Search Results

relational styles in micro-finance

A long standing issue in network analysis is the analysis of when people initiate and maintain relationships. Rodrigo Canales and Jason Greenberg have a forthcoming Management Science paper that uses data from interaction between micro-finance loan officers and clients to establish that interactional style is one of the big drivers of relationships. From the abstract:

Social scientists have long considered what mechanisms underlie repeated exchange. Three mechanisms have garnered the majority of this attention: Formal contracts, relational contracts, and relationally embedded social ties. Although each mechanism has its virtues, all three exhibit a common limitation: An inability to fully explain the continuation and stability of inter-temporal exchange between individuals and organizations in the face of change. Drawing on extensive quantitative data on approximately 450,000 microfinance loans made by an MFI in Mexico from 2004-2008 that include random assignment of loan officers, this research proposes the concept of “relational styles” to help explain how repeated exchange is possible in the face of personnel change. We define relational styles as systematically reoccurring patterns of interaction employed by social actors within and across exchange relationships — in this paper, between microfinance clients and loan officers. We show that relational styles that are consistent facilitate a clear understanding of expectations and thus exchange. We also demonstrate that consistency in the relational styles followed by successive loan officers mitigates the negative impact of a broken loan officer-client tie. This paper thus proposes and empirically tests a social mechanism based on relational styles that often accompanies relational embeddedness, but may also serve as a partial substitute for it.

Check it out!!!

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

Written by fabiorojas

July 16, 2015 at 12:01 am

ethnography and micro-arrays


The ethnoarray!!!

A while back, I discussed a new technique for organizing and displaying information collected through qualitative methods like interviews and ethnography. The idea is simple: the rows are cases and the columns are themes. Then, you shade the matrix with color. More intense colors indicate that the case really matches the themes. Clustering of colors indicate clusters of similar cases.

Dan Dohan, who imported this technique in from the biomedical sciences, has a new article with Corey Abramson out that describes this process in detail. From Beyond Text: Using Arrays to Represent and Analyze Ethnographic Data in Sociological Methodology:

Recent methodological debates in sociology have focused on how data and analyses might be made more open and accessible, how the process of theorizing and knowledge production might be made more explicit, and how developing means of visualization can help address these issues. In ethnography, where scholars from various traditions do not necessarily share basic epistemological assumptions about the research enterprise with either their quantitative colleagues or one another, these issues are particularly complex. Nevertheless, ethnographers working within the field of sociology face a set of common pragmatic challenges related to managing, analyzing, and presenting the rich context-dependent data generated during fieldwork. Inspired by both ongoing discussions about how sociological research might be made more transparent, as well as innovations in other data-centered fields, the authors developed an interactive visual approach that provides tools for addressing these shared pragmatic challenges. They label the approach “ethnoarray” analysis. This article introduces this approach and explains how it can help scholars address widely shared logistical and technical complexities, while remaining sensitive to both ethnography’s epistemic diversity and its practitioners shared commitment to depth, context, and interpretation. The authors use data from an ethnographic study of serious illness to construct a model of an ethnoarray and explain how such an array might be linked to data repositories to facilitate new forms of analysis, interpretation, and sharing within scholarly and lay communities. They conclude by discussing some potential implications of the ethnoarray and related approaches for the scope, practice, and forms of ethnography.


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

Written by fabiorojas

May 7, 2015 at 12:01 am

duncan watts moves from yahoo to (microsoft?)

The network news of the day:

Duncan Watts, the social science researcher who has been at Yahoo since 2007, has left the company.

Yahoo confirmed the departure. Watts has reportedly joined Microsoft’s research organization, but the software company declined to comment.

Comments? I’m excited to see what he does at his new job.

Adverts: From Black Power/Grad Skool Rulz

Written by fabiorojas

April 30, 2012 at 4:28 am

Posted in fabio, networks

#ows, the human microphone and hand signals

I’m sort of intrigued by the various innovations emerging from the Occupy Wallstreet Movement (I posted at strategyprofs about some of the tech ones, specifically apps).

One of the cooler, more low-tech innovations (ok, ok, these have been around for a long time – but still) is the use of the “human microphone” – note that the wiki entry was initiated just two weeks ago.  Occupy also has its own hand signals (and, check out the hand signals for consensus decision-making).  Cool.  Twinkles.

Here’s a hand signal tutorial:

Written by teppo

November 3, 2011 at 7:55 pm

microfoundations of social theory: a response to jepperson and meyer

One of the most provocative things I have read this year is Jepperson and Meyer’s “Multiple Levels of Analysis and the Limitations of Methodological Individualisms” (free html version on journal web site) published in the March 2011 issue of Sociological Theory.

Jepperson and Meyer argue that sociological theorizing based on methodological individualism is “micro-chauvinist,” “doctrinal and exclusivist” and is founded on “liberal and American cultural models of society [that] notoriously dramatize and valorize purposive individual action.”

Jepperson and Meyer further argue that “methodological individualisms”

  • “[avoid or deny] multiple levels of analysis,”
  • focus on “mass of similar individuals,”
  • provide “images of modal individuals aggregating in plebiscitary or market-like ways.”

The upshot?  Jepperson and Meyer argue for the “displacement of action theories.”  Yes, you read that correctly.  Very provocative.  I wish more pieces like this were published.

But I think that they are wrong – on every count – and severely misunderstand methodological individualism.

First, there are of course various strong and weak versions of methodological individualism (see Lars Udehn’s thorough book on this) — as is suggested by Jepperson and Meyer’s use of the plural, “individualisms” — so this type of discussion can get into a war of quotations.  But no matter how one cuts it, Jepperson and Meyer’s arguments go against a large swath of social science: individualist metatheory was the foundation of many sociologists – Weber, Simmel, Tarde, Coleman, Selznick are just a few examples.  (Or to use a more recent example: John Levi Martin’s intro book chapter in Social Structures essentially defends a form of individualism, without using the label – Martin’s metatheoretical arguments are strikingly similar to Coleman’s excellent discussion of methodological individualism in Foundations of Social Theory, pp. 1-23.)

Second, to the argument itself, Jepperson and Meyer’s arguments against individualism and their call for the “displacement of action theories” would sideline and ignore what, to me, seem like some extremely significant issues in social theory:  Katz-Lazarsfeldian-type priors (a priori interests, values etc), the choices that actors make in terms of who/what to align themselves with (in short, self-selection – a critical mechanism), “exit, voice and loyalty,” strategies, choices that actors and organizations make about their structures and the associated heterogeneity in form that we observe, how heterogeneous interests or beliefs get resolved (or not), how social influence or institutionalization occurs as actors interact,  where various collective forms and institutions come from, etc, etc.  And despite Jepperson and Meyer’s call for “process” (mentioned 57 times), their own actor-less alternative is fundamentally anti-thetical to explicating social processes as they assume compliance, equilibrium and homogeneity (as noted by Selznick, Hirsch, DiMaggio – and now by folks doing work on “institutional work”).

There are many other problems with their arguments.

In response to Jepperson and Meyer – sorry, we couldn’t help ourselves (and since we’re in self-promotion mode here at orgtheory)  –  O&M’s Nicolai, Peter Abell (LSE) and I wrote a short essay addressing many of the above (and other) issues: (pdf, rough draft) “Microfoundations of Social Theory: A Response to Jepperson and Meyer.”  (BTW: Big-big-time thanks to commenters! – without implicating them since they disagree with us on some points!)  I don’t know that these types of debates necessarily convince anyone who is already set in their ways — probably not — but we felt that a quick response nonetheless was worthwhile given the rather strong arguments that Jepperson and Meyer make.

Written by teppo

August 8, 2011 at 6:49 am

on getting a divorce from microsoft

This weekend, I decided to kick my Microsoft habit. I’ve always enjoyed Apple computers ever since my dad brought home a IIE, but I’ve stuck with Windows for professional reasons. Most software is written with Windows in mind and it was always clear to me that Microsoft was way more serious about becoming the industry standard. In many ways, Apple products are better, but if you aren’t compatible with everyone else, that advantage is mitigated. Even though we got to a point where many Mac and Windows files are compatible, I’d gotten comfortable with Windows. In a university, I could always ask the staff for help on problems. However, I’ve now reached a point where the benefits of Windows are a thing of the past.

First off, I no longer need my Windows machine for Windows only software. I can always port to my office machine. Or run heavy duty computing in UNIX. Thus, Windows is now something to be paid for by someone else. I really don’t need my own Windows machine.

Second, my experience with Windows Vista was atrocious. Even when I updated to Windows 7, I still had too many problems with third party software and it still takes forever to start up and power down. It befuddles me as to why faster and better (and brand new!) machines are saddled with software that makes them slower than my XP machine that’s 3+ years old. I’ve heard that some people cling to truly ancient Windows, like 98 or so, out of fear of later versions.

Third, Mac users don’t suffer from the Blue screen of death and most computer viruses. I’ve been zinged by both. I got the BSoD today in Windows 7 – on a new computer that has almost no software installed on it.

Fourth, the Microsoft business model is no longer the only game in town. I think Google’s Chrome is a real challenge: open source OS that can draw and store data around the Web in a decentralized way. Sure, big institutions that need uniformity (e.g., colleges) may still desire a package from Seattle that’s maintained by an army of tech support. But I don’t need it. Most people need office apps, email, Web, and media players. We’ll soon get to a google model where that’s given away for free and it’ll work (unlike LINUX, which requires quite a bit of knowledge and effort to make work).

Another challenge will be from small, hand held computers that grow out of iPhones, BlackBerries and the like. They have their own OS, they’re hooked up to the internet, and it’ll be a matter of a few years when they can replicate what most desktops and laptops can do, especially if data storage can be outsourced. I imagine you’ll have small combo computer/phone/media player that you can plug into a keyboard and monitor to replicate the office experience. There’s not much Microsoft can do to prevent that. I don’t think they’ll monopolize the OS, like they did on desktops, which only happened when key players underestimated the economic and technical value of the OS.

So what do I do? The first step is easy. Stop all future investment in Windows. I’ll keep my old XP around so I can continue to work any Windows apps I want to, like Winamp. If it breaks down, I’ll probably just get the cheapest machine possible (like one of those tiny laptops). The machine I have that that runs Windows 7 is the last “full grown” machine that I will ever acquire that runs Windows. All necessary Windows work will be done on university machines. Second, my next machine will in all likelihood be a Mac. I assume there will be problems, but Apple seems interested in making good products, instead of making money with pop-ups, bundled software, unwanted pre-loaded software, and horrid OS releases (though Mac has had a few doozies). I assume that once I outgrow that Mac, perhaps 5 to 7 years from now, a new model for personal computing will have emerged. It should be interesting.

