Search Results

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

economists accept performativity theory

Written by fabiorojas

May 1, 2013 at 12:07 am

Posted in economics, fabio, the man

performativity in economic sociology by shreeharsh kelkar

In response to Kieran and Ezra’s posts, Shreeharsh Kelkar of MIT’s Program in History, Anthropology and STS wrote a lengthy post about the nature of performativity arguments. A representative clip:

To put in yet another way, the difference between constructivists and realists is over the issue of prediction, and in particular over the issue of long-term prediction.  Short-term predictions are possible for both the realist and the constructivist.  But long-term predictions, say, about housing prices or computer prices 50 years from now, will be more difficult for constructivists to make than realists.  It is difficult only because even objective factors that determine prices can be changed by long-term cultural work; and this cultural work is impossible to predict.  The more confident you are about prediction, you shift to the realism side of the spectrum.  The less confident about prediction you are, will make you more of a constructivist.

And this explains, finally, some of the arguments that have been happening in the Orgtheory comment threads.  Would you like your regulator to be a realist or a constructivist?  Realists argue that even the existence of regulators is premised on realism; for if there were no objective factors constraining social facts (like prices) then how would one even begin to regulate something in the first place?  I would disagree.  I think it depends on the time-frame that the regulator is supposed to regulate.  A regulator who is thinking about the future 50 years from now is simply deceiving himself or herself.  For a regulator who is thinking 5 or 10 years down the line: it simply doesn’t matter whether he is a realist or a constructivist.

Check it out.

Adverts: From Black Power/Grad Skool Rulz 

Written by fabiorojas

February 2, 2013 at 12:13 am

two performativity questions

These questions came up during orgtheory training last week. I did not have good answers:

  1. A lot of performativity research focuses on stock options, less on futures. Why?
  2. Are there good studies of performativity of theory that aren’t about the economic profession?

My lame  answers: 1. Everyone is taught Black-Scholes first, but no reason performativity theory couldn’t be applied in other types of markets, 2. economics is the most influential intellectual group that has a theory of social behavior that is inaccurate (which makes performativity possible) . Post your answers in the comments.

Adverts: From Black Power/Grad Skool Rulz

Written by fabiorojas

April 17, 2012 at 12:02 am

the performativity of networks

Prompted in part by some conversations at the ASA meetings, in part by Gabriel’s discussion of the Social Structures author-meets-critics session, and in part by some gentle prodding from Cosma Shalizi, here’s a current draft of a paper of mine, The Performativity of Networks, that I’ve been sitting on for rather too long. Here’s the abstract:

The “performativity thesis” is the claim that parts of contemporary economics and finance, when carried out into the world by professionals and popularizers, reformat and reorganize the phenomena they purport to describe, in ways that bring the world into line with theory. Practical technologies, calculative devices and portable algorithms give actors tools to implement particular models of action. I argue that social network analysis is performative in the same sense as the cases studied in this literature. Social network analysis and finance theory are similar in key aspects of their development and effects. For the case of economics, evidence for weaker versions of the performativity thesis in quite good, and the strong formulation is circumstantially supported. Network theory easily meets the evidential threshold for the weaker versions; I offer empirical examples that support the strong (or “Barnesian”) formulation. Whether these parallels are a mark in favor of the thesis or a strike against it is an open question. I argue that the social network technologies and models now being “performed” build out systems of generalized reciprocity, connectivity, and commons-based production. This is in contrast both to an earlier network imagery that emphasized self-interest and entrepreneurial exploitation of structural opportunities, and to the model of action typically considered to be performed by economic technologies.

The usual disclaimers about work-in-progress apply.

Written by Kieran

August 26, 2011 at 10:59 am

performativity of markets and endogeneity

I believe someone on this blog banned the word “performativity” some time ago — but, I’m going to lift the ban for a second and give a quick report on the performativity session at the Academy of Management in Montreal last week.

The session was well attended and good fun.  It involved Fabrizio Ferraro and Daniel Beunza, Yuval Millo, Nicolai Foss and me, and Bruce Kogut.  As I’m sure that the Socializing Finance folks will also give a report,  I’ll just give a quick summary of our presentation.

First, we (this is co-work with Nicolai) discussed some good news (slide #1) about the performativity argument vis-a-vis markets:

  • It attempts to open the black box (construction) of “markets.”
  • Performativity focuses on actors and their subjectivity, along with the specific tools, devices and socio-political machinery of market construction.
  • Often provides rich histories of economic phenomena.

Then the bad news about the performativity of markets argument:

  • Simply: it’s wrong (this was slide #2).

More seriously, one way to perhaps summarize the issue with the performativity argument is that it suffers from a serious endogeneity problem.  Namely, the performativity approach selects a particular model (theory, device, etc) and traces it’s “effect” (diffusion, use) through history, post hoc, without looking at the set of possible models (or devices) that might have been chosen or created.  In fact, performativity assumes that models, a priori, are “arbitrary” and thus ignores (even rejects) the underlying “reasons” for why the particular model (or device etc) has an effect or perhaps is better than feasible alternatives.    So, let me elaborate:

  • The performativity argument mistakes uncertainty for performativity.  In other words, what seemingly looks like performativity is actually the “best efforts” and guesses of actors to understand states of the world or create devices to explain it.  Given this uncertainty it is unfair to simply label this initial work by actors as a performance, though this is precisely what the performativity argument does: it takes imperfect models, developed by informationally-constrained actors, and traces the diffusion, uses and aberrations of these models (the data of performativistas).
  • Put differently, performativity samples on the dependent variable by only focusing on the successful models rather than the set of possible models (or looking at how, given heterogeneity, a particular model emerges).
  • Furthermore, performativity not only dispenses with notions of truth, but also comparative notions such as “better.” According to performativity, there is no way to judge a priori, the truth of models is directly linked with the diffusion or social acceptance of these model, and their self-fulfilling nature.
  • So, performativity, then, essentially confounds social acceptance and diffusion with performance itself without recognizing the rationality and informational constraints of human agents. That’s a problem.
  • Performativity rejects any notions of being (granted, subjectively) able to assess the environment.  To get more concrete — Fabrizio for example talked about how socially responsible investment vehicles (tools, markets, etc) were created, and cited performativity as the explanation.  But clearly the construction of this market is not impervious to an actual, real market opportunity.  Or?  Can any market be performed?
  • The whole counter-performativity notion directly refutes performativity itself.  The performativity argument is self-refuting in several ways.  First, performativity has to logically allow, though doesn’t, for some kind of a priori reality that is being modified by the performance.  Second, if performance is the only act in town, then there is no way for counter-performance to emerge.  For example, the notion of a bubble (well, specifically the “pop” of a bubble) is logically not explainable from a performativity perspective.
  • I have often wondered how the performativity program reflexively sees itself.  So, for example, if, as performativistas say, economists are engaged in an arbitrary performance, what is the performativity program itself doing?  It seems to implicitly take on a rather privileged stance vis-a-vis itself, though this stance (again) is self-refuting given the assumptions that performativity makes about the exercise that others are engaged in.
  • Yuval kept talking about “testable reality” and “prediction” vis-a-vis performativity.  His point, I think, was that social acceptance is the test, but note again that agents are deliberating about the potential uses of a model or device under uncertainty, with feasible alternatives and informational constraints, and that is quite different from performativity.  One can’t simply point at Ptolemy’s geocentric model and tell a performativity story.
  • A final concern is that the performativity of markets/finance argument builds directly on the Edinburgh strong programme of research (and science and technology studies), which fundamentally dispenses with the very notions of science and knowledge (a la Barnes and Bloor: prediction and explanation, reason and rationality are thrown out the door).

