Archive for the ‘just theory’ Category
A few days ago, we had a discussion about, exactly, what institutionalism is all about these days. This has been a long standing issue on this blog:
- Combining institutionalism with other topics.
- What we lost when the sociology of orgs became institutionalism.
- Institutionalism 2015
- Does Jerry Davis still hate institutionalism?
- Is Theory of Fields an updated Dynamics of Contention?
- Assessing A Theory of Fields.
The “new” institutional theory isn’t so new anymore. Anyone trained in organizational theory post-1990s will recognize the brand of institutionalism popularized by people like Woody Powell, Paul DiMaggio, John Meyer, and Dick Scott as a healthy part of the status quo. In fact, it has become such a dominant perspective in org. theory circles that new students might mistake the entire field as being about institutional theory. Concepts like institutional logics, institutional work, institutional entrepreneurship, or institutional [insert term here] are common tools of the trade. All of this is to say that institutional theory isn’t so revolutionary anymore.
A few years ago Fabio wrote a post in which he wondered if we’ve reached the end of institutionalism.
Around 2004 or so, I felt that we were “done” with institutionalism as it was developed from Stinchcombe (1965) to Fligstein (2000). My view was that once you focused on the organizational environment and produced a zillion diffusion studies, there were only so many extra topics to deal with.
In one sense Fabio was clearly wrong about institutional theory being finished. If you pick up any management journal, you’ll find lots of references to the classics of institutional theory. The average issue of AMJ or Org. Studies or Org. Science might have one or two papers with”institutional” in the title or abstract. Even if Fabio was right that we’ve reached a theoretical cul-de-sac with few escape routes, it seems to be a wide lane in which many empirical cars can do circles.
I recently had the opportunity to read a whole boat load of F.A. Hayek. Constitution of Liberty; The Use of Knowledge in Society; Law, Legislation and Liberty; and more. This in depth rereading of Hayek helped me resolve a certain sociological puzzle concerning the Austrian economist’s reputation. How could he be the patron saint of laissez-faire while saying very nice things about welfare states and attracting positive commentary from a range of liberal and radical thinkers, such as Foucault?
Here is my answer: I think Hayek’s work resides on a boundary between libertarian social theory and modern liberalism. I’m going to argue that Hayek is the least libertarian you can be and still be, sort of, a libertarian. Because he is not a libertarian in the modern sense of grounding things strongly in terms of individual rights, it’s easy for non-libertarians to find a connection.
Exhibit A: Hayek never lays out a theory of freedom based on individual rights the way many libertarians do. For example, in Constitution of Liberty, he doesn’t start with natural rights and he doesn’t start with a utilitarian justification of freedom. Rather, for him, freedom is about autonomy. Given certain choices, does someone have a sphere of independent judgment free from coercion from others? Thus, this version of freedom is compatible with state policies that try to increase this private sphere of judgment. Also, he frequently emphasizes equality under the law and rule of law as prime virtues, even if they don’t enhance freedom in the everyday sense of the word.
Exhibit B: The Road to Serfdom. It’s a text that is more talked about than read. But if you read it, you discover that it is not an argument against every single form of state intervention. Rather, it’s mainly an argument against Soviet style command economies and Westerners who want to nationalize various industries in the name of equality. Secondarily, he also wants to reign in state regulators who wish to wish to coerce people for their own bureaucratically determined goals.
Exhibit C: In other writings, he endorsed a basic income. And he does argue for the legitimacy of taxation. See Matt Zwolinski’s essay on this topic. He argues that these policies were likely justified for Hayek because they increase personal autonomy (see Exhibit A) and I think they were ok in Hayek’s view because they were less about top down ordering of the economy or administrative tyranny and more about allocating resources to everyone in ways that could help them expand their freedom (Exhibit B).
Exhibit D: Spontaneous order theory. Basically, a whole lot of Hayek’s later social theory is about arguing why social structures can still work and are desirable if they are not top down command structures. That doesn’t lead immediately to libertarianism because you can have spontaneous order that has nothing to do with freedom in either Hayek’s view or the more modern libertarian view. For example, systems of race relations are not top down structures, but they often restrain people in cruel ways.
Taken together, Exhibits A, B, C and D paint an intellectual who has the following traits: (a) Very, very anti-socialist; (b) has a version of freedom that is very agnostic with respect to the wide range of policies that are not socialist; (c) provides grounds for both conservative and liberal policies via a respect for tradition/spontaneous order and freedom/autonomy expansion. It’s a very modest form of libertarianism that gives away a lot of ground to other philosophies.
