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hearing is believing – a documentary about rachel flowers

I recently saw the documentary “Hearing is Believing,” which is about the musician Rachel Flowers. The movie focuses on how Flowers, who has been blind since birth, became a musical prodigy. Like many films that focus on talented people with disabilities, Hearing is Believing tells you about the challenges she faced as a young person and her success as a musician.

The film is fairly conventional in many ways. Description of the condition that deprived her of sight and testimonials from the family about how they will do the best they can for her. Like many musician documentaries, there’s a lot of talk about how at a very early age (4!), Flowers could accurately play complex classical music. By her teen years, she masted piano, guitar, and woodwinds at a professional level and had begun composing. In the film, she shows mastery of an amazing range of styles, from church organ music to bebop to progressive rock to Hawaiian ukelele.

I agree with critics that the movie rambled a bit and needed a bit more context, but I still liked it. First, Flowers has an inner joy. She loves music and spends much of her time doing workshops with students and she loves it. Second, I think it was fun to see her dabble into the many nooks and crannies of American music. I only think a musician would appreciate, for example, how she was able to replicate Kamasi Washington’s “The Epic” on her home keyboard, or how she could drop in on jazz trumpet master Arturo Sandoval and jam.* It’s also interesting to see how she built a reputation by putting her performances on youtube.

Finally, she’s built a real life and that’s impressive. You may think that Flower’s life is just jam sessions with Dweezil Zappa (yes!) and premiering her orchestral works. But she still goes to a Braille school and needs an enormous amount of help just getting around. Life is hard, but she has a gift and she’s doing the best she can. And maybe that’s the sweetest note she can play.

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

* I thought it was interesting that Sandoval was the only person who was really on her level. In true jazz style, they seem to have a cutting session and Arturo gets the upper hand and she just laughs with joy. Later, he actually shows her a little bit about how to improve her piano technique. Neat!

Written by fabiorojas

June 27, 2017 at 4:16 am

don’t make ethnography anonymous – new article by jerolmack and murphy

In Sociological Research and Methods, Colin Jerolmack and Alexandra K. Murphy ask if we should use people’s names in quantitative research. We’ve discussed this idea before and now you can read the final article. The abstract:

Masking, the practice of hiding or distorting identifying information about people, places, and organizations, is usually considered a requisite feature of ethnographic research and writing. This is justified both as an ethical obligation to one’s subjects and as a scientifically neutral position (as readers are enjoined to treat a case’s idiosyncrasies as sociologically insignificant). We question both justifications, highlighting potential ethical dilemmas and obstacles to constructing cumulative social science that can arise through masking. Regarding ethics, we show, on the one hand, how masking may give subjects a false sense of security because it implies a promise of confidentiality that it often cannot guarantee and, on the other hand, how naming may sometimes be what subjects want and expect. Regarding scientific tradeoffs, we argue that masking can reify ethnographic authority, exaggerate the universality of the case (e.g., “Middletown”), and inhibit replicability (or“revisits”) and sociological comparison. While some degree of masking is ethically and practically warranted in many cases and the value of disclosure varies across ethnographies, we conclude that masking should no longer be the default  option that ethnographers unquestioningly choose.

Check it out!!!

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($5 – cheap!!!!)/Theory for the Working Sociologist/From Black Power/Party in the Street 

Written by fabiorojas

April 20, 2017 at 12:01 am

do we need multi-disciplinary organization research? a guest post by siri ann terjesen

Siri Ann Terjesen is an assistant professor of management and international business at Indiana University and an Associate Editor of the Academy of Management Learning & Education. She is an entrepreneurship researcher and she also does work on supply chains and related issues. This guest post addresses multidisciplinary scholarship.

I am interested in orgtheory readers’ perspectives on a critical but under-examined issue in academia, including scholarship about organizations. That is, in academia, individual scholars are incentivized to focus on a particular issue in a particular discipline and discouraged from developing deep expertise in multiple fields. For example, business scholars examine the same universe (e.g., firms, employees, etc.), albeit through different branches (disciplines such as strategy, organizational behavior, operations management, finance, accounting, ethics, law, etc.) which do not dialogue actively with one another—and there are very few academics who develop a real repertoire across multiple fields- that is, are truly multidisciplinary ‘protean’ scholars who contribute to leading journals in multiple disciplines (e.g., disciplines as distinct as ethics and operations management or accounting and organizational behavior) and have a profound influence across these distinct arenas.

