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the parsons taboo

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As readers already know, I am hard at work on a book that reviews contemporary sociology. In writing the book, I ran into two taboos: rational choice and Parsons (ironic, since Parsons was opposed to utilitarianism). The reviewers were very touchy about these two topics. The first makes sense. Sociology has always been allergic to anything “econ-y” or “math-y” from the beginning. I do understand why people might want to expunge a book of rational choice. I still don’t think it’s wise since the profession still has people working in related areas like Granovetter style embeddness research, social capital, Harrison White micro-network hybrid work, and applied game theory. Also, the rational choice tradition (including social capital) is the major link between sociology and the poli sci/economics axis.

The Parsons taboo really surprised me since (a) the book only had a total of about five paragraphs about Parsons, (b) I am definitely not a functionalist and I present it as background for more modern stuff like cultural sociology and institutionalism, and (c) Parsons’ descendants still have big followings, like Jeffrey Alexander and Niklas Luhmann. Also, another weird thing is that the reviewers asked me to incorporate Swidler’s recent work (Talk of Love), a discussion of Poggi’s theory of power and Vaisey’s work, which all explicitly speak of Parsons.

So what is up with this weird allergy to even *mentioning* Parsons? In 2015, are people still fighting the battles of 1975? Here’s my theory. Parsons’ did two things, one bad and one good. The bad thing is that he created a highly visible and rigid orthodoxy, complete with “religious” texts (i.e., his books). That is what the sociologists of the 1970s revolted against and that is what made Parsons the devil in our profession. And I can’t blame people. Reading classic structural functionalist texts is really taxing and frequently unhelpful.

The good thing is that he created, by accident, the kernel of a lot of modern sociology. Inside those big, nasty books, there were a lot of important insights that are now standard. For example, his 1959 ASQ article on organizations made the crucial distinction between the technical and “institutional” components of organizations, a core idea in modern organizational research. The functionalist approach to schools is still a standard reading. The distinction between achieved and ascribed status is “strat 101.” Even his much maligned theory of norm driven action lives on, even if we admit that norms are constructed situationally rather than ex ante.

The “good” and “bad” Parsons explains my situation. You don’t have to be a functionalist to appreciate some of his good ideas, nor do you need to be a hard core follower to understand the historical importance of Parsons. For example, you simply can’t understand why Swidler’s (1983) toolkit argument was such a big deal unless you understand how Parsons’ theory of norms and his interpretation of the Protestant Ethic was dominant at the time. The Swidler critique set the agenda for cultural sociology for decades.  So you need to address Parsons and point out the contribution. If you do that, however, people get angry because they remember (or their advisers told them) about the bad Parsons.

This also helps explain when and where you can get away with it. If the whole text is about critiquing work like Parsons and developing alternatives (e.g., Swidler or Vaisey), you can do it. If you are very senior scholar who is writing “big think” work (e.g. Gianfranco Poggi), you can do it. But not a synthetic and pedagogical overview – people will think that even including him (or the rational choicers) is a horrendous rear-guard action that puts discredited work back into the canon.

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

Written by fabiorojas

August 5, 2015 at 12:01 am

no duty to obey migration law: a kingian analysis

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How do we know if restrictionism is unjust? Is it ethically good or bad to prevent migration between countries? In this post, I draw on Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail to argue that restriction laws are unjust. King sets out the problem and offers a solution: “How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law.” In other words, there is no intrinsic demand that the law be followed. You don’t have to follow the law just because it is a law.

But there arises a problem, how do we know if a law is in accordance with “moral law?” King begins by pointing out that just laws try to help people, but unjust laws degrade people and create privilege and superiority: “Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality.”

King makes a behavioral argument. If a law were indeed just, the group that passed the law would apply it to themselves. “An unjust law is a code that a numerical or power majority group compels a minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself. This is difference made legal. By the same token, a just law is a code that a majority compels a minority to follow and that it is willing to follow itself. This is sameness made legal. Let me give another explanation. A law is unjust if it is inflicted on a minority that, as a result of being denied the right to vote, had no part in enacting or devising the law.”

