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).
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:
Read the rest of this entry »
When I visited Millsaps College a few weeks ago, I got into a discussion about international relations theory with my host, political scientist Michael Reinhard. I asked him why we (social scientists) needed to study famous political leaders, like Julius Caesar or Winston Churchill. His argument was intriguing. He said that highly successful social actors have often spent a lot of time understanding their social world. They are good at what they do – international relations in this case – because, at the very least, they have an intuition about the world that is important and correct. Some, like Churchill, will even explain their views to others. In other words, political scientists should study great leaders because great leaders actually understand power fairly well.
In sociology, we have no such argument, but it is worth thinking about. We are resistant to great leader stories and for good reason. Great man stories often devolve into hero worship, or they rely on “Whig” history. But that doesn’t mean Great people scholarship is not without use. For example, what did Steve Jobs understand about markets that management scholars should learn? Or, a more sociological example, what does a great religious leader understand about religion that sociologists of religion should know? Taking a turn from Bourdieu, we could look at any social field, identify the “masters,” and then use them as research sites where we can understand how the field is put together.
Last week, I argued that there was kind of a big problem in modern sociology: one of our dominant macro theories is highly inconsistent with many of our favorite micro theories. If we look at various popular account of individual action in cultural sociology (e.g., toolkit theory), many don’t produce isomorphism.
Here’s the outline of the argument:
- The gist of institutional theories of isomorphism is that people working in org fields experience pressures for conformity. If you don’t follow a pre-existing cultural script, you can’t run your organization.
- For this argument to work, you need to assume that people respond to their environment in fairly uniform ways.
- In the original D&P ’83 article, in the hypotheses section, they admit variance when status orders are weak. Otherwise, the prediction is when status orders are well established, or when high status actors propagate norms, you get conformity.
- Different authors offer different social psychological mechanisms. D&P ’83 and ’91 (the intro) often appeal to a wide range of scholarship to justify isomorphism. They appeal to Berger and Luckman, as well as Bourdieu. You can also concoct a rational choice version, which is consistent with resource dependency arguments.
- If you actually read the fine print of these social psychology theories, most do not predict isomorphism, except Bourdieu’s habitus theory. For example, Berger and Luckmann’s book describes how people develop a stock of knowledge that defines their social reality. Fair enough. But nowhere do B&L ever say that this social reality is highly uniform, resistant to change, or otherwise offer a mechanism that acts as an iron cage. The slip is that “taken for granted” is interpreted as “hard to challenge.” Look at Griswold’s theory of cultural objects, or Zelizer, and it’s all about local constructions of meaning. Does not imply isomorsphism. Another case is rational choice institutionalism, where you set up a game theory model to predict norm following. Fair enough, but you have lots of hidden assumptions – uniform agents, low enforce costs, etc. Drop these and you get heterogeneity. Indeed, what you get is from the way less popular Meyer and Rowan ’77 institutionalism.
Of course, I am not the only person who noted these issues. DiMaggio’s idea of the inst entrepreneur is one attempt to get around this problem. The Clemens and Cook ’99 note that even iron cage institutionalism only predict stasis if you assume perfect reproduction. Admit imperfect reproduction and the theory breaks down. In the 2000s, the focus shifted to logics, institutional work, and conflict/movements. Substantively, it’s an implicit rejection of earlier institutional. Theoretically, it’s (almost) a complete reworking of the theory. These may not be institutionalist in the sense of the 70s or 80s, or even early 90s, but at least it is consistent with how many sociologists describe motivation and action.
Ok, let’s start with the Coleman diagram (or the “bathtub” as they call it in Germany). For institutionlaism, the two “macro” states are culture and isomorphism in an organizational field. That’s what the macro states are in DiMaggio and Powell ’83 or world polity theory.
Now, take your favorite micro sociological theory – maybe you are a Swidlerian toolkit person, or a Goffmanian frame theorist, or a Bourdieu habitus person. Then, complete the Coleman diagram. Except for habitus theory, you’ll notice that a lot of these theories don’t really produce isomorpshism on the macro level.