Written by fabiorojas

November 23, 2009 at 4:33 am

the williamson school (2.0): heterogeneity, microanalytics and boundaries

As discussed previously, Williamson’s Nobel prize is a huge win for organization theory as well.  Williamson’s work provides a central foundation for many organization theory, strategy or organization economics PhD seminars being taught at business schools. (On the other hand, and this really surprised me, Steven Levitt mentions that young assistant professors in economics are scarcely aware of Williamson’s work.) And, Williamson’s work is heavily cited in our top organization theory and strategy journals, much more so than in mainstream economics.

So, who’s carrying Williamson’s work forth and taking it into new directions?  Williamson’s graduate students are now largely working in business schools, mostly in management and strategy departments (as verified by Peter).  Their work is taking transaction cost economics, and discussions of organizational boundaries, into interesting new directions.  In sum, the “Williamson 2.0” School seems to be focusing on the following areas: heterogeneity, microanalytics and boundaries.  Here’s a quick summary of a few of the interesting “Williamson 2.0” strands that I’ve come across:

  • Jackson Nickerson and Todd Zenger have written an important paper on envy and the boundaries of the firm.  This paper beautifully links insights from social psychology and economics to help us further understand the micro, social interactional factors that impact organizational boundaries.
  • Kyle Mayer and Nick Argyres have done interesting work on “learning to contract.” This work touches on important issues related to how contracting is learned, how it evolves and impacts organizational heterogeneity.
  • Foss and Foss have published a very nice article on property rights and transaction costs.
  • Nickerson and Zenger have also written an article on “problem-solving.” The article makes important links between knowledge-based arguments and transaction costs, helping us better understand both organizational boundaries and heterogeneity.
  • Joanne Oxley and Brian Silverman have done interesting work on transactions, alliances and R&D.
  • Williamson’s work is strongly influencing research in international business as well, for example, see the work of Mauro Guillen, Jean Francois Hennart, Peter Buckley, John Dunning, etc. (Perhaps the best taste of this will come from reading the Journal of International Business Studies.)
  • Peter Klein and Michael Sykuta have a promising volume forthcoming on transaction cost economics, with an introduction by Oliver Williamson. (And, big congrats to O&M’s Peter Klein for having his article cited in the Nobel Committee’s scientific statement.)
  • Joe Mahoney’s Economic Foundations of Strategy is a nice doctoral level book that touches on central issues related to heterogeneity and organizational economics.

More broadly, I think there are other currents in organization theory — beyond more “traditional” Williamsonians — that also relate to Williamson’s work:

  • As Williamson mentions in his 4am phone interview, transaction cost economics is part of a wider “Carnegie” program of research — and thus if we broaden Williamson 2.0 to include the Carnegie School, then we should also point to the work of many other scholars: obviously Jim March, but also Gavetti, Levinthal, Ocasio, and many others.
  • Also, Williamson’s work gets lumped into “new institutional economics” (which includes a rather broad array of scholars: Greif to Cheung to North, etc), and the link with “institutions” thus also brings in organizational sociology. So, here I’d recommend the work of, say, Victor Nee, and particularly (and, I’m a fan of this paper), Ingram and Clay’s effort to broadly link institutional work from economics and sociology: “choice-within-constraints: new institutionalism and implications for sociology.”
  • Also, I should note that the “resource-based view” (RBV) of strategy (13,700+ citations, not bad) has a long relationship with transaction cost economics.  The relationship between the RBV and transaction cost economics has always been a bit conflicted, Williamson has essentially been a foil of sorts for many strategy scholars.  However, there are of course attempts to reconcile resource-based and transaction costs intuition, I’ve even heard talk of “a unified theory” at various professional meetings, though have not seen it materialize quite yet.

The above is a very selective (and likely, biased) sampling of Williamson 2.0 research, so please feel free to add additional strands of work into the comments.

Written by teppo

October 13, 2009 at 5:26 pm

Posted in economics, sociology

microfoundations of institutional theory

Since the problems of micro-macro links, scientific reduction, etc have led to engaging and heated discussions here at orgtheory before, here’s a recent book chapter, by Powell and Colyvas, that may be of interest to readers (.doc): “Microfoundations of Institutional Theory.”

Written by teppo

November 21, 2008 at 9:11 pm

Posted in uncategorized

microtrends: slicing up society


For political junkies, and who isn’t these days, Mark Penn’s book Microtrends: The Small Forces Behind Tomorrow’s Big Changes should provide for some dinner conversation.  Penn slices and dices and categorizes people into dozens of little niches; small niches that he argues will matter a lot: sex-ratio singles, sun-haters, old new dads, uptown tattooed, mini-churched, numbers junkies, surgery lovers, eurostars – you get the picture. 

The increasing ‘micro’-categorization is something I have been interested in for some time. A similar trend is evident in pop psychology as well, for example, in the present “strengths revolution” which also thrives on people finding their niches/strengths (numerous business bestsellers* presently are tapping into this trend).

And, here’s a primer on the book by Penn, published in Forbes, titled: The Critical 1%.

*Here’s a pdf of the present business bestsellers. (Note some of the academics climbing the chart – including the Sutton and Heath and Taleb books.)

Written by teppo

September 6, 2007 at 7:06 am

the origins and microfoundations of org routines and capabilities: a mathematical model


Peter Abell (sociologist at the London School of Economics), Nicolai Foss (of O&M), and I have a paper on the microfoundations of organizational routines and capabilities coming out in the journal Managerial and Decision Economics.  The paper, broadly, addresses questions related to the origins and emergence of org routines and capabilities, and associated micro-macro issues.  The paper has yet to go to the production editor, so, feedback most certainly is still welcome – send any of us an email with comments.

Here’s a (slightly dated) copy of the paper.

Some additional Peter Abell links while we’re on topic: Here’s his Organization Theory textbook (pdf). Here’s a recent Annual Review of Sociology piece on Narrative Explanation.

[I closed the comments on this post so I don’t have to publicly spar with someone who might disagree with the arguments in the paper ;) – what gall! – we’ve done lots of public sparring with some closely related arguments in the past, plus, I’m hopelessly swamped with writing and grading deadlines.]

Written by teppo

April 19, 2007 at 12:29 am

Posted in sociology, strategy, teppo

the covid recession kills a great bookstore: university press books in berkeley

One of the great pleasures of the 2010s was the discovery that the independent bookstore business was still viable, if challenging. Sadly, COVID not only wrecks lives, but it is also destroys businesses. University Press Books, in business for over 40 years, finally gave in as COVID removed all the foot traffic, which was vital to a small business located across the street from the UC Berkeley campus. The $10k/month rent was simply too much of an obstacle during normal times, impossible during a recession.

Personal memory: One of the reasons I loved Berkeley as a city was its abundance of actual physical places for culture – obscure music spaces, cool record stores, and, of course, Berkeley’s truly majestic bookstores. On this blog, I reported on the closing of Cody’s Books a while back and Moe’s used book store is so epic that it even garnered it’s own issue of the famed Cometbus zine. UPB was relatively small in square footage but it maximized it’s rarefied air – it stocked mainly super hip, super cool university press monographs and it was next to a classical music cafe. When I was first accepted to Chicago’s PhD program in sociology, I went to the sociology section, which was on a small mezzanine overlooking the rest of the shop, and bought a copy of Coleman’s Foundations of Social Theory. I still have that memory and it’s a good one.

Slowly, the eco-system of cultural businesses in Berkeley is eroding. The book stores have faded – Cody’s, Black Oaks, UPB – and the music shops have also shut. But hope lasts, UPB has said that they plan to reopen somewhere in the East Bay in a year and will continue online. No replacement for being at the hub, but I do wish them the best and I hope to purchase more sociology texts at their future location.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($4.44 – cheap!!!!)
Intro to sociology for just $1 per chapter – INSANE BARGAIN!!!!!
A theory book you can understand!!! Theory for the Working Sociologist (discount code: ROJAS – 30% off!!)
The rise of Black Studies:  From Black Power to Black Studies 
Did Obama tank the antiwar movement? Party in the Street
Read Contexts Magazine– It’s Awesome!!!!

Written by fabiorojas

June 18, 2020 at 1:57 pm

Posted in uncategorized

contra deadwood


I am one of the luckiest people in the world. I’m healthy,  I have a great family, and I’ve been successful in my chosen career. Still, there’s one thing that I do worry about – becoming deadwood. It’s part of my self-image – I just don’t want to be seen as someone who is degrading. It’s also about health. Trying to be active does seem to contribute to longevity and actually being healthy. Finally, I don’t want to be pitied. I don’t want graduate students in 2035 so look at me and say, “gee, that’s cute, it’s nice that they still keep him around.”

How does one avoid being deadwood? Well, I was lucky to have role models. At my PhD institution, I saw some really solid faculty remain very active up until retirement and beyond, like Charles Bidwell and Ed Laumann. On the internet, Pamela Oliver, the self described “olderwoman,” keeps writing, posting, and contributing. At my current employer, Indiana sociology, many advanced faculty are amazingly active. For example, our own Bernice Pescolodio remains one of the most actively and influential students of mental health in the world and has done so through a very lengthy career.

What a lot of these folks have in common, I think, is a combination of mission, a rich collection of social ties, and, lack of a better word, “discipline” or “structured practice.” Many of the folks who do avoid deadwood status deeply believe in the mission of their work. They may be concerned with status and income, but that’s by no means the whole picture. There is a deep commitment to some bigger goal that the academic profession supports.

Non-deadwood also tend to have very robust social ties. As a graduate student or colleague, I can only see the professional side of their network. But in almost all cases, I see lots of co-authoring and service work. They pop up all over the place. This is all made possible by “structured practice.” What I have noticed is that non-deadwood are very careful in terms of ordering their lives. I don’t mean that they mastered Microsoft Outlook but that they really work on building daily habits that help them manage these workloads and social ties, which in turn, contributes to longevity. 

A few days ago, I worked on my summer work schedule and I shocked to find that I had 14 projects in various stages of development. Some of these are short things, but others are serious commitments. At first, I was dismayed but then I realized that this is a nourishing life and, hopefully, a life where I will never be deadwood. And that’s a good thing.



50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($4.44 – cheap!!!!)
Intro to sociology for just $1 per chapter – INSANE BARGAIN!!!!!
A theory book you can understand!!! Theory for the Working Sociologist (discount code: ROJAS – 30% off!!)
The rise of Black Studies:  From Black Power to Black Studies 
Did Obama tank the antiwar movement? Party in the Street
Read Contexts Magazine– It’s Awesome!!!!

