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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

remaking higher education for turbulent times, wed., march 28, 9am-6pm EDT, Graduate Center

For those of you in NYC (or those who want to watch a promised live webcast at bit.ly/FuturesEd-live  http://videostreaming.gc.cuny.edu/videos/livestreams/page1/ with a livestream transcript here: http://www.streamtext.net/player?event=CUNY), the Graduate Center Futures Initiative is hosting a conference of CUNY faculty and students on Wed., March 28, 9am-6pm EDT at the Graduate Center.  Our topic is: “Remaking higher education for turbulent times.” In the first session “Higher Education at a Crossroads” at 9:45am EDT,  Ruth Milkman and I, along with other panelists who have taught via the Futures Initiative, will be presenting our perspectives on the following questions:

  1. What is the university? What is the role of the university, and whom does it serve?
  2. How do political, economic, and global forces impact student learning, especially institutions like CUNY?
  3. What would an equitable system of higher education look like? What could be done differently?

Ruth and I will base our comments on our experiences thus far with teaching a spring 2018 graduate course about changes in the university system, drawing on research conducted by numerous sociologists, including organizational ethnographers.  So far, our class has included readings from:

We will discuss the tensions of reshaping long-standing institutions that have reproduced privilege and advantages for elites and a select few, as well as efforts to sustain universities (mostly public institutions) that have served as a transformational engine of socio-economic mobility and social change.  More info, including our course syllabus, is available via the Futures Initiatives blog here.

Following our session, two CUNY faculty and staff who are taking our class, Larry Tung and Samini Shahidi will be presenting about their and their classmates’ course projects.

A PDF of the full day’s activities can be downloaded here: FI-Publics-Politics-Pedagogy-8.5×11-web

If you plan to join us (especially for lunch), please RSVP ASAP at bit.ly/FI-Spring18

Written by katherinechen

March 21, 2018 at 4:53 pm

in NYC spring 2018 semester? looking for a PhD-level course on “Change and Crisis in Universities?”

Are you a graduate student in the Inter-University Doctoral Consortium or a CUNY graduate student?*  If so, please consider taking “Change & Crisis in Universities: Research, Education, and Equity in Uncertain Times” class at the Graduate Center, CUNY.  This course is cross-listed in the Sociology, Urban Education and Interdisciplinary Studies programs.

Ruth Milkman and I are co-teaching this class together this spring on Tuesdays 4:15-6:15pm.  Our course topics draw on research in organizations, labor, and inequality.  This course starts on Tues., Jan. 30, 2018.

Here’s our course description:

 

This course examines recent trends affecting higher education, with special attention to how those trends exacerbate class, race/ethnicity, and gender inequalities. With the rising hegemony of a market logic, colleges and universities have been transformed into entrepreneurial institutions. Inequality has widened between elite private universities with vast resources and public institutions where students and faculty must “do more with less,” and austerity has fostered skyrocketing tuition and student debt. Tenure-track faculty lines have eroded as contingent academic employment balloons.  The rise of on-line “learning” and expanding class sizes have raised concerns about the quality of higher education, student retention rates, and faculty workloads.  Despite higher education’s professed commitment to diversity, disadvantaged racial and ethnic groups remain underrepresented, especially among faculty. Amid growing concerns about the impact of micro-aggressions, harassment, and even violence on college campuses, liberal academic traditions are under attack from the right. Drawing on social science research on inequality, organizations, occupations, and labor, this course will explore such developments, as well as recent efforts by students and faculty to reclaim higher education institutions.

We plan to read articles and books on the above topics, some of which have been covered by orgtheory posts and discussions such as epopp’s edited RSO volume, Armstrong and Hamilton’s Paying for the Party, and McMillan Cottom’s Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the New Economy.  We’ll also be discussing readings by two of our guestbloggers as well, Ellen Berrey and Caroline W. Lee.

