Posts Tagged ‘economic sociology

does making one’s scholarly mark mean transplanting the shoulders of giants elsewhere?

The Society for the Advancement of Socio-Economics (SASE) website has made Neil Fligstein‘s powerpoint slides on the history of economic sociology available for general viewing as a PDF.  (Here are the slides in powerpoint form: 1469704310_imagining_economic_sociology_-socio-economics-fligstein) It’s a fascinating read of the development of a sub-field across continents, and it also includes discussion of a challenge that some believes plagues the sociology discipline:

Both Max Weber and Thomas Kuhn recognized that Sociology as a discipline might be doomed to never cumulate knowledge.

  • Sociology would proceed as a set of research projects which reflected the current concerns and interests of a small set of scholars
  • When the group hit a dead end in producing novel results, the research program would die out only to be replaced by another one
  • Progress in economic sociology is likely to be made by putting our research programs into dialogue with one another to make sense of how the various mechanisms that structure markets interact
  • Failure to do so risks the field fragmenting of the field into ever smaller pieces and remaining subject to fashion and fad

Fligstein’s claim for these field-fragmenting tendencies stems from the current structure of the academic field.  He depicts sociology as rewarding scholars for applying ideas from one area to another area where current theorizing is insufficient, rather than expanding existing research:

  • … the idea is not to work on the edge of some mature existing research program with the goal of expanding it
  • But instead, one should be on the lookout for new ideas from different research programs to borrow to make sense for what should be done next

In short, scholars tend to form intellectual islands where they can commune with other like-minded scholars.  Bridging paths to other islands can generate rewards, but the efforts needed to disseminate knowledge more widely – even within a discipline – can exceed any one person’s capacity.


Written by katherinechen

October 10, 2016 at 6:30 pm

prosumption: from parasitic to prefigurative

Many of you practice prosumption everyday without realizing it.  If you bus your own table after a fast food meal, do self-check out at a store, or review a manuscript for an academic journal, you are engaging in simultaneous production and consumption.  Organizations are increasingly introducing prosumption into routines without corresponding compensation, or, as George Ritzer notes in his essay in this The Sociological Quarterly summer 2015 issue, savings, for the prosumer.

Here’s the start of Ritzer’s “Prosumer Capitalism” essay:

This essay involves a further, albeit still early and provisional, analysis of the relationship
between prosumption and capitalism. It is made necessary by the rapid changes
in the nature of prosumption, its relationship to the changing capitalist economic
system, as well as the growing literature on them (Piketty 2014; Rifkin 2014;
Ritzer 2014). Like its predecessor (Ritzer and Jurgenson 2010), this analysis
deals with the ever-expanding prosumption on the Internet, but it goes beyond
the now antiquated notion of Web 2.0, as well as devoting greater attention to
prosumption in more traditional settings. It also reflects significant changes in
my own conceptualization of prosumption, especially the idea of the prosumption
continuum (see Figure 1). The poles of the continuum involve a needed
reconceptualization of production as prosumption-as-production (p-a-p) and of
consumption as prosumption-as-consumption (p-a-c). More attention is devoted to
three types of capitalism (producer, consumer, and prosumer), as well as to the
“grand narrative” of producer capitalism > consumer capitalism > prosumer capitalism.
New to this analysis is another grand narrative relating to exploitation in
capitalism: singly exploitative producer capitalism > doubly exploitative consumer
capitalism > synergistically doubly exploitative prosumer capitalism. From a Marxian
perspective, prosumer capitalism is seen as an even more “magical” system than its
predecessors, at least as far as the capitalists are concerned. There is also a reexamination
of capitalism in light of other important recent characterizations of that economic
system. While others foresee the decline or even demise of capitalism (Rifkin
2014) or shift the focus to increasing inequality (Piketty 2014), this analysis foresees
the continuation of capitalism,2 albeit in the form of prosumer capitalism. The conclusion
takes a pessimistic perspective on the fate of the prosumer in contemporary
capitalism (in contrast to Toffler [1980] and Rifkin [2014]), although some thoughts
are offered on a more optimistic scenario. The essay ends pessimistically with some
recent examples of capitalist expansions and incursions in prosumer-dominated businesses
(Zopa in banking, Airbnb in short-term domicile rental, and Uber in the taxi

While Ritzer has a largely pessimistic view of where prosumption will lead, I have written a cautiously optimistic commentary covering the varieties of prosumption, which I dub “from parasitic to prefigurative.”  Many of the examples that Ritzer and I discuss come from the so-called sharing economy, including the controversial pay-for-street-parking info apps discussed by epopp in this orgtheory post.

