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why contemporary architecture sucks and why economic sociology is the future we’ve been waiting for

Biranna Rennix and Nathan Robinson have a long, but well-written essay called “Why You Hate Contemporary Architecture, and If You Don’t Why You Should”.  The hook: name one example of a building built in the last 70 years that stands up to anything built before the War?  You, like me, probably have a hard time thinking of an answer.

The explanation they offer is that this isn’t just a question of taste.  It is that computers have allowed architects to do things now that weren’t possible before the war.  So we don’t design buildings anymore, we engineer them.  And the engineering possibilities far outstrip normal human capability.  Combine that with capitalism’s emphasis on efficiency and what you get is buildings that are both ugly and inhuman.

As I started reading it, I was thinking to myself “it is so nice to read something long and thoughtful that has nothing to do with Donald Trump.”  But of course, it’s not that simple.  Eventually, I found myself substituting the phrase “public policy” for “architecture.” And in doing so, I found myself coming to an explanation for the “populist moment” we are living through: Just as post-war architecture became more and more focused on efficiency and technical superiority at the expense of feelings and human needs, public policy in the post-War period has become more distant, abstract and technical.

I sympathize with the reaction of elite architecture professors who resist the idea that the solution to the problem of contemporary architecture is to retreat into “nostalgic” buildings.  Similarly, I resist the idea that the response to the critique of contemporary public policy is to go back to a nostalgic pastiche of an vaguely defined golden era.

But here’s the thing: even if I don’t agree with the treatment for the illness I can’t ignore the underlying diagnosis.  Massive policy projects—whether the European Union or reforming the American health care system—are Le Corbusian in their ambition and intelligence as well as their capacity for mass alienation.  And that policy alienation has produced a real and consequential backlash that we should not ignore (despite our moment of joy over the results in Alabama–go ‘Bama!).

The upshot of the architecture article is a call to reintroduce fallibility and limited human capacity into processes by which buildings get built.  Venice and Bruges resulted from the work of builders who contributed in ways that improved on what was already there.  They did so with tools and technologies that suffered from human limitations.  But the result was architecture that is human and even sometimes beautiful. These places evolved in response to—and, were limited by—the people and communities that inhabited them, not the other way around.  Can we find a way to make public policy that takes the same lesson to heart without retreating to a past that never actually existed?

This is where economic sociology comes in.  I don’t go too much for economist bashing.  I like economists.  Some of my best friends of economists.  The strength of their insights is undeniable.  But there is no doubt that the quantitative turn in economics is the equivalent of the arrival of CAD technology in architecture.  It has lead to an exceptionally technocratic era of policy analysis the goal of which is to rationalize and to engineer policy-making on a superhuman scale.  Intellectually, it’s good stuff.  But over-reliance on it, in combination with embracing a certain form of capitalism the last fifty years, has introduced a lot of the same problems that CAD technology introduced into architecture.  We have extracted humans and history from the process of making policy and Trump (and Brexit, and Marine Le Pen) are a result.

Economic sociology, if it doesn’t get itself too distracted by fancy tools, has a contribution to make.  Or more than a “contribution”, economic sociology could become the intellectual basis on which to build a new approach to thinking about public policy.  One that reintroduces a focus on human interactions—with their faults and frailties, as well as their capacity for beauty and insight—as the central actor in the process by which strong societies—not just policies (i.e.,buildings) but societies—are built.  It is not just a matter of understanding the behavioral psychology of people in response to the engineered policies in which they live.  It is understanding how the interaction of human beings produces and evolves social institutions.

The irony of ironies is that Donald Trump—the guy who brought the idea of “look at me” architecture to its tackiest heights when he demolished the perfectly nice 1929 Art Deco Bonwit Teller building in order to build a minimalist brass-tinted-glass monument to value engineering—should be leading the populist policy “movement”.  We can and should reject both his facile, anti-intellectual nostalgia and also the technocratic policy elitism of the second half of the 20th century.  Economic sociology, or at least some version of it, seeks to understanding how institutional fabrics emerge and evolve.  Yet we have not really figured out how to translate that knowledge to a wider audience.  But, we need to (because if we don’t someone else will)

Yes we can.

Written by seansafford

December 13, 2017 at 3:19 pm

books and architecture


Via MarginalRevolution – some pictures of beautiful libraries. Somehow I have this working hypothesis that reading/researching in these types of settings (e.g., surrounded by the originals of classics and with Byron looking over your shoulder; as at the Wren library) will lead to increased productivity, creativity etc. Idealistic.

Written by teppo

September 11, 2007 at 4:28 pm



A.A. Gill (in Vanity Fair) does not mince words when reviewing some of the glass and steel buildings and condos being erected in New York City:

Take the Richard Meier buildings, the spare glass blocks in the West Village where 682-square-foot studios go for more than $1 million. Looking out over the Hudson, they squat like Papa Bear, Mama Bear, and Baby Bear, waiting for some entitled Goldilocks to come home. They’re striking because they’re so unlikely. Like finding three zebras in your garden. But in a suburb of Berlin they would be as unexceptional and uninspiring as leather shorts and an oompah band. Inside, they’re a precious design oxymoron, a mixture of Minimalism and old 70s industrial functionalism. There are obtrusive pillars, and there’s hardly anywhere to hang a picture, let alone your hat.

The basement swimming pool I saw looked so dystopianly depressing that I expected to see an inflatable fund manager floating facedown. You look at these buildings and all the other imported bendy-glass-and-steel erections, with their tacky design features worn like second wives’ engagement rings, and you wonder who the New New Yorkers think they are. Who’s going to live here? Who are the new, insecure, design-anemic rich?

The rest of the article can be found here. 

(link to article via post @ 2blowhards)

Written by teppo

September 25, 2006 at 4:53 pm

theory for the working sociologist: graduate course edition

Last week, I wrote about how to use Theory for the Working Sociologist in an undergraduate course. How does one do it for a graduate course? As usual, just abandon the pretense that you’re teaching great books, history of sociology, or philosophy of science. And just remind yourself that you are here to teach the core ideas of social theory in ways that a normal sociologist – like a demographer or a sociologist of education – would use.

I’ll focus on the graduate theory course. As with the undergraduate class, you should probably decide what the major approaches to social theory are. In my grad class, I stuck with inequality/power, culture/structure/values, rational choice and social construction. You can come up with your own labels.

The big difference with the undergrad class is that I usually start with selections from the Theory book and then add a healthy mix of classic and super-modern readings. You can also easily weave in cutting edge work from today, as long as you can identify the theoretical assumptions.

Here’s a cool example. In my recent graduate social theory course, I wanted to spend a week on “dual process models,” which folks like Vaisey and Lizardo have imported from psychology into sociology. Normally, doing contemporary social psychology in a theory course would be pushing it. But not if you assign the book.

How does it work? Simple. We had a section on “values and structures.” That is chapter 4 in Theory for the Working Sociologist. That chapter provides an overview. Then, I supplemented the textbook with an intuitive sequence of readings:

  1. Durkheim, selections from Elementary Forms
  2. Weber, selections from Protestant Ethic
  3. Parsons, selections from The Social System or one of the early books on social action
  4. Swidler, DiMaggio and Powell and Meyer and Rowan (toolkit theory and institutionalism)
  5. Then: Vaisey & co. on dual process models, and Lizardo on declarative/non-declarative models of culture

Thus, by focusing the logical development of the theory of culture from Durkheim to the present, it becomes very easy to understand the motivation behind the argument for dual process models. The text book offers a nice road map and it’s easy to add or subtract items (like dual process models) as needed. Once they are done with social theory, they will understand how a lot of social psychology is logically integrated with the intellectual architecture of the discipline.