This weekend, Omar wrote a detail post about the “depth” of culture, the degree to which some idea is internalized and serves as a motivation or guide for action. I strongly recommend that you read it. What I’d like to do in this post is use Omar’s comments as a springboard for thinking about organizational behavior.
The reigning theory in sociology of organization is neo-institutionalism. The details vary, but the gist is that the model posits a Parsonsian theory of action. There is an “environment” that “imprints” itself in organizations. Myth and Ceremony institutionalism posits a “shallow imprinting” – people don’t really believe myth and ceremony. Iron cage institutionalism takes a very “deep” view of culture. Actors internalize culture and then do it.
Omar posits, I think, is a view of culture that is constitutive (you are the ideas you internalize) and interactive (your use of the idea modifies the cultural landscape). Omar wants to get away from the metaphor of “deep” vs. “shallow” culture. He also discusses dual process theory, which merits its own post.
What is important for organization theorists is that you get away from Parsons’ model:
Note that conceptually the difference is between thinking of “depth” as a property of the cultural object (the misleading Parsonian view) or thinking of “depth” as resulting from the interaction between properties of the person (internalized as dispositions) and qualities of the object (e.g. meaning of a proposition or statement) (the Bourdieusian point).
The implication for orgtheory? Previously, the locus of orgtheory has been the “environment” – all the stuff outside the organization that people care about. That’s highly analogous to “culture” getting internalized deep within the individual. Thus, different institutional theories reflect a deep/shallow dichotomy. If you buy Omar’s post-Swidler/post-Giddens view of things, then what is really interesting is the interaction creating at the point of contact between environment and organization. Orgs don’t passively await imprinting. Rather, there is variance in how they respond to the environment and there is interesting variation in the adoption/importation of stuff from the environment.
The issue of whether some culture is “deep” versus “shallow” has been a thorny one in social theory. The basic argument is that for some piece of culture to have the requisite effects (e.g. direct action) then it must be incorporated at some requisite level of depth. “Shallow culture” can’t produce deep effects. Thus, for Parsons values had to be deeply internalized to serve as guiding principles for action. Postulating cultural objects that are found at a “deep” level requires we develop a theory that tells us how this happens in the first place (e.g. Parsons and Shils 1951). That is: we need a theory about how the same culture “object” can go from (1) being outside the person, to (2) being inside the person, and (3) once inside, from being shallowly internalized to being deeply internalized. For instance, a value commitment may begin at a very shallow level (a person can report being familiar with that value) but by some (mysterious) “internalization” process it can become “deep culture” (when the value is now held unconditionally and motivates action via affective and other unconscious mechanisms; the value is now “part” of the actor).
One thing that has not been noted very often is that the “cultural depth” discussion in the post-Parsonian period (especially post-Giddens) is not the same sort of discussion that Parsons was having. This is one of those instances in cultural theory where we keep the same set of terms—e.g. “deep” versus “shallow” culture–but change the parameters of the argument, creating more confusion than enlightenment. In contrast to Parsonian theorists, for post-Giddensian theorists, the main issue is not whether the same cultural element can be found at different levels of “depth” (or travel across levels via a socialization process). The key point is that different cultural elements (because of some inherent quality) exist necessarily at a requisite level of “depth.”
These are not the same sort of statement. Only the first way of looking at things is technically “Parsonian”; that is Parsons really thought that
…culture patterns are [for an actor] frequently objects of orientation in the same sense as other [run of the mill physical] objects…Under certain circumstances, however, the manner of his [sic] involvement with a cultural pattern as an object is altered, and what was once an object becomes a constitutive part of the actor” (Parsons and Shils 1951: 8).
So here we have the same object starting at a shallow level and then “sinking” (to stretch the depth metaphor to death) into the actor, so that ultimately it becomes part of their “personality.”