OK, that’s my quick laundry list.

Overall, despite my pessimism about performativity argument, I do think that we need additional theorizing and empirical unpacking of the notion of “markets” — something that the performativity program is attempting to do.   There are clearly important processes of social construction going on in markets, and understanding the actors, their subjective assessments and models, influence processes and mechanisms, tools, devices etc seems central for a proper understanding of markets.  So, I’m glad the performativity folks are also addressing these types of issues and are willing to engage in friendly interactions and lively debates.

Written by teppo

August 17, 2010 at 10:44 pm

Posted in markets

ice skating performativity

You be the judge. Theory…

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by fabiorojas

February 16, 2010 at 4:27 am

south park performativity

Happy thanksgiving. Here’s a holiday snack: performativity and critical race theory come together, via Andrew Sullivan.

Written by fabiorojas

November 26, 2009 at 12:25 am

Posted in uncategorized

what can performativity do for you?

Hello Orgtheorists! I am new to blogging but I have been enjoying this blog for a while so I am really excited at the idea of joining your conversations. Thanks to Teppo, Brayden, Kieran, Fabio and Omar for letting me blog here.

I was not planning to start with a long post on the pro and cons of performativity, self-fulfilling prophecies, etc…but after Teppo’s recent post, I couldn’t resist…so here is my 2 cents on this debate.  Going through the comments that followed Teppo’s posting on performativity, and similar debates on orgtheory (here, here, and here), socializing finance, organizations and markets, and old- fashioned journal articles (AJS, AMR, OrgScience), I was struck by the number of different conversations/debates/questions we manage to weave around this one perspective (notice I don’t use the t word). I started listing them and I counted at least eleven major debates:

  1. Realism and Constructionism
  2. Positivism and Interpretivism
  3. Nature and nurture
  4. Materialism and Idealism
  5. Voluntarism and Structuralism
  6. Rationality debate
  7. The debate on economics (and economists): How did economics become the dominant social science? Is economics wrong? Is it evil? Are economists self-interested? Are B-Schools spreading dangerous (economic) theories?
  8. Is the crisis ultimately the failure of Chicago-style economics?  Are economists describing the economy or designing it? Or both?
  9. The Materiality debate: What is the role of technology (and other material artifacts) in the functioning of markets (and organizations)? What is the role of models, formula, in shaping the functioning of markets (and organizations)? Did a formula kill Wall St.?
  10. Do financial incentives in organizations work? When? What are their limits?
  11. Is performativity a theory? How is performativity different from traditional self-fulfilling prophecies? How is it different from institutional theory? Commensuration? Is performativity the future of economic sociology?

I am sure I am missing some of the key debates, and I hope readers will jump in and add to the list of debates and questions that the performativity debate has touched. It feels like performativity has become a sort of Rorschach test for organization theorists, economic sociologists, (few) economists and other social scientists who project on it their worldviews, their knowledge, their biases and enter heated intellectual duels without clear winners. Taken individually, these questions are all interesting and could be treated scientifically but all together they become a hairy mess of (ideological) assumptions, ontological and epistemological positions, methodological preferences, and ultimately the debates generate a déjà-vu feeling that might actually only reinforce our original positions (a classic example of Lee Ross’ biased assimilation).

I wonder if we are not asking too much from performativity?

Debates one through six  have been discussed for centuries and will never be “resolved,” and I personally hope they will never be resolved, because the creative tension between these positions drives theoretical imagination, and, in my opinion, generates more interesting social science (see Abbott’s Chaos of Discipline for a wonderful discussion of this process). Also, why should we expect performativity to provide “the” answer to these debates? Also, why should we expect “one” answer? For instance, among scholars in the performativity arena, I bet that you will find both hard core constructionists-interpretivists, and scholars who would tend more towards a realists-positivists approach (for instace, I don’t consider myself a pure constructionist, but I know Teppo and Nicolai label me as such…), so which one is the “performativity” position?

Critics will point out that the root of these problems is that performativity has not clarified its theoretical mechanisms, defined its scope conditions well enough, and of course, provided enough empirical evidence, so it is easy to poke holes into it. My AMR paper with Jeff Pfeffer and Bob Sutton was, among other things, an attempt to tease out the mechanisms and define the scope conditions of self-fulfilling prophecies. Much of the debate that followed was focused on the polemical qualities of the paper, on whether we like or economists or not (not a very interesting question: of course we do! of course we admire their work! And btw, last night I had dinner with three academic economists, all Princeton PhDs!), rather than its modest attempt to systematize some of the performativity ideas.  Furthermore, not enough good quality empirical work has been published to better articulate the theoretical ideas and test them. The good news is that there is much development on both fronts, and I am optimistic about the future development of these ideas (many orgtheory readers are working on these problems, and this is already a key sign that something is moving!)

At the same time, I don’t think we are ever going to solve many of the debates listed above, and definitely it is not productive to address all of them together. So my suggestion will be to narrow down the scope of the discussions around performativitiy, and to do that,  in my postings here, I will start from a different set of questions from the one Teppo asks. Rather than asking whether performativity is the future of economic sociology, or whether performativity is a good theory (or a theory at all), I would rather ask:

  • Has performativity research been useful in my understanding of organizations and markets?
  • How can perfomativity research inform my own work on organizations and markets?

I believe that these questions might help us identify whether and how performativity is helping us do better social science. I will address these questions in future posts  but for now I would like to get your answers:  What has performativity done for you?

Written by Fabrizio Ferraro

June 4, 2009 at 2:09 pm

performativity: the future of economic sociology?

The performativity literature has been getting lots of attention in organization theory and economic sociology. The performativity argument, essentially, is that theories — well, economic theories have received the brunt of the focus — do not just explain or describe reality but also participate in creating or constructing reality. The strong form of the performativity argument suggests that the ex ante content of theories themselves does not matter: theories could even be false and nonetheless fulfill themselves. Thus theories can, as argued by Callon, be “arbitrary conventions” ex ante. With the content of theories set aside, performativity focuses on the social, political and technological factors that drive outcomes.

Has economic sociology embraced performativity?   I’ve heard some say that the future of the field is strongly wrapped up in the performativity argument.