Here are my commentary’s central claims:

Ritzer’s analyses have mostly focused on organizations that deploy prosumption
as a means toward the end of profit. However, by studying organizations and groups
that view prosumption as both a means and an end, we can gain deeper insight into the
impact of prosumption. Thus, I examine several types of prosumption across the three
sectors of the market: for-profit organizations, the state, and nonprofit organizations/
voluntary associations. I further Ritzer’s critique by arguing that prosumption shifts
what used to be organizational and state responsibilities and risks upon individual
persons, emiserating workers and overloading individuals’ decision-making capacities.
While this shift has been portrayed as enhancing market efficiency and empowering
consumers, it can widen inequality, as it allows organizations to simultaneously overwork
employees and clients while understaffing. Those with resources can opt in and
out of prosumption when they please, reinforcing the illusion that prosumption is a
freely made choice, rather than one that is imposed for the ends of profits or efficiency.
However, not all individuals have the means to prosume, and their communities may
be unfairly stigmatized by prosumption. Moreover, attempts to promulgate parasitic
prosumption threaten to undercut access to public goods.
On the other hand, Ritzer’s (2015) mention of “dangerous giants” suggests that not
all persons will mindlessly prosume according to convention (p. 439). I elaborate on
three forms of prosumption that present potential counterpoints to conventional
prosumption. With transformative prosumption, prosumers engage in agentic action
and meaning-making. In violating prosumption conventions, the practice of disruptive
prosumption counters the push for profits and efficiency. When coupled with democratic
or collectivist ways of organizing, prosumption assumes a prefigurative cast,
enacting a society that prosumers desire rather than replicating the status quo.

I quite enjoyed writing the commentary, as it allowed me to reflect on additional ground beyond a previous prosumption article.

You can read Ritzer’s article on prosumption here. Ritzer’s essay is followed by commentaries by:

Ritzer follows with a response to the commentaries in “Dealing with the Welcome Critiques of “Prosumer Capitalism.”

Bonus: all items are ungated!!!  Happy reading!

Written by katherinechen

October 2, 2015 at 7:42 pm

Posted in culture

Tagged with

ka-ching kitty!

Psych experiments show that we tend to overvalue objects that we possess – according to a coffee mug experiment, we would be willing to sell one that we have at a certain price, but others would not be willing to pay that same price.   What happens when the object is a non-human family member?

When negotiating the sale of their home, one Australian family was willing to give up their cat Tiffany to the new homeowners for $140,000 (about $120K in US dollars). Some readers of the article announcing this exchange felt their pets were priceless, while others pointed out that cats are territorial and may not tolerate moves.

The real estate agent is especially happy about his commission, presumably

The real estate agent is especially happy about his commission, presumably

Don’t expect some cats to reciprocate your affectionate feelings – according to one medical examiner, cats will consume your lips and other edibles should you expire in your home. Sweet dreams, kitty owners.

Written by katherinechen

October 22, 2014 at 2:57 pm

money, money, money … at Yale

Yale is hosting a conference on $$$, which is open to the public, next Fri., Sept. 12th at Yale.

The line-up is both impressive and exciting, not least of all because it involves our orgtheory crew plus beloved colleagues and dear orgtheory readers!

Friday, September 12, 2014
Hosted by:
Nina Bandelj ~ Sociology, University of California at Irvine
Daniel Markovits ~ Yale Law School
Frederick F. Wherry ~ Sociology, Yale University

With papers from:
Bruce Carruthers ~ Sociology, Northwestern University
Christine Desan ~ Harvard Law School
Nigel Dodd ~ Sociology, London School of Economics
Akinobu Kuroda ~ Institute for Advanced Studies on Asia, Tokyo
Simone Polillo ~ Sociology, University of Virginia
Akos Rona-Tas ~ Sociology, University of California at San Diego
Alya Guseva ~ Sociology, Boston University
Rene Almeling ~ Sociology, Yale University
David Grewal ~ Yale Law School
Kieran Healy ~ Sociology, Duke University
Marion Fourcade ~ Sociology, University of California at Berkeley
Supriya Singh ~ Sociology, RMIT, Australia
Stephen Vaisey ~ Sociology, Duke University
Shane Frederick ~ Psychology, Yale School of Management
Daniel Markovits ~ Yale Law School

