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extended q & a with daniel beunza about taking the floor: models, morals, and management in a wall st. trading room

Following 9/11, Wall St. firms struggled to re-establish routines in temporary offices.  Many financial firms subsequently made contingency plans by building or renting disaster recovery sites.   As we see now,  these contingency plans relied upon certain assumptions that did not anticipate current pandemic conditions:

The coronavirus outbreak threw a wrench into the continuity planning that many Wall Street companies had put in place since at least the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Those plans were largely built around the idea that if trading at a bank headquarters was knocked off-line, groups of traders would decamp to satellite trading floors outside the radius of whatever disaster had befallen New York. But those plans quickly became unworkable, given the dangers of infections from coronavirus for virtually all office work that puts people close to one another.

“This is really not the disaster that they had planned for,” said Daniel Beunza, a business professor at the City University of London, who has studied and recently written a book on bank trading floor culture.

 

Just in time for us to understand the importance of face-to-face proximity in the workplace, Beunza has a new book Taking the Floor: Models, Morals, and Management in a Wall Street Trading Room (2019, Princeton University Press) based on years of ethnographic observation. Beunza kindly agreed to an extended Q&A about his research.

Q: “Chapter 1 of your book describes how you were able to gain access to an organization, after two failed attempts.  Quinn, a classmate, offers to introduce you to a former co-worker of his from finance: Bob, now the head of a derivatives trading floor at International Securities.  You meet with Bob and observe activities, where you realize that the trading floor no longer looks or sounds like prior literature’s depictions.  After this first meeting, you send over “sanitized” field notes about your first visit (p. 32), and you meet again with Bob, who has even read and reflected on these field notes. This second meeting to go over your initial impressions starts a longer relationship between yourself and this unit of International Securities [a pseudonym].  You have your own desk on the floor, where you can write down notes​.  

In subsequent years, after the bulk of your field research ends, you invite Bob to come as a guest speaker in your Columbia Business School classes.  Your book recounts how bringing in Bob not only offers the MBA finance students perspective on their desired field of employment, but might also smooth over student-professor relations, especially since teaching evaluations matter.  Afterwards, Bob comments on the students’ late arrivals to class and how he handled the equivalent in his workplace, helping you to understand divergences in your respective approaches to relationships and organizations. 

In chapter 8, your book describes your interview with Peter, an executive who had worked with Bob at International Securities.  Peter describes how most Wall Streeters might react to researchers’ requests for access:

“Bob is a curious dude.  He reads a lot.  He befriended you because he was curious. Most guys on Wall Street would say, ‘Oh, another academic from Columbia?  Thank you very much.  Goodbye.  I don’t have time for you.  You’re going to teach me a new algorithm? You’re going to teach me something big?  Okay.  Come in and sit down.  And I’ll pay you, by the way.’  But a sociologist?  ‘Wrong person on my trading floor.  A desk?  No.  You’re crazy.  Go away.’ So Bob has those qualities, and many of the people you see here have those qualities” (p. 168).

Peter’s comment, along with your observations, also offers a colleague’s assessment of Bob’s management style.  Rather than relying on money as an incentive or fear as a motivation, Bob hires people ‘who were a little different,’ and he cultivates relationships by spending time with employees during work hours in supportive and subtle ways, according to Peter.  (Elsewhere, your book notes that this does not extend to colleagues having drinks outside of work – a way that other organizations can cultivate informal relations.)  

 Your book argues that such practices, when coupled with clearly communicated values delineating permissible and impermissible actions, constitute “proximate control.” Such efforts can check potential “model-based moral disengagement” where parties focus on spot transactions over longer-term relationships; this focus can damage banks’ viability and legitimacy.  In other words, your book posits that face-to-face contact can channel decisions and actions, potentially reigning in the damaging unknown unknowns that could be unleashed by complex financial models.

 First, the content question:

These analyses remind me of older discussions about managerial techniques (notably, Chester Barnard, who built upon Mary Parker Follet’s ideas) and mantras (Henri Fayol’s span of control), as well as more recent ones about corporate culture.  Indeed, your book acknowledges that Bob’s “small village” approach may seem “retro” (p. 170).

That said, your book underscores how people and organizations still benefit from face-to-face connection and interdependency.  Some workplaces increasingly de-emphasize these aspects, as work has become virtually mediated, distributed, asynchronous, etc.  Why and how does it matter so much more now?  How are these findings applicable beyond the financial sector​?”

Beunza: “Face-to-face connections are crucial, but I should add that the perspective coming out of the book is not a luddite rejection of technology. The book makes a sharp distinction between valuation and control. The use of models to value securities is in many ways a more advanced and more legitimate way of pursing advantage on Wall Street than alternatives such as privileged information.

However, the use of models for the purpose of control raises very serious concerns about justice in the organization. Employees are quickly offended with a model built into a control tool penalizes them for something they did correctly, or allows for gaming the system. If perceptions of injustice become recurring, there is a danger that employees will morally disengage at work, that is, no longer feel bad when they breach their own moral principles. At that point, employees lose their own internal moral constraints, and become free to pursue their interests, unconstrained. That is a very dangerous situation.

I would argue this is applicable to all attempts at mechanistically controlling employees, including other industries such as the Tech sector, and not-for-profit sectors such as academia. Some of the warmest receptions of my book I have seen are by academics in the UK, who confront a mechanistic Research Assessment Exercise that quantifies the value of their research output.”

Q: “Second, the reflexivity question:

Did you anticipate how Bob’s visit to your Columbia Business School classroom might provide additional insight into your own “management” [facilitation?] style and your research regarding financial models and organizations?  How have research and teaching offered synergistic boosts to respective responsibilities?  How do such cross-over experiences – discussing issues that arise in researcher’s organizations, which probably constitute “extreme” cases in some dimensions – help with developing organizational theory?”

Beunza: “Back in 2007, I had a diffuse sense that I would learn something of significance when inviting Bob to my classroom, but was not sure what. Before I saw him, I suspected that my original view of him as a non-hierarchical, flat-organization type of manager might not quite be entirely accurate, as a former colleague of him said he was a “control freak.” But I had no way of articulating my doubts, or take them forward. His visit proved essential in that regard. As soon as he showed up and established authority with my unruly students, I understood there was something I had missed in my three years of fieldwork. And so I set out to ask him about it.

More generally, my teaching was instrumental in understanding my research. MBA students at Columbia Business School did not take my authority for granted. I had to earn it by probing, questioning, and genuinely illuminating them. So, I develop a gut feeling for what authority is and feels like. This helped me understand that asking middle managers to abdicate their decisions in a model (which is what the introduction of quantitative risk management entailed in the late 90s) is a fundamental challenge to the organization.”

Q: “This, a methods question:

Peter’s comment underscores what Michel Anteby (2016) depicts as “field embrace” – how an organization welcomes a researcher – as opposed to denying or limiting access.  Anteby notes how organizations react to researchers’ requests to access is a form of data.  How did Bob’s welcoming you and continued conversations over the years shed additional insight into your phenomena?”

Beunza: “Anteby is right that the bank’s form of embrace is data. Indeed, I could not quite understand why International Securities embraced my presence in the early 2000s until 2015, when Bob laid out for me the grand tour of his life and career, and allowed me to understand just how much of an experiment the trading floor I had observed was. Bob truly needed someone to witness what he had done, react back to it, accept or challenge the new organization design. And this was the most fundamental observation of the research process – the one that motivates the book. My entire book is an answer to one question, “how did Bob’s experiment perform?” that I could only pose once I understood why he had embraced my presence.”