Now, the performativity argument might appear innocuous enough — certainly it is extremely intriguing — but here are some open questions related to performativity:

  • Is it feasible to completely throw out ex ante judgment related to the content of theories, essentially the scientific apparatus itself? Surely we can make some ex ante judgments about the falsity or truth of statements and theories? Solely focusing on the socio-political-technological machinery does not seem very satisfactory nor convincing.
  • How does the rationality of humans (the ‘performers’) factor into performativity?
  • How does performativity address (real) change and progress?
  • Why does performativity “work” for explaining economics but then the argument is not turned on the performativity program of research itself? In other words, how do performativity researchers somehow step out of the performative water that social science is presumed to be in? How are performativity scholars somehow able to be more “meta” than, say, economists?
  • What are the boundaries for theories fulfilling themselves? If the ex ante content of theories is arbitrary then there seemingly are no boundaries.
  • How are the range of ex ante possible theories accounted for in performativity research? The ex post labeling of theories as performative (which captures a bulk of extant work) and the ex post rationality of performativity scholars is one thing — but seemingly one needs to appropriately specify the constraints (informational and otherwise) and choice sets of the actors involved at the time of the ‘performance.’
  • Really — how do we distinguish between performativity and counter-performativity? What is the difference? Counter-performativity appears to question the whole validity of the perspective.

On the margin, I think the performativity argument has some merit. Sure, yes, we can point to how we, perhaps foolishly, may have adopted certain conventions or theories that in restrospect prove “arbitrary.” But, the full-blown strong version of the performativity argument, that seemingly is the norm in org theory and economic sociology, is quite problematic as it cannot meaningfully address the above questions. That said, undoubtedly there’s lots of opportunity to explore these and other issues in future work — maybe performativity indeed is the future of economic sociology! (Unless it somehow gets counter-performed.)

Written by teppo

June 2, 2009 at 12:17 pm

critical performativity

From the most recent issue of the journal Human Relations, here’s a piece on performativity and management by Spicer, Alvesson and Kärreman.  The piece makes  links between the area of critical management studies (CMS) and performativity.


We argue that critical management studies (CMS) should be conceptualized
as a profoundly performative project. The central task of
CMS should be to actively and pragmatically intervene in specific
debates about management and encourage progressive forms of
management. This involves CMS becoming affirmative, caring,
pragmatic, potential focused, and normative. To do this, we suggest
a range of tactics including affirming ambiguity, working with
mysteries, applied communicative action, exploring heterotopias and
engaging micro-emancipations.

And, here’s another piece by Adler, Forbes and Wilmott summarizing CMS, from the Academy of Management Annals.

Written by teppo

April 4, 2009 at 7:52 pm

Posted in uncategorized

performativity as politics: unlocking economic sociology

Heads up on an upcoming (Oct. 2008) workshop in Toulouse — “performativity as politics: unlocking economic sociology.”

Written by teppo

June 24, 2008 at 10:57 am

Posted in economics, sociology, teppo

Performativity avant la lettre

I just noticed the last paragraph of White’s “Notes on the Constituents of Social Structure” (1965), which we’ve been talking about this week.

Either-or intensities and infinitely sharp criteria of membership have been assumed in defining nets and cats. The realities of social structure are more blurred. The most revealing approach to these realities is through analysis of the validation and legitimation structures and processes which settle issues of existence and intensity of ties and attributes in social systems. One special case are the procedures of social research, which to an increasing extent are being built in as an accepted part of the validation and legitimation procedures in current American society, for better or worse.

Written by Kieran

June 6, 2008 at 8:50 pm

Posted in networks, sociology

the performativity of networks

Written by Kieran

April 1, 2008 at 7:22 pm

Posted in networks

performativity and finance


Yuval Millo sent me a note about an upcoming workshop he is co-organizing with Daniel Beunza at Columbia Business School —- “From Bodies to Black Scholes: A Workshop on Performativity and the Social Studies of Finance.”  Looks very interesting.  And, this is a timely conference as performativity is getting lots of attention in journals and more generally in extant organizational discourse. 

More details about the conference here, or, click below.

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by teppo

February 11, 2008 at 12:25 am

models and reality and performativity?


O&M links to an interesting interview of Eugene Fama.  Here’s a quote from the interview:

Fama: I start my class every year by saying, “These are models. And the reason we call them models is that they’re not 100 percent true. If they were, we would call them reality, not models. They’re simplifications.” But the acid test is, How good are the simplifications for your purposes? And for almost all purposes, market efficiency is a very good approximation. There is very little evidence that money managers can beat the market.

Here’s the rest

[Hmm, thats my second use of “performativity” this week — its just such a versatile tool — I need to lay off.]

Written by teppo

January 23, 2008 at 6:22 pm

Posted in economics, teppo

just theory (and counterperformativity)


We’ve had “just theory” (theory-observation link) discussions here before.  Here’s a related quote by Donald Knuth that I like:

Beware of bugs in the above code; I have only proved it correct, not tried it.

The below picture is from the Stanford Philosophy Encyclopedia entry on thought experiments, by University of Toronto’s James Robert Brown

[Hmm, how would “counterperformativity” work in this case?]

Figure 6

Written by teppo

December 9, 2007 at 2:26 am

Posted in just theory, teppo

performativity and the critique of economics


Glancing through the contributions of this newly released volume on performativity, economics and science studies, I quickly realized that there is an entire performativity “debate” that I had been blissfully unaware of until now. In our previous discussion of performativity, we mostly focused on the coherence and claim to uniqueness and innovativeness of this fuzzy concept. Yet, in the interdisciplinary matrix of “social studies of the economy” the notion that economics does not only describe and represent markets but also “performs” them has led to an entirely different and raucous conflict.

In essence, say critics of Michel Callon’s (1998) version of the story, if the main role of economics is to directly intervene in reality and construct markets in direct interaction with (and direct modification of) human, non-human, textual and socio-technical realities and their interrelationships, and if the primary weakness of older takes on the relationship of the social sciences to economics (such as economic sociology) had been their sole focus on the adequacy (or lack thereof) of economic theories as representational tools, then does that mean that the “critique” of economics is no longer possible and does that imply that we have to accept economics as an all powerful master capable of bending the world to conform to its dictates? Does that mean that an alternative to the “economic worldview” is therefore no longer even possible to imagine?

Anti-Callonistas reject the sole focus of the perfomativists on the all-powerful ability of economics (and economists) to bend reality’s will to conform to its specifications. Instead, they attempt to bring back the social sources of economic magic, and argue that the “construction” and “performance” of markets still requires a good deal of good ol’ fashioned access to political power. Without this, no performance and re-arrangements of human and non-human socio-technical networks is forthcoming.

It seems to me that this debate seems to conflate some important issues. First, there is the question of whether economic theories and economic models are adequate representations of market phenomena in the abstract. After all, while in agreement with Callon, it is true that economists have played a part in the construction of various contemporary markets, this has not always been the case, since as every economic historian would point out, markets as social structures are older than economics as an intellectual pursuit. Thus, pace Callon, I would say that the “critique” of economic theory is still certainly valid when it comes to actually existing historical markets. So that economic theory (and economic history) can certainly be challenged as a representational device in its claim to represent all market phenomena past and present, even those that did not owe their existence to the intervention of economics as a technological bundle and a profession.