The Social Meaning of Money
Turns 20
Nancy Folbre ~ Economics, University of Massachusetts
Arlie Hochschild ~ Sociology, University of California at Berkeley
Eric Helleiner ~ Political Science, University of Waterloo
Bill Maurer ~ Anthropology, University of California at Irvine
Jonathan Morduch ~ Economics, New York University

Co-Sponsored by The Office of the Provost, Yale University ~ Yale Center for Cultural Sociology
Center for Organizational Research at the University of California, Irvine
Yale Center for Comparative Research ~ Yale Law School ~ Yale School of Management

Here’s the program:

Money Talks: A Symposium at Yale
Friday, September 12, 2014

Morning Sessions:Yale School of Management, Evans Hall, 165 Whitney Avenue. Class of 1980 Classroom, 2400
Afternoon sessions: Yale Law School, 127 Wall Street, Room 127 (TBC).

9:00 ~ 9:15 AM Welcome
Richard Breen ~ Yale University, Chair of the Department of Sociology
Daniel Markovits ~ Yale Law School, Symposium Co-host
Frederick Wherry ~ Yale University, Symposium Co-organizer
Nina Bandelj ~ University of California, Irvine, Symposium Co-organizer
9:15 ~ 10:45 AM Panel 1: Money and Markets
Bruce Carruthers ~ Northwestern University
Some A-B-C’s of Financial Fables: Rethinking Finance and Money
Akinobu Kuroda ~ Institute for Advanced Studies on Asia, University of Tokyo
The Characters of Money: A Historical Viewpoint from Complementary Currencies
Simone Polillo ~ University of Virginia
A Macro-Sociology of Money
Alya Guseva ~ Boston University & Akos Rona-Tas ~ University of California, San Diego
Money Talks, Plastic Money Tattles
Moderator: Alice Goffman ~ University of Wisconsin, Madison
10:45 ~ 11:00 AM Coffee Break
11:00 AM ~ 12:30 PM Panel 2: Money and Morals
Rene Almeling ~ Yale University
Money, Technology, and Bodily Experience: Comparing the Production of Eggs for Pregnancy or for Profit
David Grewal ~ Yale Law School
The Meaning of the Mirage: Money and Sin in Early Political Economy
Marion Fourcade ~ University of California, Berkeley & Kieran Healy ~ Duke University
Seeing Like a Market
Supriya Singh ~ RMIT University, Australia
Money and Morals: The Biography of Transnational Money
Moderator: Olav Sorenson ~ Yale School of Management
12:30 ~ 2:00 PM Lunch Break
2:00 ~ 4:00 PM Panel 3: The Social Meaning of Money, 20 Years Later
Nancy Folbre ~ University of Massachusetts, Amherst
Accounting for Care
Arlie Hochschild ~ University of California, Berkeley
Going on Attachment Alert: Paying Money, Managing Feeling
Eric Helleiner ~ University of Waterloo, Canada
The Macro Social Meaning of Money: From Territorial Currencies to Global Money
Bill Maurer ~ University of California, Irvine
Zelizer for the Bitcoin Moment: The Social Meaning of Payment Technology
Jonathan Morduch ~ New York University
Economics, Psychology, and the Social Meaning of Money
Moderator: Nina Bandelj ~ University of California, Irvine
4:00 ~ 4:15 PM Coffee Break
4:15 ~ 6:00 PM Panel 4: The Moralities, Solidarities, and Meanings of Money
Stephen Vaisey ~ Duke University
What Would You Do For a Million Dollars?
Shane Frederick ~ Yale School of Management
Positional Concerns
Christine Desan ~ Harvard Law School
Money as a Constitutional Practice
Daniel Markovits ~ Yale Law School
Economic Inequality and the Meaning of Money
Nigel Dodd ~ London School of Economics
Is Bitcoin Utopian?
Moderator: Frederick Wherry ~ Yale University
6:00 PM A Conversation With Viviana Zelizer
Moderators: Nina Bandelj ~ University of California, Irvine & Frederick Wherry ~ Yale University
6:30 PM Reception ~ Yale Law School, The Alumni Reading Room