————– Read more after the jump ———— Read the rest of this entry »

watercooler democracy: how rumors can democratize information at work – guest post by Katie Sobering

I’m posting this guest post about rumors and workplace democracy on behalf of UNT organizational ethnographer Katie Sobering.  Sobering recently virtually visited my “Organizations, Markets, and the State” grad course to answer questions about her ethnographic research on Hotel BAUEN, a worker recuperated cooperative located in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

In response to student questions about her published research, Sobering explained how she decided to focus on Hotel BAUEN over other collectivist-democratic forms.  By studying Hotel BAUEN’s trainings, meetings, everyday activities, and involvement in social movement activities, Sobering shows how we can use this case to understand how organizations pursue equality through practices such as job rotation and decision-making by consensus.  Sobering also depicted the challenges confronting the cooperative: securing ownership of the hotel, expensive, specialized maintenance of the facilities, and recruitment and retention of members. During the Q&A, Sobering traced her intellectual lineage and inspirations back to Joyce Rothschild’s seminal work on collectivist-democratic organizations and Rachel Sherman’s research on service work in hotels.  She currently is revising a book manuscript on her research.

Here’s Sobering’s take on rumors’ roles in workplace transparency, based on her research published in Work and Occupations:

“We’ve all heard rumors. Odds are, most of us have spread rumors every now and again. From the family dinner table to anonymous corners of the internet, people share unverified pieces of information to make sense of their social worlds. Rumors are especially common in the workplace, spurring the now well-known idea of the “watercooler effect.”

Managers, consultants, and academics alike have paid close attention to the role and repercussions of such informal communication at work. Much of this assumes that firms keep secrets. Thus, in lieu of access to information, workers pass rumors among themselves.

In the 21st century, transparency has become a buzzword, as work organizations like tech firms and startups flatten hierarchies, embrace informality, and remove barriers that traditionally limited access to information. Some organizations are experimenting with “radical transparency” while others warn that too much transparency can be counterproductive. Worker cooperatives and other participatory organizations often practice democratic transparency, recognizing that information-sharing is key to democratizing power. All this begs the question: in contexts of increased transparency, what is the role of rumors?

In my recent article published in Work and Occupations, I draw on long term ethnographic research in a worker-run hotel in Argentina to go behind the scenes in an organization in which workers enjoy a far more egalitarian environment than most U.S. employees experience on the job: extensive access to information, voice in the organization, and power over their jobs. I find that transparency does not quell the rumor mill. But rumors do have an important impact on the culture and practice of information-sharing.

Democratic transparency in Hotel Bauen

I conducted my research in Hotel Bauen, a twenty-story conference hotel located in the bustling center of Buenos Aires, Argentina. Built in the 1970s, the private owners declared bankruptcy in 2001 and shut down the property, leaving longtime employees out of work. In 2003, thirty former employees joined the growing movement of worker-recuperated businesses by occupying the abandoned hotel and forming a worker cooperative. Since 2004, Hotel Bauen has been open around-the-clock, hosting events, lodging overnight guests, and offering a meeting place and street-side café for passersby. Despite workers’ ongoing efforts to legalize their use of the hotel, the BAUEN Cooperative has grown from thirty founding members to 130 members in 2015. Today, it is one of the most iconic worker-recuperated business in Argentina.

Hotel Bauen is run by a worker cooperative: an organization in which all members are equal owners and govern through direct and representative forms of democracy. Since its inception, the cooperative has adopted formal policies and practices designed to make information widely available to the group. They have sought to create what Archeon Fung calls “democratic transparency,” an informational environment that allows people to collectively control the organizations that affect their lives.

First, in the BAUEN Cooperative, information is formally accessible to all members. Organizational records are kept in open book system that is available not only for managers or decision-makers, but also for members.

Second, the cooperative makes information proportional by sharing details about that which directly impacts the business and its members. While cooperatives in Argentina must hold as least one assembly each year by law, the BAUEN Cooperative organizes quarterly meetings to provide regular financial snapshots and open forums for discussion.

Finally, information is actionable through formal mechanisms that allow members to question and even overturn managerial decisions. With signatures of ten percent of the membership, members can convene an assembly of all workers to address and evaluate any decision or scenario in the cooperative.

Despite the transparency that the workers enjoyed in Hotel Bauen, rumors were part and parcel of daily working life. These whispers were often interpersonal in nature, passing hearsay about coworkers’ personal lives. But other rumors ventured into the inner workings of the organization itself.

I found that these rumors democratized information in two interrelated ways. First, rumors encouraged workers to participate in decisions, moving decision-making out of formal spaces and into the hallways where members of the cooperative could informally deliberate on the issue at hand. Second, rumors allowed members to oversee the managerial authority and empowered them to exercise their ability to hold the organization accountable.

[Check out more about worker influence after the jump]

Read the rest of this entry »

ho ho ho, to santa’s place we go: the spectacle of turning snow into euros

How does a sparsely populated, snowy, and remote area in Finland become Santa’s retreat, drawing tourists eager to spot Santa and his abode?

Organization Science has an article about Enontekiö’s transformation into a tourist destination.  Here’s the intriguing abstract about how to realize a myth via marketing:

The Conversation blog features co-author ‘s general audience-friendly preview of the article.

Happy holidays, everyone!  Wishing you all happiness and health.

Written by katherinechen

December 25, 2018 at 1:11 am

Posted in culture, social construction

Tagged with

almost three hours of the 2017 indiana university international harp competition

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Written by fabiorojas

June 10, 2018 at 4:32 am

consumerism: what’s the big deal?

People will often use “consumerism” in a pejorative way and, recently, I got into a discussion of why intellectuals are often so obsessed with critiquing consumerism. First, a definition, then a discussion of reasons why people criticize consumerism.

Online, I found two definitions. One is not relevant to this post – consumerism as a defense of consumer rights. The second definition is the one most intellectuals have in mind when they discuss or critique consumerism – an obsession with the purchase or acquisition of consumer goods.

Let’s get into critiques:

  1. Consumerism is bad because it is wasteful.
  2. Consumerism is bad because it is a status signal.
  3. Consumerism is bad because it is anti-spiritual.
  4. Consumerism is bad because it is inauthentic.

A few responses:

  1. Consumerism can only be viewed as wasteful if you have a concrete idea of what is and is not wasteful and this is much harder than it seems. In modern society, people have a relatively high amount of surplus wealth. Should people not spend money on anything beyond shelter, food, and medicine? If so, when is it enough? Arguments about wastefulness and consumerism appear to me to be about what the critic values (e.g., if I like books, they are not “consumerism”). This criticism strikes me as weak.
  2. This is one criticism that I have sympathy for. If people are buying tons of stuff just to socially compete, it is a poor use of one’s time and resources. Consider how diverse the modern world is, how many things in it can make you happy. To spend money on things just to display status is a tragic waste. A cessation of buying things probably won’t solve the underlying problem, as people will probably signal status though non-pecuniary means. Thus, the criticism identifies a genuine issue, but consumerism is a symptom of a deeper problem that being anti-consumerist may not stop.
  3. A lot of religions slam the consumption of material goods. It’s been that way for millennia. So one’s response to this depends on one’s religious views. Personally, I lead a happy secular life that’s deeply enriched by material goods, so the criticism doesn’t work for me on a personal level.
  4. The gist is that you need some sort of real connection or appreciation of the world. So passively consuming things or being obsessed with the latest material goods is an inauthentic life. This strikes me as a reasonable criticism and it resonates with me once you consider the opportunity costs of consumerism. By obsessing over cars, or wine, or computer, you pass up the opportunity to do more enriching things. Fortunately, there are solutions. One is hipsterism – you consume things but only in hyper-aware ways that emphasize your knowledge and relation to the produce. Or, you can follow that advice that you should work on experiences rather than things. I suppose that could turn into a version of consumerism, but it’s less likely than getting into wine or Justin Bieber merchandise.

Do you live a consumerist lifestyle? If so, tell me what you think.

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Written by fabiorojas

March 20, 2018 at 4:01 am

Posted in culture, ethics, fabio

november woods, arnold bax (1917)

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Written by fabiorojas

January 21, 2018 at 5:01 am

the new “most interesting man in the world:” a commentary

In 2016, Dos Equis beer revealed that they would retire Jonathan Goldsmith as their signature “most interesting man in the world” character. To attract younger drinkers, they introduced a new, younger “most interesting man” actor – Augustin Legrand. The reviews haven’t been great and I want to get into why I think the newer stuff misses the mark.