This is surprising because history shows us that some of the greatest learning and paradigm shifts come from the contributions of polymaths- individuals whose expertise draws on a wide range of knowledge- from early historical examples (Francis Bacon, Erasmus, Galileo Galelei, Hildegard von Bingen, and Ben Franklin) to more recent scholars (Michael Polanyi and Linus Pauling). Researchers in the applied sciences are beginning to recognize the power of polymath, protean scholars who bring new innovations through their openness to variety and flexibility and operations across multidisciplinary spaces. There are also personal motivations- individuals who have many repertoires of knowledge may develop a broader understanding and appreciation of all human accomplishments and are personally able to enjoy the pursuit of multiple paths to excellence and to have more peak experiences across these fields. Certainly there are prevailing counterarguments concerning a Jack-of-all-Trades but master of noneand the sheer costs of operating in multiple institutions with distinct players, particularly gatekeepers. I welcome orgtheory readers’ insights and debates on this issue in any respect- theoretical perspectives, pros/cons, examples, personal experiences, etc.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz/From Black Power 

Written by fabiorojas

October 15, 2014 at 12:01 am

reader poll august 2014

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: From Black Power/Grad Skool Rulz

Written by fabiorojas

August 24, 2014 at 12:01 am

world cup 2014 poll

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: From Black Power/Grad Skool Rulz

Written by fabiorojas

May 24, 2014 at 12:02 am

Posted in everything, fabio

how corporations got rights

This week the Supreme Court considered whether corporations ought to have constitutional rights of religious freedom, as given to human individuals, in Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores Inc. For many people, the idea that companies ought to be given all of the rights of humans is absurd. But in recent years, this idea has become more and more of a reality, thanks to game-changing cases such as Citizens United vs. FEC. How did we get to this place?

In an article on Slate, Naomi Lamoreaux and William Novak briefly go over the history of how corporations evolved from artificial persons to real persons with human rights. They emphasize that this change was a slow descent that still seemed unthinkable to justices as late as the Rehnquist court.

The court’s move toward extending liberty rights to corporations is even more recent. In 1978, the court held in First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti that citizens had the right to hear corporate political speech, effectively granting corporations First Amendment speech rights to spend money to influence the political process. But even then, the decision was contentious. Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, in dissent, reminded the court of its own history: Though it had determined in Santa Clara that corporations had 14th Amendment property protections, it soon after ruled that the liberty of the due-process clause was “the liberty of natural, not artificial persons.”

If you find this piece interesting then I would encourage you to read Lamoreaux’s collaboration with Ruth Bloch, “Corporations and the Fourteenth Amendment,” a much more detailed look at this history. One interesting point that emerges from this paper is that our general understanding of how rights became ascribed to corporations is historically inaccurate. Bloch and Lamoreaux assert that although the Court in Santa Clara v. Southern Pacific Railroad  likened corporations to individuals and asserted that they might have some protected rights, they were careful to distinguish between corporate and human civil rights.

During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Supreme Court drew careful distinctions among the various clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment. Some parts it applied to corporations, in particular the phrases involving property rights; but other parts, such as the privileges and immunities clause and the due –
process protections for liberty, it emphatically did not. Although this parsing might seem strange to us today, it derived from a remarkably coherent theory of federalism in which the Court positioned itself both as the enforcer of state regulatory authority over corporations and as the guardian of individual (but not corporate) liberty against state intrusion. To the extent that the Court extended constitutional protections to corporations, it did so to protect the interests of the human persons who made them up.

Read the whole paper. It’s fascinating!

Written by brayden king

March 28, 2014 at 3:15 pm

a sociologist working at facebook

Michael Corey is a PhD candidate in sociology at the University of Chicago. This guest post explains his experiences working for Facebook, the world’s leading social networking website (as if you didn’t know that!).

Another Dispatch from Industry

Last summer I moved from Chicago to the bay area to work as a quantitative researcher at Facebook. I’d done six years in the PhD program at Chicago and left with drafts of all my dissertation papers but without a cohesive dissertation to turn in (3 paper dissertations aren’t exactly allowed). Six months at Facebook has been eye opening and weird. Below I’ll try to give readers a feel for what it is like to go from an academic track to an industry job.

The FB Culture:

The culture at Facebook is really fun. I work at the main campus in Menlo Park, where a few thousand people work on the various FB platforms and the associated companies (Parse, Onavo, Instagram, etc). My mother-in-law describes it as an Oxford College designed by Willy Wonka, which is pretty fair. The campus houses everything you need to reduce any external friction that would take you off-campus during the day [http://cnettv.cnet.com/barber-candy-shop-bank-among-deluxe-perks-facebook/9742-1_53-50153870.html]. It is pretty easy to drink the Kool-Aid about how great FB is, and I would imagine that it is hard to work here if you don’t. I wasn’t the biggest FB user when I started here, but having been off the site for a long time I learned to recognize how much I missed by not being on it. For so many of my peers it is the only medium to communicate news, baby pictures, or cat memes to weak ties. Risk taking is encouraged and speed is considered a virtue.

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by fabiorojas

January 14, 2014 at 12:02 am

dynamic map of world war 2 boundaries

First Impressions Matter: From Black Power/Grad Skool Rulz

Written by fabiorojas

November 8, 2013 at 12:43 am

Posted in everything, fabio

More words on critical realism: Getting clear on the basics

One thing that I found dissatisfying about our earlier “discussion” on CR is that it ultimately left the task of actually getting clear on what CR “is” unfinished (or bungled).  Chris tried to provide a “bulletpoint” summary in one of the out of control comment threads, but his quick attempt at exposition mixed together two things that I think should be kept separate (what I call high level principles from substantively important derivations from those principles). This post tries to follow Chris Smith’s (sound advice) that ” We’ll all do better by focusing on important matters of intellectual substance, and put the others to rest.”