Written by katherinechen

September 5, 2014 at 2:47 pm

cfp on “The Rise of Finance: Causes and Consequences of Financialization” at Socio-Economic Review journal

Now that the spring semester is ending, some of our readers are kicking the manuscript preparations into high gear, judging from the uptick in the number of review requests that I’m starting to receive.   For those of you looking for a special issue to target as an author or a reader, I wanted to call attention to a call for papers in the Socio-Economic Review that might be of interest (click this PDF for more info: SER 2015 Special Issue CfP on Financialization):

 Call for papers

“The Rise of Finance: Causes and Consequences of Financialization”
Guest Editors
Sabino Kornrich, Emory University
Alex Hicks, Emory University
Submission deadline: July 21, 2014
Publication of Special Issue in Socio-Economic Review: 2015

The financialization of the economy, as seen in the growing importance of financial markets and the shift from industrial to financial capitalism, stands out as one of the largest changes in the structure of the economy over the last half of the twentieth century (Krippner 2005, 2012; van der Swaan 2014). Indeed, van der Swaan’s (2014) review points to shifts in the structure of accumulation, the role of financialization in firms’ attention to shareholder value, changing individual and household approaches toward everyday life, and related changes in institutional structures. One important line of research focuses on the increasing concentration of profits in financial firms and its consequences for inequality due to its influence on top incomes, the labor share of income, and the distribution of income and profits across sectors (Tomaskovic-Devey and Lin 2011; Volscho and Kelly 2012; Kristal 2013). Even in firms which focus primarily on non-financial activities, financial divisions have become more important (Krippner 2012). While existing research has convincingly demonstrated the rise of financialization in the USA, fewer studies have examined these processes in other countries (e,g, Akkemik and Özen 2014, Godechot 2012). An important agenda remains to understand the extent to which the patterns and dynamics of financialization can be generalized or differ significantly across different types of capitalism, as well as how these have potentially reshaped global economic interdependencies.
Key Themes
This special issue aims to build on and extend this research by enlarging the explanatory focus. We seek contributions that either add empirical insights and advance theory in relation to the underlying causes of financialization, the consequences of financialization for
individual-level and organizational outcomes, and extending the focus of financialization
research beyond the United States and into a broader frame of comparative political

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by katherinechen

June 2, 2014 at 10:10 pm

a general theory of chest-bursting sociology

To me, learning about a scholar’s intellectual trajectory and philosophy is helpful for understanding the impetus for particular schools of thought.  One of the pivotal moments for me during my grad school days was hearing Neil Fligstein‘s candid perspective about having to advocate for one’s research question, methods, and claims.  In fact, he compared being an academic with being the creature from Alien(s).  That’s right, we’re not the flame-toting Lt. Ripley and the heroic but ill-fated Nostromo crew; we’re more like the chest-bursters who have to keep coming back, no matter how many times we get (spoilers ahead! cover your eyes, young’uns) burnt, ejected from the airlock into outer space, frozen, etc.

Not you.

Not you.

With that imagery in mind, have a look at Fligstein’s discussion of his most recent works. Fligstein talks in an interview with McGill student Nicole Denier about how he decided upon a PhD in sociology (hint: a foray with social movements), where he sees the field headed, and his agenda for grand general theory.

ND: …what do you think are the challenges for sociology to overcome in the next few years?

NF: What I have found most frustrating about sociology is that it is so Balkanized. One of the most depressing things about sociology is when I look at the American Sociological Association and see that there are forty-four sections, which could be reduced to about six. It tends to create these Balkanized theory groups (for lack of a better term) that are engaged in a discourse with ten other people. From a graduate student’s point of view, that’s the hardest thing to face in the field—how fragmented it is. The problem is that there just aren’t that many people. There are only about 15,000 sociologists in North America, I think. It was bad when I was a graduate student twenty-five years ago, it’s much worse now. It’s very frustrating for people and it’s hard to overcome. One of the things I like about the construction of something called economic sociology is that for the first time in 30 years there is a synthetic field – not a field which wants to break the field into smaller and smaller parts—but a field that wants to say that politics and law and economic processes and organizations and social movements are all part of the same thing. So to me, this is what this economic sociology thing is all about. It is more synthetic than breaking it into a smaller piece.

