Bourdieu is everywhere in social theory these days. Ranging from practice theory to studies of taste and consumption, you can find Bourdieu lurking in the background and quite often taking center stage. Bourdieu may be the most blogged-about theorist here on orgtheory. He’s so easily transportable because of the generality of his concepts and because he wrote extensively on so many different things during his career. Given the expanse of his theoretical contributions, it can sometimes be hard to pin down Bourdieu as a theorist. The reason for this, suggests my prolific co-blogger Omar Lizardo in this commentary forthcoming in Sociological Forum, is that Bourdieu’s contributions to American sociology have occurred over various stages, creating multiple clusters of Bourdieuian-influenced theorists. Depending on which cluster you’re a part of, you’re getting a slightly different angle on the Bourdieuian perspective. I highly recommend reading Omar’s commentary for anyone who thinks they know (or would like to get to know) Bourdieu’s work. It helps put Bourdieu in historical context.
The final stage of Bourdieuian influence, which is an emerging trend Omar admits, is focused on embodiment, cognition, and action. Although he doesn’t mention it in the essay, I have noticed that a strong community in institutional theory has really grabbed on to this this aspect of Bourdieu. Institutional theory in the late 80s through the mid-90s was heavily influenced by Bourdieu’s field theory (Omar’s stage 2 of Bourdieuian influence), but in recent years institutional theorists have become less interested in the constraining aspects of field forces and more interested in how institutional change bubbles up from below, which places more emphasis on agency and reflexive cognition. Scholars interested in institutional entrepreneurship and institutional work (for example, read Lawrence, Suddaby, and Leca), in particular, seem to be drawing more and more from Bourdieu’s theory of practice. The attractiveness of practice theory is that you don’t have to completely shed your structural view of institutions and fields to develop an endogenous explanations for how people create local worlds of resistance and novelty. Although I think it’s fair to question how well executed many of these studies are, I’ve noticed that a large portion of institutional theory has moved from stage 2 in Omar’s depiction of Bourdieu to stage 3.
Perhaps this is the reason why I’ve heard so many grumblings from people in the institutional theory world about Fligstein’s and McAdam’s work on “strategic action fields.” The F&M conceptualization of institutions and change is still very stage 2 in its understanding of how actors are situated in a field and how fields evolve over time. But this no longer resonates with many institutional theorists, who have already moved beyond this conceptualization of institutions to a stage 3 model in which actors are embedded in multiple fields and possess more agency than the actors of a fixed field world. While the former view is more structural and deterministic, the latter view is more cognitive and stochastic. F&M do very little to bridge stage 2 with stage 3 Bourdieu (although one could argue, but they don’t, that the concept of “social skill” derives from practice theory).
Last week, the Social Science History Association had an “Author Meets Critics” panel about Michele Lamont’s book “How Professors Think,” which we’ve discussed here and here. Based on comments left by readers and my own impressions, I raised the following points:
- Lamont needs to”get tough” with respondents. It seems as if she accepts too much the ethos of “pragmatic professionalism” provided by the respondents. Consensus magically emerges in a room of rival disciplinary culture. That was Thomas’ point.
- Lamont needs to be more careful about what can be accomplished with an ethnography of that field site. The sort of multi-disciplinary consensus is an artifact of that field site. My point is that this is still extremely important. Elite fellowships can set the tone for the rest of the profession.
- Lamont needs to focus on outcomes. Does the creation of excellence have any tangible effects?
Summarizing, here are Professor Lamont’s responses:
- She uses introspection to inform her ethnography. Sure, people sometime have ulterior motives, but they also have other motives. As Benjamin Greer pointed out, this is also an attempt to move away from Bourdieu’s extremely skeptical view, where everything is a lie meant to promote social status. Lamont then aligned herself with Boltanski on that point. Since I am not knowledgeable about Boltanski, I am not sure exactly how that theory gets you beyond the habitus theory. Well versed orgheads should chime in here.
- She did acknowledge that the original title was “Cream Rising,” which suggests a study of elite choice making instead of a broader study of academic culture.
- I can’t remember if she addressed outcomes, but it certainly is a great future project.
Other panelists raised different issues. Steve Epstein raised the issue of generalizability (see point #2); Regina Werum wanted more analysis of the grant screening process; James Evans claimed that Lamont’s quantitative analysis is not as informative as it appears, at least when using information theoretic measures. If you were there, or want to add one last word on the book, please use the comments.
In this post, I want your opinion on the following social theory conjecture: Bourdieu’s sociology is successful because it draws on three of the four main streams of modern sociology. To see why I might say this, consider the following summary of Bourdieu’s main concepts:
- There are “social fields” – socially constructed domains defined by a type of action (e.g., the state, the arts, the market).
- These domains of action have their own “capital” – resources that can be used to further one’s position and create more resources (see Sean’s post).
- These domains also have hierarchies based on the creation and destruction of field specific capital, and even “doxa,” the range of what can be expressed within a social field. In other words, a field is a whole bunch of things.
- Habitus – the deeply help dispositions that reflect an individual’s internalization of the rules and values associated with that domain.
- All of this is terribly endogenous (“self-structuring structrues… yada yada“).
If you buy this thumbnail sketch – and it omits much – then you can easily see that Bourdieu’s theory is highly constructionist. It’s also fairly obvious that he draws on critical theory – Marxian class analysis is obviously one inspiration for how he views capital and habitus (think of “class culture” in Distinction).
The more controversial claim is that Bourdieu draws on a very basic form of rational choice theory. If you read Introduction to Reflexive Sociology, Bourdieu is asked whether this is true and he just says the comparison is off base. I think Bourdieu is sort of wrong, but not totally. Specifically, he responds to Becker’s rational choice theory and I think Bourdieu is correct in drawing the distinction. The homo economicus is very different than the mood driven habitus. Explicit calculation is simply not the main variable of Bourdieu’s theory.
On the other hand, striving for status and attention is an implicit, ecological view of strategic behavior. Field based actors do strategically try to defend their turf using their resources, even if they ways they do it are not always conscious or well articulated. I call this “ecological” competition because biological and social ecology theories depict actors who must compete over space/resources with inherited traits/strategies that do emerge from conscious calculation.
The final claim of this post is that Bourdieu pretty much circumvents a fourth type of sociology – the values/institutions/social structure stream associated with the old & new institutionalists, Parsons, and network analysts. It’s pretty obvious that he’s not a big fan of functionalism or of any theory focusing on the links between values and orgs/networks/institutions. For him, the hierarchy is the principal model of social organization and hierarchies are just visible manifestations of who has the capital. Sociology is about explaining who’s making and breaking these hierarchies and using the capital. If you really believe that, there’s not much point in talking about networks, decoupling, logics, or any other stuff associated with the values & structures branch of sociology, even though Bourdieu gets many “respect citations” from that crowd.
So, orgheads, a fair assessment of Bourdieu? Post your reactions in the comments!
A little while ago at the Michigan orgtheory seminar, Michele Lamont spoke about her research on how professors evaluate things. Her big theoretical goal was to argue against the Bourdieu/Collins view, which is that academics are competing with each other for position (Bourdieu) or attention (Collins). She argues that her analysis of how people make judgments in fellowship competitions shows that there’s more to academic life than competition. Overall, I agree. Academia is about more than jockeying for power.
At the same time, I was skeptical and asked a question. I asked if her case – fellowship and grant evaluation panels – was idiosyncratic. Lamont’s answer (rephrased): No, this is is not idiosyncratic. Academia is built on evaluation panels – graduate admissions, hiring, tenure and promotions. This happens all the time.
