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state of the field article on field theory in non-profit organizations, by Emily Barman, now available

We’re at the halfway mark in July.  Looking for summer reading that covers the latest sociological theories in non-profit research?  Emily Barman has a “state of the field” article on the use of field theory in the non-profit organizations literature in the Organizations and Work section of Sociology Compass.

Here’s the abstract for her article “Varieties of Field Theory and the Sociology of the Non-profit Sector:”


This paper reviews the use of field theory in the sociological study of the non-profit sector. The review first shows how field theory, as a conceptual framework to explain social action, provides a valuable sociological counterweight to prevailing economic and psychological orientations in the interdisciplinary scholarship on the non-profit sector. However, despite its certain shared assumptions, field theory in sociology encompasses three distinct, albeit interrelated, approaches: the Bourdieusian, New Institutionalist, and Strategic Action Fields perspectives. I comparatively outline the key analytical assumptions and causal claims of each version of field theory, whether and how it recognizes the specificity of the non-profit sector and then delineate its application by sociologists to the non-profit sector. I show how scholars’ employment of each articulation of field theory to study non-profit activity has been influenced by pre-existing scholarly assumptions and normative claims about this third space. The article concludes by summarizing the use of these varieties of field theory in the sociology of the non-profit sector and by identifying future directions in this line of research.

Also, Emily has a new book available, titled Caring Capitalism: The Meaning and Measure of Social Value (2016, Cambridge University Press)!  Check out the book blurb here.

Written by katherinechen

July 11, 2016 at 4:49 pm

how field theory can inform strategy research

The field of strategy research could learn something from field theory. Ed Walker and I make this point in a forthcoming paper, “Winning hearts and minds: Field theory and the three dimensions of strategy,” now published online at the journal Strategic Organization.  We argue that strategy researchers too narrowly conceptualizes strategy, focusing almost exclusively on financial performance and ignoring firms’ (or elites’) motivations to attain status and power. When strategy scholars pay attention to status they usually only do so as an independent variable – a precursor to financial performance. Field theory forces us, we think, to consider the broader struggles for control and dominance that propel firms, elites, and other actors to take action. Shaping public perceptions is one of the main ways in which social actors improve their status and attain more power, and so an important component of strategy involves actively managing impressions – i.e., what people think and how they feel about key issues and actors.

Strategy research—and to some degree social movement theory as well—portrays organizations as resource-accumulating machines. The ultimate measure of success is financial performance. Another way to conceptualize organizations is as social actors whose primary function is to manage the impressions and perceptions of their various audiences. Their ultimate goal is to maintain positions of dominance. Resource accumulation depends on the ability of an organization to gain favorability and esteem. Shaping public perceptions about why one organization deserves favor is key, then, to long-term survival. But there exists an alternative and more long-term rationale for shaping public perceptions: for organizations to gain positions of prominence and power in society, they must be able to influence the rules of the game and the cultural norms and belief systems that shape who wins and who does not…

What role does strategy have in this conflict-ridden view of the world? In our estimation, strategy can be conceptualized as having three dimensions. We take inspiration from the ideas of Max Weber (1922 [1978]) in his classic essay on “Class, Status, and Party” in order to understand the features of strategy. We argue that strategy research has focused almost exclusively on financial performance (“class,” in Weber’s resource-based view of economic positions) and management’s role in shaping it. However, Weber’s conceptualization suggests that firms ought to be at least as concerned with prestige or esteem (“status”) or on the relative leverage of various stakeholders and policymakers upon firms’ actions (“party”). ..

[W]e find three major limitations in strategy research. First, it is far too focused upon firm performance at the expense of understanding strategic elements of relative status and sources of power/vulnerability. Second, its perspective is often far too short term and does not pay enough attention to all three of the aforementioned aspects of strategy, especially in the context of the “long game” of business maneuvering. Third, it downplays the extent to which businesses’ capacities for accumulating resources, maintaining reputations, and obtaining political leverage are all subject to conflict with other actors whose own relative position depends on their ability to convince the public of their alternative ideologies and worldviews.

In the paper we talk more about research focused on political influence, in particular, ought to shift away from the specialty areas of “nonmarket strategy” or “political strategy” and move to the forefront of strategy research.

Written by brayden king

April 14, 2014 at 2:22 pm

new review of fligstein/mcadam’s field theory

David Hess, of Vanderbilt’s soc dept., has a review of Theory of Fields. You can read it at Mobilizing Ideas. A few good choice clips:

Field theory is of general importance in the social sciences because it provides a way to balance tendencies toward structural determinism and agency as well as micro and macro scales of analysis. There are many theory traditions of field sociology, and F&M provide a discussion of some of them, but in terms of accumulated symbolic capital such as citations, Bourdieu’s field theory is clearly the leader and arguably the most intellectually significant point of comparison.  Having found a somewhat loose appropriation of Bourdieu’s field sociology to be valuable in the study of science, technology, social movements, and society, I am sympathetic with F&M’s use of Bourdieu’s work and willingness to modify it as they see fit.


In summary, the book is likely to have considerable influence for many reasons, including the symbolic, temporal, and social capital of the authors in the field of sociology and their interest in connecting diverse approaches to the concept of fields in several subfields of sociology. Their project explicitly resists the tendency for researchers in, for example, organizational sociology to develop field theories without the benefit of similar work going on in economic sociology and social movement studies.  Thus, they see the concept of strategic action fields as enabling a broad intra- and interdisciplinary conversation with related conceptual frameworks, such as work on organizational fields, games, networks, and policy domains and systems.

See previous orgtheory discussion of Theory of Fields here and here.

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Written by fabiorojas

June 25, 2012 at 12:03 am

Posted in everything, fabio, sociology

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.

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by katherinechen

September 5, 2019 at 6:09 pm

all the institutionalism i’ve loved before

A couple of years ago, I accepted a pile of requests for edited volume chapters. Not the greatest career move, but since many were going into volumes that will probably have an impact, I said yes. I respected the editors of these volumes and I am hoping that they will be picked up in the literature. The upside is that I now know institutional theory on a very, very deep level. Here’s what I wrote. Check it out if it interests you:

  1.  The Oxford bibliography on institutionalism.  If you need a “quick and dirty” over view of key texts and arguments, this is it. It is a nice warm up to a full blown text like Dick Scott’s Institutions and Organizations or reading the classics from the 1970s and 1980s like DiMaggio & Powell 1983 or Meyer  & Rowan 1977.
  2. Politics and institutionalism. This one, co-authored with Peter Lista, appears in the SAGE Handbook of Political Sociology. I think this is a really nice overview of the field aimed specifically at political sociologist/political scientists.
  3. Race and institutionalism.  You can read this as a warm up to recent work like Victor Ray’s recent ASR article on race and organizations. It takes a different, field-theoretic view of things, but it was written a bit before that piece and is trying to make sense of some of the same processes. The main point is simple – racial schemas are inputs and outputs of the processes that field theory and institutionalism talk about.
  4. Movements and institutionalism. Written with Brayden King, we try to argue that social movement scholarship is too constrained by a focus on the challenger-incumbent dynamic. Instead, we suggest movements start change in fields in a variety of ways.

What is the new thing in new institutionalism? Put it in the comments!


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Did Obama tank the antiwar movement? Party in the Street
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Written by fabiorojas

March 14, 2019 at 4:26 am

Posted in uncategorized

hermeneutic institutionalism – what is to be gained?

It’s not every day that something in the institutional literature surprises me. At this point in my career, I’ve been completely immersed in institutionalism, such much that I have literally been asked to write at least four separate handbook chapters on various aspects of institutionalism.* It was a pleasure then, to discover that one of my old grad school professors, Andreas Glaeser, wrote an article in 2014 about hermeneutics and institutions in Qualitative Sociology.

So what is in this evocatively titled article? Basically, it lays out an approach to sociology that one might call “hermeneutic sociology.” Drawing on late 19th century and early 20th century, Glaeser argues that sociology, or at least cultural theory, is all about the process of understanding. In his view, the basic element of cultural analysis is an investigation of how future actions follow from prior actions by flowing from individual understandings of the world. Thus, the premise of the “sociology of understanding” is that the fundamental act of sociology is uncovering of how people orient themselves and order themselves in the world.

I agree with Andreas that this is probably a firmer grounding than, say, Durkheimian sociology or functionalist sociology. It is not too hard to begin with the assumption that people are “homo interpretus,” viewers and analyzers of the world. The basic metaphor is that humans are constantly embedded in webs of meaning and react to them.

Now, how does this lead to institutional theory? If I get the arguments, is that chains of understanding and validation are a better way to analyze the types of social regularities that catch the attention of neo-institutional theory. In other words, if you observe that colleges adopt a uniform set of anti-harassment policies, it isn’t enough to simply wave your hands and say “isomorphism” or “efficiency,” if you lean rational choice. You still need to find a second order explanation for why the adoption of these policies make sense at all. By focusing on webs of meaning and validation of understandings, you can get a story of coordination and regularity.

I think where I would criticize this article is noting that it doesn’t really capture current institutional thought beyond the class articles of the 1980s. For example, institutionalism has really reshaped itself after, say, 2000 with the rise of institutional entrepreneurship theory, inhabited institution theory, and institutional work theory. I might also toss in Fligstein’s social skill theory and the Fligstein and McAdam book on field theory. These works are, for the most part, I think, consistent with Glaeser’s sociology of understanding. They depart from the cultural dope model and really think about culture as being instrumental (inst. work theory), constituted through action and understanding (inhabited institutions), and reliant on recursive social structures (Fligstein and McAdam’s A Theory of Fields).

I still think Glaeser is onto something. There is something about the basic phenomenology of action within organizations and institutions that is missed when we reduce all to habitus (e.g., Bourdieu or even Fligsten and McAdam 2012) or strategic actions (as I discuss in chapter 3 in Theory for the Working Sociologist). I would be interested to see if the sociology of understanding can be effectively used to tackle the sorts of administrative behaviors founds in contemporary institutional research.

*If institutionalism is your thing, they are: the Oxford bibliography on institutionalism, politics and institutionalism, race and institutionalism, and movements and institutionalism. This probably deserves its own post…


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A theory book you can understand!!! Theory for the Working Sociologist (discount code: ROJAS – 30% off!!)
The rise of Black Studies:  From Black Power to Black Studies 
Did Obama tank the antiwar movement? Party in the Street
Read Contexts Magazine– It’s Awesome!!!!

Written by fabiorojas

March 12, 2019 at 4:01 am

Posted in uncategorized

theory for the working sociologist: undergraduate version

Theory for the Working Sociologist was designed to be a stand alone book. You could pick up this short, spiffy book and quickly get the basic intuitions behind modern sociology. For that reason, it will be used primarily as a text book. This post, and an upcoming post next week, will describe how you can use Theory for the Working Sociologist as a tool for the classroom.

First, you must mentally re-orient yourself as a theory instructor. Drop the idea that you are teaching history of sociology, or Great Books, or philosophy of science. Instead, say, “my one and only job is to teach the main theories of sociology.”

Repeat that a few more times.

Take some deep breaths.

Feel better? I thought so.

Of course, if you want to briefly mention history of the history or whatever, that’s OK. But your real job is teaching theory in a way that would make sense to a normal student at your institution. If they are a sociology major, they want sociological explanations of real social processes, not history of sociology.

Second, your syllabus will have a handful of sections that lay out major theoretical perspectives. You can copy the book, or build your own. Here’s how I do it: inequality/power; values/culture/structure; social construction; rational choice. Then, each section will use the corresponding section of the book.

Third, you will need lots of concrete examples to flesh out the theories mentioned in the text book. This is where you want one of those nice fat anthologies of social theory. My favorite is Charles Lemert’s Social Theory: Multicultural, Global, and Classic Readings. This has almost all you need. The only thing it misses is rational choice/strategic action readings. Fortunately, those are easy to find.