ND: Similarly, your field theory has the possibility to span a number of areas. You’re not so optimistic about it overcoming the differences between the institutionalisms in economics, political science, and sociology. But do you think it can bridge the gaps within sociology?

NF: I’m an optimistic person. I hope that it becomes more synthetic. People have moved so far from (I’ll use a dirty word) a general theory of society or a theory of society that it’s not in their vocabulary any more. It was so discredited so long ago that you’re a bad person if you even have that thought. It’s a big taboo in sociology to say that, you know, there really is a general theory of society. Again, you get off stage with people and you talk to them and a lot of people think there is a general theory of society….[snip!!!]…. Sociologists tend toward understanding action in groups, yet we don’t even think about it most of the time. Field theory is about that: how groups of people and groups of groups do these kinds of interactions and watch other people and reference other people and take positions, a very generic level of social process. I figure a lot of people are ready to hear that message in sociology. Hopefully, it will go a little further beyond where it is right now.

(See Fligstein’s past orgtheory posts here and here on his work with Doug McAdam on strategic action fields, as well as other colleagues’ reactions here, here, and here.)

You when you finally get a love note.

When you find a like-minded colleague.

Written by katherinechen

December 11, 2013 at 12:08 am

howard aldrich on his intellectual trajectory and the history of organizational studies

Orgtheorist and loyal orgtheory commenter Howard E. Aldrich is featured in a video about his intellectual trajectory and the history of organizational studies.  Learn about Howard’s start in urban sociology and organizational studies, why he finds cross-sectional studies “abhorrent,” his years at Cornell where he overlapped with Bill Starbuck, and how he got started publishing in organizational ecology.  He also explains how the variation, selection, and retention VSR) approach was a “revelation” for him, and how various institutions (University of Michigan, Stanford, and others) have promoted his intellectual development via contact with various colleagues, collaborators, and graduate students.  Towards the end of the interview, Aldrich describes his latest research on the Maker movement, including hacking and the rise of affordable 3-D printing and other hardware and software that may propel technological innovation.*

The videoed interview is courtesy of Victor Nee’s Center for Economy & Society at Cornell University.  More videos, including a presentation on his work on entrepreneurship, are viewable here.  Also, those looking for an organizational studies text should see his seminal Organizations Evolving with Martin Reuf here.

* The Maker movement has strong affinities with Burning Man.  In fact, that’s partly how I started attending Maker Faire – check out my photos of past Maker Faires, which included performance artists from the now-defunct Deitch Art Parade.

Written by katherinechen

November 25, 2013 at 12:55 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

Talking about Relational work with Viviana Zelizer

Nina and Fred: How did you develop the concept of relational work?

Viviana: Before answering, let me say how glad I am to read this ongoing blog discussion. About your question: I certainly did not start out as a relational analyst, but rather as a cultural social historian. In fact, it took some time until I was officially designated an economic sociologist! And even then, I concentrated on specific investigations, ranging from life insurance to the value of children and the meaning of money.  Teaching economic sociology for the first time in 1998 forced me to think hard about some of the field’s crucial puzzles. Specialists in the field had pioneered brilliant efforts to show how and why standard economic models were imperfect explanations of real-life economic activity.

But I felt constrained by certain features of mainstream economic sociology’s theoretical approaches plus the field’s concentration on firms and corporations as research sites. I questioned what exactly constituted the economic activity described as “embedded” in social relations and structures? If they are not simply equalizing resources, maximizing advantage, or reducing risk, what exactly are people doing when they engage in the economic activities of production, consumption, distribution, and transfer of assets? Why and how did shared meanings, so marginalized by economic sociology’s emphatically structural models, matter? Over the years, a relational approach gradually emerged as part of the effort to answer such questions.

More specifically, I developed the concept of relational work as one possible approach to analyze the continuously negotiated and meaningful interpersonal relations constituting economic activity. I did so in spirited collaboration with Chuck Tilly, an early enthusiast of the concept. Let me add that Fred Block’s generous initiative of assembling the Davis conference (see his Tuesday blog from last week) prompted me to write an extended paper for that meeting which forced me to clarify further the ideas developed in Purchase of Intimacy.

