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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

from Marx, Durkheim, and Weber to demographic, relational, and cultural perspectives

orgheads alert, courtesy of Eric Dahlin!  Still thinking about the conversation started at the 2014 ASA panel about the future of the sociology of organizations?  The organizations and work section of the  Sociology Compass continues this conversation in two overview articles, both of which are currently ungated until the end of this month.  Heather A. Haveman and Rachel Wetts introduce organizational sociology, starting with the founders of sociology:

Organizational theory: From classical sociology to the 1970s

Abstract

Organizations are the fundamental building blocks of modern societies. So it is not surprising that they have always been at the center of sociological research, starting with Marx and Weber. And although Durkheim did not explicitly analyze organizations, his work has clear implications for the study of organizations. We review the insights of these three pioneering sociologists and then discuss ideas about organizations proposed by other scholars, from both management and sociology, from 1910 to the mid‐1970s. Marx, Weber, and Durkheim’s theoretical frameworks were tools for understanding the transition to modernity. Marx and Weber saw organizations as sites of class struggle and rationalization, respectively, while Durkheim focused on social cohesion and collective sensemaking, both of which underpin organizations. Later theorists focused more closely on the meso‐level and micro‐level processes that happen within and between organizations. These later theorists emphasized pragmatic concerns of optimizing organizational efficiency and labor productivity (scientific management and human relations theories), processes of affiliation and hierarchy (Simmel), limits to rational decision‐making (the Carnegie School), and environmental conditions that shape organizational processes and outcomes (contingency theories). A companion paper describes the three perspectives (demographic, relational, and cultural) that have dominated sociological research on organizations since the mid‐1970s.

Their second article continues into recent decades with typologies of research:

Contemporary organizational theory: The demographic, relational, and cultural perspectives

Abstract

We review three perspectives—demographic, relational, and cultural—that have dominated sociological research on organizations during the past four decades. These perspectives arose in reaction to the atomistic and rationalist–adaptationist assumptions of earlier perspectives on organizations. These perspectives have different conceptions of social structure and thus different conceptions of what creates opportunities for and constraints on action. The demographic perspective holds that social structure is constituted by distributions of social actors along salient dimensions of social and physical space; the relational perspective, by webs of social relationships; and the cultural perspective, by widely shared and patterned understandings of reality and possibility. These perspectives also have different conceptions of identity and therefore motivations for action. For demographers, identity derives from position, absolute or relative, along salient dimensions of social life; for relational scholars, from ties among individuals, groups, and organizations; and for cultural scholars, from social interaction. All three perspectives have been applied to explain behavior at five different levels of analysis: the individual, group or organizational subunit, organization, industry or organizational population, and field. Up to the 1990s, these perspectives were generally applied separately, but over the past two decades, studies have increasingly used multiple perspectives.

Enjoy!

Written by katherinechen

March 20, 2019 at 11:07 pm

new book spotlight: approaches to ethnography

New book alert!  For those prepping a methods course or wanting additional insight into ethnography as a research method, sociologists Colin Jerolmack and Shamus Khan*  have co-edited an anthology Approaches to Ethnography: Analysis and Representation in Participant Observation (2017, Oxford University Press).**

ApproachestoEthnographyCoverPhoto

In Approaches to Ethnography, several ethnographers, including myself, have contributed chapters that delve into our experiences with ethnography across the subfields of urban sociology, poverty and inequality, race and ethnicity, culture, political economies, and organizational research.  For example, in his chapter, Douglas Harper explains how he integrated visual ethnography to get farmers to discuss experiences of farming past and present, capture the itinerant lives and transitory relations among tramps, and document food traditions in Bologna, Italy.

My own chapter “Capturing Organizations as Actors” was particularly difficult to write, with several major chunks jettisoned and sections rewritten several times to incorporate feedback from an ever-patient Khan.  Eventually, I realized I was struggling with how to advocate what is taken-for-granted among organizational researchers.  Normally, organizational researchers write for audiences who readily accept organizations as the unit of analysis and as important and consequential actors worthy of study.  However, for sociologists and social scientists who are not organizational researchers, the organization falls into the background as static, interchangeable scenery.  Given this anthology’s audience, I had to make an explicit argument for studying organizations to readers who might be inclined to ignore organizations.