I think that the original ads work because they perfectly parodied a  very specific cultural niche. Specifically, the original ads were about urbane straight white guys living out an adventurous life in the 1950s and 1960s. The film is usually in color, sometimes black and white, but always grainy. The events are time very time specific, such as emerging from an Apollo era space capsule or helping to unveil the very first mobile phone. He’s James Bondish in that he often wears a tuxedo and mingles with the global elite.

The new ads drop most of the retro feel. The film quality is clear, not grainy. The tuxedo and bow tie are dropped for a sleeker suit. Most of the events in the commercials can happen today, they are simply about being cool, not about being timeless.

The attitude has changed as well. Of course the new Most Interesting Man is still supremely confident and a master of common and obscure skills. But the tone subtly shifted from witty to jokey. Example: In the original series, the Most Interesting man in the world is shown playing really absurd, but elite, sports. In one ad, he was shown playing jai alai! In contrast, the new Most Interesting man is revealed to have been a college football player. He went from rarified athlete to the most gritty and earthy sport of all – college football. Not very interesting.

In recent months, Dos Equis has appealed more to college students by pushing the football angle and bringing in comic actor Rob Riggles. The ads in which Riggles appear completely dispense with the original concept of the man who has done all these amazing things and becomes a prop for Riggles’ comedy, which is not classic but very much “in the moment.” That’s not bad, but one has to ask why one even needs the Most Interesting man at all at this point.

And that is the most disappointing turn of all. The real joke of the original ad campaign was that we had this exaggerated, ultra macho man who came down from heaven to tell us about all these truly incredible things he had done. This god-like avatar of masculinity has been turned into a shill for football games, where thousands of people sit while they yell at men who throw each other to the ground. It’s a shame, I thought Dos Equis was the beer for people who don’t usually drink beer.

Flashback: The most interesting sociologist in the world.

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Written by fabiorojas

January 12, 2018 at 5:16 am

book spotlight: the work of art by alison gerber

workofart

The Work of Art is a new book by Alison Gerber, a sociologist who studies the sociology of culture. The book is a great exploration of how artists manage the self. This is an important issues because artists are pulled in different directions. Sometimes, artists are supposed to by guided by aesthetic values, at other times market values. The profession of the visual arts is a great place to explore this tension since the art profession in the West has undergone three phases – craftsperson, romantic genius, and art world professional. The book explore how these logics are expressed and blended with interviews with about 80 living, contemporary artists.

So what do we learn? First, Gerber reminds us, as many scholars have, that artists don’t starve, but they usually don’t make a lot of money either. In fact, they often make a loss when it comes to the production and sale of art. So while there are narratives of investment, they are about investment in values and biographical trajectories, less often about “making it” in a traditional sense. Second, there seems be a clustering of values among artists, where particular attitudes about the financial and aesthetic tend to go together. I thought this was a very subtle discussion of how conflicting attitudes toward the art world and pricing of art are expressed.

For me, and for most readers I suspect, the highlight of the book is a concluding chapter called “The Audit of Venus,” which recounts the tale of an artist named “Venus” who got into a dispute with the IRS. A musical performer and visual artist, Venus would submit to the IRS expenses related to touring and the production and sale of art. The IRS office in Venus’ area did not buy it and tried to reclassify the activity as a “hobby” so that Venus couldn’t claim it and thus have to pay taxes. Venus eventually and rightly won but the questioning of art as a real job has not only economic but also social consequences. It caused many people anxiety. Since so much of art is a business with scant financial rewards, having it recognized as a real job or profession offers a certain level of respect and consolation. To remove that designation is not only economic damaging, but needlessly maligns a group of people whose only sin is pursue an activity that isn’t as profitable as some others.

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Written by fabiorojas

December 8, 2017 at 5:01 am

racism and the liberal democratic society

Most people who think about democratic societies don’t mean “direct democracy.” They don’t want a world where every whim of the majority is translated into policy. Rather, most think about representative democracy and systems of checks and balances because, frankly, the voters often demand unwise things. Furthermore, when we think about democracies, we often think of a goal that might be called the liberal democratic society – a society where the state takes the input of voters seriously while allowing people to set the course of their own lives.

However, there is still a problem in democratic societies. Even with elected representatives and checks and balances, minorities can still push through illiberal policies that directly harm other minorities. I think American racism is a great example of that. Roughly speaking, there is a chunk of the electorate that has a terrible view of immigrants and ethnic minorities. This article from The Root briefly describes recent polling data from the National Opinion Research Center. About a quarter of Republicans and about 15% of Democrats hold highly negative views of Blacks, describing them as less intelligent and lazy.

Now, in historical terms, this is a huge improvement. Fifty years ago, most whites held very negative opinions of Blacks. So why should you be worried? The reason is that there is a strong correlation between partisan identification and nativist/racist sentiment. For example, in the GSS data reported by The Root, the  partisan gap is about 10%-15% points. And once you get a strong faction within a party, they can occasionally win elections – even national elections.

So what do we do when virulent minorities gain power? As we saw in the 2016 presidential system, parties don’t have the power to stop them in a primary system. But we are seeing signs of life. The business community is slowly abandoning Trump. The military has decided to drag its feet on Trump’s transgender soldier ban. In a few cases, the courts have blocked a few of Trump’s more repressive policies, such as the ban on migration from Muslim countries.

This points to an important feature of liberal democracy. It’s liberal character is not in the policy, but the wider culture. Our institutions have had a mixed record in preventing folks like Trump and the virulent “deplorable” 20% that brought him to power. The Republican party collapsed in 2016 and mainstream “establishment” Republicans were helpless to stop Trump. Congress has stopped some of Trump’s worst excesses, but only because the Senate is in relative disarray, not because of active resistance. The strongest resistance has been from outside the political system. Now that Trump has announced the end of DACA, we’ll see how the culture of liberal democracy expresses itself. Will it collapse and agree to a new immigration system that limits movement even more? Or will it assert itself and promote a system that is consistent with freedomo of movement?

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Written by fabiorojas

September 6, 2017 at 4:54 am

burning man’s worldwide, year-round influence

Burning Man 2017 has started its annual stint in the Nevada Black Rock Desert.  If you’re like me, other commitments preclude joining this 60,000-plus gathering of persons.  This live webcast shows some of what what we’re missing:

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCfVAyiqfH6gUq5FwzfoP2YA/live

Nevertheless, as I discuss in this invited fortune.com op-ed, Burning Man’s 10 principles have spread  worldwide and year-round.  You can find a Burning Man-inspired event or organization in your locality – check out the Burning Man regionals website for local events and the Burners without Borders website for humanitarian projects.

In my op-ed, I also discuss how Burning Man principles help shift people’s conceptions of what’s possible, including questioning everyday society’s practices and enhancing cohesion:

Burning Man doesn’t just manifest in visible settings—it has also expanded an inner, reflective world. In particular, the 10 Principles and Burning Man’s organizing practices—which include decision-making by consensus where people have a say in matters, rather than just deferring to hierarchical authority—enable people to raise questions about the society they wish to support. When confronted, for example, by turnkey camps at the Burning Man event where affluent people pay others to prepare their food, shelter, and entertainment, people can debate the contours and limits of the principle of self-reliance versus inclusion and community. These conversations encourage people to explore the nature of inequality, an issue that often is taken for granted or viewed as inevitable and immutable in conventional society. And people learn to deal with differences, such as asking: What do you do when people have conflicting interpretations of acceptable norms and practices?

For some, Burning Man will always be just a brief, fun party for meeting new and old friends; for others, it offers long-term transformative potential, both at the personal and societal levels. If and when Burning Man ceases to exist, its imprints are likely to endure throughout society, as its inspired offshoots continue to disseminate—and even reconfigure—the 10 Principles and organizing practices to local communities.

Read more of the op-ed here.

You can also see a list and links for my more scholarly writings about Burning Man here, and other scholars and writers’ publications here.

 

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by katherinechen

August 29, 2017 at 12:55 pm

Posted in culture, current events

Tagged with

is ethnography the most policy-relevant sociology?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Written by epopp

March 17, 2017 at 2:04 pm

scary stuff trigger alert

Well, it’s the scariest time of year.  For some, the scariest stuff reaches its apotheosis on Election Day, Nov. 8, while for others, Halloween is the celebration of choice.  For a sociological take on the Oct. 31st festivities, check out Sociological Images’s compendium of Halloween blog posts.