Contrast this formulation to the (post-Giddensian) cultural depth story proposed by Sewell (1992). According to Sewell,
…structures consist of intersubjectively available procedures or schemas capable of being actualized or put into practice in a range of different circumstances. Such schemas should be thought of as operating at widely varying levels of depth, from Levi-Straussian deep structures to relatively superficial rules of etiquette (1992: 8-9).
Sewell (e.g. 1992: 22-26), in contrast to Parsons, decouples the depth from the causal power dimension of culture. Thus, we can find cultural schemas that are “deep but not powerful” (rules of grammar) and schemas that are powerful but not deep (political institutions). Sewell’s proposal is clearly not Parsonian; it is instead (post)structuralist: there are certain things (like a grammar) that have to be necessarily deep, while other things (like the the filibuster rule in the U.S. Senate) are naturally found in the surface, and need not sink to the level of deep culture to produce huge effects. Accordingly, Sewell’s cultural depth discussion should not be confused with that of the early Swidler. Swidler (circa 1986) inherited the Parsonian not the post-structuralist problematic (because at that stage in American sociology that would have been an anachronism). Her point was that for the thing that mattered to Parsons the most (valuation standards) there weren’t different levels of depth, or more accurately that they didn’t need to have that property to do the things that they were supposed to do.
The primary aim of recent work on dual process models of moral judgment and motivation seems to be to revive a modified version of the Parsonian argument. That is, in order to direct behavior the point is that some culture needs to be “deeply internalized” (as moral intuitions/dispositions). However, as I will argue below the very logic of the dual process argument makes it incompatible with the strict Parsonian interpretation. To make matters even more complicated we have to deal with the fact that by the time we get to Swidler (2001) the conversation has changed (i.e. Bourdieu and practice theory happened), and she’s modified the argument accordingly. She ingeniously proposes that what Parsons (following the Weberian/Germanic tradition) called “ideas” can now be split into “practices + discourses.” Practices are “embodied” (and thus “deep” in the post-structuralist sense) and discourses are “external” (and thus shallow).
This leads to the issue of how Bourdieu fits into the post-Parsonian/post-structuralist conversation on cultural depth. We can at least be sure of one thing: the Parsonian “deep internalization” story is not Bourdieu’s version (even though Bourdieu used the term “internalization” in Logic of Practice). The reason for this is that habitus is not the sort of thing that was designed to give an explanation for why people “learn” to have “attitudes” (orientations) towards “cultural objects” much less to internalize these “objects” so that they become part of the “personality” (which is, by the way, possibly the silliest thing ever said). There is a way to tell the cultural depth story in a Bourdieusian way without falling into the trap of having to make a cultural object a “constituent” part of the actor but this would require de-Parsonizing the “cultural depth” discussion (which is something that Bourdieu is really good for). There is one problem: the more you think about it, the more it becomes clear that, insofar as the cultural depth discussion is a pseudo-Parsonian rehash, there might not much left after it is properly Bourdieusianized.
More specifically, the cultural depth discussion might be a red herring because it still retains an implicit allegiance to the (Parsonian) “internalization” story, and internalization makes it seem as if something that was initially subsisting outside of the person now comes to reside inside the person (as if for instance, “I disagree with women going to work and leaving their children in daycare” was a sentence stored in long-term memory to which a “value” is attached.
This is a nice Parsonian folk model (shared by most public opinion researchers). But it is clear that if, we follow the substantive implications of dual process models, what resides in the person is not a bunch of sentences to which they are oriented; instead the sentence lives in the outside world (of the GSS questionnaire) and what resides “inside” (what has been internalized) is a disposition to react (negatively, positively) to that sentence when I read it, understand it and (technically if we follow Barsalou 1999) perceptually simulate its meaning, which actually involves running through modal scenarios of women going to work and leaving miserable children behind). This disposition is also presumably the same one that may govern my intuitive reaction to other sorts of items designed to measure my”attitude” towards other related things. I can even forget the particular sentence (but keep the disposition) so that when somebody or some event (I drive past the local daycare center) reminds me of it I still reproduce the same morally tinged reaction (Bargh and Chartrand 1999; Bargh and Williams 2006).
