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can powerful, elite-led organizations lessen inequality?

Hi all, I’m Ellen Berrey. I’ll be guest blogging over the next few weeks about inequality, culture, race, organizations, law, and multi-case ethnography. Thanks for the invite, Katherine, and the warm welcomes! Here’s what I’m all about: I’m an assistant professor of sociology at the University at Buffalo-SUNY and an affiliated scholar of the American Bar Foundation. I received my PhD from Northwestern in 2008. This fall, I jet off from the Midwest to join the faculty of the University of Denver (well, I’m actually going to drive the fading 2003 Toyota I inherited from my mom).  

As a critical cultural sociologist, I study organizational, political, and legal efforts to address inequality. My new book, The Enigma of Diversity: The Language of Race and the Limits of Racial Justice (University of Chicago Press)is officially out next Monday (yay!). I’ll dive into that in future posts, for sure. I’m writing up another book on employment discrimination litigation with Robert Nelson and Laura Beth Nielsen, Rights on Trial: Employment Civil Rights in Work and in Court.  These and my articles and other projects explore organizational symbolic politics, affirmative action in college admissions (also here and here), affirmative action activism (and here), corporate diversity management, fairness in discrimination litigation, discrimination law and inequality (and here), gentrification politics, and benefit corporations.

I’ll kick off today with some thoughts about a theme that I’ve been exploring for many years:

How can powerful, elite-led organizations advance broad progressive causes like social justice or environmental protection? I’m not just referring to self-identified activists but also corporations, universities, community agencies, foundations, churches, and the like. Various arms of the state, too, are supposed to forward social causes by, say, ending discrimination at work or alleviating poverty. To what extent can organizational decision-makers create positive social change through discrete initiatives and policies—or do they mostly just create the appearance of effective action? Time and again, perhaps inevitably, top-down efforts to address social problems end up creating new problems for those they supposedly serve.

To the point: Have you come across great research that examines how organizations can bring about greater equality and engages organizational theory?

I think this topic is especially important for those of us who study organizations and inequality. We typically focus on the harms that organizations cause. We know, for example, that employers perpetuate racial, class, and gender hierarchies within their own ranks through their hiring and promotion strategies. I believe we could move the field forward if we also could point to effective, even inspiring ways in which organizations mitigate inequities. I have in mind here research that goes beyond applied evaluations and that resists the Polly Anna-ish temptation to sing the praises of corporations. Critical research sometimes asks these questions, but it often seems to primarily look for (and find) wrongdoing. Simplistically, I think of this imperative in terms of looking, at once, at the good and bad of what organizations are achieving. Alexandra Kalev, Frank Dobbin, and Erin Kelly’s much-cited American Sociological Review article on diversity management programs is one exemplar. There is room for other approaches, as well, including those that foreground power and meaning making. Together with the relational turn in the study of organizational inequality, this is a promising frontier to explore.

More soon. Looking forward to the conversation.

 

Written by ellenberrey

May 13, 2015 at 2:08 pm

a warm welcome to guest blogger Ellen Berrey

Please join us in welcoming sociologist Ellen Berrey, who will be guest blogging about her hot-off-the-press book The Enigma of Diversity: The Language of Diversity and the Limits of Racial Justice  (2015, University of Chicago Press).

Here’s the blurb for the book:

Diversity these days is a hallowed American value, widely shared and honored. That’s a remarkable change from the Civil Rights era—but does this public commitment to diversity constitute a civil rights victory? What does diversity mean in contemporary America, and what are the effects of efforts to support it? 

Ellen Berrey digs deep into those questions in The Enigma of Diversity: The Language of Race and the Limits of Racial Justice (University of Chicago Press, May 2015). Drawing on six years of fieldwork and historical sources dating back to the 1950s, and making extensive use of three case studies from widely varying arenas—affirmative action in the University of Michigan’s admissions program, housing redevelopment in Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood, and the workings of the human resources department at a Fortune 500 company—Berrey explores the complicated, contradictory, and even troubling meanings and uses of diversity as it is invoked by different groups for different, often symbolic ends. In each case, diversity affirms inclusiveness, especially in the most coveted jobs and colleges, yet it resists fundamental change in the practices and cultures that are the foundation of social inequality. Berrey shows how this has led racial progress itself to be reimagined, transformed from a legal fight for fundamental rights to a celebration of the competitive advantages afforded by cultural differences.

