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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

the meditation movement and the challenge to the theory of fields or, why you should check out jaime kucinskas’ work

Mobilizing Ideas recently ran a post about emerging stars of social movement research. I was thrilled to see three folks with IU connections – Matt Baggeta of IU’s top ranked policy school, Casey Oberlin of Grinnell (IU grad), Jaime Kucinskas of Hamilton (another IU grad). I’ve already discussed Casey’s work on this blog, so let me take a moment to tell you why you should pay attention to Jaime’s work.

Jaime’s dissertation was a study of religious change. Specifically, the rise of meditation as a serious topic in academia and American popular culture. Basically, meditation has found its way into many areas of American social life – even the military! The reason Jaime finds this interesting is that it is a serious change in American spiritual life that happened without the process of conflict and resource mobilization as described in works like Fligstein and McAdam’s Theory of Fields.

Jaime points out that movements can have great impacts by bypassing the contentious politics route. She argues that American meditation is a top down, elite driven movement that does a lot of institutional work behind the scenes and uses the levers of elite institutions to subtly inject new religious practice into popular culture. Based on great field work and extensive interviews, it is a great case study with broad and deep implications. Check it out.

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

Written by fabiorojas

October 8, 2014 at 12:01 am

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

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

 

Dustin Avent-Holt and Donald Tomaskovic-Devey, who collaboratively published their book Relational Inequalities: An Organizational Approach (Oxford University Press), graciously agreed to do a joint email interview with orgtheory!  Here, we discuss their book and the process leading up to the production of the book.  Readers who are thinking of how to apply relational inequality theory (RIT), join and bridge scholarly conversations, and/or handle collaborative projects, please take note.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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new edited volume by melissa wooten on race and organization theory

Long time readers know that I am a fan of Melissa Wooten’s work on higher education. Well, there is more good news from her. Her new volume in the Research in the Sociology of Organizations just came out and it’s jam packed with engaging work. It’s about the exciting meeting between organization theory and theories of race.

The book collects essays from some of the most amazing coolest people working at the intersection of race and organizations. Here are the authors:

  • Christi Smith on race and fields.
  • Cedric de Leon on race and political party in the South.
  • Kyla Walters on charter schools.
  • Lucius Couloute on imprisonment.
  • Melissa Abad on race and occupations.
  • Victor Ray and  Danielle Purifoy on race in organizations.
  • Reginald Byron and Vincent Roscigno on bureaucrcy and discrimination.
  • James Jones on race in Congress.

I also have a short essay that asks about the open questions about race, organizations, and fields. If this is your bag, you need to check it out.

++++++++

BUY THESE BOOKS!!

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($4.44 – cheap!!!!)
Intro to sociology for just $1 per chapter – INSANE BARGAIN!!!!!
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

June 5, 2019 at 12:01 am

Posted in uncategorized

netflix and resource based value theory

One of the enduring ideas of management theory is resource based value theory: firms are valuable because they have a quasi-monopoly on some resource that gives them sustained advantage. Netflix is a great place to think about this.

My theory of Netflix is that it is not a “resource based” firm, but rather a firm that has exploited being a first mover in three related areas: DVD rental, streaming, and content development. Netflix did not invent any of these fields. Rather, they exploited loop hole and the inertia of other firms. For example, they didn’t invent DVD rental by mail, but they perfected an area many thought was dead. Same with streaming. They didn’t invent it, but other firms were slow to develop very good streaming. And clearly, Netflix did not invent or perfect content creation, though they are clearly really good at it.

And this is why Netflix is in a big hole. Why? The rest of the industry has caught up. DVD rentals are still good, but they aren’t enough to sustain the company. And now many, many competitors have good streaming and great content.

The result is that Netflix is deeply bleeding money. Yahoo reports that they’ve issued $12bn in bonds. Yahoo also reports massive cash burn and many “off the balance sheet” debts. The question for Netflix is whether they will innovate a genuine resource they can exploit or somehow stay ahead of the competition, just enough to avoid debt disaster.

++++++++

BUY THESE BOOKS!!
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

April 26, 2019 at 4:20 am

Posted in uncategorized

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

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

book announcement: theory for the working sociologist

cover_theory

Dear friends and readers,

This coming Winter, Columbia University Press will publish my next book, Theory for the Working Sociologist. The book is my attempt to present social theory in a way that is accessible to upper division social science students, graduate students, and any reader who just wants to know what sociology is up to these days.

The book has an intuitive organization. I choose four major themes of social theory and explain the general ideas (“theory”) that motivate concrete empirical studies and explanations (“mechanisms”). For example, the first section of the book is about power and inequality theory. I illustrate how theoretical ideas about habitus and intersectionality are represented in empirical research and how they grow from earlier approaches to power and inequality. I also have sections on social construction, values/structures/institutions, and strategic action theory (i.e., social capital, structural holes, rational choice and other ways sociologists talk about purposeful action).