There’s a potentially huge intellectual confrontation coming up between two schools of strat/inequality researchers, if it’s not already happening. It’s about rival explanations of family effects on achievement. Here’s the skinny:
- According to the Bourdieu/cultural capital crowd, family affects lifecourse by either (a) providing young people with knowledge and behaviors that give them an advantage in school (e.g., taking your kid to the museum) and (b) using class privilige to protect/guide your kids in school. See Annette Lareau’s famous work on this second point.
- The Heckman/psychometric crowd is starting to congeal around the idea that families affect how people concentrate. The main claim is that socio-emotional skills are a big predictor of how kids do in school. Basically, achievement is IQ + concentration. Then they conjecture that families are a big input into socio-emotional skills. If your family is disruptive, then it undermines your performance because you simply can’t/won’t concentrate.
Now, the question is how to relate these explanations. Personally, my guess is that #2 is probably a stronger explanation of macro trends in acheivement, but #1 is a better explanation of microvariation. For example, position #1 is not able to explain the fact that some low status groups (e.g., Asian immigrants) were able to acheive much with little insider knowledge of American schools. The concentration thesis easily explains how Asian immigrants – through just forcing their kids to just pay attention – can get pretty far in the system. It also explains variation in Asian performance – they do well in math, not language. Math ed research indicates that repitition and concentration are the big factors in math skill acquisition, while language and reading is much more culturally based.
In contrast, #2 doesn’t explain differences among groups that put out equal levels of concentration. For example, why are Asians over represented in technical elite education, but not in other areas of the academy, such as the humanities? If they can wing nuclear engineering, why aren’t they over represented in English departments? Part of the reason is that they probably lack the social capital to navigate non-technical areas. There’s more to be said here and I’d be interested in other takes on this issue.
Bourdieu is often cited in organizational studies, but references to Bourdieu, as Omar noted, are usually symbolic gestures meant to bring legitimacy to projects. The real Bourdieu, the sociologist interested in power dynamics and culture, is less often found in our American theories of organizations. This point is made strongly by Mustafa Emirbayer and Victoria Johnson in a recent paper published in Theory and Society, “Bourdieu and organizational analysis.” Emirbayer and Johnson argue that the theorization of Bourdieu’s contribution to organizational theory has been incomplete because it has failed to fully utilize the Bourdieuian concepts – the theoretical triad – of field, capital, and habitus. Since the publication of DiMaggio and Powell (1983) the concept of field has become highly central to organizational theory, particularly in institutional theory, but the authors argue that an understanding of fields is incomplete (and perhaps shallow) without linking it to capital and habitus. Because of this, our theoretical understanding of fields has become detached from Bourdieu’s central insight – that fields are the locations of massive, historical struggles for power.
Emirbayer and Johnson provide a good overview of how Bourdieuian concepts might be more fully utilized in organizational research. The paper is well worth reading. Here are some highlights from the text:
Social network studies, not to mention other approaches often taken to task by Bourdieu, are to be faulted only insofar as they deny that the truth of interactions is to be found always (at least partly) outside those interactions themselves (pg. 10).
For some reason we have been preoccupied with Eric Leifer of late. From Kieran re-interpreting strong performativity in Leiferian terms, to Brayden dredging up some obscure papers, to a synchronized response by Brayden and Fabio to the effect that the cure to dealing with the subjects that are hard to explain in contemporary social science is “robust action” (the concept of robust action is Padgett and Ansell’s (1993) elaboration of Leifer’s (1988) idea of “local action”).
There is good reason to be preoccupied with Leifer. He offers the closest that there is in network structuralism to a “practice theory.” That is a theoretical account, not derogatory to the lay actor, that tell us how networks are “performed” by skillful social agents (as Fabio and Brayden noted, Fligstein has attempted to do something similar for the institutionalist structuralism). It would be no surprise if accounts similar to Leifer had been “adumbrated” (in the Mertonian sociology of knowledge sense) by other practice theorists. I offer you one such adumbration.
Here is a Leiferian quote from The Logic of Practice which might interest econ soc heads out there:
…the anthropologists…would have been less inclined to use the language of the mechanical model [potshot at Levi-Strauss] if, when considering exchange, they had thought not only of the potlatch or the kula but also of the games they themselves play in social life, which are expressed in the language of tact, skill, dexterity, delicacy or savior-faire, all names for practical sense; and exchanges in which hermeneutic errors are paid for instantly, such as the exchange of blows, discussed by George H. Mead (1962: 42-43), in which each stance of the opponent’s body contains cues which the fighter has to grasp while they are still incipient, reading in the hint of a blow or a sidestep the future that it contains, that is, the blow or a ‘dummy’ [fake].
Returning to polite conversation, a stereotyped linking of stereotypes, they would have discovered the unceasing vigilance that is needed to manage this interlocking of prepared gestures and words; the attention to every sigh that is indispensable, in the use of the most ritual pleasantries, in order to be carried along by the game without getting carried away by the game beyond the game, as happens when simulated combat gets the better of the combatants; the art of playing on the equivocations, innuendos and unspoken implications of gestural verbal symbolism that is required, whenever the right objective distance is in question, in order to produce a refusal, and to maintain uncertainty about intentions that always hesitate between recklessness and distance, eagerness and indifference. One thus only has to go back to one’s own games, one’s own playing of the social game, to realize that the sense of the game is at once the realization of the theory of the game and its negation qua theory (Bourdieu 1990: 81).
Sociology is a contact sport, but the really good sociologists, like all other skillful social actors, don’t really have to make contact (all of the time).
Reading a lot of Hannah Arendt lately has made me think about the relatively quick move (only really a few academic generations) from demanding regular reference to European classical antiquity, often via familiarity with both the original Greek and Latin, to today’s academic standards, which are, all at the same time, much more localized and specialized but also much more diffuse, allowing references and cross-comparisons along multiple lines, some of them genealogical and linguistic (as Arendt does) but many of them simply comparative and broadly anthropological in the the (classical) Terrence sense of nothing human being alien to me (Charles Taylor, by the way, is one of the few who really bridges both worlds, both because of his age but also because of his remarkable abilities and wide-ranging interests.) I don’t think this change is actually a problem (I know some Latin, and I’m more familiar with the classical world than is your average sociologist, but that’s not saying much). However, for good or bad, this change actually speaks to Arendt’s worry that a lack of tradition creates a lack of common culture through which totalitarianism can brew. I think that argument’s an interesting one, but I don’t think it’s right, mostly because I think that a cohesive kind of tradition is a sociological reality we can’t really escape.
I posted the above paragraph to my facebook wall a few days ago, and I got some good feedback, namely that plenty of earlier sociologists (and other kinds of thinkers) didn’t care about the classical era either (and, of course, Arendt wasn’t a sociologist: in fact the “social” is the main problem in The Human Condition). Which is fair enough, of course. Yet certainly there’s this broader sense of being an intellectual plugged into an old intellectual tradition in Weber, Marx and Durkheim–and then as well in people like Foucault and Bourdieu, Goffman and Geertz (the last, of course, is not actually a sociologist, but my hunch lately is that cultural sociologists cite him at this point more often than do cultural anthropologists). You can also see this change in the way (much) older years of sociology journals have more essayistic feels.
So this is on one hand a question about how certain academic forms have changed not just the production of intellectual life but also how we define its requirements and content. In other words, there’s a sociological–and, I’m sure, organizational and institutional–argument to explain this change. As usual, I’m sure a certain kind of conservative wants to blame the fact that we can’t all quote Seneca on the cultural left, when it’s at least my hunch that the right’s own love of the market-with division-of-labor as a constitutive good-is much more to blame.
I confuse people. Sometimes, I come off as the humorless American social science empiricist. “Show me a z-score or get out of my office!” Other times, it sounds like I drank the cool aid at the latest MLA meetings. What’s the deal? How can a “just the facts, ma’am” guy be the same person who says that we’ve missed the point of late Foucault?