Finally, you can also easily assign sections of Theory for the Working Sociologist as a supplement to other courses. For example, you might be teaching political sociology and run into arguments about the rational voter model. You could then assign a few pages from the book about rational choice theory to help students see why the argument happened in the first place.


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

January 4, 2019 at 8:01 am

Posted in uncategorized

theory for the working sociologist: undergraduate version

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

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

Repeat that a few more times.

Take some deep breaths.

Feel better? I thought so.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Written by fabiorojas

December 21, 2018 at 5:22 am

Posted in uncategorized

theory for the working sociologist: publication history

This month, I will delve into Theory for the Working Sociologist. This week, I’ll get into the publication history and review process. Later this month, I will get into how the text plays out in undergraduate and graduate classes.

This first post is about the publication history of the book. I think this is important to talk about because the book publication process is often opaque. Also, as you will see, it was a bit frustrating, so this is part of the “talking cure.”

How did it start? About ten years ago, I wrote a very short blog post called “All of Sociology in Four E-Z Steps.” The idea was simple. If I wanted to explain in very simple terms what sociology was all about, I would write a short blog post. Result? Over 8,000 clicks in one day. I was flabbergasted.

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by fabiorojas

December 10, 2018 at 5:58 am

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nudging the economists (guest post by juan pablo pardo-guerra)

It is the best of prizes. It is the worst of prizes. Let me focus on the latter.

On Monday, the renowned behavioral economist Richard Thaler was awarded the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel Prize in Economics. For the Washington Post, the award made “economics more human—and real”. For The Atlantic, it was a much-deserved recognition for someone whose “career has been a lifelong war on Homo economicus”. There may be much to celebrate, but there is even more to ponder.

Thaler’s award speaks to three problems in economics and its relation to the ‘real world’ it inhabits. Firstly, it is disparaging that the prize recognizes research showing “that people can be influenced by [mostly social] prompts to alter their behavior” given that other sections of the social sciences have been doing this for, well, just about forever (e.g. seems there was this French dude called Gabriel Tarde…). This year’s Nobel Prize was as much a recognition of behavioral economics within the intellectual firmament of the discipline as a legitimation of economic imperialism: a finding is only truly relevant if published by an economist (corollary: being an economist from Chicago helps).

This year’s Nobel Prize is problematic for a second reason. Behavioral economics does not seem to be in the same league as the politically troublesome contributions of some of the more controversial previous laureates (think: Milton Friedman or Robert Lucas), but as a matter of fact, it sort of is. Though it might make economics “more human—and real”, the behavioral turn doesn’t make away with the ontological commitments of discipline, privileging market processes and individual action as the fundamental sources of virtue. Consider the metaphor of the ‘nudge’, central to the type of applied behavioral economics that made Thaler’s research so publicly relevant. Rather than questioning the economics of general equilibrium, ‘nudging’ is a proposal in calculated engineering: we can build policies that create outcomes similar to those of theory by gently walking slightly irrational, bounded economic agents through the correct ‘architectures of choice’. I am not saying that this is not positive: I am sure that creating psychological incentives so that people increase their investments in retirement will eventually help them; but so would a stronger social security net and a stronger, better funded state welfare apparatus. At the end of the day, the metrics of success in behavioral economics are uncritical of how the economy is built and remit to the ‘less human’, more market-centered, and ‘more surreal’ varieties of economic analysis that behavioral economists like Thaler so bemoan at a first degree of approximation.

Thirdly, the economics prize showcases and arguably reproduces the lack of diversity and intellectual variety in the discipline. Historically, the economics prize is overwhelmingly white and male. Only one woman received the prize to date—Elinor Ostrom, “for her analysis of economic governance”; the same is true for non-white economists—represented by Amartya Sen for his “research on the fundamental problems of welfare economics”. So while economics might expand its reach in colleges, universities, and government offices throughout the world, the Nobel committee reminds us year after year that there is pretty much one type of economics that is better than the rest. It has a race; it has a gender. This is quite regrettable, particularly in a year when discussions about gender in economics were so prominent in the news. There is no dearth of women or minorities in economics—example: Maureen O’Hara’s work in market microstructure theory is perhaps more relevant and intellectually important than Eugene Fama’s somewhat passé discussions of asset prices and market efficiency from the 1970s that were recognized with the Nobel Prize in 2013. (Harvard’s Carmen Reinhart also jumps to mind).

So this was the best of prizes (for Thaler—kitchen remodel) and the worst of prizes (for the rest—economics won’t change much), a missed opportunity to nudge the discipline in a slightly different direction. Perhaps this is asking too much from a committee that represents all too well the gendered dynamics of economics in Sweden (I could not find a female committee member, but I might be wrong): in 2005, Statistics Sweden only identified one full professor of economics in the entire country. How’s that for an architecture of choice?

Juan Pablo Pardo-Guerra is an assistant professor of sociology at UCSD. His research explores the connections between markets, cultures and technologies.


Written by jeffguhin

October 11, 2017 at 12:26 am

what has to be true about humans for sociology to work?

Because we start at the level of the social, sociologists tend to think questions of human universals are either irrelevant or wrong-headed. It’s empirically obvious that what appears to be universal usually is not and what might well be fundamental to all humans is generally pretty banal.

Often, but not always. And even if the first few steps in a proof are crushingly obvious, they’re still necessary for the later, more interesting stuff. So what do we need? And why does it matter? I’d suggest four starting points. First, to what degree can we understand humans as fundamentally self-interested? Second, to what degree can we understand them as tribal? Third, to what degree can we understand humans as fundamentally habituating? And beneath all of these, do we have a right to assume human life is fundamentally social?

 I don’t have space here to get into all of these, but I hope it’s clear that these arguments have real stakes. For example, much of the hubbub over  Jerolmack and Khan’s provocative article, “Talk is Cheap” came from their situationalist assumption about human nature (and, to be clear, even though I disagree with the article, I appreciate the conversations it encouraged, and I’m a big fan of both authors’ projects). The problem with situationalism is that it’s a nuclear bomb to sociology’s structuralist assumptions, including, ironically enough, Khan’s own argument in Privilege. If it’s true that human behaviors are basically situationally contingent (to which ethnographers, fairly enough, have the best access), then we have no idea what St. Paul’s is like the year after Khan left his fieldsite, nor do we have any reason to believe that the students he profiles will maintain the formation they have received. The Bourdieusian architecture his book depends upon would be blown to smithereens.  Jerolmack and Khan might respond that their argument is not against habituation so much as that talk is poor evidence of habituation, and it’s a fair enough point that there’s a difference between behaviors and verbal self-descriptions. Yet that difference is not nearly as clean as it appears (what is a verbal self-description but a kind of behavior?) and much of their evidence for their argument is a series of situationalist critiques that are pretty devastating to any form of habituation, however it’s revealed (not to mention that much of the evidence in ethnography is, well, talk, albeit talk within situations in which the ethnographer has an interpretive understanding).

To be clear, social psychologists have been thinking about these questions for a long time, and the “Talk is Cheap” conversation originated in Steve Vaisey borrowing an argument about human universals from Jonathan Haidt. That’s a welcome development (even if I’m not at all convinced by those particular human universals), and it would be helpful to see more sociologists interested in larger (socially contingent) structures thinking about our social psychological assumptions of human action. You could easily think of similar assumptions about humanity that undergirds all sorts of sociological arguments, including boundary-work (tribalism), field position (self-interest, whatever that means), and sociology itself (sociality). Chris Smith has already started thinking about these things in Moral Believing Animals and the much longer What is a Person? (for my money the former is a sharper, cleaner argument). More importantly, the often criminally under-read subfield of social psychology has been asking these questions all the way back to Mead. So it’s not as though these conversations aren’t happening. But I think we would benefit from having more of them.