The task of getting clear on the nature of CR is particularly relevant for people who haven’t already formed strong opinions on CR and who are just curious about what it is. My argument here is that neither proponents nor critics do a good job of just telling people what CR is in its most basic form. The reason for this has to do with precisely the complex nature of CR as an ontology, epistemology, theory of science, and (most importantly) a set of interrelated theses about the natural, social, cultural, mental, world that are derived from applying the high level philosophical commitments to concrete problems. My argument is that CR will continue to draw incoherent reactions and counter-reactions (by both proponents and opponents) unless these aspects are disaggregated, and we get clear on what exactly we are disagreeing about.  One of these incoherent reactions is that CR is both a “giant” package of meta-theoretical commitments and that CR is actually a fairly “minimalist” set of principles the reasonable nature of which would only be denied by the certifiably insane.

In particular it is important to separate the high level “core” commitments from all the substantive derivations, because it is possible to accept the core commitments and disagree with the derivations. In essence, a lot of stuff (actually most of the stuff) that gets called “CR” consists of a particular theorist’s application of the high level principles to a given problem. For instance, one can apply (as did Bhaskar in the “original” contributions) the high level ontology to derive a (general) theory of science. One can (as Bhaskar also did) use the general theory of science to derive a local theory (both descriptive and normative) of social science (via the undemonstrable assumption that social science is just like other sciences).  And the same can be done for pretty much any other topic: I can use CR to derive a general theory of social structures, or human action, or culture, or the person, or whatever. Once again, the cautionary point above stands: I can vehemently disagree with all the special theories, while still agreeing with the high level CR principles. In other words I can disagree with the conclusion while agreeing with the high-level premises because I believe that you can’t get where you want to go from where you start. This may happen because let’s say, I can see the CR theorist engaging in all sorts of reasoning fallacies (begging the question, arguing against straw men, helping him or herself to undemonstrable but substantively important sub-theses, and so on) to get from the high level principles to the particular theory of (fill in the blank: the person, social structure, social mechanisms, human action, culture, and so on).

This is also I believe the best way to separate the “controversial” from the “uncontroversial” aspects of CR, and to make sense of why CR appears to be both trivial and controversial at the same time. In my view the high level principles are absolutely uncontroversial. It is the deployment of these principles to derive substantively meaningful special theories with strong and substantively important implications that results in controversial (because not necessarily coherent or valid at the level of reasoning) theories.

The High Level Basics.-

One thing that is seldom noted by either proponents or critics of CR is that the fundamental high level theses are actually pretty simple and in fact fairly uncontroversial. These only become “controversial” when counterposed to nutty epistemologies or theories of science that nobody holds or really believes (e.g. so-called “positivism”, radical social constructionism, or whatever). I argued against this way of introducing CR precisely because it confounds the level at which CR actually becomes controversial.

So what are these theses? As repeatedly pointed to by both Phil and Chris in the ridiculously long comment thread, and as ritualistically introduced by most CR writers in social theory (e.g. Dave Elder-Vass), these are simply a non-reductionist “realism” coupled to a non-reductionist, neo-Aristotelian ontology.

The non-reductionist realism part is usually the one that is much ballyhooed by proponents of CR, but in my view, this is actually the least interesting (and least distinctive) part of CR in relation to other options. In fact, if this was all that CR offered, there would be no reason to consider it any further. So the famous empirical/actual/real (EAR) triad is not really a particularly meaningful signature of CR. The only interesting high-level point that CR makes at this level is the “thou shall not reduce the real to the actual, or worse, to the empirical.” Essentially: the world throws surprises at you because it is not reducible to what you know, and is not reducible to what happens (or has happened or will happen). I don’t think that this is particularly interesting because no reasonable person will disagree with these premises. Yes, there are people that seem to say something different, but once you sit them down for 10 minutes and explain things to them, they would agree that the real is not reducible to our conceptions or our experiences of reality. Even the seemingly more controversial point (that reality is not reducible to the actual) is actually (pun intended) not that controversial. In this sense CR is just a vanilla form of realism.

When we consider the CR conception of ontology then things get more interesting. Most CR people propose an essentially neo-Aristotelian conception of the structure of world as composed of entities endowed with inherent causal powers. This conception links to the EAR distinction in the following sense: The real causal powers of an entity endow it with a dispositional set of tendencies or propensities to generate actual events in the world; these actual events may or may not be empirically observable. The causal powers of an entity are real in the sense that these powers and propensities exist even if they are never actualized or observed by anyone. To use the standard trite example, the causal power to break a window is a dispositional property of a rock; this property is real in these that it is there whether it is ever actualized (an actual window breaking with a rock event happens in the world), and whether anybody ever observes this event.

