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how social movement theory and org theory became friends

Klaus Weber and I have a chapter in the forthcoming Oxford Handbook of Sociology, Social Theory, and Organization Studies, in which we discuss the history of the connection (or lack thereof) between social movement theory and organizational theory. In writing the chapter we wanted to go back to the roots of each theory and talk about missed opportunities for intellectual cross-fertilization. Both literatures are, after all, primarily concerned with group behavior, problems of collective action and coordination, and dynamics of stability and change. Why did it take so long for the two theoretical areas to engage one another? (I should note that social movement theory has for some time borrowed ideas from org. theory, but this doesn’t really amount to full engagement in my mind.)

We argue that in the early years of American sociology, social movements and formal organizations were viewed as very distinct phenomena – social movements are irrational and disruptive and formal organizations are rational and stability-inducing – and that this characterization prevented scholars from seeing potential empirical overlap.

Research on both social movements and formal organizations was thus sparked by an interest in how individual behaviour—embedded in traditional family and societal structures as well as self-interests—is transformed in collective contexts. However, the two emerging fields focused on rather different forms of transformation. Social movement theory evolved from a subfield that saw collective action as irrational, spontaneous, emotional, and emergent (Blumer, 1957; Smelser, 1963; Turner & Killian, 1957); whereas organizational theory was largely focused on the rational pursuit of collective goals within the walls of bureaucracy (Crozier, 1964; Gouldner, 1954; Weber, 1947). Moreover, early collective action research saw spontaneous crowd behaviour as disruptive of social order, while organization theorists saw formal organizations as sources of social domination and stability. To the eyes of sociologists at the time, social movements were typically ephemeral, deviant, and potentially destructive (Couch, 1968). Formal organizations, in contrast, were purposefully organized, stability-inducing, and functional. It is no surprise that collective behaviour and organizational scholars in the 1950s and 1960s saw few commonalities.

In doing research for the paper we uncovered a really fascinating quote from a 1959 Social Problems article by Lewis Yablonsky, a sociologist studying gangs as a form of social organization. (Interestingly, before becoming a sociologist, Yablonsky claimed to have grown up on the streets and became a proficient dice and card hustler. Naturally, once he became an academic he gravitated to the study of deviant behavior.) In the article, Yablonsky explicitly compares collective behavior, like crowds and mobs, and formal organizations.

At one extreme, we have a highly organized, cohesive, functioning collection of individuals as members of a sociological group. At the other extreme, we have a mob of individuals characterized by anonymity, disturbed leadership, motivated by emotion, and in some cases representing a destructive collectivity within the inclusive social system. (Yablonsky, 1959: 108)

Yablonsky, a keen observer of social life, came to the conclusion that there are many types of organizations that exist in the middle of this continuum. Yablonsky’s insight, although he meant it to apply specifically to gangs, has since become widely shared by both social movement and organizational scholars. Social movements are much more organized, routinized, and rational than previously thought, but they are still frequently characterized by intense emotions and contagion-like processes. Formal organizations are much less permanent and stable and more emotional than a previous generation of scholars believed, but it is the  existence of routines and collective identity that allow them to resist environmental threats. The more we understand both phenomena, the more we recognize similarities. Pioneers in the field like Mayer Zald and John McCarthy realized this early on and helped make those connections. In more recent years, the bridge between the two fields has been developed more fully as organizational scholars have gone to social movement theory to re-conceptualize the organization as a political actor that is shaped by various ongoing kinds of collective action.

Our paper talks about how the two fields became friends and offers a few insights about where we think the fields are heading and what might be gained from further merging. Check it out if you’re interested.

Written by brayden king

July 24, 2014 at 5:11 pm

rethinking Jerry Davis

I’ve spent the past few days at the EGOS meetings in Rotterdam. If you’re not an organizational scholar, EGOS is the acronym for the European Group for Organizational Studies – an interdisciplinary network of organizational scholars from both sides of the ocean. The theme of this year’s meeting was about reimagining and rethinking organizations during unsettled times. Naturally, they asked Jerry Davis – who has done more reimagining and rethinking of organizational theory than most – to be the keynote speaker.

Jerry’s keynote was, as expected, a witty, concise, empirically-driven argument for why the corporation has ceased to be a major institution in society (the impromptu dancing was an unexpected delight). If you’re not familiar with his argument, you should really read his book, Managed by the Markets, a real page-turner that explains how the growth of financial markets accompanied the deterioration of the public corporation as a major employer and provider of public welfare in contemporary society.  I’ve heard him give a version of this talk several times, and like every other time I left his talk feeling uncomfortable with some of his conclusions. Feeling uncomfortable is an understatement. I disagree with his conclusions. But I still think that Jerry has done an excellent job of marshaling data that can lead to a scarier and even more cynical conclusion than the one he claims.