Written by jeffguhin

May 10, 2016 at 4:50 pm

hold on, why doesn’t MIT have a sociology department (or major)?

A few weeks ago, we all laughed when MIT was praised for its well known (but nonexistent) sociology department. But a serious question went unasked: why doesn’t MIT have a degree granting sociology unit? At first, you think the answer is obvious. MIT is an engineering and science school. We shouldn’t expect it to offer any sociology aside from a few courses for general education of engineering students.

But hold on! MIT offers lots of non-STEM degrees. For example, it has a highly regarded business school and an architecture school. Ok, you say, maybe it’ll offer nuts and bolts professional programs that are closely allied with STEM fields. Yet, that argument doesn’t hold water. MIT also allows students to major and/or concentrate in music. It’s also got well known PhD programs in humanities fields like philosophy, social sciences like political science and economics, and a sort of catch-all program that combines history, anthropology, and science studies. Heck, you can even get the ultimate fluffy major – creative writing.

It’s even more baffling when you realize that it is amazingly easy to create a BS or PhD degree focusing on the quantitative side of sociology (e.g., applied regression, networks, demography, stochastic process models, soc psych/experimental, survey analysis, simulation/agent based models, rational choice/game theory, etc.)

My hypothesis is that the typical MIT faculty or alumni relies on the reputation of sociology, not what the field is actually about. Like a lot of folks, the field is written off as a hopeless quagmire of post-modernism, even though, ironically, most sociologists are not post-modernists. The reality is that the field is a fairly traditional positivist scholarly area with normal, cumulative research. Even qualitative research is often presented in ways that most normal science types would recognize. It’s really too bad. Sociology could use a healthy dose of ideas from the hard sciences, and MIT could be the place where that could happen.

Adverts: From Black Power/Grad Skool Rulz

Written by fabiorojas

November 13, 2013 at 12:01 am

lifting the crimson curtain: Manufacturing Morals: The Values of Silence in Business School Education

As a grad student, I always found crossing the bridge over the Charles River from Harvard University to the Harvard Business School (HBS) to be a bit like approaching Emerald (or more appropriately, Crimson) City. On the Allston side, the buildings seemed shinier (or, as shiny as New England vernacular architecture allows), and the grounds were undergoing constant replantings, thanks to a well-heeled donor. In addition, HBS has loomed large as an institution central to the dissemination of organizational theory and management practices, including Elton Mayo’s human relations.

HBS has certain peculiarities about teaching and learning, like the use of case studies which follow formulaic structures as the basis for directed class discussion.* Moreover, instructors follow a strict grading break-down: mandatory “III”s assigned to the lowest-performing students of classes – a source of concern, as students with too many IIIs must justify their performance before a board and possibly go on leave.** To help instructors with grading, hired scribes document student discussion comments.***

Such conditions raise questions about the links, as well as disconnects, between classroom and managerial leadership, so I was delighted to see a new ethnography about business school teaching at the UChicago Press book display at ASAs.

With his latest book, Michel Anteby lifts the crimson curtain from HBS with his new book Manufacturing Morals: The Values of Silence in Business School Education (University of Chicago Press, 2013).


Here’s the official blurb:
“Corporate accountability is never far from the front page, and as one of the world’s most elite business schools, Harvard Business School trains many of the future leaders of Fortune 500 companies.  But how does HBS formally and informally ensure faculty and students embrace proper business standards? Relying on his first-hand experience as a Harvard Business School faculty member, Michel Anteby takes readers inside HBS in order to draw vivid parallels between the socialization of faculty and of students.

In an era when many organizations are focused on principles of responsibility, Harvard Business School has long tried to promote better business standards. Anteby’s rich account reveals the surprising role of silence and ambiguity in HBS’s process of codifying morals and business values. As Anteby describes, at HBS specifics are often left unspoken; for example, teaching notes given to faculty provide much guidance on how to teach but are largely silent on what to teach. Manufacturing Morals demonstrates how faculty and students are exposed to a system that operates on open-ended directives that require significant decision-making on the part of those involved, with little overt guidance from the hierarchy. Anteby suggests that this model-which tolerates moral complexity-is perhaps one of the few that can adapt and endure over time.”

Check it out! And while you’re at it, have a look at Anteby’s previous book, Moral Gray Zones (2008, Princeton University Press).

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Written by katherinechen

August 27, 2013 at 10:43 pm

the org: a response to Henry Farrell

Another guest post by Tim Sullivan, co-author of The Org

Over at Crooked Timber, Henry Farrell has written a thoughtful review of The Org. Henry says nice things about the book (thank you!), and then he gets at two issues:

  1. The tension between Taylorist incentives and Barnardian diffuse trust
  2. How organizations embody the conflicting interests of powerful actors, and how that conflict upends efficiency

Henry also points out that one interpretation of the American Airlines story we briefly tell in the introduction – of an AA UX employee who gets fired for going ever-so-slightly public about design problems with the website – is that the employee’s bosses were “self-aggrandizing assholes.”

To that I can say, with assurance, quite possibly.

It’s just as likely – more so, perhaps – that there’s a policy at American Airlines, as there is at many companies, that Thou Shalt Not Speak Ill of the Company or Its Products in Public. And Mr. X violated that policy pretty publicly. It’s probably the HR department that did the firing, and these days HR at any sizeable organization is all about compliance rather than about talent management.

The point of the AA story, though, was not that organizations are perfectly efficient but that organizations face tradeoffs, and it can be useful to acknowledge those tradeoffs explicitly and to understand the economic architecture of organizations because it makes the situation of the average employee, manager, executive more comprehensible. In the AA case, they had a terrible website (which reflected plenty of other dysfunction within the company), and yet to do the job that AA aspired to (that is, flying people and stuff all over the world), you have to build a big, complicated organization that does lots of things all at once – managing fuel contracts, negotiating with pilots and flight attendants, setting prices, and so on. And organizing all of this involves a lot of tradeoffs.

That’s where politics comes in. Henry suggests that

[T]here’s a third account of organizations out there, which Fisman and Sullivan don’t really look at at all. This is accounts of organizations not as human institutions geared to produce efficient outcomes, but instead the by-product of struggles between self-interested actors.

Ray and I aren’t suggesting that orgs can’t be full of politics, power plays, bad managers, ridiculous HR departments, and so forth. They clearly are — but you have to accept these realities when you decide that there’s something that you want to do that will be best accomplished as a group of bosses and employees. The trick is not to ignore them or pretend they don’t exist, but to understand how and why they are produced, to recognize that sometimes apparent inefficiencies are the result of being organized, and understand the difference between tradeoffs and the truly ridiculous and pointless aspects of organizational life.

So we’re not aiming to be optimists but rather cynics.

Consider the Baltimore City Police Department, a great illustration of how an org has trouble aligning the actual job of policing with the measurement and management of the job. (You can read an excerpt from that chapter at Slate.) The point of the chapter is that police departments, like many orgs, want to measure the productivity of their employees. But how do you measure crimes that don’t take place, which is the essence of some kinds of good policing (clearing a stoop, taking care of a tense situation)? Most of the time, you don’t – departments tend to focus on the things they can measure like arrests or 911 calls cleared. This, naturally enough, frustrates police officers, who balk at such systems.

