Archive for the ‘Institutions’ Category

ethnographers looking back

One on-going aspect of ethnographic work is the never-ending reflection and re-evaluation of conclusions made months, years, or decades prior. Retrospection invites extended analysis of findings that were otherwise cut short; it also facilitates shift from a worm’s eye to a bird’s eye contextualization of a case. Michael Burawoy’s “Ethnographic Fallacies: Reflections on Labour Studies in the Era of Market Fundamentalism” offers one such contemplation.*

In this research note, Burawoy re-examines several decades of his participant-observations in workplaces in various nations; he reveals the actual names of his most famous disguised field sites. Looking back, he summarizes six revelations while imparting a warning to those overly invested in the merits of particular methodologies:

From the ethnographer’s curse, therefore, I turn to the ethnographic fallacies that limited my vision of market fundamentalism. First, there are three traps that await the ethnographer who seeks to comprehend the world beyond the field site: the fallacies of ignoring, reifying and homogenizing that world. Second, there are three traps awaiting the ethnographer who fails to give the field site a dynamic of its own: the fallacies of viewing the field site as eternal or, when the past is examined, the danger of treating the present as a point of arrival rather than also as a point of departure; and finally the danger of wishful thinking, projecting one’s own hopes onto the actors we study.
I describe these six fallacies not to indict ethnography but to improve its practice, to help ethnographers grapple with the limitations of their method. No method is without fallacies, it is a matter of how honestly and openly we approach them. Being accountable to the people we study requires us to recognize our fallibility and, thus, to wrestle with that fallibility. The methodological dogmatists, who declare they have found the flawless method and spend their time condemning others for not following the golden trail, are the real menace to our profession.

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Written by katherinechen

February 7, 2015 at 6:39 pm

where human capital arguments make headway

Higher education has become dependent on human capital arguments to justify its existence. The new gainful employment rule for for-profit colleges, announced yesterday by the Obama administration, reminded me of this. It clarifies what standards for-profits have to meet in order to remain eligible for federal aid, which makes up 90% of many for-profits’ revenues.

Under the new standard, programs will fail if graduates’ debt-to-earnings ratio is over 30%, or if their debt-to-discretionary-earnings (income above 150% of the poverty line — about $17,000 for a single person) is over 12%.

Now, we could have a whole other conversation about this criterion, which is really, really, weak, since it no longer takes into account the percent of students who default on their loans within three years. By limiting the measure to graduates, it ignores, for example, the outcomes of the 86% of students who enroll in BA programs at the University of Phoenix but don’t finish in six years — most of whom are taking out as many federal loans as they can along the way.

But I want to make a different point here. More and more, we are focused on return on investment — income of graduates — as central to thinking about the value of college.

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Written by epopp

October 31, 2014 at 3:39 pm

money, money, money … at Yale

Yale is hosting a conference on $$$, which is open to the public, next Fri., Sept. 12th at Yale.

The line-up is both impressive and exciting, not least of all because it involves our orgtheory crew plus beloved colleagues and dear orgtheory readers!

Friday, September 12, 2014
Hosted by:
Nina Bandelj ~ Sociology, University of California at Irvine
Daniel Markovits ~ Yale Law School
Frederick F. Wherry ~ Sociology, Yale University

With papers from:
Bruce Carruthers ~ Sociology, Northwestern University
Christine Desan ~ Harvard Law School
Nigel Dodd ~ Sociology, London School of Economics
Akinobu Kuroda ~ Institute for Advanced Studies on Asia, Tokyo
Simone Polillo ~ Sociology, University of Virginia
Akos Rona-Tas ~ Sociology, University of California at San Diego
Alya Guseva ~ Sociology, Boston University
Rene Almeling ~ Sociology, Yale University
David Grewal ~ Yale Law School
Kieran Healy ~ Sociology, Duke University
Marion Fourcade ~ Sociology, University of California at Berkeley
Supriya Singh ~ Sociology, RMIT, Australia
Stephen Vaisey ~ Sociology, Duke University
Shane Frederick ~ Psychology, Yale School of Management
Daniel Markovits ~ Yale Law School

The Social Meaning of Money
Turns 20
Nancy Folbre ~ Economics, University of Massachusetts
Arlie Hochschild ~ Sociology, University of California at Berkeley
Eric Helleiner ~ Political Science, University of Waterloo
Bill Maurer ~ Anthropology, University of California at Irvine
Jonathan Morduch ~ Economics, New York University

Co-Sponsored by The Office of the Provost, Yale University ~ Yale Center for Cultural Sociology
Center for Organizational Research at the University of California, Irvine
Yale Center for Comparative Research ~ Yale Law School ~ Yale School of Management

Here’s the program:

Money Talks: A Symposium at Yale
Friday, September 12, 2014

Morning Sessions:Yale School of Management, Evans Hall, 165 Whitney Avenue. Class of 1980 Classroom, 2400
Afternoon sessions: Yale Law School, 127 Wall Street, Room 127 (TBC).