Written by fabiorojas

May 27, 2020 at 12:48 am

Posted in uncategorized

fabio v. g abend (2008): another round in the theory teaching wars

In 2008, Gabriel Abend wrote a really insightful article on “The Meaning of Theory.” His point was powerful and simple: people use the word theory in a whole bunch of different ways. For some people, “theory” might mean “an idea that lets you generate hypotheses.” For others, “theory” might mean the close reading and interpretation of classic texts.

A really nice aspect of Abend’s article is that he doesn’t dump on the different meanings of theory. Rather, he goes the opposite route. At the end of the article, he recommends that sociologists pull back and appreciate that the term is highly polysemic in our discipline and we should engage in “therapuetics,” which means that we should really step back and be chill. Abend (2008: 192):

All sociologists should be fully aware that their disagreements about theory have a semantic dimension, which has important effects on the appropriateness and forcefulness of different kinds of arguments. If this point became common sociological wisdom, that would surely amount to a step forward. For instance, no theory discussion would forget that there are many senses of the word ‘theory’ and no real referent or true meaning; that the many things that the word ‘theory’ is used to express are quite different indeed; or that the ontological, evaluative, and teleological questions in their customary form are problematic. Full consciousness of these facts would just dissolve numerous problems and disputes— namely, those that are ultimately caused by semantic vagueness. Further, it would clarify those (also numerous) problems and disputes that would still persist, pinpoint with more precision what the dispute is about, make discussion easier, and ultimately make substantive progress possible.

Great point. In peer review, or at an academic conference, this makes total and complete sense. For example, when a survey researcher says an article is “theoretical,” they mean tests some hypothesis drawn from an account of social action. This is classic Mertonian “middle range” theory. But that’s a different than “theory” written by the person tracing out the historical roots of DuBois’ sociology. Both are valuable. The exegetical scholar should not trash the middle range theory person.

But here is a problem – theoretical detente breaks down in the classroom. Most students will take maybe 1 or 2 courses called “theory.” You can’t possibly cover all meanings of theory in any deep way. So here is what happens: people default to a particular version of theory. And this has consequences. Why? Some versions of “theory” are more relevant to sociological education than others. All versions of “theory” are valuable in the scholarly sense but they are not equally valuable to the majority of students. The different “theories” do not have equal pedagogical value.

If you buy this argument, then what should you teach? My solution: Ditch the word “theory” and replace a vague word with a much better concrete descriptive. Then, ask yourself what students should learn in your class that will help internalize the key lessons of sociology. Here are my candidate words:

  1. Axioms and deductions (Abend: “you mean by it is a general proposition, or logically-connected system of general propositions, which establishes a relationship between two or more variables”)
  2. Middle range explanation (Abend: “an explanation of a particular social phenomenon”)
  3. Interpretive work (Abend: “the main questions that theory3 sets out to answer are not of the type ‘what x causes y?’ Rather, given a certain phenomenon P (or a certain fact, relation, process, trend), it asks: ‘what does it mean that P?,’ ‘is it significant that P?,’ ‘is it really the case that P?,’ ‘what is P all about?,’ or ‘how can we make sense of or shed light on P?”)
  4. Exegesis (Abend: “The word ‘theory’ and some of its derivatives are sometimes used to refer to the study of and the students of the writings of authors such as Marx, Weber, Durkheim, Simmel, Parsons, Habermas, or Bourdieu.”)
  5. Conceptualism (Abend: “A theory5 is a Weltanschauung, that is, an overall perspective from which one sees and interprets the world. Unlike theories1, theories2, and theories3, theories5 are not about the social world itself, but about how to look at, grasp, and represent it.”)
  6. Ethics/Theories of justice (Abend: “some people use the word ‘theory’ to refer to accounts that have a fundamental normative component.”)
  7. Special problems of social explanation (Abend: “it refers to the study of certain special problems [FGR- such as the macro/micro transition] that sociology has encountered.”

Once you drop the loaded word “theory,” then you realize that some things are just honestly low priority. For example, most people, honest to God, don’t care about history of social thought and it honestly won’t help the typical sociologist do better work. So you can safely drop theory 4 (exegesis) from your course. Another easy one is theory 6 – ethics. Important? Sure, but that’s either an elective or a course in the philosophy department.

Then you can easily establish priority in teaching for the rest. Since most sociology majors and graduate students are empirically driven (e.g., demography, health, social movements), then you should heavily emphasize theory 2 and 3 (middle range and understanding) with a health dose of theory 5 (conceptualism) so you have a lot of structure and the material is not ad hoc. That is what I do in Theory for the Working Sociologist.  Theory 7 (“special problems”) can be safely used as an occasional topic to flesh out a course or motivate stronger students.



50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($4.44 – cheap!!!!)
Intro to sociology for just $1 per chapter – INSANE BARGAIN!!!!!
A theory book you can understand!!! Theory for the Working Sociologist (discount code: ROJAS – 30% off!!)
The rise of Black Studies:  From Black Power to Black Studies 
Did Obama tank the antiwar movement? Party in the Street
Read Contexts Magazine– It’s Awesome!!!!

Written by fabiorojas

September 5, 2019 at 4:57 pm

Posted in uncategorized

promoting black women in sociology: comments on a blog post by adia wingfield

Adia Wingfield, professor of sociology at Washington University, St. Louis, wrote an interesting post at the Gender & Society blog about the under-representation of black women in sociology. Here is Professor Wingfield:

Where are black women sociologists today? The ASA reports that between 2007-2010, only 6% of doctorates awarded in sociology went to African Americans. In 2016,  according to the Survey of Earned Doctorates, only 31 black women received theirs in sociology. A look at the representation of black women in tenure track and tenured academic positions reveals an ongoing trend of underrepresentation. Only 2% of full professors, 2% of associates, and 4% of assistant professors are black women.


The kinds of challenges that are omnipresent for black women workers in predominantly white environments are present for them too—marginalization, micro (or macro) aggressions, difficulties finding mentors and sponsors who can facilitate their career advancement. As academics, black women professors also must confront colleagues’ tendencies to denigrate or dismiss their research (this is particularly present in the inclination to label work that focuses on race and/or gender as “me”search). There are also the heavy service burdens that come with being underrepresented, ranging from mentoring students of color to helping universities resolve their issues with diversity and inclusion.

I do not dispute the diagnosis of the problem, nor the facts that Professor Wingfield cites. I do disagree with the focus. Yes, it is true that women and people of color do encounter double standards, hostility, and burdensome service, but I don’t really see that as a core factor driving under-representation in the academy. Why? By the time you are on the tenure track, you will probably get tenured, even if some, or many, people are fighting you. The issue is getting people in the right place to start with.

I would focus on a different process: the interaction of the tenured faculty at the top 20 or 30 programs with the cohort of women and students of color. Why? Sociology, and most academic fields, are heavily slanted toward elites. Most jobs go to people in a relatively small group of PhD programs and the big awards go to people who publish in the “right” presses and went to the “right programs.”

But enrollment in elite programs is not enough because there are fewer jobs than applicants. This is where mentoring comes into play. What you will discover is that people get jobs via publication, often as co-authors with faculty, or the article benefited from tons of mentoring. In my informal count, about 2/3 to 3/4 of junior faculty at research intensive programs have a co-authored publication with faculty. And many of these publications are effectively “dude canoes,” to use one of Omar Lizardo’s terms.

So I worry less about micro-aggression and service burdens, even though they are real. Instead, I would have a frank discussion about how we can get the core research intensive faculty in the big doctoral programs to be more inclusive on their research teams. Until that happens, there will still be vast under-representation.



50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($4.44 – cheap!!!!)
Intro to sociology for just $1 per chapter – INSANE BARGAIN!!!!!
A theory book you can understand!!! Theory for the Working Sociologist (discount code: ROJAS – 30% off!!)
The rise of Black Studies:  From Black Power to Black Studies 
Did Obama tank the antiwar movement? Party in the Street
Read Contexts Magazine– It’s Awesome!!!!

Written by fabiorojas

June 17, 2019 at 12:01 am

Posted in uncategorized

what if sociology does not really want to have a public impact? commentary on economics and sociology blogs

A constant point of discussion in the social sciences is the relatively strong position of economics. That profession has more institutional power, higher salaries, and more public visibility than related social science fields. If you ask sociologists who study academic professions, like our own Elizabeth Popp-Berman, Michel Reay, or Marion Fourcade, you will get stories about how economists have the support of the private sector or how their intellectual tools support various interests or state building projects.

I won’t dispute that, but I’d like to offer an additional simple hypothesis: economists want public impact harder than other fields and they actually take the effort to build the tools to allow you to do it. Here’s a few examples:

  • If you take a standard graduate level micro economics class, you learn about social welfare theorems. That provides a simple template for defining and estimating policy impacts. Sociologists want you to know about  Max Weber.
  • Economists have put a huge emphasis on identification of causal effects. It’s now front and center and it helps you determine what actions might be worth doing. Sociologists have long done experiments and they also worry identification, but it’s a second place subject in our methods training and the way we approach things.
  • Economists created the National Bureau for Economic Research … in 1920. They publish papers and their online archive has papers going back to the early 2000s, if not earlier. We have no analog for NBER and SocArXiv started in 2016.

Here’s an example closer to home – blogging. Blogging is literally free and easy to do, and for a short while, sociologists were totally into it. Now? Basically, there is orgtheory, a newly revived Scatter Plot (thanks, Jess!), Soc images, Phil’s Family Inequality, and the Society pages. Norton also runs a sociology blog (Everyday Sociology). The only other very active blog in sociology I can think is Mobilizing Ideas. Randall Collins has a blog, but it runs posts a few times a year and most don’t notice it. If you look at the dozens of blogs listed on the side of this blog, most are defunct or rarely updated. Adding insult to injury, sociology blogs have dead comment sections.

Econ? There is a list of 100 (!) active econ blogs. And we aren’t talking about obscure people – blogs are maintained by folks like Harvard’s Greg Mankiw, Berkeley’s Brad DeLong and Piketty himself runs a blog. Libertarian blogs like Marginal Revolution and Econ Log are also active and draw a vibrant discussion community. These blogs are so active and vital to the informal discussion community in the academy that that Library of Congress (!!) has decided to permanently archive Marginal Revolution and other selected economics blogs as example of important early 21st century intellectual life. The only conclusion I can draw is that economists care more about their ideas and discussing them in public than other fields. Rather than drop blogs when social media became hot, they saw blogs as one tool in a public outreach arsenal.