Fourth, it will now be easy to populate each section. For undergrads, I usually have them read some actual sociology and then use the chapters in my book to explain the “big picture.” In my version of power and inequality, I do this exactly:

  1. Marxism
  2. Weber: bureaucracy, class/status/party, legitimate domination
  3. Race: DeBois, Fanon
  4. Gender: DeBeauvior, West/Zimmerman, Woolf’s essay
  5. Intersectionality: PH Collins, Field theory: Bourdieu and chapter 2 of Theory

Notice how this module on power/inequality has a lovely structure. All readings have a uniform theme: describing different mechanisms for creating and sustaining inequality. You also get a nice theoretical development. You start with simpler theories based on fewer variables (e.g., Marx) and then move to theories that have more moving parts (e.g. Bourdieu and intersectionality theory). Then, you use Theory for the Working Sociologist to provide a really succinct framing of the readings.

When I explained this to a colleague recently, he gasped, “if you teach gender in your theory course, what will that do to the regular gender course?” Answer: preparation. Once a student has seen how some basic ideas about gender fit into the discipline’s larger conceptual architecture, they can gain a deeper appreciation of what happens in a semester long course on gender.

You will also notice how you avoid a problem of most theory teaching – the assumption that classical sociologists had a uniform view or perspective in their writings. This may be true of Marx or Durkheim, but not Weber or Simmel. Weber was a stratification guy, and a culture guy, and a historical guy, and a political economy guy. So why pretend there is one neatly summarized “Weber” view? Instead, you can teach stratification Weber in the inequality section and the Protestant Ethic Weber in the section on culture and social structure. If you separate out a selection from Protestant Ethic, then you can do logical follow ups, like Swidler’s article on cultural toolkits which is a direct commentary on Weber.

Final note: What readings do I use for rational choice theory? This is really the only weakness of the Lemert anthology. The closest one can find is a vaguely utilitarian essay by John Stuart Mill. Luckily, the undergrads only need a few good readings. So I assign a few pages from Becker’s The Economic Approach to Human Behavior, Coleman on social capital, and the wiki on the median voter theorem, which always generates good discussion.


50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($4.44 – cheap!!!!)
A theory book you can understand!!! Theory for the Working Sociologist (discount code: ROJAS – 30% off!!)
The rise of Black Studies:  From Black Power to Black Studies 
Did Obama tank the antiwar movement? Party in the Street
Read Contexts Magazine– It’s Awesome!!!!

Written by fabiorojas

December 21, 2018 at 5:22 am

Posted in uncategorized

socarxiv highlights for april

Welcome back for a second round of monthly SocArXiv highlights. This is a way to call out a handful of the many papers that were posted in April, focusing mostly and sociology and reflecting my totally idiosyncratic tastes. Some are working papers or forthcoming articles; some are preprints of recently published work. All are freely available via OSF.

Disclaimer: I make no claim to peer review or to evaluation of the papers here. Read it yourself before you cite!

The Price of an Uncertain Promise: Fair Value Accounting and the Shaping of Bank Counterparty Risk Valuation Practices

Taylor Spears

This paper, which lies at the intersection of social studies of finance and institutionalism/field theory, is a fascinating look at how the adoption of fair value accounting by the Financial Accounting Standards Board affected the financial modeling practices used by banks. Consistent with MacKenzie (2011), the paper finds competing and conflicting valuation processes within and across organizations, and that the new standards tipped the balance in favor of a set of practices aligned with financial economics. The paper does a really nice job of showing how institutional and sociomaterial explanations can be complementary, and that both are needed to understand this kind of change.

Cultural Meanings and the Aggregation of Actions: The Case of Sex and Schooling in Malawi

Margaret Frye

This paper was published in ASR last year, but it went up on SocArXiv this month, so fair game. Maggie Frye does great and original work linking cultural accounts and demographic data. By moving between empirical evidence on sexual behavior and school-leaving, and student/teacher accounts of why sexual relationships cause girls to leave school, Frye produces a compelling account of how causal narratives — even inaccurate ones — influence actions in ways that have population-level effects.

Two from the sociology of science:

Men Set Their Own Cites High: Gender and Self-citation across Fields and over Time

Molly King, Carl Bergstrom, Shelley Correll, Jennifer Jacquet, Jevin West


The Matthew Effect in Science Funding

Thijs Bol, Mathijs de Vaan, and Arnout van de Rijt

The findings of these two papers may not be shocking, but both provide important new evidence of the effects they describe. The King et al. paper, published in Socius last year, shows that men cite their own work 70% more than women, and that these numbers have not changed over the last fifty years. The Bol et al. paper, published this year in PNAS, shows that early career researchers just above the funding threshold of a major European grant accumulate twice as much funding over the next eight years as those just below it. The practical takeaway, though, is that part of the gap happens because initially unfunded applicants subsequently apply for fewer grants, not only because successful applicants are more likely to be funded down the road. So women, cite your own work, and rejected grant applicants, keep on trying.

Can Cultural Consumption Increase Future Earnings? Exploring the Economic Returns to Cultural Capital

Aaron Reeves and Robert de Vries

Just yesterday a graduate student asked me if anyone had looked at whether Lauren Rivera’s finding about the cultural matching that goes on at elite firms applies to other occupational settings. I said I didn’t know of work that did (though tell me if I’m wrong!), and then I ran into this paper, forthcoming in the British Journal of Sociology. While it doesn’t look at matching per se, it does examine whether cultural consumption predicts future earnings, upward social mobility, and promotions. (Answer: yes.) This seems like an area that is ripe for interesting work and where relationships are likely to vary a great deal across industry, occupation, and location.

Okay, that’s it for this time. Keep on posting your working papers and preprints to SocArXiv and I’ll keep on sharing — at least as much as I can.

Written by epopp

May 1, 2018 at 10:33 pm

Posted in research

levy book forum 2: political theory and the nature of society

A few weeks ago, I began reviewing Jacob Levy’s new book Rationalism, Pluralism, and Freedom. The main point of the book is that you can’t have it both ways. A political liberalism that restrains the state can’t, at the same time, celebrate the civil sphere without qualification because civic associations themselves can become illiberal. Private groups can behave in fairly repressive ways that resemble what states do.

As I wrote, the book is lengthy and covers a lot of ground. In this part of the review, I want to delve a little into Part II, which examines how political theory has thought about the state. I think sociologists might enjoy this because it provides an alternative to how we think about states. In modern sociology, states, per Weber, are holders of legitimate force, or they are the place where ultimate authority is created and exercised. Perhaps a Bourdieusian might suggest that it is a place for statecraft, while a post-Bourdieusian view, like that espoused by McAdam and Fligstein (2012), would see it as an “ultimate” field that overlaps with other fields.

What does Levy draw from the discussion of states over the course of political theory? Perhaps most interesting to sociologists is the idea that modern states are not so much about violence, but rather the centralization of force and violence. Second is the response to centralization – things outside states are about self governance rather than governance by others. So, as we shifted away from the middle ages to modernity, we built big fat states, which encouraged people to assert independence in various forms (guilds, universities, etc.) There is much more to Levy’s analysis, but this captures a crucial starting point. Third, modern notions of freedoms are about trying to pull together all the concessions made to individual freedom by states during their formation. A lot of political theory is about trying to provide a more integrated account of freedom because in the middle ages freedom was defined in an ad hoc and disconnected way.

What should sociologists draw from this? One obvious lesson is that a crucial dimension of fields, such as states, is vestment in governance. In a particular field, or social domain, who has the authority? Is there a lot of self-governance? Centralized power? Or some sort of collegium model? Second, rights – political rights in Levy’s case – may be scattered or concentrated. Thus, in understanding fields, it is not about inequality or resources, but also about claims over resources and autonomy. As the case of political rights shows, rights can be broken up (e.g., right to trade, right to free speech) and effort (“institutional work” in modern jargon) must be expended to make the right more coherent in its context. The big lesson is that maybe field theory, and the sociology of states, focuses too much on resource inequality and should think more carefully about autonomy and control.

Next week, I’ll focus on Levy’s claims about the ills of private associations. Thanks for reading.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($4.44 – cheap!!!!)/Theory for the Working Sociologist (discount code: ROJAS – 30% off!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street / Read Contexts Magazine– It’s Awesome!

Written by fabiorojas

November 9, 2017 at 5:01 am

commentary on dylan riley’s essay on bourdieu

Dylan Riley has an essay in a Catalyst Journal about the popularity of Bourdieu in American academia. Riley makes two claims. First, Bourdieu can’t be popular because he is accurate because Bourdieu is completely wrong. Second, Bourdieu is popular because his theory allows academics to feel good in a world where they have little connection to real world struggle. This blog post is a criticism and discussion of Riley’s second claim, as I think it is an incomplete and misleading account of Bourdieu’s popularity.

Let’s start with where I agree with Riley. Like Riley, I do not believe that Bourdieu provides a terribly accurate account of social class. I won’t delve into this point, except to note that even some hard core Bourdieusians have had tough times when they work with the data. For example, the second edition of Annette Lareau’s Unequal Childhoods has a new appendix noting that variation in school attitudes – the paragon habitus variable – does not explain long term school attainment. Even in DiMaggio’s 1992 article on the association between cultural capital and high school grades, the results were mixed. Cultural capital measures had an impact mainly on humanities subjects but not math (see Tables 3 and 4), which reeks of endogeneity to me. I.e., if cultural capital is possession of knowledge and exposure to cultural norms, then that would mean that knowledge of culture is correlated with… knowledge of culture.

Now, where do I disagree with Riley? I think Riley has an odd, skewed  and, ironically, Bourdieusian theory of how science achieves prominence. In other words, when we ask why a scientific or scholarly theory is accepted, Riley only focuses on two answers: it is true or it is politically valuable within the field of science. A focus on truth and self-interest leads Riley to overlook other factors that bolster a theory. They include the aesthetics of the theory (“this is elegant”), the theory’s association with high status individuals or institutions, or the theory’s conceptual suppleness, which I think is really at work with Bourdieu’ popularity.

By conceptual suppleness, I mean that the theory is useful for describing things, providing a language for some range of phenomena, and it is very easy for a lot of scholars to generate hypotheses about the world (including wrong hypotheses). When you read a lot of “applied Bourdieu,” which is a requirement when you work in the fields of education and organizational analysis, you quickly realize that Bourdieu’s basic terms have an incredible, but non-trivial, flexibility. I make this argument in chapter 2 of my new social theory book, where I claim that what is attractive about field and habitus theory is that it is a way to seamlessly integrate the idea that there are distinct areas of social life (“fields”), these fields has specific hierarchies and resources (“forms of capital”) and that stratification is not only about violence, but inequality in terms of how people instinctual knowledge of the field (“habitus”) is deployed.

At various points, Riley downplays the importance of field theory as a way of thinking  about or describing social life, but I think that is misguided. Basically, anything that occurs in an institutional context can be usefully thought of as a field. Let’s take one of Riley’s examples – labor. He write the following:

“One general problem with the ludic or field view of the social is that there are many zones of social life that are not configured like games. One of these is the world of labor, in the sense of material transformation and creation. Even in the most exploitative and alienated conditions, labor involves a collective effort at transformation and is therefore oriented toward a project, not toward “stance taking” or “distinction” in a field.”


Riley assumes, in this passage, that collective action and “stance taking” are incompatible processes. If I understand this argument, Riley is trying to argue that cooperation and the seeking of position can’t happen at the same time. There are a few reasons to think that this not quite right. For example, in actual workplaces, there is almost always a division of labor, which some tasks or jobs getting more recognition than others. Perhaps Riley was thinking about the political aspects of labor. Once again, people participate in labor politics, which has its own internal organization – some people become leaders, acquire status or honor within the domain of labor politics. This can all be done while people break out of the ideological “misrecognition” of capitalist society that Riley alludes to.

In fact, one of the most fecund lines of thought to emerge from Bourdieu’s work is that written by Doug McAdam, Neil Fligstein, Sidney Tarrow and others in the “Dynamics of Contention” tradition. In that line of thought, you don’t see collective action as incompatible with older field theories. Rather, you see contention as a normal aspect of fields. Collective action is inherent in fields; they are challenged and disrupted over time.

