Don’t Forget the Social Context of the 1960s

Given the ambitious intent and complex analyses, it is inevitable that there are questions about the narrative or the interpretations of the link between context and analyses. No one book can do everything, and indeed, books that try to cover too much often lose impact in a forest for the trees problem. Although there are clearly broad themes that are evident throughout this work, it is easy to lose the overall thread because the argument spans types of inequality across time periods, context, and levels of analysis.

The effort to bring together a complex empirical story with analysis of key historical and political processes presents a difficult challenge, and this book does its best to meet that challenge. It seems to me, though, that while attempting to underline the importance of the political and institutional context driving organizational practices, the book ends up leaving out some of the key dynamics that took place when these practices were taking shape. For example, there is hardly any mention in the book about riots, the anti-war movement, and the global events that changed the attention of the population away from civil rights and toward the restructuring of the economy. Although there is some attention to the rise of neoliberalism, the link between this and civil rights is insufficiently developed. It is not just the social movements for civil rights that affected how these policies were implemented, but also the organized and active resistance to the social changes of the 1960s that both constrained efforts to move the implementation of civil rights policies forward and also funded and continues to fuel the efforts to rescind the key provisions of the Civil Rights Act. These same forces have continued in other guises in the emergence of the right wing, the take-over of the Republican Party when the Democratic Party could not avoid more commitment to civil rights, and organized efforts to turn the country back from liberalism.

While the book talks about external pressures on companies, it does not give nearly enough attention to the multiple social movements that all came into play across these past fifty years.  The book follows the lead from Frank Dobbin  in giving a primary role to Plans for Progress for increasing the numbers of black men in craft jobs. But it does not address the context of that agenda, namely, the need for major industries to hire skilled machinists –and their wish to do so by undermining the federal government’s authority over apprenticeship training (via the Bureau of Apprenticeship and Training). This was a back story of industry involvement in civil rights that was important in how the policies were shaped and how government actors engaged with employers. 

I agree with Stainback and Tomaskovic-Devey that not enough attention has been given to organizations and social relationships, nor to the political contexts shaping organizational practices, but to me the concepts of “pressure” or “uncertainty” hardly capture the intensity, volatility, and crisis dynamics of the 1960s, the malaise of the1970s, and the aggressive effort to recreate conservative regimes in the 1980s and after.

The book is an impressive achievement in the context of an impossibly difficult task. It provides a clear headed pathway through a massive amount of empirical analysis and constitutes a game changer in its conclusions and its likely impact. It is certainly a book that anyone who studies inequality needs to read and know.

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