It’s simple. I treat the jargon and wordiness of
Eurotrash European theory as a distracting mist. To be a charitable reader, I ask myself what lies beneath the mist. Therefore, I judge European social theory not by its rhetoric but what remains when I translate all the fluffery into plain English. In my experience, it’s worth the exercise. Sometimes you find nothing, something you find gold.
So here is how I judge “fancy pants theory.” First, I take what a text says and make it as boring as possible in simple words and ask, “Is there actually a point to all of this?” Second, I ask if it is actually true, or at least interesting to think about. Thus, you can create a handy 2×2 chart that helps you sort out the good from bad in the next Duke University Press catalog:
|Is it true?|
|Does it Have a Point?||Yes||No|
What I’ve discovered is that some “theory” doesn’t really have a point that would satisfy most of us. For example, Zizek *may* have a point, but maybe he doesn’t. It’s honestly hard to tell when you read him, except for his newspaper columns, which are a more straight forward structure. When I have read Zizek, it often seems to be a string of words or statements meant to shock, rather than press us to understand some important feature of social theory. At times, I even wonder if individual sentences are really meant to communicate an idea or just bludgeon the reader. When an author urges you go beyond the real and into the Really, Really, Really Ridiculously Real, you have to wonder. So, about Zizek: Has a point? No. True? Probably not.
Then we get to writings that have a point, but the point is probably wrong. Derrida is my favorite example. The whole premise of classic deconstruction is that one can read (handle?) a text by looking for semantic dichotomies and showing contradictions, gaps, and omissions that stem from the reliance on the dichotomy. I think it’s a really stunning statement and a cool way to read texts, but I don’t believe that his theory of meaning in texts is true.
What I enjoy most are texts that reward you quite a bit when you clear away the smoke. Bourdieu is the great case. Classic Euro-wordiness, but when you take the time to get through it, there are a lot of ideas that are worth digging into: symbolic capital, habitus, doxa. He’s probably the social theorist who best melded a theory of social psychology with theories of inequalities and you can actually have a serious discussion about the truth or interestingness of the work. That is worth seeking out and tolerating the puffery.
I posted a short twitter essay on this yesterday, and it got some interesting reactions, so I thought I’d post a (slightly) more fleshed out version here.
Here’s the problem: many Trump voters are racist, and in a variety of ways. There are the more subtle forms, the subconscious racism alongside benefitting from/maintaining/seeking to exacerbate institutional forms of racial dominance. And then there’s the explicit stuff, in terms of actively discriminating, maintaining and using stereotypes, and advocating policy rooted in stereotypes of other groups.
That’s all terrible. And there’s a temptation (I think a compelling one in many ways) to just write these people off. And in terms of the morality of it, there are compelling arguments in both directions: on one hand, such racists are real people who deserve respect and engagement; on the other hand, if someone is saying or doing something you find morally heinous (particularly regarding you and your identity), I take the point you’re no longer obligated to engage them.
For now, let’s bracket the moral question of distinguishing between how we engage Trump—who only deserves scorn—and how we engage racist Trump voters. Those voters, again, might well also deserve only scorn, but I at least am personally convinced, as a fellow white dude, that I’m obligated to engage them. However, I think that is very specific to my positionality, and I’m super uncomfortable making any broader moral claims about how anyone else is so obligated, except to say that other white straight non-Muslim goyim men like me are probably similarly obligated.
Yet besides the moral question is the practical question. That’s a big damn part of our electorate, and getting rid of that much racism would solve some serious social problems. Of course the personal racism is both empirically and theoretically distinct from the subconscious and institutional forms of racism, but they’re also not completely distinct. But here’s the issue: very few people are going to have the kinds of conversion experiences necessary to recognize the many forms of and real moral and political problems of racism. Don’t get me wrong: I think that should be the major goal, mostly because it’s better both politically and morally. But putting all our chips on Trump voters suddenly finding compelling all the experimental data on racism within job hiring (or any other argument of that sort) seems a pretty unsure bet.
But cultural sociology is to the rescue! (Well not rescue, really, but at least some help in thinking this through.) Racism is a lot of things, of course, but one of the thing it is is a form of culture, a script that people can use in particular contexts, and that makes more sense in particular setting that others. Racism, in this sense, can’t be “cured” or “converted away from” because, well, it’s a script that white people are all basically going to keep forever, in the same way that Evangelical converts to Catholicism never really shake certain Evangelical ways of viewing the world. (Bourdieu obviously also talks about something like this in terms of how the habitus has trouble shifting between fields or when the field changes dramatically). Yet the insight from studies of culture and cognition is that we all have much more culture than we ever use at any one time, and that there are certain settings or contexts that activate particular elements of culture rather than others. So a more modest goal for Trump voters might be not so much to convince them they’re racists and that’s wrong (though that’s certainly a goal too!) but to make their racism less practical, feel less useful, not seem appropriate in whatever given context.
That obviously doesn’t solve even close to everything. There are straightforward questions about segregated housing and schooling, discordant prison sentencing, a host of other things. But even asking Trump voters to think about those things right now flips on certain scripts, certain lenses through which “race” is engaged. While the long term goal is convincing them they’re wrong to be so racist, a good short term goal might be making other scripts more salient at those moments, say, economic stability or what have you.
state of the field article on field theory in non-profit organizations, by Emily Barman, now available
We’re at the halfway mark in July. Looking for summer reading that covers the latest sociological theories in non-profit research? Emily Barman has a “state of the field” article on the use of field theory in the non-profit organizations literature in the Organizations and Work section of Sociology Compass.
Here’s the abstract for her article “Varieties of Field Theory and the Sociology of the Non-profit Sector:”
This paper reviews the use of field theory in the sociological study of the non-profit sector. The review first shows how field theory, as a conceptual framework to explain social action, provides a valuable sociological counterweight to prevailing economic and psychological orientations in the interdisciplinary scholarship on the non-profit sector. However, despite its certain shared assumptions, field theory in sociology encompasses three distinct, albeit interrelated, approaches: the Bourdieusian, New Institutionalist, and Strategic Action Fields perspectives. I comparatively outline the key analytical assumptions and causal claims of each version of field theory, whether and how it recognizes the specificity of the non-profit sector and then delineate its application by sociologists to the non-profit sector. I show how scholars’ employment of each articulation of field theory to study non-profit activity has been influenced by pre-existing scholarly assumptions and normative claims about this third space. The article concludes by summarizing the use of these varieties of field theory in the sociology of the non-profit sector and by identifying future directions in this line of research.
Also, Emily has a new book available, titled Caring Capitalism: The Meaning and Measure of Social Value (2016, Cambridge University Press)! Check out the book blurb here.
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.
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.
This is part 2 of our book forum on Emirbayer and Desmond’s The Racial Order. Here, I’ll discuss the first 80 pages of the book, which starts with an amazingly ill advised sentence: “there has never been a comprehensive and systematic theory of race.” This is a really bad starting point because even a non-specialist such as myself can easily come up with three (!) major systematic and comprehensive theories of race:
- Race is a socially constructed group division based on ancestry and physical appearance: This theory was articulated in classical theory, such as Weber’s discussion of caste and DuBois’ work on American race relations. It has many, many proponents.
- Race is a biological variation in human beings: The modern version of this theory comes from studies of genetic variation. In sociology, the journal Sociological Theory (ahem) had a massive symposium on genomic theories of race, which we discussed here.
- Race is a social category meant to signal a group’s place in the means of production or political system: This theory is less discussed in sociology, but is a popular theory in anthropology. For example, John Comaroff is a well known anthropologist who explores this argument as do many others.