I’ve been counting down these weeks to recommend reading  Margee Kerr‘s book Scream: Chilling Adventures in the Science of Fear (hat-tip to a neuroscientist friend for the rec), about the mechanisms underlying fear among humans.   In her book, Kerr takes readers on a worldwide journey to investigate fear in different contexts, from a derelict prison where inmates served their time in solitary confinement to Japan’s notorious Suicide Forest.

Kerr is also a practicing sociologist who also designs and refines an experimental haunted house,  ScareHouse, located in Pittsburgh.  In chapter 8 of her book, she describes how people want to bond with others after being scared and how she and colleagues have channeled that intense emotional energy with an anonymous “confessional” room where people can unload secrets.  Overall, Kerr’s experiences shows how sociology and related research can directly inform and shape experiences.

To learn more about fear from Kerr, read the Jezebel interview with Kerr here or watch this video on about how fear evolved and “Why is being scared so fun?”:

Now for some of our social scientists’ fear… Trigger warning !!! after the jump, courtesy of Josh de Leeuw.

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Written by katherinechen

October 25, 2016 at 11:07 pm

understanding trump

I would like to write about something that isn’t Donald Trump. But ever since watching Trump’s dark and frightening convention speech last Thursday, it’s been hard to think about much else.

I’m not sure I have much original to say about Trump—his rise, his followers, how his success echoes (or doesn’t) populist and nationalist and fascist movements of the past. So instead I’ll share a few links to pieces I’ve encountered in the last few weeks that stuck with me—each of which speaks to the question of why Trump appeals.

1. “Who Are All These Trump Supporters?,” by George Saunders, The New Yorker

The time-tested way to find out why Donald Trump appeals, of course, is to go talk to the people he appeals to. Saunders does just that, following Trump rallies and chatting up supporters and protesters. The portrait he paints is more complex than “angry, fearful, white men.” Though many fit that description, the voters he talks to are nonetheless fully human:

The Trump supporters I spoke with were friendly, generous with their time, flattered to be asked their opinion, willing to give it, even when they knew I was a liberal writer likely to throw them under the bus. They loved their country, seemed genuinely panicked at its perceived demise, felt urgently that we were, right now, in the process of losing something precious.

Sometimes it’s hard to recognize the shared humanity of those embracing a politician you find abhorrent. You just sort of squint your eyes from a distance, bewildered. Saunders makes the empathy gap easy to bridge.

2. “Leaving Conservatism Behind,” by Matthew Sitman, Dissent

This article isn’t directly about Trump or Trump supporters. It’s about one man’s journey away from conservatism. It resonated personally because, like me, the author grew up in central Pennsylvania, among working-class, fundamentalist Christians—Trump country.

Sitman vividly captures the world he grew up in—and eventually left:

We certainly were not middle class, and not even lower-middle class; but in the singular way the nearly-poor take pride in not being genuinely poor, we attributed the distinction to our own thrift and virtue—especially the latter….Strange as it might seem, only in recent years did I realize that it wasn’t normal to come home from middle school to see my father hunched over a sink splashed with blood—he had pulled one of his own teeth because we didn’t have dental insurance.

His call for a class-based politics, while idealistic, left me wondering if there are still possibilities for politically reuniting the struggling white voters who feel threatened by a changing America with the black and Latino voters whose economic interests they share.

3. “Never-Trump Confidential,” by Tom Nichols, New York Times

Next we move from the denial of conservatism to the denial of Trump. Nichols writes about the isolating experience of, as a conservative, remaining opposed to Trump in a Republican Party that has, for the most part, come around to support him. He describes a conversation with an old friend:

He understood how I felt about Trump, he told me, but “things had to change.” I asked him what, exactly, he would change. This is a question I’ve posed to many of my friends who are Trump supporters, because they’ve done well in postindustrial America and yet still see themselves as disadvantaged.

He admitted that his life had worked out, despite a few bumps along the way. But things are different now, he said. Worse than ever. A crisis, even. Pressed for details, he only shook his head.

This captures something that turns up in the Saunders piece as well—that Trump supporters are motivated by a sense of incipient threat, even as they themselves are doing, in quantitative terms at least, better than most.

4. “The Final Countdown,” by Zoe Chace, This American Life

Trump does not espouse straightforwardly conservative positions, and until recently many conservatives wholeheartedly rejected him. Yet in the last couple of months, more and more principled conservatives have climbed on the Trump train—Ted Cruz excepted.

This radio piece follows the process through which Doug Deacon, the son of a billionaire who calls Charles Koch “one of the most influential people in my life,” comes around to Donald Trump. Deacon is very political, very issue-driven, and at the outset he says, “Am I excited about Trump? No, I’m not.”

Eventually he meets with Trump, coming in with a checklist of policy questions—on “small government, criminal justice reform, ending government subsidies.” But he doesn’t end up asking any of them. Instead, he’s “charmed” by Trump: “He’s a really nice guy. And seems to think a lot like we do. You know, he believes that a businessman—at the end of the day, a country is a business.”

Despite not being convinced by Trump’s policy positions, Deacon finds himself signing on—he and his dad now plan to donate a few million to the campaign.

For now, Koch remains among the principled opposition, saying that a choice between Clinton and Trump is like a choice between “cancer or heart attack.” But who knows? He wouldn’t be the first Republican to reverse his position on Trump.

5. “Understanding Trump,” by George Lakoff

These last two pieces are less diagnosis and more “how to respond.” The first is a long blog post in which Lakoff does his Lakoff thing, diagnosing Trump in the context of conservative and progressive politics based on different models of the family.

That wasn’t the part of the piece I found compelling. What stuck with me was his advice for countering Trump:

Remember not to repeat false conservative claims and then rebut them with the facts. Instead, go positive….[S]tart with values, not policies and facts and numbers. Say what you believe, but haven’t been saying….Talk about the public, the people, Americans, the American people, public servants, and good government. And take back freedom.

It’s easy to succumb to the temptation to go negative–to talk to oneself, and one’s tribe, and dig further in. But in the end, that will just increase polarization. Hate and fear can be strong. But sometimes people want to be reminded of their better natures.

6. Clay Shirky tweetstorm

Which brings us to my final piece—which is not an article at all, but a tweetstorm. I came away Thursday night feeling scared, and sad, and helpless. Shirky reminded me that we are not helpless, and that those of us who oppose Trump have an obligation to act:

We’ve brought fact-checkers to a culture war. Time to get serious.

A final note: my list is entirely white, almost all male, and drawn from liberal-to-leftist publications. I think this reflects my attraction to “almost-Trump” stories—about people who are, could be, or have become—Trump supporters, as well, of course, as my own political position. But feel free to diversify this list with your own links in the comments.

Written by epopp

July 25, 2016 at 12:15 pm

the humanities are doing fine, but humanities scholars are underwater

I recently had the pleasure of spending a weekend in New York. I spent some of my time exploring the Bushwick neighborhood to see the cutesy shops, art galleries, and organic grocery store. I wandered into an art gallery and saw about five people sitting in a circle reading a novel. The gallery owner then greeted me and I played with her dog.

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Written by fabiorojas

June 16, 2016 at 12:19 am

Appetite for Innovation: Creativity & Change at elBulli (To be published by Columbia University Press on July 12, 2016)

How is it possible for an organization to systematically enact changes in the larger system of which it is part? Using Ferran Adria’s iconic restaurant “elBulli” as an example of organizational creativity and radical innovation, Appetite for Innovation examines how Adria’s organization was able to systematically produce breakthroughs of knowledge within its field and, ultimately, to stabilize a new genre or paradigm in cuisine – the often called “experimental,” “molecular,” or “techno-emotional” culinary movement.

Recognized as the most influential restaurant in the world, elBulli has been at the forefront of the revolution that has inspired the gastronomic avant-garde worldwide. With a voracious appetite for innovation, year after year, Adrià and his team have broken through with new ingredients, combinations, culinary concepts and techniques that have transformed our way of understanding food and the development of creativity in haute cuisine.