Note that the depth imagery disappears under this formulation, and this is for good reason. If we call “dispositions to produce moral-affective judgments when exposed to certain scenarios or statements in a consistent way through time” deep, so be it. But that is not because there exist some other set of things that are the same as dispositions except that they lack “depth.” Dispositions either exist in this “deep” form or they don’t exist at all (dispositions, are the sorts of things that in the post-Giddensian sense are inherently deep). No journey has been undertaken by some sort of ontologically mysterious cultural entity to an equally ontologically spurious realm called “the personality.” A “shallow” disposition is a contradiction in terms, which then makes any recommendation to “make cultural depth a variable” somewhat misleading, as long as that recommendation is made within the old Parsonian framework. The reason why this is misleading is because this piece of advice relies on the imagery of sentences with contents located at “different levels” of the mind travelling from the shallow realm to the deep realm and transforming their causal powers in the process.
If we follow the practice-theoretical formulation more faithfully, the discussion moves from “making cultural depth a variable” to “reconfiguring the theoretical language so that what was previously conceptualized in these terms is now understood in somewhat better terms.” This implies giving up on the misleading metaphor of depth and the misleading model of a journey from shallow-land to depth-land via some sort of internalization mechanism. Thus, there are things to which I have dispositions to react (endowed with all of the qualities that “depth” is supposed to provide such as consistency and stability) in a certain (e.g. morally and emotionally tinged) distinct way towards. We can call this “deep culture” but note that the depth thing does not add anything substantive to this characterization. In addition, there are things towards which I (literally) have no disposition whatever, so I form online (shallow?) judgments about these things because this dorky, suit-wearing in July interviewer with NORC credentials over here apparently wants me to do so. But this (literally confabulated) “attitude” is like a leaf in the wind and it goes this or that way depending on what’s in my head that day (or more likely as shown by Zaller 1992, depending on what was on the news last night). Is this the difference between “shallow” and “deep” culture? Maybe, but that’s where the (Parsonian version of the) internalization language reaches its conceptual limits.
Thus, we come to a place where a dual process argument becomes tightly linked to what was previously being thought of under the misleading “shallow culture/deep culture” metaphor in a substantive way. I think this will “save” anybody who wants to talk about cultural depth from the Parsonian trap, because that person can then say that “deep= things that trigger moral intuitions” and “shallow=attitudes formed by conscious, on-the-fly confabulation.” Note that conceptually the difference is between thinking of “depth” as a property of the cultural object (the misleading Parsonian view) or thinking of “depth” as resulting from the interaction between properties of the person (internalized as dispositions) and qualities of the object (e.g. meaning of a proposition or statement) (the Bourdieusian point).
First, of all I’d like to thank Neil Fligstein for guest blogging on orgtheory. Acknowledging his contribution has been long overdue. He wrote a series of really provocative and intriguing posts about his new book, A Theory of Fields (see here and here), which spurred an intense discussion about the various strands of institutional theory, the role of agency and change in institutional theory, and the strategic orientation of actors. Rather than rehash that debate I wanted to step back and offer my own take on what I see as some of the most important (potential) contributions of field theory to organizational scholarship.
Even though in his posts Neil framed the book as a response to institutional scholarship, I think the book has more ambitious, broader designs. Their book tries to integrate various research strands and subfields – including, but not limited to, institutional theory and social movement theory – and offer a unified theory of fields and action. In this light, they have more in common with John Levi Martin (JLM), who has written his own treatise on fields and social action, than they do with the hordes of institutional scholars. (Their view of fields certainly owes more to Bourdieu than it does to DiMaggio and Powell’s concept of organizational fields.) They are attempting grand theory in a way that is rarely done in contemporary sociology. The grandness of their theoretical lens is apparent once you consider that they mean for it to apply not only to markets or industries but also to fields that exist within organizations or that describe relations between social movement activists.