You might not agree with the dynamics of contention school in social movements research. Certainly, many of my co-bloggers don’t. But it is easy to see that the Bourdieusian framework gives you a lot to work with, even if some of its hypotheses don’t work out.

Riley is certainly onto something when he claims that Bourdieusian sociology allows people to have a certain cache, a political hipness. Riley explains:

“Bourdieu’s sociology, however, offers something more than a generalization of the “professorial” experience. It also offers an identity, one with certain parallels to what Lenin called the “professional revolutionary.” Bourdieusian sociologists are a vanguard. They possess insights into the workings of the social world that derive from their social theory but are denied to the laity mired in the swamp of common sense and everyday understandings.”

However, take a step back and ask if Bourdieusianism is really the Leninism of modern academia. For some in the post-Cold War world, it might be. For some folks, Bourdieu provides the academic with a sense that they have figured it all out, that they have the secret code. If it’s a revolutionary impulse, it’s an incredibly muted one that lacks anything but a vague left politics.

But if you span the wide range of academia that uses Bourdieu, the education schools, the business schools, the sociologists, the ethnic studies scholars, and even the music scholars, you simply get the view that Bourdieu has tapped into something simple. We actually do live in circumscribed worlds that have rules and resources, and we need a language to describe it. Bourdieu doesn’t have the last word, but he’s part of the conversation.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($4.44 – cheap!!!!)/Theory for the Working Sociologist (discount code: ROJAS – 30% off!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street / Read Contexts Magazine– It’s Awesome 

Written by fabiorojas

October 3, 2017 at 4:01 am

will sociology build the wall? on objectivity in social science

(The following is a guest post from Barış Büyükokutan)

ASA President-Elect Mary Romero’s call to put sociology in the service of social justice by doing away with “false notions of ‘objectivity’” triggered a fierce debate about the public mission of sociology. In opposition to Romero’s position and Juan Pablo Pardo-Guerra’s defense of that position, I would like to point out that objectivity is not opposed to social justice. On the contrary, objectivity is a prerequisite of any effective prosecution of injustice.

We live in a time period in which injustice is objectively a problem, both for scholars as a puzzle – i.e. “why so much injustice here but not there” – and for citizens as actual experiences. And we do not lack for decent methods of showing this objective reality. Take, for a very basic instance, the Gini coefficient, which is not just relatively easy to calculate but also easy to explain to laypeople: by the Gini coefficient, the United States has less social justice than Finland, Switzerland or New Zealand; that is a fact. Even if such facts are already interpretations, some interpretations are more authoritative than others. More importantly, it is difficult – though, I admit, not impossible – to interpret ad infinitum against reality. We sociologists might want to keep to those “interpretations” rather than shooting ourselves in the foot by pointing out, for instance, that the Gini coefficient has many weaknesses without explaining that its weaknesses are tolerable for good reasons in many, if not most, contexts.

At the heart of my argument, therefore, is a commitment to the pursuit of reality: there is a reality out there, independent of what any one person might think of it. (It obviously doesn’t mean there is a reality independent of what all persons think; social reality is, after all, transitive.) A commitment to objectivity, in other words, is a commitment to following the study of reality wherever it takes us. As such, if an aspect of reality is unjust – if people are treated unfavorably, as a fact, simply because they are not male, white, straight, or middle-class, for example – objectivity requires, first, acknowledging that reality. Second, it requires trying and changing that reality with skillful means—objectively speaking, individual human beings have very similar capabilities, therefore arrangements that treat them differently are objective violations of this higher aspect of reality. By skillful means, I intend simply that one has to take responsibility for one’s actions. Good intentions do not by themselves good people make; people with good intentions have to at least try to find effective ways of getting the right things done. Max Weber was right here—we cannot limit ourselves to an ethic of ultimate ends; an ethic of responsibility is also required of the scholar.

Objectivity does not, therefore, mean value-free science as it is commonly understood—which, by the way, is not how Weber understood it. Weber meant his injunction to stay away from politics to apply in the classroom, and perhaps only in the classroom. This was for reasons our age will easily sympathize with: one should not use one’s superior status to shove one’s ideas down other people’s throat (especially if the shoving will suffice to defeat its own purpose). His many writings – for he was not, contrary to Pardo-Guerra’s sarcastic-but-not-too-much-so portrayal, a “one-book wonder” and would have dominated AJS had AJS existed then – on Junker agriculture, Polish immigration, and the postwar reconstruction of Germany, are all but apolitical. (That they are not the right kind of political for most sociologists today is irrelevant.)

Ironically, without a commitment to objectivity as commitment to the pursuit of reality, one cannot even, as Pardo-Guerra does, write that “science and technology studies have convincingly demonstrated” anything “over the past six decades or so.” For without a reality that can be pursued, one cannot demonstrate at all, at least not in the  sense of the word in use here: to demonstrate something presumes not just two parties, one of which conveys to another a message, but also the existence of the objects the message concerns and the veracity of the message. If, as Pardo-Guerra writes, science and technology studies have indeed argued that science – or objectivity, as it is not clear to me which is meant in that particular sentence – is simply politics by other means, which I take to be equivalent to saying that science does not concern itself with a commitment to the pursuit of reality, the argument is stillborn. In this case and in this sense, objectivity is, again contrary to Pardo-Guerra’s argument, indeed an obvious principle of science. That some scientists have historically failed to take the hint proves only those scientists’ inability to correctly assess the stakes involved. (That some such scientists were nevertheless successful in their fields proves absolutely nothing—scientific skills are many; lacking one does not mean one lacks all the others as well.)

I am not making a pitch for standpoint epistemology. Humans live in spaces structured by various hierarchies, just or unjust, and it is true that where one stands in those spaces shapes one’s vision. But an objective account of those hierarchies – the identification of the principles, again just or unjust, that bring them about – is more than possible as those principles are usually sufficiently legible. In other words, one’s standpoint does not determine one’s vision—one can learn. As such, what the principle of objectivity calls for in a scholar is virtue: One must have the strength of character to, first, admit that one doesn’t know everything and that what one believes one knows may be wrong, welcoming corrections with an open heart. Second, one must admit that one’s own position may provide one with unearned privileges to be renounced. Third, one must accept the fact – fact – that practicing good scholarship might make one unpopular and jeopardize one’s own safety and welfare.

Social justice also requires respect for work that we may find thoroughly apolitical. The pursuit of social justice is the pursuit of a real utopia, and real utopias are frequently the unintended consequences of action initially devoted to something else. Omar Lizardo’s distinction between declarative and nondeclarative culture on the pages of ASR may strike some activists as much ado about nothing, but who can say with certainty that other activists will not at some point find it useful? What Gary Snyder wrote about poetry applies equally to sociology: Today we write about trees for seemingly apolitical reasons like getting tenure, tomorrow a lawyer files a claim of personhood on behalf of trees using our work, helping in the fight against the destruction of nature by capital.

The ASA and its president can help individual sociologists in upholding the joint commitment to objectivity and social justice only if they too commit to both objectivity and social justice. Without the principle of objectivity, we will be vulnerable to various misuses of the postmodern condition and the President of the ASA is in a unique position to help the public distinguish between use and misuse; s/he should be willing and able to play this role. The ethic of ultimate ends wouldn’t care about what these misuses will accomplish, but the ethic of responsibility requires us to anticipate the moves of the powers-that-be—after all, we do not just want to fight the good fight, we want to fight it well and, if at all possible, win it. Twenty-one years after the Sokal Affair, it should be clear to anyone that one cannot chase away misuses of postmodern thought easily; it certainly cannot be done in 140 characters.

Committing ASA jointly to objectivity and social justice means effectively mobilizing resources to protect and enhance the security, social standing, and welfare of its members: We must individually or in groups be able to pursue reality freely. In other words, ASA must be a conduit for the “corporatism of the universal”—it must preserve, as much as it can, our autonomy from states, markets, closed moralities, and the popular element. It must confront, on our behalf, populist politicos who want to do away with tenure; university administrators whose job definition is to extract from us as much as possible while giving us as little as possible; publishing houses that make fat loads of money off our backs while preventing people who stand to learn most from our work from accessing it; students and their families who see us as barriers to be cleared on the way to lucrative professional careers; and portions of the public that are impatient with our freedom and want easy, formulaic solutions to problems in which they themselves are enthusiastically complicit. In this regard, Romero’s promise to fight for tenure and academic freedom is obviously good news; so too is her identification of ASA’s declining membership rate as a key problem.

Yet it should be clear that tenure and the membership rate are objectively problems. Granted, they are problems within specific historically instituted settings. These might not be problems for thirteenth-century artists in Beijing, say, or for the food service industry in New York. But to acknowledge that our problems are historically situated and culturally contingent should not ignore that there are, nonetheless, objective conditions that hold in their description and in their critique. In emphasizing justice over objectivity, we run the risk of losing both. Whether objectivity, like anything else, is commingled with power is a very different question than whether it is simply politics by any other means.

As such, the “broad appeal” Romero speaks of as a way to increase membership may not be such good news. For fighting the good fight, not just ASA but also other established disciplinary traditions and institutions, with their hopefully meritocratic hierarchies, are crucial. (If the hierarchies are not sufficiently shaped by the meritocratic principle, one must of course denounce them and start from scratch, but in the case of sociology I do not think we are there.) AJS and ASR may be faulted for many things, but not for turning their back to the pursuit of social justice—just peruse the latest (April 2017) issue of ASR, which features back-to-back pieces on inequality that show that it’s there objectively and denounce it as unjust. Arguably, these publications are more skillful means for the pursuit of social justice than those in, say, Thesis Eleven or the New Left Review, both excellent outlets, both incapable, by virtue of their names alone, of having a significant portion of educated laypeople read them with an open mind. On the other hand, AJS and ASR, which Romero hasn’t published in and which Pardo-Guerra seems to me – I hope to be wrong in my assessment here – to dismiss without explaining why – “What can I say?” he writes – are far more resilient against such bad faith. Again, we are dealing with the difference between the ethic of ultimate ends, which would be scandalized by my comment about journal names, and the ethic of responsibility, which highlights the strategic aspect of knowledge transmission, including journal names, as a crucial bottleneck.
What we need, therefore, is a strong disciplinary core. This is no wish to do away with interdisciplinarity or transdisciplinarity, for these ideals presume distinct disciplinary cores—in order for one to be located between disciplines or cross from one discipline to another, at least two disciplines must be there. Nondisciplinarity, however, is a recipe for disaster—sociology needs STS and justice studies, not to mention anthropology and political science, but erasing all distinctions between them is a bad idea.

This is because structures enable as much as they constrain. As a structure, a discipline – including its professional association and leading journals – is a common language. Instead of decrying the fact that people speak different languages and so do not always understand one another and thus implicitly calling for an Esperanto-like lingua franca to replace them all, we must remember that different languages capture different aspects of reality and therefore that speaking multiple languages gives one a better understanding of reality. Speaking no language, on the other hand, means reality will overwhelm you. As a result, Romero’s distancing herself from research universities is not necessarily good news for sociology or for sociologists—it is primarily in major research universities that contact between well-formed disciplinary cores happens.

And no, a strong disciplinary core will not “make sociology great again,” at least not in the Trumpian sense Pardo-Guerra seems to refer to. A discipline with a strong core is one that has a healthy dose of self-esteem, such that fear of contact with others does not exist—such a discipline will not “build the wall.” Instead, it will have the capacity to speak about a world we can actually know fairly well, even if that world is (social) scientists themselves and their many flaws.  And from that knowledge, we will be able to leverage critiques. If objectivity is truly nothing more than politics by any other means, then we are all of us nothing but rhetoricians and might be better off just becoming full-time activists, or simply focusing on our teaching (though what are we teaching? How is its validity distinct from Breitbart’s own rhetoric?).  But if there is actually data out there, data whose interpretations can be objectively sifted as better or worse, data that provides leverage for social and political critique—then it seems better for us to keep at work.