Appetite for Innovation is an organizational study of the system of innovation behind Adrià’s successful organization. It reveals key mechanisms that explain the organization’s ability to continuously devise, implement and legitimate innovative ideas within its field and beyond. Based on exclusive access to meetings, observations, and interviews with renowned professionals of the contemporary gastronomic field, the book reveals how a culture for change was developed within the organization; how new communities were attracted to the organization’s work and helped to perpetuate its practice, and how the organization and its leader’s charisma and reputation were built and maintained over time. The book draws on examples from other fields, including art, science, music, theatre and literature to explore the research’s potential to inform practices of innovation and creativity in multiple kinds of organizations and industries.

The research for Appetite for Innovation was conducted when Adria’s organization was undergoing its most profound transformation, from a restaurant to a research center for innovation, “elBulli foundation”.  The book, therefore, takes advantage of this unique moment in time to retrace the story of a restaurant that became a legend and to explore underlying factors that led to its reinvention in 2011 into a seemingly unparalleled organizational model.

Appetite for Innovation is primarily intended to reach and be used by academic and professionals from the fields of innovation and organizations studies. It is also directed towards a non-specialist readership interested in the topics of innovation and creativity in general. In order to engage a wider audience and show the fascinating world of chefs and the inner-workings of high-end restaurants, the book is filled with photographs of dishes, creative processes and team’s dynamics within haute cuisine kitchens and culinary labs. It also includes numerous diagrams and graphs that illustrate the practices enacted by the elBulli organization to sustain innovation, and the networks of relationships that it developed over time. Each chapter opens with an iconic recipe created by elBulli as a way of illustrating the book’s central arguments and key turning points that enable the organization to gain a strategic position within its field and become successful.

To find a detailed description of the book please go to: http://cup.columbia.edu/book/appetite-for-innovation/9780231176781

Also, Forbes.com included Appetite for Innovation in its list of 17 books recommended for “creative leaders” to read this summer:  http://www.forbes.com/sites/berlinschoolofcreativeleadership/2016/05/15/17-summer-books-creative-leaders-can-read-at-the-beach/#7ac430985cef

 

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Written by M. Pilar Opazo

June 8, 2016 at 4:46 pm

welcome, guest blogger M. Pilar Opazo!

Orgheads, take note, I am thrilled to introduce a guest post by M. Pilar Opazo, who has just published an exciting new book, Appetite for Innovation: Creativity and Change at elBulli (2016, Columbia University Press), on the much lauded, three-star Michelin restaurant elBulli.

Here’s a description of the book from the Columbia Press website:

The name elBulli is synonymous with creativity and innovation. Located in Catalonia, Spain, the three-star Michelin restaurant led the world to “molecular” or “techno-emotional” cooking and made creations, such as pine-nut marshmallows, rose-scented mozzarella, liquid olives, and melon caviar, into sensational reality. People traveled from all over the world—if they could secure a reservation during its six months of operation—to experience the wonder that chef Ferran Adrià and his team concocted in their test kitchen, never offering the same dish twice. Yet elBulli’s business model proved unsustainable. The restaurant converted to a foundation in 2011, and is working hard on its next revolution. Will elBulli continue to innovate? What must an organization do to create something new?

Appetite for Innovation is an organizational analysis of elBulli and the nature of innovation. Pilar Opazo joined elBulli’s inner circle as the restaurant transitioned from a for-profit business to its new organizational model. In this book, she compares this moment to the culture of change that first made elBulli famous, and then describes the novel forms of communication, idea mobilization, and embeddedness that continue to encourage the staff to focus and invent as a whole. She finds that the successful strategies employed by elBulli are similar to those required for innovation in art, music, business, and technology, proving the value of the elBulli model across organizations and industries.

Glowing reviews of the book and its contributions to organizational studies and our understanding of creativity, penned by organizational sociologists Walter Powell and Diane Vaughan, urban sociologist Sharon Zukin, food scholars Priscilla Ferguson and Krishnendu Ray, and others are available here.

Forbes also listed Appetite for Innovation as one of 17 books recommended for “creative leaders” to read this summer.

M. Pilar Opazo is a postdoctoral research scholar at the Columbia Business School. She is the coauthor of two Spanish-language volumes, Communications of Organizations and Negotiation: Competing or Collaborating, and her journal publications include Sociological Theory and the International Journal of Gastronomy and Food Science. For more information about Pilar, see www.mpilaropazo.com

Written by katherinechen

June 8, 2016 at 4:37 pm

genres in popular music

There is a new paper in PLoS One by Daniel Silver, Monica Lee, and C. Clayton Childress about the structure of genres. They use MySpace co-mentioning data to understand which genres are mentioned together, which maps out the space of pop music in the mid-2000s. From the abstract of “Genre Complexes in Popular Music:”

Recent work in the sociology of music suggests a declining importance of genre categories. Yet other work in this research stream and in the sociology of classification argues for the continued prevalence of genres as a meaningful tool through which creators, critics and consumers focus their attention in the topology of available works. Building from work in the study of categories and categorization we examine how boundary strength and internal differentiation structure the genre pairings of some 3 million musicians and groups. Using a range of network-based and statistical techniques, we uncover three musical “complexes,” which are collectively constituted by 16 smaller genre communities. Our analysis shows that the musical universe is not monolithically organized but rather composed of multiple worlds that are differently structured—i.e., uncentered, single-centered, and multi-centered.

For Chicago-ites, this is a “hollow core” finding about musical social worlds. Recommended.

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Written by fabiorojas

June 7, 2016 at 12:01 am

unbreakable kimmy

I’m in the middle of watching Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt on Netflix. After watching it, I realized that it’s an extremely rare show that has a cast made up entirely of “subaltern” characters. Normally, you have a show made up of characters from the dominant culture. You also have shows where the cast is made up primarily from one minority or subculture (all Latino characters, or all gay characters).Kimmy is unusual in that it doesn’t seem to rely exclusively on any single cultural group and that means that is doesn’t take much for granted.

For example, you might think that the show is about white urban women, perhaps a goofy Sex in the City. That’s not quit right. Kimmy is a Midwesterner and one who was abducted from her group and isolated. So she doesn’t even feel like a normal Midwesterner any more. Mrs. Voorhees turns out to be a Native American woman who is passing as white. Titus is a gay black man who escaped from the South to New York. “Mississippi was my own bunker.” Perhaps Lydia, the elderly landlord, might be the closest thing to a “standard” character.

The romantic interests tilt the same way. Mr. Voorhees, one of only two tradition straight white men in the show, is barely seen and the other, one of Kimmy’s boyfriends, only appears in a few episodes. The other male romantic interests are also subaltern, such as the Vietnamese immigrant who is afraid of deportation and Titus’ boyfriend, who is a construction worker who just admitted he was gay.

This is not incidental to the show. The lack of a common cultural ground gives the show a chaotic feeling, which is good for comedy. It’ll be interesting to see where the show goes from here.

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Written by fabiorojas

May 19, 2016 at 12:06 am

orianthi/beat it

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Written by fabiorojas

May 15, 2016 at 12:01 am

a provocative claim: the sociology of culture is nearly always at least implicitly a sociology of morality – a guest post by jeff guhin

Jeff Guhin is a post-doctoral scholar at the University of Virginia. In Fall 2016, he will be an assistant professor of sociology at UCLA.

That’s wrong of course, or at least it’s not precisely right.  There are two important exceptions right away: the first in the sociological work on cultural production (think Paul DiMaggio, Gabriel Rossman, Jennifer Lena) and the second in the work of Pierre Bourdieu, which is certainly about culture but generally unconcerned with moral life (that’s actually the basis of Jeffrey Alexander’s criticism).

Yet for much of the rest of cultural sociology, moral life really matters.  Think about some of the biggest stateside names in culture: Robert Wuthnow, Michele Lamont, Ann Swidler, Jeffrey Alexander, Orlando Patterson.  These thinkers are all quite different, but there remains a sense within each of them that what it means to be a good person and what it means to have a good life are centrally important to understanding how culture works.