9:00 ~ 9:15 AM Welcome
Richard Breen ~ Yale University, Chair of the Department of Sociology
Daniel Markovits ~ Yale Law School, Symposium Co-host
Frederick Wherry ~ Yale University, Symposium Co-organizer
Nina Bandelj ~ University of California, Irvine, Symposium Co-organizer
9:15 ~ 10:45 AM Panel 1: Money and Markets
Bruce Carruthers ~ Northwestern University
Some A-B-C’s of Financial Fables: Rethinking Finance and Money
Akinobu Kuroda ~ Institute for Advanced Studies on Asia, University of Tokyo
The Characters of Money: A Historical Viewpoint from Complementary Currencies
Simone Polillo ~ University of Virginia
A Macro-Sociology of Money
Alya Guseva ~ Boston University & Akos Rona-Tas ~ University of California, San Diego
Money Talks, Plastic Money Tattles
Moderator: Alice Goffman ~ University of Wisconsin, Madison
10:45 ~ 11:00 AM Coffee Break
11:00 AM ~ 12:30 PM Panel 2: Money and Morals
Rene Almeling ~ Yale University
Money, Technology, and Bodily Experience: Comparing the Production of Eggs for Pregnancy or for Profit
David Grewal ~ Yale Law School
The Meaning of the Mirage: Money and Sin in Early Political Economy
Marion Fourcade ~ University of California, Berkeley & Kieran Healy ~ Duke University
Seeing Like a Market
Supriya Singh ~ RMIT University, Australia
Money and Morals: The Biography of Transnational Money
Moderator: Olav Sorenson ~ Yale School of Management
12:30 ~ 2:00 PM Lunch Break
2:00 ~ 4:00 PM Panel 3: The Social Meaning of Money, 20 Years Later
Nancy Folbre ~ University of Massachusetts, Amherst
Accounting for Care
Arlie Hochschild ~ University of California, Berkeley
Going on Attachment Alert: Paying Money, Managing Feeling
Eric Helleiner ~ University of Waterloo, Canada
The Macro Social Meaning of Money: From Territorial Currencies to Global Money
Bill Maurer ~ University of California, Irvine
Zelizer for the Bitcoin Moment: The Social Meaning of Payment Technology
Jonathan Morduch ~ New York University
Economics, Psychology, and the Social Meaning of Money
Moderator: Nina Bandelj ~ University of California, Irvine
4:00 ~ 4:15 PM Coffee Break
4:15 ~ 6:00 PM Panel 4: The Moralities, Solidarities, and Meanings of Money
Stephen Vaisey ~ Duke University
What Would You Do For a Million Dollars?
Shane Frederick ~ Yale School of Management
Positional Concerns
Christine Desan ~ Harvard Law School
Money as a Constitutional Practice
Daniel Markovits ~ Yale Law School
Economic Inequality and the Meaning of Money
Nigel Dodd ~ London School of Economics
Is Bitcoin Utopian?
Moderator: Frederick Wherry ~ Yale University
6:00 PM A Conversation With Viviana Zelizer
Moderators: Nina Bandelj ~ University of California, Irvine & Frederick Wherry ~ Yale University
6:30 PM Reception ~ Yale Law School, The Alumni Reading Room

Written by katherinechen

September 5, 2014 at 2:47 pm

our blog’s new mission statement

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

Written by fabiorojas

August 10, 2014 at 12:01 am

Posted in culture, fabio, Institutions

why the facebook/okcupid conversation needs the history of technology

I’m in the Poconos this week with old college friends and only intermittently paying attention to the larger world. And I’m hesitant to opine about the latest in the world of online experimentation (see here, here, or here) because honestly, it’s not my issue. I don’t study social media. I don’t have deep answers to questions about the ethics of algorithms, or how we should live with, limit, or reshape digital practices. And plenty of virtual ink has already been spilled by people more knowledgeable about the details of these particular cases.

But I do want to make the case that it’s important to have this conversation at this particular moment. Here is why:

If there’s one thing the history of technology teaches us, it’s that technology is path-dependent, and as a particular technology becomes dominant, the social and material world develop along with it in ways that have a lasting impact.

The QWERTY story, in which an inefficient keyboard layout was created to slow down the users of jam-prone typewriters but long outlasted those machines, may be apocryphal. Perhaps a better example is streetcars.