The book is short and designed to be used in many contexts. In my  undergraduate theory course, I used the draft of the book to supplement original texts. After reading various inequality theorists from Marx to Patricia Hill-Collins, I assigned chapter 2 to provide an overview of how inequality theory has developed.

Due to its short length, it is also well suited for a quarter course on contemporary theory or as the text you read after you plow through the classics. I can also imagine that graduate students might enjoy it because it offers a brief survey of the major theories of sociology. Many sociologists start in related fields, like political science or economics, and need a “tour guide” to help them find their place.

Finally, I want to thank the readership of this blog. I acknowledgments list many readers who read the text and improved it and the readers who encouraged me to write it in the first place.

If you are thinking of assigning this book in your course, please email me and I will send you the (almost) final draft.

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

Written by fabiorojas

October 4, 2016 at 12:01 am

Posted in books, fabio, uncategorized

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:”

Abstract

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

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

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

levimartin

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

how social movement theory and org theory became friends

Klaus Weber and I have a chapter in the forthcoming Oxford Handbook of Sociology, Social Theory, and Organization Studies, in which we discuss the history of the connection (or lack thereof) between social movement theory and organizational theory. In writing the chapter we wanted to go back to the roots of each theory and talk about missed opportunities for intellectual cross-fertilization. Both literatures are, after all, primarily concerned with group behavior, problems of collective action and coordination, and dynamics of stability and change. Why did it take so long for the two theoretical areas to engage one another? (I should note that social movement theory has for some time borrowed ideas from org. theory, but this doesn’t really amount to full engagement in my mind.)

We argue that in the early years of American sociology, social movements and formal organizations were viewed as very distinct phenomena – social movements are irrational and disruptive and formal organizations are rational and stability-inducing – and that this characterization prevented scholars from seeing potential empirical overlap.

Research on both social movements and formal organizations was thus sparked by an interest in how individual behaviour—embedded in traditional family and societal structures as well as self-interests—is transformed in collective contexts. However, the two emerging fields focused on rather different forms of transformation. Social movement theory evolved from a subfield that saw collective action as irrational, spontaneous, emotional, and emergent (Blumer, 1957; Smelser, 1963; Turner & Killian, 1957); whereas organizational theory was largely focused on the rational pursuit of collective goals within the walls of bureaucracy (Crozier, 1964; Gouldner, 1954; Weber, 1947). Moreover, early collective action research saw spontaneous crowd behaviour as disruptive of social order, while organization theorists saw formal organizations as sources of social domination and stability. To the eyes of sociologists at the time, social movements were typically ephemeral, deviant, and potentially destructive (Couch, 1968). Formal organizations, in contrast, were purposefully organized, stability-inducing, and functional. It is no surprise that collective behaviour and organizational scholars in the 1950s and 1960s saw few commonalities.

In doing research for the paper we uncovered a really fascinating quote from a 1959 Social Problems article by Lewis Yablonsky, a sociologist studying gangs as a form of social organization. (Interestingly, before becoming a sociologist, Yablonsky claimed to have grown up on the streets and became a proficient dice and card hustler. Naturally, once he became an academic he gravitated to the study of deviant behavior.) In the article, Yablonsky explicitly compares collective behavior, like crowds and mobs, and formal organizations.

At one extreme, we have a highly organized, cohesive, functioning collection of individuals as members of a sociological group. At the other extreme, we have a mob of individuals characterized by anonymity, disturbed leadership, motivated by emotion, and in some cases representing a destructive collectivity within the inclusive social system. (Yablonsky, 1959: 108)

Yablonsky, a keen observer of social life, came to the conclusion that there are many types of organizations that exist in the middle of this continuum. Yablonsky’s insight, although he meant it to apply specifically to gangs, has since become widely shared by both social movement and organizational scholars. Social movements are much more organized, routinized, and rational than previously thought, but they are still frequently characterized by intense emotions and contagion-like processes. Formal organizations are much less permanent and stable and more emotional than a previous generation of scholars believed, but it is the  existence of routines and collective identity that allow them to resist environmental threats. The more we understand both phenomena, the more we recognize similarities. Pioneers in the field like Mayer Zald and John McCarthy realized this early on and helped make those connections. In more recent years, the bridge between the two fields has been developed more fully as organizational scholars have gone to social movement theory to re-conceptualize the organization as a political actor that is shaped by various ongoing kinds of collective action.

Our paper talks about how the two fields became friends and offers a few insights about where we think the fields are heading and what might be gained from further merging. Check it out if you’re interested.

Written by brayden king

July 24, 2014 at 5:11 pm

org theory in sociology: diffusing, not disappearing

A couple of weeks ago, Brayden asked about the growing disconnect between org theory and sociology. He argued that 1) sociology is now heavily focused on inequality, and organization theory isn’t, and 2) org theory has become abstract and detached from a Selznick-style effort to make organizations better. Lively discussion ensued.

