Posts Tagged ‘current events

a warm welcome to guest blogger Ellen Berrey

Please join us in welcoming sociologist Ellen Berrey, who will be guest blogging about her hot-off-the-press book The Enigma of Diversity: The Language of Diversity and the Limits of Racial Justice  (2015, University of Chicago Press).

Here’s the blurb for the book:

Diversity these days is a hallowed American value, widely shared and honored. That’s a remarkable change from the Civil Rights era—but does this public commitment to diversity constitute a civil rights victory? What does diversity mean in contemporary America, and what are the effects of efforts to support it? 

Ellen Berrey digs deep into those questions in The Enigma of Diversity: The Language of Race and the Limits of Racial Justice (University of Chicago Press, May 2015). Drawing on six years of fieldwork and historical sources dating back to the 1950s, and making extensive use of three case studies from widely varying arenas—affirmative action in the University of Michigan’s admissions program, housing redevelopment in Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood, and the workings of the human resources department at a Fortune 500 company—Berrey explores the complicated, contradictory, and even troubling meanings and uses of diversity as it is invoked by different groups for different, often symbolic ends. In each case, diversity affirms inclusiveness, especially in the most coveted jobs and colleges, yet it resists fundamental change in the practices and cultures that are the foundation of social inequality. Berrey shows how this has led racial progress itself to be reimagined, transformed from a legal fight for fundamental rights to a celebration of the competitive advantages afforded by cultural differences.

Powerfully argued and surprising in its conclusions, The Enigma of Diversity reveals the true cost of the public embrace of diversity: the taming of demands for racial justice.

Berrey’s other publications on this and related topics are available here.

Written by katherinechen

May 10, 2015 at 10:40 am

chill out with icebreakers

For many of us, our first day of classes and the arrivals of guest speakers have meant initiating “icebreaker” activities to get students connected with one another and the faculty.  Until a few months ago, I didn’t think about where the term icebreaker originated.  In fact, I had always assumed it was something to do with making cocktails with ice – i.e., shaken, not stirred.

Some of us (meaning, yours truly) know better now, especially with an ill-fated recent attempt to recreate the Mawson expedition to the Antartic.

A US Coast Guard ice-breaker making its way to the North Pole in time-lapse images:

A Russian nuclear-powered ice-breaker en route to the North Pole:

More icebreaker action in Antartica with penguins, courtesy of Stanford and NSF:

Written by katherinechen

March 7, 2014 at 1:57 pm

“disbelief in authority: jfk, milgram, and me” by barry wellman

Friday marks the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination.  Given this occasion, guest blogger Barry Wellman asked me to post, on his behalf, his 1993 article “Disbelief in Authority: JFK, Milgram and Me.

Here’s an excerpt from the beginning:

Update: Here’s the entire excerpt, with Barry’s permission:


Reminiscences for the 30th Anniversary of Obedience to Authority, Annual Meeting of the American Psychological Association, Toronto

Barry Wellman, Department of Sociology, University of Toronto

August, 1993

Not only was 1963 the year that Stan Milgram’s Obedience to Authority was published, it was also the year that Stan, JFK and I came together for one explosive moment in November.

SOC REL 200 was the centerpiece of Harvard’s Social Relations Department. Each week a Harvard star gave new graduate students the word on his[1] latest masterpiece.  Each week, I sat shaking in my seat, a New York City street kid who had never studied sociology before, trying to figure out what was going on and to make believe that I already knew.

You’ll recall that Soc Rel’s raison d’etre was to bring together social and clinical psychologists with sociologists and anthropologists. In no other graduate school, would I have routinely encountered Erik Erikson or Roger Brown, or met Stan Milgram.

Stan was new at Harvard too, an untenured professor. I didn’t know if he was shaking or not. In those days I looked at faculty members with awe, and even addressed them as “Professor”. (Nowadays, when a Toronto student calls me “Professor,” I immediately wonder what s/he wants out of me.) In mid-November, Stan did SOC REL 200. He enthralled us with the shocking news of his then-recent “obedience to authority” experiments. This clearly was a formidable guy; this clearly was a crafty guy. You’d never know when he’d pull an experiment on you.