Let us now turn to border controls and deportation. How do these laws “uplift human personality?” Restrictionist laws clearly do not “uplift” the people who are banned from entry. People who migrate may want jobs, or they want to be with family, or they simply want to be in another place that they deem safe. By preventing people from being with family, they clearly degrade people. By preventing people from earning a living and peacefully enjoying property, they degrade people.

What about the native citizen? How do restrictionist laws “uplift” her personality? They can’t because they are aimed at others. One’s moral standing is based on their action, not the action of others. Simply living in a nation that excludes others does nothing for one’s moral worth. To the contrary, the active approval of laws that degrade others decreases one’s moral standing. Supporting migration restrictions and deportations gives, in King’s words, the restrictionist a “false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority.”

King’s behavioral criteria implies that migration restrictions are unjust. If these laws are so wise and proper, then why do we not see border controls between the states of the Union? Or between different cities? If the restrictionist is truly concerned about the dangers of outsiders, why shouldn’t Northerners build a fence to keep Southerners out because of their different values? Should Catholics and Protestants dig a moat around Utah to stop Mormons from entering their territory? If the restrictionist is truly concerned about outsiders exploiting public assistance, why doesn’t New York City build a wall to prevent New Hampshire’s citizens from exploiting that state’s more generous government services? The fact that such walls do not exist, and the restrictionists do not ask for them, says to me that these laws can’t truly be just.

From the founding of the United States to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, this nation had 106 years of free movement across its borders. Millions of Jews, Poles, Chinese, Mexican, German, and Russian people came to this shore, relieved that they could live their lives as they saw fit, free from deportation, exile, and murder. Since then, wave after wave of anti-immigration law has been passed by this nation’s citizens. It is time to recognize that these laws are unwise and unjust and have same moral standing as the laws of Jim Crow. They do not command respect or honor and should be seen for what they are: attempts to harass people who, by chance, were born in another nation. Ignore them at will.

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

 

Written by fabiorojas

August 4, 2015 at 12:01 am

Posted in current events, fabio

joyce bell on black power professionals

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Joyce Bell, a sociologist at Pitt, is one of the leading scholars on Black Power. Her new book, The Black Power Movement and American Social Work, discusses how the Black Power movement changed the profession of social work and gives us insights into how cultural nationalism shaped organizational fields in the 1970s. Here is an interview with Bell at The Society Pages.

Other discussions of Black Power: I praise and critique Josh Bloom & Waldo Martin on the Black Panthers; I am interviewed about Black Power and higher education; Bryan Caplan discusses From Black Power; a sort of institutionalist take on Black Power by me and Carson Byrd.

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

Written by fabiorojas

August 3, 2015 at 12:01 am

still at gencon…

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

Written by fabiorojas

August 2, 2015 at 12:01 am

since i am at gencon, you’re gonna watch baby sloth videos

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

Written by fabiorojas

July 31, 2015 at 12:01 am

the bio-complexity challenge to economics

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Economics is fun to criticize, but hard to replace. Everybody thinks they can do better. How many times have you read an article lampooning the rational actor model or slamming the efficient markets hypothesis? Well, another research group has appeared that tries to offer a replacement. From New Scientist:

Earlier this year, several dozen quiet radicals met in a boxy red building on the outskirts of Frankfurt, Germany, to plot just that. The stated aim of this Ernst Strüngmann Forum at the Frankfurt Institute for Advanced Studies was to create “a new synthesis for economics”. But the most zealous of the participants – an unlikely alliance of economists, anthropologists, ecologists and evolutionary biologists – really do want to overthrow the old regime. They hope their ideas will mark the beginning of a new movement to rework economics using tools from more successful scientific disciplines.

Drill down, and it’s not difficult to see where mainstream “neoclassical” economics has gone wrong. Since the 19th century, economies have essentially been described with mathematical formulae. This elevated economics above most social sciences and allowed forecasting. But it comes at the price of ignoring the complexities of human beings and their interactions – the things that actually make economic systems tick.

