Category Archives: social theory

Karl Weick Keeps You on Your Toes

As we were discussing yesterday in class, Karl Weick’s work is an influential example of the open systems approach.  On the spot, I tried to get us to think of examples of retrospective rationalizing.  My memory is that it was…painful.  And that pained me as Weick is influential because his ideas are original and relevant.  They always keep you on your toes as a thinker.

In grad school, it was a treat to read The Social Psychology of Organizing (still in print since 1967!!).  Not least because he pointeClick to enlarged out that organizations are never stable.  They are always organizing.  And because he used cartoons!  Like this one.  Weick also built his understanding of organizations from the cognitive, the individual, not from the structure down.

What I took from our discussion was that there were two ideas Weick covers that we wanted to describe not in conceptual terms, but in empirical terms.  These were retrospective rationality and enacting the environment.  Retrospective rationality is the idea that we act in a myriad of ways and then “make sense” of our actions in cognitive and linguistic terms that attempt to make them rational.    This si not because humans are dumb or lazy.  We act and then think because the unending flow of activity of the world demands it of us.  The ways in which we act are also due to a myriad of past reasons and contingencies.  In other words, there are always more reasons we have acted or that may explain are actions than we need.

There is equivocality in the world.  We don’t always know why things are.  Hence retrospective rationality is about reducing equivocality; reducing the welter of contradicting reasons why we may have acted or that may explain why the world of human affairs is as it is.  To be adaptive to this environment, to be open, requires tolerating some messiness, some disorder. For example, in SPofO, he writes:

…the inability of organizations to tolerate equivocal processing may well be the the most importnat reason they have trouble.  It is the unwillingness to meet equivocality in an equivocal manner that produces failure, nonadaptation, autism, isolation form reality, psychological cost, etc.  It is the unwillingness to disrupt order, ironically, that makes it impossible for the organization to create order (41).

But what about examples?  In his 1995 book, Sensemaking in Organizations, Weick offers tow research-based examples (29-30).  One involves asking film executives about the future of the film industry after they look at financial reports for the preceding three years.  Logical approach, right?  As it was reported, the exercise reflected how much variation in understanding there was about what had happened in the past.  Hence, any attempt to udnerstand the present and future was beset by equivocality.  Something explained past performance?  But what?  Consumer tastes?  Directors’ abilities?  Cultural zeitgeist?  A second example was a control group psychology experiment (very classic in style) where peopel were randomly assigned to groups that would be arbitrarily assigned low or high performance status (irrespective of actual results).  Those in high performance groups reported that in most areas of group function, guess what, they scored higher than low performing groups.

Closer to home, here is an example that came to me.  Faculty over years have been adapting their teaching differently in different disciplines.  In addition, students come to expect different outcomes in their grades.  There is often a unspoken negotiation about the meaning of grades.  At some point, the observation (which is verifiable) that average grades have gone up is made. Why?  Suddenly, retrospective rationalizing and sense-making kick in.  Is it smarter students?  A corrupted grading regime?  Reasonable adaptation to job market?  Better teaching?  Evaluation score-seeking faculty?  Equivocality is high, but everyone in higher eduction starts taking organizational action DESPITE the equivocality.  They make sense of the situation.

Enacting the environment will have to come in a second part.

Oh, this is also my book contribution, although not technically new books…

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Filed under psychology, social theory

The end of history, again

When the Berlin wall fell, and then the Iron Curtain, and then the Soviet Union dissolved into national tribes pursuing free market economies, the academic conservatives were gleeful.  “The End of History” was the zeitgeist text and meme that Fukuyama penned.  The metanarrative debate and power struggle about the role of government at “the commanding heights” was over.  Government had little role in the economy.  She could (and the female pronoun is very apt) nurture the children and clean up the messes, but had to stay in the private sphere of domestic concerns and stay out of the public sphere of productive work and economics.

With the tectonic shifts in the last two weeks, leading to today’s headlines about a massive bail out of the bad debt and paper by a government agency; with the infusion of something like $300 billion Treasury dollars into Bear Stearns, the FMacs, and AIG; with monetary policy at  the bottom of the tool box with only a few thumbtacks left (the key T billrate dropping to essentially zero), I suggest its the end of history, again.

There are no Unicorns, and there can be no totally free markets.  The Fed and Treasury had to step in and take direct action, in the spirit of Keynes, because they had no other choice to avoid a massive, 1932-esque economic collapse.

The debate is on again about the role of government, law, policy, and institutions in managing the economy and how to achieve a more just society.

I am not going to even respond to any neoliberals or other market ideologues until they acknowledge that the Reagan-Thatcher revolution has come to a grinding end.  The overall governing philosophy that “markets are always better and government must be progressively marched to the sidelines of the economic game” is dead, dead, dead.  When real people had to make real decisions over the last two weeks, that world view came up empty of ideas and solutions.