So, from my view, the problem isn’t that we lack a theory of race. Rather, we have *tons* of theories of race and *tons* of empirical evidence.The problem is sorting it all out.
Adding to this issue is the avoidance of work that would seem to help bolster various parts of the book. For example, one crucial element of Emirbayer and Desmond’s theory is work on race that its insistence on an unconscious and interactional dimension of race, as would be suggested by Bourdieusian theory. The modern “racism without racists” school actively draws on Bourdieusian sociology very clearly, as does the work on race, cultural capital and status attainment. Yet, the work of Eduardo Bonilla-Silva or Prudence Carter are barely mentioned in text. Another example: In the recent Theory of Fields (2012), Neil Fligstein and Doug McAdam actually have an entire chapter applying field theory to civil rights mobilization. These are not obscure points. This is a major issue: why does a supposedly systematic treatment of race avoid the many major scholars whose work defines race scholarship in modern sociology? I am puzzled.
Before I wrap up, a stylistic point and a nit picky point. Stylistic: I think one drawback of the book is that it employs a classical “theory bloat” style of writing. For example, it doesn’t actually tell you it’s theory of race for 80 pages!! It also takes detours into reflexivity theory and a bunch of other issues. I really suggest that readers skip directly to Part II for the good stuff. This reminds me of the time I read Jeffrey Alexander’s Neofunctionalism and After – which doesn’t tell you what neofunctionalism is until page 110!
Nit picky: the book occasionally has some points of intellectual laziness. For example, at one point, there is a detour about the evils of regression analysis. Bizarre. Given that sociology is moving into a comfortable mixed method approach to data, we don’t need grad school seminar cheap shots. Regression analysis is fine and it’s perfectly good for studying trends in data, assuming you’ve put in the effort to collect high quality data. That sort of cheap shot is below these authors.
Next week: We’ll discuss Part II of The Racial Order. Spoiler: I like it!
This book forum will focus on another widely discussed book in the sociology of race – The Racial Order by Mustafa Emirbayer and Matthew Desmond. The book has attracted a lot of attention for multiple reasons. It makes bold claims about the history of sociology, it offers an interactionist approach to race, and its authors are among some of the most highly regarded sociologists in the profession right now.
So what is the content of The Racial Order? In my reading, the book has two parts. First, the book argues that there literally (and I mean literally) is no over arching theory of race in sociology. Second, the book offers a theory of race drawn, in parts, from pragamatism, Durkheim, various interactionists, and Bourdieu, which I call PDIB theory. Roughly speaking, they imagine race as existing on multiple levels from interactions to aggregate social structures and that this can be synthesized into a Bourdieu style theoretical construct called “the racial order.”
Personally, I found this book forum very tricky to write about because these two parts elicited very different reactions from me. So I settled on “split decision” – I really think that the first 80 pages of The Racial Order are really off base but I think PDIB theory is a nice way to synthesize a number of trends in the study of race and inequality more generally. This, I think, explains the very diverse reactions to the book in the discipline. I think the sociology of race and ethnicity crowd is correct in thinking that the first chunk of the book is a limited, even distorted and misleading, approach to the current scholarship on race. In contrast, I think a lot of people might enjoy PDIB theory as a way to generalize some of the ideas found in the “racism without racists” school of thought and other types of sociology that build on field and habitus theory as a starting point for discussing race.
The next part of the book forum will focus on the first claim about what has, or has not been achieved, in the sociology of race. So it’s going to be critical because E&D were really uncharitable. Then, I’ll finish on a high note and discuss what I think PDIB has to contribute. In between, I’ll discuss the structures of racism literature as the second part of a commentary on the article by Tanya Golash-Boza that was recently published in the The Sociology of Race and Ethnicity.
a provocative claim: the sociology of culture is nearly always at least implicitly a sociology of morality – a guest post by jeff guhin
Jeff Guhin is a post-doctoral scholar at the University of Virginia. In Fall 2016, he will be an assistant professor of sociology at UCLA.
That’s wrong of course, or at least it’s not precisely right. There are two important exceptions right away: the first in the sociological work on cultural production (think Paul DiMaggio, Gabriel Rossman, Jennifer Lena) and the second in the work of Pierre Bourdieu, which is certainly about culture but generally unconcerned with moral life (that’s actually the basis of Jeffrey Alexander’s criticism).
Yet for much of the rest of cultural sociology, moral life really matters. Think about some of the biggest stateside names in culture: Robert Wuthnow, Michele Lamont, Ann Swidler, Jeffrey Alexander, Orlando Patterson. These thinkers are all quite different, but there remains a sense within each of them that what it means to be a good person and what it means to have a good life are centrally important to understanding how culture works.
There’s a genealogical explanation here that goes all the way back to Weber and Durkheim asking very similar questions, mediated through Parsons and, at least for Swidler, Wuthnow, and Alexander, through Bellah and Shils at Berkeley. But there’s also a much simpler explanation, which is that most sociology of culture is about meaning making, and the most important meanings tend to be moral ones in the sense that they evoke strong emotional responses about the relative rightness and wrongness of particular behaviors. Now there are different ways to think about those meanings and their relationships to structures, and there are ways to do culture without worrying too much about meaning at all (and those, for what it’s worth, tend to be the kinds of cultural sociology that aren’t implicitly about moral life, yet I would argue they’re in the minority).
So while there might well be important analytic or organizations reasons to distinguish the sociology of morality from the sociology of culture, I’m not sure I buy that there’s anything new there. More importantly, I’m not sure I buy that, to the extent sociologist have recognized once again that culture matters, they were ever at risk of forgetting that morality matters too.
Inside Graduate Admissions: Merit, Diversity and Gatekeeping by Julie Posselt is an exploration of how faculty in leading doctoral programs choose graduate students. The book is fitting successor to Michele Lamont’s How Professors Think, which was a book about how professors select elite fellowship recipients (see the orgtheory discussion here). The method is the same in each book – observe and interview academics as they deliberate and meet in committees.
Posselt provides a nice overview of how admissions committees operate. The take home points are intuitive and they should resonate with any faculty member who has served on such a committee: there are disciplinary standards; people choose others like themselves; there are internal politics and department level fit issues; people search for a hard to defined “talent” and diversity is paid lip service but doesn’t have much of an impact. There are also nice discussions of international students, conservatives, and students from low status schools.
Overall, a really solid contribution to the ethnographic study of group deliberation and a required reading for students of higher education and the disciplines. My one criticism is that Posselt gets the role of GRE’s wrong and comes to a conclusion that I would not have. She correctly notes that GRE are imperfect but in some sections of the book espouses the view that GRE’s are terribly flawed. Yet, in the conclusion, Posselt comes back to the view that GRE’s have only been “misused.”
As I’ve noted on this blog often, GRE’s are actually quite useful and that is backed up by enormous research. It saddens me to see that Posselt is not familiar with this literature. But there’s a deeper issue. Posselt’s ethnography reveals the importance of GRE scores. If it weren’t for GRE scores, graduate admissions committees would simply replicate themselves by choosing white, male Apple computer fanatics. You think I jest, but Posselt actually has an entire section about how professors like choosing students who mimic their personal style (she calls it “cool” homophily), which includes using a lot of Apple products. So I say this – the GRE’s may be flawed, but a world without them would probably be much worse.
Several writing group colleagues and I were discussing one participant’s extended conference abstract about “prefigurative” groups that have an impact upon society. The author contended that for a variety of reasons – in particular, pressures exerted by the state, most groups are unable to exact larger change. Another colleague suggested looking at studies of the sharing economy, which some might see as a contemporary version of the 1960s-1970s collectivist-democratic organizations.