We suggest at the end of that chapter that you might think that this would suggest a “theory of necessary employee disillusionment,” where the employees who have the most intrinsic motivation to get the job done are also the most frustrated. Instead, really, what we’re arguing is that all parties would be better off if they could recognize the flaws of the system, why it might be necessary to the organization, and how to work around and through it.

After all, even organizations with very devoted employees have ways to measure production and provide incentives. The Methodists of Oklahoma (whom we focus on in chapter 3), despite having priests who are clearly dedicated to the mission of the church, still have had to come up with an incentive scheme to balance local and statewide concerns (balancing the desire to convert new members with the need to keep parishioners content).

I think our view of the organization is more in line with Melville’s take on life:

“There are certain queer times and occasions in this strange mixed affair we call life when a man takes this whole universe for a vast practical joke, though the wit thereof he but dimly discerns, and more than suspects that the joke is at nobody’s expense but his own.”

This from the man who wrote “Bartleby, the Scrivener.”

But before you succumb to the idea that your organizational life is a vast practical joke, though, it’s worth understanding the regime of tradeoffs, why they exist, and how they can be managed.

Written by orgtheoryguest

April 11, 2013 at 2:56 am

Posted in uncategorized

the emergence of organizations and markets, part 2: a guest post by john padgett and woody powell

A guest post by John Padgett and Woody Powell about their new book The Emergence of Organizations and Markets. Read post #1 here:

Single autocatalytic networks generate life, but they do not generate novel forms of life. There is nothing outside of a single decontextualized network to bring in to recombine with what is already there. Self-organizing out of randomness into an equilibrium of reproducing transformations, the origin of life, was a nontrivial accomplishment, to be sure. But this is not quite speciation, which is emergence of one form of life out of another.

Transpositions and feedbacks among multiple networks are the sources of organizational novelty. In a multiple-network architecture, networks are the contexts of each other. Studying organizational novelty places a premium on measuring multiple social networks in interaction because that is the raw material for innovation. Subsequent cascades of death and reconstruction may or may not turn initial transpositions (innovations) across networks into system-wide invention.

Through fifteen empirical case chapters, Padgett and Powell extracted eight multiple-network mechanisms of organizational genesis:

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Written by fabiorojas

February 12, 2013 at 12:01 am

emergence of organizations and markets, part I by padgett & powell

A guest post by John Padgett and Woody Powell about their new book The Emergence of Organizations and Markets:

Innovation in the sense of product design is a popular research topic today, because there is a lot of money in that. Innovation, however, in the deeper sense of new actors—new types of people, new organizational forms—is not even much on the research radar screen of contemporary social scientists, even though “speciation” (to use the biologists’ term for this) lies at the heart of historical change over the longue durée, both in biological evolution and in human history. Social science—meaning mostly economics, political science and sociology—is very good at understanding selection, both at the micro level of individual choice and at the macro level of institutional regulation and lock-in. But novelty, especially of actors but also of alternatives, has first to enter from off the stage of our collective imaginary for our existing theories to be able to go to work. Our analytical shears for trimming are sharp, but the life forces that push up novelty to be trimmed tend to escape our attention, much less our understanding. If this book accomplishes anything, we at least hope to put the research topic of speciation—the emergence of new organizational forms and people—on our collective agenda.

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by fabiorojas

February 7, 2013 at 12:01 am

trashing new institutionalism bleg

I’m trying to collect major (and minor) critiques of either new institutionalism. So far, I’ve got Perrow ’86, Kraatz/Zajac ’96, Hirsch ’97, Mizruchi et al (not quite a critique), Herrigal’s 2005 discussion of recent political science institutionalism in Socio-economic Review, and my own critique of Fligstein’s Architecture on the Journal of Institutional Economics.

What else? What am I missing?

These books make great Christmas gifts: From Black Power/Grad Skool Rulz

Written by fabiorojas

November 19, 2012 at 9:58 pm

Posted in fabio, Institutions

working through retirement

What are your plans for retirement?  Do you hope that your retirement investments will comfortably support you and your loved ones in a life of leisure?  Or, do you hope to work as long as possible – work until you drop!  As life expectancies expand and the cost of living increases, some will work as long as possible, either out of necessity or choice.  Increasingly, workplaces seek to retain such employees, as demonstrated by efforts to redesign work processes at Germany’s BMW plants for aging workers.

Speaking of post-graduate school ethnography, cultural anthropologist Caitrin Lynch has just published Retirement on the Line: Age, Work, and Value in an American Factory (2012, ILR Press), which sheds insight into the experiences of an aging workforce.  This intriguing ethnography follows the workers powering the family-owned factory Vita Needle in Needham, Massachusetts.  Vita Needle manufactures a wide variety of needles, including those used for medical care and industrial applications.  Its workers range in age from teens through their late nineties; some have advanced degrees.  Some work for the sheer pleasure or to stay active per their doctors’ orders; others work because their retirement savings were insufficient to cover expenses.

Besides life-long employees, workers include a smorgasbord of past professions, including engineering, physics, architecture, education, and accounting.  The company’s owner feels that these workers are especially dependable and devoted.  They are less costly since Medicare serves as their medical insurance.  Furthermore, he opines that this invested and experienced workforce offers a competitive advantage over other companies.

Most of Vita’s employees work part-time.  Lynch’s interviews reveal that they enjoy the flexible work schedule, camaraderie, and meaning-making. Lynch’s participant-observations describes the banana-time like games that workers play to stay alert and engaged in repetitious tasks – the most sleep-inducing machine work is rotated among employees in one hour shifts.  Some workers will cover for one another; a few will gently urge laggards to resume work. Lynch also notes the benefits of violating Taylorist practices of efficiently rearranging workspace.  Having to walk to get tools or materials in the tight factory space keeps workers active and connected with co-workers.  In addition, Lynch devotes a chapter to employees’ responses to the flurry of media attention, as well as an analysis of how domestic and foreign media have depicted the firm.  In all, this book is an informative addition to courses on the workplace, organizations, and work and occupations.

Written by katherinechen

July 26, 2012 at 8:43 pm

Posted in books, culture

Tagged with ,

paid in full

One of the core disputes about arts and humanities degrees is whether they have value, and if so, what might comprise that value.* There are a few obvious definitions of value in this context:

  • Art degrees produce artists.
  • Art degrees produce incomes. This could be true in the sense that they equip workers to produce objects called “art” which are sold on a market. It could also be true in the sense that Fabio suggested in his November post: bachelor’s degrees are credentials that employers value, even if they are completed in humanities majors.
  • Art degrees reflect the acquisition of skills that employers require.

Our survey can’t provide the definitive proof that arts degrees function in any of these ways, but we can provide you with some suggestive evidence. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Jenn Lena

July 24, 2012 at 5:18 pm

Posted in uncategorized

art works

I want to remind readers that I am posting on behalf of my colleagues Steven Tepper and Danielle Lindemann, and the team at SNAAP. In yesterday’s post, I explained this and tried to frame some of this discussion.

Lately, it’s been popular to debate the fate of college students based on their choice of major. A great number of people believe that getting a B.A. as an arts or humanities major is “irrational,” what with high and rising unemployment for these students, and low and stagnant wages. Unfortunately, these opinions are often based on arguments built from shoddy research and uninformed opinions about the skills one accumulates in these degree programs.

We are in a unique position to ring in on these issues because we’ve spent the last near-decade working to create the largest longitudinal study of U.S. arts graduates in history. In our July posts, we’re going to reveal some of our most interesting findings from the 2010 and 2011 surveys (with some bits from our three pilot studies). These findings will dispute much of what you’ve come to accept as the truth about jobs in the arts. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Jenn Lena

July 10, 2012 at 9:33 pm

Posted in uncategorized

An Elaboration on Brayden King’s reaction to Neal Caren’s list of most cited works in sociology

Several people have pointed out Neal Caren lists of most cited works. I appreciate how hard it is to do something like this and I appreciate the work Neal Caren has done. So my criticism is intended more to get us closer to the truth here and to caution against this list getting reified. I also have some suggestions for Neal Caren’s next foray here.