I have also felt this disconnect, but from the other side of the coin. My training is as an organizational sociologist, and I was hired to teach organizations in a sociology department. My work is mostly framed in terms of organizational fields and institutional logics. But, increasingly, it seems I have trouble finding much to engage with in org theory. (The field, not the blog.)

For a while I thought this was just a natural evolution of interests. My current research, which looks at how economists and the intellectual tools of economics gained a central place in U.S. policy making, doesn’t sound very organizational at all.

But what this misses is how invaluable an organizational approach is for thinking about this problem. For example, if a group of experts wants to influence policy, one way they can try is by providing advice to policymakers—at Congressional hearings, through advisory groups, and so on. But policymakers are bombarded by information, and use it mostly to justify decisions made for other reasons.

For experts, it works much better, though it’s less direct, to establish organizational footholds for yourself. This can mean the creation of new offices that your type of expert runs. So the U.S. Antitrust Division created an Economic Policy Office in the 1970s that became a stronghold for economists. It provided a base for some of the early champions of deregulation, and it gained control over technical decisions affecting which corporate behaviors the Antitrust Division would challenge.

Or it can mean creating entirely new organizations in which you play a major role. Economists were key players in the new schools of public policy founded around 1970, which looked very different from the older public administration departments. They taught a different style of thinking that then made its way into Washington via graduates of those programs.

Thinking organizationally is also important to understanding how such footholds are sustained. The Congressional Budget Office, dominated by economists, was created in 1975. Its mandate wasn’t originally so clear. To become permanent and influential, it had to figure out how to provide services that members of Congress from both parties found useful—while continuing to maintain as much scope as possible to pursue the internally generated studies it cared about. Classic resource dependence.

My point here is that there are many research topics in sociology that don’t look so organizational, but that benefit from an organizational perspective. And lots of scholars who identify primarily with other subfields are drawing heavily on organizational theories and concepts. I think org theory is diffusing, not disappearing, in sociology. Why, and whether that’s a problem, are questions I’ll leave for another day.

Written by epopp

May 20, 2014 at 6:05 pm

Posted in academia, sociology

is org theory out of touch with sociology?

Recently I was talking to a statistician in a business school and he mentioned that he’d seen my paper about the Matthew effect and status bias in baseball. He said that he knew I was a sociologist as soon as he saw the title of our paper. “All sociologists study status and the Matthew effect right?”  He asked me why sociologists care so much about status. The answer I gave him was that sociology as a discipline is very focused on explaining inequality – its antecedents and consequences – and status is one important manifestation of inequality. We have many theories, like the Matthew effect or status characteristics theory, that are fundamentally about explaining the persistence of inequality. Other subfields in sociology – e.g., social movement theory, social networks – try to figure out power imbalances, yet another source of inequality.

Of course, the statistician was partly wrong. Yes, it’s a good assumption that if a scholar studies the Matthew effect he or she is probably a sociologist, but there are still some sociologists – some of whom are in business schools – who are not as interested in studying inequality. Organizational theory, setting aside work and occupations research or status scholars, is one of those subfields within sociology that has historically been less concerned with inequality than with other dynamics. I’ve said in the past that the major contribution of organizational theory is that organizations “become “infused with value” independent of any technical or rational contribution they make to society. They become their own ends.” This insight distinguishes sociological theories of organizations from economics and organizational behavior. The contribution runs deep in the history of organizational theory as well, linking the old institutionalism of Selznick to contemporary theories like new institutional theory, organizational ecology, and identity theory. But this contribution has nothing to do with inequality. I can see how graduate students who are not immersed in organizational theory might even find this insight irrelevant.

Perhaps this disjuncture between what organizational sociologists and the rest of sociology find interesting explains some of the distancing of organizational theory from mainstream sociology. Organizational theory increasingly seems to be going through a long divorce process from sociology as more established scholars leave sociology departments and as top sociology departments fail to replace them with up-and-coming scholars.  Now, of course, before I lament too much, I should add that even if there is a disjuncture, it hasn’t prevented organizational scholars from publishing in mainstream sociology journals. Some of the most prolific scholars in ASR and AJS are people who are very much working in the organizational theory tradition. But as I see papers like this get published, I wonder, to what extent do graduate students, outside of those few schools that still teach an organizational theory course in their sociology curriculum, find these studies interesting or relevant? I’m not sure. Perhaps they see them as a weird alien species that occasionally shows up and reproduces in their territory. Adding to this divide is the fact that because many of the organizational scholars who publish in ASR and AJS are now located in business schools, their relational embeddedness in mainstream sociology is quite weak.