Nina and Fred: What exactly does relational work mean and how do you study it? In what ways do you claim it differs from other analyses of relations in economic activity? Is adding culture its main contribution?

Viviana: By relational work, I mean the creative effort people make establishing, maintaining, negotiating, transforming, and terminating interpersonal relations. Relational work goes on continuously, shaping boundaries that differentiate relations that might become confused with deleterious consequences for one party, both parties, or third parties.

Let’s be clear. Relational work does not simply assert that relations exist: that would not be a surprising discovery! Nor does it simply “add-culture-and-mix” into current explanations of economic activity. Instead it identifies specific processes that take place within consumption, production, distribution, and asset transfer. More concretely, it focuses on four elements common to all economic activity:

1) distinctive social ties: connections among individuals or groups involved in the economic activity.

2) a set of economic transactions: interactions and social practices conveying goods and services (e.g. compensation, gift, loan, bribe, theft).

3) media for those transactions: representations of rights to goods and services, often in the form of concrete tokens, ranging from state-issued legal tender or electronic monies, to more restricted forms such as credits in baby-sitting pools, casino chips, or food stamps. Media can also include such items as time, in-kind goods, or favors.

4) negotiated meanings: participants’ understandings concerning the meanings of relations, transactions, and media including their moral valuation, combined with constant negotiation, modification, and contestation of those meanings.

Variable connections among such elements constitute what I call relational packages. These consist of combinations among a) distinctive interpersonal ties, b) economic transactions, c) media, and d) negotiated meanings. Here’s an example: the relationship between X and Y might fit into the category of friends or the category of lovers each with its own meanings, economic transactions, and media, determining for example who pays, how, when, for what, how much, how often, for how long, and with which currency. The identity or social category of transactors (e.g. gender, race, age) introduces further crucial variation in relational packages.

Relational work consists in creating viable matches among those meaningful relations, transactions, and media. For a concrete application of the concept, my Politics & Society paper, “How I Became a Relational Economic Sociologist and What Does That Mean?” offers an alternative understanding of monetary differentiation contrasting it with the mental accounting individualistic framework (on this, see Fred Wherry’s comments two days ago).

Nina and Fred: Does relational work apply primarily to intimate relations and exclusively to micro-level analyses?

Viviana: Emphatically not. While in my own research, I have concentrated on intimate transactions and interpersonal interaction, the approach extends much further. Certainly, as last week’s postings by our 2 Freds over predatory lending or Josh Whitford’s paper in the Politics & Society issue show, relational work helps us analyze transactions outside of households or other intimate settings.

It also applies to economic activity at the macro-level, including relational work by organizations, nations, and legal systems. See for example exemplary investigations by Nina Bandelj of foreign direct investment as well as forthcoming books by Dani-Lainer Vos on economic connections between diaspora groups and homeland communities and Simone Polillo on financial innovation in Italy and the US.

Let me add how hopeful I am about the future of economic sociology. I read the work of young scholars with great admiration for their imagination and theoretical scope. And not just those who are applying the concept of relational work, although many are doing so in ways that greatly improve my analysis.


Viviana Zelizer, Sociology, Princeton

Nina Bandelj, Sociology, UC Irvine

Fred Wherry, Sociology, Columbia

Written by fredthesociologist

September 6, 2012 at 1:42 pm

Relational Work and Embeddedness

Nina Bandelj, Sociology, UC Irvine

The fact that relations matter is a trademark contribution of economic sociology. What added value does this focus on relational work bring? As I argued in a Politics and Society article, attention to how people form, negotiate, repair or dissolve economic relations develops relationality in economic life as a process rather than structure, and effectively conjoins it with meaning-making. Zelizer reframes relationality as social interaction between economic actors that has to be accomplished – as relational work – rather than merely as systems of social relations congealed into networks. This is one crucial difference with the network embeddedness research. The other is in their opposing views of the relationship between the economic and the social. From the network embeddedness perspective, the economy and society remain two separate spheres; the economy is autonomous and society provides a context for it. Quite to the contrary, relational work, as Zelizer clearly demonstrates, rests on the opposition to the separate spheres arguments, is grounded in connected lives, and interactionally sustains the mutual constitution and elaboration of the economic and the social spheres. Obviously, should the analyst understand embeddedness from a Polanyian perspective, and argue that this term actually describes the co-constitution of economy, polity and society, this would be quite compatible with relational work. Because they share basic assumptions about the relationship between economy and society, the concept of relational work could be fruitfully employed to uncover the microlevel dynamics of economic interactions that the macrofocused institutional embeddedness perspective has yet to tackle.