Second, there is the conflation of the various senses of performativity and the limits of economic theory. I find the performativity story convincing in the following sense: it is possible–within limits–to refashion, the communicative, relational, cognitive and informational nature of a given social structure so as to move it closer to the simplified market model that economists usually trot out. That is, one can go from an informationally inadequate, cognitively limited, communicatively segmented social structure to one that features actors with the requisite cognitive prostheses, quasi-instantaneous access to information, lower transaction costs etc. that approximates the actors and thin social environment postulated by economic models. You can then “seal off”–in Thompson’s sense–this socio-technical system from environmental disturbances (this usually takes some political doing) and voila you’ve got a (neoclassical) “market.”

However, this will only occur in certain very delimited circumstances, which might explain the reason why the toy case studies that have become Kuhnian exemplars in performativity research (i.e. the partitioning of the FCC spectrum, Norwegian fisheries, the Chicago stock exchange) all kind of “look alike.” The are single-industry cases in which something that was previously uncommodified (waves, futures, fish) became commodified. Yet, I wonder whether the Callonian exhortation that we should stop worrying about economics as a representational device and come to love the utility function would be very useful for those who are interested in “big” market phenomena: those dealing with multi-industry, multi-site (upstream and downstream) arrangements of producers and consumers (the market phenomena that Harrison White is interested in modeling in Markets from Networks for instance) and the systems that are of interest to both industrial economists and organizational ecologists.

When it comes to those type of market phenomena, the study of the “performance” of which cannot be easily fit into the busy schedule of a Parisian anthropologist of science, the representationalist critique of economic sociology is completely justified: economic theory is simply not a good descriptive (or even predictive) device, and economic professionals with their experimental models and computer simulations were not responsible for their construction nor are they currently responsible for their continuing functioning. Those are the markets that get milk to your breakfast table (or Pizza to your dinner table), not the fancy ones that the Parisian folk like to study (they don’t like Pizza), but probably the most important ones nonetheless.

Written by Omar

August 4, 2007 at 1:45 pm

performativity: do economists make markets?


A new edited book (by Donald Mackenzie, Fabian Muniesa, Lucia Siu) published by Princeton University Press further discusses ‘performativity’ (a frequently discussed and mentioned concept here at

Do Economists Make Markets? On the Performativity of Economics (here’s a pdf of the first chapter). More potentially later as one of us runs into a copy.

Update:  Here’s an earlier version of the Callon chapter, which Swedberg calls the “most important statement on performativity” – Callon, M. What does it mean to say that economics is performative?

Written by teppo

July 9, 2007 at 5:11 pm

Posted in books, teppo

YAAP! (Yet Another Adumbration of Performativity!) in the work of Max Weber


This quote comes from an extremely interesting essay by Max Weber entitled “Marginal Utility Theory and ‘The Fundamental Law of Psychophysics'” translated by Louis Schneider for the June 1975 issue of Social Science Quarterly. In the paper, Weber reviews Brentano’s (1908) The Development of Value Theory, and he criticizes Brentano for suggesting that psychological experiments were relevant to establishing the scientific status of marginal utility theory (I guess Weber wouldn’t be a big fan of Neuroeconomics) and he sides with Menger’s view of the purely analytical status of economic generalizations and their autonomy from psychology (for more on the Weber-Austrian connection see Zafirovski 2002).

More interesting is of course Weber’s YAAP:

Yet, the historical peculiarity of the capitalist epoch, and thereby also the significance of marginal utility theory (as of every economic theory of value) for the understanding of this epoch, rests on the circumstances that–while the economic history of some epochs of the past has not without reason been designated as “history of non-economic conditions”–under today’s conditions of existence the approximation of reality to the theoretical propositions of economics has been a constantly increasing one. It is an approximation to reality that has implicated the destiny of ever-wider layers of humanity. And it will hold more and more broadly, as far as our horizons allow us to see (1975: 33, italics in the original).

Written by Omar

May 15, 2007 at 5:40 pm

defending performativity

Written by teppo

February 19, 2007 at 4:50 am

Posted in sociology, teppo

socializing finance blog, and, waiting for performativity to perform


Brayden pointed out a new blog to me today – Socializing Finance: A Blog on the Social Studies of Finance by Daniel Buenza and colleagues. 

Their most recent post – performativity, for or against – resurrects some issues raised in our recent book seminar on MacKenzie’s An Engine, Not a Camera.  After reading the MacKenzie book, along with a host of related published articles, and writing several blog posts, and reading others (including the mega-one), and discussing the arguments with colleagues of various stripes – I am still at a loss as to what performativity is.  I am not losing any sleep over the matter, but, was glad to see the question raised again.

Written by teppo

February 16, 2007 at 6:52 am

Posted in blogs, sociology, teppo

performativity, essentially


There’s a nice discussion essentially about performativity at MarginalRevolution (click here). Below a few relevant quotes from both the post and comments:

Rubinstein: As in the case of a good fable, a good model can have an enormous influence on the real world, not by providing advice or by predicting the future, but rather by influencing culture. Yes, I do think we are simply the tellers of fables, but is that not wonderful?

(The associated paper is an interesting read. Here’s O&M’s Peter Klein on the paper. And, see Rubinstein’s web page for other interesting content.)

Lucas: I’m not sure whether you will take this as a confession or a boast, but we are basically story-tellers, creators of make-believe economic systems.

McCloskey: All models are metaphors, and all metaphors are lies.

*Welcome readers – you can click here to see all the posts related to our recent online seminar about performativity in financial economics.

Written by teppo

December 15, 2006 at 4:27 am

Posted in blogs, research, teppo

mackenzie seminar – why should economic sociologists care about performativity?


I presented a paper in an interesting ASA session a couple of years ago with several people who did qualitative studies of financial markets. I was the lone quantitative oddball. The discussion that followed our presentations drifted to the topic of performativity. As someone who was relatively unfamiliar with the concept, I was intrigued to hear someone in the audience confidently declare that “economic sociology would soon be the study of performativity.” I took the statement as hyperbole but also as a warning that I needed to pay more attention to the work of people like Callon and MacKenzie. If there was going to be a sea change in economic sociology, I wanted to be aware of it.

Perhaps it was due to this moment of (re)definition at the ASA meetings that made me so surprised to read MacKenzie’s own lukewarm ambitions in changing economic sociology. MacKenzie claims in An Engine, Not a Camera that economic sociology is not the target of his scholarship. He makes a point of differentiating his research on financial markets from what is typically done in economic sociology.

This book is plainly not economics…Nor is it economic sociology, at least as traditionally conceived….Economic sociology, for example, has been strong on its emphases on matters such as the embedding of markets in cultures, in politics, and in networks of personal interconnections. It has traditionally been less concerned with the systematic forms of knowledge deployed in markets or with their technological infrastructures…(pg. 25).