With this in mind, my chapter focused on explaining how to use ethnography to bring organizations to the foreground.  To illustrate how researchers can approach different aspects of organizations, I drew on my ethnographic data collected on the Burning Man organization.  Most of the vignettes tap never-before-seen data, including discussions from organizers’ meetings and my participant-observations as a volunteer in Playa Info’s Found.  With these examples, I show how organizational ethnography can help us understand:

  • how informal relations animate organizations
  • how organizations channel activities through routines and trainings
  • how organizations and its subcultures communicate and inculcate practices
  • how organizations handle relations with other actors, including the state

Here is Approaches to Ethnography‘s table of contents:

Introduction: An Analytic Approach to Ethnography
Colin Jerolmack and Shamus Khan

1. Microsociology: Beneath the Surface
Jooyoung Lee
2. Capturing Organizations as Actors
Katherine Chen

3. Macro Analysis: Power in the Field
Leslie Salzinger and Teresa Gowan

4. People and Places
Douglas Harper

5. Mechanisms
Iddo Tavory and Stefan Timmermans

6. Embodiment: A Dispositional Approach to Racial and Cultural Analysis
Black Hawk Hancock

7. Situations
Monica McDermott

8. Reflexivity: Introspection, Positionality, and the Self as Research Instrument-Toward a Model of Abductive Reflexivity
Forrest Stuart

* Jerolmack and Khan have also co-authored a Socius article “The Analytic Lenses of Ethnography,” for those interested in an overview.

** I have a flyer for a slight discount that I hope is still good from the publisher; if you need it, send me an email!

Written by katherinechen

January 13, 2018 at 4:55 pm

in NYC fall 2017 semester? looking for a PhD-level sociology of organizations course to take? (or visit?)

Are you a graduate student in the Inter-University Doctoral Consortium?*  If so, please consider taking my “Soc.  84700 Organizations, Markets, & the State” class at the Graduate Center.   At student request, I am teaching this class on the sociology of organizations this fall 2017 on Mondays @11:45am-2:45pm, starting Mon., Aug. 28, 2017.

I will email enrolled students in advance of the semester’s start to solicit input about topics and assigned readings based on their interests, in addition to the classics of organizational research.  When I last taught this class in spring 2014, we were lucky to have Nicole Marwell, Jeff Sallaz, Michel Anteby, and Caroline W. Lee visit to discuss their research, and Fabio had dinner with us after presenting at CCNY.   One of the aims of the class, besides learning substantive content, is to develop a local community of emerging scholars with links elsewhere.

On that note, if you are an organizations researcher who is located or will happen to be in the NYC area during fall 2017, please email me about stopping by the class to present on your research.  We’ve also had some great discussions of professional development with guests, as participants are eager to learn about different kinds of institutions and career paths.

*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

April 3, 2017 at 5:37 pm

brayden king discusses the importance of organizational theory

In Contemporary Sociology, Brayden King reviews recent works and offers his opinion on the state of organizational sociology. A few choice clips:

There are numerous institutional reasons that organizational sociology has moved toward the periphery of the discipline, including the lack of sociology jobs in the subfield and the fact that many organizational sociologists, this author included, are no longer housed in sociology departments but in business schools. But if we put aside the questions of where and how organizational sociologists are trained and get jobs, at the heart of the problem is whether organizational sociology has anything new to say to sociologists who do not study organizations. If organizational sociologists are becoming irrelevant, it is because we are increasingly disconnected from the conversations most central to sociology as a discipline.

And, after describing recent work on the decline of the “classic” organization:

If public corporations are disappearing for their lack of functionality and because the elites that once steered them are disconnected, then there is clearly an opportunity for organizational innovation. Sociologists, less tied to a strict normative imperative of maximizing wealth than economists are, are well positioned to offer insights about the future of organizing. Doing so would surely make the work of organizational sociologists more relevant to sociology as well, inasmuch as it would reconnect our subfield with sociology’s fundamental concerns about improving communities and societies.

Read the whole thing!!

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($5 – cheap!!!!)/Theory for the Working Sociologist/From Black Power/Party in the Street  

Written by fabiorojas

March 10, 2017 at 12:05 am