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Posts Tagged ‘organization theory

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:

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Written by katherinechen

January 14, 2016 at 9:48 pm

laser cats and mary parker follett

When I teach my sociology of organizations courses, I always include an underrecognized org theorist, Mary Parker Follett,* who advocated for “power-with” instead of “power over.”  Follett argued that voting and other more conventional decision-making approaches generate dissatisfactory outcomes, in which one or more parties lose.  She suggested that groups engage in a consensus-oriented decision-making process to identify what parties really want and thus generate novel solutions.  However, providing real-life examples of this process is not easy, particularly since many decisions are made hierarchically or when one party tires of the decision-making process.

But, thanks to the Internet, here is one light-hearted example, starring an improbable combination of lasers, Mr. Bigglesworth the cat, and a Chihuahua:

Party A: High school student Draven Rodriguez wanted a memorable photo for the school yearbook.  His desired portrait is definitely awesome:

Awesome portrait taken by Vincent Giodano/Trinactia Photography

Awesome portrait taken by Vincent Giodano/Trinactia Photography

Party B: However, the school wanted uniformity in its yearbook’s senior student photos, so the school said no to Rodriguez’s request.

However, both parties continued to talk.  What’s the outcome?  Click here for the answer.

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by katherinechen

October 2, 2014 at 12:01 pm

high risk, high reward? kunda’s reflections on ethnography and organizational studies

While catching up on some reading during spring break, I ran across an Journal of Organizational Ethnography article by organizational ethnographer Gideon Kunda.  In this article, Kunda’s reflections about his development as an organizational ethnographer seem pertinent to the on-going orgtheory discussion of ethnography.  Kunda not only describes how he became drawn to organizational studies (hint: questioning a figure of authority about the differential treatment of patients based on class), but also how he arrived at his topic and research site, generating the now iconic study Engineering Culture.

During his training, Kunda worked on several projects using other data collection methods (i.e., surveys), during which Goffman’s work on Asylums was instructive:

Here once again was a science that starts with ready-made theories, selectively uses them in accordance with interests unrelated to (or even opposed to) the logic and spirit of scientific inquiry, collects data using a method that assumes it knows what and how to ask before encountering the world of its subjects, and disrespects or ignores their complex realities, or for that matter, their feelings about who is studying them and why. What factors effect quality is a legitimate question, if one takes the managerial perspective (although this is not the only perspective that could and should be taken). But in order to answer it, in fact in order to even know how to go about studying it, I began to realize, one has to find ways to collect valid data. And the data, if that was what the facts of life should be called, were found in the richness of the stories I heard and the complexity of the interactions I observed, in people’s sense of who they were and what they were up to, and in their willingness to convey it to an interested outsider. Whether or not all this could or should be ultimately reduced to numbers and statistically analyzed seemed much less important than finding ways to collect, understand and interpret evidence that was respectful of its complex nature. If this was the case, it seemed to me, then the scientific system I was enmeshed in, even by its own standards – the norms of science that demand respect for the empirical world – was woefully inadequate. And worse – its procedures and output were embarrassingly boring, to me at least, when compared to the richness of the world it set out to comprehend.

In conclusion, Kunda states:

Over the years I have continuously noted and wondered about the extent researchers in the early stages of their careers, and graduate students in particular, feel, or are made to feel, that while they are granted the methodological license, and sometimes looseness, of “qualitative methods” (a phrase that often replaces or refers to a watered down version of ethnography), the academic authority system (in terms of funding, supervision, publication requirements and career options) compels them to limit their questions, choice of theory and writing style to those that enhance the chances of approval, funding and quick publication. I encounter again and again the ways that this commitment comes at the expense of a willingness to let fly their own sociological imagination, to cultivate and trust their own interpretive resources and analytic instincts, to respect and develop their innate language and authorial voice, or, for that matter, to risk long-term ethnographic fieldwork.

The issue then is not, or not only, one of competing methods, and to overstate such distinctions is, I believe, to miss my point.  Rather, I see my story as an invitation to acknowledge and explore the shared conditions of all scientific claims to knowing and depicting social reality, organizational and otherwise, under whatever theoretical and methodological guise, that together place limits on the depth, insightfulness and indeed the validity of interpretation: the endless complexity of data, the incurable subjectivity of the observer, the fundamental flimsiness of formal method and the prevalence of unsubtle yet often disguised institutional pressures to confirm to standards and ways of thinking outside and often against the pure logic of scientific inquiry.