The major difference between them (F&M) and JLM or other field theorists is the way they conceptualize fields as sites of collective action (strategic action being the most important form of collective action that actors take to reproduce or change fields). In contrast, JLM is more interested in fields as sites of social action, period. According to F&M, the major problem that faces actors in any field – whether you’re talking about American corporations seeking to deregulate an industry or parents addressing the education needs of their children – is figuring how to cooperate and take collective action so that they can gain advantages over contending groups. Engaging in collective action in order to get an advantage is the motivation that drives field formation, struggle, and change. A strong version of their theory would suggest that changes in meaning systems, rules and norms, or institutional settlements are endogenous to these strategic struggles. In fact, the field itself can be seen as situational, inasmuch as it forms around struggles over ideas and standing. Fields only exist inasmuch as there is some sort of collective action.
Hi, Tom Medvetz here, checking in with my fourth OrgTheory guest post (posts 1, 2, and 3 here). Today I’ll sketch a few notes about one of the big issues my book speaks to: the complex relationship between social knowledge and public action in the US. Perhaps the best-known debate on this topic is the one associated with Russell Jacoby’s 1987 book, The Last Intellectuals, which famously lamented the disappearance of “public intellectuals” from American life. In the years since its publication, Jacoby’s book and the idea of the “public intellectual” have earned enormous attention from journalists, pundits, and scholars.
However, reading over some of the major entries in this debate, it’s hard to shake the feeling that the “public intellectual” discussion has yielded more heat than light. In the first place, it’s striking how much disagreement still attends the central question a quarter-century later: Is public intellectualism declining or thriving in America? It depends on who you ask. Three days ago, Henry Giroux’s Counterpunch essay “The Disappearance of Public Intellectuals” seemed to take the basic truth of Jacoby’s thesis for granted. Meanwhile, many other writers have taken the opposite stance by arguing that public intellectuals are alive and well in the US. A good example is Daniel W. Drezner’s 2008 paper “Public Intellectuals 2.0,” which maintained that “the growth of online publication venues has stimulated rather than retarded the quality and diversity of public intellectuals.”
A second glance at this debate reveals a likely reason for the disagreement. Put simply, there has never been any consensus about the proper definition of the term public intellectual. In fact, it’s fair to say that how a given writer operationalizes the term tends to determine where he or she stands on the issue.
Hi, Tom Medvetz here with Round 2 of my guest stint at OrgTheory.
Here’s a trivia question for you: What do actors George Clooney, Angelina Jolie, and Warren Beatty share in common with former heads of state Mikhail Gorbachev, Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush, and Eduard Shevardnadze?* If you guessed that they’re all members of the Council on Foreign Relations—the think tank with arguably the greatest impact on American foreign policy since its founding in 1921—then you’re correct. Here’s a related query: What does an aging film star like Arnold Schwarzenegger do with himself after having already dabbled in such varied pursuits as bodybuilding; marrying a Kennedy; serving two-terms as governor of California, and alternately threatening and then protecting the human race in its battle against time-traveling cyborgs?†
The answer, of course, is to start a think tank. This week, “the Governator”—together with the University of Southern California—launched the Schwarzenegger Institute for State and Global Policy, a bipartisan center focused on five policy areas: “education, energy and environment, fiscal and economic policy, health and human wellness, and political reform.”‡
“I’ll be back… –ing public policies and conducting research on matters of broad political and economic importance.”
Against all odds, some sort of “think tank chic” seems to have developed in the U.S. in recent years.§ How should we interpret this? And in general, how might we think about a think tank’s role within the broader social relations of power?