This statement seemed strange to me at first reading. If we don’t study the systematic forms of knowledge deployed in markets, then what do economic sociologists study? This has been, in my mind, the point of much economic sociology since Weber. But after taking a few deep breaths, I began to see the purpose behind the comment. It’s not that economic sociology isn’t concerned with various forms of market knowledge (see for example the work of Mitchel Abolafia). Rather, MacKenzie is just trying to orient his topic to a broader audience, who might include but would not be limited to economic sociologists. His broader audience inclues anyone interested in the sociology of science. Thus, limiting the implications to economic sociology is far too narrow.
Still, I felt like MacKenzie downplays the contributions this book makes to economic sociology. If performativity truly will be the organizing concept of economic sociology in the future, then this book will play a pivotal framing role. Let me point out a few ways in which MacKenzie’s work contributes to important discussions occuring elsewhere in our subfield.

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by brayden king

November 13, 2006 at 9:17 pm

Posted in brayden, sociology

SocArXiv highlights for May, education organizations editions

Among the many interesting papers posted to SocArXiv this month, this I’m highlighting four that circle around a loose theme: education organizations. All four this month are not-yet-published drafts, including three working papers and a very interesting dissertation chapter. As always, these are papers that caught my eye but they are not peer-reviewed; read them yourself before citing.

The Performativity of Organizational Culture in a No Excuses Charter School

Jason Radford

Okay, I’ll admit I was grabbed by the title. Love the concept or hate it, we usually associate “performativity” with economics or finance, at least since Donald MacKenzie’s work. But of course the old Thomas theorem—“If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences”—applies to our understanding of the world more generally. So why not the performativity of org theory? Many innovative or experimental organizations are grounded in theories, academic or otherwise, about what accounts for organizational success. In the case at hand, No Excuses charter schools were founded based on a theory that strong leaders could create organizational cultures that would produce educational success for disadvantaged students. This ethnographic case study of one No Excuses school explores how leadership attempted to implement their theory and reacted when the theory did not quite perform in the way it expected.

Engineering a Platform: Constructing Interfaces, Users, Organizational Roles, and the Division of Labor

Shreeharsh Kelkar

This intriguing paper, also ethnographic, reports on the development of edX, a MOOC platform started in 2012 as a nonprofit collaboration between Harvard and MIT. edX began as an educational organization—it saw itself as linking faculty and TAs with software developers and students—but eventually became a platform for other organizations to use, adopting the slogan “We do software so that you can do education.” In the process, edX had to create a new division of labor in which it did software development (internally framed as “boring”), while instructors at partner institutions would do the “interesting” work of content creation. Yet the supposedly neutral role of platform design still had huge pedagogical implications, even as edX came to distinguish what it did as an organization from “education”. The paper concludes by arguing that understanding platforms requires attending not just to “licenses, legal arrangements, and calculative agencies, but also to the shaping of organizational roles within the eco-system.”

The Ties that Corporatize: A Social Network Analysis of University Presidents as Vectors of Higher Education Corporatization

Tressie McMillan Cottom, Sally Hunnicutt, and Jennifer A. Johnson

This new working paper from Cottom and colleagues reports on a social network analysis of a dataset involving the career histories and education of presidents of Association of Public & Land-grant Universities (APLU) members, including a number of HBCUs, and a smaller sample of for-profit institutions. Presidents of predominantly white APLU institutions are tightly networked, while for-profit institutions and HBCUs are marginal to the network; the institutions with the highest degree centrality are Purdue, Michigan, Georgia, North Carolina, and Texas A&M—an observation that makes Purdue’s recent experiments with purchase of the for-profit Kaplan to run its online classes all the more interesting.

Engineering Credentials: Educational Entrepreneurship as Statecraft in the Cold-War United States

Alexander Kindel and Mitchell Stevens

Last but not least, this historical case study of Stanford’s postwar expansion of graduate science and engineering education engages the longstanding “credential society” literature by advocating for greater attention to the role of the state. While credentialing theory gives credit to educational entrepreneurs and the status projects of occupational groups in driving the expansion of credential-producing programs, this paper points to the fundamental role of the state in this process—through massive government patronage that schools like Stanford entrepreneurially tapped into to drive their own credentialing contributions.

This is self-evidently true for the fields that benefited from the federal government’s massive Cold War expansion of science funding, but struck another chord with me as well, as I recently revised a draft chapter on the origins of public policy schools. Policy schools, which only got started in the late 1960s, were themselves an entrepreneurial response on the part of universities to the massive demand for RAND-style analysis produced by federal rollout of the Planning-Programming-Budgeting System in 1965—making them another, very distinct case in which educational entrepreneurship could be better described as academic statecraft.

Okay, that’s it for this round. Maybe now that the semester’s done I’ll find a way to start blogging again, but in the meanwhile, keep those papers coming!

Written by epopp

June 1, 2018 at 12:00 pm

Posted in research

on intellectual humility; also, on how being woke is not like being saved

A few weeks ago, I wrote a series of tweets about an essay I was working on about the similarities of being woke and being saved. I got more of a response via social media than I expected, and so I’ve been thinking about the comparison a lot.  The essay I wound up writing for the Immanent Frame’s series on American religion, humility, and democracy is not really about that: it’s more about the performativity of speech and the ways in which we can sometimes recognize others’ words as coercive even as we see our own as simply corrective, or even descriptive. There’s a lot more to say than what wound up in the essay, of course, including about how many activists are especially aware of the power of language to create worlds, which is precisely why they fight so much about the use of language. Yet even then, sometimes there’s a sense in which X description is just true and Y description is just wrong, in some final sense, rather than simply a different attempt at a way of getting at the world, a more just attempt perhaps, or a better one for any host of reasons, but nonetheless still an attempt that is ultimately contingent. The answer to that might be that we need a kind of “strategic essentialism” to get anything done politically, and that our worlds as activists are different than our worlds as politicians or as writers. And I take the point. Yet even if these are helpful analytic distinctions, they obviously bleed into each other in practice.

This is pretty straightforward poststructuralism of course. The longer version of that essay (I cut half of it, killing my darlings one by one) was more clear on the references to Foucault, Butler, and Austin, but it’s still pretty obvious who I’m drawing from. I had an interesting conversation with a friend about an earlier version of the essay, in which I realized these claims out me as a pretty big moral relativist. As such, I’m not sure any moral claim is *ultimately* descriptive, though I think Gabi Abend and other sociologists of morality do a good job of pulling from Charles Taylor (and others), to show how moral claims can be descriptive (taken for granted, obvious, like calling the sky blue) within certain “moral backgrounds.”  Anyway, I’d be interested in your thoughts.

But that brings me to two other things I wanted to say. First, I’d very much recommend the other essays in the series, which will still have a few more after mine. So far there are really interesting pieces by Anthony Petro, Grace Yukich, Amy Lawton, Ruth Braunstein, Sarah Silva, Richard Wood and Wes Markofski, with a great opening essay on “a crisis of political arrogance” by Ruth Braunstein, Korie Edwards, and Richard Wood:

The lessons these essays offer also matter beyond religious groups, as they shed light more generally on how people overcome political, moral, interpretive, and epistemic disagreements. Although the essays vary significantly in their level of optimism about Americans’ capacity to resolve the issues that currently divide them, they nonetheless offer grounded examples of how a range of groups are trying—sometimes with success—to do so.