If I am to formulate a conclusion, then, it is this: the continuing need to devise personal and collective ways – and I have suggested and illustrated some of mine – to release “discipline” from its misguided equation with an institutionally enforced a priori commitment to hegemonic theoretical discourse and methodological frameworks, and to apply it instead to its legitimate targets, the questions for which there can never be a final, authoritative answer, only continuing exploration and debate: What is data, what is a valid and worthwhile interpretation, how does it come about, what are and how to cultivate the personal sources of imagination that make it possible, how to report it and, not least, to what end.

Another major take-away for budding researchers is that peers can offer support.  That is, scholarly development is not necessarily a hierarchical transmission of information from mentors to mentees, but the co-production of knowledge with peers.

Written by katherinechen

April 16, 2014 at 9:14 pm

upcoming asa oow session: does organizational sociology have a future?

This semester, I agreed to teach a PhD-level course on organizational theory when I realized that fewer and fewer colleagues who are trained in organizational research remain in sociology departments.  Apparently, I am not the only organizational researcher who is wondering about the implications of the de-centralization of organizational sociology.

Mark your calendars for Aug.!  Liz Gorman has planned the following Organizations, Occupations, and Work (OOW) session for the ASA annual meeting this Aug. in San Francisco.  The line-up includes some of our regular commenters and readers:

Title: Section on Organizations, Occupation and Work Invited Session. Does Organizational Sociology Have a Future?
 
Description:  Few sociologists today consider themselves primarily scholars of organizations.  Sociologists who study different types of organizations within their primary fields–such as economic sociology, science, social movements, political sociology, and urban sociology–are often not in conversation with each other.  Many sociologically-trained scholars have migrated to business schools and become absorbed by the large interdisciplinary field of organization studies, which tends to have a managerial orientation.  Little attention is directed to the broader impact of organizations on society.  This invited session will consider these and other trends in the study of organizations within the discipline of sociology.  It will ask whether “organizations” still constitutes a coherent subfield, whether it can or should be revitalized, and what its future direction might look like. 
 
Participants: 
Organizer:  Elizabeth Gorman, University of Virginia
Panelists:  
Howard Aldrich, University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill
Elisabeth Clemens, University of Chicago
Harland Prechel, Texas A&M University
Martin Ruef, Duke University
Ezra Zuckerman, MIT Sloan School

Topics: Organizations, Formal and Complex

Written by katherinechen

April 4, 2014 at 4:14 pm

orgtheory bleg – seeking excerpts or articles on how to do participatory action research (par) in organizations

Orgheads, a student in my first ever Ph.D.-level orgtheory course has asked us to include a reading how to do participatory action research (PAR) in organizations.  Alternatively, the reading could be in the area of public scholarship (I will assign Diane Vaughan’s AJS article) or community-based participatory research (CBPR).   Anyone willing to share recommendations for readings relevant to organizational research?  Thanks!

Written by katherinechen

February 28, 2014 at 4:21 pm

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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

storytelling in organizations, the state of the field of organizations and values, and a freebie article

I’ve recently published two articles* that might be of interest to orgheads, and Emerald publisher has ungated one of my articles:

1. Chen, Katherine K. 2013. “Storytelling: An Informal Mechanism of Accountability for Voluntary Organizations.” Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly 42(5): 902-922.**

Abstract

Using observations, interviews, and archival research of an organization that coordinates the annual Burning Man event, I argue that storytelling is a mechanism by which stakeholders can demand accountability to their needs for recognition and voice. I identify particular frames, or perspectives and guides to action, articulated in members’ stories. Deploying a personalistic frame, storytellers recounted individuals’ contributions toward a collective endeavor. Such storytelling commemorated efforts overlooked by official accounts and fostered bonds among members. Other storytellers identified problems and organizing possibilities for consideration under the civic society or anarchist frames. By familiarizing organizations with members’ perspectives and interests, stories facilitate organizational learning that can better serve stakeholders’ interests. Additional research could explore whether (1) consistent face-to-face relations (2) within a bounded setting, such as an organization, and (3) practices that encourage participation in organizing decisions and activities are necessary conditions under which storytelling can enable accountability to members’ interests.

2. Chen, Katherine K., Howard Lune, and Edward L. Queen, II. 2013. “‘How Values Shape and are Shaped by Nonprofit and Voluntary Organizations:’ The Current State of the Field.” Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly 42(5): 856-885.