There’s a genealogical explanation here that goes all the way back to Weber and Durkheim asking very similar questions, mediated through Parsons and, at least for Swidler, Wuthnow, and Alexander, through Bellah and Shils at Berkeley.   But there’s also a much simpler explanation, which is that most sociology of culture is about meaning making, and the most important meanings tend to be moral ones in the sense that they evoke strong emotional responses about the relative rightness and wrongness of particular behaviors.  Now there are different ways to think about those meanings and their relationships to structures, and there are ways to do culture without worrying too much about meaning at all (and those, for what it’s worth, tend to be the kinds of cultural sociology that aren’t implicitly about moral life, yet I would argue they’re in the minority).

So while there might well be important analytic or organizations reasons to distinguish the sociology of morality from the sociology of culture, I’m not sure I buy that there’s anything new there. More importantly, I’m not sure I buy that, to the extent sociologist have recognized once again that culture matters, they were ever at risk of forgetting that morality matters too.

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Written by fabiorojas

April 19, 2016 at 12:01 am

of course, shirley scott

“Don’t Look Back,” composed by Harold Vic.

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Written by fabiorojas

April 2, 2016 at 12:01 am

commentary on a talk by john cage

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Written by fabiorojas

April 1, 2016 at 12:07 am

inequality perpetuated via organizations – a view from cultural sociology

Sociologists are increasingly recognizing how  organizations facilitate and perpetuate inequality.  Check out the recently published Socio-Economic Review paper, “What is Missing? Cultural Processes and Causal Pathways to Inequality” by Michèle Lamont, Stefan Beljean, and Matthew Clair.

Building on Weber’s concept of rationalization, the authors argue that organizations’ propensity for standardization and evaluation (along with other processes) contribute to inequalities.  Standardization flattens inputs and outputs, subjecting these to comparisons along narrow dimensions.  In addition, those that conform to standards can receive needed resources, leaving outliers to scrap for the remainders:

Standardization is the process by which individuals, groups and institutions construct ‘uniformities across time and space’ through ‘the generation of agreed-upon rules’ (Timmermans and Epstein, 2010, p. 71). While the process implies intention (‘agreed-upon rules’) on the part of social actors, standardization as a process in everyday life frequently has unintended consequences.  The construction of uniformities becomes habitual and taken for granted once the agreed-upon rules are set in place and codified into institutional and inter-subjective scripts (often formal, albeit sometimes also informal). In its industrial and post-industrial manifestations, the process of standardization is part and parcel of the rationalization and bureaucratization of society (Carruthers and Espeland, 1991; Olshan, 1993; Brunsson and Jacobsson, 2000; Timmermans and Epstein, 2010).

….Moreover, the effects of standardization on inequality are often unintended or indeterminate. Indeed, standards are often implemented with the intent of developing a common benchmark of success or competence and are frequently motivated by positive purposes (e.g. in the case of the adoption of pollution standards or teaching standards). Yet, once institutionalized, standards are often mobilized in the distribution of resources. In this process, in some cases, those who started out with standard relevant resources may be advantaged (Buchmann et al., 2010). In this sense, the consequences of standardization for inequality can be unintentional, indirect and open-ended, as it can exacerbate or abate inequality.Whether they are is an empirical issue to be assessed on a case-by-case basis.

One example of this interaction between standardization and social inequality is the use of standards in education as documented by Neckerman (2007). Among other things, her work analyses the rise of standardized and IQ testing in the 1920s in American education and local Chicago education policy. It shows how standardized test scores came to be used to determine admission to Chicago’s best vocational schools, with the goal of imposing more universalist practices. Yet, in reality, the reform resulted in diminished access to the best schooling for the city’s low-income African-American population…. (591-592).

Similarly, evaluation facilitates and legitimates differential treatment of individual persons:

Evaluation is a cultural process that—broadly defined—concerns the negotiation, definition and stabilization of value in social life (Beckert and Musselin, 2013). According to Lamont (2012, p. 206), this process involves several important sub-processes, most importantly categorization (‘determining in which group the entity [. . .] under consideration belongs’) and legitimation (‘recognition by oneself and others of the value of an entity’).

In the empirical literature, we find several examples of how evaluation as a cultural process can contribute to inequality, many of which are drawn from sociological research on hiring, recruiting and promotion in labour markets. The bulk of these studies concern how evaluation practices of organizations favour or discriminate against certain groups of employees (see, e.g. Castilla and Benard, 2010) or applicants (see, e.g. Rivera, 2012). Yet, some scholars also examine evaluation processes in labour markets from a broader perspective, locating evaluation not only in hiring or promotion but also in entire occupational fields.

For instance, Beljean (2013b) studied standards of evaluation in the cultural industry
of stand-up comedy. Drawing on interviews with comedians and their employers as well as ethnographic fieldwork, he finds that even though the work of stand-up comedians is highly uniform in that they all try to make people laugh, there is considerable variation in how comedians are evaluated across different levels of stratification of the comedy industry. Thus, for example, newcomer comedians and star performers are judged against different standards: while the former must be highly adaptable to the taste of different audiences and owners of comedy clubs, the latter are primarily judged by their ability to nurture their fan-base and to sell out shows. Even though this difference does not necessarily translate into more inequality among comedians, it tends to have negative effects on the career prospects of newcomer comedians. Due to mechanisms of cumulative advantage, and because both audiences and bookers tend to be conservative in their judgement, it is easier for more established comedians to maintain their status than for newcomers to build up a reputation. As a result, a few star comedians get to enjoy a disproportionally large share of fame and monetary rewards, while a large majority of comedians remain anonymous and marginalized. (593)

Those looking for ways to curb inequality will not find immediate answers in this article.  The authors do not offer remedies for how organizations can combat such unintended consequences, or even, have its members become more self-aware of these tendencies.   Yet, we know from other research that organizations have attempted different measures to minimize bias.  For example, during the 1970s and 1980s, orchestras turned to “blind” auditions to reduce gender bias when considering musicians for hire.  Some have even muffled the floor to prevent judges from hearing the click of heels that might give away the gender of those auditioning.

ORCHESTRAL REPERTOIRE WORKSHOP: MOCK AUDITION

An example of a blind audition, courtesy of Colorado Springs Philharmonic.

In any case, have a look at the article’s accompanying discussion forum, where fellow scholars Douglas S. Massey, Leslie McCall, Donald Tomaskovic-Devey, Dustin Avent-Holt, Philippe Monin, Bernard Forgues, and Tao Wang weigh in with their own essays.

 

 

stratification in the sharing economy: how oreo truffles snuff out egalitarianism

Several writing group colleagues and I were discussing one participant’s extended conference abstract about “prefigurative” groups that have an impact upon society.  The author contended that for a variety of reasons – in particular, pressures exerted by the state, most groups are unable to exact larger change.   Another colleague suggested looking at studies of the sharing economy, which some might see as a contemporary version of the 1960s-1970s collectivist-democratic organizations.

Yesterday, I stumbled upon one study of the sharing economy published in Poetics.   This comparative study examines 4 different cases of groups with egalitarian missions.

“Paradoxes of openness and distinction in the sharing economy”

Abstract

This paper studies four sites from the sharing economy to analyze how class and other forms of inequality operate within this type of economic arrangement. On the basis of interviews and participant observation at a time bank, a food swap, a makerspace and an open-access education site we find considerable evidence of distinguishing practices and the deployment of cultural capital, as understood by Bourdieusian theory. We augment Bourdieu with concepts from relational economic sociology, particularly Zelizer’s “circuits of commerce” and “good matches,” to show how inequality is reproduced within micro-level interactions. We find that the prevalence of distinguishing practices can undermine the relations of exchange and create difficulty completing trades. This results in an inconsistency, which we call the “paradox of openness and distinction,” between actual practice and the sharing economy’s widely articulated goals of openness and equity.

The authors show how class-based stratification can inhibit heterogeneous membership and exchanges, especially when members refuse to make exchanges with persons of lower class. In the time bank, some participants donated their time without drawing back time.  They also preferred to  volunteer skills that they didn’t use in the workplace, declining to offer desired legal and programming expertise.