 The problems start with Homo economicus, a species of fantasy beings who stand at the centre of orthodox economics. All members of H. economicus think rationally and act in their own self-interest at all times, never learning from or considering others.

The article then goes on to describe how they are building new set of models that have social rather than selfish actors. They are going to use models from biological theory to model large groups of economic agents.

More power to them, but here’s the deal with economics – it survives because it has a number of very strong features:

  • A basic micro-economics that makes sense (e.g., supply and demand curves, marginal utility etc)
  • Rational actor models are just short hand for “has goals, which can be selfish or altruistic.” My friend, rational does not mean what you think it means.
  • A good grasp of various statistical methods.
  • A good recipe for normal science (define utility functions, apply Langrangian, etc)

For an alternative economics to win, it needs to be so incredibly awesome that it overwhelms these very important features of existing economics. That is why various challengers, such as feminist economics or modern Austrian economics, are limited. They sometimes have valid criticisms, but they simply don’t do well when it comes to offering a real alternative. So, good luck, my biological friends, but don’t get lost in the weeds.

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

Written by fabiorojas

July 30, 2015 at 12:01 am

Posted in biology, economics, fabio

analyzing the democratic field, 2016

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I recently discussed the GOP presidential field. It’s basically Team Bush/Nixon vs. the populists, with the fruit cake of the month. The Democratic field has evolved into a simplified version of the GOP field. It’s Team Clinton vs. the populists and no loonies need apply. Team Clinton got the nomination three times (1992, 1996, 2000) and a very, very close second place (2008 – Hilary got 47% of the vote vs. Obama’s 48%). All other challengers a combined won three nominations (2004, 2008, 2012) and one of those was when Team Clinton didn’t have anyone in the race.

Vox has a nice feature, by Jonathan Allen, on Hilary’s political style that really does a good job of explaining her political strength and how she is managing to retain the lead. She’s a horrid campaigner whose campaign organization went bankrupt and literally didn’t know the rules, but she has been a center of gravity in the Democratic party for nearly three decades. What allows this? The answer is essentially patronage. Since she’s been working in Democratic party politics since Watergate, she can assemble broad coalitions in the party and incorporates some elements of most mainstream policy proposals:

Clinton’s been a boss at building institutional support. Here’s her secret: Invite potential adversaries to the table, include some of their ideas in policy, and then send their laudatory remarks out to reporters. This signals to them that she’ll be inclusive if she’s elected president, and makes it hard for them to criticize her later on.

The MO has been most evident on the economic agenda Clinton’s in the midst of rolling out. She consulted more than 200 economists, according to her campaign. Her aides worked closely with officials at the Roosevelt Institute, a progressive think tank, in advance of her official campaign launch rally on Roosevelt Island in New York and before her first big economic speech.

More important, she’s taking input from liberal economists who emphasize “fairness” in the economic system and have warred with more Wall Street–oriented Democratic economists such as Bob Rubin and Larry Summers. Rather than choose between their “growth” wing of the Democratic economic establishment and the “fairness” wing, represented by the likes of Joe Stiglitz and Alan Blinder, Clinton has opted for both — and managed to co-opt both.

“Today Hillary Clinton began to offer the kind of comprehensive approach we need to tackle the enormous economic challenges we face, one that is squarely in line with what we have called for at the Roosevelt Institute,” Stiglitz said in a statement.

In other words, she’s the best co-opter in the business.

If you wonder if this strategy will continue to work, just look at the results. Already, she has endorsements from a majority of the Democratic caucus and elite endorsements are strongly correlated with primary performance. Historically, the strategy works like a charm. For example, in 1992, Bill Clinton lost 5 primaries or Caucuses in a row (yes, five!) and was still leading the nomination dues to “superdelegate” endorsements.

Right now, Hilary has at least three challengers and they correctly sense that Hilary is a weak campaigner. What they may not realize is that she is one the best “insider” politicians in the party and they need to address that somehow, if they are going to win.

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

Written by fabiorojas

July 29, 2015 at 12:01 am

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