Reality then, is just such a collection of entities endowed with causal powers that come from their inherent nature. The nature of entities is not an unanalyzable monad but is itself the (“emergent” in the sense outlined below) result of the powers and dispositions of the lower level constituents of that entity suitably organized in the right configuration. What in earlier conceptions of science are called “laws of nature” happen to be simply observed events generated by the actualization of a mechanism, whereby a “mechanism” is simply a regular, coherently organized, collection of entities endowed inherent causal powers acting upon one another in a predictable fashion. Scientists isolate the mechanism when they are able to manipulate the organization of the entities in question so that the event is actualized with predictable regularity; these events are then linked to an observational system to generate the so-called phenomenological or empirical regularities (“the laws”) that formed the core of traditional (Hempelian) conceptions of science.

The laws thus result from the regular operation of “nomological machines” (in Cartwright’s sense). The CR point is thus that the phenomenological “laws” are secondary, because they are just the effect produced by hooking together a real mechanism to produce (potentially) observable events in a regular way. So the CR people would say that Hacking’s aphorism “if you can spray them they are real” is made sense of by the unobservable stuff that you can spray is an entity endowed with the causal power capable of generating observable phenomena when isolated as part of an actualized mechanism. The observability thing is secondary, because the powers are there whether you can observe the entity or not. That’s the CR “theory of science.”

The key to the CR ontology is that the nature of entities is understood using a “layered” ontological picture in which entities are understood as essentially wholes made of parts organized according to a given configuration (a system of relations). These “parts” are themselves other entities which may be decomposable into further parts (lower level entities organized in a system of relations and so on). Causal powers emerge at different levels and are not reducible to the causal powers of some “fundamental” level. Thus, CR proposes a non-reductionist, “layered” ontology, with emergent causal powers at each level.

This emergence is “ontological” and not “epistemic” in the sense that the causal powers at each level are “real” in the standard CR sense: they are not reducible to their actual manifestations nor are these “emergent” properties simply an epistemic gloss that we throw into the world because of our cognitive limitations. Thus, CR is an ontological democracy which retains the part-whole mereology of standard realist accounts, but rejects the reductionist implication that the structure of the world bottoms out at some fundamental level of reality where the really real causal powers can be found (and with higher level causal powers simply being a derivative shadow of the fundamental ones).

Getting controversial.-

Now you can see things getting interesting, because we have a stronger set of position takings. Note that from our initial vanilla realism, and our seemingly innocuous EAR distinction, along with a meatier conceptualization of entities as organized wholes endowed with powers and propensitities, we are now living in a world composed of a panoply of real entities at different levels of analysis, endowed with (non-reducible) real causal powers at each level. The key proposition that is beginning to generate premises that we can actually have arguments about is of course the premise of ontological emergence. I argue that this premise not a CR requirement. For instance, why can’t I be a reductionist critical realist? (RCR) Essentially, RCR accepts the EAR distinction, but privileges a fundamental level; this fundamental level may ultimately figure in our theoretical conceptions of reality but it is the bedrock upon which all actual and empirical events stand. In other words, the only true “mechanisms” that I accept are the ones composed of entities at the most fundamental level of reality, which may or may not ever be uncovered. I don’t seriously intend to defend this position, but just bring it up as an attempt to show that CR hooks together a lot of things that are logically independent (emergentist ontology, Aristotelian conception of entities, part-whole mereology, with a “causal powers” view of causation, among others).

In any case, my argument is that most of the substantively interesting CR theses do not emerge (pun intended) from the Bhaskarian theory or science, or the account of causation, or the EAR distinction. They emerge from hooking together (ontological) emergentism and an Aristotelian conceptions of entities and dispositional causal powers. For emergentism is what generates the (controversial) explosion of real entities in CR writing. Not only that, emergentism is the only calling card that CR writers have to provide what Dave Elder-Vass has called a “regional ontology” for the social sciences, that does not resolve into just repeating the boring EAR distinction or the (increasingly uncontroversial) “theory of science” that Bhaskar developed in A Realist Theory of Science and The Possibility of Naturalism. 

How to be a (controversial) Critical Realist in two easy steps.-

So now that we have that covered, it is easy to show how to produce a “controversial” CR argument. First, pick a mereology. Meaning, pick some entities to serve as the parts, preferably entities that themselves do not have a controversial status (most people would agree that the entities exist, form coherent wholes, have natures, and so on), and pick a more controversially coherent whole that these parts could conceivably be the parts of. Then argue that the parts do indeed form such a whole via the ontological emergence postulate. Note that the postulate allows you to fudge on this point, because you do not actually have to specify the mechanism via which this ontological emergence relation is actualized (you can argue that that is the job of empirical science and so on). Then hooking the CR notion of causal powers and the EAR distinction and the postulate of ontological democracy of all entities argue that this whole is now a super-addition to the usual vanilla reality. That is, the  new emergent entity is real in the same sense that other things (apples, rocks, leptons, cells) are real. It has a inherent nature, a set of dispositions to generate actual events, and most importantly it has causal powers. The powers of this new emergent entity may be manifested at its own level (by affecting same-level entities), or they may be exhibited by the constraining power of that entity upon the lower level constituent entities (the postulate of “downward causation”). For instance, (to mention one thing that could actually be of interest to readers of this blog), Dave Elder-Vass has provided an account of the reality of “organizations” (and the non-reducibility of organizational action to individual action) using just this CR recipe.