I think two trends have taken place that may explain this growing distance between organizational theory and mainstream sociology. The first is that sociology has become more focused on inequality than ever.  Although inequality and social problems have always been of interest to sociologists, it has never quite captured the discipline as it has in this moment. Even cultural sociologists are now inequality scholars. The second is that organizational theory has become increasingly abstract and removed from practical issues, such as figuring out how to make organizations more effective for resolving social problems. Selznick believed that this ought to be one of the main motivators for organizational theory. It was the impetus for his TVA study, and he later criticized new institutional theory for losing that practicality. Perhaps as organizational theory has become more focused on generalizable propositions (e.g., see the formal theory of ecology), most sociologists find it less interesting and less relevant to what they do. They certainly see it as being unconcerned with sociology’s bread-and-butter topic – inequality.

Written by brayden king

April 24, 2014 at 3:05 pm

orgtheory 2014

Welcome the New Year! In 2014, I plan to discuss the following topics on the blog:

  1. Fligstein and McAdam’s Theory of Fields – there’s been some subterranean conversation that needs to see the light of day.
  2. Institutionalism – where are we now?
  3. More installments of the Grad Skool Rulz .
  4. Damon Phillip’s book on the structure of jazz music production.
  5. Some more K-street action.
  6. A discussion of Karl Popper and whether “positivism” deserves the scorn it gets in sociology.

And 1. There is an Orgtheory Facebook page. It is now much more active than it used to be. 2. Support the writing of this blog with a purchase of the Grad Skool Rulz book. It’s cheap ($3), available on nearly any device you have, and a lot of people have found the book to be helpful.

Books, books, books, books: From Black Power/Grad Skool Rulz  

Written by fabiorojas

January 1, 2014 at 12:01 am

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

anarchism week at orgtheory

What the heck, let’s do anarchism week. Let’s start with the following conversation I had at the end of my social theory class a few semesters ago. A student approached me and asked why I didn’t teach anarchism in the course. There’s a few good reasons, but not so strong that you couldn’t include it if you really wanted to.

First, the goal of my social theory class is to have people read original texts written by seminal social thinkers. This doubles as a sort of Western civ (since IU doesn’t require it) and people need to understand the core arguments of sociology. So we hit the “classics,” the interactionists, feminists, French theory,* and a little evolutionary psych. The course also needs to prepare a handful of students who will continue in soc, poli sci, or other fields at the graduate level.

Second, I teach things that really drive discussion in contemporary sociology, which means that that many topics, including those dear to my heart, must get cut. Since there are very few anarchist sociologists, or research that uses an anarchist perspective, it means that it simply isn’t a priority.

But that doesn’t mean that anarchism isn’t a real social theory or that it should be actively excluded. In contrast, there’s now a body of anarchist themed social writings, mainly in fields other than sociology. For example, anthropologist David Graeber’s writings should count. James Scott, the political scientist, has written about statelessness at length. There are the classic anarchists, like Prodhoun, and feminist anarchists like Emma Goldman. You have right wing anarchists like economist Murray Rothbard or philosopher Michael Huemer. Then you have empirical studies of statelessness like Pete Leeson’s pirate book.

In other words, you have more than enough material and it’s high quality material. But it’s definitely not central to sociology (yet?), so you don’t feel guilty cutting it. But the social theory course isn’t set in stone. I am already tiring of French theory and other topics, so it may be time to rotate some new material in.

Fight the Power … with these books!: From Black Power/Grad Skool Rulz

* Remember, I don’t teach postmodernism anymore.

Written by fabiorojas

December 2, 2013 at 12:05 am

Posted in fabio, just theory

join us in Rotterdam to talk about movements, markets, and fields

The European Group for Organizational Studies is hosting their annual colloquium next year in Rotterdam, Netherlands on July 3-5. Simone Schiller-Merkins, Philip Balsiger, and I are organizing a subtheme entitled, Movements, Markets, and Fields. For those of you who have never been to EGOS before, the format of the conference allows you to hang out with the same group of people in your subtheme for a couple of days, offering in-depth feedback on research projects in a concentrated area of study. EGOS gives you the intimacy of a small conference,while also facilitating interactions with a broader group of organizational scholars from a variety of disciplines. Here’s our Call for Papers:

Sub-theme 22: Movements, Markets and Fields

Convenors:
Brayden King, Northwestern University, Kellogg School of Management, USA
Simone Schiller-Merkens, Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies, Cologne, Germany
Philip Balsiger, European University Institute, Florence, Italy

Over the past decade, scholars have paid increasing attention to movement activism targeting organizations and markets. Pioneering research has studied whether and how this activism matters for the emergence and change of industries, markets, and corporations. These studies have suggested a revised perspective on markets and organizations as fields of political conflict (King & Pearce, 2010). While the field concept has a long tradition in organization theory, scholars have only recently begun to think about fields as sites of continuous struggles over meaning, identities, and positions (Bourdieu, 2005; Beckert, 2010; Fligstein & McAdam, 2012). Fields take shape and evolve as a result of contentious interactions between different kinds of actors. In order to further advance this scholarship, this sub-theme is especially interested in papers that adopt a field approach to study the interactions between movements, organizations, and markets.

