“don’t be afraid to push big, bold projects” and “be brave and patient”: Dustin Avent-Holt and Donald Tomaskovic-Devey on producing Relational Inequality Theory (RIT)


Dustin 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, we discuss their book and the process leading up to the production of the book.  Readers who are thinking of how to apply relational inequality theory (RIT), join and bridge scholarly conversations, and/or handle collaborative projects, please take note.

First, I asked Dustin and Don substantive questions about RIT.  Here, both authors describe how they used their workplaces in higher education as laboratories for refining their theory.  Also, Don channeled his disappointment with the limits of Chuck Tilly’s Durable Inequalities into fueling this endeavor.

1. Katherine.  How did you apply the insight of relational inequality in your own lives?  For example, both of you are at public universities – how does knowing relational inequality affect your ways of interacting with other people and institutions?

Dustin. I think for me one of the ways I see this is becoming faculty during the process of writing the book and being in a transitioning institution. I was hired out of grad school to Augusta University when it had just merged with the Medical College of Georgia. With this merger, Augusta University moved from being a teaching-focused college to a comprehensive research university that includes both graduate and undergraduate programs and a mission focused on research. Experiencing this transition  made me think through the daily lives of organizations in a much less structural way as I saw people negotiating and renegotiating the meaning of the institution, the practices and policies, creating new ways of fulfilling institutional roles, etc. I guess in that way it highlighted the work of Tim Hallet on inhabited institutionalism. As university faculty and staff, we didn’t just copy a bunch of templates from the environment, people were translating them and challenging them in the organization. And we still are, 7 years later, and I suspect we will be for a very long time. Organizations at that moment became enactments rather than structures for me, something to be relationally negotiated not simply imported. Don and my endeavor then to understand inequality in this context actually began to make more sense. And in fact during our weekly conversations about the book, I do remember often relating stories to Don of what was going on, and this certainly shaped how I thought about the processes we were thinking through.

I don’t know if that is what you were after in your question, but it is for me this experience shaped how I have come to think about organizations, and became central to how we think about organizations in the book. 

Don. No fair, actually apply a theory in our own lives? Seriously though, I became pretty frustrated with the black hole explanations of local inequalities as reflecting “structure” or “history”. These can be analytically useful, but simultaneously disempowering. Yes, some students come to the University with cultural capital that matches some professors, but this does not make them better students, just relationally advantaged in those types of student-teacher interactions. At the same time the University exploits revenue athletes for its purposes while excluding many others from full participation. The struggles of first gen students and faculty are produced by relational inequalities. 

As a department chair I was keenly aware of the university dance of claims making around status and revenue and that this had to be actively negotiated if our department was going to be able to claim and sequester resources. This sounds and to some extent is harsh, since success might mean taking resources indirectly from weaker or less strategic departments, although it can also feel insurgent if the resource appears to be granted or extracted from the Provost. But the truth is that university resources flow in a complex network of relationships among units, students, legislators and vendors (beware the new administrative software contract!). 

The Dean will pretend this is about your unit’s “productivity”, it’s never that simple.*  It’s also great to have allies, at UMass we have a great faculty union that works to level the playing field between departments and disrupt the administrative inequality dance.

* Katherine’s addition: Check out this satirical twitter feed about higher ed administration for laugh/cries.

2. Katherine.  (I’m building on Chuck Tilly’s comment about scholarship with the term conversations) Your book seeks to enter a conversation with the stratification field by bringing in organizational contexts and relational work. How do you bridge these previously separate conversations?  What kinds of suggestions would help other scholars wishing to connect conversations?

Don. One decision we made early on was to develop the argument through illustrative cases. All of our chapters, except the introduction and conclusion, include cases from multiple disciplines, methods and orientations. We wanted to stress the generality of our argument, while not ignoring the amazing variation in inequality regimes and social scientific methods.

Dustin. I think it involves a lot of translation for both sides. For example, in our initial empirical work using the data on Australian and US organizations we had to reiterate that the observations were of organizations not individuals, as so much stratification scholarship uses surveys of individuals. So, we just had to be clear in communicating that we were focused on organizations. Don is I think more strategic about these things than I am, so likely has better insights, but I do think much of it is about translating across sub-fields. We are often talking about similar or even the same things, but using different theoretical language and so much of that has to just be translated. And some of it as well, is about highlighting aspects of the social world that are not a part of one conversation. Stratification scholars often don’t think about organizations, and organizational scholars often don’t think about inequality (though in both cases of course this is not always true). So, a lot of that work is in making the case for why some phenomenon needs to be a part of the conversation.