“Paradoxes of openness and distinction in the sharing economy”
This paper studies four sites from the sharing economy to analyze how class and other forms of inequality operate within this type of economic arrangement. On the basis of interviews and participant observation at a time bank, a food swap, a makerspace and an open-access education site we find considerable evidence of distinguishing practices and the deployment of cultural capital, as understood by Bourdieusian theory. We augment Bourdieu with concepts from relational economic sociology, particularly Zelizer’s “circuits of commerce” and “good matches,” to show how inequality is reproduced within micro-level interactions. We find that the prevalence of distinguishing practices can undermine the relations of exchange and create difficulty completing trades. This results in an inconsistency, which we call the “paradox of openness and distinction,” between actual practice and the sharing economy’s widely articulated goals of openness and equity.
The authors show how class-based stratification can inhibit heterogeneous membership and exchanges, especially when members refuse to make exchanges with persons of lower class. In the time bank, some participants donated their time without drawing back time. They also preferred to volunteer skills that they didn’t use in the workplace, declining to offer desired legal and programming expertise.
The food swapping collective, which arose out of the founders’ desire to decrease food waste among single professionals, is particularly fascinating for its participants’ designation of acceptable vs. unacceptable homemade offerings:
Such research suggests that such sharing economies may be doomed to one-time, never-to-be-repeated exchanges when participants fixated on the parity (or potential status-enhancement) of possible exchanges. While other participants attempted to form community by making exchanges as a matter of practice or as a means of socializing newcomers, it seems these exchanges are not enough to sustain these collectives.
I am knee deep in institutionalism. I intend to write a few posts next week laying out where I think we are:
- The split between the institutional work/inhabited institutions crew and institutional logics.
- What was lost in the transition to organizational institutionalism in org studies.
- What “other fields” (e.g., movement research or race) do when they interact with institutionalism.
- Comparison of field theories. Mainly McAdam/Fligstein/Bourdieu vs. John Levi Martin.
As a bonus round, we’re “going full Ermakoff” on Friday.
In 1994, The Social Organization of Sexuality was published. The authors, Ed Laumann, John Gagnon, Robert Michael and Stuart Michaels,conducted a large N survey of a random sample of Americans. I use the book in my freshman class to discuss sexual behavior. In today’s post, I will discuss what sociologists should take away from the book.
1. Doing a well crafted large N survey on an important topic is huge service to science. When we think of sociology, we often think of “high theory” as being the most important. But we often overlook the empirical studies that establish a baseline for excellence. American Occupational Structure is just as important as Bourdieu, in my book. Laumann et al is one such study and, I think, has not been surpassed in the field of sex research.
2. The book is extremely important in that good empiricism can abruptly change our views of specific topics. Laumann et al basically shattered the following beliefs: people stop having sex as they age; marriage means sex is less frequent; cultural change leads to massive changes in sexual behavior. Laumann et al showed that older people do keep on having sex; married people have more sex; and cultural moments (like AIDS in the 80s) have modest effects on sexual behavior. Each of these findings has resulted in more research over the last 20 years..
3. An ambitious, but well executed, research project can be the best defense against critics. The first section of Laumann at al. describes how federal funding was dropped due to pressure. Later, the data produced some papers that had politically incorrect results. In both cases, working from the high ground allowed the project to proceed. It’s a model for any researchers who will be working against the mainstream of their discipline or public opinion.
4. Quality empiricism can lead to good theory. Laumann et al’s sections on homophily motivated later theory about the structure of sexual contact networks and prompted papers like Chains of Affection. Also, by discovering that network structure affects STD’s, it lead to the introduction of network theory into biomedical science about a decade before Fowler/Christakis.
When we think of “glory sociology,” we think of succinct theoretical “hits” like DiMaggio and Powell or Swidler. But sociology is also profoundly shaped by these massive empirical undertakings. The lesson is that well crafted empirical research can set the agenda for decades just as much as the 25 page theory article.
A little while back, Omar released a pamphlet called The End of Theorists. It’s an essay on the state of theory in sociology and some possibilities for the future. Originally given as address to the junior theorist’s symposium, he expanded it into an essay. Omar’s bad news is that the official role of “theorist” has been eroded in sociology. The good news is that one can come up with a new role for theorists that creates a new position for them in the profession. My summary is pithy and leaves out a lot, so I strongly recommend that you read the original.
My comments: First, there’s a conceit in the profession that Omar takes at face value. That we need a separate group of people called “theorists” who do things that other sociologists don’t do. Classically, this wasn’t the case. Max Weber (usually) didn’t do “theory.” He did political economy, though he had some writings that were purely theoretical in character. Durkheim had some purely theoretical texts, like Rules of Sociological Method, but his greatest works were focused on issues like political economy, religion, or social psychology.
So why are these people lumped into “theory?” Very good, or very interesting, answers to important questions have a prolonged impact because future readers try to draw more general lessons.* That fits one common definition of theory – general principles that guide a wide range of cases (e.g., gravity applies to all physical objects, supply and demand curves apply to markets in general). For this reason, I’ve always thought that we shouldn’t have separate theory developers. Instead, we should make our most wide ranging answers into our theory. That’s typically (but not always) how people enter into the “theory canon.”
Second, theory in modern times seems to correlate with some other attributes in sociology – qualitative, history of thought, verbal expression. This can be seen in many ways. For example, people who are heavy in theory tend to do things like historical work, ethnography and culture, which is often but not always qualitative in approach. Just check out the list of speakers for the junior theorist symposiums, or the empirical foci of now classic “theorists” like Bourdieu. Thus, what happens in heavily quantitative areas like criminology, public opinion, or demography has little influence on what the canon of sociological theory should be.
More might be said, but here is what I thought after reading Omar’s essay – The theorist is dead? Good riddance. I’m tired of old books, a balkanized sociology, and posturing. Instead, let’s create theory that distills what is learned from across the profession. That’s a theory that we all can use.
* There is also a political story as well, in that some scholars have big cheering sections while others do not. See Mannheim steamrolled.
note: this is my first post in a while and I’m a bit rusty. I accidentally hit “publish” on a decidedly un-publishable version of this in the midst of editing and writing earlier. Sorry for the confusion.
I was asked a few weeks ago to comment on the fact that a French economist has been awarded the Nobel Prize this year. Frankly, the answer I gave was kind of lame:
… Sean Safford, an associate professor of economic sociology at Institut d’Études Politiques de Paris, the elite institute for political studies known as Sciences Po, said the awarding of the prize to Mr. Tirole, a professor of economics at the University of Toulouse in France, was notable for coming at a time of economic malaise and brain drain, when so many of the country’s brightest are emigrating elsewhere in Europe or to the United States. “The average French person, who is struggling to pay the bills, is not going to rejoice,” he said.
I’ve been mulling over what I meant to say since then. It started to come together when I read Paul Krugman’s lengthy reflection yesterday on a recent working paper by my colleagues Marion Fourcade and Yann Algan who, along with their co-author, Ettienne Ollion have written a little incendiary bomb of a paper titled The Supremacy of Economics. The paper documents the striking dominance that economics has achieved since the 1980s over sociology and political science in the United States. I read The Supremacy of Economics immediately on the heals of another of Marion’s papers, this one with Rakesh Khurana which documents the rise of financial economics within American business schools. Taken together the two papers paint a clear picture establishing that the discipline of economics — and financial economics in particular — has taken a confidently dominant position at in the United States which has given it unprecedented sway in the halls of policy-making and of commerce and proposes a compelling account of how it got there.
Krugman calls the tone of The Supremacy of Economics “jaundiced”. I would call it wistful. You get the sense that it could have gone another way if it weren’t for the social skill of certain individuals and the interlocking of particular ecologies at particular points in time. (If that wasn’t the tone Marion and the others meant to convey, then I’ll claim it for myself.)