Abstract

To advance understanding of the relationship between values and organizations, this review synthesizes classic and recent organizational and sociological research, including this symposium’s articles on voluntary associations. We argue that all organizations reflect, enact, and propagate values. Organizations draw on culture, which offers a tool kit of possible actions supported by institutional logics that delineate appropriate activities and goals. Through institutional work, organizations can secure acceptance for unfamiliar practices and their associated values, often under the logic of democracy. Values may be discerned in any organization’s goals, practices, and forms, including “value-free” bureaucracies and collectivist organizations with participatory practices. We offer suggestions for enhancing understanding of how collectivities advance particular values within their groups or society.

3.  In addition, one of my previously published articles received the “Outstanding Author Contribution Award Winner at the Literati Network Awards for Excellence 2013.”  Because of the award, Emerald publisher has ungated this article (or, as Burners like to say, contributed a gift to the gift economy :) ) to download here (click on the HTML or PDF button to initiate the download):

Chen, Katherine K. 2012. “Laboring for the Man: Augmenting Authority in a Voluntary Association.” Research in the Sociology of Organizations 34: 135-164.

Abstract:

Drawing on Bourdieu’s field, habitus, and capital, I show how disparate experiences and “dispositions” shaped several departments’ development in the organization behind the annual Burning Man event. Observations and interviews with organizers and members indicated that in departments with hierarchical professional norms or total institution-like conditions, members privileged their capital over others’ capital to enhance their authority and departmental solidarity. For another department, the availability of multiple practices in their field fostered disagreement, forcing members to articulate stances. These comparisons uncover conditions that exacerbate conflicts over authority and show how members use different types of capital to augment their authority.

* If you don’t have access to these articles at your institution, please contact me for a PDF.

** Looking for more storytelling articles?  Check out another one here.

Written by katherinechen

October 15, 2013 at 3:15 pm

you no exchange with us? slither home, body snatcher

Off-list, Howard Aldrich penned Brayden and me a heartfelt lament about the one-sided exchange between sociology and economics. He described a recently published article in which an economist urges fellow economists to conduct research on how organizational identity motivates workers to work hard because (surprise!) monetary incentives aren’t sufficient.

With Aldrich’s permission (but without naming the offending article and author), I am excerpting his thoughts here:

“What is heartbreaking is that there’s no sign in this article that the author has any clue that sociology and management & organization theory have been concerned with such questions for decades, or that there is a rich and robust literature on organizational culture, social identity, and so forth. Although the author mentions the social psychology of identity at one point (Ed. Note: plus 2 mentions of March and Simon’s work as “seminal”), all but a handful of the 60+ references are to the literature in economics.

Several years ago, I had a similar experience when I read a special issue of an entrepreneurship journal that was devoted to entrepreneurial teams. It contained an economist’s algorithmically driven analysis of why and how entrepreneurial teams should form. Plenty of other economists were cited, but he seemed clueless to the fact that, five years previously, a couple of sociologists (namely, Martin Ruef and me, together with a business administration scholar) had written an empirical paper, based on a nationally representative sample, addressing precisely some of the idle speculation he’d written up in his paper. I was so irritated that I called up the special issue editor, who apologized profusely but offered no explanation.

So, for economics, all that matters is what other economists have done. I’m sure this simplifies the literature search process, but one can imagine that some insights might be sparked if economists were occasionally to dip into the literature of other fields. For example, what came to mind immediately upon reading the first article was Bill Ouchi‘s rather famous – – at least to me – – book from 1981, Theory Z, which was one of the first books to ride the wave of the “organizational culture” phenomena in organization and management studies.”

In a follow-up email, Aldrich opined the desire for economists either to share or return home:

“I just want them to either go back to their own village or else begin engaging in a more fair exchange….The problem is that I doubt very much whether we can ever create a truly equitable exchange with economists – – I’ve seen the same pattern for years, and indeed Chick Perrow actually talked about something like “invasion of the body snatchers” in talking about when economists came into our field.”*

Since economists are supposedly prone to practicing what they preach, could it be that the discipline of economics is ill-suited to contributing to a knowledge commons?

Don't close your eyes, sociologists and organizational researchers

Don’t close your eyes, sociologists and organizational researchers

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by katherinechen

August 29, 2013 at 11:02 pm

cfp 5th Latin American and European Meeting on Organization Studies, Havana, Cuba, April 2-5, 2014

For those of you looking for a reason to head to Cuba and present your research, here’s your chance.