Barış Büyükokutan is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Boğaziçi University. His research interests include intellectuals, culture, field theory, secularization, and a German fellow named Max.


Written by jeffguhin

June 10, 2017 at 2:11 am

jts 2017!

11th Annual Junior Theorists Symposium

Friday, August 11, 2017

Université du Québec à Montréal

Pavillon De-Sève, 320 St Catherine St E, room DS-R520


8:30 – 9:00 | Coffee and Bagels

9:00 – 10:50 | Panel 1. Discussant: Richard Biernacki (University of California – San Diego)

Pablo Gaston
(UC Berkeley)
Conflict and the Moral Economy: The Moral Dilemmas of Economic Conflict in California Hospitals, 1946-1974
Till Hilmar
(Yale University)
Knowing what it’s like. Theorizing Moral-Economic Reasoning and Notions of Deservingness in Newly Capitalist Societies
Allison Ford
(University of Oregon)
Self-sufficiency: Emotional-Cultural-Material Trajectories of Environmental Practices

 10:50 – 11:00 | Break (coffee & tea provided)

 11:00 – 12:50 | Panel 2. Discussant: Raewyn Connell (Professor Emerita, University of Sydney)

Paige L. Sweet
(UI Chicago)
Ideology, Bodies, and Trespass between Feminist Theory and Critical Realism
Eric Royal Lybeck
(University of Exeter)
Ajurisdiction and the Fragmentation of Academic Sociology
Michael Roll
Southern Movements: States and Vigilante Collective Action in Peripheral Spaces

 12:50 – 14:00 | Lunch (provided on site)

 14:00 – 15:50 | Panel 3. Discussant: Julian Go (Boston University)

Ricarda Hammer
(Brown University)
Decolonizing the Civil Sphere: Race, Colonial Difference and Historical Claims for Inclusion in France
Amanda Shriwise
(University of Oxford)
Field Theory and Welfare State Regimes
Ben Merriman
(University of Kansas)
Extralegal violence in the emergence of modern social fields

15:50 – 16:00 | Break (coffee & tea provided) 

16:00-17:30 | After Panel: Theory, the Good Society, and Positionality

Gabriel Abend
(New York University)
Seth Abrutyn
(Univ. of British Columbia)
Hae Yeon Choo
(University of Toronto)
Claire Decoteau
(UI Chicago)


17:30 – ? |Theory in the Wild: Libations and Good Conversation (off-site)

* In order to coordinate logistics, including lunch orders, the organizers request that you please RSVP at this link: JTS is a donation-based event, and we kindly suggest donations of $20 per faculty member and $10 per graduate student, which can be made at the event or in advance through PayPal (to the account) or by contacting us via email to arrange payment by check.

Written by jeffguhin

April 7, 2017 at 6:08 pm

Posted in sociology

Tagged with ,

party in the street: data and theory together

People often think of me as a data driven social scientist. That’s true but it omits an important fact. I don’t collect data in a vacuum. I usually collect data to develop, test, and promote theory.

Example: Michael Heaney and I spent an enormous amount of time and effort collecting data for the book called Party in the Street. Over ten years, we visited dozens of protests, surveyed about 10,000 protesters (!) and interviewed dozens of activists in depth. And what was the point?

In Party in the Street, we try reconceptualize the link between political parties and social movements. Rather than see political parties and movements as separate, as many do in both sociology and political science, we see parties and movements as distinct organizational fields that converge or drift apart. Social scientists should see movements and parties as part of a larger political institution. Thus, we use our data to try knock down a theoretical wall.

On one level, a lot of my work, including Party in the Street, is an implicit criticism of “wordy theory.” We do rely on classics in various fields (Bourdieusian field theory and Key’s tripartite theory of paries) but only as a framing and justification for data analysis, which is then used to develop a new theoretical idea (“party in the street,” the overlap of the party and movement fields). We never revel in an endless parade of citations to the ancient Greeks, Foucault or what have you.

And we’re seeing the fruit of that theoretical labor. This weekend, we saw a sudden and abrupt wave of left-activism, which had been on the wane, and a lot of it was pitched in partisan ways. This is consistent with our partisan mobilization/party in the street hypothesis. And we only know that because someone (Michael and I in this case) took the time and effort to collect the data and reflect on the theoretical implications. And for me, at least, that’s a win.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($5 – cheap!!!!)/Theory for the Working Sociologist/From Black Power/Party in the Street 

Written by fabiorojas

January 25, 2017 at 2:56 pm

Posted in uncategorized

emirbayer and desmond book forum iii: from fields of action to fields of people

Last week, I was a little harsh on The Racial Order because I think its reading of the sociology of race was very misleading. Still, I think the book has much to offer because it articulates a useful application of Bourdieusian field theory to race.

Before I get into what Emirbayer and Desmond are trying to do with respect to race, let me take a step back and explain why the book gets off to such an odd start. It is flat out wrong to say that there is no sociological theory of race, but it is true that to say that the canonical sociologists, which now includes Bourdieu, didn’t really think about how their ideas applied to race. The major exceptions are Weber and DuBois. But it stops there. The “theory” tradition in sociology didn’t pick up race much after that and race became its own specialized area (e.g., you don’t see a guy like Hans Joas obsess over Patricia Hill Collins). What I think gets lost in E&D’s account is this subtle point. There is absolutely race theory in sociology, but there is not race in “sociological theory ” (= long, wordy books written at a high level of generality mainly by Europeans).

I think if E&D had said that more clearly up front then a lot of people might be more receptive to the book’s genuine contributions. “There’s a lot to be gained by taking the insights of canonical theorists into race” is a statement that a lot of folks would probably agree with.

Ok, so now let’s get to the real core of the book – “the racial order,” which is the translation of interactionist and Bourdieusian theory into the realm of race. I think the book works best when it is read as an attempt to take a number of ideas in the theory canon and build a multi-layered account of the social classification system that we call “race” or “ethnicity.” The major parts of the theory are the following:

  • Consistent with constructionist approaches to race, race is a classification based on perceived ancestry and phenotype.
  • Race is created and maintained on multiple levels – moods/habitus/emotions, interactions, behavioral patterns. Racial order theory is a lot like institutionalist theory that builds org fields from routines and practice on up (see Scott 2000).
  • The aggregate result of this something akin to a field in Bourdieu’s sense, but not localized to specific material practices. Race is ubiquitous while fields are normally about more clearly demarcated fields of action (e.g., education or the arts).
  • The racial orders contains elements of social solidarity.

This application of various ideas in the theory canon (“PDIB” – pragmatism, Durkheim, interactionism and Bourdieu) has a lot going for it. For example, it recognizes that racial classifications are enacted at different levels of causation. Another nice feature is that Bourdieu’s classic discussion of different types of capital has an intuitive translation into the racial order, which provides a number of tools for approaching various cultural and discursive phenomena. If I were to excerpt one passage for an undergrad class, I’d happily assign the discussion of the field of Blackness in America around page 90. It would be very easy for undergrads to take various pop culture examples and break down how they relate to the cultural and economic dimensions of the field of Blackness.

The main accomplishment of The Racial Order is not so much its application of canonical theory to race, but doing so in a way that shifts attention away from a rigid view of race as simply group divisions. Normally, a lot of social scientists (even critical race scholars, sometimes) will take a racial division as given and then move to what happens when people of group X enter situation Y (e.g., why there is a Black achievement gap in colleges).

The Racial Order, if I am reading it correctly, flips this around. It’s not the people that are of interest, it’s the racial schema that can be inserted into other fields. This re-arrangement allows E&D to make some headway where other social theorists have not. For example, Fligstein and McAdam argue in A Theory of Fields that there is not a distinct racial field, even when they spend quite a bit of time discussion Civil Rights mobilization in field theory terms. But E&D show that there is definitely a field of race and it is very important to map and understand and they clearly explain how fields of race cross other fields,  like activism.

I’ll conclude with a big picture commentary about race theory in sociology. My side by side comparison of The Racial Order, The Scholar Denied and Golash-Boza’s “A Critical and Comprehensive Sociological Theory of Race and Racism” has shown me the different ways that one could develop the sociology of race. DuBois’ approach was to apply theory to a very specific situation – American black-white conflict (though he did work on a more general, but unpublished, race theory according to Aldon Morris). Emirbayer and Desmond go the “high theory” route. They by-pass the deep empirical research on race and try to translate “high theory” into a specific research area. Golash-Boza digs deep into the “normal science” side of things and comes up with a structuration approach to race. It would be hard to dismiss any of these approaches as I have learned enormously from each of them. Instead, the real challenge is for scholars to recognize this complex and massive landscape and climb its steepest mountains.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($2!!!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street

Written by fabiorojas

May 12, 2016 at 12:01 am

emirbayer and desmond book forum 2: they could have been nicer

This is part 2 of our book forum on Emirbayer and Desmond’s The Racial Order. Here, I’ll discuss the first 80 pages of the book, which starts with an amazingly ill advised sentence: “there has never been a comprehensive and systematic theory of race.” This is a really bad starting point because even a non-specialist such as myself can easily come up with three (!) major systematic and comprehensive theories of race:

  • Race is a socially constructed group division based on ancestry and physical appearance: This theory was articulated in classical theory, such as Weber’s discussion of caste and DuBois’ work on American race relations. It has many, many proponents.
  • Race is a biological variation in human beings: The modern version of this theory comes from studies of genetic variation. In sociology, the journal Sociological Theory (ahem) had a massive symposium on genomic theories of race, which we discussed here.
  • Race is a social category meant to signal a group’s place in the means of production or political system: This theory is less discussed in sociology, but is a popular theory in anthropology. For example, John Comaroff is a well known anthropologist who explores this argument as do many others.

So, from my view, the problem isn’t that we lack a theory of race. Rather, we have *tons* of theories of race and *tons* of empirical evidence.The problem is sorting it all out.

Adding to this issue is the avoidance of work that would seem to help bolster various parts of the book. For example, one crucial element of Emirbayer and Desmond’s theory is work on race that its insistence on an unconscious and interactional dimension of race, as would be suggested by Bourdieusian theory. The modern “racism without racists” school actively draws on Bourdieusian sociology very clearly, as does the work on race, cultural capital and status attainment. Yet, the work of Eduardo Bonilla-Silva or Prudence Carter are barely mentioned in text. Another example: In the recent Theory of Fields (2012), Neil Fligstein and Doug McAdam actually have an entire chapter applying field theory to civil rights mobilization. These are not obscure points. This is a major issue: why does a supposedly systematic treatment of race avoid the many major scholars whose work defines race scholarship in modern sociology? I am puzzled.

Before I wrap up, a stylistic point and a nit picky point. Stylistic: I think one drawback of the book is that it employs a classical “theory bloat” style of writing. For example, it doesn’t actually tell you it’s theory of race for 80 pages!! It also takes detours into reflexivity theory and a bunch of other issues. I really suggest that readers skip directly to Part II for the good stuff. This reminds me of the time I read Jeffrey Alexander’s Neofunctionalism and After – which doesn’t tell you what neofunctionalism is until page 110!

Nit picky: the book occasionally has some points of intellectual laziness. For example, at one point, there is a detour about the evils of regression analysis. Bizarre. Given that sociology is moving into a comfortable mixed method approach to data, we don’t need grad school seminar cheap shots. Regression analysis is fine and it’s perfectly good for studying trends in data, assuming you’ve put in the effort to collect high quality data. That sort of cheap shot is below these authors.

Next week: We’ll discuss Part II of The Racial Order. Spoiler: I like it!

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($2!!!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street

Written by fabiorojas

April 29, 2016 at 12:01 am

theory of fields vs. dynamics of contention

I am currently working on a piece that closely reads the emerging theory of fields and the (non?) synthesis of movement research and organizations. At present, I am interested in the following theoretical questions.

  1. Is the theory presented in Theory of Fields the current standard? Lots of people have taken aim at ToF (including myself) but few people have offered alternatives. Is that accurate?
  2. What is the difference between Theory of Fields and Dynamics of Contention?
  3. What are the distinctive predictions of ToF/DoC?

