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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)

 

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

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

asa2019 live tweets

With ASA and AOM annual meetings simultaneously happening in NYC and Boston respectively, FOMO is in full swing.  In-between spending time with colleagues and helping Fabio pass out Contexts buttons, so far I have live tweeted (with pics!) at my new twitter account @KatherineKChen, a session on “school discipline” and a session on “theoretical perspectives in economic sociology” from ASA.

Sample tweet of the school discipline session, featuring discussant Simone Ispa-Landa‘s comments about where education research should go.

Sample tweet of an economic sociology session summarizes a finding from an analysis of consumer complaints, conducted by Fred Wherry, Parijat Chakrabarti, Isabel Jijon, and Kathleen Donnelly: student debt inflicts “relational damage” on student’s relations with family and employers.  epopp’s tweets and take of the same session starts here.

You can find other tweets about ASA using #asa2019 or #asa19 and AOM using #aom2019.

Written by katherinechen

August 13, 2019 at 10:24 am

“organized creativity: approaching a phenomenon of uncertainty” spring school 2019 at Freie Universität Berlin, Germany – cfp due Oct. 15, 2018

banksy-instagram_creativedestructionauction

Photo credit: Banksy instagram

Are you researching a phenomena like this?

Are you looking for a trans-Atlantic research community to share your research on creativity?  Please download INTERNATIONALSPRINGSCHOOLOC_2019CALL.korr.  Or, read the copied and pasted cfp below:

Organized Creativity: Approaching a Phenomenon of Uncertainty 

INTERNATIONAL SPRING SCHOOL, MARCH 12-15, 2019, 

Freie Universität Berlin, Germany 

Call for Papers 

Creativity is one of the key concepts, yet among the most slippery ones of present-day Western societies. Today, the call for creativity spans far beyond typically “creative” fields and industries towards becoming a universal social norm. Creative processes, however, are fundamentally surrounded by uncertainty. It is difficult to know ex-ante what will become a creative idea and, due to its destructive force, it is also highly contested. This inherent uncertainty associated with creativity thus spills over to other social spheres, too. 

The DFG-funded Research Unit “Organized Creativity” is studying creative processes in music and pharmaceuticals – as representatives for creativity in the arts and in the sciences. The goal of the unit is to understand in greater depth those practices of inducing and coping with uncertainty which are employed by various actors involved in creative processes. 

Target Group 

The Spring School provides space for exchange between advanced doctoral students, early postdocs and several senior scholars that do research on creativity either in the context of innovation research or in the fields of business and management studies, economic geography, psychology or sociology. Combining lectures from renowned scholars (Prof. Dr. Dr. Karin Knorr Cetina, Prof. David Stark, Ph.D., Prof. Dr. Gernot Grabher, Prof. Dr. Elke Schüßler, Prof. Dr. Jörg Sydow) with the presentation, discussion and development of individual papers, this call invites advanced doctoral students and early postdocs from all disciplines concerned with creativity and uncertainty to join our discussion in Berlin. The working language will be English. 

Applications 

The deadline for applications is October 15, 2018. Applicants are requested to email a CV and a short essay (max. 2,000 words including references) to konstantin.hondros@uni-due.de. This short essay should summarize the research that is to be presented during the Spring School. Notification of acceptance is sent out no later than October 30, 2018. In case of acceptance, a revised longer paper – either an extended essay (max. 4,000 words) or a full paper (max. 8,000 words) – must be sent by January 15 2019 for distribution to discussants and workshop participants well in advance of the event. 

Formats 

Later-stage full papers are presented in Presentation Sessions (20 minutes for presentation, followed by 10 minutes for feedback from renowned scholars and 10 minutes for open discussion); earlier-stage work and short papers are discussed in Group Discussions consisting of three or four early scholars and two discussants (5 minutes for presentations followed by everyone at the round table, providing feedback based on their advance reading of the paper and for open discussion). 

Practical information 

There is a participation fee of € 100, but several grants for travel expenses will be available. The workshop will be held at the Department of Management of Freie Universität Berlin. We start our Spring School with a kick-off event on March 12 at 6 p.m., our closing discussion on March 15 will conclude the School at 1 p.m. 

For further information about the project ‘Organized Creativity’: 

https://blogs.fu-berlin.de/organized-creativity/ 

Written by katherinechen

October 8, 2018 at 8:47 am

arthur sakamoto discusses the sociology of asian americans

The “Half-Hour of Heterodoxy Podcast,” run by orgtheory reader and guest blogger Chris Martin, interviewed Texas A&M sociologist Arthur Sakamoto. The topic is the diversity of Asian Americans. Sakamoto suggests that scholars are over-estimating the inequality of Asian America. For example, he argues that basic statistics on Asian American status attainment overstate poverty and non-completion of school. One example he offers is that some Asian Americans, such as Laotians, come from nations with minimal or no–high schools. So when you lump together 1st and 2nd generation people, you get some really low numbers.

The podcast is fascinating and worth listening to. Here, I’ll conclude with a thought about why researchers might trend toward reporting low-status attainment for Asian Americans. I think the main issue is the model minority myth, which basically says that Asian Americans have un-problematically assimilated into American society. People might use high educational attainment or (modestly) high income to over look anti-Asian or anti-immigrant racism, glass ceilings, and other challenges. This is a valid point, but that doesn’t mean we can’t develop a more accurate view of Asian Americans that recognizes both a history of anti-Asian racism and the fact that many groups have done relatively well in terms of conventional measures of SES.