On these questions, consider again the Council on Foreign Relations, whose current membership roster includes luminaries from the worlds of business (e.g. Richard Branson, Frederick W. Smith)¶; media (Roger Ailes, Rupert Murdoch, Oprah Winfrey, David Geffen, and Brian Grazer); academia (political scientist Peter Katzenstein, economist Martin Feldstein), and politics. In the latter category are numerous former National Security Advisers (Zbigniew Brzezinski, Henry Kissinger, Colin Powell); past and present Supreme Court Justices (Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sandra Day O’Connor); and former Secretaries of State (Madeleine Albright, Hillary Clinton, Condoleeza Rice).
At first glance, CFR would seem like an organization drawn directly from one of C. Wright Mills’ fevered nightmares—the very nerve center of the “power elite.” It should not be surprising, then, that the first major scholarly studies of think tanks were conducted in the 1970s by political sociologists following closely in Mills’ tradition, including G. William Domhoff. And as anyone familiar with the “power elite” perspective would guess, these scholars portrayed think tanks as instruments in a more or less coordinated ruling class project. (The Council Foreign Relations in particular, in these studies, became something like the Bohemian Grove of the Upper East Side.)
In my recently-published book on think tanks, however, I argue that this view is too simplistic. Crucially, however, I don’t revert to the perspective that became the standard alternative to elite theory in the 1970s and ‘80s: namely, the pluralist approach associated with scholars like Nelson Polsby and Robert Dahl. When the pluralists studied think tanks, they tended to depict them in more or less opposite terms—as lofty sanctuaries for independent reflection and analysis. A “true think tank,” wrote Polsby, “obliges its inhabitants to follow their own intellectual agendas.”**
I agree with the elite theorists on two key points: first, that class interests have a clear primacy in shaping the social relations in which think tanks are embedded; and second, that most think tanks are (and always have been) unambiguously elite in their composition. What’s my quarrel with the elite theory approach, then?
Two things: In the first place, I’d point out that while most of the key figures in the think tank world are indeed elites (however you like to define the term), their organizations never simply represent the “ruling class” as a whole—only specific fractions of it. Put differently, after a certain point, the breadth of the elite concept becomes a major hindrance. The more we expand our notion of “the elite” to include all of the relevant fractions, the less we can simply take for granted their affinity.
Which fraction(s) of the elite think tanks represent, and in what proportions, are always the relevant questions.
Second, the modality of the encounter among think tank-affiliated elites is never one of simple harmony, but also one of “horizontal” struggle. Specific elite subgroups collaborate in the making of think tanks, but often in the context of struggles against other elites. Even within specific think tanks, cooperation often accompanies internecine struggles for control over an organization’s agenda.
Both of these points suggested to me the need for a more open-ended, historical approach. As I show in the book, the most influential think tanks of the postwar era (like the Brookings Institution) were built on partnerships of politically moderate capitalists, aspiring civil servants, and a technocratic fraction of the intelligentsia. In matters of economic policy, they were typically Keynesian—which, crucially, placed them in opposition to certain other elites, especially businessmen committed to an aggressively free market vision of capitalism and libertarian economists. However, the latter groups flooded the think tank arena in the 1970s and ’80s and became its dominant figures.
In the book, I break with the Millsian approach by replacing the elite concept with the idea of the field of power. (Briefly, this is Pierre Bourdieu’s term for the social space in which powerful agents and groups collaborate and compete to determine which resources will be considered the most legitimate and valuable in modern societies.) Applied here, the purpose of the concept is to encourage us to think about think tanks as sites of collaboration and struggle among holders of various forms of power. At stake in the encounter isn’t just the accumulation of power (as the elite theorists would have it) but the relative values of its different forms (e.g. money, bureaucratic authority, political expertise, social scientific knowledge, and, increasingly, media access and publicity).