The idea, as I understand it, is to try and create a list of the 100 most cited sociology books and papers in the period 2005-2010. Leaving aside the fact that the SSCI under counts sociology cites by a wide margin, (maybe a factor of 400-500% if you believe what comes out of Google Scholar), the basic problem with the list is that it is not based on a good sample of all of the works in sociology. Because the journals were chosen on an ad hoc basis, one has no idea as to what the bias is in making that choice. The theory Neal Caren is working with, is that these journals are somehow a sample of all sociology journals and that their citation patterns reflect the discipline at large. The only way to make this kind of assertion is to randomly sample from all sociology journals.

The idea here is that if Bourdieu’s Distinctions is really the most cited work in sociology (an inference people are drawing from the list), then it should be equally likely to appear in all sociology articles and all sociology journals at a similar rate. The only way to know if this is true, is to sample all journals or all articles, not some subset chosen purposively. Adding ASQ to this, does not matter because it only adds one more arbitrary choice in a nonrandom sampling scheme. .

I note that the Social Science Citation Index follows 139 Sociology journals. A random sample of 20% would yield 28 journals and looking at those papers across a random sample of journals is going to get us a better idea at finding out which works are the most cited in sociology.

Is there any evidence that the nonrandom sample chosen by Neal Caren is nonrandom? The last three cites on his list include one by Latour (49 cites), Byrk (49 cites) and Blair Loy (49 cites). If one goes to the SSCI and looks up all of the cites to these works  from 2005-2010, not just the ones that appear in these journals, one comes to a startling result: Latour has 1266 cites, Bryk, 124, and Blair Loy 152. At the top of the list, Bourdieu’s Distinctions has 218 on Neal Caren’s list but the SSCI shows Distinctions as having 865 cites overall.  Latour’s book should put him at the top of the list, but the way the journals are chosen here puts him at the bottom. It ought to make anyone who looks at this list nervous, that Latour’s real citation count is 25 times larger than reported and it puts him ahead of Bourdieu’s Distinctions.

The list is also clearly nonrandom for what is left off. Brayden King mentioned that the list is light on organizational and economic sociology. So, I did some checking. Woody Powell’s 1990 paper called “Neither markets nor hierarchies” has 464 cites from 2005-2010 and his paper with three other colleagues that appeared in the AJS in 2005, “Networks dynamics and field evolution” has 267 cites. In my own work, my 1996 ASR paper “Markets as politics” has 363 cites and my 2001 book “The Architecture of Markets” has 454 from 2005-2010. If without much work, I can find four articles or books that have more cites than two of the three bottom cites on the list (i.e. Byrk’s 124 and Blair Loy’s 152 done the same way), there must be lots more missing.

This suggests that if we really want to understand what are the most cited and core works in sociology in any time period,  we cannot use purposive samples of journals. What is required is a substantial number of journals being sampled, and then all of the cites to the papers or books tallied for those books and papers from the SSCI in order to see which works really are the most cited. I assume that many of the books and papers on the list will still be there, i.e. things like Bourdieu, Granovetter, DiMaggio and Powell, Meyer and Rowan, Swidler, and Sewell. But because of the nonrandom sampling, lots of things that appear to be missing are probably, well, missing.

Written by fligstein

June 5, 2012 at 9:32 pm

thinking carefully about academic tenure, or how megan mcardle bungled her post

When people argue about academic tenure, they tend to rely on simple and often inaccurate ideas. The reasoning is sloppy. For example, blogger Megan McArdle wrote that

“Lifetime drycleaning”?  “Permanent tax advisor”?  When an academic starts pushing the tenure model for anywhere outside academia, I will find their defense of its use in academia more convincing.

The implication is that tenure only exists in the academy. This is incorrect. The truth is that tenure is rare, but it does appear in a number of circumstances outside of higher education.

Let’s start with a simple definition of tenure: you have tenure if you have de facto life time employment in an organization; you can’t be fired or laid off unless you are in gross violation of your contract or the organization is in dire financial straights; this is usually achieved after some probationary period. So, then, what industries have tenure for employees? I’ll stick to the US, since that’s what I know.

  • Public education (teachers, not administrators)
  • American civil servants
  • Professors – both public and private
  • The Roman Catholic Church
  • Law firms with “partner” systems
  • Architecture firms with “partner” systems
  • Private medical practices often have partner systems

It is true that most private sector work is not organized as tenured employment. But there are significant private and public sectors that have tenure. In many cases, these are voluntary choices and not mandated by government. Law firms were not forced into the partner system. You also can’t blame tenure on government subsidy that forces private institutions into the tenure system. For example, most Ivy League schools had de facto tenure systems in the 19th century, and there’s no evidence they were forced into it by the rise of public land grant schools.

I don’t know the history of the law or medicine well enough, but my guess is that the examples above are all about professional control of work. These are all groups of people who do not want professional managers and owners to determine what happens at work. In higher education, we don’t let donors or MBAs determine who gets promoted. So we let the insiders do it. Same with the church, law, and medicine. They don’t want stockholders or middle management to have ultimate power in their profession. So they set up organizations as “colleges of peers.” The tenure and partner system may be economically inefficient, but that doesn’t mean that it’s crazy or can’t appear in a market economy.

Getting back to Megan McArdle, you can see the error in her example: “Permanent tax advisor.” Tenure doesn’t mean that you personally would have a permanent tax advisor. just as academic tenure doesn’t mean that you have a permanent teacher. It means that a tax advisor would be a permanent member of an accounting firm. And guess what, Megan, we have those – they’re called partners!

Written by fabiorojas

July 28, 2010 at 12:26 am

Posted in academia, economics, fabio

a missing urban dimension in soc of orgs? part 1

In their 2009 City & Community article “The Missing Organizational Dimension in Urban Sociology,” Michael McQuarrie and Nicole Marwell argue that urban sociologists should pay attention to the insights of org sociology and stop treating formal organizations as “derivative rather than productive of urban social life.” While focused on “the role of organizations in urban structuration,” the authors suggest that org sociology also has something to learn from urban scholarship on the study of place and the relationship of orgs to their geographic environments.

I’m going to take Mike and Nicole one step further and propose that we think more deeply about the relationship of organizations to their immediate physical environments. When sociologists talk about architecture with respect to organizations, they are usually speaking metaphorically, but organizations also have a built landscape in which all those structuring routines and practices take place. Buildings are the containers in which most organizational life happens, but they are also much more than that, and urban sociology has a lot of tools that can help us think through the multivalent role of architecture and the built environment in organizational life (symbolic, historic, aesthetic, economic, social, political…).

Of course, org scholars have not ignored place or architecture, with Christopher Marquis looking at local community influences, Judith Blau looking at architecture firms, and Beth Duckles and others studying green buildings and the LEED certification system. Additionally, there is plenty of attention to companies’ strategic management of real estate portfolios, and all kinds of institutional actors in the housing industry are suddenly under the microscope. But I think the more prosaic questions (of where organizations conduct their actual work, how they get there, how they deal with property maintenance and organizational growth, and how the shape and history of particular buildings influences what goes on within) are really interesting, in part because we are all intimately familiar with the tensions between the simultaneous meaningfulness and seeming intractability of our workaday surroundings. Or maybe I’m the only one whose office is in a basement? If not, please empathize below. More to come, but first: any favorite org pieces that come to mind on this subject– or thoughts on the larger intersection of urban/org sociology? Feel free to brag about your own urban/org work (Sean)!

