Archive for the ‘workplace’ Category

book spotlight: abolish work, edited by nick ford

leave a comment »


Abolish Work: An Exposition of Philosophical Ergophobia is a new anthology of anti-work writings, edited by Nick Ford. The anthology’s goal is simple – to present various arguments against work. They range from socialist anti-capitalist arguments, to left libertarians to people just being pissed off at work. The authors run the spectrum. There are selections from David Graeber (anti-work!) and David Boaz, who tells the reader just to get a job.

What I found fascinating most about the anthology is that is makes you think a lot about the anti-work position. Why do we need work? Are jobs degrading? Why is working considered desirable in comparison to not having a job? For me, the most compelling arguments come from those who correctly argue that work is inherently a negative thing. A number of authors make the correct distinction between work, which should be minimized, and leisure, which does not have to be minimized. They also correctly point out that there is an inherent tension between employers and employees in many cases.

The anthology did not ask if it is necessary for some people to work. Let’s take it for granted that work sucks and we would be wise to avoid it. Let’s further assume that technology will make it easier for more and more people to shift from work to leisure. But still, wouldn’t some people have to work? And is that really such a bad thing?

Still overall, I enjoyed this book very much and it challenges a very central element of the modern ethos, that work is good. Recommended!

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

February 14, 2017 at 12:01 am

cfp: “Seeking a More Just and Egalitarian Economy: Realizing the Future via Co-operatives, Communes, and Other Collectives” at SASE in Lyon, France – abstracts due Feb. 17, 2017 (updated)

Joyce Rothschild and I are co-organizing a mini-conference at the Society for the Advancement of Socio-Economics (SASE) in Lyon, France.  Please consider submitting an abstract, due to the SASE submission site by Feb. 17, 2017 (updated deadline!).  Accepted presenters will need to provide a full paper by June 1, 2017 for discussion.  Please circulate to this cfp to interested persons!

Seeking a More Just and Egalitarian Economy: Realizing the Future via Co-operatives, Communes, and Other Collectives

Forty years ago, as the most recent wave of economic collectives and cooperatives emerged, they advocated a model of egalitarian organization so contrary to bureaucracy that they were widely called “alternative institutions” (Rothschild 1979). Today, the practices of cooperative organizations appear in many movement organizations, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and even “sharing” firms. Cooperative practices are more relevant than ever, especially as recent political changes in the US and Europe threaten to crush rather than cultivate economic opportunities.

Cooperative groups engage in more “just” economic relations, defined as relations that are more equal, communalistic, or mutually supportive.  The oldest collectives – utopian communes, worker co-operatives, free schools, and feminist groups – sought authentic relations otherwise suppressed in a hierarchical, capitalist system.  Similar practices shape newer forms: co-housing, communities and companies promoting the “sharing economy,” giving circles, self-help groups, and artistic and social movement groups including Burning Man and OCCUPY. While some cooperatives enact transformative values such as ethically responsible consumerism and collective ownership, other groups’ practices reproduce an increasingly stratified society marked by precarity. Submitted papers might analyze the reasons for such differences, or they might examine conditions that encourage the development of more egalitarian forms of organization.

Submitted papers could also cover, but are not limited, to exploring:

  • What is the nature of “relational work” (cf. Zelizer 2012) conducted in these groups, and how it differs – or is similar to – from relational work undertaken in conventional capitalist systems?
  • How do collectivities that engage in alternative economic relations confront challenges that threaten – or buttress – their existence? These challenges include recruiting and retaining members, making decisions, and managing relations with the state and other organizations. Moreover, how do these groups construct distinct identities and practices, beyond defining what they are not?
  • How are various firms attempting to incorporate alternative values without fully applying them? For instance, how are companies that claim to advance the sharing economy – Uber, airbnb, and the like – borrowing the ideology and practices of alternative economic relations for profit rather than authentic empowerment? What are the implications of this co-optation for people, organizations, and society at large?
  • How do new organizations, especially high tech firms, address or elide inequality issues? How do organizing practices and values affect recognition and action on such issues?
  • What can we learn from 19th century historical examples of communes and cooperatives that can shed insight on their keys to successful operation today? Similarly, how might new cooperatives emerge as egalitarian and collective responses to on-going immigration issues or economic crisis generated by policies favoring the already wealthy?
  • Are collectives, cooperatives and/or firms that require creativity, such as artists’ cooperatives or high tech firms, most effective when they are organized along more egalitarian principles? How do aspects of these new modes of economic organization make them more supportive of individual and group creativity?



