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Tag Archives: institutionalism

Clemens.Photo[Ed note: This is the second of 14 posts in a virtual panel on The Future of Organizational Sociology.]

As teachers, we often hear that the future will be shaped by our students. If this is the case, then the signs are mixed and confusing. On one day, a good omen may appear, typically in the form of an enthusiastic undergraduate. At the University of Chicago, these students are often economics or public policy majors who have encountered a piece of organizational analysis and seized upon it as the key to understanding the complexities of the policy process, firm behavior, or the organization of markets. On less auspicious days, our most dedicated graduate students present a different vision of the future, one in which organizational researchers risk becoming overwhelmed by a meta-literature, focused on agendas, epistemologies, ontologies and reflections.

This tale of two students poses a challenge for organizational sociologists. How can we retain the capacity to inspire while demanding of ourselves the kind of rigor and clarity that are represented by all those discussions of ontology, epistemology, and method? This challenge is not new. As a graduate student, I received the following job market wisdom circa 1990: “Go out on the market as an organizations person. Everyone knows they need one. Everyone thinks they are boring.” If I could pull off a performance as an interesting organizations person, I would do just fine.

These three tales remind us to revisit a key question for any scholar: What makes something interesting?

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA[Ed note: This is the first of 14 posts in a virtual panel on The Future of Organizational Sociology.]

I think the future of organizational sociology depends on our doing a better job of things that we already know we should be doing, but aren’t. So, I’m going to not recommend we do anything new, but instead that we do some things much better.

As Liz Gorman reminded me, we were asked to talk about organization sociology, not just organization theory. I didn’t want to run afoul of Art Stinchcombe’s jeremiad concerning the division between “theory” and “research” in sociology. In one of his many provocative essays, Art borrowed a sentiment from Groucho Marx, who famously said “any club that would have me as a member I wouldn’t want to join”! In Art’s case he said that he didn’t want to be part of a discipline that allowed some people to call themselves “theorists” rather than just plain “sociologists.” He argued that theory and research were inextricably intertwined, and I share that sentiment. It’s why I think of research and theory when I think of organization sociology, rather than something separate and apart called “theory.” Theory should be research driven, informed by research, and used to guide research.

I’m looking for a more cumulative organizational sociology, focused on systematically building findings and identifying their scope conditions.

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At the 2014 American Sociological Association meeting this past summer in San Francisco, I organized a well-attended panel session entitled, “Does Organizational Sociology Have a Future?” At the panel, we heard thoughtful and provocative talks from five distinguished panelists. Four of them hailed from sociology departments: Howard Aldrich (UNC-Chapel Hill), Elisabeth Clemens (University of Chicago), Harland Prechel (Texas A&M) and Martin Ruef (Duke). The fifth was from a business school: Ezra Zuckerman Sivan (MIT Sloan).

In response to the great audience interest, I have worked with the editors of this blog to continue the discussion here as a virtual panel. The panel begins with short essays from the five original panelists, who recapitulate and in some cases extend their remarks from the ASA session. These will be followed by additional contributions from Gerald F. Davis (University of Michigan), Heather Haveman (UC-Berkeley), Brayden King (Northwestern), Charles Perrow (Yale), W. Richard Scott (Stanford), Mark Suchman (Brown), Patricia H. Thornton (Duke), Matt Vidal (King’s College London) and myself.

We are going to post one essay per day beginning with the original panel and the continuing with the new commentators in alphabetical order.

We hope this panel will kickstart a wider and much-needed debate, and we welcome your comments in the comment section below each post!

Adam Davidson is a co-founder of NPR’s Planet Money, a team of economics reporters that produces podcasts and segments for various NPR shows and the extraordinary weekly public radio show, This American Life. Davidson and his Planet Money team have produced some of the most penetrating and informative reporting on contemporary finance. Indeed, their reporting on finance is unrivalled, serving to demystify the murky world of derivatives, mortgage backed securities, credit default swaps and the like for a broad public audience – in the process playing a critical role for democratic debate.

And Davidson can really tell a good story. So good that he has recently been given a new platform for a news analysis, his It’s the Economy column for The New York Times Magazine. Unfortunately, since Davidson has turned from reporting on finance to news analysis focusing on the wider economy, he has increasingly traded the rich journalism that made his name – carefully and clearly explaining the esoteric workings of the financial world through first-rate investigative reporting – for commentaries on the broader economy that present embarrassingly thin analyses based on the oversimplified fantasy world of textbook economics and recycled tropes of American exceptionalism.

Davidson’s fascination with mainstream Economics got the better of him again in last weekend’s Magazine column, in which he praises the entrepreneurial efficiency of an alleged craft revival. Based on a couple of interviews with “successful entrepreneurs” making hand-crafted beef jerky or precision manufactured components,  Davidson argues that a new breed is following “what seems like an ancient business model: making things by hand,” rejecting “the high-volume, low-margin commodity business.”

But, we learn, “the craft approach is actually something new — a happy refinement of the excesses of our industrial era plus a return to the vision laid out by capitalism’s godfather, Adam Smith.” The craft revival is a further realization of the Smithean division of labor, a new round of efficiency improvements based on “hyperspecialization.” Indeed, so efficient is the American economy that “the average American leads a shockingly good life by any historical or international standard” and “Huge numbers of middle-class people are now able to make a living specializing in something they enjoy, including creating niche products for other middle-class people who have enough money to indulge in buying things like high-end beef jerky.”

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