“Constructing Alternatives: How can we organize for alternative social, economic, and ecological balance?”
5th annual Latin American and European Meeting on Organization Studies, Havana, Cuba, April 2-5, 2014

“…the purpose of this 5th LAEMOS Colloquium is to share empirical and theoretical research on the dynamics of development, resistance, and innovation with the aim to promote alternative forms of organization in Latin American and European societies…Under the general theme of the meeting, the aim is to collect and connect a broad variety of studies, narratives and discourses on initiatives for alternative forms of development and innovation. We also welcome studies and reflections about the redefinition of boundaries, collaboration, and conflict among government, business, and civil society, in shaping social change, organizational (re-)configuration, and developmental action…

In particular, this is a Call for Papers for the following prospective sub-themes (but not limited to them):
The corporatization of politics and the politicization of corporations
The political economy of organizations
Sustainable and unsustainable tales of sustainability and social development
Alternative roles and forms of managerial action
Alternative spaces: communities, cities as models of collective agency
Transnational networks for protest and for change
Digital worlds, online forms of organization and action

Papers taking an interdisciplinary perspective on dynamics of change, innovation, power and resistance are particularly encouraged. Theoretical and empirical papers looking at alternative forms of social, economic, and ecological development from an organizational perspective are also of special interest. They may include studies that link micro level case analysis to macro level institutional and global forces, that investigate processes as well as structures, and that take a historical and contextual approach….

Deadlines:
Subtheme Proposal: July 31, 2013
Abstract submission (1,000 words): 15 November, 2013
Notification of acceptance: 15 December, 2013
Submission of full paper (6,000 words): 5 March, 2014
You are welcome to submit a subtheme proposal at laemos2014 [at] gmail.com. For more information about the conference and frequent updates please check www.laemos.com.”

Full cfp available here.

Written by katherinechen

June 24, 2013 at 7:21 pm

arnova call for papers now extended to April 1, 2013

ARNOVA (Association for Research on Nonprofit Organizations and Voluntary Action) has extended its submission deadline to April 1, 2013.

“ARNOVA’s 42nd Annual Conference 2013 Call for Participation

Recession, Renewal, Revolution? Nonprofit and Voluntary Action in an Age of Turbulence
Marriott Hartford Downtown ● Hartford, Connecticut ● November 21-23, 2013

Since the late 2000s, the world has become a constant changing and turbulent place. Economic crises have arisen across the globe, creating high levels of need at a time when public and philanthropic dollars are becoming scarcer. Advances in technology and communication have facilitated social movements, challenging and even bringing down governments from Wall Street to Cairo. People come together for causes across boundaries-gathering internationally and virtually to try to address wicked problems such as climate change, individual rights, and poverty. In a world that is facing constant change and weathering these turbulent forces, it is important for scholars to reflect on how have nonprofit organizations, NGOs, social movements, and other forms of voluntary action been affected by the economic and social turbulence of the past five years?

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by katherinechen

March 25, 2013 at 7:19 pm

open thread – call for questions for ESS conversation on Fri., March 22, 2013

As I posted earlier, I’ll be presiding over a conversation between George Ritzer and Carmen Sirianni from 3:30-5pm on Fri., March 22, 2013 at ESS in the Whittier Room (4th Flr) of the Boston Park Plaza hotel.

In the past several years, disasters like Hurricane Sandy and Katrina have sparked growing interest in what both conventional and innovative organizations can (and cannot) do given conditions of uncertainty vs. certainty. Both featured scholars’ work cover the limits of particular organizing practices (i.e., Ritzer’s work on McDonaldization), as well as the potential of organized action (i.e., Sirianni’s work on collaborative governance). Thus, I’ve given this particular conversation the broad title “Organizations and Societal Resilience: How Organizing Practices Can Either Inhibit or Enable Sustainable Communities.”

What would you be interested in hearing Ritzer and Sirianni discuss about organizations and society? Please put your qs or comments in the discussion thread.

For those unfamiliar with Ritzer and Sirianni, here is some background about their work:
George Ritzer is best known for his work on McDonaldization and more recently, the spread of prosumption in which people are both producers and consumers.

J. Mike Ryan‘s interview of Ritzer about his McDonaldization work:

J. Mike Ryan’s interview of Ritzer about why we should learn about McDonaldization (corrected link):

Carmen Sirianni is known for his work on democratic governance.

A brief video of Sirianni arguing that citizens should be “co-producers” in building society.

A more extensive video of Sirianni presenting on his book Investing in Democracy: Engaging Citizens in Collaborative Governance (Brookings Press, 2009).

Written by katherinechen

March 12, 2013 at 3:21 pm

see you at ess in Boston, March 21-24, 2013

Going to Eastern Sociological Society (ESS) annual meeting in Boston on Thur., March 21 through Sun., March 24? Details about the ESS conference are available here.

