the relational turn in the study of inequalities and organizations – guest post by Dustin Avent-Holt and Donald Tomaskovic-Devey

On behalf of Dustin Avent-Holt and Donald Tomaskovic-Devey, I am posting their guest post, a must-read for researchers looking for intersections between organizations and stratification.  In their post, they describe the shortcomings of stratification research’s in focusing on “individual” characteristics and how they build upon organizational theory to examine organizations as inequality-generating mechanisms.  Their post ends with possible research AND policy agendas for a more sustainable and equitable future.

By the end of the 1990s we began to see a relational turn in sociology, perhaps expressed most clearly in Mustafa Emirbayer’s Relational Manifesto. The core claim is that the basic unit of analysis for sociology (or perhaps the social sciences writ large) should be, neither the individual nor macro-level institutions, but the social relations between actors.

This relational claim is, of course, not new. Classical sociologists –Simmel, Marx, Mead, Blumer, Goffman– treated relationality as fundamental. All of symbolic interactionism, the economic sociologies of Granovetter’s embeddedness paradigm and Zelizerian relational work, organizational field theory, and the strong growth in network science are all contemporary exemplars.

But relationality was blurred in the mid-20thcentury though by the growth in statistical techniques and computer software packages that enabled the analysis of surveys of individuals. Blau and Duncan’s pathbreaking American Occupational Structure became the state of the art for stratification research, but it had the side effect of obscuring – both theoretically and methodologically – the relationality that undergirds the generation of inequalities.

Simultaneously, organizational sociology had its own theoretical blinders. The move towards New Institutionalism obscured the older focus on stakeholders and dominant coalitions, refocusing on legitimating processes in the environment through which organizations isomorphically converged. Charles Tilly’s book Durable Inequalities critiqued the status attainment model partly by adopting this view of organizations, treating organizations as inequality machines mechanically matching internal and external categories.

In the world of org theory the blind duplication of organizational structures has recently been critiqued from the inside, by both the inhabited institutionalism of Hallett and Ventresca and the institutional work perspective of Lawrence and Suddaby. Actors actively constitute aspects of the organizational environment within organizations, producing local translations of environmental pressures. At the same time, organizational actors actively reconstruct the institutions in their organizational field.


In our new book, Relational Inequalities: An Organizational Approachwe nurture the relational roots of sociology, in both stratification and organizations, in order to better make sense of the organizational processes creating inequalities. The core of the book develops a theoretical model of the inequality-generating process: Relational Inequality Theory (RIT). We hang our organizational hat on inhabited institutionalism and Joan Acker’s concept of inequality regimes to conceptualize organizations as social spaces in which categorically unequal actors negotiate status and claim organizational rewards and resources. We also stress that these power infused processes happen both within and between organizations.

Here is our argument in a nutshell: Resources, like money, jobs and dignity, are generated in organizations. Actors makes claims on those resources. Some people are denied access to organizational resources through processes of social closure. Others appropriate resources based on their ability to exploit weaker actors in interactional and exchange relationships. Actors are more or less powerful in these claims making processes. Relational power tends to be associated with categorical distinctions such as class, occupation, gender, education, citizenship, race, and the like. Institutions and organizational fields influence, but do not determine, categories, actions and opportunities. Rather, actors use cultural and other tools to devise local strategies of action. The strong tend to win, but not always.

Thus, inequality is not a mechanical process of linking individual traits to resources, as in human capital and status attainment theories. Nor is it a process of political and economic institutions in the environment enforcing particular inequality regimes. Instead, intersectionally multiplex actors make claims on resources, and other actors ratify or contest those claims. Resources flow to those actors who can mobilize legitimate claims to resources, producing inequality regimes within and between organizations.

Recognizing relationality takes the ghost out of the machine. There are no magical, mechanical, or natural properties that uniformly lead to inequality distributions. Actors negotiate the value of particular properties, products, skills, credentials, status characteristics, and individual traits, and make claims as to what traits should be linked to what kinds and amounts of resources. Other actors react, ratify, and repress.

A relational view is useful not only for better understanding the social processes through which inequalities emerge, but also for finding ways to address them. If organizations are the generators of inequality, we need to direct our egalitarian efforts at organizations themselves. And so creating egalitarian organizations requires a revaluation of categories of actors. In our final chapter we propose a set of concerted political moves to reframe what matters within organizations.

First, organizations must move from exaggerating categorical distinctions to valuing our universal humanity. Humans evolved within small-groups, leading to a fear of and permission to exploit the outside other. Egalitarian organizations must recognize the intrinsic value and worth of all actors, in and out of the organization. Egalitarian markets must constrain the ability of powerful firms to exploit customers and suppliers.

Second, organizations must shift from valuing hierarchies, and the power it affords to those at the top, to valuing organizational citizenship. Instead of organizational practices and routines that empower a small slice of the organization to dictate the terms of their own and others’ work, organizations must empower all actors to act as stakeholders with legitimate claims. Egalitarian institutions must transfer the excess wealth of dominant firms back into society.

And finally, organizations must move from valuing markets and merit to valuing human dignity. We are a society of organizations, but organizations have come to understand themselves as mere pawns in a society governed by markets. This leads many to worship at the alter of pseudo-market logics, while simultaneously masking their own complicity in generating injustice. The meritocracy band aid is no better, it simply uses a logic that exaggerates particular status hierarchies, usually around education. Prioritizing human dignity will force organizations to concern themselves not with narrow outcomes such as shareholder returns or who gets the merit raise, but individual flourishing, environmental sustainability, and community development. Egalitarian cultural frames must encourage us to attach worth to people, not return on investment.

Our hope is that RIT will enable social scientists to better understand the actual relational processes that generate inequality and provide normative tools to design organizational alternatives to the tribal, hierarchical, and market fundamentalist organizational ecosystem.



Written by katherinechen

September 5, 2019 at 6:09 pm

3 Responses

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  1. Why calling it “a relational approach to institutions” instead of using its real name: “a communist manifesto for organizational studies”?? Is there any empirical insights in this “research” or is it just a progressivist religious indoctrination?



    September 7, 2019 at 3:01 pm

  2. Great post.


    Fabrizio Coltellaro

    September 10, 2019 at 9:55 am

  3. […] Avent-Holt and Donald Tomaskovic-Devey, who collaboratively published their book Relational Inequalities: An Organizational Approach (Oxford University Press), graciously agreed to do a joint email interview with orgtheory!  Here, […]


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