*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

January 8, 2018 at 8:12 pm

class and college

When awareness about the impact of socio-economic class was not as prevalent among the public, one exercise I did with my undergraduates at elite institutions was to ask them to identify their class background.  Typically, students self-identified as being in the middle class, even when their families’ household incomes/net worth placed them in the upper class.  The NYT recently published this article showing the composition of undergraduate students, unveiling the concentration and dispersion of wealth at various higher education institutions.

As a professor who now teaches at the university listed as #2 in economic mobility (second to Vaughn College of Aeronautics and Technology ), I can testify to the issues that make an uneven playing field among undergraduates.  Unlike college students whose parents can “pink helicopter” on their behalf and cushion any challenges, undergraduates at CCNY are supporting their parents (if alive) and other family members, bearing the brunt of crushing challenges. (In a minority of cases, students’ parents might help out, say, with occasional childcare – but more likely, students are caring for sick family members or helping with younger siblings.)

To make the rent and cover other expenses in a high COL city, CCNY students work part-time and full-time, sometime with up to two jobs, in the low-wage retail sector.  They do so while juggling a full load of classes because their financial aid will not cover taking fewer classes.  For some students, these demands can create a vicious cycle of having to drop out of classes or earning low grades.

I always tell students to let me know of issues that might impact their academic performance. Over the years (and just this semester alone), students have described these challenges:

  • long commutes of up to 2 hours
  • landlord or housing problems
  • homelessness
  • repeated absences from class due to hospitalizations, illness/accidents, or doctor visits for prolonged health problems
  • self-medicating because of fear about high health care costs for a treatable illness
  • anxiety and depression
  • childcare issues (CCNY recently closed its on-campus childcare facility for students), such as a sick child who cannot attend school or daycare that day
  • difficulties navigating bureaucratic systems, particularly understaffed ones
  • inflexible work schedules

These are the tip of the iceberg, as students don’t always share what is happening in their lives and instead, just disappear from class.

For me, such inequalities were graphically summed up by a thank you card sent by a graduating undergraduate.  The writer penned the heartfelt wish that among other things (i.e., good health), that I always have a “full belly.”  Reflecting this concern about access to food, with the help of NYPIRG, CCNY now has a food pantry available to students.

Written by katherinechen

March 22, 2017 at 5:18 pm

surviving academic affluenza/midlife-crisis

Academia is an iron person sport – the marathon to the dissertation,  the quest for a tenure-track position, and the trek to tenure.  What happens after tenure and promotion?

In this podcast, Elizabeth Matsui (a professor and practicing doctor), Roger Peng (professor of biostats), and Brian Caffo, a recently promoted full professor in biostats, discuss the timeline of an academic career, including those on soft money.  Using a disease analogy (i.e., do you suffer from full professoritis?), they discuss various outlets where the tenured can channel efforts following the post-tenure malaise.  They outline possible routes: “staying the course,” mastering a new field, or taking on additional, different roles as an administrator, empire-builder, public scholar, editor, teacher/mentor, and consultant.  Around the 40: minute mark, Matsui raises the issue of familial responsibilities.

Elsewhere, in an article titled “Midcareer Melancholy,” sociologists Joya Misra and Jennifer Lundquist point out the structural conditions that make associate professorship feel especially soul-crushing to those who had imagined a euphoric, happily ever after post-tenure and promotion.  As they describe the academic profession, assistant professors are protected from service work while some full professors shirk it.  These generate overwork among associate professors, whose ranks have been decimated by the adjunctification of the academy and the depletion of tenure-track lines.  Associate professors are acutely aware of how much of their daily work is neither valued nor counted towards their bid to advance to the next step of full:

Associate professors may be frustrated by the immediate demands of service work that materialize upon earning tenure when it is almost exclusively their scholarship that earns them promotion in the long run.

On our campus, we heard these sentiments repeatedly: “There’s a contradiction between the pressure for service at the associate level and the devaluing of service for promotion to full”; “In reality, only research matters when it comes to… promotion, but service and teaching require lots of time”; “The criteria for promotion is research. Associate professors have time for everything but research.” Another referred to associate professorship as “the midcareer service gully that we find ourselves taking an extended stay in.”