Another issue is sociology’s preference for studying low status people in contrast to higher status people. Considering the very small number of papers on Asian Americans in our top 2-3 journals, my hypothesis is that it would be even harder to publish in those venues by focusing on populations that do relatively well. It’s not impossible of course, but harder than it might otherwise be.

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Written by fabiorojas

May 30, 2018 at 5:10 pm

robert bellah and people of color in habits of the heart

Habits of the Heart is simply a great book. Period. It’s not only a classic statement on American character, it’s also the first major book that employs a “cultural toolkit” framework, as developed by Swidler, Bellah, Tipton, and others. Still, that does’t mean that it’s without limitations. This post is a strong criticism of Habits‘ research methodology and how these problems lead to incorrect conclusions.

When I teach Habits, usually to graduate students, a common criticism is that the book only reflects the lived experiences of White Americans. One student said that after reading the book, you come away with the impression that the book is really about urban yoga fanatics.

I see what they mean. The book’s data is incredibly biased. In the preface to the first edition, the authors basically throw away standard social science data collection techniques. Each author did field work in a “community,” which is not specified. There is literally no discussion of how the field work was conducted (how long? auto-ethography? participant observation? field site selection?). Each author chose a “representative form” of public life, such as love and marriage.

They also offer therapy (page xliii) as a “increasingly important” aspect of middle class life. Wow! There is no argument or information presented about how common therapy is. Furthermore, there is a massive selection bias. If one of the issues you address is coping and pragmatic responses to particular life situations, then selecting therapy participants biases you towards a very specific kind of person. And don’t bother looking for descriptions of how interviews are conducted, or what the differences between populations might be.

When we read about data collection, it gets worse. Sample quote from the 1st edition:

“We do not claim that we have talked to average Americans or a representative sample. We have read a great many surveys and community studies, enough to know that those to whom we talked are not aberrant.” (page xliv)

Which studies? None mentioned. How did they measure the difference? No details, either.

Ok, now let’s get to racial differences. If you search the text for discussions of Blacks, you get very few, and only in reference to segregation or the Civil Rights movement (e.g., page 203). For a book about how people think about individualism, it is shocking to have so little discussion of how race may affect how people think about freedom and autonomy.

Someone drew  my attention to a 2007 Sociology of Religion article by Bellah where he answers critics. You can read it here. What he says on page 190 is that (a) he claims there is no difference and that (b) he addressed any differences in The Broken Covenant.

Let’s examine each point: (a) The critics are correct and Bellah is wrong. If you sample 200 people and interview them (see pages xlii-xliv), you will get about 30 Blacks – not enough statistical power to make any firm inference. It might be the case the he doesn’t understand statistical inference. With sample sizes that small, you simply will have a tough time picking up effects. But he admits he doesn’t have a representative sample to start with! Frankly, this is a mess.

(b) Bellah is wrong again. The Broken Covenant is a historical review of civil religion in America. To his credit, he does talk about race, a few times. But it is not an empirical examination of how Blacks and Whites deal with civil religion. There is nothing that I could find in this book that would lead me to believe that Whites and Blacks experience civic life in just about the same way. Heck, there are passages which suggest the opposite! A central message of The Broken Covenant is that civic religion has often come up short in America, which would suggest that some people feel left out.

Let me wrap up with a theoretical argument. One of the major innovations in the study of race and ethnicity is the application of habitus theories. This comes out with Bonilla-Silva and the “race without racism” school and it also comes out in more recent books like Emirbayer and Desmond’s treatment of race. If we understand habitus as being aligned with structures of inequality, our theoretical expectation is that whites and blacks would have very different situational responses to everyday problems. This theory may be wrong and maybe Bellah et al. might be right, but they simply don’t have the data to prove the null is true. Race (probably) matters.

Bottom line: Habit’s is commendable for many reasons, but research methodology is not one and it leads to some dodgy inferences.

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Written by fabiorojas

April 25, 2018 at 4:40 am

no echo chamber for contexts

When I was visiting UC San Diego a few weeks ago, I gave a talk on public sociology. One audience member asked, “how does Contexts, and public sociology more generally, avoid being an echo chamber?”

Great question. First, you have to recognize that there is an echo chamber and that it is worth getting out of. Like any other academic discipline, sociology has its own culture. Often, it is easier to appeal to the crowd than reach out to people who aren’t already invested in sociology.

Second, you need a concrete strategy. If you genuinely care about breaking out of an echo chamber, then you need to think about actually doing something. At Contexts, we are already working on it. For example, one barrier we are trying to break down is the disciplinary boundary. In Winter, we interviewed the eminent political scientist Melissa Harris-Perry. In Spring, we’ll have a super cool interview with a leading legal academic who works in government (I won’t spoil it). Summer and Spring will have amazing interviews with leading figures in areas outside of sociology. Trust me, it will be amazing.

Another boundary that I want to break is ideological. I’d like to have material that has appeal to both liberal and conservative readers. That’s a work in progress. We’ll see how it goes. But I do know one thing for sure. It won’t work if you don’t try it.

Do you want a public sociology that speaks beyond sociology? I do, too. If you have an idea, put it in the comments. I’d love to hear it.

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Written by fabiorojas

April 23, 2018 at 8:51 pm