Archive for the ‘Sean Safford’ Category

can hillary turn the page?

Hillary’s challenge last night was to articulate her case for why she should be the President. For me that means articulating her governing philosophy. So far — and this includes last night — she has not really done that. She has built her case almost entirely in opposition to Trump. She is right to do so of course. Trump cannot be allowed to occupy the White House. And her safest course to victory may be simply to assert that the alternative is too frightening to contemplate.

Maybe that will be enough. But I actually hold to the idea that the winning candidate for President is always the one who has a clearer view of the challenges and opportunities facing the country and articulates a viable roadmap for how to navigate them. Despite the fact that he is a clown, I am convinced that if Trump wins it will not be because people are blindly enamored of his celebrity but because they are persuaded by the governing philosophy that many of my friends on the left refuse to acknowledge he has. He has one. And so I don’t think it is enough to paint him as a mad man. His ideas need to be taken seriously and countered.

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by seansafford

July 29, 2016 at 8:12 pm

don’t be fooled: trump gave a remarkably effective speech 

I woke up this morning and started reading the post-mortems on Trump’s speech.  Andrew Sullivan pronounced it boring and lacking substance. Michael Barbero in the New York Times called it a missed opportunity.  People are getting comfortable that Hillary’s point-spread will hold and we will ride Trump out.

Those people are wrong. First, I’ll say this up front and as clearly as I can: I do not support Trump for President of the United States. His temperament, his instincts, his tactics and his values are antithetical to mine and I cannot support him. But having said that, I will also say that he gave a remarkably effective speech. And I think it will get him elected. Let me be specific: Read the rest of this entry »

Written by seansafford

July 22, 2016 at 4:58 pm

challenging the supremacy of economics

note: this is my first post in a while and I’m a bit rusty.  I accidentally hit “publish” on a decidedly un-publishable version of this in the midst of editing and writing earlier. Sorry for the confusion.

I was asked a few weeks ago to comment on the fact that a French economist has been awarded the Nobel Prize this year.  Frankly, the answer I gave was kind of lame:

… Sean Safford, an associate professor of economic sociology at Institut d’Études Politiques de Paris, the elite institute for political studies known as Sciences Po, said the awarding of the prize to Mr. Tirole, a professor of economics at the University of Toulouse in France, was notable for coming at a time of economic malaise and brain drain, when so many of the country’s brightest are emigrating elsewhere in Europe or to the United States. “The average French person, who is struggling to pay the bills, is not going to rejoice,” he said.

I’ve been mulling over what I meant to say since then.  It started to come together when I read Paul Krugman’s lengthy reflection yesterday on a recent working paper by my colleagues Marion Fourcade and Yann Algan who, along with their co-author, Ettienne Ollion have written a little incendiary bomb of a paper titled The Supremacy of Economics. The paper documents the striking dominance that economics has achieved since the 1980s over sociology and political science in the United States.  I read The Supremacy of Economics immediately on the heals of another of Marion’s papers, this one with Rakesh Khurana which documents the rise of financial economics within American business schools.  Taken together the two papers paint a clear picture establishing that the discipline of economics — and financial economics in particular — has taken a confidently dominant position at in the United States which has given it unprecedented sway in the halls of policy-making and of commerce and proposes a compelling account of how it got there.

Krugman calls the tone of The Supremacy of Economics “jaundiced”.  I would call it wistful.  You get the sense that it could have gone another way if it weren’t for the social skill of certain individuals and the interlocking of particular ecologies at particular points in time.  (If that wasn’t the tone Marion and the others meant to convey, then I’ll claim it for myself.)

If that alternative is possible anywhere, it should be in France where I now live and work, since — as is the case with its food, its wine and its health care system — here in France the nexus of academic, political and business elites is different.  Very different.

In contrast to the story that Marion and her various colleagues tell about the US, academic disciplines (including economics) have not — yet — assumed the central role in France that they have in the American scene.  As Bourdieu observed with far far greater skill than I could, French grandes ecoles are unapologetic factories of elite self-reproduction.  Most teachers are graying wizened poobahs of their field.  Politicians and policy-makers teach other politicians and policy-makers.  Engineers teach other engineers.  And researchers basically teach and train other researchers on how to be researchers, and thats all.  Period.