Don. When Chuck Tilly’s Durable Inequality was published I was quite excited, but ultimately realized it did not transform discussions of inequality in ways that would make my intellectual projects easier to sell. As we developed Relational Inequality Theory I was probably a little obsessed with why Tilly had failed me. The first realization, and one that the Australian papers embodied, was that he produced a theory but no roadmap as to how to test it. If we go back to Blau and Duncan they had a (thin) theory and a clear methodological roadmap and were wildly successful. Stratification is a fundamentally empirical sub-field, organizations resolutely theoretical. To influence both fields we needed to dial up the game in both directions. Over the years we wrote basic empirical, methods and theory papers aimed at organizational and stratification scholars and eventually in Relational Inequalities sociology writ large.

Of course, as we did this we learned a lot of new things, including rejecting the “weak” functionalism in Durable Inequality in favor of a more dynamic actor centered approach. The latter move created the space to incorporate our version of inhabited institutionalism, critical race and intersectional theory. Our dyadic conversations were consistently influenced by ideas and social positions we found attractive expanding the external conversations that we found important. 

By the time we were writing the book we made distinctions between our various audiences – we had the people who already cared about organizations and inequality as our in-group, but spent much more time trying to enter conversations with others – straight line org and strat folks of course, but critical race, intersectional, labor process and qualitative case audiences as well. We think all of these flavors of sociology contain “truths” that a relational approach to organizational inequalities can both incorporate and reflect.

Next, I asked Dustin and Don questions about their collaborative work process.  They describe how they started working together, in-person, when Don was chair of his dept. and then shifted to weekly virtual meetings and sharing documents via google drive when Dustin joined Augusta.  Don describes how conferences and special issues were key moments for pushing their project along.


3. Katherine.  How did you two start collaborating, and how did you decide on the type of project? How did you decide to handle the writing process and manage the work?  How did this change over time?

Dustin. I was a graduate student of Don’s. And a couple of years into graduate school we began having conversations about how to theorize inequality. Over the course of our conversations I think it became clear to both of us that those studying inequality could use some new theoretical tools to make sense of inequality. Part of this is that everything I was reading was embedded in some type of human capital framework, which didn’t seem like the whole story at least. It was also ceding a lot of ground to economistic thinking that ignores the social nature of economic processes. So, we began conversations that eventually morphed into treating this as a book project. But that is also layering a more coherent story on top of what for me was just a muddling through process of figuring out how to be a sociologist. Like much of our lives, we are trying to figure it out as we go, and things happen through that process of figuring it out.

As for the workflow and writing, we also muddled through that. Early on I was still in grad school and at UMass, so we would meet weekly if not more and these were more or less conversations about big ideas (and also about my dissertation).* When I finished grad school and left it got more complicated, as I was figuring out a new life and job and so it kind of paused. But we picked it back up quickly and developed a workflow that involved weekly skype meetings. And we just kind of divided the work up as we went. We knew the core pieces of the puzzle were exploitation, social closure, and claims-making and so knew those would be chapters. We then worked through a rough outline of the book (one that evolved over time), which began to discipline us in terms of working through chapters. And so, we developed a structure for the chapters that involved writing some key theoretical material followed by empirical examples from the literature. And we would decide in a given chapter what examples to use, and we would each want certain ethnographies or particular studies in there, and we would read or reread those to develop the example.


Don. I totally loved our weekly conversations. When Dustin was still at UMass I was Department Chair and research time was precious – we would meet once a week for wings and beer and push the ideas along as well as shorter check-ins across the week. After he fled to an Assistant Prof job, this continued, two hours a week on skype every Friday morning, no beer, no wings, for years. It was great fun, but the key part of the recipe was scheduled time, weekly agreements on what we both hoped to accomplish next, discovering where we were ignorant and needed to read more, and always reading the other’s work product prior to this week’s meeting. Most importantly was a sense of mutual obligation to the work and each other. 

Let’s not forget the technology. Google scholar made it easy to extend our background reading efficiently, ignoring disciplinary and sub-field borders in search of appropriate cases. Crucially we developed a shared google drive to organize the materials for the book. That drive grew and grew, at this point it’s so big I lose ideas, references, bits of text in it.


As the book matured so did the google drive:


* Katherine.  Follow-up question: Dustin, what did these conversations go over?

Dustin. These were sometimes talking through written drafts and often just free-flowing intellectual conversations. So, a mix of practical and intellectual. Sometimes discussing things I had been reading that week. Things like that.


4. Katherine. How did you integrate other research projects, classes, conferences, talks, etc. into the book project, if at all?

Dustin. Again, Don is more strategic about this than I am, so he organized some conferences around relational inequality and did a few book talks while we were writing. I had two small kids and a new job so did far less of that. He probably has other examples of things he did.

Don. Yes, we were very strategic and relational about this. An intellectual project needs a community to strengthen, debate and apply ideas.  The most formative activity was a series of mini-conferences – two at the Southern Sociological Society annual meeting and one at the Eastern’s that we organized and one at Northeastern organized by Steve Vallas.  There was also a session at the Academy of Management meetings to expose our BSchool friends to our emerging ideas.  Vinnie Roscigno and George Wilson took some of the best papers from these meetings and published two volumes of the American Behavioral Scientist on Relational Inequalities (vol. 1, vol.2). Many of the papers from those conferences appear as cases in the book. More recently we edited a special issue of Research in Social Stratification and Mobility with the same proselytizing goal. Lots and lots of talks around the US and Europe to any audience that would listen and of course conference presentations of the empirical bits as we went.