Misra and Lundquist offer the following adjustments to address the midcareer malaise:

  1. Clear guidelines for promotion that align with the institution’s mission. Tenure criteria are often less ambiguous than those for promotion to full professor. A few research institutions have identified alternative pathways to promotion in the form of exceptional service leadership or scholarly teaching.
  2. Mutual mentoring programs and supports such as those developed by the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity that help faculty members focus their work time on the factors that will be evaluated, such as research productivity.
  3. Strategies aimed at lessening service burdens on faculty, such as: more tenure-line faculty hiring, recognizing that relying on adjuncts damages the university broadly, as well as adjunct faculty; course releases for intensive service positions to ensure that they do not derail research agendas; more staff hiring that supports faculty leadership.
  4. Greater departmental transparency in service assignments and teaching loads to reduce inequalities in how less-valued activities are distributed.
  5. Professional development for midcareer faculty on how to run meetings and complete committee work without reinventing the wheel.
  6. Standardized policies that regularly assess promotion timing rather than forcing candidates to self-nominate or wait to be nominated by a superior.

 

 

Written by katherinechen

January 18, 2017 at 5:13 pm

forum on data analytics and inclusivity, part 1

Data analytics is a buzzword in the business world these days. One of the industries in which data analytics has made the biggest impact is sports. The publication of Moneyball in 2003 signaled a sea change in how baseball teams used data and statistics to make personnel changes. Basketball wasn’t far behind in implementing advanced statistics in the front office. The MIT Sloan Sports Analytics conference has become a hub of industry activity, attracting academics, journalists, and sports insiders.

In general, data analytics has been celebrated as a more enlightened way to approach sports management. But it was only a matter of time before sports analytics got some backlash. The most recent criticism comes from the respected sports journalist, Michael Wilbon, who wrote a piece for The Undefeated about how data analytics has fallen on deaf ears in the African American community.

Log onto any mainstream website or media outlet (certainly any program within the ESPN empire) and 30 seconds cannot pass without extreme statistical analysis, which didn’t exist 20 years ago, hijacking the conversation. But not in “BlackWorld,” where never is heard an advanced analytical word. Not in urban barbershops. Not in text chains during three-hour games. Not around office water coolers. Not even in pressrooms or locker rooms where black folks who make a living in the industry spend all day and half the night talking about the most intimate details of sports.

Wilbon makes the point that in sports data analytics have become just one more way for the Old Boy Network to reassert their status. Of course, I’ve heard other people make the case that analytics levels the playing field, given that it doesn’t require any sort of credentials to participate and is potentially race- and gender-blind. Other journalists have already criticized Wilbon’s claims and methodology (including this response by Dave Schilling), but it’s undoubtedly true that Wilbon’s point of view is shared by others in sports.

We’re using Wilbon’s essay as an opportunity to have a discussion about data analytics and inclusivity. This is an issue that doesn’t just affect sports. As analytics become more integral to the business world, organizations will use analytics to sort talent in many of the most lucrative jobs. Academia, especially in STEM fields, continually wrestles with questions about inclusivity as well.

I’ve invited a handful of scholars and practitioners in the field of data analytics, many of whom work in the world of sports analytics, to comment on this issue. I’ll post their responses in two parts:  half today and the other set tomorrow. Today’s essays are written by three contributors who all have different takes on how analytics can be used to overcome the problems Wilbon identified in his essay. Brian Mills is a sports economist at the University of Florida. His research applies “economic lessons and quantitative analysis to problems that sport managers face in their everyday decision making.”  Sekou Bermiss is an organizational theorist at the University of Texas McCombs School of Business. He studies the relationships between human capital, reputation, and firm performance. Laura Nelson is currently a postdoc at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management. She uses computational methods to analyze organizational histories and changes in the feminist movement. She’s also, like me, a San Francisco Giants fan.

Thanks to all of the contributors. Come back for more commentary later, and please feel free to leave comments below.

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Written by brayden king

June 14, 2016 at 2:06 am