If that alternative is possible anywhere, it should be in France where I now live and work, since — as is the case with its food, its wine and its health care system — here in France the nexus of academic, political and business elites is different. Very different.
In contrast to the story that Marion and her various colleagues tell about the US, academic disciplines (including economics) have not — yet — assumed the central role in France that they have in the American scene. As Bourdieu observed with far far greater skill than I could, French grandes ecoles are unapologetic factories of elite self-reproduction. Most teachers are graying wizened poobahs of their field. Politicians and policy-makers teach other politicians and policy-makers. Engineers teach other engineers. And researchers basically teach and train other researchers on how to be researchers, and thats all. Period.
As Marion and Rakesh show, American business schools in the 19th and early 20th centuries were organized along lines not all that different from the French model. There may have been economists at the helm, but the predominant logic was vocational in the sense that the teachers were mainly practitioners who saw their roles as socializing a younger generation to the norms of the field as situated within prevailing moral values of the day. (Moreover, the “economists” were of the old-school institutionalist variety, not today’s preening quant-jocks).
This begs the question: How did the academics break this pattern to lay claim to teaching, consulting and advice-giving well beyond their home “territory” in America? And how, ultimately, did the (financial) economists come to dominate it? The story Marion and Rakesh tell is fascinating and it is well told. It involves strategic action, social skill and a healthy dose of help from the Ford Foundation all couched within a nuanced theory that mingles Fligstein, McAdam, Bourdieu, MacKensie, Callon and Abbot almost in equal measure. Briefly put, there are two major steps that led America down that particular path. The first was the appearance of an alternative model pioneered at Carnegie-Mellon. Seeking to establish itself in a field dominated by Harvard and Wharton, Carnegie-Mellon hewed to a boldly discipline-based approach to business education. This alternative was amplified by the Ford Foundation which was seeking to differentiate itself within its own competitively saturated field. In the aftermath of the Great Depression, it was understood that previous models of training the elite had produced disappointing results. The Foundation latched on to Carnegie-Mellon’s idea and worked to diffuse it throughout the field. The second step brings in the University of Chicago which ran with the idea of discipline-based teaching, but focused it much more sharply on economics and in particular, on financial economics. The GSB then became the leading player in the “performative” turn which has brought financial economics into boardrooms, Wall Street, the halls of government and of course, the annals of social science.
Which brings us back to France.
France today faces what the Times (constantly) refers to as “persistent malaise.” The economy is flat. The European project is stalled. Its political elite are perceived as out of touch. There is a sense that the system around which France has been organized since 1946 is… just kind of disappointing. And this has led to a broad reflection on the process by which this country produces its political elite.
Sciences Po, where I work, sits at the center of that debate. In the years after the Second World War, General De Gaulle gave Sciences Po a special status that made it the primary path to entering the bottom rung of France’s administrative and political elite, the Ecole Nationale d’Administration. Sciences Po’s teachers were largely drawn from the ranks of the political elite itself. But the school has moved in recent years to beef up its academic credentials and in large part that shift has been justified by a familiar narrative: it is the disciplines, with a dispassionate and theoretically grounded approach, that should take the lead in defining the curriculum of elite education. (As an example: Dominique Strauss-Kahn taught Sciences Po’s main introduction to economics course up until his appointment at the IMF. Today its taught by… Yann Algan).
Here’s the thing, while Marion and Rakesh expertly situate their account within a smartly argued and largely persuasive theory of “linked ecologies”, I could not help feeling that there was an element of chance involved in the ultimate rise of financial economics in the US: The University of Chicago happened to become home to a troika of free-market true believers which included Milton Friedman. The result, ultimately, leads us to The Supremacy of Economics. Could there have been an alternative? One that was less dogmatic? One in which the other disciplines were not isolated and ultimately relegated to the junior leagues?
This brings me back to a French economist winning this year’s Nobel.
When I arrived at Sciences Po, I was impressed by the idea that sociology, political science and economics stood on a more equal footing here than had been the case, certainly, when I was on the faculty of the Chicago GSB. I felt the conditions existed here in which a real dialogue across these disciplines could produce a richer, more compelling approach. It was a place where what we call “economic sociology” could find a fresh home.
I still hope that. But that outcome is by no means inevitable. Winning the Nobel Prize in economics this year and the phenomenal success of Thomas Pickety’s book raise the profile of economics in this country precisely at a moment when political, business and academic elites are questioning the system and looking for the kinds of concrete answers that disciplinary economics provides. In other words, the conditions exist for the intermingling of intellectual streams which seems possible here to breakdown and head down a path toward a European version of The Supremacy of Economics.
Yet the very existence of the paper that motivated this post is a prime example of the kind of dialogue which seemed (and still seems) possible here suggestiing that that outcome could turn out differently. After all, Marion is a prominent young sociologist of world-class capabilities, Yann Algan is very much her equal in economics and the paper was written during Marion’s two-year sabbatical at Sciences Po. But the lesson that I take from Marion and Rakesh’s work is that economic sociology — or whatever you want to call this more egalitarian approach to social science — needs to “perform” itself. And it does that by building a curriculum capable of producing the next generation of elites.
My bottom line is: If economic sociology is to amount to anything, this kind of cross-disciplinary dialogue must continue and it must mature into something that does more than simply critique the hegemony of economics. What it must turn into is a curriculum.
The opportunity is there. But is economic sociology ready for prime time? (Oh, and does anyone have a good contact at the Ford Foundation?)
Dirk vom Lehn is a lecturer in marketing, interaction, and technology at King’s College London. He is very interested in ethnomethodology and interactionism. He wrote this short comment about museums.
The Organization of Museums
Dirk vom Lehn (King’s College London)
It’s holiday season and many of the readers orgtheory.net are going not only to the beach but also to museums, galleries and science centers. It therefore is just right that orgtheory.net runs a series of posts concerned with museums as organizations giving us some ideas of what to look out for, apart from the fun and entertainment of the sites. In organization studies and related disciplines there has been of course a long-standing interest in museums as organizations. Many of these disciplines however primarily focus on museums as organizations that deploy technologies to collect, archive, preserve and exhibit original objects. They curiously show little interest in studying exhibitions and the organization of actions through which the general public, including us, the readers of orgtheory.net in our leisure, gain access to and make sense of the original objects on display. Whilst there is considerable sociological and applied research in the area of audience and visitor research in museums, it largely either re-evaluates the intellectual access to museums using Bourdieusian concepts – see for example Tony Bennett’s (cf. 2009) excellent analyses – or conducts evaluation studies that aim to improve the ‘effectiveness’ of museums in providing people with physical and intellectual access to science, culture and the arts. These evaluations of ‘effectiveness’ are of limited use to museums and are in fact, as a recent report by Maurice Davies and Christian Heath (2013, p.3) suggests, “seen as a necessary chore, part of accountability but marginal to the work of museums” (Davies and Heath 2013a, p.3). For organization studies however, it would seem that this concern of museum managers with ‘effectiveness’ could be a starting-point to intervene and conduct studies on the exhibition floor. Rather than starting from educational measures and indicators of learning from exhibits that often are deployed by exhibition evaluators and museum educators, organization studies could flip perspectives and instead investigate how those acting and interacting on the exhibition floor, orient to effectiveness. So, when on our vacation we visit museums we might want to consider if we (and our family and friends) see our engagement with the original objects in the exhibitions as ‘effective’ and in what way. What would have helped our experience with the exhibits? What hindered it? Questions like these might give us a starting-point where to start and expand organization studies’ perspective on museums on our return to the office. Until then, enjoy your vacations and the museums you visit.
Bennett, Tony, Mike Savage, Professor of Sociology Mike Savage, Elizabeth Bortolaia Silva, Alan Warde, Modesto Gayo-Cal, and David Wright. 2009. Culture, Class, Distinction. Routledge.