We invite papers that address the strategic interactions between (a) movements and firms, (b) between different kinds of social movement organizations, and (c) within firms and social movement organizations. With respect to interactions between movements and firms, we particularly welcome papers that address the counter-strategies used by organizations to react to movement demands, and the market transformations that eventually result from this. Possible research questions to be asked are:

  • How do corporations react to movement activism? Why do firms sometimes comply with a movement’s demands, and at other times treat their demands as irrelevant?
  • How do movement demands, targets, and tactics get transformed in the interactions between social movements and corporations?
  • What consequences do firms’ counter-strategies have on field positions, identities, and market categories?
  • How does the interaction between movements and corporations influence the processes, tools, and standards of valuation and evaluation on which markets are built?

Social movement organizations (SMOs) often target the same set of corporations. However, we know little about the interactions between them and the strategies with which they differentiate themselves. We therefore encourage papers that address questions such as:

  • How do different types of SMOs interact in their mobilizing against corporations?
  • When do SMOs coordinate their actions and when are they in conflict? What effects does this have on their outcomes on corporate targets?
  • How do SMOs develop their repertoires of action and identities, in isolation from one another, in competition, or in cooperation with one another?
  • Do (and if so, how) SMOs perpetuate differences in ideology over time in their collective mobilization against the same set of corporate targets?
  • Regarding the identity and practices of SMOs, why do some of these organizations become specialists with a narrow repertoire of activities while others become jacks-of-all-trades?

Finally, organizations are also contested from within and can be seen themselves as fields of contested interactions between different kinds of actors. We therefore invite papers that look at issues surrounding the following questions:

  • What forms does political conflict in firms take? What about political conflict and activism within SMOs?
  • Under which conditions do activists within organizations achieve their aims?
  • What role do extra-organizational factors play for the outcome of internal movement activism?
  • How do firms retaliate against their employees for activism?
  • What consequences do internal conflict and strategic interaction have on the development of organizational identities, goals, and values?

Please consider submitting your short paper to our session!

Written by brayden king

September 10, 2013 at 9:14 pm

theory death in political science

A definition: theory death is when some intellectual group tires of theory based on armchair speculation. Of course, that doesn’t mean that people stop producing theory. Rather, it means that “theory” no longer means endless books based on the author’s insights. Instead, people produce theory that responds to, or integrates, or otherwise incorporates a wealth of normal science research. In sociology, theory death seems to have happened sometime in the 1980s or 1990s.  For example, recent theory books like Levi-Martin’s Social Structures or McAdam and Fligstein’s A Theory of Fields are extended discussions of empirical research that culminate in broader statements. The days of endlessly quoting and reinterpreting Weber are over. :(

Now, it seems, theory death is hitting some areas of political science. Consider a recent blog post by political scientists Stephen Saideman called “Leaving Grand Theorists Behind.” Saideman trashes a recent piece by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt (“Leaving Theory Behind: Why Hypothesis Testing Has Become Bad for IR“) that urges international relations scholars to downplay empirical work return to grand thinking. Saideman is pissed:

  • My first reaction was: Next title: why too much research is bad for IR….
  • As folks pointed out on twitter and on facebook discussions, it seems ironic at the least that someone who made a variety of testable predictions that did not come true (the rise of Germany after the end of the cold war, conventional deterrence, the irrelevance of international institutions, etc) would suggest that testing our hypotheses is over-rated or over-done.

And the critique goes on and on… My take: for reasons that I have yet to understand, political science has not completely washed out old style “theory” in the way that it happened in most other social science disciplines. Therefore you have pockets of people who hold that as their ideal, even in fields that are obviously empirical. When they are very senior and very respected, you get this sort of flare up.

Adverts: From Black Power/Grad Skool Rulz

Written by fabiorojas

January 10, 2013 at 12:15 am

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.

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Daniel Kreiss

December 13, 2012 at 7:24 pm

Posted in uncategorized

dude, where’s my social theory?

It’s safe to say that “social theory” is in retreat in sociology as an occupational category. The number of people who identify themselves as primarily “social theory” is shrinking. Let me quote Kieran, who shared with us his graduate level theory syllabus:

Social theory within sociology is in a strange position. The nickel version is: there are no longer any theorists in sociology. There are theories (or things people call theories); there are theory courses and there are people who teach theory; there are theory articles and theory journals; inside papers there are mandatory theory sections; inside the American Sociological Association there is a Theory Section, too; there are career returns to being thought of as a clever sort of person who can do good theory; you cannot get published in a top-flight journal without convincing the reviewers that you have made a theoretical contribution; and there are people who were once hired as theorists and still think of themselves as such. In some related fields on the humanities side there is also capital-`t’ Theory, with its own practitioners. But since the late 1980s or early 1990s there has essentially been no occupational position of “theorist” within American sociology. No-one gets a job as a theorist. (For more on this, see Lamont 2004, and also Healy 2007.) Crudely, the sort of people who once would have thought of themselves—and hoped to be hired—primarily as theorists now think of themselves as sociologists of culture instead, or (less often) as disciplinary historians of ideas.