Now we have the materials to make some people (justifiably) discomfited about a substantive CR claim (or at least motivated to write a critical paper). For if you look at most of the contributions of CR to various issues they resolve themselves to  just the steps that I outlined above. So the CR “theory” of social structure, is precisely what you think. Social structure is composed of individuals, organized by a set of relations that form a coherent (configured) whole. This whole (social structure) is now a real entity endowed with its own causal powers, which now (may) exert “downward causation” on the individual’s the constitute it. These causal powers are not reducible to those of the individuals that constitute it. This how CR cashes in what John Levi Martin has referred to as the “substantive hunch” that animates all sociological research. “The social” emerges from the powers and activities of individuals but it never ultimately resolves itself into an aggregation of those powers and activities. Note that CR is opposed to any form of ontological reduction whether it is “downwards” or “upwards.” Thus attempts to reduce social structure to the mental or interactional level are “downward conflationist” and attempts to reduce individuals to social structure (or language or what have you), are “upward conflationist.” Thus, the “first” Archer trilogy can be read in this way. First, on the non-reducibility (and ontological independence between) social structure in relation to the individual or individual activity, then “culture” in relation to the individual or individual interaction, and later (in reverse) personal agency in relation to either social structure or culture.

Essentially, the stratified ontology postulate must be respected. Any attempt to simplify the ontological picture is rejected as so much covert (or overt) reductionism or “conflation.” Note that “conflation” is not technically a formal error of reasoning (as is begging the question) but simply an attempt by a theorist to simplify the ontological picture by abandoning the ontological democracy or ontological emergence postulates. A lot of the times CR theorists (like Archer) reject conflation as if it was such an error in reasoning, when in fact it is a substantive argument that cannot be dismissed in such an easy way. Note that this is weird because both the ontological democracy and the ontological emergence argument are themselves non-demonstrable but substantively important propositions in CR. Thus, most CR attempts to dismiss either reductionist or simplifying ontologies themselves do commit such a formal error of reasoning, namely, begging the question in favor of ontological emergence and ontological democracy.

Another way to make a CR argument is to start with a predetermined high level entity of choice. This kind of CR argument is more “defensive” than constructive. Here the analyst picks an entity the real status of which has (for some reason) become controversial, either because some theorists purport to show that it does not “really” exist (meaning that it is just a shorthand way to talk about some aggregate of actually existing lower level entities), or is not required to generate scientific accounts of some slice of the world (ontological simplification or reduction a la caloric or phlogiston). Here CR arguments essentially use the ontological democracy postulate to simply say that the preferred whole has ontological independence from either the lower constituents or higher level entities to which others seek to reduce the focal entity. Moreover, the CR theorist may argue that this ontological independence is demonstrated by the fact that this entity has (actualized and/or empirically observable) causal powers, once again above and beyond those provided by the lower level (or higher level ) entities or processes usually trotted out to “reduce it away.” This applies in particular to the “humanist” strand of CR that attempts to defend specific causal powers that are seen as inherent properties of persons (e.g. reflexivity in Archer’s case) or even the very notion of person (in Chris Smith’s What is a Person?) as an emergent whole endowed with specific causal powers, properties and propensities.

To recap, CR is a complex object composed of many parts. But not all parts are of the same nature. I have distinguished between roughly three parts, organized according to the generality of the claim and the specificity of the substantive points made. In this respect, I would distinguish between:

1) The parts that CR shares with all “vanilla” realisms. This includes the postulate of ontological realism (mind-independence of the existence of reality), the transitive/intransitive distinction, the EAR distinction, and so on. In itself, none of these theses make CR particularly distinctive, unique or useful. If you disagree with CR at this level, based on irrealist premises, congratulations. You are insane.

2) The Aristotelian ontology.- This specifies the kind of realism that CR proposes. Here things get more interesting, because there is actual philosophical debate about this (nobody seriously defends irrealist positions in Philosophy any more and most sociologists just like to pretend to be irrealists to show off at parties). Here CR could play a role in philosophical debates insofar as a neo-Aristotelian approach to realism and explanation is a coherent position in Philosophy of Science (although it is not without its challengers). Here belongs (among other things) the specific CR conceptualizations of objects and entities, the causal (dispositional) powers ontology (when hooked to the EAR distinction) and the specific “Theory of Science” and the “Theory of Explanation” that follows from these (essentially endorsing mechanismic and systems explanation over reductive, covering law stories). This is what I believe is the best ontological move and CR should be commended in this respect.