Here’s a special plug for a “conversation” between senior scholars about organizations:

3:30-5pm, Fri., March 22, 2013
156.Organizations and Societal Resilience: How Organizing Practices Can Either Inhibit or Enable Sustainable Communities Conversation
Whittier Room (4th Flr)
Organizer:Katherine Chen, City University of New York
Presider: Katherine Chen, City University of New York
Discussants: George Ritzer, University of Maryland
Carmen Sirianni, Brandeis University

Here are several examples of other panels and presentations relevant to orgtheory:
Read the rest of this entry »

Written by katherinechen

March 8, 2013 at 2:43 am

“organizing creativity” and other articles on organizations and work available in sociology compass journal

Need an overview of research on conditions that enhance or constrain creativity in organizations?  Check out my just published Sociology Compass article “Organizing Creativity: Enabling Creative Output, Process, and Organizing Practices,” which pulls together findings from organizational sociology, cultural sociology, psychology, and organizational studies.

Orgheads may also be interested in other Sociology Compass articles on a variety of topics in organizations and work.  These articles are ideal for undergraduates and practitioners as they quickly and comprehensively introduce classic and current research. In addition, graduate students and thesis writers may find these helpful for exploring possible topics to research.  Also, seasoned researchers can keep up with the latest research under specific topics of interest.

Here are several examples from the past two years:

–       David Shulman’s (2011) “Deception in the Workplace: Recent Research and Promising New Directions

–       Amy Hanser’s (2012) “Class and the Service Encounter: New Approaches to Inequality in the Service Workplace

–       Amy S. Wharton’s (2012) “Work and Family in the 21st Century: Four Research Domains

–       Christine Williams and Patti Giuffre‘s (2011) “From Organizational Sexuality to Queer Organizations: Research on Homosexuality and the Workplace

Have any recommendations for your own or your colleagues’ articles on organizations or work that are useful for updating syllabi or catching up on the field?  Please post them in the comments.

Written by katherinechen

July 25, 2012 at 2:34 pm

more self-managing organizations?

Hello fellow orgtheory readers!   Orgtheory was kind enough to invite me back for another stint of guest blogging.   For those of you who missed my original posts, you can read my 2009 series of posts on analyzing “unusual” cases, gaining research access to organizations, research, the IRB and risk, conducting ethnographic research, ethnography – what is it good for?, and writing up ethnography.

Those of you are familiar with my research know that I have studied an organization that mixed democratic or collectivist practices with bureaucratic practices.  Here’s a puzzle: although we operate in a democracy, most of our organizations, including voluntary associations, rely upon topdown bureaucracy.  However, this doesn’t mean that alternative ways of organizing can’t thrive.

Valve, the game developer behind Portal, has attracted much buzz (for example, see this article in the WSJ and various tech blogs entries, such as here and here) about its self-managing processes.  The company prides itself on having no bosses, and their employee handbook details their unusual workplace practices.  For example, instead of waiting for orders from above, workers literally vote with their feet by moving their desks to join projects that they deem worthy of their time and effort.  Similarly, anthropologist Thomas Malaby describes how Linden Lab workers, who developed the virtual reality Second Life, vote how to allocate efforts among projects proposed by workers.  Sociologist David Stark has described how workers mixed socialist and capitalist practices in a factory in post-Communist Hungary to get work jobs done, dubbing these heterarchies.

Interestingly, several of the conditions specified by Joyce Rothschild and J. Allen Whitt as allowing collectivist organizations to survive may also apply to these workplace organizations – for example, recruiting those like existing members and staying small in size.  However, my research on Burning Man suggests that these are not always necessary or desirable conditions, particularly if members value diversity.

Although these self-managing practices may seem revolutionary to contemporary workers, orgtheory readers might recall that prior to the rise of management and managerial theories such as Taylor’s scientific management, workers could self-determine the pacing of projects.  Could we make a full circle?

Any thoughts?  Know of other interesting organizations or have recommendations for research that we can learn from?  Put them in the comments.

Written by katherinechen

July 5, 2012 at 2:32 pm

What is a catch-all bureaucracy?

As the national unemployment rate continues to hover around 9.1%, I can’t help wondering how individuals are navigating an organization that is now an important part of their lives: their local unemployment office.

