In the empirical literature, we find several examples of how evaluation as a cultural process can contribute to inequality, many of which are drawn from sociological research on hiring, recruiting and promotion in labour markets. The bulk of these studies concern how evaluation practices of organizations favour or discriminate against certain groups of employees (see, e.g. Castilla and Benard, 2010) or applicants (see, e.g. Rivera, 2012). Yet, some scholars also examine evaluation processes in labour markets from a broader perspective, locating evaluation not only in hiring or promotion but also in entire occupational fields.

For instance, Beljean (2013b) studied standards of evaluation in the cultural industry
of stand-up comedy. Drawing on interviews with comedians and their employers as well as ethnographic fieldwork, he finds that even though the work of stand-up comedians is highly uniform in that they all try to make people laugh, there is considerable variation in how comedians are evaluated across different levels of stratification of the comedy industry. Thus, for example, newcomer comedians and star performers are judged against different standards: while the former must be highly adaptable to the taste of different audiences and owners of comedy clubs, the latter are primarily judged by their ability to nurture their fan-base and to sell out shows. Even though this difference does not necessarily translate into more inequality among comedians, it tends to have negative effects on the career prospects of newcomer comedians. Due to mechanisms of cumulative advantage, and because both audiences and bookers tend to be conservative in their judgement, it is easier for more established comedians to maintain their status than for newcomers to build up a reputation. As a result, a few star comedians get to enjoy a disproportionally large share of fame and monetary rewards, while a large majority of comedians remain anonymous and marginalized. (593)

Those looking for ways to curb inequality will not find immediate answers in this article.  The authors do not offer remedies for how organizations can combat such unintended consequences, or even, have its members become more self-aware of these tendencies.   Yet, we know from other research that organizations have attempted different measures to minimize bias.  For example, during the 1970s and 1980s, orchestras turned to “blind” auditions to reduce gender bias when considering musicians for hire.  Some have even muffled the floor to prevent judges from hearing the click of heels that might give away the gender of those auditioning.


An example of a blind audition, courtesy of Colorado Springs Philharmonic.

In any case, have a look at the article’s accompanying discussion forum, where fellow scholars Douglas S. Massey, Leslie McCall, Donald Tomaskovic-Devey, Dustin Avent-Holt, Philippe Monin, Bernard Forgues, and Tao Wang weigh in with their own essays.



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