3) The stratified ontology.- This comes from yoking (1) and (2) to the ontological emergence and ontological democracy postulate. This is where you can find a lot of “controversial” (where by controversial I mean worth arguing about, worth specifying, worth clarifying, and in some cases worth rejecting) arguments in CR. These are of three types: ontological emergence arguments, augment the standard common-sense ontology of material entities to argue for the existence of higher level non-material entities; thus “social structures” are as real as the couch that you are lying on; the danger here is a world that comes to populated with a host of emergent “entities” with no principled way of deciding which ones are in fact real (beyond the theorist’s taste). This is the problem of ontological inflation, (2) “Downward causation” arguments add this postulate to suggest that the emergent (non-material or material) entities not only “exist” in a passive sense, but actually exert causal effect on lower level components or other higher-level entities, (3) “ontological independence” arguments attempt to show that a particular sort of entity that is usually done violence to in standard (reductionist) accounts has a level of ontological integrity that cannot be impugned and has a set of causal powers that cannot be dismissed. In humanist and personalist accounts, this entity is “the person” along with a host of powers and capacities that are usually blunted in “social-scientific” accounts (e.g. persons as centers of moral purpose) and the enemies are the positions that attempt to explain away these powers or capacities or that attempt to show that the don’t matter as much as other entities (e.g. “social structure”).

4) Continuing extensions of the stratified ontology argument.- This is the part of CR that has drawn (an unfair) amount of attention, because it extends the same set of arguments to defend both the reality but also the causal powers of a set of entities that (a) a lot of people are diffident about according the same level of reality to as the standard material entities, and (b) things that most people would have difficulty even calling entities. These may be “norms,” “the mental,” “the cultural,” “the discursive,” and “levels of reality” above and beyond the plain old material/empirical world that we all know and love (e.g. super-empirical domains of reality). You can see how CR can get controversial here.

5) Additional stuff.- A lot of other CR arguments do not directly follow from any of these, but are added as supplementary premises to round out CR as a holistic perspective. For instance, the rejection of the fact-value distinction in science is not really a logical derivation from the theory of science or the neo-Aristotelian ontology, and neither is the “judgmental rationality” postulate (that science progresses, gradually gets at the truth, etc.). I mean all realisms presuppose that we get better at science, but this is not really a logical derivation from realist premises (as argued by Arthur Fine). The fact/value thing is in the same boat, because it requires a detour through a lot of controversial group (3) and group (4) territory to be made to stick. For instance, given that persons are emergent entities, endowed with non-arbitrary properties and powers, then the “relativist” arguments that any social arrangement is as good as any other for the flourishing of personhood is clearly not valid. This means that social scientists have to take a strong stance on the value question (hence sociological inquiry cannot be value neutral). Because a mixture of Aristotelian ontology and ontological emergentism applied to human nature is incompatible with moral (and social-institutional) relativism, the the fact value distinction in social science is untenable. However, note that to get there  a lot of other premises, sub-premises, and substantive arguments for the reality of persons as emergent, neo-Aristotelian entities have to be accepted as valid. In this sense the fact/value thing is only a derivation from certain extensions of CR into controversial territory. As already intimated, What is a Person? is a (well-argued!) piece of controversial CR precisely in this sense.

Note that this clarifies the “giant package” versus “minimalist” CR debate. Let’s go back to the cable analogy. So you are considering signing  up for CR? Here’s the deal: The “basic” CR package would (in my view) be any acceptance of (1) and (2) (with some but not all elements of (3)). In this sense, I am a Critical Realist (and so should you). The “standard” CR package includes in addition to (1), (2) and all of (3), some elements of (4). Here we enter controversial territory, because a lot of CR arguments for the “reality” of this or that are not as tight or well-argued as their proponents suppose. In their worst forms, they resolve themselves into picking your favorite thing (e.g. self-reflexivity), and then calling it “real” and “causally powerful” because “emergent.” It is no surprise that Archer’s weakest work is of this (most recent) ilk. Here the obsession with ontological democracy prevents any consideration of ontological simplification or actual ontological stratification (meaning getting clear on which causal powers matter most rather than assigning each one their preferred, isolated level). Finally, the “turbo” package requires that you sign up for (1) through (5), this of course is undeniably controversial, because here CR goes from being a philosophy of scientific practice to being a philosophy of life, the universe and everything. Sometimes CR people seem to act surprised that people may be reluctant to adopt a philosophy of life, but I believe that this has to do with their penchant to suppose that once you accept the basic, then the chain or reasoning that will lead you to the standard and the turbo follows inexorably and unproblematically.

This is absolutely not the case, and this where CR folk would benefit most from talking to people who are not fully committed to the turbo, but who (like other sane people) are already 80% into the basic (and maybe even the standard). My sense is that we should certainly be arguing about the right things, and in my view the right things are at the central node (3), because this is the where the key set of argumentative devices that allows CR people to derive substantively meaningful (“controversial”) conclusions (both at that level—arguments for the reality of “social structure”—and about type (4) and (5) matters), and where most attempts to provide a workable ontology for the social sciences are either going to be cashed in, or be rejected as aesthetically pleasing formulations of dubious practical utility.

Written by Omar

September 14, 2013 at 7:48 pm

Three thousand more words on critical realism

The continuing brouhaha over Fabio’s (fallaciously premised) post*, and Kieran’s clarification and response has actually been much more informative than I thought it would be. While I agree that this forum is not the most adequate to seriously explore intellectual issues, it does have a (latent?) function that I consider equally as valuable in all intellectual endeavors, which is the creation of a modicum of common knowledge about certain stances, premises and even valuational judgments. CR is a great intellectual object in the contemporary intellectual marketplace precisely because of the fact that it seems to demand an intellectual response (whether by critics or proponents) thus forcing people (who otherwise wouldn’t) to take a stance.  The response may range from (seemingly facile) dismissal (maybe involving dairy products), to curiosity (what the heck is it?), to considered criticism, to ho hum neutralism, to critical acceptance, or to (sock-puppet aided) uncritical acceptance.  But the point is that it is actually fun to see people align themselves vis a vis CR because it provides an opportunity for those people to actually lay their cards on the table in way that seldom happens in their more considered academic work.