The following week, Talcott Parsons lectured to SOC REL 200 about the nature of social systems. In the midst of Talcott’s guided tour through the labyrinth of A, G, I and L boxes, Stan Milgram burst into the lecture hall, and rushed to the podium.

“I have horrible news,” he announced. “President Kennedy has been shot in Dallas!”

“Cut the crap, Milgram,” I remember blurting out from my seat, forgetting even to call him “Professor”. “You’re just doing another experiment on us.”

“No, it’s true! Listen, Ed Kelly has it on his radio.”

Sure enough, Ed Kelly (then a psychology graduate student) brought in a transistor radio which kept announcing that President Kennedy had been shot.

“This guy Milgram sure is a great experimenter,” I said to my classmates. “Just like Orson Welles, he’s even rigged up a simulated radio broadcast to convince us that this is true. I wonder what the experiment is really about.”

It was only after we left Emerson Hall,[2] went out into Harvard Yard and talked to others, that we realized that JFK had been shot and that Stan Milgram had only been telling us the truth this time.

The “experiment” had been an inadvertent one: my persistent denial of a painful truth. However, I am sure that if Stan Milgram hadn’t had such a reputation as an imaginative researcher and hadn’t demonstrated it just a week before, I would have accepted the news much more easily.


Stan and I became friendly after this. I was a great fan of his ingenious experiments and noble goals. I especially remember the time in the mid-sixties that he mailed a bunch of envelopes to the southern US. Some of the envelopes had return addresses indicating that they were from racerelations groups; others were more innocuous. Sure enough, many of the race-relations envelopes were opened en route, Milgram had a trick to show that.

Stan and I have kept on dancing around the same issues — similar perspectives, different techniques. His “Small World” research became one of the touchstones of social network analysis. Our communities are far-flung networks. Stan showed that we’re all connected to each other by five (or fewer) interpersonal ties. My students are skeptical of this until I demonstrate that they’re all linked to Wayne Gretzky: one of my students always knows him, or knows someone who knows someone who knows him. They’re even more convinced (although less excited) when I demonstrate our links to Inner Mongolian yak herders (three indirect ties via one of my graduate students).

Stan moved to CUNY and New York City; they taught each other many things. I think warmly of Stan every year when my urban sociology students read “The Experience of Living in Cities” (Ed: see article) — which is about everywhere but reeks of New York. Stan not only talked about the lack of neighborhood community; he showed how to investigate it — simply and neatly. You must remember that Toronto is both the safest and the most uptight city in North America. People here fear interpersonal contact when they have the least reason to do so. Right after reading Stan’s article, I send my students out to do an experiment: “Just look people in the eye and smile at them. Record who smiles back, by age, gender, social circumstances and personal characteristics.” Most

Toronto students find this hard to do, but they plunge in as a wild adventure. They report that almost all of the people they smiled at, violently twist their heads away from them.

We call this experiment, “The Neckbreaker”. Stan would have loved it.

[1] Sexist pronoun empirically accurate.

[2] Where Love Story was later filmed.

Written by katherinechen

November 22, 2013 at 3:56 am

how to lose friends and family via multi-level marketing, aka direct selling organizations

Two weeks ago, my organizations class discussed a chapter from Nicole Woolsey Biggart’s classic study of direct selling organizations (DSOs) as charismatic organizations.  DSOs rely upon people using their personal networks to recruit customers and, more importantly, new members who distribute products and services. Members share a portion of their sales with sponsors, or those who recruited them to the organization; such sponsors derive most of their income from recruited members’ sales.  DSOs’ techniques are more commonly known as multi-level marketing, which have been criticized by some.