Graeber, David.   2009. Direct Action: An Ethnography.   Oakland, CA: AK Press.

Rothschild, Joyce. 1979. “The Collectivist Organization: An Alternative to Rational-Bureaucratic Models.” American Sociological Review 44(4): 509-527.

Rothschild, Joyce and J. Allen Whitt. 1986. The Cooperative Workplace: Potentials and Dilemmas of Organizational Democracy and Participation. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Zelizer, Vivianna A. 2012. “How I Became a Relational Economic Sociologist and What Does That Mean?” Politics & Society 40(2): 145-174.

Questions about the above cfp may be directed to Joyce and myself.

Here is info about the mini-conference format:

Each mini-conference will consist of 3 to 6 panels, which will be featured as a separate stream in the program. Each panel will have a discussant, meaning that selected participants must submit a completed paper in advance, by 1 June 2017. Submissions for panels will be open to all scholars on the basis of an extended abstract. If a paper proposal cannot be accommodated within a mini-conference, organizers will forward it to the most appropriate research network as a regular submission.

More info about mini-conferences here.

The 2017 SASE conference in Lyon, France, hosted by the University of Lyon I from 29 June to 1 July 2017, will welcome contributions that explore new forms of economy, their particularities, their impact, their potential development, and their regulation.

More info about the SASE conference theme, a critical perspective on the sharing economy, is available at “What’s Next? Disruptive/Collaborative Economy or Business as Usual?

Joyce and I look forward to reading your submissions!

Written by katherinechen

December 13, 2016 at 9:16 pm

welcome, guest blogger M. Pilar Opazo!

Orgheads, take note, I am thrilled to introduce a guest post by M. Pilar Opazo, who has just published an exciting new book, Appetite for Innovation: Creativity and Change at elBulli (2016, Columbia University Press), on the much lauded, three-star Michelin restaurant elBulli.

Here’s a description of the book from the Columbia Press website:

The name elBulli is synonymous with creativity and innovation. Located in Catalonia, Spain, the three-star Michelin restaurant led the world to “molecular” or “techno-emotional” cooking and made creations, such as pine-nut marshmallows, rose-scented mozzarella, liquid olives, and melon caviar, into sensational reality. People traveled from all over the world—if they could secure a reservation during its six months of operation—to experience the wonder that chef Ferran Adrià and his team concocted in their test kitchen, never offering the same dish twice. Yet elBulli’s business model proved unsustainable. The restaurant converted to a foundation in 2011, and is working hard on its next revolution. Will elBulli continue to innovate? What must an organization do to create something new?

Appetite for Innovation is an organizational analysis of elBulli and the nature of innovation. Pilar Opazo joined elBulli’s inner circle as the restaurant transitioned from a for-profit business to its new organizational model. In this book, she compares this moment to the culture of change that first made elBulli famous, and then describes the novel forms of communication, idea mobilization, and embeddedness that continue to encourage the staff to focus and invent as a whole. She finds that the successful strategies employed by elBulli are similar to those required for innovation in art, music, business, and technology, proving the value of the elBulli model across organizations and industries.

Glowing reviews of the book and its contributions to organizational studies and our understanding of creativity, penned by organizational sociologists Walter Powell and Diane Vaughan, urban sociologist Sharon Zukin, food scholars Priscilla Ferguson and Krishnendu Ray, and others are available here.

Forbes also listed Appetite for Innovation as one of 17 books recommended for “creative leaders” to read this summer.

M. Pilar Opazo is a postdoctoral research scholar at the Columbia Business School. She is the coauthor of two Spanish-language volumes, Communications of Organizations and Negotiation: Competing or Collaborating, and her journal publications include Sociological Theory and the International Journal of Gastronomy and Food Science. For more information about Pilar, see

Written by katherinechen

June 8, 2016 at 4:37 pm

factory of the dolls

If you’re like me, you enjoy the rare behind-the-scenes view of how everyday products and services are made.  The Spanish manufacturer of the Paola Reina dolls has a mesmerizing video that starts with design of a doll and ends with the packaging of a completed doll.  The only way this video could improve is to follow one doll through the entire production process.  Check out the tray of blinking doll eyeballs at the 4:40 mark.

A full line of Paola Reina dolls on display at a trade show:

New York_PaoloReina.jpegSeeking services an experience for your new friend?  See Gawker’s review of the American Doll Cafe in NYC.