Further, focus on relational work allows an analyst of economic transactions to spell out how power, meaning, and affect all influence economic outcomes. This is because any relation involves potential asymmetries, because parties have to interpret the position of others, and because interactions invariably conger emotions. This would avoid the prevalent tendency of economic sociologists to privilege in their analyses one social force—be it networks, culture, or power—over the other. Meaning-making, relationality, and its potential asymmetries should all be considered integral to economic processes and analyzed jointly as such. The focus on relational work allows this.

Finally, attention to relational work helps bring the emotional underpinnings of economic exchange to the fore. This is beneficial not only because the role of emotions in economic life has yet to receive more attention in economic sociology but also because it helps us scrutinize the theory of action that underlies economic sociological inquiry. Given the processual nature of incessant negotiation of interpersonal relations enmeshed in affect and sense-making, the theory of action that views partners to an economic exchange as rational actors with clear goals and preferences intent on maximizing utility is limiting. Rather, the concept of relational work aligns well with the practical actor theory, which, as DiMaggio wrote in “Nadel’s Paradox Revisited” (1993), “views rationality as only one, and rarely the principal, orientation to action, and takes much behavior to be highly conventional, . . . according importance . . . more to the purely cognitive . . . and affective dimensions.” Accomplishing relational work is a reciprocal process; any misalignment in expectations and differences in interpretations between the participants exacerbates uncertainty and ambiguity. These are the kind of conditions where action is more open ended, and creative/non-teleological, rather than teleological, and (boundedly) rational. Therefore, the focus on relational work departs from rational action and suggests that the pragmatist tradition and practical actor models are more useful for theorizing and empirically capturing economic interactions.

Written by ninabandelj

August 29, 2012 at 8:26 pm

put your money where your mouth is

Few days ago the Wall Street Journal reported that the hedge-fund Universa Investments LP, advised by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of the Black Swan, was betting that despite the Fed’s best effort things will go terribly wrong (again) and we will end up in deflation or hyperinflation (here, see also Bloomberg here).  Universa’s investment strategy is based, among other things, on buying deep out-of-the money options, with the assumption that the market is underestimating the probability of extreme events. So, for instance, in September 2008, Universa was purchasing out-of-the money options on the S&P 500 index at 90 cents, and when the market crashed they were selling them at around $50. Needless to say they have been quite successful with the crisis.

Taleb is not the only scholar putting his money where is mouth is. Behavioral economists Dick Thaler (Chicago) and Daniel Kahneman (Princeton), are on the board of Fuller & Thaler Asset Management, Inc.,  and leverage their research on behavioral biases to assess market reactions to news and identify mispriced assets.

After reading about these ventures I started wondering: what would an “Economic Sociology” fund look like?

Our field has been studying markets for a few years now, and maybe we already know a things or two that could be “translated” in investment strategies.  Zuckerman’s  “illegitimacy discount” and “structural incoherence“, for instance, might be an interesting starting point to develop an investment strategy on volatility.  Rao, Greve and Davis‘ work on security analysts’ coverage initiation and abandonment, and the literature on social influence among analysts, might help predict analysts’ behavior and stock reactions. Yuval Millo, Daniel Beunza and the Socializing Finance crowd must have discussed this problem, and I bet they will launch a “Performativity fund” one day: what would that fund look like?

I am sure that the “translation” of theoretical insights into investment strategies is a complicated task, but we can learn a lot about our theories and their limits with this thought experiment.

And who knows, maybe in a few years one of you will be profiled in Bloomberg, or GQ, as the new Taleb, hopefully with a better attitude!

Written by Fabrizio Ferraro

June 6, 2009 at 4:18 pm

what can performativity do for you?

Hello Orgtheorists! I am new to blogging but I have been enjoying this blog for a while so I am really excited at the idea of joining your conversations. Thanks to Teppo, Brayden, Kieran, Fabio and Omar for letting me blog here.