In past years’ discussions of the DSO reading, students listed familiar examples of DSOs like Tupperware, Cutco, Amway, and Mary Kay.  This time, students named a new DSO that I wasn’t familiar with: Primerica.  Two said that they had studied for their license to sell Primerica life insurance.  After class, I looked up Primerica’s business model.  One of the summary articles (bonus: 300 page prospectus) noted Primerica’s origins (citigroup) and flagged one of its sources of revenues as the $199 license fee that members-in-training front, along with a recommended monthly fee.

In the financial sector, another DSO Herbalife has been the epicenter of an unusually vocal feud between two hedge fund managers, one of whom is shorting Herbalife’s stock and the other of whom is going long. In explaining the rationale for their fund’s position on Herbalife, Bill Ackman and his analyst Shane Dineen gave a 3 hour-long presentation with a 300-plus slide Powerpoint analysis that claims that “Herbalife Displays Indicators of Being a Pyramid Scheme.” During the presentation, Ackman and colleagues argued that Herbalife is primarily about recruiting people for a “business opportunity” rather than selling products or services. For example, the presentation describes how the top 1% of distributors claim 88% of Herbalife’s compensation.  Not surprisingly, in a subsequent cnbc interview, the Herbalife CEO countered Ackman’s analysis as an attempt to “manipulate our stocks.”

Ackman’s analysis inspired at least one blogger to journey to Queens to visit a Herbalife nutrition club’s meeting and post about his impression. On the other hand, a Herbalife distributor who has been disappointed by his business opportunity results has filed a suit using claims similar to Ackman’s contentions. An executive summary version of Ackman and Dineen’s Powerpoint analysis underscores the potential impact of DSOs upon distributors’ networks:

Recruiting family members, friends, work and church acquaintances and others in their communities into a rigged game, one that is highly likely to exact financial and emotional harm on those loved and trusted by them, has an impact that cannot be repaired or recompensed with dollars alone.

In class discussions over the years, students have made similar conclusions, with some sharing experiences about how they no longer can socialize with relatives and friends who are members of DSOs because of the relentless pressure to buy and join.  Others continue to do part-time work as DSO members who were recruited by family.

Teaching resources on DSOs
Here are recent studies of DSO practices:
Paid to Party: Working Time and Emotion in Direct Home Sales by Jamie L. Mullaney and Janet Hinson Shope (Rutgers, 2012)
Making Up the Difference: Women, Beauty, and Direct Selling in Ecuador by Erynn Masi de Casanova (University of Texas Press, 2011)
The Hard Sell: An Ethnographic Study of the Direct Selling Industry by John Bone (Ashgate, 2006)

– The Tupperware! documentary is a great complement for teaching Biggart’s work

More on Ackman vs. Ichan
Despite the cnbc announcer’s attempts to steer discussion towards the two callers’ opposing positions on Herbalife, Ackman and Carl Icahn revisited an old disagreement, with traders ohhhing in the background. A Vanity Fair article delves into the origins of their feud and other feuds over what sound like spot agreements gone sour.  Word on the street is that Ackman may have another presentation on the ready.

Written by katherinechen

October 31, 2013 at 11:05 pm

burning man round table discussion at the society pages

Several sociologists (Matt Wray, Jon Stern, and myself) and an anthropologist (S. Megan Heller) have a round table discussion on Burning Man at the Society Pages. We’ve all done research at Burning Man, an annual temporary community in Nevada that has inspired events and organizations worldwide.

Have a peek at our discussion, which includes ideas for future studies. We discuss answers to questions such as:

Why might the demographics of the Burning Man population be of interest to researchers? For instance, there is a cultural trope that people who go to Burning Man are often marginalized individuals—outsiders in some way. Could the festival’s annual Census be used to measure this rather subjective characteristic of the population? Is there a single “modal demographic” (that is, a specific Burner “type”) or are there many? What else does the Census Lab measure (or not measure)?