Powerfully argued and surprising in its conclusions, The Enigma of Diversity reveals the true cost of the public embrace of diversity: the taming of demands for racial justice.

Berrey’s other publications on this and related topics are available here.

Written by katherinechen

May 10, 2015 at 10:40 am

howard, this is what i listen to when i write this blog

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

Written by fabiorojas

April 26, 2015 at 12:01 am

ask the ages

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

Written by fabiorojas

April 19, 2015 at 12:01 am

always use some red clay

Great cover by Jack Wilkins.

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

Written by fabiorojas

April 12, 2015 at 12:01 am

Posted in awesome, culture, fabio

stefan simchowitz: my kind of scum

Stefan Simchowitz has attracted a lot of negative attention in the art world. The New York Times labeled him the “The Art World’s Patron Satan.” For example:

Critics charge that Simchowitz often preys on vulnerable young artists without gallery representation — some say without talent — and buys up huge quantities of their work, then flips the pieces back and forth at escalating prices among a cultivated group of buyers: a network of movie stars, professional poker players, orthodontists, nightclub promoters, financiers, football players and corned-beef magnates, many of whom hold Simchowitz in such high esteem that they’re willing to purchase the pieces he acquires for them sight unseen, artist unnamed. In March, in an online screed for New York magazine, the art critic Jerry Saltz tore into Simchowitz with unusual ferocity, dubbing him a “Sith Lord” and the Pied Piper of the “New Cynicism.” Simchowitz’s artists may enjoy a temporary surge in prices, his critics argue, but they typically see little of the upside; in any case, or so the story goes, once their bubbles pop, they’re left for dead.

Many important galleries have blacklisted Simchowitz as a buyer, forcing him to take extreme measures to secure desired work, including using consultants as undercover mules. Simchowitz told me about a recent scheme in which he had a consultant buy three pieces from Essex Street, a Lower East Side gallery. The purchase was nominally on behalf of another client, but the ultimate recipient was Simchowitz; by the time the gallery suspected the ruse, money had already changed hands, but the pieces had not been delivered. The gallery requested that Simchowitz not only cancel the purchase but also return another piece by the same artist that was already in his possession, which he did. Moreover, the gallerist, furious over what happened, called the other client to inform him that he was colluding in fraud, an accusation that heartily amused Simchowitz. (Asked for comment, the gallery responded, “Essex Street has never done business with Stefan Simchowitz.”)

I am a lot less alarmed by Simchowitz and even delight in his irreverence and trash talk. Aside from the trash talk, one reason that he draws controversy is his embrace of the market side of art. He thinks “flipping,” which is just another word for “quickly selling at a profit,” is great and has argued that it indicates strength of an artist. Another source of the controversy is patronage of young artists. One could argue that being so dependent on one person creates too much risk.

I tend to think these arguments, for the most part, are misplaced, or overblown. For example, almost all relationships in the art world have ups and downs. People can get traditional gallery representation and then have stalled careers. There are routinely lawsuits filed against galleries because of shady business deals. Artists can get burned as well. Private “dealers” like Simchowitz have no monopoly on good, or bad, business decisions.

If an artist strives to be in the “right” collections, Simchowitz, and flipping in general, may not be optimal, but he’s still preferable to not having a career at all. He’s probably equivalent to having a good, but not elite, dealer behind you.

On a deeper level, I have to give Simchowitz a thumbs up simply because he puts his money where his mouth is. If he likes it, he pays in cash. The trade off is that you are locked in. But, so what? That’s a standard way to reduce uncertainty. Also, he’s like a good business manager in that he provides personal support to help younger people who may not know how to deal with the business side of things. And worse comes to worse, if you hate him, it seems like you can “paint your way out of it,” in the same way a musician can finish a contract by just chunking out the last few records.

He may be crass and direct, and he may embrace practices the art world deems inappropriate. At the end of the day, there’s some artists who stayed in the game and succeeded because he gave them a room and ten thousand bucks. I wonder if he’ll take my calls?

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

Written by fabiorojas

April 7, 2015 at 12:01 am

one of my peeps once told me to check out witold lutoslowski but i never followed up. so here’s to you avi-p, still [heart] u, man.

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

Written by fabiorojas

April 5, 2015 at 12:02 am

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