Well said, Mr. K. Now, a few comments:

  • A humanities style moral/social philosophy/history of thought sub-field is in retreat in every discipline. Political science is the exception.
  • You can still do theory, as in writing fat books that are praised but rarely read. They get published. There are theory journals, and you can still get career points for them.
  • Hypothesis Uno: Old style theory was only advantageous in a data poor environment.
  • Hypothesis Dos: Old style theory was only  advantageous in a low tech environment.
  • Hypothesis Tres: Science is now bigger, which gives an advantage to empirical specialists.
  • Conclusion: In a fast paced world where people have real data, high tech tools, and can consume a lot quickly, writing Parsons style magnus opuses is something that few people can pull off.

Final comment: I’ve now spent 9 years between IU and Michigan as faculty and post-doc. Very different departments, but that allows you to see the wide range of sociology. I’ve looked over (and tried to read) *hundreds* of job applications. Very, very few “pure theory” applications. What does that tell me? From time to time, you’ll the fat theory book come out, but the profession collectively says “meh.”

Go Ahead, Click on These Links: From Black Power/Grad Skool Rulz

Written by fabiorojas

September 19, 2012 at 12:03 am

cutting edge sociology at orgtheory!

Blogs work when there’s a solid community of readers and writers. We’ve been blessed with both. If you haven’t checked in for a while, look at these great discussions by leading scholars and the quality comments by readers:

Coming up on orgtheory: in September, a review of Gabriel Rossman’s book on the radio industry and in October we’ll do our book forum on Andreas Glaeser’s Political Epistemics book. And don’t forget guest posts by Jenn Lena, Katherine Chen, and Brandy Aven.

Adverts: From Black Power/Grad Skool Rulz

Written by fabiorojas

August 29, 2012 at 12:01 am

Posted in books, fabio, sociology

This Year’s Theory Syllabus Leaves Out More Than Ever

I’m teaching our required Graduate Social Theory course again this semester. This year I decided I’d snub not just monomanical German system-builders but French Weberians as well. No Foucault for you! I should have started a “What, no x?” sidebet before posting it. In the syllabus, I present a justification for my sins. An excerpt:

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Kieran

August 22, 2012 at 1:30 am

Posted in just theory, sociology

political theory in political science?

Question for higher education researchers and Kieran: Why is political science the only social science field to have an institutionalized sub-field of ethics inside of it?

If you look around the American academy, you’ll quickly see that the analogous sub-fields do not exist. Economics banished history of economic thought/philosophy/ethics some time ago as the field formalized. There are definitely normative discussions in economics, but there isn’t a large sub-field of “economic ethics” that commands dissertations, FTEs, or endowed chairs. In sociology, we sort of had that stuff up until the early 1990s but it’s disappeared in the major journals (e.g., articles of the form “a new reading of Weber” are very, very rare). My sense is that anthropology and psychology don’t have a a political theory analog.

What mechanisms allow political science to keep this structure? Why hasn’t political theory completely migrated to philosophy departments or history programs that emphasize intellectual history?

Adverts: From Black Power/Grad Skool Rulz

Written by fabiorojas

July 20, 2012 at 12:09 am

capital conversion across fields

A long time ago (like in the 1990s), I remember reading that a major question among Bourdieu folks was the issue of how capital developed in one field was deployed in other fields They key issue was how economic capital could be converted into cultural capital in non-commercial social domains. I asked Brother O about this, and he provided a few citations to recent stuff. I think there is more out there, buried in the European social theory literature, but I am not sure where to start. Is Brother O right in that this wasn’t discussed much, or is my memory correct and there is a discussion of cross-field capital conversion out there?

Adverts: From Black Power/Grad Skool Rulz

Written by fabiorojas

July 18, 2012 at 12:06 am

Posted in fabio, just theory

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.

And:

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.

Adverts: From Black Power/Grad Skool Rulz

Written by fabiorojas

June 25, 2012 at 12:03 am

Posted in everything, fabio, sociology

social theory undergrads

Why is social theory hard for students? After teaching many sections, I offer a few answers to this question. This is based on teaching a lot of public university students, many of whom postpone theory until the bitter end.

  1. The difficulty level of the readings is far beyond what is normally encountered in other courses. Compare a passage from Durkheim or Weber with what you find in an intro text or an anthology of readings on race, and you’ll see what I mean.
  2. Many students in sociology class don’t have an interest, or express an interest, in current events, history, philosophy, or other topics that would lead them to think a lot about the social world in a systematic way.
  3. A lot of courses are topical in orientation. Thus, there is no systematic discussion of dependent/independent variables, social processes, and so forth. In a lot of big public schools, social theory is a weird stand alone course. It is not integrated with others.
  4. Social theory books themselves present a problem. Finding a connection between empirical topics and social theories is hard.