As Marion and Rakesh show, American business schools in the 19th and early 20th centuries were organized along lines not all that different from the French model.  There may have been economists at the helm, but the predominant logic was vocational in the sense that the teachers were mainly practitioners who saw their roles as socializing a younger generation to the norms of the field as situated within prevailing moral values of the day.  (Moreover, the “economists” were of the old-school institutionalist variety, not today’s preening quant-jocks).

This begs the question: How did the academics break this pattern to lay claim to teaching, consulting and advice-giving well beyond their home “territory” in America?  And how, ultimately, did the (financial) economists come to dominate it?  The story Marion and Rakesh tell is fascinating and it is well told.  It involves strategic action, social skill and a healthy dose of help from the Ford Foundation all couched within a nuanced theory that mingles Fligstein, McAdam, Bourdieu, MacKensie, Callon and Abbot almost in equal measure.  Briefly put, there are two major steps that led America down that particular path.   The first was the appearance of an alternative model pioneered at Carnegie-Mellon.  Seeking to establish itself in a field dominated by Harvard and Wharton, Carnegie-Mellon hewed to a boldly discipline-based approach to business education.  This alternative was amplified by the Ford Foundation which was seeking to differentiate itself within its own competitively saturated field.  In the aftermath of the Great Depression, it was understood that previous models of training the elite had produced disappointing results.  The Foundation latched on to Carnegie-Mellon’s idea and worked to diffuse it throughout the field.  The second step brings in the University of Chicago which ran with the idea of discipline-based teaching, but focused it much more sharply on economics and in particular, on financial economics.  The GSB then became the leading player in the “performative” turn which has brought financial economics into boardrooms, Wall Street, the halls of government and of course, the annals of social science.

Which brings us back to France.

France today faces what the Times (constantly) refers to as “persistent malaise.”  The economy is flat. The European project is stalled.  Its political elite are perceived as out of touch.  There is a sense that the system around which France has been organized since 1946 is… just kind of disappointing.  And this has led to a broad reflection on the process by which this country produces its political elite.

Sciences Po, where I work, sits at the center of that debate.  In the years after the Second World War, General De Gaulle gave Sciences Po a special status that made it the primary path to entering the bottom rung of France’s administrative and political elite, the Ecole Nationale d’Administration.  Sciences Po’s teachers were largely drawn from the ranks of the political elite itself.  But the school has moved in recent years to beef up its academic credentials and in large part that shift has been justified by a familiar narrative: it is the disciplines, with a dispassionate and theoretically grounded approach, that should take the lead in defining the curriculum of elite education.  (As an example: Dominique Strauss-Kahn taught Sciences Po’s main introduction to economics course up until his appointment at the IMF.  Today its taught by… Yann Algan).

Here’s the thing, while Marion and Rakesh expertly situate their account within a smartly argued and largely persuasive theory of “linked ecologies”, I could not help feeling that there was an element of chance involved in the ultimate rise of financial economics in the US: The University of Chicago happened to become home to a troika of free-market true believers which included Milton Friedman.  The result, ultimately, leads us to The Supremacy of Economics.  Could there have been an alternative?  One that was less dogmatic?  One in which the other disciplines were not isolated and ultimately relegated to the junior leagues?

This brings me back to a French economist winning this year’s Nobel.

When I arrived at Sciences Po, I was impressed by the idea that sociology, political science and economics stood on a more equal footing here than had been the case, certainly, when I was on the faculty of the Chicago GSB.  I felt the conditions existed here in which a real dialogue across these disciplines could produce a richer, more compelling approach.  It was a place where what we call “economic sociology” could find a fresh home.

I still hope that.  But that outcome is by no means inevitable.  Winning the Nobel Prize in economics this year and the phenomenal success of Thomas Pickety’s book raise the profile of economics in this country precisely at a moment when political, business and academic elites are questioning the system and looking for the kinds of concrete answers that disciplinary economics provides.  In other words, the conditions exist for the intermingling of intellectual streams which seems possible here to breakdown and head down a path toward a European version of The Supremacy of Economics.

Yet the very existence of the paper that motivated this post is a prime example of the kind of dialogue which seemed (and still seems) possible here suggestiing that that outcome could turn out differently.  After all, Marion is a prominent young sociologist of world-class capabilities, Yann Algan is very much her equal in economics and the paper was written during Marion’s two-year sabbatical at Sciences Po.  But the lesson that I take from Marion and Rakesh’s work is that economic sociology — or whatever you want to call this more egalitarian approach to social science — needs to “perform” itself.  And it does that by building a curriculum capable of producing the next generation of elites.