This leads me to a hypothesis about sociology and its relationship to public impact. Sociologists are into policy and outreach if you can talk about it in the concluding section of a paper, or as a way to show you are cool because you know that DuBois was an activist. But if it involves the continual effort to reach the public, or the grinding work of building institutions to make the impact possible, or doing the messy work of interfacing with the state, non-profits, and other non-academics, they won’t be around. But you can find them retweeting the latest political outrage.


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

Written by fabiorojas

April 10, 2019 at 4:21 am

Posted in uncategorized

from Marx, Durkheim, and Weber to demographic, relational, and cultural perspectives

orgheads alert, courtesy of Eric Dahlin!  Still thinking about the conversation started at the 2014 ASA panel about the future of the sociology of organizations?  The organizations and work section of the  Sociology Compass continues this conversation in two overview articles, both of which are currently ungated until the end of this month.  Heather A. Haveman and Rachel Wetts introduce organizational sociology, starting with the founders of sociology:

Organizational theory: From classical sociology to the 1970s


Organizations are the fundamental building blocks of modern societies. So it is not surprising that they have always been at the center of sociological research, starting with Marx and Weber. And although Durkheim did not explicitly analyze organizations, his work has clear implications for the study of organizations. We review the insights of these three pioneering sociologists and then discuss ideas about organizations proposed by other scholars, from both management and sociology, from 1910 to the mid‐1970s. Marx, Weber, and Durkheim’s theoretical frameworks were tools for understanding the transition to modernity. Marx and Weber saw organizations as sites of class struggle and rationalization, respectively, while Durkheim focused on social cohesion and collective sensemaking, both of which underpin organizations. Later theorists focused more closely on the meso‐level and micro‐level processes that happen within and between organizations. These later theorists emphasized pragmatic concerns of optimizing organizational efficiency and labor productivity (scientific management and human relations theories), processes of affiliation and hierarchy (Simmel), limits to rational decision‐making (the Carnegie School), and environmental conditions that shape organizational processes and outcomes (contingency theories). A companion paper describes the three perspectives (demographic, relational, and cultural) that have dominated sociological research on organizations since the mid‐1970s.

Their second article continues into recent decades with typologies of research:

Contemporary organizational theory: The demographic, relational, and cultural perspectives


We review three perspectives—demographic, relational, and cultural—that have dominated sociological research on organizations during the past four decades. These perspectives arose in reaction to the atomistic and rationalist–adaptationist assumptions of earlier perspectives on organizations. These perspectives have different conceptions of social structure and thus different conceptions of what creates opportunities for and constraints on action. The demographic perspective holds that social structure is constituted by distributions of social actors along salient dimensions of social and physical space; the relational perspective, by webs of social relationships; and the cultural perspective, by widely shared and patterned understandings of reality and possibility. These perspectives also have different conceptions of identity and therefore motivations for action. For demographers, identity derives from position, absolute or relative, along salient dimensions of social life; for relational scholars, from ties among individuals, groups, and organizations; and for cultural scholars, from social interaction. All three perspectives have been applied to explain behavior at five different levels of analysis: the individual, group or organizational subunit, organization, industry or organizational population, and field. Up to the 1990s, these perspectives were generally applied separately, but over the past two decades, studies have increasingly used multiple perspectives.


Written by katherinechen

March 20, 2019 at 11:07 pm

dude, when did sociologists stop giving a hoot about rational choice theory?

Here’s a simple exercise. Go to the website of the journal Rationality and Society and look at the authors of recent articles. What do you notice? Here’s what I noticed – tons of the authors are not sociologists. Current issue? We have Cass Sunstein (law), Bertrand Crettez and Regis Deloche (lists public choice as a specialty – economics),  Ennio Piano (GMU econ), and Daniel Arce (Texas economics). The previous issue is similar. Seven authors and I spotted 2 sociologists, 3 economists, and 2 business school profs. The issue before that? Very similar: 3 sociologists out of 10 authors. For the year so far, 22 authors and 5 sociologists.

This is bizarre because Rationality and Society is a journal created and run by sociologists. Yet, most authors are not sociologists. This speaks to a discipline wide decline in interest. There are a few rational choice sociologists here and there. For example, there is Ivan Ermakoff at Wisconsin, Washington’s Ed Kiser, and Kaz Yamaguchi at Chicago. Beyond these folks, it gets pretty thin pretty fast. Finding a sociological rational choicer under 45 is hard.

One could ask why sociologists essentially abandoned RCT. A few hypotheses:

  1. It was a fad. Few people, except a few high status disciplinary leaders like Jim Coleman, were ever really invested in it.
  2. Intellectual merit. Maybe sociologists are right. People don’t have preferences and incentives don’t matter. Economic models really are a bourgeois sham ideology. Sociologists should totally avoid RCT.
  3. Cost-benefit ratio. Most social scientists are “mom and pop positivists.” They just want to crank out papers with real pretty charts and tables. The effort needed to understand, much less apply, RCT isn’t really needed.
  4. The hard turn to stratification. Since sociologists has gone hard on social stratification, the demand for other types of research has dropped.
  5. Migration. The people who used to do RCT in sociology have all gone to b-schools and applied micro-economics. Pays better and you’ll get your PhD in 5 years instead of 8.

I really don’t know how to judge these hypotheses, but the de facto death of RCT is sad. We really could use more theoretical diversity in sociology.


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

Written by fabiorojas

August 31, 2018 at 4:01 am

Posted in uncategorized

tyler cowen discusses intersectionality

Over at Marginal Revolution, Tyler discusses intersectionality. For example:

3. Marginalized or minority communities may themselves exhibit prejudice against other non-conformities (for instance, some parts of the Jamaican community seem to be especially biased against gay individuals).  That can make it harder for persons with multiple non-conformities to find allies.

This is right. The origin of intersectionality theory is in feminist political discussions, where women of color often complained that white women didn’t appreciate their particular position and grievances. But I think intersectionality’s insight is simpler: interaction effects and context dependent effects. When I teach intersectionality, I use the category “Black men.” Being an ethnic minority is often a disadvantage, while being male is often an advantage. It depends a lot on context. E.g., work vs. family.

Even though the term originates in political discussions, it encapsulates a fairly basic concept – identity is complex, it is activated by context, and it can be subtle. I sure wish it hadn’t become a catch phrase because it is a useful idea.


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

Written by fabiorojas

August 16, 2018 at 4:28 am

Posted in uncategorized

foxes and hedgehogs in sociology (inspired by James Scott)

I’m about halfway through James Scott’s Against the Grain, and it’s really an amazing book. Scott has admirably gathered research from a dozen different disciplines, telling a story about the founding of civilization, a question that has haunted humans as long as civilization has existed, and that has formed one of the central research poles of early sociology and early modern philosophy. It turns out a few things we assumed were true actually aren’t: sedimentism doesn’t automatically lead to states, and neither does agriculture. Even more importantly, early states weren’t necessarily in opposition to non-state actors: even if there was tension with “barbarians” who didn’t appreciate the forced labor to which they would often be subjected, the relationship between those in the state and those out of it was often one of mutual benefit, with, if anything, the state much more parasitic on the barbarians than the reverse.

James Scott is a political scientist whose work has been incredibly influential for a variety of other academic disciplines, not least sociology. His books Weapons of the Weak and Seeing like a State both provided pithy concepts (in the titles no less!) that have proven immensely influential.  In many ways, Scott’s interests are quite wide-ranging—from South East Asian peasants to the dawn of West Asian city states—yet there is an ongoing commitment that goes all the way back to Weapons of the Weak in looking at how marginal peoples interact with powerful organizations, nearly always the state.  The work manifests an anarchist sensibility which Scott enthusiastically endorses, and maybe that underlying political passion is what keeps the common interest moving.

Yet this has me thinking about academic careers, and in a few senses. First, why do we seem so suspicious of people with wide interests?  Part of the answer, I assume, is that we are suspicious of dilettantes: the purpose of academic research, we seem to think, is not to learn more about more, but rather more about less, with the hope that these crystalline insights will then be broadly applicable, going all the way down to come back up again.  Yet there’s no self-evident reason why “more about less” is a superior way to do academic knowledge, and a more materialist analysis would probably reveal the way in which the micro-specialization of academic knowledge helps to maintain a division of labor that creates more opportunity for distinction and, therefore, positions, departments, and broader organizations and institutions that can leverage resources and status.  And of course, the nature of academic organization and distinction is not a new thing to study.

Yet I’m also interested in how we sociologists think about Berlin’s distinction between foxes and hedgehogs. Are we interested in lots of things or one big thing?  That question could fairly be asked of sociology itself, and one of the attractions for many of us to sociology is that we can study lots of stuff, not beholden for all of our careers to a particular subject area or research interest. And indeed, this is one of the reasons area studies folks or historians are suspicious of sociologists jumping into a research question, using only secondary sources, not mastering the languages, all in the service of some theoretical question that, to the specialists, seems far too sweeping and sloppy. Historical-comparative sociologists have been sensitive to that charge for decades now, and many do the sort of research that would make historians proud: going to the archives themselves, learning the languages, engaging with the historians as well. That takes more work, sure, but it also produces more substantive research.

But what about people who want to study lots of things? I think a lot about Gary Alan Fine’s incredible productivity, and how he seems to go from thing to thing, looking at whatever he finds interesting. He would tell you there’s an overarching theoretical interest that unites all of his work (or just about all of it), and I think that’s right, but I wonder about why we seem to demand such an answer. What’s wrong with having lots of interests, apart from the fact that the more interests you have, the more it could start to be done shoddily?  This concern about shoddiness is usually what you hear, but people like Gary Alan Fine, Craig Calhoun, Rogers Brubaker, Ann Swidler, Randall Collins, and Orlando Patterson (among others) write about a stunning amount of topics, and they do so with a really high quality. All things being equal, do we think that’s better than scholars who laser in on a certain sociological topic and add as much to it as they can?  Most might answer that both foxes and hedgehogs are fine, but I’m not sure that’s how it plays out in search committees, tenure reviews, and award decisions. Yet, at least to me, there’s no self-evident reason why a certain way of being an academic is better than the other.