Does that mean that we’ve all misunderstood Hayek? It depends. If you think that Hayek was this evil economist who advocated the most strict version of libertarianism, then that’s probably mistaken. But if you think of Hayek as a very mellow form of libertarianism that has overlap with other political traditions, you’re probably on target.
In this post, I want to think about how Parsons and structural functionalism has influenced modern sociology. I have been thinking about this since I got a hostile peer review for an early draft of Theory for the Working Sociologist. In the first draft of the book, I began with a very uncontroversial stance. In the mid-2oth century, Parsons attempted to unify sociology through structural functionalism. That was rejected and now we have a world of competing schools of thought. The book would then be a guide to the “post-Parsons” world. Even though no one disputed the truth of this approach, the reviewers thought it was horrible to bring this up. In a later version of the book, a separate reviewer went ballistic because I had “too much Parsons” – a total of 3 paragraphs out of 70,ooo words! People were touchy. I had run into the Parsons Taboo in sociology.
Now that the book is done and about to come out, I want to spend a few moments thinking about Parsons in a less knee jerk way. Even though I am not Pasonsian or a functional structuralist, I do think it it is interesting to consider his impact on the field. Here’s how I see things:
First, Parsons had a big impact on the teaching of undergraduate sociology. The introductory course in sociology has lots of ideas that Parsons promoted, such as the conflict/consensus approach to theory and the ascribed/achieved distinction in stratification. His followers, such as Robert Merton and Kingsley Davis, still appear in intro texts. And, of course, teaching social theory as the culmination of Weber and Durkheim is all Parsons. Later, the profession added Marx, the network folks added Simmel and we are now in the process of adding DuBois.
Second, a lot of sociologists use a vulgar functionalism, which takes rule/norm following as the basic theory of human action. It is not uncommon to see papers in all kinds of fields employ the “over socialized” theory of action as the unstated default. It is mainly scholars in areas such as culture or gender, where there is a thorough exploration of culture, who routinely start off with Garfinkle/Goffman view of interaction that rejects the Parsonsian approach to norms.
Third, a lot of sociologists were directly affected by Parsons. Swidlerian toolkit theory is probably the most popular theory of action right now and her 1983 article starts off with a full bore attack on Parsons (too rigid), as well as an attack on rational choice (actors need to simplify things). So a lot of cultural sociology today is still an attempt to create distance the profession from functionalist accounts of action. Furthermore, there are still highly influential sociologists, such as Jeffrey Alexander and Niklas Luhmann, who were either students of Parsons or who developed some version of neo-functionalist theory.
Finally, I’d note that the reception of Parsons in modern sociology is highly cohort dependent. If you got your Ph.D. in the 1970s or 1980s, you probably thought that Parsons was the Great Satan. If you got your Ph.D. later, he was an afterthought in a theory course and you probably never read a single word of Parsons.
I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts. Did I get the story right?
In the 1950s, Isaac Asimov wrote a series of books called The Foundation Series. The plot is simple and fascinating. Far in the future, civilization is collapsing, Roman Empire style. A small group of mathematical social scientists (“pyschohistorians”) use all kinds of models to predict what might happen to humanity. They decide to let the Empire fall and replace it with an alternative social order originating on a marginal planet called Foundation. And of course, the pyschohistorians pull the strings to make this happen.
The sequel introduces a fascinating twist. For the first hundred or so years, everything is going to plan. Foundation becomes a strong city state and starts to restore political order. Then, all of a sudden, a Napoleon like leader, called “The Mule,” shows up and effortlessly conquers vast expanses of space. What happened? None of the social science models predicted that this would happen.
It turns out that the Mule is a mutant who has mind control. He simply conquers populations by adjusting their emotions and memories, so they just immediately fall into his lap. Eventually, a hidden group of psychohistorians, “the Second Foundation,” defeat the Mule, he becomes normal, and social progress is back on track.
This is the best way to explain my model of the Trump candidacy. He is a type of figure that does not normally get consideration in social theory. He isn’t quite as all powerful as The Mule, but he does share one key trait. He has a unique ability to directly appeal to a large group of people and by pass the normal channels of influence. The Mule had psychic powers, the Donald has the skill to manipulate the media. Weber, of course, spoke about charisma, but few have really gone into depth and integrated an account of charisma into social theory more systematically. That is why so many social scientists have difficulty talking about Trump, even after the fact. It’s about time we thought more carefully about these rare, but important, figures.