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Written by brayden king

July 5, 2014 at 3:53 pm

Posted in brayden, power, the man

gender bias in b-schools

Last week the Wall Street Journal reported that UCLA’s Anderson Graduate School of Management issued an internal report that found that the school is “inhospitable to women faculty.” The report contains both comparative data and anecdotal evidence suggesting that women faculty have experienced impediments to advancement.

Women made up 20% of tenure-track faculty at Anderson and 14.3% of those with tenure in the 2012-2013 academic year, including Dr. Olian, according to school figures.  By comparison, an analysis of 16 peer institutions—including the bMK-CM854_ANDERS_G_20140604195103usiness schools at the University of Virginia, Stanford University and University of Michigan—found that, on average, about 30% of tenure-track and 19.5% of tenured faculty were women in the 2012-2013 year…
The internal report states that women have high rates of job satisfaction when beginning careers at the school, but face a “lack of respect” regarding their work and “unevenly applied” standards on decisions about pay and promotions.
Twice in the past three years, the university’s governing academic body took the relatively rare step of overruling Dr. Olian, who had recommended against the promotion of one woman and against giving tenure to another, according to four Anderson professors.
In one case, the university found that policies allowing faculty to take parental leave without falling behind on the tenure track had been incorrectly applied to the candidate. In that same period, they said, a male candidate for promotion passed through the Anderson review, but didn’t get clearance from the university.

Even though UCLA’s business school stands out, the numbers reported in the article show that gender inequity plagues most top business schools. In 2010 45% of tenure-line faculty in psychology departments were women. In sociology, more than 50% of assistant professors are women, and roughly half of associate professors are women.  Women in psychology and sociology are doing much better in attaining tenured positions than are women in business schools.
So why are women not more represented on business school faculty? One possible reason is that business schools are still dominated and/or highly influenced by economics, in which the gender composition is heavily slanted toward men. According to a Wall Street Journal article from last year, women only get 32% of PhDs in economics (compared to 58% in the other social sciences).

In 2012, women accounted for 28.3% of untenured assistant professors, 40% of untenured associate professors, 21.6% of tenured associate professors and just 11.6% of full tenured professors.

In other words, women in economics are more likely to end up in untenured adjunct positions than they are in tenured faculty positions. This gender inequity in economics seeps into business schools since this is the discipline that most influences our research and teaching.

Written by brayden king

June 9, 2014 at 6:15 pm

Posted in academia, brayden, gender

sociologists, conflict, and the boundaries of a discipline

This spring Washington University in St. Louis announced that they are bringing sociology back to their campus. The department of sociology at Wash. U. was infamously phased out of existence by the late 1980s after highly visible controversies and power struggles. At a time, when many sociology departments across the U.S. are losing students and faculty, sociology’s relaunch at Wash. U. is an indication of its value within a liberal arts academic curriculum. As their dean of Arts and Sciences said, reestablishing sociology will “enhance our ability to educate our students and conduct world-class research in areas that are central to the critical social issues of our time.”

Yesterday afternoon I got sucked into reading about the drama that unfolded at Wash U. in the late 1960s and 70s that led to the department’s demise and its gradual displacement as a top sociology department. You can read more about the department’s conflict-ridden history in an article that David Pittman and Deirdre Boden wrote for the American Sociologist. They note that prior to 1968 the department was the home of a number of renowned sociologists, including the legendary Alvin Gouldner. The department had a strong graduate program that would have been ranked in the top 10 had they done rankings at that time. In addition, the department had a reputation for being cutting-edge while also embracing a more democratic style of governance, which included allowing PhD students to have some input over important departmental decisions. Gouldner was (and still is) a famous sociologist who had built a department that was doing rigorous sociological research while also challenging the sociological orthodoxy of the time. If Harvard was the seat of status quo sociology, Wash. U. was the capital of radical sociology. In many respects, Wash. U. sociology in the 1960s was what sociology would become in the contemporary era – a place where studying social problems, conflict, and inequality with a mixed methodological toolkit dominated the research agenda.

