Archive for the ‘inequality’ Category

“Talk with your family about [Medicare] Part D over Thanksgiving dinner”: How markets require bounded relationality

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Question: What do the following three scenarios have in common?

Scenario A.  Congrats, you’re turning 65 years old!

You’re turning 65 years old.  In the US, if you have worked enough units, you are eligible for Medicare; you must select health insurance by choosing among traditional Medicare and HMO plans.  You also need to choose insurance that will cover  your current or anticipated prescription medications.  Depending on where you live, this could involve comparing around 50 different plans.

You start by consulting the Medicare booklet and wading through the flood of mail from insurance providers.  Despite this information, you’re having difficulties understanding the differences among plans and determining how much plans will charge for your medications.  Moreover, you’re not quite sure which medications that you’ll need in the upcoming year.  Each year after this, you’ll have an almost two-month-long window for making these decisions – a period that is happening now, ending Dec. 7.

If you have a long life, you’ll have plenty of practice working with this market.  How do you select a plan appropriate to your needs right now and then in the future?

Scenario B.  Congrats, you’re getting ready to enter high school!

You are a student at a NYC public middle school.  Since students are not automatically assigned to public high schools, you and your family must choose from among 750 programs and rank order your choices.  (If you are two years old or older, your parents must do the same for public pre-K and kindergarten school programs.)  To learn about your options, you can look at a directory of descriptions of these programs and then research each school online.  If possible, you and your family will also attend information fairs and schools’ open houses and tours, where you might be asked to fill out additional forms or leave your information.

Some schools have different criteria for what kinds of prospective students they prioritize, and most selective programs don’t provide rubrics for how they rank prospective students – information crucial for ascertaining your chances of acceptance.  After you submit up to 12 rank-ordered choices, an algorithm, modelled after a medical residency matching program designed by a economist, will generate a match based on schools’ priorities and your listed options.  And, btw, charter schools and private schools have their own admissions processes and admissions deadlines.

How do you choose and rank public high school programs?  Should you try to maximize your choices by also applying to charter schools and, if you have the financial resources, private schools?

Scenario C.  Congrats, you’re rich!

You have amassed enviable, immense wealth.   But, your mattress is bursting, and you distrust regular banking.  And, for whatever reason, you’re not fond of having the state taking a portion to support the common good, social insurance, military spending, etc.  Thinking ahead, you worry about your family having unfettered access to your financial legacy; relatives might fritter away that wealth!  Also, you have a few relationships that other family members don’t (yet) know about, and you want to make sure that those loved ones are also taken care of after your inevitable passing.  So, what to do?

Answer: Most likely, you’ll need what I call “bounded relationality” to assist you with entering complex markets and making exchanges.   To explain what bounded relationality is, I’ll preview excepts from my advance, online first article “Bounded relationality: how intermediary organizations encourage consumer exchanges with routinized relational work in a social insurance market.”

The bounded relationality concept combines two of my favorite theories: (1) economic sociology’s relational work by Viviana Zelizer, Fred Wherry, and Nina Bandjel* and (2) Herbert Simon’s theory about how organizations compensate for people’s bounded rationality, or difficulties with making decisions.

During several years of my research on organizations that support older adults, I observed workshops and meetings for organizational representatives and professionals, including social workers, on topics such as how to select Medicare insurance plans.

At one of these workshops, a representative from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, described officials’ hopes that families would discuss prescription plans at family get-togethers: ‘We tried to say, “Talk with your family about [Medicare] Part D over Thanksgiving dinner,” but we don’t know if people did.’   His comment revealed how much the market relies upon relational work, or connections formed and sustained with other persons (Zelizer 2012) and organizations.

Using observations of US governmental, advocacy, and human service organizations’ (GAHSOs) talks, I show how these intermediary organizations endorsed “bounded relationality” when teaching conventions for participating in the market of social insurance.  Unlike conventional consumer goods and services markets, insurance options are difficult to evaluate and exchanges are challenging to switch.  Decisions are also consequential, with suboptimal decisions impacting personal well-being and requiring support or intervention by family members, if they are available.

Read more about bounded relationality after the jump: Read the rest of this entry »

relational inequality theory (rit) and racialized organizations

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Want some orgtheory about inequality?  Check out the following podcasts and short articles, just in time for your upcoming holiday commutes:

Orgtheory guests Dustin Avent-Holt and Donald Tomaskovic-Devey have a socannex podcast on “Relational Inequality Theory” (RIT) (38 minutes) with Queens College, CUNY sociologist Joseph N. Cohen.  The trio discuss more about RIT as a “theoretical toolkit” that allows researchers to translate concepts into empirical research. See the orgtheory blog entries that led to their socannex podcast here and here.