Written by carolinewlee

July 20, 2010 at 2:18 pm

Posted in uncategorized

how economic sociology is different from behavioral finance

Daniel Beunza addresses the difference between economic sociology and behavioral finance in a new blog post.  Daniel provides an answer to the question of what makes them different, drawing of course on his own work in the social studies of finance. Both fields are interested in how market outcomes deviate from those you’d expect given the lens of the efficient market hypothesis, but Daniel asserts that behavioral finance looks to individual biases as a source of inefficiency while economic sociology focuses on the social conditions (e.g., technology) that cause deviations in pricing.

Although their perspectives are quite different, Daniel’s post reminded me of something Ezra Zuckerman wrote in his 2004 ASR paper on the structural incoherence of markets. In that paper’s conclusion, Ezra compares sociological accounts of markets to behavioral finance and draws a very similar conclusion. Here’s Ezra’s take:

My approach is thus not framed at the level of the individual decision-maker. Rather, I challenge the assumption made by the EMH that the social structural environment typical of financial markets always has the necessary features to support the highly sophisticated social learning necessary for incorrect models of valuation to be driven from the market. The question is, to what extent can a financial market be likened to a laboratory in which hypotheses about the meaning of economic news can be tested with experimental results that are immediate and clear to all concerned? (427-28)

The biggest difference between the two subfields is that economic sociology is much more interested in the “architecture of markets” while behavioral finance is still more or less interested in the limits of individual decision-making. As a test of this hypothesis, check out Lounsbury’s and Hirsch’s forthcoming volume about the sociology of the financial crisis. You won’t find many papers that talk about the irrational investor. Most of the papers are about institutional design. Ezra’s contribution to the volume follows his previous line of thought. Here’s an excerpt:

I argue that a sociological approach to regulating securities markets requires a clear stance on the relationship between price and value, one that combines (a) the contrarian thesis that there are objective criteria by which one can assess value more accurately than the current market price; (b) the constructionist thesis that prices are governed by commonly known beliefs that can vary substantially from the objective reality they purport to reflect; and (c) the realist thesis that the market comprises powerful mechanisms (arbitrage and learning) that, when working properly, close the gap between the contrarian’s private belief and common knowledge, thus producing reasonable prices. This intergrated “rationalist” perspective understands the real estate bubble as the product of institutional conditions that fostered pluralistic ignorance regarding the extent of bearish sentiment.

Written by brayden king

April 19, 2010 at 10:57 pm

notes from the field: with gladiator and disco queen to the rescue, one small country attempts to make an impression

Slovenia is one of the smallest countries in Europe, established in 1991 after the break-up of former Yugoslavia and the communist system.  Unlike most other East European states, the country has never had its own independent state but has always been subsumed under different kinds of territorial arrangements, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, or the Federal Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia. Although it has been one of the most economically successful postsocialist countries, generally, one can say that Slovenia’s recognizability among the world’s countries is pretty low.  Its name makes it easily confused with Slovakia (the republic of former Czechoslovakia) and Slavonia (the region in former Yugoslavia).  Its national flag is almost identical to the Slovakian one, except of the details of the code of arms, and features stripes of red, blue and white, which are very common on many of the European flags.

In the strategy for national economic development written in 2001 as part of Slovenia’s accession efforts to the European Union, tourism development has been identified as a strategic development direction, although the country has been receiving only about 0.3% of European tourists.  Observers have long lamented that this is due to the low recognition of the country in the eyes of the world, but systematic efforts to increase the country’s visibility on a global map and to market it as a tourist destination, began only after the country acceded to the European Union (EU) and was preparing for the EU presidency, beginning January 2008.  As part of these efforts, in the spring of 2005, the government established the Sector for Promotion and International Cooperation, under the auspices of the Ministry of Culture of the Republic of Slovenia and charged the Slovenian Tourist Office (STO) with a creation of a crucial marketing tool – a CNN spot.

The Gladiator – Thumbs Down

What is appropriate for a country presentation?  What best captures the “essence” of a country?  What would be attractive to a global citizen?  STO got $1 million dollars to create a CNN spot.  How to begin? Got to have a catchy slogan! At that time STO used “Slovenia: The Green Piece of Europe” in general promotion with four little flowers as a logo. The first decision was to keep the little flowers but change the slogan to “Slovenia: The Perfect Getaway.” Immediately upon the first official presentation of these choices in April 2006, the Minister of Foreign Affairs voiced his outrage, saying the little flowers were ridiculous and “getaway” was more like prison than a desirable tourist destination. So, STO rescheduled the first CNN airing, ditched the flowers for a sketch of a Slovenian flag and “A Perfect Getaway” with “A Diversity to Discover. The actual spot featured mostly the natural beauties of the country, including the sea, the vineyards, Lipizaner horses, fields, rivers, the Karst caves, mountains, interspersed with images of outdoor activities like sailing, horse-back riding, golfing, and skiing.  Only about a third of the spot featured images of the urban environment, in particular the coastal city of Piran, and the architecture and arts of the capital city of Ljubljana.  The spot ended with an image of a woman throwing two hands full of wheat grains up in the air, followed by a close-up of a hand caressing a wheat field and the slogan, “Slovenia: A Diversity to Discover.” The selection of this imagery was not straightforward, since Slovenia is a mostly urban country with only about 6 percent of employment in the agricultural sector.  Also, some of the countryside imagery portrayed the country as if it had vast open lands that people typically experience while horseback riding.  In contrast to such images, the country lacks such open lands, with only 20,000 square kilometers that is more hilly than flat, where horseback riding cannot be counted among the usual pastimes of Slovenians. And one cannot help but to think how strongly the image of a hand caressing the wheat field resembled the early scene from the Gladiator movie.

Donna Summer – Thumbs Up

Something else had to be done! In July 2006, the Government Communication Office issued a public call for proposals, in the form of an anonymous competition open to anyone.  In the message accompanying the call, the Government Communication Office wrote that Slovenia needs a new logo and slogan which will increase its recognizability.  They stated that Slovenia needs a clear and short message, which will evoke the right association with Slovenia.

In the fall of 2006, the jury met, consisting of the Ministers of Culture, Foreign Affairs and Economy, State Secretary at the Office of the Prime Minister, State Secretary at the Government Office for European Affairs, the Director of the Government’s Communication Office, two designers, an ethnologist, and a famous Slovenian wine-producer.  The chosen slogan was I Feel Slovenia, with the segment “love” in S-LOVE-nia written in bold, as in I Feel Love. The creators of the slogan explained: “We borrowed the slogan I Feel Love from pop music, because it is widely recognizable and popularized across the globe. It is known all over the world… Thanks to Donna Summer, the slogan is so simple that it needs no explanation, and speaks for itself. That was the intention” (reported in Hočevar 2006).

Despite some further protests by the public and the professional design community, I Feel Slovenia was accepted as an official slogan by the National Assembly at a special session. In a statement issued to the public, the Representative of the Government’s Communications Office revealed as much about his perception of country’s character as he explained about the choice of the new promotional slogan:

“I feel Slovenia slogan… with emphasized word “love,” sends a double message: Slovenia is a country… which attracts amiably or with love. At the same time the words capture the positive, loving impression or relation, which the visitor retains after the visit of Slovenia. This means that [the visitor] does not forget the country and its people and holds a positive, personal relation to it. Among all the country names, Slovenia is the only one with the English word “love” in its name, which is definitely a particularity, which creates a unique word play… The word “love” is principally something positive, attractive, easy, possibly witty… It represents encouragement to the inhabitants of Slovenia…. It promotes a higher level of commitment, and, above all, confidence…” (Communication Office 2007).