Burning Man sometimes gets portrayed as little more than a giant rave—a psychedelic party on the playa. It is like a party in many ways, but those of us who go know that the label doesn’t begin to capture the full experience. What larger phenomena does Burning Man represent in your research? In other words, how do you categorize the event and why should we take it seriously?

Going to Burning Man? Check out the un-conference schedule. Looking to volunteer? Start with this post.

A 2003 San Francisco billboard ad for a voluntary association references Burning Man.  As Burning Man's popularity and legitimacy have increased, other organizations and individuals have sought to expropriate the Burning Man name, imagery, and output for their own use.  Photographer unknown.

(Unfortunately, this photo didn’t make it into my book because the image quality wasn’t sufficient for a black and white reprint.) A 2003 San Francisco billboard ad for a voluntary association references Burning Man. As Burning Man’s popularity has increased, other organizations and individuals have sought to expropriate the Burning Man name, imagery, and output for their own use. Photographer unknown.

Written by katherinechen

August 14, 2013 at 8:09 pm

democracy and direct action according to David Graeber

For those of us who wish to consider the implications of recent worldwide events, three of anthropologist David Graeber‘s books offer a deeper understanding of relatively unfamiliar organizing practices and their relationship with democracy:

(1) Direct Action: An Ethnography (2009, AK Press)

(2) Revolution in Reverse (or, on the conflict between political ontologies of violence and political
ontologies of the imagination)

(3) The Democracy Project: A History, a Crisis, a Movement (2013, Random House)

Fabio’s previous posts covered one of Graeber’s most famous books Debt. For those of us who teach and practice orgtheory, Graeber’s work on direct action and criticisms of bureaucracy offer much-needed insight into how collectivities can gel in taking action. In particular, his in-depth account of how groups make decisions by consensus offers rich examples that can help students and practitioners understand the steps involved, as well as the pitfalls and benefits of these alternatives to topdown orders. (Other examples in the research literature include Francesca Polletta’s research on SDS and my own work on Burning Man – see chapter 3 of Enabling Creative Chaos: The Organization Behind the Burning Man Event).

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Written by katherinechen

June 21, 2013 at 7:00 pm

boston, nyc, and dc on high alert

Due to the detonations (warning: graphic) at today’s Boston Marathon, Boston, NYC, and DC are now on high alert. For those of you in Boston, please stay safe. We are getting conflicting reports of Boston area cell service being down vs. increased capacity.
– Boston Police Dept. twitter feed is here.
– Looking for someone/have info about someone in Boston? Use Google person finder here.
No-fly zone over the Boylston St. area of Boston, heightened security expected at Logan airport

Written by katherinechen

April 15, 2013 at 10:06 pm

Posted in current events

Tagged with

religion and immigration rights in the US

Yesterday’s WSJ featured an interesting (gated) front page article on growing support among some evangelical congregations for extending immigration rights to undocumented immigrants. Drawing on the Bible to justify “welcoming the stranger,” leaders have urged outreach efforts and political mobilization for overhauling immigration reform, even though these activities may alienate some congregants and politicians. According to the WSJ, one opposing politician has countered supporters’ assertions with the claim that “The Bible contains numerous passages that do not necessarily support amnesty and instead support the rule of law. The Scriptures clearly indicate that God charges civil authorities with preserving order, protecting citizens and punishing wrongdoers.” Clearly, groups and individuals are tapping logics of religion and the state to offer various rationales for the status quo versus change.

Sociologist Grace Yukich has conducted research on a similar movement for immigration rights among Catholic groups. Her forthcoming book One Family Under God: Religion and Immigration Politics in the New Sanctuary Movement (Oxford) examines how supporters simultaneously engage with a larger social movement at the grassroots level and reshape the composition of their flock. Check out more about Yukich’s work via her blog posts on Mobilizing Ideas and The Immanent Frame.