I’m excited about the essays, and I think you will be too.

But this leaves my earlier promise to write an essay about how being woke is a lot like being saved. I changed my mind about writing the piece, and it wasn’t just because various religious conservatives have written similar essays already. First, I just don’t think the parallel works: being woke is really just about awareness, and being saved is about the assurance of salvation.

But what if awareness is the key to salvation? People mention gnosticism a lot in reference to certain kinds of contemporary activism, and it’s an interesting comparison. However, I’m still not sure I buy it. Still, some of  those conservative essays do point out interesting parallels, not really between woke and being saved (again: I’m not sure that works) but rather between certain contemporary leftist political practices and certain traditional religious practices. Here’s Joseph Bottum:

But all such old American Christian might-have-beens are unreal in the present world, for someone like Kim Radersma. Mockable, for that matter, and many of her fellow activists today identify Christianity with the history of all that they oppose. She wouldn’t know a theological doctrine or a biblical quotation if she ran into it headlong. And so Radersma now fights racism: the deep racism that lurks unnoticed in our thoughts and in our words and in our hearts.

The better to gird herself for the struggle, she gave up teaching high-school students to attend the Ph.D. program in Critical Whiteness Studies at Ontario’s Brock University. But even such total immersion is not enough to wash away the stain of inherited sin. “I have to every day wake up and acknowledge that I am so deeply embedded with racist thoughts and notions and actions in my body,” she testified to a teachers’ conference on white privilege this spring. “I have to choose every day to do antiracist work and think in an antiracist way.”

That’s an interesting parallel, and, frankly, possibly a genealogical one. It would not be surprising to me if a country with strong Calvinist roots winds up having secular practices with Calvinist sensibilities. Yet my problem with these sorts of stories is the way in which religion (especially Christian religion) functions as a master category.  To say that X behavior is “really” like religion strike me as just not as analytically useful as using Durkheim or other cultural sociologists to look at the practices that help to maintain group boundaries and group identity. Those can parallel religious behavior, but that doesn’t mean they’re *ultimately* religious behavior.

One of my problems with a certain line of argument in both sociology of religion and theology is an insistence that X or Y is a pseudo-religion (see Tillich on ultimate concern or Rahner on anonymous Christianity).  I’m just not sure what that does for us, analytically, and I’m troubled by what it does for us normatively, as it seems to imply that meaningfulness is religion, which is a political move to preserve the role of religion in the modern world without, I think, much analytic payoff. (Talal Asad is obviously excellent on this, especially what liberal religion does for both liberals and religion).

Of course, it all depends on how you define religion, which, at least for sociologists, is not necessarily a helpful project either (or so I claim). But the main problem with the woke/saved comparison is that I worry about the way in which it reinforces a narrative that everyone is ultimately religious. That’s just bullshit, I think. Everyone is ultimately social, and Durkheim (among others) does a great job of showing how religion can help us to understand, maintain, and develop that sociality. But a lot of stuff is like religion because a lot of stuff is involved in being social, and religion is social in a lot of different ways (though even this gets into the problem of the term religion being a huge mess with huge normative implications any way you lay it down.)

So does that mean we should never compare the secular and the religious? Of course not! And I would love, at some point, to add to some of the careful genealogical studies of how certain secular practices in the United States have religious roots. For example, I’m continually fascinated by how much a “coming out story” shares structural similarities with Evangelical narratives of being saved.  But this is then a genealogical story, in much the same way Foucault traces sexual understanding back to confession. It is not a claim that one category is the master category through which the other should be understood. To return to the point of my first paragraph above, it’s worth being careful about how those comparisons are never just descriptive.  Our work, no matter how small, helps make a world as much as it helps make sense of it.

Written by jeffguhin

March 2, 2018 at 1:21 am

Posted in sociology

Tagged with , , , ,

let’s blame econ soc

The future of organizational sociology may be uncertain, but organizational thinking has diffused widely in sociology. Just look at the most recent ASR. (Less so the current AJS, but we can cut them some slack since Fabio coauthored their one organizational piece.)

But how did we get here? In the comments, I suggested one reason. Org theory’s main research programs — institutional theory, networks, field theory, population ecology — aren’t about “organizations” anymore and as productive as those may have been, they don’t encourage the reproduction of “organizations” as a distinct subfield. It turns out Brayden and Teppo wrote a whole article on this with David Whetten — very much worth a read.

There’s another factor, too, though, that I’m surprised hasn’t come up yet: economic sociology. Economic sociology usually dates itself to Mark Granovetter’s 1985 article on embeddedness, but no one called themselves an economic sociologist circa 1990. They were, mostly, org theorists.

(Viviana Zelizer has a great piece that talks about how, to her surprise, she found her work being redefined as economic sociology. Fligstein and Dauter’s 2007 ARS piece made a similar move, calling performativity a branch of economic sociology — which must have come as a shock to Michel Callon.)

The earliest you can reasonably call econ soc a subfield is 1994, when Smelser and Swedberg published the first Handbook. And really, the year 2000, when econ soc became an ASA section-in-formation, is a more appropriate date.

Econ soc channeled a lot of the intellectual energy that had been focused on organizations (broadly speaking) in a slightly different direction. The section’s organizing committee included Nicole Woolsey Biggart, Neil Fligstein, Mark Granovetter, Brian Uzzi, Fernanda Wanderley, and Harrison White. Most ASA sections have grown in the last decade. But OOW has been flat, while Econ Soc has grown by 55%.

One result was that a new generation of students who might have studied organizations instead did econ soc. I took my comp exam in organizations in 2001 partly because no one had ever taken one in econ soc. Two years later, that would not have been the case.

The effect is that many sociologists who would have studied organizations ended up studying econ soc instead. The ones who stayed in orgs were more likely to be B-school oriented and to take jobs outside soc departments, and that means that today there are few younger scholars who seem themselves as primarily organizational sociologists.

Now, maybe this is just how disciplines evolve. I do consider myself an economic sociologist too, and I think the emergence of econ soc has been enormously generative for the discipline. But sociology is not the most cumulative of disciplines. And there is lots of important stuff that is taught in orgs classes but not in econ soc classes. My fear is that we just lose all that stuff as students trained in other, orgs-influenced subfields stop learning it. Then we’ll have to wait another 20 or 30 years for another generation of scholars to “bring the organization back in.”

Written by epopp

May 23, 2014 at 3:32 pm

Posted in academia, sociology

three sociologies of knowledge

I often teach our first year required course on social organization. I usually include a section on constructionism, which means we trot through Berger and Luckman. One of our BGS* got really upset (enthusiastic?) because (a) she was tired of reading the text and (b) she believed that the text reflected a male viewpoint.