Written by jeffguhin

February 17, 2018 at 9:05 pm

new book spotlight: approaches to ethnography

New book alert!  For those prepping a methods course or wanting additional insight into ethnography as a research method, sociologists Colin Jerolmack and Shamus Khan*  have co-edited an anthology Approaches to Ethnography: Analysis and Representation in Participant Observation (2017, Oxford University Press).**


In Approaches to Ethnography, several ethnographers, including myself, have contributed chapters that delve into our experiences with ethnography across the subfields of urban sociology, poverty and inequality, race and ethnicity, culture, political economies, and organizational research.  For example, in his chapter, Douglas Harper explains how he integrated visual ethnography to get farmers to discuss experiences of farming past and present, capture the itinerant lives and transitory relations among tramps, and document food traditions in Bologna, Italy.

My own chapter “Capturing Organizations as Actors” was particularly difficult to write, with several major chunks jettisoned and sections rewritten several times to incorporate feedback from an ever-patient Khan.  Eventually, I realized I was struggling with how to advocate what is taken-for-granted among organizational researchers.  Normally, organizational researchers write for audiences who readily accept organizations as the unit of analysis and as important and consequential actors worthy of study.  However, for sociologists and social scientists who are not organizational researchers, the organization falls into the background as static, interchangeable scenery.  Given this anthology’s audience, I had to make an explicit argument for studying organizations to readers who might be inclined to ignore organizations.

With this in mind, my chapter focused on explaining how to use ethnography to bring organizations to the foreground.  To illustrate how researchers can approach different aspects of organizations, I drew on my ethnographic data collected on the Burning Man organization.  Most of the vignettes tap never-before-seen data, including discussions from organizers’ meetings and my participant-observations as a volunteer in Playa Info’s Found.  With these examples, I show how organizational ethnography can help us understand:

  • how informal relations animate organizations
  • how organizations channel activities through routines and trainings
  • how organizations and its subcultures communicate and inculcate practices
  • how organizations handle relations with other actors, including the state

Here is Approaches to Ethnography‘s table of contents:

Introduction: An Analytic Approach to Ethnography
Colin Jerolmack and Shamus Khan

1. Microsociology: Beneath the Surface
Jooyoung Lee
2. Capturing Organizations as Actors
Katherine Chen

3. Macro Analysis: Power in the Field
Leslie Salzinger and Teresa Gowan

4. People and Places
Douglas Harper

5. Mechanisms
Iddo Tavory and Stefan Timmermans

6. Embodiment: A Dispositional Approach to Racial and Cultural Analysis
Black Hawk Hancock

7. Situations
Monica McDermott

8. Reflexivity: Introspection, Positionality, and the Self as Research Instrument-Toward a Model of Abductive Reflexivity
Forrest Stuart

* Jerolmack and Khan have also co-authored a Socius article “The Analytic Lenses of Ethnography,” for those interested in an overview.

** I have a flyer for a slight discount that I hope is still good from the publisher; if you need it, send me an email!

Written by katherinechen

January 13, 2018 at 4:55 pm

in NYC spring 2018 semester? looking for a PhD-level course on “Change and Crisis in Universities?”

Are you a graduate student in the Inter-University Doctoral Consortium or a CUNY graduate student?*  If so, please consider taking “Change & Crisis in Universities: Research, Education, and Equity in Uncertain Times” class at the Graduate Center, CUNY.  This course is cross-listed in the Sociology, Urban Education and Interdisciplinary Studies programs.

Ruth Milkman and I are co-teaching this class together this spring on Tuesdays 4:15-6:15pm.  Our course topics draw on research in organizations, labor, and inequality.  This course starts on Tues., Jan. 30, 2018.

Here’s our course description:


This course examines recent trends affecting higher education, with special attention to how those trends exacerbate class, race/ethnicity, and gender inequalities. With the rising hegemony of a market logic, colleges and universities have been transformed into entrepreneurial institutions. Inequality has widened between elite private universities with vast resources and public institutions where students and faculty must “do more with less,” and austerity has fostered skyrocketing tuition and student debt. Tenure-track faculty lines have eroded as contingent academic employment balloons.  The rise of on-line “learning” and expanding class sizes have raised concerns about the quality of higher education, student retention rates, and faculty workloads.  Despite higher education’s professed commitment to diversity, disadvantaged racial and ethnic groups remain underrepresented, especially among faculty. Amid growing concerns about the impact of micro-aggressions, harassment, and even violence on college campuses, liberal academic traditions are under attack from the right. Drawing on social science research on inequality, organizations, occupations, and labor, this course will explore such developments, as well as recent efforts by students and faculty to reclaim higher education institutions.

We plan to read articles and books on the above topics, some of which have been covered by orgtheory posts and discussions such as epopp’s edited RSO volume, Armstrong and Hamilton’s Paying for the Party, and McMillan Cottom’s Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the New Economy.  We’ll also be discussing readings by two of our guestbloggers as well, Ellen Berrey and Caroline W. Lee.

*If you are a student at one of the below schools, you may be eligible, after filing  paperwork by the GC and your institution’s deadlines, to take classes within the Consortium:

Columbia University, GSAS
Princeton University – The Graduate School
CUNY Graduate Center
Rutgers University
Fordham University, GSAS
Stony Brook University
Graduate Faculty, New School University
Teachers College, Columbia University
New York University, GSAS, Steinhardt

Written by katherinechen

January 8, 2018 at 8:12 pm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Written by jeffguhin

October 11, 2017 at 12:26 am

why antitrust now?

Antitrust is having a moment. A couple of years ago, with the possible exception of complaining about never-ending airline mergers, no one paid attention to antitrust debates. Today, it’s all over the place. A few months ago, it was the Economist proclaiming “America Needs a Giant Dose of Competition.” Last month it was Amazon and Whole Foods. And now antitrust has become a key plank of the new Democratic platform.

I’ve been thinking about this for a while, but this antitrust explainer written by Matt Yglesias yesterday (which is generally quite good) motivated me to put fingers to keyboard. So I’m going to break this reflection up into three parts: Why antitrust now? What does the new antitrust debate mean? And what would it take for it to succeed? Today, I’ll tackle the first.

At one level, the rise of antitrust interest is just a perfect convening of streams, in the Kingdon sense. A problem (or loose collection of problems) rises to public attention, people are already out there advocating a solution, even if so far unsuccessfully, and—the moment we’re in now—politicians have the motivation to grab that solution and turn it into policy, or at least a platform. It’s just about timing, and it’s not predictable.

At the same time, I think we can unpack a couple of different factors that help us think about “why now”. Some of this is covered in the Yglesias piece. But there are a few things I’d add, and some different angles I’d highlight. So without further ado, here are four reasons antitrust is suddenly getting attention.

1. It’s a reaction to a change in objective conditions.

There is a degree of consensus that market concentration is increasing across the economy. Even if you don’t think concentration is a problem, it wouldn’t be surprising that an increase would lead some people to challenge it, and make media more open to hearing that claim. This is probably a contributing factor. But market concentration has been increasing for a long time, and the link between concentration and exercise of power, whether market power or political power, is at best complicated. I don’t think the rise in concentration explains much of the antitrust attention.

Other phenomena are emerging that are objectively new, and raise new questions about how to govern them. Amazon now controls 43% of internet retail sales in the U.S. That’s astonishing, and at least a little alarming. But we’ve now seen several generations of various platforms (operating systems, browsers, social networks) rise to dominance and sometimes fall, mostly without a lot of antitrust attention—Microsoft, at the turn of the millennium, being the significant exception. These objective changes are a necessary but definitely not sufficient for public attention to rise.

2. New actors are organizing around this issue.

A lot of the noise around antitrust is coming from a relative handful of people. Until the Democrats came on board, it was Elizabeth Warren on the political side, and before that Zephyr Teachout, the Fordham law professor who gave Andrew Cuomo a run for his money in 2014.

On the think tank side, as Yglesias notes, it’s the Open Markets Program at New America. Fellow Lina Khan, once of the Teachout campaign, landed an NYT op-ed on Amazon and Whole Foods. Fellow Matt Stoller’s Atlantic article on antitrust, “How Democrats Killed Their Populist Soul,” got a lot of attention when it came out last fall. Barry Lynn, who runs the program, has been working on this issue for a decade.

The Roosevelt Institute is the other significant player in this space. (Here’s a good, if now difficult to read, piece from last summer explaining the history of Roosevelt.) Marshall Steinbaum and others have made the case for a range of antitrust issues on a variety of grounds, and the influence of both these organizations on the new Democratic congressional platform is clearly visible.

There’s no question that this kind of policy advocacy—talking to policymakers, writing articles and op-eds—is making a difference. But its impact has been facilitated by two other things.

3. The space of expertise is changing in unexpected ways.

Antitrust policy is a space heavily dominated by experts. Congress rarely touches antitrust issues. The public rarely pays attention. Presidents generally talk a good antitrust game, and may care more or less about appointing antitrust officials who will pursue a particular policy line. But for the most part, antitrust is dominated by the lawyers and economists who serve in the Antitrust Division and FTC, consult on antitrust cases, write academic articles, and a handful of whom become judges.

And there is bipartisan consensus among these experts that concentration isn’t generally a problem. Markets are contestable. Predatory pricing is irrational, because firms know that if they drive out competitors then jack up prices, they’ll just attract some new entrant into the market. There’s really no point. Yes, there may be a little more antitrust enforcement among Democrats than Republicans. But it’s a game played “between the 45 yard lines.” As Richard Posner said recently, “Antitrust is dead, isn’t it?”

But this space is changing in interesting ways. The change doesn’t seem to be coming from the antitrust community itself, exactly. But it’s coming from people with the academic clout to be taken seriously.

From one direction, you have people like Jason Furman and Joseph Stiglitz making arguments about labor market monopsony contributing to lower wages and arguing that economic changes require new kinds of antitrust solutions. From another, you have Luigi Zingales overseeing an effort (at the University of Chicago’s Stigler Center, no less) to advocate for stronger antitrust, calling his position “pro-market” rather than “pro-business”. Zingales’ efforts are also notable for bringing in historians, political scientists and other experts usually not privy to the antitrust policy conversation.

None of these people work primarily on antitrust issues or even industrial organization, but they have the status to be taken seriously even if they are not among the usual suspects of antitrust. Their novel arguments have the capacity to shift the expert consensus about antitrust—either mildly, as in Furman’s arguments about the importance of labor monopsony (which don’t require a radical rethinking of the current approach), or more radically, as in Zingales’s advocacy of an antitrust that takes political power seriously.

I’ll discuss these changes more in the next couple of posts, but in terms of explaining “why antitrust now,” the point is that these insider/outsider dissenters are amplifying new voices and new issues, and thus contributing to the current wave of attention.