One might interpret this post as a complaint against the buffet style sociology major, where students just take a bunch of disconnected courses. That is correct. At many programs, including my own, there is no logical sequencing of courses. Students take intro or social problems, then topics, and then a little stats and theory. Thus, there is no cultivation of systematic thinking.

Another interpretation is that sociology attracts the wrong kind of student. If there are not an appreciable number of students with a strong knowledge of current events, history, or other fields that would facilitate learning social theory, then it means we’re failing to attract these students.We have to do a better job getting the most engaged social science students.

Social theory instructors, please leave your comments.

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Written by fabiorojas

March 7, 2012 at 12:05 am

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

what happened to resource dependence theory?

The three main sociological theories about organizations to arise in the late 1970s/early 1980s were institutional theory, population ecology, and resource dependence theory. Of the three, I think it’s fair to say that resource dependence has had the least amount of staying power. Institutional theory has become a dynasty. Population ecology is influential even beyond those who self-identify with the theory (e.g., see the prevalence of event history analysis and density dependence models). But resource dependence, although ritually cited, failed to carry forward as a vibrant research agenda among the current generation of scholars.  Why is that?*

This wasn’t always the case. You could argue that in the early 1980s, resource dependence theory had the greatest potential for developing a coherent research community. Looking at this Ngram graph, you can see that by 1982 Pfeffer and Salancik (1978) was getting cited far more often than Meyer and Rowan or Hannan and Freeman. It appeared to be the dominant theory. But something happened in 1983 that caused a sudden reversal of that trend. It’s pretty clear from the graph that in 1983 the influence of Pfeffer and Salancik began to decline while the influence of DiMaggio and Powell began to accelerate at an even greater rate.  Ecology continued to rise in influence during this same time period, peaking in citations in the mid-1990s.

The decline of resource dependence theory has a number of causes. I don’t think that the problem was that resource dependence was not a good theory. If you were able to transport your academic self back to 1983, I think you’d find that resource dependence had as much potential for building an expansive theoretical program as institutional theory did. You could imagine that resource dependence could have expanded its conceptual artillery to embrace resource dependencies of various types (e.g., cultural resources, symbolic resources) and across different sources of dependence (e.g., state, professions, consumers).  Resource dependence could have co-opted the burgeoning literature on interorganizational networks and provided it with a theoretical lens with which its fancy methods could be put to use.  (It’s always seemed strange to me that Ron Burt’s structural holes concept was not more tightly associated with resource dependence theory given that one of the central concepts in his theory, structural constraint, is all about dependence.) The theory could have branched out to explain phenomena as varied as firms’ symbolic responses to shareholder activism or the influence of  corporate board networks on patterns of diffusion. These studies happened and some were informed by Pfeffer and Salancik, but they were not closely associated with resource dependence theory. Instead, many of these studies ran to institutional theory for cover.

I think there are a number of reasons resource dependence theory failed to cohere into a community of scholars. Here are a few:

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by brayden king

August 3, 2011 at 7:20 pm

Posted in brayden, just theory

big theory, little problems or big problems, little theory

What makes a study interesting? Is it the problem (e.g., financialization; boycott success) or is it the theoretical question that the problem is meant to address? For many organizational theorists, I would expect the answer would be the theoretical question. Organizational research, and much of sociology for that matter, is driven by making contributions to theory, no matter how small or seemingly mundane is the problem itself.  I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. Teppo and I called this blog orgtheory and not orgresearch for a reason. We like theory. I like the big abstract puzzles that seem pointless to outsiders but that keep many of us up late at night.

The emphasis on “big theory” poses some constraints for getting published in our field. Some, including Don Hambrick, have lamented this trend as the feeling is that it causes scholars to push beyond their data and to make claims that are unjustified.  Scholars, the critics claim, have replaced theorizing with a “theory fetish.” Whether they intend to or not, scholars sometimes turn theory turns into neat packaging without any real attempt to integrate or replicate.

But not all areas of scholarship are equally focused on “big theory.” Some subfields pride themselves for doing little theory and instead examine the “big problems.” Take demography as an example. Nope, not much theory there, but the problems (e.g., changes in the divorce rate; immigration patterns) are big. Of course, it’s not as if demographers are just descriptive. They are interested in explaining problems and may use a little theory as they search for mechanisms that explain the big problems at the heart of their analysis. It’s just that the starting point for their analysis is more about the problem than the theory. Being able to shed light on a really big problem is given more weight in the review process than making a big theoretical contribution.  Although demography may be on the extreme side of the continuum, I think that some branches of historical sociology and strategy research are like this as well.