My own stance vis a vis CR is mostly positive. When reading CR or CR-inflected work, I seldom find myself vehemently disagreeing or shaking my head vigorously (this in itself I find a bit suspicious, but more on that below). I find most of the epistemological, and meta-methodological recommendations of people who have been influenced by CR (like my colleague Chris Smith, Phil Gorski, or George Steinmetz, or Margaret Archer) fruitful and useful, and in some sense believe that some of the most important of these are already part of sociological best practice. I think some of the work on “social structure” that has been written by CR-oriented folk (Doug Porpora and Margaret Archer early on and more recently Dave Elder-Vass) important reading, especially if you want to think straight about that hornet’s nest of issues. So I don’t think that CR is “lame.” Although like any multi-author, somewhat loose cluster of writings, I have indeed come across some work that claims to be CR which is indeed lame. But that would apply to anything (there are examples of lame pragmatism, lame field theory, lame network analysis, lame symbolic interactionism, etc. without making any of these lines of thought “lame” in their entirety).

That said, I agree with the basic descriptive premises of Kieran’s post. So this post is structured as a way to try to unhook the fruitful observations that Kieran made from the vociferous name-calling and defensive over-reactions to which these sort of things can lead. So think of this as my own reflections of what this implies for CR’s attempt to provide a unifying philosophical picture for sociology.

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a university of chicago graduate meets death

Collector’s Weekly interviews Caitlin Doughty, who has a new book on the funerary industry in America. How she got started:

I guess it was serendipitous. I was always very into death in school, studying Medieval death rituals and the Victorian Gothic at the University of Chicago. …  At the University of Chicago, you don’t do a lot of hands-on, practical things for the most part. And if you go to mortuary school, you’re not usually looking at the death industry with a critical or academic eye. I wanted to see if I could combine those two things. I realized very quickly that if I could somehow work with death on both an intellectual and a practical, tangible level, there might be something there. I worked in San Francisco for a year at a crematory, and then I moved to L.A. for mortuary school.

My upcoming book is about my first year entering this field. I thought I wanted to revitalize the funeral industry by putting the “fun” in “funeral” and having crazy spectacle funerals with champagne glasses or shooting your ashes into space. Then I realized, oh my God, this is actually very gross and difficult.

Interview has a lot of good insights as well about how we best handle our deaths and those of our loved ones.

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Written by fabiorojas

March 27, 2013 at 12:00 am

what we can learn from a theory of fields

First, of all I’d like to thank Neil Fligstein for guest blogging on orgtheory.  Acknowledging his contribution has been long overdue. He wrote a series of really provocative and intriguing posts about his new book, A Theory of Fields (see here and here), which spurred an intense discussion about the various strands of institutional theory, the role of agency and change in institutional theory, and the strategic orientation of actors. Rather than rehash that debate I wanted to step back and offer my own take on what I see as some of the most important (potential) contributions of field theory to organizational scholarship.

Even though in his posts Neil framed the book as a response to institutional scholarship, I think the book has more ambitious, broader designs. Their book tries to integrate various research strands and subfields – including, but not limited to, institutional theory and social movement theory – and offer a unified theory of fields and action. In this light, they have more in common with John Levi Martin (JLM), who has written his own treatise on fields and social action, than they do with the hordes of institutional scholars. (Their view of fields certainly owes more to Bourdieu than it does to DiMaggio and Powell’s concept of organizational fields.) They are attempting grand theory in a way that is rarely done in contemporary sociology. The grandness of their theoretical lens is apparent once you consider that they mean for it to apply not only to markets or industries but also to fields that exist within organizations or that describe relations between social movement activists.

The major difference between them (F&M) and JLM or other field theorists is the way they conceptualize fields as sites of collective action (strategic action being the most important form of collective action that actors take to reproduce or change fields). In contrast, JLM is more interested in fields as sites of social action, period. According to F&M, the major problem that faces actors in any field – whether you’re talking about American corporations seeking to deregulate an industry or parents addressing the education needs of their children – is figuring how to cooperate and take collective action so that they can gain advantages over contending groups. Engaging in collective action in order to get an advantage is the motivation that drives field formation, struggle, and change. A strong version of their theory would suggest that changes in meaning systems, rules and norms, or institutional settlements are endogenous to these strategic struggles. In fact, the field itself can be seen as situational, inasmuch as it forms around struggles over ideas and standing. Fields only exist inasmuch as there is some sort of collective action.