Written by katherinechen

April 10, 2013 at 5:55 pm

new OWS report now available from the Murphy Institute, CUNY

CUNY colleagues at the Murphy Institute have produced a downloadable report based on their survey and interviews of OWSers about the OWS social movement. Here’s a description of the report:

“Faculty members Ruth Milkman, Stephanie Luce, and Penny Lewis co-authored Changing the Subject: A Bottom-Up Account of Occupy Wall Street in New York City. The research team surveyed 729 protesters at a May 1, 2011 Occupy march and rally in New York City, and conducted extensive interviews with 25 people who were core activists in the movement. The survey used a methodology developed and widely deployed in Europe for the study of large protest demonstrations to obtain a representative sample of participants. This report provides the most systematic demographic snapshot available of the Occupy movement and also explores the reasons why it gained traction with the public, making the issue of economic inequality central in the nation’s political debate. The study also shows that the movement had a pre-history, with strong links to previous U.S. social movements, and a post-history, with activities continuing long after the eviction of the Park. While Occupy may have faded from daily headlines after the protesters’ eviction from Zuccotti Park, the issues it sparked and the activism it inspired remain very much alive.”

The report’s descriptions of OWS’s democratic organizational practices, as well as subsequent Occupy Sandy relief efforts, may be of particular interest to orgheads.

In addition, those in the NYC area might like to participate in this semester’s line-up of papers on OWS at the Politics and Protest workshop, organized by John Krinsky and Jim Jasper, at the Graduate Center. The workshop follows Chuck Tilly’s rules of etiquette.

Written by katherinechen

February 4, 2013 at 10:44 pm

the ‘better battery bugaboo’ and the (electric?) car of tomorrow

Thanks Brayden and hello… My first crack at guest blogging… I was going to start out with a slightly longer intro but as Fabio mentioned the Nissan Leaf, I’ll start there and try to bring it back to OrgTheory broadly defined, of course.

My writings on the early (1897-1925) history of the electric vehicle (article 1, article 2 and book versions, JSTOR or MUSE subscriptions required, and yes, there were electric vehicles way back then, perhaps even in your home town!) left me struggling with questions that come out in Fabio’s post and its comments.

First: the electric car is always 10 years away, plus or minus 5 years. The book contains lots of evidence of experts predicting the imminent arrival of the electric car in the late 1890s, the 1900s, the 1910s and the 1920s. Since then, working with UMD doctoral student Byungchae Jin, we’ve found similar statements from the 1960s, 1970s, 1990s, and, of course, the 2000s. I will not tar Fabio with the label of “electric vehicle expert”, but none other than Nobel Laureate and current Energy Secretary Steven Chu said the following in Cancun last year at a UN climate conference (quote and context from Reuters):

Cars that run on batteries will begin to be competitive with ones that burn petroleum fuels in about five years, the U.S. energy secretary said at the annual U.N. climate talks. ‘It’s not like it’s 10 years off,’ Chu said at a press conference on U.S. clean energy efforts on the sidelines of the climate talks. ‘It’s about five years and it could be sooner. Meanwhile the batteries we do have today are soon going to get better by a factor of two.’

So, the electric car is and always has been the car of tomorrow, but never the car of today. Why? That’s seems like an interesting question from the perspective of someone who’s curious about the interaction of technology, organization, industrial evolution, policy and consumer behavior. Fabio and the comments touch on many of these factors. Why have so many very smart people been so consistently wrong for so long?

One factor that inevitably comes up is the battery. What does it mean to say that we need better batteries or, as Secretary Chu says, that the better battery is about five years away? University of Arizona cultural archeologist Michael Schiffer has called this unquestioned belief in the transformative role of the battery of the future the “better battery bugaboo.” The BBB is the idea that the fate of the electric vehicle has been, is and always will be inextricably linked to (always, it seems) lagging developments in the science of electricity storage. But what about the social construction of technology? Isn’t it one of our hardest won intellectual battles that technology is what we as a society make it to be? How can it be that this recalcitrant thing, this stubborn artifact, has been standing in our way for so long? What does this say about our theories of technology? Is everything but the battery socially constructed?