Written by katherinechen

May 25, 2016 at 9:58 pm

Posted in workplace

Tagged with

inequality perpetuated via organizations – a view from cultural sociology

Sociologists are increasingly recognizing how  organizations facilitate and perpetuate inequality.  Check out the recently published Socio-Economic Review paper, “What is Missing? Cultural Processes and Causal Pathways to Inequality” by Michèle Lamont, Stefan Beljean, and Matthew Clair.

Building on Weber’s concept of rationalization, the authors argue that organizations’ propensity for standardization and evaluation (along with other processes) contribute to inequalities.  Standardization flattens inputs and outputs, subjecting these to comparisons along narrow dimensions.  In addition, those that conform to standards can receive needed resources, leaving outliers to scrap for the remainders:

Standardization is the process by which individuals, groups and institutions construct ‘uniformities across time and space’ through ‘the generation of agreed-upon rules’ (Timmermans and Epstein, 2010, p. 71). While the process implies intention (‘agreed-upon rules’) on the part of social actors, standardization as a process in everyday life frequently has unintended consequences.  The construction of uniformities becomes habitual and taken for granted once the agreed-upon rules are set in place and codified into institutional and inter-subjective scripts (often formal, albeit sometimes also informal). In its industrial and post-industrial manifestations, the process of standardization is part and parcel of the rationalization and bureaucratization of society (Carruthers and Espeland, 1991; Olshan, 1993; Brunsson and Jacobsson, 2000; Timmermans and Epstein, 2010).

….Moreover, the effects of standardization on inequality are often unintended or indeterminate. Indeed, standards are often implemented with the intent of developing a common benchmark of success or competence and are frequently motivated by positive purposes (e.g. in the case of the adoption of pollution standards or teaching standards). Yet, once institutionalized, standards are often mobilized in the distribution of resources. In this process, in some cases, those who started out with standard relevant resources may be advantaged (Buchmann et al., 2010). In this sense, the consequences of standardization for inequality can be unintentional, indirect and open-ended, as it can exacerbate or abate inequality.Whether they are is an empirical issue to be assessed on a case-by-case basis.

One example of this interaction between standardization and social inequality is the use of standards in education as documented by Neckerman (2007). Among other things, her work analyses the rise of standardized and IQ testing in the 1920s in American education and local Chicago education policy. It shows how standardized test scores came to be used to determine admission to Chicago’s best vocational schools, with the goal of imposing more universalist practices. Yet, in reality, the reform resulted in diminished access to the best schooling for the city’s low-income African-American population…. (591-592).

Similarly, evaluation facilitates and legitimates differential treatment of individual persons:

Evaluation is a cultural process that—broadly defined—concerns the negotiation, definition and stabilization of value in social life (Beckert and Musselin, 2013). According to Lamont (2012, p. 206), this process involves several important sub-processes, most importantly categorization (‘determining in which group the entity [. . .] under consideration belongs’) and legitimation (‘recognition by oneself and others of the value of an entity’).

In the empirical literature, we find several examples of how evaluation as a cultural process can contribute to inequality, many of which are drawn from sociological research on hiring, recruiting and promotion in labour markets. The bulk of these studies concern how evaluation practices of organizations favour or discriminate against certain groups of employees (see, e.g. Castilla and Benard, 2010) or applicants (see, e.g. Rivera, 2012). Yet, some scholars also examine evaluation processes in labour markets from a broader perspective, locating evaluation not only in hiring or promotion but also in entire occupational fields.

For instance, Beljean (2013b) studied standards of evaluation in the cultural industry
of stand-up comedy. Drawing on interviews with comedians and their employers as well as ethnographic fieldwork, he finds that even though the work of stand-up comedians is highly uniform in that they all try to make people laugh, there is considerable variation in how comedians are evaluated across different levels of stratification of the comedy industry. Thus, for example, newcomer comedians and star performers are judged against different standards: while the former must be highly adaptable to the taste of different audiences and owners of comedy clubs, the latter are primarily judged by their ability to nurture their fan-base and to sell out shows. Even though this difference does not necessarily translate into more inequality among comedians, it tends to have negative effects on the career prospects of newcomer comedians. Due to mechanisms of cumulative advantage, and because both audiences and bookers tend to be conservative in their judgement, it is easier for more established comedians to maintain their status than for newcomers to build up a reputation. As a result, a few star comedians get to enjoy a disproportionally large share of fame and monetary rewards, while a large majority of comedians remain anonymous and marginalized. (593)

Those looking for ways to curb inequality will not find immediate answers in this article.  The authors do not offer remedies for how organizations can combat such unintended consequences, or even, have its members become more self-aware of these tendencies.   Yet, we know from other research that organizations have attempted different measures to minimize bias.  For example, during the 1970s and 1980s, orchestras turned to “blind” auditions to reduce gender bias when considering musicians for hire.  Some have even muffled the floor to prevent judges from hearing the click of heels that might give away the gender of those auditioning.