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Written by brayden king

December 12, 2012 at 6:26 pm

problems vs. theory

What makes a study interesting?  Is it the empirical phenomena that we study or is it the theoretical contribution? For those of who are really paying attention (and I applaud you if you are), you’ll notice that I’ve asked this question before. It’s become a sort of obsession of mine.  For the field of organizational theory, it’s an important discussion to have, although it’s not one that will likely yield any consensus. Scholars tend to have very strong opinions about this. Some people feel that as a field we’ve fetishized theory to the point of making our research inapplicable to the bigger world we live in. Others claim that by making “theoretical contribution” such a key component of any paper’s value, we ignore really important empirical problems.  But in contrast, some scholars maintain that what makes our field lively and essential is that we are linked to one another (and across generations) via a stream of ideas that constitute theory. What makes an empirical problem worthy of study is that it can be boiled down to a crucial theoretical problem that makes it generalizable to a class of phenomena and puzzles.

At this year’s Academy of Management meetings, I was involved in a couple of panels where this issue came up. It was posed as a question, should we be interested in problems or theory?  If we are interested in studying problems, we shouldn’t let theoretical trends bog us down. We should just study whatever real world problems are most compelling to us. If we’re interested primarily in theory, we need to let theory deductively guide us to those problems that help us solve a particular theoretical puzzle. Some very senior scholars in the field threw their weight behind the former view. I don’t want to name any names here, but one of the scholars who suggested we should be more interested in real-world problems is now the editor of a major journal of our field. He offered several examples of papers recently published in that journal that were primarily driven by interesting observations about empirical phenomena.

One of the new assistant professors in the crowd threw a pointed objection to the editor. And I paraphrase, “This all sounds great. I’d love to study empirical problems, but reviewers won’t let me! They keep asking me to identify the theoretical gap I’m addressing. They demand that I make a theoretical contribution.” Good point young scholar. Reviewers do that a lot. We’ve had it drilled into us from our grad school days that this is what makes a study interesting. If the paper lacks a theoretical contribution, reject it (no matter how interesting the empirical contribution may be)!  This is a major obstacle, and I don’t think the esteemed editor could offer a strong counter-argument to the objection.  Editors, after all, are somewhat constrained by the reviews they get.  I think what we need is a new way to think about what makes a study valuable. We need new language to talk about research quality.

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Written by brayden king

September 12, 2012 at 3:50 pm

ASA session with recidivist guest blogger Jerry Davis: From corporate collapse to anarchist utopia?

The theme for this year’s ASA meeting is “Real utopias,” and Erik Wright commissioned a bunch of us to write up utopian blueprints for our particular domains.  Erik wanted the essays to be posted months in advance in order to encourage people to read, think about, and comment on them.  The annual meeting could then be spent in productive discussions rather than one-way transfers.

My session, “Re-imagining the corporation,” may be of interest to orgtheory types.  It’s a morose chronicle of the collapse of the corporation as a social institution in the US, followed by a more cheerful account of how we might deal with apocalyptic climate change and societal collapse using the shrewd insights of organization theory.

The essay is posted at the Real Utopia website, and the session will take place Saturday 12:30-2:10 in the ever-popular “Room TBA.”  Hope to see some people there.

Here is an executive summary:

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Written by Jerry Davis

August 14, 2012 at 3:14 am

new review of fligstein/mcadam’s field theory

David Hess, of Vanderbilt’s soc dept., has a review of Theory of Fields. You can read it at Mobilizing Ideas. A few good choice clips:

Field theory is of general importance in the social sciences because it provides a way to balance tendencies toward structural determinism and agency as well as micro and macro scales of analysis. There are many theory traditions of field sociology, and F&M provide a discussion of some of them, but in terms of accumulated symbolic capital such as citations, Bourdieu’s field theory is clearly the leader and arguably the most intellectually significant point of comparison.  Having found a somewhat loose appropriation of Bourdieu’s field sociology to be valuable in the study of science, technology, social movements, and society, I am sympathetic with F&M’s use of Bourdieu’s work and willingness to modify it as they see fit.

And:

In summary, the book is likely to have considerable influence for many reasons, including the symbolic, temporal, and social capital of the authors in the field of sociology and their interest in connecting diverse approaches to the concept of fields in several subfields of sociology. Their project explicitly resists the tendency for researchers in, for example, organizational sociology to develop field theories without the benefit of similar work going on in economic sociology and social movement studies.  Thus, they see the concept of strategic action fields as enabling a broad intra- and interdisciplinary conversation with related conceptual frameworks, such as work on organizational fields, games, networks, and policy domains and systems.

See previous orgtheory discussion of Theory of Fields here and here.

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Written by fabiorojas

June 25, 2012 at 12:03 am

Posted in everything, fabio, sociology

Enter the Vortex of Vibrating TEDnergy

The next time your Dean starts giving you a hard time because you’ve never given a TEDx talk, just have them watch this.

To be honest, I think this talk justifies and redeems the entire TED brand.

Written by Kieran

June 1, 2012 at 3:00 pm

stuart kauffman on the craziness of semiotics, theories of everything, and everything else

A talk Stuart Kauffman gave last month in Estonia on From Physics to Semiotics.

Written by teppo

May 25, 2012 at 6:58 pm

Posted in everything