The aim of my book, The New Welfare Bureaucrats: Entanglements of Race, Class, and Policy Reform (Univ of Chicago Press 2009), was not solely to talk about welfare caseworkers. Rather, I was interested in using the case of welfare offices to tell a story about a larger set of organizations. Catch-all bureaucracies, I argue in the book, are government agencies called upon to be the societal arms of “help,” broadly defined. In light of ongoing debates about the remedies for high unemployment, these institutions remain central to our understanding of how those who are economically struggling navigate both macro-level economic and political transformations and micro-level conditions and struggles that shape their financial outlooks.

Michael Lipsky (1980) famously defined street-level bureaucracies as institutions in which government workers interact directly with citizens and exercise substantial discretion in their jobs. However, it would be a mistake to lump all street-level bureaucracies together—harboring the inaccurate assumption that they contain similar levels and kinds of social meaning and subsequently face similar organizational dilemmas. What separates catch-all bureaucracies from other street-level bureaucracies—such as Departments of Motor Vehicles, City Halls, or public services in the most affluent communities—is how the manifestations of personal and group struggles with economic deprivation are readily apparent within their borders. As clients wrestle with unemployment’s causes and consequences, they in turn bring a myriad of concerns and situations into these institutions, placing unique demands on the employees who work in them.

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Written by Celeste Watkins-Hayes

June 23, 2011 at 3:54 am

watts – gladwell smackdown on diffusion

Popularizers par excellence Duncan Watts and Malcomb Gladwell go mano a mano in a Fast Company article by Clive Thompson over mechanisms of network diffusion.  Watts attacks Gladwell’s key idea that “influentials” are the drivers of viral diffusion effects:

Why didn’t the Influentials wield more power? With 40 times the reach of a normal person, why couldn’t they kick-start a trend every time? Watts believes this is because a trend’s success depends not on the person who starts it, but on how susceptible the society is overall to the trend—not how persuasive the early adopter is, but whether everyone else is easily persuaded.

Ed Keller rides in to defend his (and by extension, Gladwell’s) argument:

“They’re fonts of word of mouth,” Keller insists. And ahead of the curve, too: In the 20 years he has been polling them, Keller has found they began using computers, mobile phones, and the Internet years before the mainstream.

I take Keller’s and Gladwell’s points to be that social space is heterogeneous and the identity (not just the structural position, e.g., being a broker) of an individual matters in explaining the effect that individual has on diffusion within the network.  Indeed, I’ve made that argument myself.

Yet, Watts is on to something here.  Particularly if you are interested in whether a practice or idea or innovation is incorporated into behavior (and I’d guess that most of us who read orgTheory are), and not simply in whether an idea spreads ephemerally.  It suggests parallels with the concept of political opportunity structures in social movement theory or even to the importance of Stinchomb’s “liability of newness”.  People and organizations are embedded, not just in a set of relationships, but in a set of roles and rules governing those relationships.  So, in order for an idea to spread and take root, the roles and rules implicated by an innovation need to be buttered up (or undermined) first. Very few studies have pulled off the dual challenge of examining structural diffusion along side these broader institutional, cultural and political opportunity structures simultaneously.

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Written by seansafford

August 13, 2009 at 7:29 pm

systemic risks: too big, too complicated or too central?

Duncan Watts had an article in the Boston Globe last week (hattip: Karl Bakeman) looking at how the network structure of the banking industry might have amplified the financial crisis.  Watts comments:

Traditionally, banks and other financial institutions have succeeded by managing risk, not avoiding it. But as the world has become increasingly connected, their task has become exponentially more difficult. To see why, it’s helpful to think about power grids again: engineers can reliably assess the risk that any single power line or generator will fail under some given set of conditions; but once a cascade starts, it’s difficult to know what those conditions will be – because they can change suddenly and dramatically depending on what else happens in the system. Correspondingly, in financial systems, risk managers are able to assess their own institutions’ exposure, but only on the assumption that the rest of the world obeys certain conditions. In a crisis, it is precisely these conditions that change in unpredictable ways.

He suggests that regulators assess a company’s network position and take action to ensure systemic viability:

On a routine basis, regulators could review the largest and most connected firms in each industry, and ask themselves essentially the same question that crisis situations already force them to answer: “Would the sudden failure of this company generate intolerable knock-on effects for the wider economy?” If the answer is “yes,” the firm could be required to downsize, or shed business lines in an orderly manner until regulators are satisfied that it no longer poses a serious systemic risk. Correspondingly, proposed mergers and acquisitions could be reviewed for their potential to create an entity that could not then be permitted to fail.

This is a very interesting idea.  But it also raises a number of intriguing questions worth fleshing out in a little more detail:

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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