Thanks, Disco Queen!

Written by fredthesociologist

March 30, 2010 at 3:38 am

Posted in culture, markets

where is chomsky in the social sciences?

Although my post last week on citation counts was meant to be fun, it raised an important issue that deserves some thought. Here’s the comment from Eric Schwartz:

The hold of Chomskyan theory over the field of linguistics, and the strength of its exportation to other fields like philosophy of language and evolutionary psychology, is substantial.

Indeed. In some areas, Chomsky has played the role of a founding figure who articulated some pretty deep principles. Probably the most important is his argument is that people (and I suppose most organisms) are born with some hard wired architecture that helps them interpret and communicate about the world. We all are born with some type of rules that allow us to process information and communicate. It’s a powerful insight. It explains, for example, why children can pick up and generate language, which can be extremely complicated.

Now, here’s my question: where is Chomsky in the more macro social sciences? Sure, he’s a founding figure in linguistics and evolutionary psychology, and has a following in related areas. But he’s rarely a figure in fields where culture and decisions are important. You don’t see many soc of culture syllabi with Chomsky in it (except his political works). He’s non-existent in economics and political science, and barely shows up in anthro. There are occasional articles using “generative approaches” (see Farraro and Butts or Cederman) in sociology, but it’s not hard core Chomsky. Noam – where are you?

Written by fabiorojas

November 16, 2009 at 12:28 am

Posted in fabio, psychology, sociology

niklas luhmann is still not on my syllabus

I was rereading him a bit over the weekend, though. Ian Craib once remarked that Talcott Parsons’ approach to social theory put him in mind of an office clerk who was too intelligent for his job, and so passed the time by devising ever more complicated ways to file the very dull paperwork he was assigned. Luhmann, of course, felt that Parsons was not nearly abstract enough. I was struck by Luhmann’s opening remarks, “Instead of a Preface to the English Edition”, of Social Systems:

This is not an easy book. It does not accommodate those who prefer a quick and easy read, yet do not want to die without a taste of systems theory. This holds for the German text, too. If one seriously undertakes to work out a comprehensive theory of the social and strives for sufficient conceptual precision, abstraction and complexity in the conceptual architecture are unavoidable. Among the classical authors, Parsons included, one finds a regrettable carelessness in conceptual questions—as if ordinary language were all that is needed to create ideas or even texts. … Translating the book into English multiplies the difficulties, because English, unlike German, does not permit one to transform unclarities into clarities by combining them in a single word. Instead, they must be spread out into phrases. From the perspective of English, German appears unclear, ambiguous, and confusing. But when the highest imperative is rigor and precision, it makes good sense to allow ambiguities to stand, even deliberately to create them, in order to indicate that in the present context further distinctions or specifications are not important.

Where have I heard this sort of attitude before? Here is the “Preface to the English-Language Edition” of Distinction*:

In its form, too, this book is “very French”. This will be understood if the reader accepts that, as I try to show, the mode of expression characteristic of a cultural production always depends on the laws of the market in which it is offered … [T]he style of the book, whose long, complex sentences may offend—constructed as they are with a view to reconstituting the complexity of the social world in a language capable of holding together the most diverse things while setting them in rigorous perspective—stems partly from the endeavour to mobilize all the resources of the traditional modes of expression, literary, philosophical, or scientific, so as to say things that were de facto or de jure excluded from them, and to prevent the reading from slipping back into the simplicities of the smart essay or the political polemic.

If you are like me, this sort of thing makes you want to find the nearest Grand Theorist and beat them to death with a copy of An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. Confessing such irritation, of course, forces one to play the role either of positivist philistine or plain-speaking old blowhard — an unpleasant choice of critical positions which, I daresay, was just what Bourdieu had in mind when he had the barefaced cheek to type the passage above. Luhmann plays the same game. But I wonder whether an unwillingness to accommodate the simple-minded is a wise strategy for someone who cares have his work remembered at all. Even Hume took the trouble to condense and then rewrite his Treatise after it fell dead-born from the press.

* Which did make it onto the syllabus. Draw your own conclusions.

Written by Kieran

August 24, 2009 at 2:09 am

four universities i’d like to hang out at one day

As a student of higher education, I’ve developed a short list of universities I’d like to visit, just because they have cool histories. In my imagination, at least, they have cool vibes that I’d like to soak up.

1.University of Al-Karaouine: This is the oldest continuously operating university in the world, founded in 859 AD in Morocco. Part of a Mosque, it now has about 6,000 students and offers degrees in literature and jurisprudence. Cool architecture.

2. The University of Sankore: Part of a madrasah in Mali, Sankore was a store house of African knowledge, starting in 1270. Scholars would flock there to learn all kinds of ancient history, philosophy, and religion. Though it’s not active as a scholarly place, it still retains its cool architecture. The Timbuktu Foundation is working to collect the mountains of ancient manuscripts to preserve them for further study.


3. New School for Social Research: Though I’ve been to NYC a bunch of times, I’ve never had the chance to stop by the New School, but the idea of an American college with classes fullof people starving for social theory makes me giddy. I also think it’s cool how it housed refugee intellectuals in the 30s. Cool building designed by Joseph Urban.

4. London School of Economics and Political Science: Hoo boy! The social science history drips from the walls here … Popper, Hayek, Keynes, Giddens. It’s like all orgtheory all the time, with a charming British accent.


Written by fabiorojas

November 20, 2008 at 3:42 am

Posted in academia, education, fabio

cool social science books of 2008?

Here are the books we’ve covered this year:

Post your own nominations for great recent social science writing – or not so recent! Authors, don’t hesitate to plug your own stuff.

Written by fabiorojas

September 16, 2008 at 5:58 pm

Posted in books, fabio

graduate school rules, from an architect

I recently read Matthew Frederick’s 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School, a beautiful, concise book that compiles, in the form of a list, a surprising number of truths. Each lesson occupies one page, and each is accompanied by a witty, whimsical, or perfectly revelatory drawing. The book does not try to speak to everyone, and, in fact, some of the advice is very practical stuff written strictly for architects (#79 “Always place fire stairs at opposite ends of the buildings you design”). But I was surprised at how appropriate it was not merely beyond architecture but particularly for sociologists.

In the following, replace “designer/designing” with “writer/writing,” “architect/architecture” with “sociologist/sociology,” and “building” with “dissertation” or “book”, and you’ll have some pretty effective advice for surviving graduate school (and beyond):

  • #86. Manage your ego. If you want to be recognized for designing a good or even great building, forget about what you want the building to be; instead ask, “What does the building want to be?”
  • #48. If you can’t explain your ideas to your grandmother in terms that she understands you don’t know your subject well enough. Some architects, instructors, and students use overly complex (and often meaningless!) language in an attempt to gain recognition and respect. You might have to let some of them get away with it but don’t imitate them….
  • #29. Being process-oriented, not product-driven, is the most important and difficult skill for a designer to develop. [The discussion of this one is a gem, too long to post.]
  • #84. There are two points of view on architecture: (1) Architecture is an exercise in truth. A proper building is responsible to universal knowledge and is wholly honest in the expression of its functions and materials. (2) Architecture is an exercise in narrative. Architecture is a vehicle for telling stories, a canvas for relaying societal myths…. [Pick one and move on?]
  • [And possibly my favorite!] #101. Architects are late bloomers. Most architects do not hit their professional stride until around age 50. [Accompanying drawing: Zaha Hadid, b. 1950.]