4. The cultural moment is right for other reasons.

If there’s one belief that seems to unite Americans across the political spectrum these days, it’s that the game is rigged against the ordinary person. For the many Americans who think big business is doing at least some of the rigging, this produces a new openness to arguments about concentration and corporate control. As much as anything else, I think this explains the current interest in antitrust. People are receptive to arguments that purport to explain why they’re being screwed.

Antitrust is a protean issue. It can channel many different types of fears and at least theoretically respond to many different kinds of problems. Whether it can do so effectively, and whether antitrust is the right tool for the job, is a different question. In my next post I’ll try to unpack some of those different problems, why they’re now being linked together under the umbrella of “antitrust,” and draw on some antitrust history to think about what current efforts mean.

Written by epopp

August 1, 2017 at 1:51 pm

contemporary vs. classic social theory: another bogus teaching distinction

A while back, I was telling a friend on the phone about my book, Theory for the Working Sociologist. He asked me about it and I said, “it’s social theory but illustrated with modern research.” He then said, “oh, that could be a book for a contemporary theory theory course.” I mumbled, “sure,” but soon as we were done, I was like, “no, that’s not right.”

In this post, I want to explain why I don’t buy into the “classic v. contemporary” distinction in theory. Let’s start with a statement of what I do and do not argue:

  •  Claim: Breaking up social theory courses into “classic” and “contemporary” is not a great way to teach. It misleads people about the basic nature of sociology and it is not an optimal way to teach *average* undergrads and grad students about how sociology works,
  • Do not claim the following: Sociology/social theory has no historical phases. A historical treatment of theory has no value. The humanities (e.g., close readings of classic texts) has no place in sociology.  Older texts have no value. I reject these claims.

Let me lay out the argument in a number of steps:

  1. The purpose of a social theory course is to teach undergraduates and beginning graduate students “theory,” by which I mean some set of broad applicable ideas that relate to the empirical investigation of society.
  2. The history of social theory and social theory are different things. History of thought is about understanding specific ideas and texts in relation to the biographies of authors and their institutional and historical context. Social theory is a body of thought that motivates thinking throughout sociology. Overlapping? Sure. But theory and history are distinct. For example, a wrong idea can be important for history of thought, but now irrelevant for theory.
  3. Advanced students can learn social theory in any format (historical, mathematical, sign language, you name it!). *Average* students, at the B.A. and Ph.D. level, are confused by historical approaches. By teaching theory in a historical format, most students take away the lesson that “theory” is synonymous with “history.” Nice to know, but not relevant to research.
  4. Historical approaches to theory are sup-optimal for learning because older texts tend to be written in a highly verbose fashion and refer to a lot of things that even modern educated people may not know about. Example: In Weber’s description of bureaucracy, he alludes to Bakunin, the Russian anarchist, as a foil. Just explaining that single reference to undergrads took me about 20 minutes. Now imagine doing that for all of Weber’s references!
  5. Finally, historical approaches make it hard for typical students to transfer what they learned in theory class to another class, and thus undermine the entire purpose of theory class!

Also, I’d add that no other discipline, except philosophy, teaches its core theory in a historical classic/contemporary format. Economists teach it in terms of scope conditions – micro an macro-economic theory. In political science, it is also broken down by topic (“American politics”) – only the political philosophers (“theory” in poli sci) do it by time period, E.g., classic political theory (Greeks) vs. modern (1500 and beyond). Literary theory (“criticism”) gets its own course while historical groupings are used for specific subjects (“early American novels”). Theories of art courses are different than art history courses. The physical sciences pretty much separate all historical scholarship into a few highly specialized courses. You learn proof writing in math either in a proof writing course or in real analysis, which is the modern theory of calculus. The history of math is its own course. The same goes for physics – you learn physical theory (stripped of history) in classical mechanics (not time period – classic means stemming from Newton’s laws; classical mechanics is still a real area of physics) and quantum mechanics. If you really want mechanics the way Newton did it, you can take a course in that. But no one pretends it is teaching you how to do physics in general. You get the modern, better presentation in your basic physics course.

I think that the classical/contemporary approach to teaching theory comes from a desire to be an old style humanist. I suppose there is nothing wrong that. But for most students, this is an incredibly inefficient and misleading way to teach theory. Even if they do learn some of it in your class, I guarantee many will forget everything you said once grades are submitted. Instead, boil down sociology’s main arguments, illustrate them with modern research and move on. If you want to assign my book, that would be great. If not, that’s ok. Just teach social theory, not history.

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

Written by fabiorojas

June 7, 2017 at 12:01 am

granovetter book forum 3: critiques and the future of economic sociology

In this final post on Society and Economy, I’ll discuss critical points with Granovetter’s text. Please read my previous posts for the overview and what I liked about it.

First, let me start with a strange criticism. As I was reading this book, I just kept nodding my head in agreement too many times. Why? Because Granovetter is the central scholar in economic sociology. Reading a book that synthesizes decades of his work was like re-reading the field’s greatest hits. This really feels like (in a good way) reading a book that digs up all of the stuff in my qualifying exam reading list and presents it in a beautiful package. In principle, that’s not a bad thing. But in terms of producing a forward looking text as opposed to a valedictory statement, it’s some what of a limit. If we all agree on these points, then the tension of the book is gone.

This leads me to a second point. I think Granovetter missed a real opportunity here for generating some tension and excitement. Like a lot of sociologists, he is stuck arguing against economics circa 1990. Back then, economics was “full imperialist.” At that point in time, economists tried to turn all studies of human behavior into applied micro-economics and they did so in a way that underplayed, ignored, or mis-interpreted the social dimensions of behavior. In a few words, economists just didn’t think the issues that Granovtter champions were legitimate.

That era is gone. I am not claiming that economics has “come to Jesus” and begun to love sociology. Far from it. But they have moved in interesting directions. For example, some have taken institutions (in Granovetter’s sense) very seriously, such as Daron Acemoglu. Others, have directly tried to model sociological processes, such as Akerlof’s theory of identity. Heck, there’s even an economist who has done economic modelling of “presentation of self” in the context of sex work. In other words, economists still revile sociologists, but they’ve done some interesting sociological work anyway. It would have been interesting to see Granovetter absorb and respond to that work.

This leads me to a bigger sin of economic sociology, though it is not exclusive to Granovetter. Society and Economy does not directly engage with a lot of economic literature. One of my long standing criticisms of economic sociology in general is that scholars in the field do not actually delve deeply into the economic literature. For example, in an old review article, I argued that population ecology/organizational demography essentially duplicated a lot of standard arguments in industrial organization theory.

Here’s an example from Society and Economy. Perhaps the leading economist who writes on institutions as a predictor of a nation’s economic performance is Daron Acemoglu. So you would think that Granovetter would compare his approach/the economic sociology approach to what Acemoglu and his collaborators have done. Perhaps Acemoglu’s work supports Granovetter, maybe it doesn’t. Yet, not a single citation to that massive literature. This is not to say that Society and Economy is totally disengaged from economic writing. Rather, the engage is selective and a more direct assessment would have been enormously useful.

I’ve been critical in this final installment. That’s ok. Granovetter’s work is massive and influential. My jabs won’t diminish that obvious fact. But what I do hope is that the few folks who’ve made it to the end of this review push the field in some new directions.

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

Written by fabiorojas

June 1, 2017 at 12:01 am

is ethnography the most policy-relevant sociology?

The New York Times – the Upshot, no less – is feeling the love for sociology today. Which is great. Neil Irwin suggests that sociologists have a lot to say about the current state of affairs in the U.S., and perhaps might merit a little more attention relative to you-know-who.

Irwin emphasizes sociologists’ understanding “how tied up work is with a sense of purpose and identity,” quotes Michèle Lamont and Herb Gans, and mentions the work of Ofer Sharone, Jennifer Silva, and Matt Desmond.

Which all reinforces something I’ve been thinking about for a while—that ethnography, that often-maligned, inadequately scientific method—is the sociology most likely to break through to policymakers and the larger public. Besides Evicted, what other sociologists have made it into the consciousness of policy types in the last couple of years? Of the four who immediately pop to mind—Kathy Edin, Alice Goffman, Arlie Hochschild and Sara Goldrick-Rab—three are ethnographers.

I think there are a couple reasons for this. One is that as applied microeconomics has moved more and more into the traditional territory of quantitative sociology, it has created a knowledge base that is weirdly parallel to sociology, but not in very direct communication with it, because economists tend to discount work that isn’t produced by economics.

And that knowledge base is much more tapped into policy conversations because the status of economics and a long history of preexisting links between economics and government. So if anything I think the Raj Chettys of the world—who, to be clear, are doing work that is incredibly interesting—probably make it harder for quantitative sociology to get attention.

But it’s not just quantitative sociology’s inability to be heard that comes into play. It’s also the positive attraction of ethnography. Ethnography gives us stories—often causal stories, about the effects of landlord-tenant law or the fraying safety net or welfare reform or unemployment policy—and puts human flesh on statistics. And those stories about how social circumstances or policy changes lead people to behave in particular, understandable ways, can change people’s thinking.

Indeed, Robert Shiller’s presidential address at the AEA this year argued for “narrative economics”—that narratives about the world have huge economic effects. Of course, his recommendation was that economists use epidemiological models to study the spread of narratives, which to my mind kind of misses the point, but still.

The risk, I suppose, is that readers will overgeneralize from ethnography, when that’s not what it’s meant for. They read Evicted, find it compelling, and come up with solutions to the problems of low-income Milwaukeeans that don’t work, because they’re based on evidence from a couple of communities in a single city.

But I’m honestly not too worried about that. The more likely impact, I think, is that people realize “hey, eviction is a really important piece of the poverty problem” and give it attention as an issue. And lots of quantitative folks, including both sociologists and economists, will take that insight and run with it and collect and analyze new data on housing—advancing the larger conversation.

At least that’s what I hope. In the current moment all of this may be moot, as evidence-based social policy seems to be mostly a bludgeoning device. But that’s a topic for another post.


Written by epopp

March 17, 2017 at 2:04 pm

the antitrust equilibrium and three pathways to policy change

Antitrust is one of the classic topics in economic sociology. Fligstein’s The Transformation of Corporate Control and Dobbin’s Forging Industrial Policy both dealt with how the rules that govern economic life are created. But with some exceptions, it hasn’t received a lot of attention in the last decade in econ soc.

In fact, antitrust hasn’t been on the public radar that much at all. After the Microsoft case was settled in 2001, antitrust policy just hasn’t thrown up a lot of issues that have gotten wide public attention, beyond maybe griping about airline mergers.

But in the last year or so, it seems like popular interest in antitrust is starting to bubble up again.

