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“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)

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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.

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

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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.

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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”

Abstract

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

what problems do people think antitrust is going to solve?

Last week, I asked why antitrust is having a moment (it’s continued, on Planet Money and elsewhere), and why Democrats are using radical language to make fairly modest proposals. In this post, I’m going to ask what problems people think antitrust is going to solve, anyway.

Certainly a lot of the current concern about antitrust comes from a broad sense that corporations are too economically and politically powerful, that our economy has been restructured in ways that make ordinary people worse off, and that massive tech companies are able to use our data in ways that we have little control over. That’s political antitrust. And those are totally real issues.

But I want to explore some new questions being raised that are not exactly within the current scope of economic antitrust, but that are still kind of speaking its language—that are pushing to change the antitrust technocracy, not up-end it. To recap, as it has been construed for the last thirty-plus years, the purpose of antitrust is to promote consumer welfare, generally by trying to keep firms from being able to raise and keep prices above a competitive level. The focus is consumers, and prices.

Increasingly, though, people at least adjacent to the space of antitrust expertise are making claims about economic problems they think are being caused by lax antitrust enforcement, or that antitrust should be addressing. And those proposals are worth keeping an eye on, because as hard as it might be to change the expert consensus, it’s still more likely than a new anti-monopoly movement. (Though the two could certainly reinforce each other.) I see these new arguments as falling into basically three categories.

Market power has effects we didn’t realize

Market power is the ability to keep prices above a competitive level (i.e. above marginal cost). Once upon a time, people thought there was a fairly close relationship between how concentrated a market is—that is, how many companies control what share of the market—and how much market power firms have. Since the 1970s, there has been much less of a presumption that concentration, on its own, indicates market power. That means that there’s been less concern about whether we’ve got four airlines controlling 70% of the U.S. market, or that four carriers control 99% of the U.S. wireless market.

Increasingly, though, people are raising flags about other problems that might result from market power. One of these is labor monopsony—the idea that firms have market power, but as purchasers of labor, not sellers of products, and that this is driving wages down. The Council of Economic Advisers put out a report last fall suggesting this might be happening, and Democrats’ mention of “bargaining power for workers” implies this is part of what they’re trying to address. There are related arguments about market power in supply chains and the emergence of “winner take most” industries that also suggest links between concentration or market power and wages.

In theory, monopsony can be handled within the current legal framework, though it is rarely addressed in practice. So developing arguments about the effects of market power on workers, and a legal framework for addressing that within antitrust, is one conceivable new direction for antitrust.

Others are arguing that market power can lead firms to attach undesirable conditions to products that make them lower quality, even as price remains the same. In particular, some scholars, including Nobel Laureate Joe Stiglitz, have framed privacy as an antitrust issue: the product may be free, but consumers have no choice about how their data is used (and in the case of platforms like Facebook, no equivalent competitors). Privacy is hard to address within a framework focused purely on price. But in Europe, competition policy is increasingly tackling privacy issues, and Germany is currently investigating whether Facebook’s dominant position is forcing consumers to give up their privacy without having an alternative choice.

Market power has causes we didn’t realize

The Atlantic just featured a story with the dramatic title, “Are Index Funds Evil?” The article discusses the rise of large institutional investors—index funds, though not only index funds—and what it means that, increasingly, big chunks of competitors in a specific market are actually owned by the same few corporations. It goes on to discuss work by José Azar, Martin Schmalz, and Isabel Tecu that finds that this common ownership enhances market power, and that airline ticket prices are 3-7% higher than they would be under separate ownership.

In this story, index funds were the hook, but it just as easily could have been framed around antitrust. In a way, common ownership was the original antitrust question: the big trusts of the late 19th century were not single-firm monopolies, but competitors that had turned over ownership to a group of trustees that made unified governance decisions. And while research in this area is still new and findings tentative, legal scholars are already making the case that antitrust law can cover the anticompetitive effects of these horizontal shareholdings. If this work continues to hold up, this seems potentially transformative.

Technological change is creating new threats to competition

Finally, a fair bit of the recent chatter is basically arguing, “it’s the technology, stupid.” The dynamics of competition change as more of the economy shifts to online platforms. Because of network effects, companies like Facebook, Google, Apple, and Amazon are hard to compete with—much of their value comes from their existing user base. And because they aren’t just selling products to consumers, but connecting consumers with producers, they aren’t acquiring market power in the traditional sense. Facebook and Google are free products, after all.