Historian Kenneth Jackson, in the classic Crabgrass Frontier, showed how U.S. cities were first reshaped by streetcars. Streetcars made it possible to commute some distance from home to work, and helped give dense, well-bounded cities a hub-and-spokes shape, with the spokes made up of rail lines. This was made possible by new technology.

Early in the 20th century, another new technology became widely available: the automobile. The car made suburbanization, in the American sense involving sprawl and highways and a turn away from center cities, possible.

But the car alone was not enough to suburbanize the United States. Jackson’s real contribution was to show how technological developments intersected with 1) cultural responses to the crowded, dirty realities of urban life, and 2) government policies that encouraged both white homeownership and white flight, to create the diffuse, car-dependent American suburbs we know and love. The two evolve together: technological possibilities and social decisions about how to use the technologies. As they lock in, both become harder to change — until the next disruptive technology (((ducking))) comes along.

So what does all this have to do with OKCupid?

The lesson here is that technologies and their uses can evolve in multiple ways. European cities developed very differently from American cities, even though both had access to the same transportation technologies. But there are particular moments, periods of transition, when we start to lock in a set of institutions — normative, legal, organizational — around a developing new technology.

We’re never going to be able to predict all the effects that a particular social decision will have on how we use some technology. Government support of racist red-lining practices is one reason for the white flight that encouraged suburbanization. But even if the 1930s U.S. mortgage policy hadn’t been racist, other aspects of it — for example, making the globally uncommon fixed-rate mortgage the U.S. norm — still would have promoted decentralization and encouraged the car-based suburbs. Some of that was probably unforeseeable.*

But some of it wasn’t. And I can’t help but think that more loud and timely conversation about the decisions and nondecisions the U.S. was making in the early decades of the 20th century might have led the country down a less car-dependent path. Once the decisions are made, though, they become very difficult to change.

Right now, it is 1910. We have the technology to know more about individuals than it has ever been possible to know, and maybe to change their behavior. We don’t know how we’re going to govern that technology. We don’t really know what its effects will be. But this is the time to talk about the possibilities, loudly and repeatedly if necessary. Maybe the effects on online experimentation will turn out to be to be harmless. Maybe just trusting that Facebook and OKCupid aren’t setting us on the wrong path will work out. But I’d hate to think that we unintentionally create a new set of freedom-restricting, inequality-reproducing institutions that look pretty lousy in a few decades just because we didn’t talk enough about what might — or might not — be at stake.

That’s how websites work” isn’t a good enough answer. If 62% of Facebook users don’t even know there’s an algorithm, there’s plenty of room for conversation.

* There is a story that GM drove the streetcars out of business by buying up streetcar companies and then dismantling the streetcars. There are a number of accounts purporting to debunk this story. This version, which splits the difference (GM tried, but it wasn’t a conspiracy, and it was only one of several causes) seems knowledgeable, but I’d love a pointer to an authoritative source on GM’s role.


Written by epopp

July 29, 2014 at 7:32 pm

a rant on ant

Over at Scatterplot, Andy Perrin has a nice post pointing to a recent talk by Rodney Benson on actor-network theory and what Benson calls “the new descriptivism” in political communications. Benson argues that ANT is taking people away from institutional/field-theoretic causal explanation of what’s going on in the world and toward interesting but ultimately meaningless description. He also critiques ANT’s assumption that world is largely unsettled, with temporary stability as the development that must be explained.

At the end of the talk, Benson points to a couple of ways that institutional/field theory and ANT might “play nicely” together. ANT might be useful for analyzing the less-structured spaces between fields. And it helps draw attention toward the role of technologies and the material world in shaping social life. Benson seems less convinced that it makes sense to talk nonhumans as having agency; I like Edwin Sayes’ argument for at least a modest version of this claim.

I toyed with the possibility of reconciling institutionalism and ANT in an article on the creation of the Bayh-Dole Act a few years back. But really, the ontological assumptions of ANT just don’t line up with an institutionalist approach to causality. Institutionalism starts with fairly tidy individual and collective actors — people, organizations, professional groups. Even messy social movements are treated as well-enough-defined to have effects on laws or corporate behavior. The whole point of ANT is to destabilize such analyses.

That said, I think institutionalists can fruitfully borrow from ANT in ways that Latour would not approve of, just as they have used Bourdieu productively without adopting his whole apparatus. In particular, the insights of ANT can get us at least two things:

1)      It not only increases our attention to the role of technologies in shaping organizational and field-level outcomes, but ANT makes us pay attention to variation in the stability of those technologies. It is simply not possible to fully accounting for the mortgage crisis, for example, without understanding what securitization is; how tranching restructured, redistributed and sometimes hid risk; how it was stabilized more or less durably in particular times and places; and so on.