The food swapping collective, which arose out of the founders’ desire to decrease food waste among single professionals, is particularly fascinating for its participants’ designation of acceptable vs. unacceptable homemade offerings:

The policing of the circuit’s boundaries was particularly clear at one December swap, a charity cookie exchange that drew more than 90 participants—nearly all of them first timers. One regular pointed out that someone had made Betty Crocker cookies and admitted it on their information sheet. ‘‘I know it’s for charity,’’ one swapper remarked, ‘‘but they clearly don’t understand what a swap means for us.’’ One week, a regular participant, noticing Oreo truffles on offer asked, ‘‘Now, are the truffles actually made of Oreo cookies?’’ ‘‘Yeah,’’ the new would-be swapper enthusiastically answered, pleased with his re-articulation of a store-bought product into an innovative form. ‘‘Oh, well then I won’t be able to trade with you, because I can only trade for, like, really homemade things. Like made from scratch, with no preservatives or chemicals or anything, because my friend doesn’t eat any processed foods. She only eats homemade things, that she makes completely herself.’’ These examples show the ways specific evaluative criteria are mobilized to circumscribe the extent to which new participants can enter the circuits of exchange within the swap.

Oreotruffles

One sharing economy’s bane: Oreo truffles.  Photo credit: Kraft.

One regular participant said that she would trade with first timers who did not understand what counted as homemade. However, she would always give them tips after trading with them. If they came back and still did not get it, she would not trade with them again and was not afraid to reject face-to-face offers. Often, new participants who lacked the cultural capital to navigate the food swap environment would leave having made only one trade or a few trades, going home with the vast majority of the food they brought. Such negotiations maintained the values of the swap by drawing on seemingly contradictory notions of ‘‘homemade’’ and ‘‘using up leftovers’’ to delimit participation within the swapping circuit…..

In the food swap, failed matches were rampant. Participants policed choice of ingredients, packaging, volume of offerings, what swappers made, and how they dressed. To make a good match, participants had to intuit multiple criteria which were
highly opaque, often arbitrary, and shifting. We found a fine line between leftovers that were transformed into something exotic, versus food that was just ‘‘left over.’’ Another matching failure occurred when people re-used ordinary jars rather than
the currently faddish, branded canning jars that served as instruments of symbolic class decontamination. The most successful matches happened among purveyors of authentic homemade foods that exhibited no class contamination. In this site, charity
trades also occurred: people would give their foods to others and take nothing in return, or take foods that they then did not use. On one occasion, a swapper was observed giving items she had accumulated to a homeless person as she left the swap.

Such research suggests that such sharing economies may be doomed to one-time, never-to-be-repeated exchanges when participants fixated on the parity (or potential status-enhancement) of possible exchanges.   While other participants attempted to form community by making exchanges as a matter of practice or as a means of socializing newcomers, it seems these exchanges are not enough to sustain these collectives.

Written by katherinechen

February 18, 2016 at 10:06 pm

maria schneider big band, need i say more?

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Written by fabiorojas

January 17, 2016 at 12:01 am

charles tolliver, 1970

A master.

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Written by fabiorojas

December 6, 2015 at 12:01 am

nicole mitchell, solo flute, 2014

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

Written by fabiorojas

November 7, 2015 at 7:01 pm

the genius of podcasting

A constant challenge of producing content is distribution. You may write a book, or make a movie, but usually a third party has to approve it in order to get it distributed. However, one major form of media doesn’t have this property – podcasting. In fact, it is incredibly easy to produce and distribute a podcast. Smartphones have the ability to record hours of conversation and iTunes makes it easy to upload and make it free to anyone on the Internet.

This point was made by Kevin Smith, who was performing in Bloomington. He has at least three or four podcasts, each with an entirely different theme. He’s garrulous, so it is easy for him to generate massive amounts of material that can be packaged into podcasts which then advertise his other products (comedy shows, DVDs, films, etc.)

If you take a casual look around, you see that lots of small groups have created podcasts that reach thousands of people. For example, Partially Examined Life is a philosophy podcast run by three former philosophy grad students. And yes, they will do multi-hour discussions of Bergson. Bad at Sports is for folks in contemporary art. There is even a podcast about sociology books – New Books in Sociology. Some institutions have sociology blogs, like the Contexts podcast, but I’d like to see more sociologists get their voices out there.

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Written by fabiorojas

October 29, 2015 at 12:01 am

Posted in culture, fabio

two films and one tv show against modern art

I.

Morley Safer ran a follow up to his infamous 1993 piece that slammed contemporary art as a sham. This time around, the piece was a dud. It rehashed the same ground but with less oomph. As usual, Safer wondered whether this piece or that piece was art and seemed flummoxed by the prices. Given that much of the art he trashed fifteen years ago has retained its value and has begun to be appreciated, Safer’s expose fizzled.

That doesn’t mean that you can’t dig into the art world and criticize it. If you want a really great analysis of modern art and its market, you should turn off 60 Minutes. Instead, watch two recent films and a tv show: (untitled), My Kid Could Paint That and the reality television show Work of Art.

All three works take the modern art world seriously and take the time to investigate it on its own terms. They all allow people to explain themselves and include the critics and the haters. They aren’t afraid to say that the emperor has no clothes. The films also are charitable in that they allow the best arguments to be made for modern art, even the stuff that appears lame and pathetic. What makes these works rise above the cheap journalism of Morely Safer is that modern art is a social field predicated on being edgy, which means that a lot of art isn’t meant to be pretty or pleasing. It’s about a concept, which is a form of art that simply isn’t for most people. And that’s the crux of the argument about the value for modern art.

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Written by fabiorojas

October 7, 2015 at 12:01 am

Posted in culture, fabio

stella by starlight, derek bailey version

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

Written by fabiorojas

October 4, 2015 at 12:01 am

prosumption: from parasitic to prefigurative

Many of you practice prosumption everyday without realizing it.  If you bus your own table after a fast food meal, do self-check out at a store, or review a manuscript for an academic journal, you are engaging in simultaneous production and consumption.  Organizations are increasingly introducing prosumption into routines without corresponding compensation, or, as George Ritzer notes in his essay in this The Sociological Quarterly summer 2015 issue, savings, for the prosumer.

Here’s the start of Ritzer’s “Prosumer Capitalism” essay:

This essay involves a further, albeit still early and provisional, analysis of the relationship
between prosumption and capitalism. It is made necessary by the rapid changes
in the nature of prosumption, its relationship to the changing capitalist economic
system, as well as the growing literature on them (Piketty 2014; Rifkin 2014;
Ritzer 2014). Like its predecessor (Ritzer and Jurgenson 2010), this analysis
deals with the ever-expanding prosumption on the Internet, but it goes beyond
the now antiquated notion of Web 2.0, as well as devoting greater attention to
prosumption in more traditional settings. It also reflects significant changes in
my own conceptualization of prosumption, especially the idea of the prosumption
continuum (see Figure 1). The poles of the continuum involve a needed
reconceptualization of production as prosumption-as-production (p-a-p) and of
consumption as prosumption-as-consumption (p-a-c). More attention is devoted to
three types of capitalism (producer, consumer, and prosumer), as well as to the
“grand narrative” of producer capitalism > consumer capitalism > prosumer capitalism.
New to this analysis is another grand narrative relating to exploitation in
capitalism: singly exploitative producer capitalism > doubly exploitative consumer
capitalism > synergistically doubly exploitative prosumer capitalism. From a Marxian
perspective, prosumer capitalism is seen as an even more “magical” system than its
predecessors, at least as far as the capitalists are concerned. There is also a reexamination
of capitalism in light of other important recent characterizations of that economic
system. While others foresee the decline or even demise of capitalism (Rifkin
2014) or shift the focus to increasing inequality (Piketty 2014), this analysis foresees
the continuation of capitalism,2 albeit in the form of prosumer capitalism. The conclusion
takes a pessimistic perspective on the fate of the prosumer in contemporary
capitalism (in contrast to Toffler [1980] and Rifkin [2014]), although some thoughts
are offered on a more optimistic scenario. The essay ends pessimistically with some
recent examples of capitalist expansions and incursions in prosumer-dominated businesses
(Zopa in banking, Airbnb in short-term domicile rental, and Uber in the taxi
business).