Victor Ray has a HBR article “Why So Many Organizations Stay White” where he advises that organizations move beyond symbolic gestures to really tackle entrenched discrimination and inequality:

At a minimum, leaders should stop thinking about discrimination and inequality as rare events and understand that racial processes often shape behavior in the absence of ill-intent. Conversations about organizational inequality need to refocus from a narrow concern with feelings and racial animus to the massive inequalities in material and psychological resources that organizations distribute between racial groups.

Ray also discusses racialized organizations in a B-side podcast (48:36).  Learn how reading Joan Acker’s article about gendered organizations helped him think through about how to connect critical race theory and organizations.

Written by katherinechen

November 24, 2019 at 11:07 pm

“Organizations, Markets, & the State” course at the Graduate Center, CUNY, offered for this spring 2020

Are you a graduate student in the Inter-University Doctoral Consortium?*  If so, please consider taking my “Organizations, Markets, & the State” class at the Graduate Center, CUNY.   At student request, I am teaching this class on the sociology of organizations this spring 2020 on Wednesdays @11:45am-2:45pm. Our first class meets on Wed., Jan. 29, 2020.


In addition to covering the classics of organizational research, the course includes cutting edge organizational research.  The course also incorporates topics and assigned readings based on enrolled students’ interests.  When I’ve taught this class in past semesters, guest speakers, including Nicole P. Marwell, Jeff Sallaz, Michel Anteby, Caroline W. Lee, Frederick Wherry, Pilar Opazo, and Elizabeth Popp Berman, have discussed their research projects.  (And, Fabio Rojas joined us for a special get-together during a visit to NYC!)

One of the aims of the class, besides learning substantive content, is to develop a local community of emerging scholars whose relationships spanning local, US, and international boundaries.  So, if you are an organizations researcher who is located or will happen to be in the NYC area during spring 2020, please email me about presenting your research!  We’ve also learned about professional development with guests, as participants are eager to learn about different kinds of institutions and career paths.


Here is the spring 2020 course description:

Organizations, Markets, & the State, Spring 2020

Graduate Center

Prof. Katherine K. Chen

Course Description

How can people coordinate action across growing groups in creative versus conventional ways?

How can people organize in ways that widen versus reduce power differentials among members?

How do people and organizations hoard advantages for a select few versus ensuring more equal access to all?

How do organizations fend off versus embrace market ideology, and how do organizations encourage members to adopt these perspectives?

Organizations are crucial actors in contemporary society, and they are also sites where many of us expend significant efforts connecting with or coordinating collective action.  Despite their central role in shaping our experiences from education to the workplace to governance, organizations are often overlooked or taken-for-granted among researchers and laypersons.  When researchers do study organizations, they typically pay little critical attention to power dynamics and organizing possibilities.

Building upon more critical perspectives, participants will learn why organizations form, how they develop, and how they can exacerbate or alleviate inequalities.  We will also discuss organizations’ relations with the state and markets, and how these relations affect action.  We will cover a variety of organizational forms, from conventional bureaucracies to networked firms to democratic organizations, with a focus on participants’ organizational fields of interest.  Theories studied incorporate the classics, as well as cutting edge synthetic work like Strategic Action Fields (SAFs), racialized organizations, and relational inequality theory (RIT)’s inequality-generating mechanisms.   Methodological approaches covered include ethnography, interviews, and other qualitative methods, and quantitative analyses.

This course supports deepening participants’ substantive knowledge, including preparing for comprehensives, extending cross-over expertise in a substantive area (i.e. social movements, urban sociology, stratification, education, cultural sociology, etc.), and designing and carrying out research.  In addition, this course aims to both promote professional development and forming a community of supportive scholars for emerging research.