See mini reviews here and here.

Written by mariosmall

April 22, 2008 at 10:59 pm

metatheory of form

I have been reading Christopher Alexander’s (1964) Notes on the Synthesis of Form — a beautiful, simple book on design and form. The book is considered a classic by some scholars of architecture.

The book is strikingly applicable to a wide variety of contexts, including organizations. For example, the book analytically wrestles with the relationship between form and context (think, organization and its environment), the role of adaptation etc. Design and form, in this book, are treated rather broadly, not just objects such as kettles, or even matters such as music, but also social forms, including villages and societies. Very interesting. I love the analytical precision and simplicity with which the books treats its subject matter — e.g., the appendix of the book works through some basic set theoretic intuition and diagrams the design of an Indian village.

I haven’t seen this book cited in the orgs literature, but it occurs to me that one might readily use it in a class period on organizational design and form.

Written by teppo

April 13, 2008 at 2:07 am

Posted in teppo

eero saarinen – modernist architect


I’ve always enjoyed modernist architecture, especially when it has a sleek, clean look. Thus, I’ve admired the work of Eero Saarinen. Here are some of his greatest hits.


The classic – the St. Louis Gateway arch


The Law School of the University of Chicago


The TWA Terminal at JFK


He also designed the Tulip Chair of the 1960s.

Written by fabiorojas

November 18, 2007 at 5:12 am

miscellaneous saturday links


Written by teppo

September 9, 2007 at 3:51 am

beauty is a rare thing



That’s the name of 1964 album by saxophonist Ornette Coleman, who was justly recognized with a Pulitzer Prize. Coleman was one of those pioneering musician’s of the 1950s and 1960s who broke free of musical rules yet retained the beauty of the blues. At the time, his music was deeply threatening because he simply didn’t care to follow bebop’s harmonic conventions. A man producing such elegant improvised lines without canned formulas had to be doing something wrong.

Fortunately, we live in a different musical age. It’s now very easy to believe that each person has the potential to create their own lyrical vocabulary. Coleman’s music is of that kind. Here’s some youtube links showing the different paths he’s followed:

I’ll conclude with the liner notes to Coleman’s most recent album, Sound Grammar:

“Talking is the universal method of words that form the language of people. It is also the creator of thoughts and ideas. Languages identify the position of said birthplace of its citizens. Sound stimulates he new born baby and could cause the infant to cry. Sound itself is used in endless forms of communication. Sound is neither masculine nor feminine yet the worldwide use of it is based on the order of human culture.”

“Sounds found in the expression of music, vocal and instrumental, are the global styles or forms such as jazz, opera, country, classical and other musical genres, all equal in the concept of ideas. Sound has a specific meaning when used in different dialects. The culture of civilization when expressed in different tongues identifies the differences.”

“The conclusion is that the Grammar of Sound is universal.”


Written by fabiorojas

April 20, 2007 at 1:10 am

mergers, mergers, mergers


Every ten years or so the business community experiences a record-breaking wave of mergers and acquisitions. Many attributed the last M&A wave in the 1990s to the “irrational exuberance” of the marketplace and a newfound love between the technology and communications industries. Looking back, many of the acquisitions seem unwise (e.g. AOL-Time Warner) and even wasteful. Rather than producing the promised technical efficiencies, many of the acquisitions seem now to have been driven by psychological mania and overconfidence.

M&A have returned. In fact, once again, the current wave seems to be bigger than anything we’ve experienced in the past. According to this Knowledge@Wharton interview with M&A expert, Harbir Singh, 2006 set a record in deal value ($3.8 trillion). Like the 1990s, telecom and financial services firms are playing a big role in the current M&A wave. And again, the merger wave has questionable outcomes. As Singh says in the interview, the most generous estimate is that only 5 out of 10 buyers pay fair market value for their acquisition. The other half pay a significant premium. Sure, the sellers fare well, but the buyers tend to affect a greater number of stockholders.

In addition to the unhealthy premium most buyers pay, M&A also have uncertain post-acquisition outcomes. Executives often lack good information about the target and are stuck with managerial nightmares. Potential synergies often fail to develop because of incompatible knowledge, routines, cultures, etc. In effect, most acquisitions rarely live up to expectations.

So why do it? Given all of the evidence against the effectiveness of the strategy, why would a firm find it in its best interest to engage in lots of M&A? Read the rest of this entry »

Written by brayden king

February 8, 2007 at 5:11 pm

mackenzie redux

We have a late entry to our online seminar of Mackenzie’s An Engine, Not a Camera. Peter Levin, an orghead hailing from Barnard College, has written a review of the book for Social Forces. He’s offered us a sneak peak of the review. Comments welcome!


Under the auspices of social studies of finance, sociologists are trekking ever closer to the core tools and concepts that have long been the sole purview of financial economics. Among the best of these scholars is Donald MacKenzie, whose earlier work on ways scientists stabilize and produce the world they set out to discover, proves useful background for his latest work investigating the origins and current configuration of arbitrage and financial economics. This book is an account of the rise of finance, drawing from interviews with many of the central figures in finance since the 1970s.

An Engine not a Camera analyzes the effects of economics (and finance in particular) on the execution of financial markets. The book’s central argument is that theories of finance have had a ‘performative’ effect on the markets they purport to describe. That is, financial models of the world shape that world, making it conform to the models. Performativity is not a perverse effect of economics on markets, neither does financial theory lie just in the realm of ideas. Instead, MacKenzie highlights the systematic ways economic theories have been incorporated into the infrastructure of markets (pp. 19-20). Performativity is also posited to varying degrees – developments can be weakly (‘generic performativity’) to more strongly (‘Barnesian performativity’) performative, reflecting the extent to which theories are generally or specifically called upon, and their relative effects on economic processes.

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by brayden king

January 8, 2007 at 4:17 pm

Posted in books, economics, sociology

the florence academy of art


I have already revealed my penchant for the classical, traditional, and stuffy in architecture. If you want to see the work of exciting, young artists being trained in the classical “Old Master” tradition of painting and sculpture – check out the work of artists coming from The Florence Academy of Art (here is the alumni gallery). The Academy director, Daniel Graves, also has an article on the web site delineating the history of classical painting (with emphasis on his background and more recent developments), methods employed in the Academy’s training, and a more general discussion of the raison d’etre and ethos of the movement – the traditional approach to realism.

The Academy site also features an article – titled : A New Direction in Art Education – by Gregory Hedberg, director at Hirschl & Adler Galleries. The piece highlights some of the history of classical painting (realism and associated variations), its rather recent re-emergence (or should I say, resuscitation) in Academies such as the one in Florence, and, the article more generally touches on illusive notions such as aesthetics and beauty. (For a related, epistemological primer on realism and the theory of art – I would recommend John Hyman’s excellent, recent book The Objective Eye: Color, Form, and Reality in the Theory of Art). Enjoy.

Written by teppo

October 25, 2006 at 6:43 am



For any of you that are architecturally (and perhaps even more generally) stuck on the traditional and stuffy, you will find The Institute of Classical Architecture & Classical America web site a refreshingly stuffy site with publications, links to lectures, pictures and so forth. And here, an associated classicist blog (here’s a scathing review of Renzo Piano’s expansion of the Pierpont Morgan Library). Despite growing up in Finland [see this NYT piece on modernism in Finland], I in part sympathize with the classicist cause.

As an aside – apparently the only places in the US to get classicist, stuffy architectural training are the University of Notre Dame’s Architectural School (all students are required to live in Rome for a year), and the University of Miami – both programs are highly ranked.

Written by teppo

August 31, 2006 at 5:10 am