I was not planning to start with a long post on the pro and cons of performativity, self-fulfilling prophecies, etc…but after Teppo’s recent post, I couldn’t resist…so here is my 2 cents on this debate.  Going through the comments that followed Teppo’s posting on performativity, and similar debates on orgtheory (here, here, and here), socializing finance, organizations and markets, and old- fashioned journal articles (AJS, AMR, OrgScience), I was struck by the number of different conversations/debates/questions we manage to weave around this one perspective (notice I don’t use the t word). I started listing them and I counted at least eleven major debates:

  1. Realism and Constructionism
  2. Positivism and Interpretivism
  3. Nature and nurture
  4. Materialism and Idealism
  5. Voluntarism and Structuralism
  6. Rationality debate
  7. The debate on economics (and economists): How did economics become the dominant social science? Is economics wrong? Is it evil? Are economists self-interested? Are B-Schools spreading dangerous (economic) theories?
  8. Is the crisis ultimately the failure of Chicago-style economics?  Are economists describing the economy or designing it? Or both?
  9. The Materiality debate: What is the role of technology (and other material artifacts) in the functioning of markets (and organizations)? What is the role of models, formula, in shaping the functioning of markets (and organizations)? Did a formula kill Wall St.?
  10. Do financial incentives in organizations work? When? What are their limits?
  11. Is performativity a theory? How is performativity different from traditional self-fulfilling prophecies? How is it different from institutional theory? Commensuration? Is performativity the future of economic sociology?

I am sure I am missing some of the key debates, and I hope readers will jump in and add to the list of debates and questions that the performativity debate has touched. It feels like performativity has become a sort of Rorschach test for organization theorists, economic sociologists, (few) economists and other social scientists who project on it their worldviews, their knowledge, their biases and enter heated intellectual duels without clear winners. Taken individually, these questions are all interesting and could be treated scientifically but all together they become a hairy mess of (ideological) assumptions, ontological and epistemological positions, methodological preferences, and ultimately the debates generate a déjà-vu feeling that might actually only reinforce our original positions (a classic example of Lee Ross’ biased assimilation).

I wonder if we are not asking too much from performativity?

Debates one through six  have been discussed for centuries and will never be “resolved,” and I personally hope they will never be resolved, because the creative tension between these positions drives theoretical imagination, and, in my opinion, generates more interesting social science (see Abbott’s Chaos of Discipline for a wonderful discussion of this process). Also, why should we expect performativity to provide “the” answer to these debates? Also, why should we expect “one” answer? For instance, among scholars in the performativity arena, I bet that you will find both hard core constructionists-interpretivists, and scholars who would tend more towards a realists-positivists approach (for instace, I don’t consider myself a pure constructionist, but I know Teppo and Nicolai label me as such…), so which one is the “performativity” position?

Critics will point out that the root of these problems is that performativity has not clarified its theoretical mechanisms, defined its scope conditions well enough, and of course, provided enough empirical evidence, so it is easy to poke holes into it. My AMR paper with Jeff Pfeffer and Bob Sutton was, among other things, an attempt to tease out the mechanisms and define the scope conditions of self-fulfilling prophecies. Much of the debate that followed was focused on the polemical qualities of the paper, on whether we like or economists or not (not a very interesting question: of course we do! of course we admire their work! And btw, last night I had dinner with three academic economists, all Princeton PhDs!), rather than its modest attempt to systematize some of the performativity ideas.  Furthermore, not enough good quality empirical work has been published to better articulate the theoretical ideas and test them. The good news is that there is much development on both fronts, and I am optimistic about the future development of these ideas (many orgtheory readers are working on these problems, and this is already a key sign that something is moving!)

At the same time, I don’t think we are ever going to solve many of the debates listed above, and definitely it is not productive to address all of them together. So my suggestion will be to narrow down the scope of the discussions around performativitiy, and to do that,  in my postings here, I will start from a different set of questions from the one Teppo asks. Rather than asking whether performativity is the future of economic sociology, or whether performativity is a good theory (or a theory at all), I would rather ask:

  • Has performativity research been useful in my understanding of organizations and markets?
  • How can perfomativity research inform my own work on organizations and markets?

I believe that these questions might help us identify whether and how performativity is helping us do better social science. I will address these questions in future posts  but for now I would like to get your answers:  What has performativity done for you?

Written by Fabrizio Ferraro

June 4, 2009 at 2:09 pm