But in 1968, Wash U.’s sociology department came under attack from both within and from outside the department. 1968 was a tumultuous year in academia, not just in St. Louis but throughout much of academia. Students were protesting against the war, and more relevant to the academic setting, many student activists were seeking to give more input into university decisions.  Many of the old establishment in sociology were under fire for being too conservative. Even at a place like Wash. U., where Gouldner was by all accounts a committed left-of-center sociologist, students rankled at his exactness and unwillingness to compromise. Earlier in his career Gouldner had founded a journal Trans-action – a journal aimed at translating sociological ideas in a jargon-free way to mass audiences (similar to today’s Contexts) – with Lee Rainwater and Irving Louis Horowitz, two other senior professors in the department.  As a recent article by Edward Shapiro notes, Gouldner strongly believed in the necessity of sociologists to get away from “academic purism” and to make sociological research meaningful for the times. Gouldner had ceded control of the journal to Horowitz when he was away on sabbatical in Europe but when he returned in 1966, Horowitz refused to turn the journal back over to Gouldner. Horowitz wanted to take the journal in a more radical direction than Gouldner, exploring previously unexplored topics that interested the new generation of sociologists, while Gouldner believed the journal ought to be linked to the journalistic establishment. Also having relinquished the position of department chair, Gouldner suddenly found himself lacking the influence he once had. Conflict erupted between Gouldner and Horowitz/Rainwater, which eventually led to enough disruptions within the department that Gouldner was removed from the department as a faculty member and appointed to a university chair.  At the same time, graduate students were organizing among themselves and asking for more say and influence over departmental decisions, like the ability to veto faculty hires. Laud Humphreys, one of the more senior and outspoken grad students and a protege of Rainwater (Gouldner’s rival), got caught up in the toxic situation.

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Written by brayden king

May 27, 2014 at 10:12 pm

Gary S. Becker, RIP

Gary Becker passed away this weekend at the age of 83. Becker was among the most influential economists in sociology. He was one of the first economists to use economic theories to explain social phenomena, leading the way for contemporary scholars like Steven Levitt.  Interestingly, I think Becker was less influential in organizational theory, despite doing important work on human capital. Over on the evil twin blog, Peter Klein pays a nice tribute to Becker, mentioning his relationship to organizational economics.

Sociologist are fond of citing Becker for saying that he thought about transferring to sociology in grad school but that he found the subject “too difficult.”  One thing that made Becker stand out from sociologists was that could simplify very complex problems/social phenomena – like discrimination – using a equilibrium model. This is not the sort of thing sociologists would do, and I suspect that most sociologists found the language he used to describe preference maximization offensive, but in a world of formal modeling and rational choice theory, Becker’s perspective was elegant. He helped create a tenuous bridge, along with Jim Coleman, between mathematical sociology and economics.

Reading his Nobel speech this afternoon, I was struck by this insight about the impossibility of Utopian dreams.  Becker reminds us just how precious and valuable our time is, especially in a society where so many of our other wants and needs are satisfied.

Different constraints are decisive for different situations, but the most fundamental constraint is limited time. Economic and medical progress have greatly increased length of life, but not the physical flow of time itself, which always restricts everyone to twenty-four hours per day. So while goods and services have expended enormously in rich countries, the total time available to consume has not. Thus, wants remain unsatisfied in rich countries as well as in poor ones. For while the growing abundance of goods may reduce the value of additional goods, time becomes more valuable as goods become more abundant. Utility maximization is of no relevance in a Utopia where everyone’s needs are fully satisfied, but the constant flow of time makes such a Utopia impossible.

Written by brayden king

May 4, 2014 at 8:30 pm

is org theory out of touch with sociology?

Recently I was talking to a statistician in a business school and he mentioned that he’d seen my paper about the Matthew effect and status bias in baseball. He said that he knew I was a sociologist as soon as he saw the title of our paper. “All sociologists study status and the Matthew effect right?”  He asked me why sociologists care so much about status. The answer I gave him was that sociology as a discipline is very focused on explaining inequality – its antecedents and consequences – and status is one important manifestation of inequality. We have many theories, like the Matthew effect or status characteristics theory, that are fundamentally about explaining the persistence of inequality. Other subfields in sociology – e.g., social movement theory, social networks – try to figure out power imbalances, yet another source of inequality.

Of course, the statistician was partly wrong. Yes, it’s a good assumption that if a scholar studies the Matthew effect he or she is probably a sociologist, but there are still some sociologists – some of whom are in business schools – who are not as interested in studying inequality. Organizational theory, setting aside work and occupations research or status scholars, is one of those subfields within sociology that has historically been less concerned with inequality than with other dynamics. I’ve said in the past that the major contribution of organizational theory is that organizations “become “infused with value” independent of any technical or rational contribution they make to society. They become their own ends.” This insight distinguishes sociological theories of organizations from economics and organizational behavior. The contribution runs deep in the history of organizational theory as well, linking the old institutionalism of Selznick to contemporary theories like new institutional theory, organizational ecology, and identity theory. But this contribution has nothing to do with inequality. I can see how graduate students who are not immersed in organizational theory might even find this insight irrelevant.