In response, I started with a pedagogical explanation. As an introductory course, many students may not have read B&L (I hadn’t until I went to grad school). Also, there is benefit to rereading classic texts. They bear multiple readings.  Then I turned the conversation around, rather than critique B&L, I asked: “What would you do to make this a better piece of theory?”

The discussion went in some positive directions. I’d summarize it as this. The sociology of knowledge in B&L has been modified in a few principal ways:

  • Punctuated equilibrium/Kuhnian theory – the cycle of socialization and knowledge production is a stable cycle of habitualization until you get an event that shifts people to a new equlibrium (in physical science at leas)
  • Reflexivity – people’s position allows them to observe things that other don’t. This is found in feminist sociology and the work of Patricia Hill Collins
  • Foucauldian theory – conflict and resistance disrupt the dominant “episteme,” thus creating subaltern knowledge

It’s unclear to me how performativity works into this. It might be new, or a tweak – stocks of knowledge can be endogenous.

*Brilliant Graduate Student

Adverts: From Black Power/Grad Skool Rulz

Written by fabiorojas

July 29, 2013 at 12:14 am

Posted in fabio, just theory

northwestern phd students

One of the highlights of my visit to Northwestern was a chance to sit in on Paul Hirsch’s “Macro-Organization Behavior” doctoral seminar (well, and the subsequent dinner pictured below – sorry, that was the best shot we were able to get).  Paul’s seminar consists of first and second year students in the organizations and/or sociology PhD programs.   The level of discussion was high – frankly, surprisingly high.  Fantastic students.

Beyond the regular discussion for that day (we read Zajac-Westphal ASR, Davis et al. ASR, Oliver AMR and Thornton-Ocasio AJS — important papers), Paul asked me to send him some recent work of mine.  I was hoping we would get into some issues related to performativity and markets – but Paul had the students read about the Jepperson and Meyer debate.  The classic agency v structure (or, actor v non-actor) debate was a good fit for the seminar.  The discussion was very lively.  We had a great discussion about whether the two sides simply represent extremes, about the history of methodological debates like this (going back to the German Historical School, Weber etc), the practical implications of these debates for understanding social phenomena, questions of “pushing your cookie” versus pluralism, etc, etc.  Great discussion.

As a quick side comment – what is very cool about Northwestern is that everything seems to scream “inter-disciplinarity” of some sort.  Very cool.  The orgs and soc people are extremely well linked, attend each other’s seminars etc, micro and macro folks work together (e.g., Brayden has a recent piece with the notorious Adam G in a psych outlet), you’ve orgs folks like Jeannette Colyvas at the Ed School, and you’ve got fascinating interdisciplinary centers like the one Brian Uzzi co-directs (Nico).

So, bottom line – if you are considering an orgs phd (I know we have a few readers in this boat), then Northwestern better be at the top of your list.  I don’t think you can go wrong there – fantastic scholars and an interdisciplinary, collaborative environment.  Two orgtheory thumbs up.

The photo was taken at the restaurant Prairie Moon.  (Again, sorry about the photo quality – it was the best shot we got, even with my all-powerful 4s.)

Written by teppo

October 27, 2011 at 4:08 am

Posted in education

organizational strategy as a social choice

I’m pretty enamored by many things (including performativity).  One of them is social choice theory.  I think the intuition developed by scholars like Condorcet, Arrow and Sen is fundamental for any social, political or economic setting.  Now, the theory of course does not capture many issues: social influence, the origins of preferences, and more generally, contextual issues.  Some might even say that social choice theory scarcely corresponds with reality.   But I think it nonetheless is a very powerful theory.

What I like about social choice theory is that it fundamentally is about social aggregation.  And one beef I’ve had for some time is the lack of consideration for aggregation-related issues in organization theory (and strategy for that matter).  Now, sure, aggregation isn’t everything – of course contextual/organizational factors and the environment matter.  But there used to be a brand of organization theory that also dealt with questions of aggregation – a portion of the Simon-March line of work was dedicated to this issue.  A nice articulation of a few of the key issues can be found in Jim March’s (1962) classic (and definitely under-cited) Journal of Politics piece “the business firm as a political coalition.”

So, with colleagues I’ve been working on some papers that try to apply and amend social choice intuition in the context of organizations.  In one paper we develop a formal model of organizational strategy as a social choice.  In the model we specifically allow for particular influence structures to condition and shape social choices in organizations. So, ok, this post is a bleg – my colleague (in electrical engineering) and I would like feedback on this particular paper.

If any of the above sounds even vaguely interesting, you can download the short pdf here (or, I also just posted the paper onto SSRN if that is more convenient).  Any feedback would be appreciated.

Written by teppo

October 5, 2011 at 7:54 pm

book spotlight: implications and distinctions by martine syms

It’s a rare book that usefully links Bob Sutton and Jar Jar Binks. Well, that’s what Martine Syms manages to do in “Implications and Distinctions: Format, Content and Context in Contemporary Race Film.” Martine is an artist/curator/generally artsy person in Chicago. I met her at the MDW Fair in April (see my write up here) and she told me she was finishing up a book on Black film. I decided to check it out.

Implications and Distinctions is a short text that falls in the realm of cultural criticism. The theme is how Blackness appears in film as a topic, reference, marker, and audience. It touches on a number of fascinating topics, ranging from the history of Black film to the struggles of black owned theaters in Chicago (which I have been to).

The funnest section is a passage discussing the origins of the “ghetto talk” scene in the movie Airplane! The directors were looking for Black actors to satirize the kind of talk found in film Shaft. Norman Gibbs and Alvin White invented their jive talk for the audition to appeal to the director. Now, ironically, a lot of people probably believe that’s the way that people really talk. Another point for performativity theories.

Implications and Distinctions is a good read for anyone interested in film and race. It’s also a great example of what socially engaged humanities should be. Serious, yet accessible. Finally, in case you were wondering, Sutton is mentioned because of his writing on swearing in the workplace.

Written by fabiorojas

August 17, 2011 at 12:06 am

Posted in books, fabio

universal reality (almost): the case of categories and colors

I’m interested in the nature of reality and particularly the boundaries and scope of the social construction of reality.  I think social construction clearly plays an important role, but the question is, how “strong” is that role?   For example, I think the performativity argument (and associated “strong programme”) pushes the social construction argument way too far.

But let’s get more specific: what role do categories, language and naming play in the construction of reality?

One empirical setting for actually studying this question is the case of color categories and color naming, an active area of research in linguistics, computer science and psychology.  Scholars in this space have looked at whether the extant categories and names of colors of particular languages impact what individuals actually see and remember.  The famous Sapir-Whorf thesis of course argued, broadly, that language, categories and culture strongly determine perception and reality.  But, the color research shows otherwise.  Languages with highly fine-grained distinctions for individual colors, as well as languages with relatively few (or even no!) distinctions and names for color, lead to the same perceptions and experiences of color.  (Check out the citations below to see the clever way in which this is empirically tested.)