I’ll say a little more about this in the days ahead, and I’ll also say a bit about whether I believe, as Fabio said, that it’s different this time, but for the moment, I’m curious what readers think: Is our historic inability to (re-)construct the storage battery a challenge to our understanding of the plasticity of technology?


Written by dakirsch

September 8, 2011 at 5:44 am

Posted in uncategorized

Tagged with ,

could penske’s purchase of saturn fundamentally change the auto industry?

Roger Penske is purchasing Saturn and the implications are possibly far reaching.  If a crisis, as the saying goes, is a terrible thing to waste then the auto industry circa 2009 presents a golden opportunity to see how a crisis opens opportunities to re-write the rules that govern an industry.  Penske’s gambit aims to do that and if he succeeds it could fundamentally change the way cars are designed and manufactured.

Saturn has been cast in the role of change agent before.  The company was conceived in 1982 as a “new kind of car company, making a new kind of car.”  Back then, the rap on the American car industry was that it produced poor quality goods.  That problem, in turn, was blamed on ossified relationships between the car companies and their “stakeholders”: relationships with the unions had become paralyzingly adversarial, relationships with suppliers were dictatorial, the companies’ own designers weren’t cooperating across divisional boundaries and the dealer network were unwieldy.  Saturn was meant to push the reset button on all of these relationships.

Saturn’s new model worked, for a while.  Its quality ratings were high and the brand developed a strong customer base.   But rather than spreading into the rest of GM, the opposite happened: GM re-colonized Saturn.  When Saturn opened a new plant in Wilmington, Delaware in 1996, it was stripped of most of the key organizational innovations of the original plant in Spring Hill, Tennessee.  Labor-management cooperation was replaced with a regular pattern contract, the car’s design was outsourced to a GM subsidiary, Saturn’s relationships with suppliers reverted to form, and plant’s managers were brought in through GM’s regular management career channels.  Saturn became just another GM subsidiary.

That is, with one exception: the brand and the dealer network maintained a good deal of independence. And they are essentially what Roger Penske has now purchased: not a company that makes cars (GM will continue to design and manufacture vehicles for the time being after which Penske plans to outsource manufacturing to a global network of manufacturers), but a brand and a distribution channel.

On first inspection, that doesn’t seem to be the stuff of fundamental industry change.  But it could turn out to be just that if Penske is able to capture power in the value chain and use it to influence the way cars are designed and manufactured.  The open question is whether Penske has the wherewithal to pull it off.

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Written by seansafford

July 12, 2009 at 12:15 am

fisking miller and rachman’s revolutionary check-list

green revolutionThe Economist’s Andrew Miller, a.k.a. Bagehot, has engaged Gideon Rachman of the Financial Times in a backandforth about the building blocks of revolution.  They list criteria that would, if met, point toward revolution in Iran and they conclude that most of these antecedents are present in Iran today, suggesting that revolution is possibly at hand.

Partly because I made such a point of it earlier, but also because I think it is potentially useful both to interested observers and to academics interested in social movements and social revolutions, I decided engage in a friendly academic fisking of their observations.  Bottom line: I end up being a bit less optimistic than they are.  Their points are listed in bold.  My reading of the literature and of how the situation in Iran measures up follows each.

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Written by seansafford

June 24, 2009 at 2:24 am

large processes, huge comparisons and the value of prediction

green revolution

Andrew Perrin points me toward an article by Charles Kurzman in Foreign Policy which argues:

In a year’s time, some of these [Iran] experts will crow that events have confirmed their analyses. Others will quietly remove this week’s remarks from their Web sites.

Yet all of these analyses are wrong, even if events unfold the way they predict. After all, if you make enough predictions, some are bound to look accurate. They are wrong because the outcome of this week’s events is simply unpredictable. Unpredictable means that no matter how well-informed you may be, it is impossible to know what will happen next. Moments of turmoil make a mockery of accumulated knowledge.