But the power of network effects means that they have a tendency towards monopoly. And the fact that the four largest companies by market capitalization are platforms suggests how central platforms have become to our economy.

So we have these new companies that have become very large, and that appear monopolistic, though they also create great value for consumers. From an antitrust perspective, they don’t really appear to be a problem, because they aren’t raising prices. And the history of rapid technological change over the past 25 years, including the rise and fall of a number of once-dominant platforms, raises the question of whether even platforms behaving in anticompetitive ways pose much of a long-term threat.

Recent scholarship, though, argues that monopolistic platforms are in fact anticompetitive, that it is a problem, and that current law is poorly equipped to handle. Lina Khan’s much-circulated note in the Yale Law Journal, for example, argues that 1) platforms encourage predatory pricing—generally seen as irrational (and thus not an issue) within antitrust law—because network effects encourage pursuit of growth over profit, and 2) platforms collect data on rivals that give them an unfair competitive advantage. These sorts of issues clearly fit within the broad scope of “protecting competition,” but don’t fit easily with a consumer welfare, market power conception of antitrust.

Changing that would be a significant project, but if we have an economy that is dominated by firms whose potentially anticompetitive activity is essentially beyond the scope of antitrust, there’s not much left to antitrust. And again, the massive fine the E.U. just levied on Google—for favoring its own shopping service, consisting of companies that pay Google to be on it, over competitors in search results—suggests what this could look like. So far, the U.S. has not demonstrated much enthusiasm about expanding antitrust in this direction. But it’s not inconceivable that it could happen, and it could be done within a framework that was focused solely on competition, if not only on consumer welfare.

Again, all these challenges to the current antitrust framework are at least in the ballpark of its conversation, even if they would require pushing the law in new directions or advancing the acceptance of new economic theories. And they are not the only arguments that are in play here. For example, the question of whether inequality is facilitated by concentration or market power, or whether it has become such a central economic problem that antitrust should try to address it, have prompted enough discussion that two leading antitrust scholars have felt the need to argue that antitrust should leave inequality alone.

Unlike political antitrust, which would probably require a social movement to move it forward, these antitrust arguments have the potential to gain traction without necessarily requiring legislation or a revolution against the current antitrust regime. The 1970s shift toward Chicago-style antitrust happened, to a considerable extent, because the old economic framework seemed increasingly inadequate for explaining the world people found themselves in. As the current framework comes to seem similarly dated, this could be another moment when such change is possible.

Written by epopp

August 10, 2017 at 1:33 pm

we should thank malcolm gladwell and send him flowers

What if I told you that a popular writer recently published a book that neatly summarizes modern inequality research for the masses and depicts sociology in a very positive light? You’d be happy, right? And you might want to know who that person is, right?

Well, I just spent some time rereading Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, his summary of the social science research on high achievement. The public discussion of the book focused way too much on one chapter that discusses the “10,000 hour rule” (experts usually need about four years of full time immersion in a topic to get really good at it). But if you read the book, the message is much more expansive than that and it completely draws on a lot of standard sociology.

For example, Gladwell has a chapter dedicated to Lareau’s theory of class and culture as a factor in status attainment. He talks about how working class people often have an oppositional view of institutions and he directly talks about Lareau. In multiple chapters on family and achievement, he cites sociological studies that trace how families transmit specific knowledge and skills to their children, which allow for social mobility. He is also a fan of ecological theories of success (being in a city where business is booming – New York in the 1910s) and cohort theories of success (being part of the computer revolution in the 1980s). In discussing cultural differences, he offers a fairly conventional Swidler/Weber approach. He argues that work skills that are advantageous in Asian agriculture are also advantageous in Western industrial economies.

So why don’t we pay more attention to Outliers as a great “public sociology” book? The ASA did give Gladwell an outreach award, but the profession seems to have moved on. I think it may have to do with the 10,000 hours chapter. The chapter is a little bit sloppy and slides into exuberant rhetoric. A lot of people focused on it and tried to tear it down. For example, he does actually write that “10,000 hours is the magic number,” which mistakenly gives the impression that anyone can win an Olympic medal if they just practice enough.