More recently we have organized the Comparative Organizational Inequality Network. This is a growing group of thirty scientists – sociologists, bschoolers, labor relations and even some economists – in fifteen countries interested in developing research on organizational inequalities. This is an exciting community of scholars and we expect great advances both theoretically and empirically from our joint efforts. 

If you repeat a story often enough to enough people, maybe it will begin to sound reasonable? Or at least familiar. At this point we have been at this for at least fifteen years. Of course, this interview is the latest example.

Oddly, I only incorporated these ideas into my grad teaching in the last few years. I now teach a grad seminar called the Economic Sociology of Inequality.  [9/26/19 update: Download Don’s syllabus: TomaskovicDevey_EconomicSociologySyllabus]

Dustin – do you teach our book in your undergrad Strat class?

Dustin. I’m teaching my undergrad strat class again in the spring, and that is one of the things I’d like to do. It works as a way to frame the basic inequality processes that we can then unpack in empirical examples throughout the course. The ideas are basically there, but I need to incorporate the book itself (and get past the embarrassment of assigning my own book in my class).  


5. Katherine. How did you manage the workflow or work rhythm? (Don mentioned weekly phone or video conferences?  Did you also have other techniques or software?)

Dustin. Our basic workflow centered around weekly meetings, first at a bar when we were in the same university then skype meetings. I’m pretty sure we became more productive though with 10am Friday skype meetings. So, we knew every Friday at 10am we were going to skype, and talk through the book. We did this basically chapter by chapter. Once we had three or so chapters we pitched it to about 4 presses, two of whom pitched it to their editorial board and then Oxford decided to go with it. I guess that was around 2015 or so, and we then worked through writing the book. At the end of each skype meeting we would make a plan for what to do the following week, and we were pretty detailed about what each of us would do. We stuck pretty close to that, which I think make the process go faster. And that was the basic process.

Don. Clearly I did not read ahead. What he said.


6. Katherine.  Any missteps or lessons learned along the way?

Dustin. It may be too soon to know for that. I’m pretty happy, and I can’t think of any major missteps. A lesson learned though has to do with the art of theory itself. Early on I was thinking that what we were doing was establishing Relational Inequality Theory as a finished product and final statement. We were developing in completion its basic components. In some sense I think we have established the basic components of RIT, but I realized at some point that we were really just starting a conversation. Our hope is that people take RIT and move it in varying directions to refine and develop it further. I have some work doing that now, so the lesson is that we shouldn’t make our ideas so stable that they become fossilized. We are continually in a process of developing and refining theory. That was a lesson about doing theory for me.


Don. I agree. One of the key new ideas we introduce in the book revolves around the role of claims making as the interactional mechanism behind organizational closure and exploitation. This has led to new empirical work that I would never have contemplated in the past. Another idea in the book is that these relational processes happened not only within but between organizations. I am hoping that this idea infects organizational and economic sociologies and leads them to recognize and grapple with the big political economic inequality questions. 

I am sure there were missteps and definitely remember disagreements on theoretical framing, narrative organization, audience……. Early on we recognized, I think, that nothing is “correct”, and in fact that perfect is the enemy of the good. If you don’t misstep you don’t move forward. 


Dustin. Yes I think this notion of getting it right when it is published misses the point of science. The goal is to move the ball forward, not to get it “right” at the outset. That is something I learned, definitely walked away from this process understanding better. I imagine if we wrote a follow-up in ten years we would do some things different, hopefully based on how we and others develop RIT in the future. So, getting the ideas moving is what we hope happens with the book.


7. Katherine. Any resources you recommend for aspiring theorists, researchers, and book authors?

Dustin. I don’t have any resources, but I would say don’t be afraid to push big, bold projects. What we do in the book is in some sense unconventional in that we are developing a big theory to redirect a field of inquiry. I think sociology needs this as much as we need incremental studies. So I say go for it!

Don. What he said. Oh, and be brave and patient.


Katherine. And that’s the conclusion of a great interview with Dustin and Don!  They welcome additional questions via their respective Twitter accounts (Dustin and Don) and orgtheory comments.  And don’t forget to read their book Relational Inequality!


2 Responses

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  1. Thanks for this interview! Don – would you be willing to share/post your “Economic Sociology of Inequality” syllabus?


    Dan Hirschman

    September 16, 2019 at 9:26 pm

  2. Thanks for the request, Dan. I’ve embedded a PDF of Don’s “Economic Sociology of Inequality” syllabus. I hear that a @socannex podcast is on its way…



    September 27, 2019 at 12:44 am

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