*If you are a student at one of the below schools, you may be eligible, after filing  paperwork by the GC and your institution’s deadlines, to take classes within the Consortium:

Columbia University, GSAS
Princeton University – The Graduate School
CUNY Graduate Center
Rutgers University
Fordham University, GSAS
Stony Brook University
Graduate Faculty, New School University
Teachers College, Columbia University
New York University, GSAS, Steinhardt

Written by katherinechen

November 14, 2019 at 11:21 am

“don’t be afraid to push big, bold projects” and “be brave and patient”: Dustin Avent-Holt and Donald Tomaskovic-Devey on producing Relational Inequality Theory (RIT)


Dustin Avent-Holt and Donald Tomaskovic-Devey, who collaboratively published their book Relational Inequalities: An Organizational Approach (Oxford University Press), graciously agreed to do a joint email interview with orgtheory!  Here, we discuss their book and the process leading up to the production of the book.  Readers who are thinking of how to apply relational inequality theory (RIT), join and bridge scholarly conversations, and/or handle collaborative projects, please take note.

First, I asked Dustin and Don substantive questions about RIT.  Here, both authors describe how they used their workplaces in higher education as laboratories for refining their theory.  Also, Don channeled his disappointment with the limits of Chuck Tilly’s Durable Inequalities into fueling this endeavor.

1. Katherine.  How did you apply the insight of relational inequality in your own lives?  For example, both of you are at public universities – how does knowing relational inequality affect your ways of interacting with other people and institutions?

Dustin. I think for me one of the ways I see this is becoming faculty during the process of writing the book and being in a transitioning institution. I was hired out of grad school to Augusta University when it had just merged with the Medical College of Georgia. With this merger, Augusta University moved from being a teaching-focused college to a comprehensive research university that includes both graduate and undergraduate programs and a mission focused on research. Experiencing this transition  made me think through the daily lives of organizations in a much less structural way as I saw people negotiating and renegotiating the meaning of the institution, the practices and policies, creating new ways of fulfilling institutional roles, etc. I guess in that way it highlighted the work of Tim Hallet on inhabited institutionalism. As university faculty and staff, we didn’t just copy a bunch of templates from the environment, people were translating them and challenging them in the organization. And we still are, 7 years later, and I suspect we will be for a very long time. Organizations at that moment became enactments rather than structures for me, something to be relationally negotiated not simply imported. Don and my endeavor then to understand inequality in this context actually began to make more sense. And in fact during our weekly conversations about the book, I do remember often relating stories to Don of what was going on, and this certainly shaped how I thought about the processes we were thinking through.

I don’t know if that is what you were after in your question, but it is for me this experience shaped how I have come to think about organizations, and became central to how we think about organizations in the book. 

Don. No fair, actually apply a theory in our own lives? Seriously though, I became pretty frustrated with the black hole explanations of local inequalities as reflecting “structure” or “history”. These can be analytically useful, but simultaneously disempowering. Yes, some students come to the University with cultural capital that matches some professors, but this does not make them better students, just relationally advantaged in those types of student-teacher interactions. At the same time the University exploits revenue athletes for its purposes while excluding many others from full participation. The struggles of first gen students and faculty are produced by relational inequalities. 

As a department chair I was keenly aware of the university dance of claims making around status and revenue and that this had to be actively negotiated if our department was going to be able to claim and sequester resources. This sounds and to some extent is harsh, since success might mean taking resources indirectly from weaker or less strategic departments, although it can also feel insurgent if the resource appears to be granted or extracted from the Provost. But the truth is that university resources flow in a complex network of relationships among units, students, legislators and vendors (beware the new administrative software contract!). 

The Dean will pretend this is about your unit’s “productivity”, it’s never that simple.*  It’s also great to have allies, at UMass we have a great faculty union that works to level the playing field between departments and disrupt the administrative inequality dance.

* Katherine’s addition: Check out this satirical twitter feed about higher ed administration for laugh/cries.

Read the rest of this entry »

the relational turn in the study of inequalities and organizations – guest post by Dustin Avent-Holt and Donald Tomaskovic-Devey

On behalf of Dustin Avent-Holt and Donald Tomaskovic-Devey, I am posting their guest post, a must-read for researchers looking for intersections between organizations and stratification.  In their post, they describe the shortcomings of stratification research’s in focusing on “individual” characteristics and how they build upon organizational theory to examine organizations as inequality-generating mechanisms.  Their post ends with possible research AND policy agendas for a more sustainable and equitable future.

By the end of the 1990s we began to see a relational turn in sociology, perhaps expressed most clearly in Mustafa Emirbayer’s Relational Manifesto. The core claim is that the basic unit of analysis for sociology (or perhaps the social sciences writ large) should be, neither the individual nor macro-level institutions, but the social relations between actors.

This relational claim is, of course, not new. Classical sociologists –Simmel, Marx, Mead, Blumer, Goffman– treated relationality as fundamental. All of symbolic interactionism, the economic sociologies of Granovetter’s embeddedness paradigm and Zelizerian relational work, organizational field theory, and the strong growth in network science are all contemporary exemplars.