My bottom line is: If economic sociology is to amount to anything, this kind of cross-disciplinary dialogue must continue and it must mature into something that does more than simply critique the hegemony of economics.  What it must turn into is a curriculum.

The opportunity is there.  But is economic sociology ready for prime time?  (Oh, and does anyone have a good contact at the Ford Foundation?)

Written by seansafford

December 3, 2014 at 10:49 pm

contradictions and confirmation bias

I don’t envy these people who are tasked with coming up with a memorial quote that is simultaneously pithy and meaningful.  Hendrick Hertzberg, among others, is criticizing the architect of Martin Luther King’s memorial for failing to take the context of King’s speech into account when he decided to use this truncated quote on the side of King’s statue:


If you read the sermon, it becomes clear that, not only did the architect commit a hatched job,  the paragraph he pulled actually contradicts the whole point King was trying to get across.

King’s point was to rail against the “drum major instinct”; the drive in each of us that says “hey look at me!”  But then, toward the end, he sort of makes a verbal personal foul and says: if you want to call me a drum major then at least say I am doing it for the good of mankind because that is not… er… quite as megalomaniacal as… uh… I mean… anyway back to what I was saying….

My take is that the quote came from a moment in which King started down an unfortunate verbal path and was trying to get out of it to get back to his main point.  Oops.

Last April, Caroline Alexander brought up the same question of context regarding the use of a quote on the 9/11 Memorial.  In that case, the quote “No day shall erase you from the memory of time,” actually came from a longer sentence in which the poet Virgil was lauding his own role as a poet recording history in venerating the memory of an amorous pair of soldiers who died in midst of battle.  Virgil is basically saying: it’s a good thing I know what you two were up to, because otherwise you would die in obscurity like every other piker… or something like that.

What is the common thread?   Read the rest of this entry »

Written by seansafford

January 17, 2012 at 2:33 pm

i’m just a silly man who needs a shave

An incisive rebuttal laying bear bare the overdetermined intersection of social identity theory, categorization, hierarchy and agency within organizations.  Bravo.

Clearly, organizational theory would be better off if it had more bears.



Written by seansafford

January 31, 2011 at 8:52 pm

tunisia: another data point on revolutions

Given the events in Tunisia, I thought it would be worth pointing toward two (lengthy) Org Theory posts written during the “Green Revolution” in Iran last year.

The first is my post “Fisking” Andrew Miller and Gideon Rachman’s dialogue on the factors that lead some revolutions to succeed while others fail.  Events have moved so quickly in Tunisia, that I don’t really have much of a read on what just happened.  But as we learn more about how this revolution unfolded, it will add yet another data point.  For instance, current news reports mention relatively little about internal divisions among the elite, but if previous revolutions have anything to teach us, it would suggest that this must be part of the story.

In addition, I am interested in the government’s violent response to initial protests.  In Tunisia, this spurred further protests.  In Iran, violently putting down protests helped to squelch the movement.  Why?  This points to what I think is probably the most important open question in the social movement literature: why do some cycles of protest catch fire while others peter out?

On this, the evidence so far suggests that new social media played a role and so, I will also point toward Brayden’s post on the role that social media (i.e., Twitter and Facebook) might have played in Iran.  Brayden’s argument, if I can paraphrase, was that Twitter and Facebook may be more important in conveying the voice of movement participants to the outside world — becoming an “audience generation machine” in his words — but that they were not as effective as a coordinating mechanism.  In Tunisia, it does seem that social media helped to coordinate.  The difference, it seems, has to do with how the two regimes regulated social media, but it seems like there is more of a story to be told here.

Indeed, reports are that the role of social network media was to bring outside information in that changed the political opportunity structure: information unveiled by Wikileaks laid bare the corruption of the regime, this spread through social media, and helped to drive people to the street.

Written by seansafford

January 14, 2011 at 7:16 pm

the federal wage freeze

With these words, President Obama announced an across the board pay freeze for Federal workers:

In these challenging times, we want the best and brightest to join and make a difference.  But these are also times where all of us are called on to make some sacrifices.  And I’m asking civil servants to do what they’ve always done — play their part.

Anyone looking at either the politics or the substance of our America’s budget deficits recognizes that something should be done about the federal budget.  But is asking 2.1 million workers to shoulder the burden the right approach?  And even if it is, is doing it in an “across the board” freeze, the right way to go? No it’s not. Here’s why. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by seansafford

December 1, 2010 at 8:05 pm


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