Archive for the ‘Institutions’ Category
Sociologists are increasingly recognizing how organizations facilitate and perpetuate inequality. Check out the recently published Socio-Economic Review paper, “What is Missing? Cultural Processes and Causal Pathways to Inequality” by Michèle Lamont, Stefan Beljean, and Matthew Clair.
Building on Weber’s concept of rationalization, the authors argue that organizations’ propensity for standardization and evaluation (along with other processes) contribute to inequalities. Standardization flattens inputs and outputs, subjecting these to comparisons along narrow dimensions. In addition, those that conform to standards can receive needed resources, leaving outliers to scrap for the remainders:
Standardization is the process by which individuals, groups and institutions construct ‘uniformities across time and space’ through ‘the generation of agreed-upon rules’ (Timmermans and Epstein, 2010, p. 71). While the process implies intention (‘agreed-upon rules’) on the part of social actors, standardization as a process in everyday life frequently has unintended consequences. The construction of uniformities becomes habitual and taken for granted once the agreed-upon rules are set in place and codified into institutional and inter-subjective scripts (often formal, albeit sometimes also informal). In its industrial and post-industrial manifestations, the process of standardization is part and parcel of the rationalization and bureaucratization of society (Carruthers and Espeland, 1991; Olshan, 1993; Brunsson and Jacobsson, 2000; Timmermans and Epstein, 2010).
….Moreover, the effects of standardization on inequality are often unintended or indeterminate. Indeed, standards are often implemented with the intent of developing a common benchmark of success or competence and are frequently motivated by positive purposes (e.g. in the case of the adoption of pollution standards or teaching standards). Yet, once institutionalized, standards are often mobilized in the distribution of resources. In this process, in some cases, those who started out with standard relevant resources may be advantaged (Buchmann et al., 2010). In this sense, the consequences of standardization for inequality can be unintentional, indirect and open-ended, as it can exacerbate or abate inequality.Whether they are is an empirical issue to be assessed on a case-by-case basis.
One example of this interaction between standardization and social inequality is the use of standards in education as documented by Neckerman (2007). Among other things, her work analyses the rise of standardized and IQ testing in the 1920s in American education and local Chicago education policy. It shows how standardized test scores came to be used to determine admission to Chicago’s best vocational schools, with the goal of imposing more universalist practices. Yet, in reality, the reform resulted in diminished access to the best schooling for the city’s low-income African-American population…. (591-592).
Similarly, evaluation facilitates and legitimates differential treatment of individual persons:
Evaluation is a cultural process that—broadly defined—concerns the negotiation, definition and stabilization of value in social life (Beckert and Musselin, 2013). According to Lamont (2012, p. 206), this process involves several important sub-processes, most importantly categorization (‘determining in which group the entity [. . .] under consideration belongs’) and legitimation (‘recognition by oneself and others of the value of an entity’).
In the empirical literature, we find several examples of how evaluation as a cultural process can contribute to inequality, many of which are drawn from sociological research on hiring, recruiting and promotion in labour markets. The bulk of these studies concern how evaluation practices of organizations favour or discriminate against certain groups of employees (see, e.g. Castilla and Benard, 2010) or applicants (see, e.g. Rivera, 2012). Yet, some scholars also examine evaluation processes in labour markets from a broader perspective, locating evaluation not only in hiring or promotion but also in entire occupational fields.
For instance, Beljean (2013b) studied standards of evaluation in the cultural industry
of stand-up comedy. Drawing on interviews with comedians and their employers as well as ethnographic fieldwork, he finds that even though the work of stand-up comedians is highly uniform in that they all try to make people laugh, there is considerable variation in how comedians are evaluated across different levels of stratification of the comedy industry. Thus, for example, newcomer comedians and star performers are judged against different standards: while the former must be highly adaptable to the taste of different audiences and owners of comedy clubs, the latter are primarily judged by their ability to nurture their fan-base and to sell out shows. Even though this difference does not necessarily translate into more inequality among comedians, it tends to have negative effects on the career prospects of newcomer comedians. Due to mechanisms of cumulative advantage, and because both audiences and bookers tend to be conservative in their judgement, it is easier for more established comedians to maintain their status than for newcomers to build up a reputation. As a result, a few star comedians get to enjoy a disproportionally large share of fame and monetary rewards, while a large majority of comedians remain anonymous and marginalized. (593)
Those looking for ways to curb inequality will not find immediate answers in this article. The authors do not offer remedies for how organizations can combat such unintended consequences, or even, have its members become more self-aware of these tendencies. Yet, we know from other research that organizations have attempted different measures to minimize bias. For example, during the 1970s and 1980s, orchestras turned to “blind” auditions to reduce gender bias when considering musicians for hire. Some have even muffled the floor to prevent judges from hearing the click of heels that might give away the gender of those auditioning.