But relationality was blurred in the mid-20thcentury though by the growth in statistical techniques and computer software packages that enabled the analysis of surveys of individuals. Blau and Duncan’s pathbreaking American Occupational Structure became the state of the art for stratification research, but it had the side effect of obscuring – both theoretically and methodologically – the relationality that undergirds the generation of inequalities.

Simultaneously, organizational sociology had its own theoretical blinders. The move towards New Institutionalism obscured the older focus on stakeholders and dominant coalitions, refocusing on legitimating processes in the environment through which organizations isomorphically converged. Charles Tilly’s book Durable Inequalities critiqued the status attainment model partly by adopting this view of organizations, treating organizations as inequality machines mechanically matching internal and external categories.

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by katherinechen

September 5, 2019 at 6:09 pm

understanding gender inequality through organizations

Looking for a handy overview about gender and inequality, using an organizational lens?  Continuing an earlier conversation about the state of organizational studies, Elizabeth L. Gorman and Sarah Mosseri examine “Why should students and scholars who are interested in gender difference and inequality study organizations?”

“How organizational characteristics shape gender difference and inequality at work”


Why should students and scholars who are interested in gender difference and inequality study organizations? In recent years, as research on organizations has migrated to business schools and become less connected to other subfields of the discipline, the value of organizational sociology has become less evident to many. Yet characteristics of organizations contribute in important ways to producing different experiences and outcomes for women and men, by constraining certain individual actions and enabling or bringing about others. In this essay, we trace the consequences of four categories of organizational characteristics—the formal structure of work, employment practices, informal structure and culture, and organizational networks and fields—for gender inequality in three areas: workplace experiences, work–family conflict, and career outcomes. We close with some brief reflections on future directions for research linking organizations and gender.

Download this article for free now from Sociology Compass’s Organizations and Work section, as the article is ungated until the end of this month, only!

Written by katherinechen

March 28, 2019 at 4:19 pm

in NYC spring 2018 semester? looking for a PhD-level course on “Change and Crisis in Universities?”

Are you a graduate student in the Inter-University Doctoral Consortium or a CUNY graduate student?*  If so, please consider taking “Change & Crisis in Universities: Research, Education, and Equity in Uncertain Times” class at the Graduate Center, CUNY.  This course is cross-listed in the Sociology, Urban Education and Interdisciplinary Studies programs.

Ruth Milkman and I are co-teaching this class together this spring on Tuesdays 4:15-6:15pm.  Our course topics draw on research in organizations, labor, and inequality.  This course starts on Tues., Jan. 30, 2018.

Here’s our course description:


This course examines recent trends affecting higher education, with special attention to how those trends exacerbate class, race/ethnicity, and gender inequalities. With the rising hegemony of a market logic, colleges and universities have been transformed into entrepreneurial institutions. Inequality has widened between elite private universities with vast resources and public institutions where students and faculty must “do more with less,” and austerity has fostered skyrocketing tuition and student debt. Tenure-track faculty lines have eroded as contingent academic employment balloons.  The rise of on-line “learning” and expanding class sizes have raised concerns about the quality of higher education, student retention rates, and faculty workloads.  Despite higher education’s professed commitment to diversity, disadvantaged racial and ethnic groups remain underrepresented, especially among faculty. Amid growing concerns about the impact of micro-aggressions, harassment, and even violence on college campuses, liberal academic traditions are under attack from the right. Drawing on social science research on inequality, organizations, occupations, and labor, this course will explore such developments, as well as recent efforts by students and faculty to reclaim higher education institutions.

We plan to read articles and books on the above topics, some of which have been covered by orgtheory posts and discussions such as epopp’s edited RSO volume, Armstrong and Hamilton’s Paying for the Party, and McMillan Cottom’s Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the New Economy.  We’ll also be discussing readings by two of our guestbloggers as well, Ellen Berrey and Caroline W. Lee.

*If you are a student at one of the below schools, you may be eligible, after filing  paperwork by the GC and your institution’s deadlines, to take classes within the Consortium:

Columbia University, GSAS
Princeton University – The Graduate School
CUNY Graduate Center
Rutgers University
Fordham University, GSAS
Stony Brook University
Graduate Faculty, New School University
Teachers College, Columbia University
New York University, GSAS, Steinhardt

Written by katherinechen

January 8, 2018 at 8:12 pm