Gene Sperling (JD, Yale University and director, U.S. National Economic Council) and Angelina Jolie (star of Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life) discuss “Iraq, Education, and Children of Conflict” at an April 2008 Council on Foreign Relations event.††
This point brings us back to my original question: Why are think tanks suddenly popular among celebrities, journalists, media moguls, and others who control access to the means of publicity? I believe the trend is indicative of a broader shift in American politics toward growing responsiveness to the media. I’ll return to this theme in a future post, but for now let me recommend two recent books on the topic that deserve more attention: Ron Jacobs and Eleanor Townsley’s The Space of Opinion and Jeffrey Alexander’s The Performance of Politics.‡‡
* Shevardnadze was president of the republic of Georgia from 1995 to 2003.
† Or so I gather from the extraordinarily convoluted Wikipedia synopses of the four Terminator films, three of which featured Schwarzenegger, and only one of which I remember actually watching from start to finish. More vivid in my memory, however, is Schwarzenegger’s synergistically brilliant appearance as the T-800 cyborg in the 1991 Guns N’ Roses video for “You Could Be Mine” (which was also included on the Terminator 2: Judgment Day soundtrack).
‡ The quote is from “USC and Arnold Schwarzenegger Announce New Institute on State and Global Policy.” Retrieved on September 26, 2012.
§ I say “against all odds” because of the manifestly boring work carried out at most think tanks. I remember, for example, the reply given to me by one of my thesis advisers, Jerry Karabel, who was already quite knowledgeable about think tanks, when I suggested doing ethnographic observation at a think tank: “Okay, but I’m just afraid that it would be kind of like watching paint dry.”
¶ Not to mention CFR’s extensive corporate membership list.
** Nelson Polsby. 1983. “Tanks but no Tanks.” Public Opinion April/May: 14–16, 58–59.
†† To be fair, Ms. Jolie has served as a United Nations Goodwill Ambassador, a role that was critical in securing her CFR membership. On the other hand, I have no idea what Warren Beatty did to earn his invitation to CFR (or whether it involved Carly Simon).
‡‡ Bonus trivia question: I did not plan, and am powerless to explain, the emergent film motif in my OrgTheory posts thus far (starting here). And while I should probably rein it in a little, let me point out that the title of this post refers to another late 1980s movie—and that the first commenter to name that movie will earn the title “Distinguished Fellow of Film Policy Studies” at my think tank, should I ever start one. (No Google-cheating allowed.)
I thought I would continue my postings on the Fligstein/McAdam book. This time I would like to take up what I consider to be three really important ideas in the book that are the most likely to get the least attention. These are new insights in the book that do not just represent a synthesis of previous work but new ways of thinking about how fields are structured.
All of these ideas are important because they feed research agendas that have so far been underexploited in field studies. They do this in two ways. First they help make the connections between existing streams of research and the theory of fields which many scholars will simply miss. Second, the field theory developed in the book provide concepts to help empirical work look for and consider the important causal effects of particular features of fields that have so far not been studied. As I said in an earlier posting, theories are observation laden. So, theories that don’t look for things just won’t find them. Let me start more micro and work more macro.
The chapter in the book that has most surprised people who have read it is the one on social skill. I have previously published two versions explicating the idea of social skill and the role it plays in field formation and reproduction. These ideas have spread widely and get invoked mostly to explain how new fields come into existence as skilled strategic actors manage to create unique political coalitions by framing and the use of new identities.
Blogs work when there’s a solid community of readers and writers. We’ve been blessed with both. If you haven’t checked in for a while, look at these great discussions by leading scholars and the quality comments by readers:
- Neil Fligstein on the theory of fields, with comments by Useem and Goldstone. Update: Check out the Thornton, Ocasio, and Lounsbury response as well.
- Our two week forum on relational work. Start with Fred and Nina’s intro, and a new post by Fred Block. There will be a lot of good posts in this series.
- Rob Robinson and Nancy Davis discuss their recent book on religious movements and civil society.
Coming up on orgtheory: in September, a review of Gabriel Rossman’s book on the radio industry and in October we’ll do our book forum on Andreas Glaeser’s Political Epistemics book. And don’t forget guest posts by Jenn Lena, Katherine Chen, and Brandy Aven.