Just in the last few months, there have been several widely circulated pieces on antitrust policy. Washington Monthly, the Atlantic, ProPublica (twice), the American Prospect—all these have criticized existing antitrust policy and argued for strengthening it.

This is timely for me, because I’ve also been studying antitrust. As a policy domain that is both heavily technocratic and heavily influenced by economists, it’s a great place to think about the role of economics in public policy.

Yesterday I put a draft paper up on SocArXiv on the changing role of economics in antitrust policy. The 1970s saw a big reversal in antitrust, when we went from a regime that was highly skeptical of mergers and all sorts of restraints on trade to one that saw them as generally efficiency-promoting and beneficial for consumers. At the same time, the influence of economics in antitrust policy increased dramatically.

But while these two development are definitely related—there was a close affinity between the Chicago School and the relaxed antitrust policy of the Reagan administration, for example—there’s no simple relationship here: economists’ influence began to increase at a time when they were more favorable to antitrust intervention, and after the 1980s most economists rejected the strongest Chicago arguments.

I might write about the sociology part of the paper later, but in this post I just want to touch on the question of what this history implies about the present moment and the possibility of change in antitrust policy.

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by epopp

January 9, 2017 at 6:51 pm

the not-so-new institutionalism

The “new” institutional theory isn’t so new anymore. Anyone trained in organizational theory post-1990s will recognize the brand of institutionalism popularized by people like Woody Powell, Paul DiMaggio, John Meyer, and Dick Scott as a healthy part of the status quo. In fact, it has become such a dominant perspective in org. theory circles that new students might mistake the entire field as being about institutional theory. Concepts like institutional logics, institutional work, institutional entrepreneurship, or institutional [insert term here] are common tools of the trade. All of this is to say that institutional theory isn’t so revolutionary anymore.

A few years ago Fabio wrote a post in which he wondered if we’ve reached the end of institutionalism.

Around 2004 or so, I felt that we were “done” with institutionalism as it was developed from Stinchcombe (1965) to Fligstein (2000). My view was that once you focused on the organizational environment and produced a zillion diffusion studies, there were only so many extra topics to deal with.

In one sense Fabio was clearly wrong about institutional theory being finished. If you pick up any management journal, you’ll find lots of references to the classics of institutional theory. The average issue of AMJ or Org. Studies or Org. Science might have one or two papers with”institutional” in the title or abstract. Even if Fabio was right that we’ve reached a theoretical cul-de-sac with few escape routes, it seems to be a wide lane in which many empirical cars can do circles.

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by brayden king

January 2, 2017 at 6:20 pm

black mirror’s nosedive episode; also sf and social theory

If you don’t already watch Black Mirror, it’s worth checking out, especially now that you get can get every episode on Netflix. It’s a wonderful science fiction/horror anthology, sort of a modern Twilight Zone, but with more of a focus on technology. The first episode of the latest season, Nosedive (see some reviews here and here, but spoilers!) is truly excellent. Bryce Dallas Howard plays a woman, Lacie, who is at once vulnerable and ambitious, smiling with a too-obvious strain at everyone she passes.  She smiles so hard because she’s literally being rated for each interaction. That’s the amazing premise of this episode: a facebook-like app gives everyone an averaged rating of between 1 and 5, and each interaction is a new chance to change your score.

There’s a lot going on there, and a tremendous amount that’s useful for us to think (and teach) with as sociologists.  First, there’s the obvious connection to the current pressure to like (and be liked!) on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other social media platforms.  It’s also important that the main character here is a woman, and that so many of the interactions she has are also with women. The increased emotional labor expected of women (from men, of course, but also from women) is an important sociological insight, and it’s not surprising it’s reproduced online.

Yet what struck me even more about this episode is what it shows—albeit totally obliquely—about the micro-macro link.  The rich and powerful all have very high ratings, and while we never really find out how (surely the rich are sometimes jerks?) we get a sense of it through observing the interaction rituals Lacie goes through everyday. She wants to make sure she gets a 5 as often as possible, and a 5 from someone with a higher rating is weighted heavier.  As such, she has an incentive to give a 5 to everyone with higher status than hers, in the hopes that they’ll reciprocate.  Yet they obviously have less incentive to rate her highly, not least because her rating of them carries less weight in the metrics.

Those differences have real stakes: Lacie is basically “middle class” in that she’s in the low 4s.  Once you start getting less than that, many perks and privileges are taken away from you.  I kept thinking of Erving Goffman and Randall Collins as I watched the show, and also of recent work by people like Julia Ticona and Sherry Turkle. Which is to say: there’s a lot there, and I’d be interested in people’s thoughts.

Along those lines, it’s worth thinking about how science fiction as a genre provides great heuristics that push to 11 things that are already happening: in this case, what if everyone was rated on a 1 to 5 scale? What’s great about that is how similar it is to a certain way of thinking about social theory.  A good social theory simplifies a lot of complex social noise into an argument: religion is like opium, say, or cultural reproduction is like the accumulation of economic capital. Much like the science fiction premises, these don’t work in every context, but they can be very helpful ways to think about the world.

Written by jeffguhin

October 23, 2016 at 12:36 am

the mind blowing achievement of john hattie – or, we know how to run schools

We often act as if running a school is a mysterious thing. It’s not. There have been thousands of studies looking at every sort of education policy. John Hattie is an educational researcher in Australia who took the time to collect data from thousands of studies and do a meta-meta analysis to figure out what works.

He has a number of books and articles that summarize his findings. Below, I have included a diagram where he standardizes the effects of 195 factors that might affect achievement and ranks them. Major take home points. Here is what predicts achievement in a big way:

  • Prior performance – by far, the biggest predictor of future achievements are estimates of past work (#1 teacher assessment, #3 self reported grades).
  • Process oriented learning (“Piagetian programs” – don’t focus on outcomes, but on how you get the outcome – #4)
  • Teacher practices aimed at individual students – such as intervening directly disabled pupils (#10, #11), micro-teaching (e.g., one on one interaction with students – #9),  and integrating classroom discussion (#10).

What clearly has a negative effect?

  • Home corporal punishment (#193)
  • Television watching (#192)
  • Summer vacation (#190)
  • Student depression (#195)

What has surprisingly small effects (defined as about .1 or less)?

  • School type – being in a charter school, a single sex school, or learning at a distance (all have nearly zero effects)
  • Mentoring
  • Student diversity
  • Teacher credentials

In other words, the baseline is student ability, which determines who well they do. But you can also get big effects through hands on, processed based, and interactive learning. You should avoid disruptive things, like vacations or television, and the school and teacher credentials don’t get you much.

Thank you, John Hattie.

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

Hattie rank below:

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by fabiorojas

September 12, 2016 at 12:01 am

a history of “command and control”, or, thomas schelling is behind every door

I’m working on a paper about the regulatory reform movement of the 1970s. If you’ve read anything at all about regulation, even the newspaper, you’ve probably heard the term “command and control”.

“Command and control” is a common description for government regulation that prescribes what some actor should do. So, for example, the CAFE standards say that the cars produced by car manufacturers must, on average, have a certain level of fuel efficiency. Or the EPA’s air quality standards say that ozone levels cannot exceed a certain number of parts per billion. Or such regulations may simply forbid some things, like the use of asbestos in many types of products.

This is typically contrasted with incentive-based regulation, or market-based regulation, which doesn’t set an absolute standard but imposes a cost on an undesirable behavior, like carbon taxes, or provides some kind of reward for good (usually meaning efficient) performance, as utility regulators often do.

The phrase “command and control” is commonly used in the academic literature, where it is not explicitly pejorative. Yet it’s kind of a loaded term. Who wants to be “commanded” and “controlled”?

So as I started working on this paper, I became more and more curious about the phrase, which only seemed to date back to the late 1970s, as the deregulatory movement really got rolling. Before that, it was a military term.

To the extent that I had thought about it at all, I assumed it was a clever framing coined by some group like the American Enterprise Institute that wanted to draw attention to regulation as a form of government overreach.

So I asked Susana Muñiz Moreno, a terrific graduate student working on policy expertise in Mexico, to look into it. She found newspaper references starting in 1977, when the New York Times references CEA chair Charles Schultze’s argument that “the current ‘command-and-control’ approach to social goals, which establishes specific standards to be met and polices compliance with each standard, is not only inefficient ‘but productive of far more intrusive government than is necessary.’”


From the Aug. 21, 1977 edition of the New York Times

And sure enough, Schultze’s influential book of that year, The Private Use of Public Interest, uses the phrase a number of times. Which makes sense, as Schultze was instrumental in advancing regulatory reform and plays a key role in my story. But he’s clearly not the AEI type I would have imagined coining such a phrase—before becoming Carter’s CEA chair Schultze was at Brookings, and before that he was LBJ’s budget director.

Nevertheless, given Schultze’s influence and the lack of earlier media use of the term, I figured he probably came up with it and it took off from there.

But I started poking around Google Scholar, mostly because I wondered if some more small-government-oriented reformer of regulation had been using it prior to Schultze. I thought James C. Miller III might be a possibility.

I didn’t find any early uses of the term from Miller, but you know what I did find? An obscure book chapter called “Command and Control” written by Thomas Schelling in 1974.

Sociologists probably best know Schelling from his 1978 book, Micromotives and Macrobehavior, and its tipping point model, which shows how the decisions of agents who prefer that even a relatively small proportion of their neighbors be like them (read: of the same race) can quickly lead to a highly segregated space. Its insights are regularly referenced in the literature on neighborhoods and segregation.

(If you haven’t seen it, you should totally check out this brilliant visualization of the model, “Parable of the Polygons”.)


Economists know him for a broader range of game theoretic work on decision-making and strategy—work that was recognized in 2005 with a Nobel Prize.

Anyway, I just checked out the chapter—and I’m pretty sure this is the original source. Like most of Schelling’s work, it’s written in crystal-clear prose. The chapter itself is only secondarily about government regulation; it’s is in an edited book about the social responsibility of the corporation. It hasn’t been cited often—29 times on Google Scholar, often in the context of business ethics.

Schelling muses on the difficulty of enforcing some behavioral change—like making taxi passengers fasten their seat belts—even for the head of a firm, and considers how organizations try to accomplish such goals: for example, by supporting government requirements that might be more effective than their own policing efforts.

It’s a wandering but fascinating reflection, with a Carnegie-School feel to it. And the “command and control” of the title doesn’t refer to government regulation, but to the difficulties faced by organizational leaders who are trying to command and control.