In any case, have a look at the article’s accompanying discussion forum, where fellow scholars Douglas S. Massey, Leslie McCall, Donald Tomaskovic-Devey, Dustin Avent-Holt, Philippe Monin, Bernard Forgues, and Tao Wang weigh in with their own essays.
In this post, I want to offer a few thoughts about what institutionalism can gain, or has gained, through its interactions with other areas. Let’s start with what it might gain by looking at our neighbors, the economists. One thing that immediately jumps to mind is that institutionalism gets immediately recast as applied game theory, such as the work of Avner Grief. The idea is that “institution” becomes “norm,” which means that you can ask about the types of incentives that lead to norms being followed or violated. So far, this sort of work is well cited in sociology, but most sociologists are simply not interested in this type of economic modelling. Still, there is probably much to be gained by considering how “taken for grantedness” might be affected by incentives and the structure of interaction.
We might also consider how institutionalism might be impacted by a deeper engagement with other subfields of sociology. One thing that you notice is that institutional scholars routinely cite work in other fields, but don’t apply the ideas. For example, I noticed in grad school that a lot of institutional articles would cite cultural theory, but you don’t see a full blown toolkit style analysis in institutionalism. Rather than ritual citation, it might be good to seriously make institutionalist theories of action meet cultural theories of action (a la Hans Joas or Swidler).
By anchoring itself empirically to organizational studies, economic sociology, and politics, institutionalism has pretty much cut itself off from a whole range of empirical phenomena. Already, by looking at movements (see Brayden’s work or Huggy Rao’s or Sarah Soule’s), org studies has grown tremendously. My own work on universities also focuses on the institutionalism/movements interactions. But why don’t we have “gendered institutionalism” or a theory going after inequality-institution interactions?
So for ambitious students, we have two very interesting possibilities. One is to enrich institutional theory by linking to another area with different methods/behavioral assumptions like economics or anthropology. Another road to take is to look at areas of sociology that have had little contact with institutionalism like gender, race, or demography.
Institutionalism is, by any measure, the major sociological theory of organizational behavior. It’s flagship article, DiMaggio and Powell 1983, is the most cited article ever published in the American Sociological Review. Citations to institutionalism dwarf other approaches like ecology and network analysis. Virtually all graduate students who specialize in organizational theory must learn institutionalism and there is a steady stream of handbooks and edited volume chapters that expound the theory.
So this week, I want to get a few issues on the table about institutionalism. Today is simply an assessment of “where are we now?” I’ll offer a few claims on this question and I’d be interested to see if you agree with me.
First, institutional theory has moved from a theory of organizational conformity/non-conformity (depends if you are D&P 83 or M&R 77) to a theory of action with fields. This can be seen in Fligstein and McAdam’s theory of fields, institutional work, and inhabited institutions.
Second, we’ve pretty much dropped studies of diffusion curves (they still happen on occasion, though) and focused on strategic action or environments. This can be seen in the institutional logics/inhabited institutions split in the field.
Third, institutionalism has moved away from sociology programs and into management and education programs. For example, most of the leading institutional logic scholars are in b-schools (Thornton, Ocasio, Lounsbury), as are the big names in institutional work theory (Suddaby, Lawrence, Leca) and one half of the duo that brought you inhabited institutions (Ventresca). In sociology programs, one sees top scholars either using institutional theory to study “topics” (e.g., my own work on movements and org change) or they are creating theory that no longer presents itself as institutions (e.g., Fligstein and McAdam present their theory of fields as drawing from many sources in sociology). You don’t see new branches of institutionalism being hatched in soc programs (except Hallet’s inhabited institutions).
Use the comments to discuss the “where are we now.”