Perhaps this disjuncture between what organizational sociologists and the rest of sociology find interesting explains some of the distancing of organizational theory from mainstream sociology. Organizational theory increasingly seems to be going through a long divorce process from sociology as more established scholars leave sociology departments and as top sociology departments fail to replace them with up-and-coming scholars.  Now, of course, before I lament too much, I should add that even if there is a disjuncture, it hasn’t prevented organizational scholars from publishing in mainstream sociology journals. Some of the most prolific scholars in ASR and AJS are people who are very much working in the organizational theory tradition. But as I see papers like this get published, I wonder, to what extent do graduate students, outside of those few schools that still teach an organizational theory course in their sociology curriculum, find these studies interesting or relevant? I’m not sure. Perhaps they see them as a weird alien species that occasionally shows up and reproduces in their territory. Adding to this divide is the fact that because many of the organizational scholars who publish in ASR and AJS are now located in business schools, their relational embeddedness in mainstream sociology is quite weak.

I think two trends have taken place that may explain this growing distance between organizational theory and mainstream sociology. The first is that sociology has become more focused on inequality than ever.  Although inequality and social problems have always been of interest to sociologists, it has never quite captured the discipline as it has in this moment. Even cultural sociologists are now inequality scholars. The second is that organizational theory has become increasingly abstract and removed from practical issues, such as figuring out how to make organizations more effective for resolving social problems. Selznick believed that this ought to be one of the main motivators for organizational theory. It was the impetus for his TVA study, and he later criticized new institutional theory for losing that practicality. Perhaps as organizational theory has become more focused on generalizable propositions (e.g., see the formal theory of ecology), most sociologists find it less interesting and less relevant to what they do. They certainly see it as being unconcerned with sociology’s bread-and-butter topic – inequality.

Written by brayden king

April 24, 2014 at 3:05 pm

how field theory can inform strategy research

The field of strategy research could learn something from field theory. Ed Walker and I make this point in a forthcoming paper, “Winning hearts and minds: Field theory and the three dimensions of strategy,” now published online at the journal Strategic Organization.  We argue that strategy researchers too narrowly conceptualizes strategy, focusing almost exclusively on financial performance and ignoring firms’ (or elites’) motivations to attain status and power. When strategy scholars pay attention to status they usually only do so as an independent variable – a precursor to financial performance. Field theory forces us, we think, to consider the broader struggles for control and dominance that propel firms, elites, and other actors to take action. Shaping public perceptions is one of the main ways in which social actors improve their status and attain more power, and so an important component of strategy involves actively managing impressions – i.e., what people think and how they feel about key issues and actors.

Strategy research—and to some degree social movement theory as well—portrays organizations as resource-accumulating machines. The ultimate measure of success is financial performance. Another way to conceptualize organizations is as social actors whose primary function is to manage the impressions and perceptions of their various audiences. Their ultimate goal is to maintain positions of dominance. Resource accumulation depends on the ability of an organization to gain favorability and esteem. Shaping public perceptions about why one organization deserves favor is key, then, to long-term survival. But there exists an alternative and more long-term rationale for shaping public perceptions: for organizations to gain positions of prominence and power in society, they must be able to influence the rules of the game and the cultural norms and belief systems that shape who wins and who does not…

What role does strategy have in this conflict-ridden view of the world? In our estimation, strategy can be conceptualized as having three dimensions. We take inspiration from the ideas of Max Weber (1922 [1978]) in his classic essay on “Class, Status, and Party” in order to understand the features of strategy. We argue that strategy research has focused almost exclusively on financial performance (“class,” in Weber’s resource-based view of economic positions) and management’s role in shaping it. However, Weber’s conceptualization suggests that firms ought to be at least as concerned with prestige or esteem (“status”) or on the relative leverage of various stakeholders and policymakers upon firms’ actions (“party”). ..

[W]e find three major limitations in strategy research. First, it is far too focused upon firm performance at the expense of understanding strategic elements of relative status and sources of power/vulnerability. Second, its perspective is often far too short term and does not pay enough attention to all three of the aforementioned aspects of strategy, especially in the context of the “long game” of business maneuvering. Third, it downplays the extent to which businesses’ capacities for accumulating resources, maintaining reputations, and obtaining political leverage are all subject to conflict with other actors whose own relative position depends on their ability to convince the public of their alternative ideologies and worldviews.

In the paper we talk more about research focused on political influence, in particular, ought to shift away from the specialty areas of “nonmarket strategy” or “political strategy” and move to the forefront of strategy research.

Written by brayden king

April 14, 2014 at 2:22 pm