Bittner, Egon. 1965. “The Concept of Organization.” Edited by Roy Turner. Social Research 32 (3): 239–258. doi:10.5449/idslu-001091498.176.
Davies, Maurice, and Christian Heath. 2014. “‘Good’ Organisational Reasons for ‘ineffectual’ Research: Evaluating Summative Evaluation of Museums and Galleries.” Cultural Trends 23 (1): 57–69. doi:10.1080/09548963.2014.862002.
Garfinkel, Harold. 1956. “Some Sociological Concepts and Methods for Psychologists.” Psychological Research Reports 6 (October): 181–195.
Heath, Christian, and Dirk vom Lehn. 2008. “Configuring ‘Interactivity’: Enhancing Engagement in Science Centres and Museums.” Social Studies of Science 38 (1): 63–91. doi:10.1177/0306312707084152.
vom Lehn, Dirk. 2014. Harold Garfinkel: The Creation and Development of Ethnomethodology. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press.
Over at Scatterplot, Andy Perrin has a nice post pointing to a recent talk by Rodney Benson on actor-network theory and what Benson calls “the new descriptivism” in political communications. Benson argues that ANT is taking people away from institutional/field-theoretic causal explanation of what’s going on in the world and toward interesting but ultimately meaningless description. He also critiques ANT’s assumption that world is largely unsettled, with temporary stability as the development that must be explained.
At the end of the talk, Benson points to a couple of ways that institutional/field theory and ANT might “play nicely” together. ANT might be useful for analyzing the less-structured spaces between fields. And it helps draw attention toward the role of technologies and the material world in shaping social life. Benson seems less convinced that it makes sense to talk nonhumans as having agency; I like Edwin Sayes’ argument for at least a modest version of this claim.
I toyed with the possibility of reconciling institutionalism and ANT in an article on the creation of the Bayh-Dole Act a few years back. But really, the ontological assumptions of ANT just don’t line up with an institutionalist approach to causality. Institutionalism starts with fairly tidy individual and collective actors — people, organizations, professional groups. Even messy social movements are treated as well-enough-defined to have effects on laws or corporate behavior. The whole point of ANT is to destabilize such analyses.
That said, I think institutionalists can fruitfully borrow from ANT in ways that Latour would not approve of, just as they have used Bourdieu productively without adopting his whole apparatus. In particular, the insights of ANT can get us at least two things:
1) It not only increases our attention to the role of technologies in shaping organizational and field-level outcomes, but ANT makes us pay attention to variation in the stability of those technologies. It is simply not possible to fully accounting for the mortgage crisis, for example, without understanding what securitization is; how tranching restructured, redistributed and sometimes hid risk; how it was stabilized more or less durably in particular times and places; and so on.
You can’t just treat “securitization” as a unitary explanatory factor. You need to think about the specific configuration of rules, organizational practices, technologies, evaluation cultures and so on that hold “securitization” together more or less stably in a specific time and place. Sure, technologies are sometimes stable enough to treat as unified and causal—for example, a widely used indicator like GDP, or a standardized technology like a new drug. But thinking about this as a question of degree improves explanatory capacity.
An example from my own current work: VSL, the value of a statistical life. Calculations of VSL are critical to cost-benefit analyses that justify regulatory decisions. They inform questions of environmental justice, of choice of medical treatment, of worker safety guidelines. All sorts of political assumptions — for example, that the lives of people in poor countries are worth less than people in rich ones — are baked into them. There is no uniform federal standard for calculating VSL — it varies widely across agencies. ANT sensitizes us not only to the importance of such technologies, but to their semi-stable nature—reasonably persistent within a single agency, but evolving over time and different across agencies.
2) Second, ANT can help institutionalists deal better with evolving actors and partial institutionalization. For example, I’m interested in how economists became more important to U.S. policymaking over a few decades. The problem is that while you can define “economist” as “person with a PhD in economics,” what it means to be an economist changes over time, and differs across subfields, and is fuzzy around the borders.
I do think it’s meaningful to talk about “economists” becoming more influential, particularly because the production of PhDs happens in a fairly stable set of organizational locations. But you can’t just treat growth theorists of the 1960s and cost-benefit analysts from the 1980s and the people creating the FCC spectrum auctions in the 1990s as a unitary actor; you need ways to handle variety and evolution without losing sight of the larger category. And you need to understand not only how people called “economists” enter government, but also how people with other kinds of training start to reason a little more like economists.
Drawing from ANT helps me think about how economists and their intellectual tools gain a more-or-less durable position in policymaking: by establishing institutional positions for themselves, by circulating a style of reasoning (especially through law and public policy schools), and by establishing policy devices (like VSL). (See also my recent SER piece with Dan Hirschman.) Once these things have been accomplished, then economics is able to have effects on policy (that’s the second half of the book). While the language I use still sounds pretty institutionalist—although I find myself using the term “stabilized” more than I used to—it is definitely informed by ANT’s attention to the work it takes to make social arrangements last. Thus I end up with a very different story from, for example, Fligstein & McAdam’s about how skilled actors impose a new conception of a field — although new conceptions are indeed imposed.
I don’t have a lot of interest in fully adopting ANT as a methodology, and I don’t think the social always needs to be reassembled. The ANT insights also lend themselves better to qualitative, historical explanation than to quantitative hypothesis testing. But all in all, although I remain an institutionalist, I think my work is better for its engagement with ANT.
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.
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.
storytelling in organizations, the state of the field of organizations and values, and a freebie article
I’ve recently published two articles* that might be of interest to orgheads, and Emerald publisher has ungated one of my articles:
1. Chen, Katherine K. 2013. “Storytelling: An Informal Mechanism of Accountability for Voluntary Organizations.” Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly 42(5): 902-922.**
Using observations, interviews, and archival research of an organization that coordinates the annual Burning Man event, I argue that storytelling is a mechanism by which stakeholders can demand accountability to their needs for recognition and voice. I identify particular frames, or perspectives and guides to action, articulated in members’ stories. Deploying a personalistic frame, storytellers recounted individuals’ contributions toward a collective endeavor. Such storytelling commemorated efforts overlooked by official accounts and fostered bonds among members. Other storytellers identified problems and organizing possibilities for consideration under the civic society or anarchist frames. By familiarizing organizations with members’ perspectives and interests, stories facilitate organizational learning that can better serve stakeholders’ interests. Additional research could explore whether (1) consistent face-to-face relations (2) within a bounded setting, such as an organization, and (3) practices that encourage participation in organizing decisions and activities are necessary conditions under which storytelling can enable accountability to members’ interests.
2. Chen, Katherine K., Howard Lune, and Edward L. Queen, II. 2013. “‘How Values Shape and are Shaped by Nonprofit and Voluntary Organizations:’ The Current State of the Field.” Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly 42(5): 856-885.
To advance understanding of the relationship between values and organizations, this review synthesizes classic and recent organizational and sociological research, including this symposium’s articles on voluntary associations. We argue that all organizations reflect, enact, and propagate values. Organizations draw on culture, which offers a tool kit of possible actions supported by institutional logics that delineate appropriate activities and goals. Through institutional work, organizations can secure acceptance for unfamiliar practices and their associated values, often under the logic of democracy. Values may be discerned in any organization’s goals, practices, and forms, including “value-free” bureaucracies and collectivist organizations with participatory practices. We offer suggestions for enhancing understanding of how collectivities advance particular values within their groups or society.