An example of a blind audition, courtesy of Colorado Springs Philharmonic.

In any case, have a look at the article’s accompanying discussion forum, where fellow scholars Douglas S. Massey, Leslie McCall, Donald Tomaskovic-Devey, Dustin Avent-Holt, Philippe Monin, Bernard Forgues, and Tao Wang weigh in with their own essays.



special issue on democratic organizations in The Sociological Quarterly

Interested in recent research on democratic organizations?

The Sociological Quarterly has just published a special issue, organized by Joyce Rothschild, on “The Logic of A Co-Operative Economy and Democracy 2.0: Recovering the Possibilities for Autonomy, Creativity, Solidarity, and Common Purpose.”  The articles cover findings, drawn from ethnographic research, interviews, and archival research, about how collectives engage in consensus-based decision making; how decentralization, storytelling, and communication help growing groups; how participatory practices obscure versus reveal inequality; how collectives redress gender inequality; how collectives dampen or harness emotions.  Even better: All articles are free!  Happy reading!

Here’s the line-up, which includes myself and other researchers:

Written by katherinechen

January 14, 2016 at 9:48 pm

Organizational ethnography: How to gain access

This post is intended to provide concrete tips for researchers looking to gain initial access to an organization, particularly for those doing fieldwork or qualitative interviews (but perhaps the suggestions will apply for survey research, as well). It extends Katherine Chen’s earlier post on gaining access to organizations.

If you have experience in this area, I hope you will contribute suggestions. I imagine that corporations will be of most interest to readers, but of course there can be challenges to accessing non-profits such as universities and the government, so please chime in if you have insights to contribute.

Here’s my experience: To successfully gain access to a multinational corporation to do an ethnography, I identified appropriate companies to study and then took the following steps:

  • Network with anyone that had connections to the companies. This actually didn’t get me anywhere.
  • Work to access multiple companies at one time. This was time-consuming but worthwhile because it took 6+ months to get into the company I studied, from my first efforts to reach out to a company to the day I was in the door.
  • Prepare a research proposal document that looks like a business proposal. It includes my research objectives, what I would need from the company, potential “deliverables,” and my credentials. I researched business proposals to look at how they are formatted. My proposal was about 5 pages long, with lots of white space and just a few bullets on most pages. I put my university’s logo on the bottom of every page. I packaged it in a glossy folder from my university, along with my business card and a letter from my dissertation chair, on university letterhead, attesting to my abilities and trustworthiness. I attached a brief cover letter to the front. If you can demonstrate any connections to a business school, I imagine that would help
  • Identify the right person in the organization, send them my proposal, and follow up. It may take a phone call or two to identify the right person because contact information often isn’t online.  

Ultimately, two of the four companies I approached agreed to let me in, and I ended up studying one of them, “Starr Corporation.” I got lucky—around the time I approached the company, the director of diversity management was planning to do an internal evaluation of the company’s diversity programs, but the department’s budget was limited. She saw me as potentially fulfilling that role, and she saw my proposal as serious and professional.

After Starr said yes, we negotiated:
1. A letter, approved by their legal department, outlining the company’s anonymity and guidelines for my access. My university IRB provided no assistance whatsoever at this stage, which I thought was outrageous. I ended up consulting a lawyer I knew to look over the letter (I strongly recommend doing that), and I got someone in the university’s patents office to review it, as well… I gave the company the option of being anonymous, and they wanted that. The company added a sentence stating that I would not be paid to do my research. I didn’t anticipate this, but in retrospect it is not surprising at all.

2. An understanding that I would produce a final internal report (i.e. Powerpoint presentation) on the company’s diversity programs.

Once I was in the door, my status was analogous to a consultant. I got an ID, an identity and password, my own cubicle with a computer and, crucially, access to the company’s intranet, including its computer program for scheduling interviews. I had a point of contact within the diversity department who identified appropriate events for me to attend and individuals to interview.

How did you gain access?

Also, do you have suggestions of books or articles on gaining access to organizations? I only am familiar with general discussions of this topic. I particularly like Gaining Access: A Practical and Theoretical Guide for Qualitative Researchers, which is what the title suggests.

Written by ellenberrey

June 15, 2015 at 1:46 pm

Posted in ethnography, workplace