A few brief responses:

  1. Even though ToF/DoC were thoroughly critiques, I think a lot of research can safely be described using the ToF/DoC framework. For example, if we look at recent issues of Mobilization, we see that many articles focus on “fields of organization” and topics that fit into the broad category of “state-challenger dynamics.” We also see some applications of the less appreciated parts of ToF, such as social skill theory, when we look at activist repertoires and political skill. In contrast, a lot of the critics of the ToF/DoC axis have yet to offer a systematic alternative.
  2. After reading ToF and DoC very closely, it is clear that ToF is an expansion and generalization of DoC. The main piece of evidence is that each book presents a diagram illustrating the basic unit of analysis – the incumbent/challenger episode of contention. In each book, the conflict cycle is almost identical. In ToF, it is Fgure 1.1. on page 20. In DoC , it is Fure 2.1 on page 45. The main difference is that (a) ToF situates the incumbent-challenger conflict episode within any field, not just the state and (b) ToF has some additional theory about distinctive fields and organizations (e.g., the state and accreditors/regulators within fields).
  3. On one level, ToF/DoC might be viewed more as a useful language than a theory with predictions – you can describe the anatomy of any conflict in ToF/DoC terms. On another level, ToF/DoC does make implicit predictions. The idea is that fields are structured patterns of relations, resources, and identities. Thus, any serious change should really focus on disruptions of that system, which, on the average, will be contentious.

Add your comments on field theory, ToF/DoC, and institutionalism in the comments.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($2!!!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street 

Written by fabiorojas

January 27, 2016 at 12:01 am

book spotlight: thinking through social theory by john levi-martin


John Levi-Martin is one of sociology’s most fertile thinkers. His book, Social Structures, was discussed at length on this blog and The Explanation of Social Action was a well discussed investigation of how social scientists try to approach causality. His new book, Thinking Through Social Theory, is a tour of foundational issues in social science and should be required reading for anyone who wants to understand current debate over the status of social explanation.

Roughly speaking, there is a long standing dispute among scholars about what constitutes a proper explanation of social action. The argument has many facets. For example, there is a dispute over realism, the view that people have fairly direct access to reality which can the be leveraged into causal explanation. There is a related argument about social norms and whether it makes sense to say that a rule “caused” or “forced” someone to act. And of course, there are arguments over the sufficiency of various schools of thought like functionalism, rational choice, and evolutionary theory.

Thinking Through Social Theory is Levi-Martin’s review of these issues. It not only summarizes the landscape, but offers answers drawn from one of his most theoretically rich articles, “What is Field Theory?” It is truly difficult to summarize this tome (e.g., there is multi-page analysis of the “gentlemen open doors for ladies” custom) but I can indicate some high points. First, there is a good review of the issues surrounding realism. And no, he does NOT side with those pesky critical realists. Second, there is an examination of two theories (rational choice and evolutionary psychology) that try to offer “ultimate” accounts of human action. Third, Levi-Martin offers a field theoretic alternative to theories of action that are found in schools as diverse as functionalism, institutionalism, and Swidlerian toolkit theory. The basic intuition is that individuals aren’t carrying around norms, but they are working in fields of action that push people into situations that generate behavioral, or even cognitive, regularities. Sounds like actor-network theory to me, but more meso-level.

So who is this book for? I see a few good audiences. One are social theory grad students. After marching PhD students though the history of soc up the present, it is good to sit back and think about the (lack of?) progress that has been made in building social theory. I also think that the philosophy of social science crowd would enjoy this, as would scholars in cultural sociology who often run into the issue of motivation. Thumbs up.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($2!!!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street

Written by fabiorojas

August 18, 2015 at 12:01 am

Posted in books, fabio, just theory

of dead sociologies

I am now old enough that I have seen three traditions in American sociology die. In describing them, I am not necessarily saying that I don’t like them. In fact, I am a published practitioner in one of them. Rather, these traditions have not been able to reproduce themselves at the core of the profession. They may be popular in other fields, but not in soc:

  • Functionalism/neo-functionalism
  • Postmodernism
  • Rational choice

Each promised a lot and had a moment in American sociology. Munch, Alexander, and others led the charge on neo-functionalism in the 1990s, and Luhmann has a following. Rational choice still has notable adherents, like Doug Heckathorn at Cornell or Richard Breen at Yale. And the AJS and ASR had their share of articles discussing postmodernism (here, for example). But still, it’s hard to say that these traditions aren’t dormant in American sociology. Few students, few placements.

The question is whether there is any commonality. Is American sociology resistant to certain types of theory? If these three cases indicate a deeper process, then I’d make the following guesses:

  • “Strong assumptions” – American sociologists don’t like models with what appear to be overly strong assumptions. Rational choice models have smart actors; postmodernism has overly complex actors; and the various functionalisms had actors that were hyper sensitive to social norms and communities were overly structured.
  • “High tech” – With the exception of applied statistics, American sociologists don’t like fancy things. The AGIL system in functionalism; math for RCT; European philosophy/social theory for post-modernism.

So the ideal theory would be one with weak assumptions and requires little machinery. Many of the dominant theories these days seem to fit this: institutionalism/field theory; intersectionality theory; theories of racial privilege; etc. Network theory rests on simple, but weak, assumptions and uses only stats.

It is unclear to me if this is a good or bad state of affairs. However, if you think it’s bad, then you have a real problem. The most obvious way to change it is to recruit different kinds of people into the profession who like demanding theory or high tech tools. That seems like a tall order given our undergraduate audience, which is the major talent pool for the profession.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz/From Black Power

Written by fabiorojas

August 11, 2014 at 12:01 am

a rant on ant

Over at Scatterplot, Andy Perrin has a nice post pointing to a recent talk by Rodney Benson on actor-network theory and what Benson calls “the new descriptivism” in political communications. Benson argues that ANT is taking people away from institutional/field-theoretic causal explanation of what’s going on in the world and toward interesting but ultimately meaningless description. He also critiques ANT’s assumption that world is largely unsettled, with temporary stability as the development that must be explained.

At the end of the talk, Benson points to a couple of ways that institutional/field theory and ANT might “play nicely” together. ANT might be useful for analyzing the less-structured spaces between fields. And it helps draw attention toward the role of technologies and the material world in shaping social life. Benson seems less convinced that it makes sense to talk nonhumans as having agency; I like Edwin Sayes’ argument for at least a modest version of this claim.

I toyed with the possibility of reconciling institutionalism and ANT in an article on the creation of the Bayh-Dole Act a few years back. But really, the ontological assumptions of ANT just don’t line up with an institutionalist approach to causality. Institutionalism starts with fairly tidy individual and collective actors — people, organizations, professional groups. Even messy social movements are treated as well-enough-defined to have effects on laws or corporate behavior. The whole point of ANT is to destabilize such analyses.

That said, I think institutionalists can fruitfully borrow from ANT in ways that Latour would not approve of, just as they have used Bourdieu productively without adopting his whole apparatus. In particular, the insights of ANT can get us at least two things:

1)      It not only increases our attention to the role of technologies in shaping organizational and field-level outcomes, but ANT makes us pay attention to variation in the stability of those technologies. It is simply not possible to fully accounting for the mortgage crisis, for example, without understanding what securitization is; how tranching restructured, redistributed and sometimes hid risk; how it was stabilized more or less durably in particular times and places; and so on.

You can’t just treat “securitization” as a unitary explanatory factor. You need to think about the specific configuration of rules, organizational practices, technologies, evaluation cultures and so on that hold “securitization” together more or less stably in a specific time and place. Sure, technologies are sometimes stable enough to treat as unified and causal—for example, a widely used indicator like GDP, or a standardized technology like a new drug. But thinking about this as a question of degree improves explanatory capacity.

An example from my own current work: VSL, the value of a statistical life. Calculations of VSL are critical to cost-benefit analyses that justify regulatory decisions. They inform questions of environmental justice, of choice of medical treatment, of worker safety guidelines. All sorts of political assumptions — for example, that the lives of people in poor countries are worth less than people in rich ones — are baked into them. There is no uniform federal standard for calculating VSL — it varies widely across agencies. ANT sensitizes us not only to the importance of such technologies, but to their semi-stable nature—reasonably persistent within a single agency, but evolving over time and different across agencies.

2)      Second, ANT can help institutionalists deal better with evolving actors and partial institutionalization. For example, I’m interested in how economists became more important to U.S. policymaking over a few decades. The problem is that while you can define “economist” as “person with a PhD in economics,” what it means to be an economist changes over time, and differs across subfields, and is fuzzy around the borders.

I do think it’s meaningful to talk about “economists” becoming more influential, particularly because the production of PhDs happens in a fairly stable set of organizational locations. But you can’t just treat growth theorists of the 1960s and cost-benefit analysts from the 1980s and the people creating the FCC spectrum auctions in the 1990s as a unitary actor; you need ways to handle variety and evolution without losing sight of the larger category. And you need to understand not only how people called “economists” enter government, but also how people with other kinds of training start to reason a little more like economists.

Drawing from ANT helps me think about how economists and their intellectual tools gain a more-or-less durable position in policymaking: by establishing institutional positions for themselves, by circulating a style of reasoning (especially through law and public policy schools), and by establishing policy devices (like VSL). (See also my recent SER piece with Dan Hirschman.) Once these things have been accomplished, then economics is able to have effects on policy (that’s the second half of the book). While the language I use still sounds pretty institutionalist—although I find myself using the term “stabilized” more than I used to—it is definitely informed by ANT’s attention to the work it takes to make social arrangements last. Thus I end up with a very different story from, for example, Fligstein & McAdam’s about how skilled actors impose a new conception of a field — although new conceptions are indeed imposed.

I don’t have a lot of interest in fully adopting ANT as a methodology, and I don’t think the social always needs to be reassembled. The ANT insights also lend themselves better to qualitative, historical explanation than to quantitative hypothesis testing. But all in all, although I remain an institutionalist, I think my work is better for its engagement with ANT.

Written by epopp

June 5, 2014 at 8:31 pm

let’s blame econ soc

The future of organizational sociology may be uncertain, but organizational thinking has diffused widely in sociology. Just look at the most recent ASR. (Less so the current AJS, but we can cut them some slack since Fabio coauthored their one organizational piece.)

But how did we get here? In the comments, I suggested one reason. Org theory’s main research programs — institutional theory, networks, field theory, population ecology — aren’t about “organizations” anymore and as productive as those may have been, they don’t encourage the reproduction of “organizations” as a distinct subfield. It turns out Brayden and Teppo wrote a whole article on this with David Whetten — very much worth a read.

There’s another factor, too, though, that I’m surprised hasn’t come up yet: economic sociology. Economic sociology usually dates itself to Mark Granovetter’s 1985 article on embeddedness, but no one called themselves an economic sociologist circa 1990. They were, mostly, org theorists.

(Viviana Zelizer has a great piece that talks about how, to her surprise, she found her work being redefined as economic sociology. Fligstein and Dauter’s 2007 ARS piece made a similar move, calling performativity a branch of economic sociology — which must have come as a shock to Michel Callon.)

The earliest you can reasonably call econ soc a subfield is 1994, when Smelser and Swedberg published the first Handbook. And really, the year 2000, when econ soc became an ASA section-in-formation, is a more appropriate date.

Econ soc channeled a lot of the intellectual energy that had been focused on organizations (broadly speaking) in a slightly different direction. The section’s organizing committee included Nicole Woolsey Biggart, Neil Fligstein, Mark Granovetter, Brian Uzzi, Fernanda Wanderley, and Harrison White. Most ASA sections have grown in the last decade. But OOW has been flat, while Econ Soc has grown by 55%.

One result was that a new generation of students who might have studied organizations instead did econ soc. I took my comp exam in organizations in 2001 partly because no one had ever taken one in econ soc. Two years later, that would not have been the case.

The effect is that many sociologists who would have studied organizations ended up studying econ soc instead. The ones who stayed in orgs were more likely to be B-school oriented and to take jobs outside soc departments, and that means that today there are few younger scholars who seem themselves as primarily organizational sociologists.