In fact, if I didn’t know the context I’d think this was a completely coincidental use of the phrase. But the volume, Social Responsibility and the Business Predicament, is part of the same Brookings series, “Studies in the Regulation of Economic Activity,” that published Schultze’s lectures in 1977, and which catalyzed a network of economists studying regulation in the early 1970s.

So while Schultze adapts the phrase for his own needs, and it’s possible that he could have borrowed the military phrase directly, my strong hunch is that he is lifting it from Schelling. Which actually fits my larger story—which highlights how the deregulatory movement built on the work of McNamara’s whiz kids from RAND, a community Schelling was an integral part of—quite well.

I can’t resist ending with one other contribution Schelling made to the use of economics in policy beyond his strategy work: the 1968 essay, “The Life You Save May Be Your Own.” (He was good with titles—this one was borrowed from a Flannery O’Connor story.) This introduced the willingness-to-pay concept as a way to value life—the idea that one could calculate how much people valued their own lives based on how much they had to be paid in order to accept very small risks of death. Controversial at the time, the proposal eventually became the main method policymakers used to place a monetary value on life.

Thomas Schelling. He really got around.

Written by epopp

June 8, 2016 at 3:05 pm

a theory of race and racism – more comments on an article by tanya golash-boza

Last week, we discussed an article by Tanya Golash-Boza that discusses the state of race theory. Her points are simple -despite claims to the contrary, sociology has developed a theory of race. Today, we’ll discuss the theory of race as Tanya sees it. You can read the article here.

Her argument is that modern theories of race focus on two mutually constituting processes: “racist structures” and “racist ideologies.” Behavioral patterns and individual actions lead to racist structures. Simultaneously, there are belief systems that are expressed in attitudes and prejudices. These two social processes affect each other:

Racist ideologies lead to controlling images, discourses of hegemonic whiteness, and racialized identities, which in turn lead to racist practices on the micro and macro level, which themselves reinforce racial identities and discourses. These structures and ideologies thus reproduce one another in a dialectical manner. One clear empirical example of the articulation between ideology and structure comes from the work of Wendy Leo Moore (2008: 27) who argues that ideologies of white supremacy and a history of racial oppression work together to produce “white institutional spaces” in elite white schools. For Moore (2008), law schools are white institutional spaces both because of the fact that the upper administration is (and has always been) primarily white and because of how discourses about whiteness and the law are disseminated within the law school.

This strikes me as a Giddens style structuration argument. It is important to understand that ideas and structures affect each other and neither comes first, just as individual agency and social structure depend on each other.

Another big part of Tanya’s article is the explicit integration of intersectionality theory, which is another big them in modern analyses of race:

At a certain level of abstraction, we can talk about racist ideologies and structures without mentioning class or gender. As Barbara Risman (2004: 444) argues, “Each structure of inequality exists on its own yet coexists with every other structure of inequality.” In this sense, we can think of Figure 1, which laid out the theoretical framework for this essay, as one pillar of oppression, with similar pillars of gender and class oppression having their own frameworks yet working in conjunction with structures and ideologies of racial oppression. This is similar to arguments made by Omi and Winant (2015: 106) that “race is a master category” and that race, class, and gender oppression are produced in tandem. Nevertheless, once we move beyond abstractions and begin to think about lived experiences, an intersectional framework becomes necessary. The racist discourses that circulate about black men and black women are distinct, and therefore lead to distinct acts of individual and institutional racism. For example, the discourse of black men as dangerous leads to white women crossing the street when they see a black man approaching and also leads to police officers shooting black boys like Tamir Rice for holding a toy gun. The typical white reaction to black women is not marked by the same kind or level of fear. Similarly, the barriers that black women and black men face in employment are not the same and an examination of these barriers requires an intersectional framework (Wingfield 2012).

In my view, the synthesis offered in this articles captures a lot of the key concepts in modern race theory – race is a social construction; it is institutionalized; it informs attitudes; people, policies, and organizations become racialized; race is enacted in popular medial; the ideological and structural features of race are integrated; and race is a social process that depends on other classifications of people such as gender and class.

On Friday, we’ll review the theory in Emirbayer and Desmond’s The Racial Order to identify commonalities and differences.

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

Written by fabiorojas

May 5, 2016 at 12:01 am

advice for black student movements today

I recently had a long discussion with a journalist about the current state of black student activism and we spent a lot of time thinking about what can be learned from the past. I started with two major points:

  • Have specific and achievable demands. One of the big lessons of movement research is that you need to present ideas that make sense within the institutional context of the protest. Hire more minority faculty? Achievable. End all micro-aggression? Not achievable.
  • Clearly link protest tactics to outcomes. A lot of protest is highly expressive and it is not clear how it is linked to some concrete social change. One of the brilliant tactics employed by the students at Missouri was having football players boycott an NCAA game. The penalty was $1 million per game. The protest mattered.

Then, we got into more subtle issues:

  • When possible, student activists should be deeply involved in activism off campus. In my study of the Third World Strike, I was deeply impressed with how much help campus activists got not only from “protest groups” (like the Oakland based Black Panthers) but also from religious leaders, attorneys, and politicians.
  • Learn to cultivate alliances with institutional insiders. In my book on Black student protest and Black studies, I discuss numerous instances where students relied on deans, consultants, and lawyers to help push their case.
  • Know when to fight and when to compromise. Assuming that one has a well planned protest, there may be a point when you can get something. Social change is not about eternal fighting, it’s also about knowing when to claim a victory and get something.

Feel free to use the comments to discuss more lessons from research for activists.

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

Written by fabiorojas

April 11, 2016 at 12:01 am

performativity in engineering: the case of moore’s law

Econtalk recently interviewed Richard Jones, a physicist who is a critic of transhumanism. In this interesting discussion, he makes the argument that Moore’s law was an example of performativity.

He uses the terminology of the self-fulfilling prophecy but his discussion is much closer to performativity. Basically, he, correctly, notes that Moore’s law is not a physical law. Microchips will not become faster by themselves. They only become faster because of the time and effort invested in them.

And why does this happen? The public discussion of Moore’s law, according to Jones. I am not knowledgeable in engineering to know if public discussion of Moore’s law did in fact drive chip development, but the point is well taken. At the very least, a belief in consistent improvement actually led to a real improvement by providing incentives.

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

Written by fabiorojas

April 8, 2016 at 12:01 am

how to handle great uncertainty – pursuing a masters or PhD

Here on orgtheory, we’ve discussed the many steps of the grad school process and beyond.  One of the most difficult parts is deciding on the first step, whether to attend a program for a masters or PhD.  The anthology Should I Go To Grad School?: 41 Answers to An Impossible Question offers 41 other perspectives on this, from those who entered programs to those who decided on alternative ventures to get what they wanted.

Duncan Watts is one of the authors of the personal essays, a version of which is excerpted here.  In his essay, Watts describes his original trajectory, starting with his service in the Australian military and realizing his drive to learn more about chaos theory.  After being rejected by Oxford but accepted by Cornell, he decided to leave for the US and to enter the great unknown:

I was only 22 at the time, still young enough to make major life decisions without thinking too much about them. But as I hugged my sister and my best friend good-bye that day at the airport, the enormity of what I was doing finally hit me. I’m a big guy — 6-foot-2 and more than 200 pounds — and I thought I’d been through some tough moments during my years in the Navy, but this was more than I had bargained for. I broke down and cried like a baby, right there in front of hundreds of people in the passport line. I remember feeling horribly embarrassed, but I couldn’t help it. I was leaving my whole life behind and I had no idea where I was going, how long I was going for, or what I would do when I got there.

He candidly describes the alienation of graduate school and questioning his decision to pursue a PhD, especially upon realizing that the faculty he wanted to work with had departed for elsewhere:

So here I was in a strange place with no friends, taking courses I didn’t like and teaching courses I didn’t understand, feeling totally overwhelmed and wondering how I had managed to misjudge things so badly. The only reason I didn’t head straight back home was sheer stubbornness and pride.

Luckily for Watts, finding a kindred spirit in a new, young faculty member, who soon became his adviser, was a turning point in his graduate school trajectory.

At the end, he offers three suggestions.  The first of which concerns maintaining a “glass-half-full” outlook and getting the most out of the university’s offerings, including crossing disciplinary boundaries:

First, try to be positive. Grad school may be a time of great uncertainty about the future, but it is also a time when in the present you don’t have a whole lot of responsibility, you do have a lot of time to think and learn, and you are surrounded by an incredible depth and diversity of knowledge. There were academic programs at Cornell that I’d never even heard of until I got there, and once I got my feet on the ground, I started auditing classes in completely unrelated programs, such as philosophy and political science, just because I could. …

The second suggestion is about finding a supportive mentor who can help develop “a life of the mind”:

Second, find the right adviser. Unless you meet your future spouse in grad school (which actually is not all that unlikely), the single most important relationship you are likely to have is with your adviser. So it’s important, both to your success and even more so to your happiness, to find an adviser who is a good fit for your needs. In part that means that he or she knows enough about your intended field to guide your research. But learning how to do good research is about more than just mastering certain skills or domains of knowledge. It’s also about learning how to ask an interesting question, which after a lifetime of answering questions that have been handed to you suddenly requires you to think in a whole new way. You’re going to need some help with that.

Watts’ third suggestion is finding one’s drive through research questions:

And finally, find your question. The best piece of advice that Steve [Watts’ adviser] ever gave me was that I would know I had found my question when I found myself unable to articulate why it was so interesting to me. That I could go over all the usual reasons (interesting math, practical applications, etc.), but in the end it would be something else, something that — as Steve’s mentor, the great mathematical biologist Art Winfree, told Steve — “irrationally grips you by the imagination.” …

Many of us have similar stories of the ups and downs of navigating the academy, with long quests that are not readily apparent in our official bios.   However, most of us don’t have the same trajectory as Watts – in fact, Watts describes the role of chance in getting his co-authored paper into Nature, followed by a tenured position at Columbia, and he explicitly warns that aspirants only see the “winners” in a winner-take-all system:

…the odds of having a wildly successful academic career after going to grad school are about the same as the odds of becoming a movie star after studying acting. This reality is one of those obvious numerical facts that somehow many ambitious students miss until it’s too late. Because you spend most of your academic career studying the ideas of famous people and reading highly cited papers, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that those are the norm, when in fact the overwhelming majority of papers receive very few citations and don’t end up in anyone’s curriculum.

This cautionary note seems to suggest that academics will have to value various outcomes (for instance, an academic career with more effort spent on teaching and mentoring students?  working with the community?) – or decide whether the uncertainty is too great to bear and pursue another path.

Written by katherinechen

March 10, 2016 at 5:42 pm

Posted in academia, books