You can’t just treat “securitization” as a unitary explanatory factor. You need to think about the specific configuration of rules, organizational practices, technologies, evaluation cultures and so on that hold “securitization” together more or less stably in a specific time and place. Sure, technologies are sometimes stable enough to treat as unified and causal—for example, a widely used indicator like GDP, or a standardized technology like a new drug. But thinking about this as a question of degree improves explanatory capacity.

An example from my own current work: VSL, the value of a statistical life. Calculations of VSL are critical to cost-benefit analyses that justify regulatory decisions. They inform questions of environmental justice, of choice of medical treatment, of worker safety guidelines. All sorts of political assumptions — for example, that the lives of people in poor countries are worth less than people in rich ones — are baked into them. There is no uniform federal standard for calculating VSL — it varies widely across agencies. ANT sensitizes us not only to the importance of such technologies, but to their semi-stable nature—reasonably persistent within a single agency, but evolving over time and different across agencies.

2)      Second, ANT can help institutionalists deal better with evolving actors and partial institutionalization. For example, I’m interested in how economists became more important to U.S. policymaking over a few decades. The problem is that while you can define “economist” as “person with a PhD in economics,” what it means to be an economist changes over time, and differs across subfields, and is fuzzy around the borders.

I do think it’s meaningful to talk about “economists” becoming more influential, particularly because the production of PhDs happens in a fairly stable set of organizational locations. But you can’t just treat growth theorists of the 1960s and cost-benefit analysts from the 1980s and the people creating the FCC spectrum auctions in the 1990s as a unitary actor; you need ways to handle variety and evolution without losing sight of the larger category. And you need to understand not only how people called “economists” enter government, but also how people with other kinds of training start to reason a little more like economists.

Drawing from ANT helps me think about how economists and their intellectual tools gain a more-or-less durable position in policymaking: by establishing institutional positions for themselves, by circulating a style of reasoning (especially through law and public policy schools), and by establishing policy devices (like VSL). (See also my recent SER piece with Dan Hirschman.) Once these things have been accomplished, then economics is able to have effects on policy (that’s the second half of the book). While the language I use still sounds pretty institutionalist—although I find myself using the term “stabilized” more than I used to—it is definitely informed by ANT’s attention to the work it takes to make social arrangements last. Thus I end up with a very different story from, for example, Fligstein & McAdam’s about how skilled actors impose a new conception of a field — although new conceptions are indeed imposed.

I don’t have a lot of interest in fully adopting ANT as a methodology, and I don’t think the social always needs to be reassembled. The ANT insights also lend themselves better to qualitative, historical explanation than to quantitative hypothesis testing. But all in all, although I remain an institutionalist, I think my work is better for its engagement with ANT.

Written by epopp

June 5, 2014 at 8:31 pm

book review: moral movements and foreign policy by joshua busby

I recently reviewed Joshua Busby’s book social movements and foreign policy. He uses a number of case studies from American and European politics to show how moral pleas, in certain contexts, can move policy. From PS: Perspectives in Political Science:

Busby asks a simple question: How do activists affect a state’s foreign policy? He answers with a two-part theory. First, there is the balance of values and costs. Activists may demand something that is expensive or cheap. Similarly, activists may demand policies that have low or high resonance with moral values. Second, activists must successfully interface with gatekeepers, such as legislators or policymakers, who have the power to legitimize the movement’s demands. The author then goes on to support his theory with empirical studies of a range of policy domains, such as AIDS policy and the international courts.

The importance of Busby’s argument is that it is an alternative to the interest-based view of foreign relations, which asserts that states do what they must to protect a narrowly defined resource such as trade, military power, and so forth. His view is that the beliefs of citizens are very important, not because political leaders follow the whims of voters but because domestic public opinion defines a spectrum of possibilities. The moral resonance of an issue defines the political cost of taking an action.


Works like Moral Movements and Foreign Policy illuminate the relationship between sociology and political science. This book is an example of the use of sociological theory to enrich a topic typically associated with political science. The international relations field has been dominated by arguments among realists, liberals, constructivists, and others over state behavior. Social movements have not usually been at the center of this debate. By itself, Busby’s book does not upend these theories, but it does suggest that there is still unexplored territory in IR theory. Social-movement activists are now recognized as a group of actors who are not state elites, nor are they average voters, nor are they marginalized cranks. Rather, they are specialized political entrepreneurs who use tactics ranging from lawsuits to protest to promote their causes. Research on transnational activism documents a global network of actors who influence and create the policy environment for states. By showing when and how activism leads to changes in foreign policy, Busby shows one way that sociology and political science can enrich each other and expand a research area that may appear to be well covered.

Buy the book here.

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

Written by fabiorojas

June 4, 2014 at 12:01 am


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