Now, maybe this is just how disciplines evolve. I do consider myself an economic sociologist too, and I think the emergence of econ soc has been enormously generative for the discipline. But sociology is not the most cumulative of disciplines. And there is lots of important stuff that is taught in orgs classes but not in econ soc classes. My fear is that we just lose all that stuff as students trained in other, orgs-influenced subfields stop learning it. Then we’ll have to wait another 20 or 30 years for another generation of scholars to “bring the organization back in.”

Written by epopp

May 23, 2014 at 3:32 pm

Posted in academia, sociology

a general theory of chest-bursting sociology

To me, learning about a scholar’s intellectual trajectory and philosophy is helpful for understanding the impetus for particular schools of thought.  One of the pivotal moments for me during my grad school days was hearing Neil Fligstein‘s candid perspective about having to advocate for one’s research question, methods, and claims.  In fact, he compared being an academic with being the creature from Alien(s).  That’s right, we’re not the flame-toting Lt. Ripley and the heroic but ill-fated Nostromo crew; we’re more like the chest-bursters who have to keep coming back, no matter how many times we get (spoilers ahead! cover your eyes, young’uns) burnt, ejected from the airlock into outer space, frozen, etc.

Not you.

Not you.

With that imagery in mind, have a look at Fligstein’s discussion of his most recent works. Fligstein talks in an interview with McGill student Nicole Denier about how he decided upon a PhD in sociology (hint: a foray with social movements), where he sees the field headed, and his agenda for grand general theory.

ND: …what do you think are the challenges for sociology to overcome in the next few years?

NF: What I have found most frustrating about sociology is that it is so Balkanized. One of the most depressing things about sociology is when I look at the American Sociological Association and see that there are forty-four sections, which could be reduced to about six. It tends to create these Balkanized theory groups (for lack of a better term) that are engaged in a discourse with ten other people. From a graduate student’s point of view, that’s the hardest thing to face in the field—how fragmented it is. The problem is that there just aren’t that many people. There are only about 15,000 sociologists in North America, I think. It was bad when I was a graduate student twenty-five years ago, it’s much worse now. It’s very frustrating for people and it’s hard to overcome. One of the things I like about the construction of something called economic sociology is that for the first time in 30 years there is a synthetic field – not a field which wants to break the field into smaller and smaller parts—but a field that wants to say that politics and law and economic processes and organizations and social movements are all part of the same thing. So to me, this is what this economic sociology thing is all about. It is more synthetic than breaking it into a smaller piece.

ND: Similarly, your field theory has the possibility to span a number of areas. You’re not so optimistic about it overcoming the differences between the institutionalisms in economics, political science, and sociology. But do you think it can bridge the gaps within sociology?

NF: I’m an optimistic person. I hope that it becomes more synthetic. People have moved so far from (I’ll use a dirty word) a general theory of society or a theory of society that it’s not in their vocabulary any more. It was so discredited so long ago that you’re a bad person if you even have that thought. It’s a big taboo in sociology to say that, you know, there really is a general theory of society. Again, you get off stage with people and you talk to them and a lot of people think there is a general theory of society….[snip!!!]…. Sociologists tend toward understanding action in groups, yet we don’t even think about it most of the time. Field theory is about that: how groups of people and groups of groups do these kinds of interactions and watch other people and reference other people and take positions, a very generic level of social process. I figure a lot of people are ready to hear that message in sociology. Hopefully, it will go a little further beyond where it is right now.

(See Fligstein’s past orgtheory posts here and here on his work with Doug McAdam on strategic action fields, as well as other colleagues’ reactions here, here, and here.)

You when you finally get a love note.

When you find a like-minded colleague.

Written by katherinechen

December 11, 2013 at 12:08 am

Three thousand more words on critical realism

The continuing brouhaha over Fabio’s (fallaciously premised) post*, and Kieran’s clarification and response has actually been much more informative than I thought it would be. While I agree that this forum is not the most adequate to seriously explore intellectual issues, it does have a (latent?) function that I consider equally as valuable in all intellectual endeavors, which is the creation of a modicum of common knowledge about certain stances, premises and even valuational judgments. CR is a great intellectual object in the contemporary intellectual marketplace precisely because of the fact that it seems to demand an intellectual response (whether by critics or proponents) thus forcing people (who otherwise wouldn’t) to take a stance.  The response may range from (seemingly facile) dismissal (maybe involving dairy products), to curiosity (what the heck is it?), to considered criticism, to ho hum neutralism, to critical acceptance, or to (sock-puppet aided) uncritical acceptance.  But the point is that it is actually fun to see people align themselves vis a vis CR because it provides an opportunity for those people to actually lay their cards on the table in way that seldom happens in their more considered academic work.

My own stance vis a vis CR is mostly positive. When reading CR or CR-inflected work, I seldom find myself vehemently disagreeing or shaking my head vigorously (this in itself I find a bit suspicious, but more on that below). I find most of the epistemological, and meta-methodological recommendations of people who have been influenced by CR (like my colleague Chris Smith, Phil Gorski, or George Steinmetz, or Margaret Archer) fruitful and useful, and in some sense believe that some of the most important of these are already part of sociological best practice. I think some of the work on “social structure” that has been written by CR-oriented folk (Doug Porpora and Margaret Archer early on and more recently Dave Elder-Vass) important reading, especially if you want to think straight about that hornet’s nest of issues. So I don’t think that CR is “lame.” Although like any multi-author, somewhat loose cluster of writings, I have indeed come across some work that claims to be CR which is indeed lame. But that would apply to anything (there are examples of lame pragmatism, lame field theory, lame network analysis, lame symbolic interactionism, etc. without making any of these lines of thought “lame” in their entirety).

That said, I agree with the basic descriptive premises of Kieran’s post. So this post is structured as a way to try to unhook the fruitful observations that Kieran made from the vociferous name-calling and defensive over-reactions to which these sort of things can lead. So think of this as my own reflections of what this implies for CR’s attempt to provide a unifying philosophical picture for sociology.

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Fields and Performance at the 2012 Democratic National Convention

I thoroughly enjoyed Tom Medvetz’s last post on blogging – I would just add that being a guest blogger during the end of a semester makes for slow blogging of a different sort, although I also suspect that I shade towards the “slow and formal” that is not quite the appeal of the form (Twitter is my fast and casual).

All that said, I wanted to hopefully partake of some (not quite “pre-scholarly”) dividends. I was inspired by Neil Fligstein’s excellent guest posts and the ensuing discussion to blog a bit about some work that is very much in the ‘in-progress’ category as a conference paper.  It relates to fields, and ultimately, our attempt to think through what happens when fields in different domains of social activity overlap and the role of symbolic work in creating and supporting relations of dependence and interdependence.

The empirical project was an ethnographic study of media production at the 2012 Democratic National Convention. Myself and two graduate students (Ph.D. student Laura Meadows and M.A. Student John Remensperger) explicitly set out to re-create the sort of field observations of the production of media events that Eugene Lang and Gladys Engel Lang conducted so brilliantly half a century ago, but that have generally been absent from the current literature (save excellent work such as Sandra Sobieraj’s Soundbitten).  The project was inductive in the sense that we had only vague research interests in studying a contemporary convention. Our research team secured press credentials and went to Charlotte for five days.  Beginning around 9am and ending well into the night after the arena activities, we circulated through hundreds of official and unofficial sites of media and political production at the convention.  We focused our multi-sited observations on locales that we determined to be the major loci for political and journalistic actors once we were in the field.

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Written by Daniel Kreiss

December 13, 2012 at 7:24 pm

Posted in uncategorized

what we can learn from a theory of fields

First, of all I’d like to thank Neil Fligstein for guest blogging on orgtheory.  Acknowledging his contribution has been long overdue. He wrote a series of really provocative and intriguing posts about his new book, A Theory of Fields (see here and here), which spurred an intense discussion about the various strands of institutional theory, the role of agency and change in institutional theory, and the strategic orientation of actors. Rather than rehash that debate I wanted to step back and offer my own take on what I see as some of the most important (potential) contributions of field theory to organizational scholarship.

Even though in his posts Neil framed the book as a response to institutional scholarship, I think the book has more ambitious, broader designs. Their book tries to integrate various research strands and subfields – including, but not limited to, institutional theory and social movement theory – and offer a unified theory of fields and action. In this light, they have more in common with John Levi Martin (JLM), who has written his own treatise on fields and social action, than they do with the hordes of institutional scholars. (Their view of fields certainly owes more to Bourdieu than it does to DiMaggio and Powell’s concept of organizational fields.) They are attempting grand theory in a way that is rarely done in contemporary sociology. The grandness of their theoretical lens is apparent once you consider that they mean for it to apply not only to markets or industries but also to fields that exist within organizations or that describe relations between social movement activists.

The major difference between them (F&M) and JLM or other field theorists is the way they conceptualize fields as sites of collective action (strategic action being the most important form of collective action that actors take to reproduce or change fields). In contrast, JLM is more interested in fields as sites of social action, period. According to F&M, the major problem that faces actors in any field – whether you’re talking about American corporations seeking to deregulate an industry or parents addressing the education needs of their children – is figuring how to cooperate and take collective action so that they can gain advantages over contending groups. Engaging in collective action in order to get an advantage is the motivation that drives field formation, struggle, and change. A strong version of their theory would suggest that changes in meaning systems, rules and norms, or institutional settlements are endogenous to these strategic struggles. In fact, the field itself can be seen as situational, inasmuch as it forms around struggles over ideas and standing. Fields only exist inasmuch as there is some sort of collective action.

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Written by brayden king

December 12, 2012 at 6:26 pm

Some Not So Obvious Ideas from Fligstein/Mcadam’s A Theory of Fields

I thought I would continue my postings on the Fligstein/McAdam book. This time I would like to take up what I consider to be three really important ideas in the book that are the most likely to get the least attention. These are new insights in the book that do not just represent a synthesis of previous work but new ways of thinking about how fields are structured.

All of these ideas are important because they feed research agendas that have so far been underexploited in field studies. They do this in two ways. First they help make the connections between existing streams of research and the theory of fields which many scholars will simply miss. Second, the field theory developed in the book  provide concepts to help empirical work look for and consider the important causal effects of particular features of fields that have so far not been studied. As I said in an earlier posting, theories are observation laden. So, theories that don’t look for things just won’t find them. Let me start more micro and work more macro.

The chapter in the book that has most surprised people who have read it is the one on social skill. I have previously published two versions explicating the idea of social skill and the role it plays in field formation and reproduction. These ideas have spread widely and get invoked mostly to explain how new fields come into existence as skilled strategic actors manage to create unique political coalitions by framing and the use of new identities.

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Written by fligstein

September 20, 2012 at 11:26 pm

Posted in uncategorized

book spotlight: claiming society for god by nancy j davis and rob robinson

It’s a real pleasure to see Claiming for Society for God in print. Authored by my Indiana colleagues and friends, Nancy Davis and Rob Robinson, Claiming makes a simple argument. Religious movements  can succeed not only by conquering states, but by bypassing the state as well. They attempt, with a great deal of success, to set up a parallel quasi-state. Using examples from various nations and religious traditions, Davis and Robinson explore the creation of a network of schools, clubs, hospitals, charities and other organizations.

The issue that ties radical Christians, Jews, and Muslims together is that they are anti-modernist. They all reject the individualism characterizing contemporary culture and its loose controls on family and sexuality. While religious reactionaries would love to take over the state and impose their codes of personal behavior, their most successful tactic has been to actually create an alternative source of authority. They do so by providing for the poorest in society. They create an alternate welfare state that ensures continued influence in national politics.

The book should be especially interesting to movement scholars because Davis and Robinson articulate a strong criticism of movement theory as it is often practiced. Much of movement theory revolves around the conflict between incumbents and challengers, such as McAdam and Fligstein’s recent field theory. The bypassing argument provides a real alternative. You don’t need to engage in such contentious politics if you can provide social welfare. The need for community and care creates a path to influence that just avoids conventional politics or the need for confrontation.