While Ritzer has a largely pessimistic view of where prosumption will lead, I have written a cautiously optimistic commentary covering the varieties of prosumption, which I dub “from parasitic to prefigurative.”  Many of the examples that Ritzer and I discuss come from the so-called sharing economy, including the controversial pay-for-street-parking info apps discussed by epopp in this orgtheory post.

Here are my commentary’s central claims:

Ritzer’s analyses have mostly focused on organizations that deploy prosumption
as a means toward the end of profit. However, by studying organizations and groups
that view prosumption as both a means and an end, we can gain deeper insight into the
impact of prosumption. Thus, I examine several types of prosumption across the three
sectors of the market: for-profit organizations, the state, and nonprofit organizations/
voluntary associations. I further Ritzer’s critique by arguing that prosumption shifts
what used to be organizational and state responsibilities and risks upon individual
persons, emiserating workers and overloading individuals’ decision-making capacities.
While this shift has been portrayed as enhancing market efficiency and empowering
consumers, it can widen inequality, as it allows organizations to simultaneously overwork
employees and clients while understaffing. Those with resources can opt in and
out of prosumption when they please, reinforcing the illusion that prosumption is a
freely made choice, rather than one that is imposed for the ends of profits or efficiency.
However, not all individuals have the means to prosume, and their communities may
be unfairly stigmatized by prosumption. Moreover, attempts to promulgate parasitic
prosumption threaten to undercut access to public goods.
On the other hand, Ritzer’s (2015) mention of “dangerous giants” suggests that not
all persons will mindlessly prosume according to convention (p. 439). I elaborate on
three forms of prosumption that present potential counterpoints to conventional
prosumption. With transformative prosumption, prosumers engage in agentic action
and meaning-making. In violating prosumption conventions, the practice of disruptive
prosumption counters the push for profits and efficiency. When coupled with democratic
or collectivist ways of organizing, prosumption assumes a prefigurative cast,
enacting a society that prosumers desire rather than replicating the status quo.

I quite enjoyed writing the commentary, as it allowed me to reflect on additional ground beyond a previous prosumption article.

You can read Ritzer’s article on prosumption here. Ritzer’s essay is followed by commentaries by:

Ritzer follows with a response to the commentaries in “Dealing with the Welcome Critiques of “Prosumer Capitalism.”

Bonus: all items are ungated!!!  Happy reading!

Written by katherinechen

October 2, 2015 at 7:42 pm

Posted in culture

Tagged with

book spotlight: the end game – how inequality shapes our final years by corey abramson

endgame

You don’t see a lot of books linking cultural sociology and gerontology. An ethnographic study of elderly people in four neighbrohoods, The End Game is a study of the coping strategies that people use and how those are related to race and social class. For example, there are those who try to preserve their health so as not to be a burden on others, while others “use up” their health while enjoying themselves (e.g., by drinking). Abramson also pays close attention to the processes that normally occupy stratification scholars, such as how wealth affects how people access food, healthcare, and social support.

What I found most compelling about this book is the careful attention paid to the combination of class based resources and “toolkits” that are driven by culture or simply variations in personality. For example, health isn’t simply a matter of who can pay for a doctor. Health is also affected by the view that medical intervention is constantly needed to maintain a deteriorating body. One thing that I wish had received more attention is the link to outcomes – there should be more discussion of exactly which traits might be conducive to longer live, healthier life, or happier life.

Near the end, Abramson discusses a mildly disturbing encounter with a sociologist who asked why we should care about the elderly. The answer is that old age is a growing feature of human life after industrialization. It can also be a long stage of life. A 90 year old person has 25 post-retirement years! Thus, we should care about what is an extremely common experience and we want people to live well. Abramson’s text is an important contribution to that vital research task. Recommended!!!!

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

Written by fabiorojas

July 10, 2015 at 12:01 am

summer reading: spotlight on conflict and decision-making by consensus at premium cola

As some of our dear orgtheory readers know, I am always on the look-out for interesting articles about how organizations use collectivist or participatory-democratic practices. One recent publication I would like to highlight involves a collectivist group fueled by a common love of cola, coffee, and beer.

Fans of a caffeinated soft drink, frustrated by Afri-Cola new owner’s refusal to change the recipe back to the original*, became the new owners and producers of the drink. Not only did they band together to revive the original product using what they considered to be more ethical market standards, they organized using the practice of decision-making by consensus.**

Participatory-democracy invariably elicits conflicts that might be avoided or suppressed under more hierarchical organizations. Members have to learn how to manage contention if they wish to stay cohesive. Premium Cola‘s members had to learn how to do this via a discussion email list.

Husemann, Ladstaetter, and Luedicke’s (2015) “Conflict Culture and Conflict Management in Consumption Communities” examines the types of conflicts and actions taken to address these conflicts within Premium Cola. The authors note the generative qualities of routinized conflict, including the reaffirmation of commitment to a collective mission:

When analyzing the Premium community’s conflicts, we found that the community’s conflict culture involved a limited set of routinized and recurring conflict behaviors. Members use behaviors such as inviting conflict, showing respect for otherness, or releasing aggressions to argue different topics, but use them in similar ways. Many of these behaviors are known from normative conflict sociology as conflict cultivation practices, i.e. routinized behaviors that conflict parties use to perform conflicts in civilized and productive, rather than destructive, ways. Through inventing, selecting, abandoning, enacting, or improving such routinized conflict behaviors, Premium community members are able to produce value rather than destroy value through uncontrolled or abusive conduct.

In contrast, transgressive conflict, in which participants break multiple norms, can lead to abusive interactions. These lead to more active interventions, including the eventual expulsion of a member over his repeated sexist comments about the hiring of a female intern and insults of other members. While the exchanges threatened corrosion, the subsequent actions taken reaffirm Premium Cola’s identity and commitment to community.

* The original recipe had less sugar and more caffeine than the newer recipe.

**More about the fascinating history and ethos of Premium Cola is available here, where the Ladstaetter and Luedicke describe Premium Cola as follows:

…the Premium Cola community can be seen as a group of “productive activists,” e.g.,
prodactivists, that combines the roles of producers, consumers, and social activists to promote change in the capitalist market system by demonstrating how market exchange can be both successful and ethical.

Written by katherinechen

June 29, 2015 at 3:39 pm

institutionalism 3.0

When I was finishing grad school, I thought we were done with institutionalism. At that time, folks were publishing study after study of diffusion within organizational communities. Didn’t seem like there was much more to say. Then, there was an explosion of interest in contentious politics and organizational fields. Brayden is part of that cohort, as was Huggie Rao, Lis Clemens, Marc Schneiberg, Sarah Soule, Michael Lounsboury, and myself. Later, people like Tom Lawrence and Roy Suddaby articulated the idea that effort needed to be expended to create or attack institutions, which is now the foundation of the “institutional work” branch of institutional theory. The idea was simple. Institutions not only regulate behavior, but they can become the target of politics.

Then, again, I thought we were done with institutionalism. What else could be said? Well, I realize that I was very, very wrong. The next stage of the theory is linking the main ideas of institutionalism to other more established areas of sociology. For example, I was reading Melissa Wooten’s book, In the Face of Inequality, which looks at race and institutions through the example of HBCs. My suspicion is that institutionalism 3.0 (or 4.0 if you consider the Selznick/Merton/Parsons generation) will be about theoretical and empirical integration with core sociology like stratification, small group processes, and a re-engagement with the “Measuring Culture” generation of scholars. Overall, this makes me happy. Early on, I thought that institutional theory was too inward looking and only cited external authors in a ritualistic fashion. With this new effort, I hope that institutionalism will be more strongly enmeshed in wider sociological discussions.

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

Written by fabiorojas

June 25, 2015 at 12:01 am

ornette: he has joined the ages

The last turning point. Oh, what prophecy.

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

Written by fabiorojas

June 13, 2015 at 12:01 am

Posted in awesome, culture, fabio