Last week I was finishing up a volume introduction and it prompted me to catch up on the last couple of years of the institutional logics literature. This gave me some thoughts, and now I can’t sleep, so I’m putting them out there. This is long so it’s broken into three parts. The first two reflect my personal saga with institutional logics. They set up the rest, but you can also skip to the third and final section for the punchline.
Netflix is running a documentary called The Search for General Tso, which is about the origin of a dish called “General Tso’s Chicken.” As you might imagine, the documentary starts with some obvious humor. Folks back in China have never heard of it, so the viewer believes that it is a fake “American Chinese” dish.
The story turns out to be richer than that. I won’t give away the details, but the film is an excellent overview of Chinese immigration and the role that Chinese restaurants have in helping migrants:
- Chinese restaurants were given “territories” so they wouldn’t compete with each other, which explains why you find them in some far flung places.
- There is an interesting economics of Chinese food. For example, Tso’s Chicken is inexpensive and appeals to the American desire for sweet and fried foods.
- Even though Tso’s chicken is not commonly consumed in China, it actually has its origins there and was brought to the US through a rather bitter competition between two feuding Taiwanese chefs.
- Chinese food is highly unstable in that it is easy to modify for various global audiences.
So General Tso’s chicken emerges from a very, very specific circumstance in the 1970s, but it “fits” in the long standing field of Chinese restaurants and quickly diffuses throughout the US. Great story of culture, economics, and organizational fields.
In the Face of Inequality: How Black Colleges Adapt is a new book on historically black colleges by Melissa E. Wooten. The purpose of the book is to ask how the field of HBCs has evolved over its history and to provide a sociological answer to this question. The book is built on a series of questions that most organizational theorists would find intuitive – how is the HBC field organized? How do HBCs pursue collective action? How do they build legitimacy and how have they responded to the ere of desegregation?
After providing an overview of the HBC field, Wooten answers these questions by looking at “adaptive episodes” where HBCs come together to address various financial and political problems. For example, there is a highly informative discussion of the United Negro College Fund, which remains one of the most important financial instruments for supporting Black students seeking a college education. The UNCF is also one of the most important accreditation agencies in the HBC field. The gist of the argument about the UNCF is that was both a financial project and also a legitimacy building project. It also had some important unintented consequences – by favoring standards selected by UNCF donors, HBCs were encouraged to adopt the forms that did not directly challenge the social and political practices that ensured low status for Blacks.
Aside from being an important sociological study of the HBC field, In the Face of Inequality is an important example of institutionalism 3.0 – the research project linking institutional theory with other major streams of modern sociology. This text connects institutionalism with race theory. For these reasons, it’s a good book. Recommended!
Africanists like to toss around the words “failed state.” But what they falsely assume is that there is only one option – building a stronger state. What would happen if the state just withered and people just let it go? Are people better off by just ditching the weak state? A 2006 article in the Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization by Benjamin Powell, Ryan Ford, and Alex Nowratseh asks exactly this question. They ask, what happened in Somalia after their state collapsed 1991?
Somalia is a nation that was hammered by war, famine, dictators, and an out of control socialist state. In the 1991, the state collapsed and people reverted to tribal forms of governance based on Islamic courts and kinship (the Xeer system). In 2005, Powell et al. collected basic data on longevity, health, roads, money, and law. Then they asked, how does Somalia compare with other African states?
The answer is surprising. On many measures, Somalia post-1991 actually does well compared to 42 other sub-Saharan states. On at least five measures (including life expectancy and mortality), Somalia is in the top half (p. 662). On a few important measures (such as water access and immunization), they are near the bottom. Even then, they often improved in absolute terms, though not in relative terms. When you compared Somalia with neighbors that had been at war, they report improvements in most measures while other warring states saw declines. Somalia has also seen an expansion of its pastoral economy, a functional currency, and the best mobile phone system in the region. The major setback for Somalia is a depressing performance with regard to infant mortality, which probably relates to poor immunization rates. Still, statelessness did not lead to chaos. Rather, Somalia continued to resemble other African societies on most measures.
This is not an argument for selling off the White House, but it does make an extremely important comparative institutional point. High quality Western systems of governance are simply not on the table. There is no way these impoverished societies can create the level of wealth needed for Western style states in the short term. It is also the case that the options are horrible – dictatorships or Marxist states. If those are your choices, it might be plausible to evolve into a decentralized legal system.