3. In addition, one of my previously published articles received the “Outstanding Author Contribution Award Winner at the Literati Network Awards for Excellence 2013.” Because of the award, Emerald publisher has ungated this article (or, as Burners like to say, contributed a gift to the gift economy :) ) to download here (click on the HTML or PDF button to initiate the download):
Chen, Katherine K. 2012. “Laboring for the Man: Augmenting Authority in a Voluntary Association.” Research in the Sociology of Organizations 34: 135-164.
Drawing on Bourdieu’s field, habitus, and capital, I show how disparate experiences and “dispositions” shaped several departments’ development in the organization behind the annual Burning Man event. Observations and interviews with organizers and members indicated that in departments with hierarchical professional norms or total institution-like conditions, members privileged their capital over others’ capital to enhance their authority and departmental solidarity. For another department, the availability of multiple practices in their field fostered disagreement, forcing members to articulate stances. These comparisons uncover conditions that exacerbate conflicts over authority and show how members use different types of capital to augment their authority.
* If you don’t have access to these articles at your institution, please contact me for a PDF.
** Looking for more storytelling articles? Check out another one here.
What does it take to pull together a collaborative research project? Howie Becker and Rob Faulkner reveal all, via a reconstruction of their prolific email correspondence collected in a new ebook Thinking Together: An E-mail Exchange and All that Jazz. Prompted by the puzzling observation that younger musicians didn’t know the same repertoire of songs shared among older musicians, Becker and Faulkner, who are both practicing musicians, muscle through hammering out a research design and theoretical explanation for how musicians, including ones who have never practiced together before, can collectively perform.* Their exchanges evidence the gradual refinement of categories with plenty of links to songs, descriptions of illustrative experiences, and recounting of interviews with fellow musicians while practicing in the field. Here’s a blurb penned by Becker:
Would you like to know how people really think their way through all the problems of doing research and writing a book? Watch two old pros in action as they do that in the e-mail correspondence between sociologists Rob Faulkner and Howie Becker as they wrote Do You Know? The Jazz Repertoire in Action.
The book Thinking Together: An E-mail Exchange and All that Jazz shows the authors exchanging ideas and modifying them as the conversation proceeds. It shows them extracting ideas from their experiences in the field: performing in public, collaborating with other musicians, interviewing, using their field notes to generate ideas and test them, to elaborate theories as they go, all the thinking that goes on when you actually do research. No review of the literature—it’s replaced by the two of them drawing in work that seems relevant, that gives them something they can use to explain what they’ve seen and heard: using a study of Mexican witchcraft, for instance, to develop a research strategy, and painfully realizing that they have some substantial musical prejudices that they have to turn into a kind of historical sociology.
This is the way research really gets done, what you do after you write the research proposal and start working and find out that none of your plans are going to work because things were more complicated than you thought they were.
The continuing brouhaha over Fabio’s (fallaciously premised) post*, and Kieran’s clarification and response has actually been much more informative than I thought it would be. While I agree that this forum is not the most adequate to seriously explore intellectual issues, it does have a (latent?) function that I consider equally as valuable in all intellectual endeavors, which is the creation of a modicum of common knowledge about certain stances, premises and even valuational judgments. CR is a great intellectual object in the contemporary intellectual marketplace precisely because of the fact that it seems to demand an intellectual response (whether by critics or proponents) thus forcing people (who otherwise wouldn’t) to take a stance. The response may range from (seemingly facile) dismissal (maybe involving dairy products), to curiosity (what the heck is it?), to considered criticism, to ho hum neutralism, to critical acceptance, or to (sock-puppet aided) uncritical acceptance. But the point is that it is actually fun to see people align themselves vis a vis CR because it provides an opportunity for those people to actually lay their cards on the table in way that seldom happens in their more considered academic work.
My own stance vis a vis CR is mostly positive. When reading CR or CR-inflected work, I seldom find myself vehemently disagreeing or shaking my head vigorously (this in itself I find a bit suspicious, but more on that below). I find most of the epistemological, and meta-methodological recommendations of people who have been influenced by CR (like my colleague Chris Smith, Phil Gorski, or George Steinmetz, or Margaret Archer) fruitful and useful, and in some sense believe that some of the most important of these are already part of sociological best practice. I think some of the work on “social structure” that has been written by CR-oriented folk (Doug Porpora and Margaret Archer early on and more recently Dave Elder-Vass) important reading, especially if you want to think straight about that hornet’s nest of issues. So I don’t think that CR is “lame.” Although like any multi-author, somewhat loose cluster of writings, I have indeed come across some work that claims to be CR which is indeed lame. But that would apply to anything (there are examples of lame pragmatism, lame field theory, lame network analysis, lame symbolic interactionism, etc. without making any of these lines of thought “lame” in their entirety).
That said, I agree with the basic descriptive premises of Kieran’s post. So this post is structured as a way to try to unhook the fruitful observations that Kieran made from the vociferous name-calling and defensive over-reactions to which these sort of things can lead. So think of this as my own reflections of what this implies for CR’s attempt to provide a unifying philosophical picture for sociology.
Guest blogger emeritus Hilary Levey Friedman has just released her new book, Playing to Win, which is a thoughtful account of competitive children’s activities. Drawing from fieldwork done in three competitive youth circuits (chess, dance, soccer), Hilary provides us with an engaging treatment of the topic. She raises important questions about how we’ve reshaped childhood in response to the growing importance of higher education for young adults.
The core strength of the book is that it successfully explains how two organizational fields – higher education and children’s leisure – collide. Since colleges are the “key” for mobility, we recreate childhood in ways that reproduce status via college entrance. Thus, the book is an extension of Bourdieu’s approach to stratification, as expressed through Lareau and her school. This attempt at social reproduction is seen when parents strategize about how much effort to expend and how these activities teach the right life lessons. And, of course, as with all good ethnography, there are lots of juicy bits, such as the discussion of female chess players, which is a great discussion of counter-signalling theory in childhood.
The biggest question I had when reading the book is “does it matter?” In the final chapter, Hilary alludes to arguments made by Dalton Conley (and myself, by the way) that the specific school doesn’t matter much. In other words, if it doesn’t matter which college you go to, then why should you torture your kid with violin lessons so he’s get into Yale?
Even if I’m wrong, and there is an Ivy League treatment effect, it’s still puzzling. Higher education researchers know that only about 50 colleges in the United States are hard to get into (consistent admit rates below 50%). About 18 million people a year enroll in college, but very competitive schools like the Ivies and the public flagships account for a small fraction of that number. Being a chess champ may be helpful for the smartest kids who have a shot at an elite school but this whole scene is irrelevant for most people who are trying to get into college.
My guess is that parents probably know, on some level, that these activities usually have marginal effects on admission when compared to GPA or SATs, but they still want to show that they are invested in their children. And of course, many of this activities are enjoyable. So in many cases, no harm no foul. If you buy this argument, you can skip soccer camp with a clean conscience.
Overall, great job and a pleasure to read. Recommended!
Looking for a reader for a cultural sociology class? Matt Wray has put together Cultural Sociology: An Introductory Reader, which is an excellent anthology that covers classic and contemporary readings of cultural sociology, including several penned by our very own orgtheory bloggers and guest bloggers like Jenn Lena and Stephen Vaisey. In addition, Wray has interspersed excerpts with his own essays, which uses Burning Man as a phenomena to help students understand sociological concepts and forms of inquiry.
Here’s official info about Cultural Sociology: An Introductory Reader:
“Available for Fall courses, this brand new reader is a comprehensive and clever mix of classic and contemporary essays on the sociology of culture. This mix of essays is an essential resource for understanding this fast growing, dynamic area of sociology. An introduction outlines the building blocks of a sociological approach to studying culture, and helpful headnotes guide students through each reading. For more information, or to order an exam copy, visit http://books.wwnorton.com/books/978-0-393-93413-7/.”
Click below for the Table of Contents:
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