Well, almost. Recent work is making some important qualifications to the argument (articulating a middle ground, of sorts, between universality and strong construction), and there clearly is a very active debate in this space.

Here are some links to this literature:

Now, I don’t, by any means, think that the color research necessarily is a knock-down argument against social construction.  But I do think this research definitely questions the “strong” form of construction — I have opportunistically cited and referred to these and other findings to make that point.  And another, perhaps unfair, knockdown argument is that no matter what linguistic categories a color-blind person has, it simply won’t matter in the perception of color.

There is of course much debate in the color literature as well and some of the work points toward a particular, softer form of construction.   And, the color research of course is just one setting, and the findings may not generalize to other settings.  But I do like the fact that the color research actually allows us to more rigorously say some things — with the usual qualifications and questions — about the specific role that language (as well as categories, culture etc) plays in the way we perceive the world.

Written by teppo

January 11, 2011 at 7:50 pm

X-studies and the “trivialization” of disciplinary scholarship

Here’s a very interesting observation that I recently came across:

The history of say, the sociology of nationalism or the sociology of religion might be written a one in which an initial competition between Marxist, Durkheimian and Weberian approaches to nationalism or religion–which were also Marxist, Durkhemian and Weberian approaches to anything else—has gradually given way to internal debates about nationalism or religion among specialists in those areas and the development of in-house “theories of” nationalism or religion.  From there it has sometimes been a short step to the jettisoning of the formal theoretical apparatuses altogether and a readiness to embrace increasingly interdisciplinary inquiries into the phenomenon of nationalism or religion.  Indeed, it is now possible to devote an entire career to one specialist area without worrying too much about the integrity of the [theoretical] tools one deploys to study it.  This sequence–sociological inquiry into X on the basis of established disciplinary procedures, expansion of the discipline by means of the increasing proliferation of specialist areas, development of localized substantive theories within those areas, abandonment of formal theory altogether, and embrace of interdisciplinary methods and the establishment of departments or centers of  “X studies”—was what the German sociologist F. Tenbruck had in mind in his essay on “the law of trivialization” (Turner 2010: 30).

This seems to me to do a good job of intuitively describing the fate of many fields in sociology and their relationship to their more mature “interdisciplinary” cousins.  For instance, there is the sociology of religion, and there are “religious studies.”  There is the sociology of race and ethnicity and there are “race and ethnic studies.”  There is the sociology of gender and there are “gender studies,” (sociology of organizations versus organizational studies?).  This also seems to agree with my impression that the work done under the interdisciplinary banner tends to be a little loosey-goosey, more descriptive and generally less interesting (with exceptions) than its more disciplinary classical or post-classical counterparts.  I wouldn’t go so far as calling this type of work “trivial” but I’d have to agree that there is certainly something of a transformation towards less compelling, more delimited and generally more circumscribed questions as we move along the gradient from classical, to post-classical to interdisciplinary “X-studies.”

Conversely, we can surmise that areas that are successful in partially resisting the move, may keep their original appeal.  I think the recent move towards performativity in economic sociology represents the first attempt to move the field from its postclassical, disciplinary form to a more interdisciplinary format (e.g. “social studies of the economy”; just like Mertonian “sociology of science” was transformed into “social studies of science” during the 1970s and 1980s).  If successful in reorienting the field we can predict that work on social studies of the economy will become less tied to classical or post-classical questions (e.g. Zelizer’s running argument with Marx, Simmel and Weber; Granovetter’s via media between under and over-socialized conceptions of the actor, etc.), more concerned with relatively minute conceptual, epistemological and methodological issues, and more dependent on micro-descriptive case study material.  If unsuccessful, we get to keep economic sociology as it now stands, but it is likely that post-classical “fatigue” will soon set in.

This is already what has happened to much that goes by the name of “organizational studies” in Europe and the U.S. which contrasts sharply with what used to go by name of “the sociology of organizations” along the same dimensions (e.g. circumscription versus ambition, descriptivism versus substantive theory, etc.).  The much ballyhooed “crisis” of organizational theory (which we have devoted some attention to here in the past), may then be recast simply as an abortive transition towards interdisciplinary “trivialization” manifested as (the lingering feeling of) being stuck in an intermediary status quo: neither here (sociology of organizations) nor there (organizational studies).  Organizational theory is in crisis because this type of “theoretical” concern (tethered by an umbilical cord to big or medium-sized classic questions) simply does not fit the organizational studies mold.

Written by Omar

November 2, 2010 at 2:20 pm

Posted in academia, omar

institutionalism and public policy

Two weeks ago, I reviewed Between Movement and Establishment, an institutional analysis of youth advocacy groups. My big complaint was that institutional scholars needed to get up to speed and work on policy. Lots of good work on describing youth advocacy organizations, not enough on the outcomes. So what can institutionalists add to debates over organizational outcomes and policy? A few suggestions:

  1. Institutionalism is pretty useful for coming up with hypotheses about the creation and adoption of policies. The movement/institutional literature has good descriptions of how interest groups affect the policy environment. For example, one hypothesis is that movement generated policies usually have to be watered down to be accepted. Another hypothesis is that policy adoption waves are like management fads. There’s already a decent literature on this in org studies and public policy.
  2. Institutional theory has promise on the issue of implementation. Once the organization adopts policy, how does it get translated into practice? The new research on institutional work I think has promise. You have to consider what organizational leaders do to make something acceptable, or to reframe the rules so that new policy is possible.
  3. Outcomes – here the link is less obvious. One way that institutionalism could contribute is to discuss how culture affects the definition and monitoring of outcomes. Another insight, drawing from our former guest Michael Sauder, is that the ranking/rating of outcomes creates new incentives for organizational behavior, “teaching to the test.” I wonder if there’s an interesting story about how institutional processes change the behavior of people targeted by policy (performativity strikes again!!!!). It’s a stretch, but worth considering.

#1 isn’t bad and #2 is a straight forward application of current institutional theory. Doing #3 for real would be a home run.

Written by fabiorojas

September 27, 2010 at 1:48 am

the montreal experience

Management and organizational scholars of all types are congregating in Montreal this weekend for the Academy of Management meetings. The city has been overrun by nerds like me. Although I’ve only been here once before, I thought Montreal was a great host city. The restaurants are interesting and the city is very walkable. I haven’t spent enough time here though to really know where the cool places to eat are. I’ve been told that Au Pied de Cochon and Eduardo Duluth are worth a try. Any advice from our readers?

As for the Academy experience, as always, there is a lot to choose from. If you’re interested in social movements and organizations I recommend that you attend our session Monday at 3 pm (518B in the Palais de Congres). Or if you’re into a duke-it-out style session, I recommend attending  “Theory, Performativity, and Social Reality,” which is in the same room Monday at 4:45. Teppo, Fabrizio Ferraro, Nicolai Foss,  Bruce Kogut, and Yuval Milo will be exchanging (friendly) blows. Post other session recommendations in the comments.

Written by brayden king

August 6, 2010 at 12:36 pm

Posted in academia, brayden