Why are demography and strategy research more problem oriented than economic sociology or organizational theory? My sense is that it’s because there is more consensus in those subfields about what the big problems are. Demographers may not agree with one another about which theories matter, but they do have high consensus around what big problems they ought to be interested in explaining/solving. This is similarly true in strategy research. You can pinpoint strategy’s focus to one set of DVs – performance.  If you can shed some light on explaining this problem – how to improve financial performance – I don’t think it really matters what theory you use or if you have much of a theory at all. But in organizational theory, there is much less consensus about what the big problems are, and so we instead focus on generating consensus around what the big theoretical questions are.  It turns out that there are a handful of big theoretical questions (e.g., institutional change; network effects vs. cognition) but people who are in the subfield develop a sense for what these are and then figure out how to develop research projects to address those questions. Sometimes, and probably way more often than is useful, scholars start with the topical problem and then, after they’ve done some analysis or finished their ethnography, try to cram their research problem into a theoretical question. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. When it doesn’t work, the resulting paper has all of the problems associated with “theory fetish” – e.g., superficial contribution, weak mechanisms.

Is there a place for more problem-oriented research in organizational theory? I’d like to think so. But to get there we need to start talking more about what the big problems are in the organizational world and to get over the false idea that “little theory” is bad.  Little theory doesn’t mean no contribution at all; it just means that we arrive at them as a consequence of a detailed examination of a big organizational/social problem.  I take Jerry Davis’s and Greta Krippner’s books as great examples of problem focused work that also happen to make nice theoretical contributions along the way. I think we need more research like this.

Written by brayden king

May 16, 2011 at 2:46 pm

Posted in brayden, research

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

orgtheory without weber

There’s a saying at orgtheory conferences. There’s no such thing as an organization, just the activity of organizing. What does that mean?  It’s misleading to think of organizations as rigidly defined things, like buildings. Instead, the word “organization” only refers to a bunch of people doing things together. In The Assymetric Society, James Coleman had a nice metaphor. An organization is like a swarm of gnats – clearly flying together, even if the pattern isn’t so obvious.

Who is responsible for modern sociology’s obsession with organizations as things? That’s right, Max Weber. In that famous passage, he had a nice definition. It’s a hierarchy with clearly defined jurisdictions, written rules, and so forth. What’s the problem with this definition? It’s patterned after the large corporate forms that were emerging in the late 19th century. An “organization” is something that looks like the German state, the Church, and so forth. Of course, that’s what gets transmitted in classes. Weber also emphasized the contingent nature of organizational forms. But alas, that subtly gets tossed.

The result? Once you buy the organization as a very patterned behavior, a hierarchy with certain features, then the theoretical tendency is to see that thing everywhere. For Barnard, it was about how leadership occurs in the hierarchy. For Parsons, the analysis was all about explaining how the organization had different hierarchical subsystems and institutional links to its environment. For the Carnegie school, it was about explaining the limits of hierarchy. For the neo-institutionalists of the 1980s, it was about the social reproduction of the hierarchy and social control of the organization through institutions. The organizational field is just a pile of orgs that need some sense knocked into them.

But there is hope, there’s an alternate organization theory that pops up, but it hasn’t been pieced together. There’s an orgtheory without Weber that really is about organizations as places where organizing happens, not just the big corporate forms that gets taught via the watered-down Weber. I think it goes something like this:

  1. Open systems & Coase: An organization is some stable pattern of work and command in a larger social environment. There’s no reason to think orgs have well defined boundaries.
  2. Goal displacement/principle agent problems: Control is problematic. Some organizations are defined by a lack of clear command. Goals get transformed and changed.
  3. Networks instead of hierarchy/Powell: Control in orgs and fields can happen in many ways, non-hierarchical networks characterize many fields.
  4. Implicit order: Work gets done according to both formal and informal routines.

In other words, the corporate forms that inspired Weber’s definition are simply one end of the spectrum. The military, or GM, is an extremely stable pattern of work where goals are rigidly enforced and hierarchies are strongly institutionalized. But once you realize that classic organizations are an extreme of the spectrum, then you realize there’s a lot more to life in orgtheory.

Of course, if you are on top of the org lit, you alredy know this. For example, our guest Katherin Chen wrote about the burning man organization, which is very un-Weberian and has all kind of crazy organizational issues. Siobhan O’Mahony wrote about the online software community. Clearly organized, but definitely on the far end of the spectrum as well. In my world, social movements seem to straddle the classical Weberian mode and the informal as well. In other words, non-Weberian orgtheory is already being done. It just needs to be pulled together into a new paradigm.

Written by fabiorojas

May 19, 2010 at 3:24 am

there’s no theory in the social sciences

Chomsky’s provocative response to a question from the audience:

There’s no theory in the social sciences…

…the term theory should not be applied to fields as intellectually thin as the social sciences…

…there’s just some common sense observations.

Written by teppo

May 10, 2010 at 5:40 am

Posted in just theory