Fair enough.  But, that shouldn’t stop us from drawing on our received wisdom to make predictions anyhow.

I have been going back to look at the literature on revolutions (both to make sense of current events and also for scholarly reasons) and I came across a paper by Theda Skocpol written in the aftermath of the Iranian Revolution of 1979.  Skocpol’s first book attempted to delineate structural antecedents of revolutions and their outcomes derived from a comparative analysis of revolutions in France, Russia and China.  Insightful as it was, her argument nevertheless butted up against realities in uncomfortable ways.  The first instance of that was the Iranian Revolution of 1979, the same year Theda’s book was published.  It turns out, her predictions lacked in several ways.  And she was the first to draw out the implications.  She writes:
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Written by seansafford

June 19, 2009 at 8:10 pm

ivies, race and admission to the elite

An article in the NYTimes yesterday offers a whirlwind tour of sociologically based theorizing on the significance of President Obama appointing an eighth member of the Supreme Court with an Ivy League education.

From the power structure perspective of William Domhoff (and closer to orgTheory home-base, folks like Don Palmer, Philip Bonacich, Michael Useem…):

There is both a funneling and homogenizing effect from these schools,” said G. William Domhoff, a professor of psychology and sociology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and the author of “Who Rules America?” The effect, Professor Domhoff said, “plays out in terms of social networks, cultural/social capital, and a feeling of being part of the in-group.” It is one of subtle conditioning — what Sam Rayburn, the former House speaker, meant when he famously said, “If you want to get along, go along.

Then there is a Podolny-esque status argument:

Perceptions of qualifications really matter in this game,” said Lee Epstein, a law professor at Northwestern …. In choosing an Ivy Leaguer, Professor Epstein said, a president might think: “I don’t have to think too much. I don’t have to dig too deeply about whether they’re smart or not, whether they are well trained.”

An oversocialized homophily perspective from Aronowitz:

A president who attended a top university might gravitate toward those with a similar education… the selection of Judge Sotomayor by a president who graduated from Columbia University and Harvard Law was an example of “people wanting to appoint themselves.”

And a functionalist/rational choice/self-selection argument:

From the law schools that basically are the hardest to get into. They admit the best and the brightest, and they may not teach very well, but you can’t make a sow’s ear out of a silk purse. If they come in the best and the brightest, they’re probably going to leave the best and the brightest.

Its graphic even invokes networks terminology by referring to degrees of separation.

Someone at the Times has been reading their orgTheory.  But, in the end, the article is disappointingly non-provocative.  So, never happy to let well enough alone, I will launch headlong into a discussion I may well regret…

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Written by seansafford

June 9, 2009 at 7:49 pm

our feel good innovation engine

A discussion about whether the U.S. has lost its innovative umph has been roiling across the internets in reaction to Business Week’s provocative cover story.

I think it’s a bit of a stretch to argue that the innovation engine stalled. But I do worry that we’ve drifted toward the wrong kind of innovations. Assume for a moment that there are only two kinds of innovation: (1) innovation that makes you feel good; and, (2) innovation that makes you more productive. Feel good innovations include yummy new snacks, fluffier pillows, wizbangier cars and prettier internet graphics. Productivity enhancing innovations include various so-called “labor saving devices” (e.g., washing machines), information technologies that facilitate coordinated manufacturing, advances in transportation that allow us to spend more time working and less time taking in the scenery.

Both kinds of innovation create value. But they have different implications for creating wealth and, ultimately, prosperity. Feel good innovations are the fruits of wealth; they help us to enjoy life. But fundamentally, they are aimed at capturing a bigger piece of the consumption pie. Productivity-oriented innovations expand the pie.  They represent the great innovations of history: the cotton gin, steel, cars, interstate highways, microchips. These innovations allowed the rest of us to do a better job of doing everyday things. They created surpluses, expanded overall wealth and generated huge increases in prosperity in the 20th century.

