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vip imageAshley Mears, Associate Professor of Sociology at Boston University, has gone where few sociologists have gone: First, the world of high fashion and runway modeling, and now the world of VIP clubs, which often traffic in women. Combining multiple strands of social science theory, her 2011 book, Pricing Beauty (University of California Press), has won multiple prizes. Her recent article in the American Sociological Review, “Working for Free in the VIP,” asks why women workers participate in their own commercial exploitation. Here we sit down with Ashley and ask some “back stage” questions about the course and conduct of her fieldwork.

Steve: Your book, Pricing Beauty, addresses three distinct but overlapping bodies of knowledge (so to speak) –the sociology of economic institutions, of gender, and of work. Wasn’t it a daunting prospect to try to speak to three areas of study, al this while you were a graduate student? Any thoughts about managing one’s ambitions while also addressing broad intellectual challenges?

Ashley: Don’t forget field theory and the sociology of culture! To me, each of these literatures is a tool to be mobilized to solve empirical problems. My work has always been driven by puzzles and phenomena I encounter Read More

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EHG_IMG_1067-2[Ed note: This is the 13th of 14 posts in a virtual panel on The Future of Organizational Sociology.]

I organized the panel on “The Future of Organizational Sociology” at the 2014 American Sociological Association annual meeting, which inspired the present virtual panel. The motivation for the original session arose when, in quick succession, I had to update the syllabus for my graduate course on organizations and design a comprehensive examination reading list in the field. Both tasks force the instructor to take stock of recent developments in a field and try to make sense of them for students. Contemplating the work published over roughly the last two decades, I found myself puzzled about what to include. On the one hand, there were active research conversations that seemed to be taking place almost entirely among management faculty and in management journals—and thus arguably outside the disciplinary boundaries of sociology—such as the one on “institutional logics.” On the other hand, there was no shortage of sociological research involving organizations in some way, but most of it seemed better classified under (and was often clearly intended to speak to) another subfield of the discipline such as sociology of work, economic sociology, or social movements.

Work that could be uniquely identified as “organizational sociology” seemed to have largely disappeared.

What happened? Historically, organizational sociology operated at a relatively high level of abstraction. The goal was to understand and explain the structures and practices of complex organizations of all kinds, across multiple spheres of social life—not only business organizations, but also government agencies, schools, hospitals, nonprofits, even voluntary organizations. To be sure, in practice the empirical focus was on businesses and, to a lesser extent, public agencies. Still, there was an underlying assumption that it was possible and worthwhile to identify general concepts, principles, and processes that applied to all types of organizations. As Dick Scott has pointed out, there were always dual intellectual and practical aims, but they dovetailed in supporting the study of “what is” and “what works” across organizations in general. Today, it seems there are few sociologists (and even fewer graduate students) who are interested in developing or extending abstract concepts and theories about why organizations in general exhibit certain structures and practices, or which ones work best from the organization’s point of view. The broad pattern is the same in both sociology departments and business schools, although the institutional details differ.

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In a recent op-ed in the New York Times, Nicholas Kristof lamented the lack of influence of professors in “today’s great debates.” Many academics took to the blogosphere retorting that, yes, in fact, public intellectualism is alive and thriving in the academy. My colleague Chris Prener posted a more sympathetic response on this blog, arguing that having a twitter account and a blog does not make an academic a public intellectual. It is the content of the message, not the medium, which matters.

Both Chris and I agree with Kristof that there are not enough public intellectuals because of structural and cultural barriers within the academy, including a tenure process that rewards only academic output and places severe time constraints on the ability of academics to engage wider audiences.

Unfortunately, Kristof completely loses the plot when he suggests that economics is more engaged in “real-world debates” than sociology because the former has more Republican members (plus more “empiricism and rigor”).

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US inequality

Rising income inequality in the United States has become big news over the last few years. Sociology and left political economy have always seen inequality as a structural outcome necessarily produced by the normal operation of capitalist economies. The recent concern shown by mainstream economists and some politicians is more curious, given that – with the exception of a three-year period in the 1990s and again in the 2000s – income inequality has risen steadily from 1968 to the present.

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Last week I discussed the connection between the Occupy Wall Street protests and the long-term transfer of national income into the finance sector. Well the problem is worse than Wall Street’s power over the national economy and polity.

There really are two faces to financialization. The most familiar face is the dominance of the finance sector over the rest of us: the giant profits and bonuses at the big banks and investment houses and the instability generated by too big to fail but rapaciously imprudent financial services firms. The other face is the financialization of the rest of the economy. Greta Krippner figured this out first. Greta discovered that since the 1980s firms in the non-finance sector have increasingly invested, not in the production of goods and services, but in financial instruments. The productive economy, Main Street in some formulations, has increasingly abandoned production in favor of financial shenanigans. Finance related income, including interest, foreign exchange profits, and stock market investments have risen from about 1/8th of corporate profits to around 30%. In the manufacturing sector the move from production to financial strategies has been even more dramatic, rising to a ratio of finance revenue/profit as high as .60 after 2000.

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