This is a false impression if you actually read the entire chapter (and book) and approach the claim with a charitable mind. For example, at multiple points, he openly admits that people have “talent” and that you need that for the coaching and practice to get you to a world class level. The other chapters all suggest that contextual factors matter a great deal as well. Also, many of the critics committed their own errors. For example, they would often point to studies of elite athletes that show that extra practice doesn’t explain success. Yes, but by selecting only elite athletes, you are looking at a group where everyone has already done their “10,000” hours. That is selection bias!

In regards to sloppy writing, what I think Gladwell was trying to say was that yes, people have talent, but you also need to add in other structural factors, such as deep immersion in the field. No one is “born” a genius. High achievement is the result of social structure and individual gifts. If I were Gladwell, I would also add that deep practice would improve almost anyone in absolute terms and make you an “expert” but it wouldn’t erase relative differences between people who have invested the time in practice. For example, if I studied basketball for 10,000 with a pro-level coach, I bet my lay-ups would be amazing – if I did them by myself!! If I had to plow through other taller players on defense, I probably wouldn’t do as well. My innate traits don’t disappear completely and neither do relative difference. But I would still be massively better compared to a person with no training and I would still possess “expert level” knowledge and execution of skills. In my view, Gladwell should have focused a little more on the difference between absolute improvements and relative performance.

Is Outliers perfect? No, but it is a very fair summary of how sociologists think about status attainment and I think it would be a great way to teach undergrads. If you need a nice popular book for an intro course or stratification, this is a good one.

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

Written by fabiorojas

August 3, 2017 at 4:39 am

the 80th percentile isn’t the problem

Okay, so I know three days is like a thousand years in internet time. But this Sunday Times op-ed, “Stop Pretending You’re Not Rich,” is still bugging me. The title is perfect guilty liberal upper-middle-class New-York-Times-reader clickbait. And sure enough, it was all over my social media feed.

But I think the piece gets things wrong in a particularly pernicious way.

The thrust of the op-ed, and presumably the book it’s promoting, is that upper-middle-class Americans—the top 20% by income—are the real problem, not the top 1%. They are capturing most of the income gains, hoarding opportunities, and they don’t even acknowledge their luck in being there.

A lot of the specific points, particularly about policies that benefit the moderately well-off at the expense of others, are easy to agree with. Exclusionary zoning is bad. 529 plans benefit the well-to-do almost entirely. The mortgage interest deduction is terrible policy.

But the real problem with the U.S. economic system isn’t the self-interested behavior of those in the top 20% of the income distribution. It’s that 1% of the population holds 40% of the wealth, and that GDP increases aren’t translating into higher incomes for most of the population.

The op-ed misdirects our attention away from these factors in multiple ways. First, it paints a misleading picture of this person in the top 20%.

Most obviously, it says that the average income of this group is $200,000, which I admit does sound pretty high. But using the average income to describe this fifth of the population is a problem, given the shape of the income distribution.

The median, which would be the 90th percentile, is $162,000. The 80th percentile is $117,000. (Here’s a quick calculator based on CPS data.) Very healthy, but not $200,000. The anecdotal illustration—the author’s friends who pay $30,000 a year for their kid’s high school tuition—also seems to point to someone with an income on the high end of this range.

Second, while the second decile is doing reasonably well, both its wealth and income are quite proportionate with its actual numbers. This paper is now slightly dated, but it does break out that decile—to show that in 2007 at least, it held 12% of total net worth, and made 14% of total income (see Table 2). You’d have to be pretty damn egalitarian to think that was unreasonably high for the next-to-top 10%.

Finally, yeah, the top 20% has seen more income gains than the rest. But the issue is less that they’re gradually getting better off, than that wages in general aren’t keeping up with either GDP growth or productivity. If you look at pre-tax income of the top 20%, exclusive of the top 1%, it’s increased by 65% since 1979 (see Table 1). Sounds like a lot—until you realize that real GDP per capita increased almost 80% during the same period.

So sure, the top 20% is unquestionably well-off, and indeed rich in global terms. And doubtless people in this group could show a little more self-awareness of their relative good fortune. And it would be nice if the mortgage interest deduction wasn’t the third rail of tax policy.

But the problem isn’t that the top 20% is doing reasonably well. It’s that the rest of the population should be doing that well, too. Ultimately, pointing a finger at the fortunate fifth is a sleight-of-hand that keeps our attention away from where it should be: on a much richer, more rarified group, and the broken system that allows it to capture the bulk of the gains that we as a society produce.

 

 

 

Written by epopp

June 14, 2017 at 12:15 pm