Obviously, both kinds of innovation are important. But, wealth creation has to come before wealth consumption.  I wonder whether the balance has shifted too far to the feel-good side of the ledger.

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Written by seansafford

June 8, 2009 at 1:42 pm

national health care and american competitiveness

Greg Mankiw points toward a recent CBO report arguing that a national health care system would not improve American companies’ competitiveness. His case essentially rests on the following sentence in the report:

…cash wages and other forms of compensation would have to rise by roughly the amount of the reduction in health benefits for firms to be able to attract the same number and types of workers.

The upshot: national health care would turn out to be a zero sum game as far as competitiveness is concerned because employers would end up having to pay more to attract employees.

Mankiw focuses in on a very narrow definition of ‘competitiveness’: for him, it all seems to come down to labor costs.  The thing is, competitiveness can be defined in a few ways.  One is increasing the long term endogenous growth potential of the economy relative to other advanced economies. Another is increasing the productivity of American workers vis-à-vis others countries’ workers.  Mankiw is likely right that health care reform would not improve competitiveness if you restrict it only to mean labor costs.  But in either of the alternative senses, health care reform would plausibly contribute to American competitiveness.

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Written by seansafford

May 27, 2009 at 5:05 pm

local action and military intransigence: how to take down don’t-ask-don’t-tell

It’s been seventeen years since Bill Clinton first proposed, and then backed away from, allowing gay and lesbian members of the US military to serve openly.  Since then, 20 of the 26 members of NATO—the US’s closest military and cultural allies—have changed their policies to permit gay men and women to serve.

Organizational theorists spend a good deal of time looking at why organizations adopt new policies and practices.  Conventional wisdom holds that practices either acquire legitimacy and diffuse within an organizational field or organizational leaders calculate costs and the benefits and act accordingly.  But the status of gay people has been normalized both in American society and among western societies broadly for some time now.  Moreover, the costs and benefits have been exhaustively researched and show no downside and strong upside.  Still, the policy stands in place.

This strikes me as the flip side of isomorphism: some organizations actively resist influence of their environment.  Org Theory has long been concerned with the question of organizational inertia.  But inertia is different from intransigence.  Inertia is passive.  Intransigence is defiant.

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Written by seansafford

May 22, 2009 at 6:30 pm

labels matter: unpacking posner and florida (by way of arendt)

Richard Florida and Richard Posner are guest blogging for Andrew Sullivan this week.  They each use their first posts to engage in the politics of labeling, identification and categorization.

Posner’s post is a typically thoughtful expository on why the current crisis should be labeled a “depression.” He rejects the prevailing definitions of recession and depression in favor of an alternative that comes pretty close to the notion of a “deep crisis” as it’s employed by Fligstein, Powell and others: a depression is a downturn that undermines fundamental assumptions about the forces that shape the economy. Recessions, in contrast, correct imbalances, but they don’t fundamentally alter underlying assumptions. Of course, by this definition you can’t really tell if you are in a recession or a depression while it is occurring. It’s not, in that sense, ‘objective’ since you can only tell if you were in one retroactively.

But striving for objectivity would miss the point of arguing over a label. At a moment of heightened uncertainty, the contest over the label is as important as its content (if not more). At this uncertain moment, people don’t quite know how behave.  Should I assume the world will “get back to normal” once things settle down and therefore just hunker down until it blows over? Or, should I be prepared to make some significant adjustments in the way I conceive of my role, my identity and my behavior because the world is going to look significantly different on the other side? Should the government stand back and let the economy work itself out? Or, should the government provide clarity and shape the system in fundamental ways? The answer depends on which label you subscribe to. If Posner’s definition gains widespread acceptance, it suggests one course of action in response to uncertainty over another. It also suggests that the Obama administration is right to take drastic measures because if it doesn’t influence the world that results from this crisis, someone else will.

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Written by seansafford

May 18, 2009 at 10:39 pm