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Written by fabiorojas

June 11, 2012 at 12:01 am

the different bourdieus

Bourdieu is everywhere in social theory these days. Ranging from practice theory to studies of taste and consumption, you can find Bourdieu lurking in the background and quite often taking center stage. Bourdieu may be the most blogged-about theorist here on orgtheory. He’s so easily transportable because of the generality of his concepts and because he wrote extensively on so many different things during his career. Given the expanse of his theoretical contributions, it can sometimes be hard to pin down Bourdieu as a theorist. The reason for this, suggests my prolific co-blogger Omar Lizardo in this commentary forthcoming in Sociological Forum, is that Bourdieu’s contributions to American sociology have occurred over various stages, creating multiple clusters of Bourdieuian-influenced theorists. Depending on which cluster you’re a part of, you’re getting a slightly different angle on the Bourdieuian perspective.  I highly recommend reading Omar’s commentary for anyone who thinks they know (or would like to get to know) Bourdieu’s work. It helps put Bourdieu in historical context.

The final stage of Bourdieuian influence, which is an emerging trend Omar admits, is focused on embodiment, cognition, and action. Although he doesn’t mention it in the essay, I have noticed that a strong community in institutional theory has really grabbed on to this this aspect of Bourdieu. Institutional theory in the late 80s through the mid-90s was heavily influenced by Bourdieu’s field theory (Omar’s stage 2 of Bourdieuian influence), but in recent years institutional theorists have become less interested in the constraining aspects of field forces and more interested in how institutional change bubbles up from below, which places more emphasis on agency and reflexive cognition. Scholars interested in institutional entrepreneurship and institutional work (for example, read Lawrence, Suddaby, and Leca), in particular, seem to be drawing more and more from Bourdieu’s theory of practice.  The attractiveness of practice theory is that you don’t have to completely shed your structural view of institutions and fields to develop an endogenous explanations for how people create local worlds of resistance and novelty. Although I think it’s fair to question how well executed many of these studies are, I’ve noticed that a large portion of institutional theory has moved from stage 2 in Omar’s depiction of Bourdieu to stage 3.

Perhaps this is the reason why I’ve heard so many grumblings from people in the institutional theory world about Fligstein’s and McAdam’s work on “strategic action fields.” The F&M conceptualization of institutions and change is still very stage 2 in its understanding of how actors are situated in a field and how fields evolve over time. But this no longer resonates with many institutional theorists, who have already moved beyond this conceptualization of institutions to a stage 3 model in which actors are embedded in multiple fields and possess more agency than the actors of a fixed field world. While the former view is more structural and deterministic, the latter view is more cognitive and stochastic. F&M do very little to bridge stage 2 with stage 3 Bourdieu (although one could argue, but they don’t, that the concept of “social skill” derives from practice theory).

For more orgtheory commentary on Fligstein’s and McAdam’s SAF, see here and here.

Written by brayden king

January 16, 2012 at 5:47 pm

fligstein/mcadam vs. goldstone/useem – a theoretical heavyweight fight forthcoming in Sociological Theory

A little while ago, Omar blogged about a new article co-authored by Neil Fligstein and Doug McAdam. It’s called “Towards a General Theory of Strategic Action Fields.” The article presents a common framework for organizational analysis and social movement theory. F&M do so by translating everything into a field theory, a la Bourdieu. In essence, F&M claim, like Armstrong and Bernstein, that society is composed of distinct, but overlapping, fields (strategic action fields – SAF’s) where people fight over control. The main variables of the theory are Fligsteinian – social skill and other field specific resources are used to maintain the status quo. The theory is a description of the cycle of field formation, disruption, and stabilization. If you are familiar with either McAdam or Fligstein’s work, you’ll see how the article is a synthesis of the two research streams generated by these scholars. Much like how Dynamics of Contention was a synthesis of Tarrow, Tilly, and McAdam.

Then, last month, I learned that there’s a commentary (here) and rejoinder (here ) that is forthcoming in Sociological Theory. The critique is authored by Jack Goldstone and Bert Useem. Click here and here for orgtheory’s review of Useem and Piehl’s book on prisons. The authors and the folks at Soc Theory gave me permission to post the exchange and comment. As I read it, the critique focuses on the following issues:

  • Don’t reduce everything to incumbent-challenger dynamics. States, and other governing units,* are more autonomous than it appears.
  • All fields do not look the same. There is more to life than a one dimensional distribution allocation of authority between challengers and incumbents.
  • There’s more to life than distribution of social skills and exogenous shocks. Social systems can crumble for many reasons.
  • Cognitive dimensions of social life are ignored. Isn’t it weird that one of the leaders of neo-institutional sociology doesn’t discuss values?
  • G&U claim that the propositions of F&M are too vague to adequately test.

In the rejoinder, there are some plausible responses. For example, F&M just disagree about whether the theory is testable. On another count, they claim that the article doesn’t address values, but their forthcoming book does.** I don’t think that F&M quite grok the importance of G&U’s point about the autonomy of  the state or that field dissolution can be caused by elite actions.

After reading the exchange, and the original article and other works by M, F, G, and U, my gut feeling is that SAF theory represents an assimilation of movement theory and political sociology into neo-institutional theory. Neo-institutional theory is our modern functionalism where all is subsumed into social stability. If Parsons had system maintenance, F&M have “SAF stability.” The theory produced by F&M bears many similarities to that produced by the late Parsons in texts like The Evolution of Societies, which described human communities as cybernetic systems where exogenous shocks shift society into a new equilibrium. What separates SAF’s version of functionalism from the structural functionalism of the 1960s, and its descendants, is a much higher tolerance of conflict and contention, which allows a modern sociologist to discuss the relationship between conflict and stability.

This is an ironic state of affairs. The whole point of post-1970s American sociological theory was ditching functionalism. By swallowing the social movement vocabulary, the new synthesis seems to be functionalism plus conflict minus mindless conformity. I don’t think that’s a necessarily bad thing. It’s actually a substantial improvement. By throwing Parsons under the bus, I think a lot of sociologists forgot that social groups have a temporal continuity that needs to be explained. The down side is that we’ve swapped out “pattern maintenance” for “field stabilization,” which can be a constraining way of viewing things.

Overall, I’m glad that this debate is happening. It signals to me that 1970s post-Parsons sociology has now reached a point of deep maturity in that it can provide a language that’s deep and flexible enough to address multiple areas of sociology, even if that synthesis is amenable to critique. At the same time, it signals that a boundary has been reached. If you have a description of X and Y (e.g., stability and conflict), then saying “X and Y” is an end point. There is something beyond X and Y that hasn’t been articulated yet. Some other process that explains both X and Y. That means that there’s an enterprising young sociologist who is hatching some new variables. Can’t wait to read their paper.

* How Althusserian!! Coming to a structural Marxist position? But I digress…

** Book forum, anyone? Free copy? Puleeeeze!!

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Written by fabiorojas

January 11, 2012 at 12:47 am

Fligstein and McAdam on Strategic Action Fields

The most recent issue of Sociological Theory features an article by Fligstein and McAdam entitled “Towards a General Theory of Strategic Action Fields.”  In this paper F & M, attempt a “grand” conceptual synthesis (and also attempt to draw a systematic outline of the empirical implications of) a series of recent trends towards the integration of organizational, institutional and social movement theories.  This is a place where the literature has been kind of awkwardly moving for a while now (e.g. Scheneiberg and Clemens 2006; Armstrong and Bernstein 2008; Rao 2008; Evans and Kay 2008; King and Pearce 2010), but which is finally given a measure of overall conceptual coherence in this piece.

The theoretical motor of the entire paper is very parsimonious version of field theory.  This is also a place where the literature had been awkwardly moving, with various people inventing and re-inventing a field perspective using all sorts of different language and terms such as ecologies, and multiple institutional logics (e.g. Abbott 2005; see also here).  F & M bring order to what could have been some overwhelmingly complicated proceedings through their economical meta-concept of “strategic action fields” (as well as other secondary and very handy distinctions).  This concept is supposed to subsume older versions (including sectors, movement industries, organizational fields and I would add Abbottian ecologies) of the same general thing; essentially SAFs are sites where collective actors struggle for what is at stake (what Bourdieu referred to as “illusio”), taking each other into account while doing so.  The general dynamics of SAFs can then be described using the combined resources of “French” field theory (e.g. dominated/dominant, doxa, struggle for recognition, etc.), American reconceptualizations thereof (e.g. Fligstein’s theory of social skill) and standard concepts taken from social movement (incumbent/challenger, contention, mobilization, framing, etc.) and organizational theory (institutional logics).

This paper is an absolute must-read.  Easily one of the most important conceptual advances in organizational and social movement theory (in fact one of the  ambitious claims of the paper is that these two realms are empirically co-extensive, so there should be brought under a single conceptual framework) in recent memory.

Written by Omar

March 23, 2011 at 6:15 pm

a few words about market rebels

I very much enjoyed Market Rebels by Huggy Rao. Here’s a clip from my review in Contemporary Sociology:

Rao’s account touches on a deep issue in sociology, the wide spread adoption of social movement theory. Scholars in multiple areas have employed concepts such as resource mobilization and framing to understand how actors promote their interests in contentious ways. This research has been successful in showing that contention appears in fields as diverse as product innovation, higher education, culture, and public policy (e.g., Van Dyke, Soule, and Taylor 2004; Rojas 2007). An important finding is that movements do not limit themselves to states, nor is contentious behavior limited to marginal groups. The investor who rallies fellow stockholders in a public dispute with management is not much different from the student activist conducting a campus sit-in.

This conceptual development mirrors Bourdieu’s field and habitus theories. Just as every social domain has symbolic resources that can be used to acquire status and position, every domain has its own version of mobilization and contentious change. It is not surprising that Rao’s work coincides with recent scholarship promoting a “field centered” theory of social movements (Armstrong and Bernstein 2008). In this research, movements are best described as responses to conditions within specific domains, not as inherently state-oriented behaviors. Rao’s work only reinforces this view.

The question for sociology, and social science more generally, is whether one might accept the field-centered view. Not only does the work of Bourdieu and the organizational institutionalists depend on it, but so does the work of Rao and nearly every other scholar who depicts social change as driven by mobilized actors and the framings they use. For these reasons, books like Market Rebels push the frontiers of sociology by raising fundamental questions: how far can field theory go, and how do the assumptions of field theory affect sociological analysis and research on specific processes within fields (e.g., contention within markets)? Market Rebels is the beginning of the answer and sociology is much better for it.

Read Brayden’s take here and here.

Written by fabiorojas

January 7, 2010 at 12:31 am

social movements in overlapping fields

The most recent issue of the American Sociological Review includes an important paper by Rhonda Evans and Tamara Kay that looks at environmentalists’ influence on the greening of trade policy. The paper is an interesting historical account of how the environmental movement used the NAFTA negotiations in 1994 to draw popular attention to their cause and to turn environmentalism into an international trade issue. The success of environmentalists is especially notable when viewed in comparison to the failure of labor to advance their cause during the same negotiations.

The paper is also important because, I believe, it advocates using field theory in the study of contentious politics. Along with Armstrong and Bernstein (2008), Evans and Kay demonstrate how conceptualizing social movements as situated in a multi-institutional environment affects their political opportunities, the value of their resources, frame resonance, and the strategies they use to pursue institutional change.  The key theoretical contribution of Evans’s and Kay’s paper is  to show how the mechanisms of field overlap – “alliance brokerage, rulemaking, resource brokerage, and frame adaptation” (971) – affects the ability of change agents to have an impact on policy negotiations. The paper conveys the idea that social movements inherently work in overlapping fields, bringing with them the logic of grass-roots organizing and using that as leverage to implement change in other institutional fields.  This insight suggests that, among other things, social movement actors are institutional arbitrageurs – actors whose  strategic leverage comes from using the resources of one institutional field to offset their lack of resources in another (that’s my translation anyway).

Written by brayden king

December 8, 2008 at 5:36 pm

more Abbottian mental toys: avatars


In a recent Sociological Theory article, Andrew Abbott develops a theoretical framework for the study and analysis of what he referred to as “linked ecologies.” For Abbott, an ecology is,

…best understood in terms of interactions between multiple elements that are neither fully constrained nor fully independent.We thus contrast ecology with mechanism and organism on the one hand and with atomism and reductionism on the other. The latter contrast is straightforward and general: ecology involves some kind of relation between units whereas atomism and reductionism involve only qualities of units themselves or of their aggregates. With mechanism and organism, the contrast is more specific. When we encounter complete and routine integration in the social world, we employ the metaphor of mechanics, as in the ‘‘rule-governed systems’’ of role theory, for example. When we encounter systems whose elements move together in flexible homeostasis, we use the metaphor of organism, as in structural functionalism. By contrast with these two, in ecological thinking the elements are not thought to move together at all; rather, they constrain or contest each other. ‘‘Ecology’’ thus names a social structure that is less unified than a machine or an organism, but that is considerably more unified than is a social world made up of the autonomous, atomic beings of classical liberalism or the probabilistically interacting rational actors of microeconomics (249).

The meat of the article consists of an extended analysis of various empirical cases in which the mesolevel mechanisms and processes by which different ecologies become “linked” are described. This paper is very thought provoking and innovative, in particular due to the use of various self-consciously metaphorical neologisms, which in contrast to the similar use of vernacular words to refer to theoretically rich but counter-intuitive processes made by Harrison White in Identity and Control (arenas, disciplines, councils, etc.) actually make sense most of the time and in fact provide the reader with additional understanding rather than head-scratching perplexity. For Abbott the marked terms in his article are arena, audience, avatar, bundle, hinge, jurisdiction, linkage, ligation, location, position, setting, and settlement.

One of the new metaphors that I find fascinating in this paper is the idea of an “avatar.” But before we get to that I want to address what for some of the readers of the quote above might be the looming elephant in the room. Abbott’s concept of ecology is fairly close to Bourdieu’s notion of a field. In fact for me they are virtually identical. That does not mean that Abbott’s exposition of the various processes and mechanisms that serve to link fields can be found in Bourdieu (most of them cannot to my knowledge), but that there’s a “family resemblance” in the Wittgensteinian sense between the two frameworks.

Abbott disagrees. In an addendum to the published ST article posted on his website, Abbott discusses the similarities and differences between the linked ecologies approach and field theory. I agree with most of the points that he makes (in particular with the difference between “economic” and “political” metaphors), but I also think that he overstates the differences between two approaches. In fact, it took me a while to read the original article, because I kept retranslating a lot of his terminology to field theory terms in my head.

That said, Abbott’s approach certainly goes beyond many of the limitations of field theory as Bourdieu stated it. In particular Abbott is more concerned with processes of field genesis and field structuration (the weaknesses of Bourdieu’s approach) but I think field theory can definitely complement Abbott’s approach, especially when it comes to comparative statics (the strength of the field approach). The linked ecologies framework is also very strong when it comes to questions of history and process, which is not surprising considering the source. In my description of the idea of avatars therefore I will mix up field theory terms with the linked ecologies terminology that Abbott uses. Those who have no patience for Bourdieuese can just read the original thing (:- p).

What then are avatars? For Abbott fields can be linked in many ways. One of the most interesting ways happens when a field produces a representative of the original field which is then inserted into another field. Consider the academic field and the field of the professions for instance. These two fields interact a lot and one of the ways that they become linked is via avatars: thus, the professions produce avatars in the academic field which become new disciplines (usually first subject to serious lack of specifically academic legitimacy). Thus, managers ensconced in the field of for profit corporations were able to link to the academic field via the creation of management. Management has experienced status mobility through its scientific accomplishments, but initially as wrily noted by Herbert Simon, it was a fairly low status endeavor. Avatars can go the other way of course: from academia to the professions. Abbott discusses the case of academic economics creating an avatar in the for-profit arena through the creation of consultants. The distinction between messy applied econometrics and pure mathematical economics within the academic economic field is partially the consequence of this process; with mathematical economics occupying the higher status position in the specifically academic portion of the field (although as Fabio points out in his comments to this post, this might be an outdated picture).

Consultants of all stripes in fact are usually academic avatars inserted into various fields. Thus management consultants are second order avatars, or avatars in the for-profit field of an avatar itself (management). Political consultants are usually avatars of political science in the political field. We have seen from McKenzie’s research how powerful was the role of economic avatars in the field of finance. While external avatars inserted into academic fields are invariable of initial low status (because they are lacking in the specific capital that is recognized in academia), academic avatars inserted into professional fields sometimes are able to gain fairly large amounts of symbolic capital in those fields (even if they are also initially seen as low status peddlers of purely academic knowledge useless for the practical exigencies of the field in question). Thus, economic avatars in finance revolutionized the practice of stock trading. Business consultants have had mixed success in the for-profit arena, although they have been able to create a niche for themselves there (they continue to have legitimacy issues however).

Abbott’s example is that of psychologists in various applied fields. Avatars from the field of scientific psychology have been able to claim important jurisdictional claims in various other professional and practice-oriented fields (education, law, etc.). As the ecology of scientific psychology became linked to other fields through their various avatars, applied psychologists came to dominate the initial professional association (APA) to such an extent that academic psychologists interested in the production of basic knowledge had to flee into their own umbrella association (the APS). Human resource professionals can also be seen as avatars of the juridical field in the field of for-profit corporations and state administration.

Written by Omar

April 16, 2007 at 7:52 pm

Posted in just theory, omar, sociology

can fields be sexy? (part II)


In a previous post I noted how in a paper by Martin and George, the orthodox market model was shown to fail whenever the “sexual market” was allow to have “Veblenian” standards of valuation, whereby the “sex-appeal” of one person depended on that person’s standing not only in the eyes of the focal actor, but of what that actor thought that person’s sexual attractiveness was in the eyes of others. While economists have been able to model these types of markets, before, none of the previous model’s assumptions accord with our intuition of how sexual markets might operate (which is the strong point of the exchange perspective). Sociological models that begin from normative (Parsonian) action-theoretic principles degenerate into their alleged opposite, normless utilitarian models. Enter field theory.

The authors point out that Weber can be considered one of the forefathers of a field theory of sexuality, when he proposed in his famous essay on “Religious Rejections of the World and Their Directions” his influential meta-story of modernity as the differentiation of autonomous “value spheres,” in which the erotic figured as one of the spheres. The authors don’t mention this, but I would also add Simmel as one of the precursors of such a view of modern sexuality (as becoming autonomous from its previous embeddedness in kinship, status-group reproduction) as he suggested in his essay on “coquetry” as a pure form of sociability. However neither Weber or Simmel developed a view of sexuality as field in its own right beyond this general idea of a possible autonomization of sexual striving in modernity (a theme that has been picked up by Anthony Giddens). It is only with Bourdieu, which provides a more complete conceptual toolkit that may lead to non-descriptive and non-obvious propositions about how a sexual field might operate that we can develop a more complete vision of sexuality as field.

The usual theoretical suspects are of course the idea of a field as both a spatial like “region” of social action (somewhat separate from other institutional spheres) and as a “battle-field” of competitive striving that develops its own unique principles of perception, appreciation and hierarchization (of both actors and the products that are produced in the field if it is a field of cultural production). As I pointed out before, field autonomy is key, insofar as autonomous fields are able to develop “transcendent” standards of value that may contradict dominant “hedonic” standards. The authors note that Bourdieu was a little wishy-washy as to whether we could think of sexuality as field in its own right. If he did so, he either reduced the “specific [erotic] capital” of that field to a set of objectified bodily automatisms produced by class upbringing, in this way thinking of the sexual field as completely heteronomous vis a vis the class field and thus lacking any internal consistency of itw own.

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Written by Omar

August 9, 2006 at 4:25 pm

Posted in omar, sociology

can fields be sexy? (part I)


Or for the sake of accuracy, I should say: can sexuality (or the sexual “market”) be a field? On a recent paper by John Levi Martin and Matt George recently published in Sociological Theory, the authors take up the question of whether we can think of the social organization of sexual pairings as a field. Surprisingly this paper takes up many of the issues that have occupied us lately, including the social genesis of valuation, the social construction of markets, the tendency of Parsonian “normativism” to degenerate into its alleged opposite, pure non-normative “utilitarianism, which I would argue is not accident but built into the action theory since the beginning, and of course field theory. Extending the theory into the sexual realm also exposes some chinks in the field theoretic armor, which the authors handle with some (but not complete) success.

First, action theory. The authors make a pretty good case that sexuality is a sort of critical litmus test for any action theory that attempts to solve the problem of order by recourse to supraindividual value commitments. Parsons of course recognized this, but surprisingly offered little in the way of a sociological account of the collective organization of sexual desiring (that is the question of whether there is a “social logic” in the process of who ends up sexually pairing with whom at a given historical time and place). Early functionalists like Kingsley Davis were some of the first to propose such as sociological explanation, introducing the earlier “market oriented” models of sexuality whereby women trade in sexual attractiveness for men’s class standing and wealth. However for Davis this erotic ranking was exogenous to the system (some women were physically more beautiful than others and that’s that).

Second, markets. Earlier than Davis, Willard Waller in a 1937 paper (which Ron Breiger assigns in his classical theory course) had argued that such an exchange theoretic model of dating was plausible, but that instead of sexual value being exogenous to the system it was generated endogenously in the sexual market through the logic of supply and demand (thus sexual value fluctuated over time and space depending on the relative scarcity of men and women). Although in Waller’s system the value of women as sexual partners was more closely related to their previous history of success and desirability as mates while men’s success still depended in large to such exogenous (Bourdieu would say “heteronomous”) criteria as the kind of car that they drove, their access to money and the clothes that they wore. Finally Zetterberg, went out on a limb a proposed for the first time that erotic rank could be generated autonomously in the sexual sphere itself through some sort of specifically sexual desirability (this would be a sort of “transcendent” sexual value in Podolny’s term or “field-specific capital” in Bourdieu’s).

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Written by Omar

August 7, 2006 at 11:16 pm

Posted in omar, sociology

strength of engagement and the creation of value


The lead article in the latest issue of Psychological Review deals with the effects of social isolation on mental health. Just kidding. The article, written by E. Tory Higgins, deals with an issue that has come up a couple of times in orgtheory, naturally enough, since it is one of Brayden’s many research interests: the question of where value comes from. The paper is really interesting, insofar as it tries to move beyond the traditional conception as value emerging solely from what the author refers to as the “hedonic” properties of the object (good/bad, pretty/ugly, pleasurable/painful), by isolating a second dimension of value creation (partially orthogonal to how desirable or undesirable the target is): strength of engagement. The author summarizes the argument as follows:

Value is an experience of strength of motivational force. It is an experience of how intensely one is attracted to or repulsed from something. I have proposed that the value experience derives not only from hedonic experience but also from the strength of the motivational force experience of wanting to make something attractive happen or something repulsive not happen. The intensity of the motivational force experience, in turn, is influenced by strength of engagement. Although the subjective properties of a value target are an important determinant of engagement strength, they are not the only determinant. Factors separate from the value target’s properties also influence strength of engagement and thus contribute to the intensity of attraction or repulsion. Because their contribution to value creation runs through engagement strength to experienced motivational intensity, these additional factors can intensify either attraction or repulsion regardless of whether they themselves are pleasant or unpleasant situations.

The argument is interesting in various respects, not the least of which is that it synthesizes a ton of research in psychology, both classic and contemporary, from the early field theory of Lewin and Festinger’s cognitive dissonance theory. It also proposes various (and somewhat counterintuitive propositions), all deduced from the basic theoretical proposition that if something positively affects the extent to which we become engrossed or deeply engaged in the pursuit of a goal then the target will become more valuable to us, regardless of the target’s initial subjective value properties and regardless of how pleasurable/unpleasurable the efforts to secure the valued object are.

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Written by Omar

August 2, 2006 at 2:38 pm

Posted in research