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Filed under macroeconomics, Political Economy, Politics, Power, Activism, social theory

Business Optimists Rediscover Society!

A somewhat structured web surf about organizational change lead me to this site about the book/project called:


Which includes this amusing graphic.

I think that web od dense relations in the middle also has an older name: society.

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Filed under Business, humor, social theory, sociology

Politics inside or outside the magic circle?

The magic circle seems a key concept in virtual worlds and gaming.  For origin of the term from Huzinga, see here.

The wikipedia article, in summarizing Castronova’s arguments, states:

Even though there are political activities inside synthetic worlds, it is interesting to note that “debates, which really do involve legitimate political interests, almost always occur outside the membrane rather than inside it.”[16

How about for SL?  Do these discussions happen inside or out?  What about other VWs?  Isn’t the story in Second Life Herald all about sparking these types of discussions in-world?  In TSO and also in SL?  And the apocryphal account of LambdaMOO discussion about the cyber rape was also in that world.

And is the point whether the discussion is between self-identified people or avatars?

Lastly, ignoring above distinction for the time, one of the lessons I draw from how discussions happen outside the membrane is that it is further proof of how users of VWs and MMOs are part of a broader institutional field.

“The organizational field isolates for analysis a system of organizations operating in the same realm as defined by relational linkages and shared cultural rules and meaning systems(118)”

(from: Scott, W. R., Davis, G. F., & Scott, W. R. (2007). Organizations and organizing : Rational, natural, and open systems perspectives (6th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, Inc.)

So, in the out-of-membrane discussions about politics, we see a network of players, or a community, instead of an organization formally, but nonetheless engaging in joint enterprise.  THis network is defined by its relation to the virtual world and also to other networks of players/users and also worlds.  They discuss and strategize about political questions pertaining to the synthetic world in ways that reveal shared (or contested) cultural rules and meaning systems,  What makes for  a good game?  What is fair?  What should different parties do?  These are questions relevant only in the context of a field.

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Filed under Gaming, organization theory, Research, social theory, technology, virtual worlds

The emergence of a new research paradigm: Relationalism?

I remember how excited I was to read Emirbayer’s 1997 “Manifesto for a Relational Sociology.”  I was in grad school, and I was eager for a manifesto to inspire me to academic arms.  The essay did just that.  But, as I tried to work it into PhD papers and a dissertation, I didn’t cite it as much as I might have.  It was too big, too bold, too general for a dissertation.  And I had the feeling that it was too “out there.”

One of the things I liked especially was the way it seemed to leave behind a debate about networks as method or networks as theory.  Network analysis is a method, of course, but to ask the right questions, to understand the implications, requires a relational perspective.  Borgatti and others have since started their power points on networks, I’ve noticed, with an intro to a “network perspective.”

Now I see this book over at Edward Elgar called :

Relational Perspectives In Organizational Studies

Not only that, but I was put onto it because of a review of the book in AMR.

Three quick observations

1) It seems that relationalism as a rallying point has emerged and my early reading of Emribayer was part of many schoalrs picking up on those ideas and beginning a process of importng them into org studies and management schoalrship.

2) The Above volume draws heavily form work done on identity, inequality, and feminist theory.  The influence of feminist theory on relationalism is new to me, but makes sense.

3) there was not much on the study of networks and relationalism in the TOC.  Maybe that is a niche that can continue to be exploited/developed? Or is network analysis simply a tool that is appropriated differently by scholars depending on your prior interest.  if you are focused on how to strategically manage alliances, you use networks one way, and if you are interested in the way interdependence leads to emergence of inequality, you use network analysis a different way.  The use of the suite of network analysis tools does not imbue the scholarship with a particularly relational and there fore challenging or radically different epistemology to normally static and atomistic social science.

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Filed under Books, organization studies, organization theory, social theory, sociology

Summer Reading List

OK, I leave for five weeks in a week. Its mostly vacation, but I am looking forward to spending some time reading some of the dense social theory or social science books that I rely on, but have never finished or even read (ouch, hurts to admit that in print). I’ll probably get drummed out of the bidness (its like our omerta) for saying this, but when you read lots of journal article,s you start to know what are the foundational texts and how they are used. Its like seeing the shape of a plane by its shadow. Foucault, is, I think a classic in this regard. Everyone cites, few have actually read (beyond strategic skimming). And Weber. (Although I did take a grad school seminar where we did nothing but read Economy and Society. That’s a story for another time).

Anyway, for the sake of _actually_ reading some of these from my ever-expanding list of books, I am limiting myself to two. So, this is the fun part, like choosing courses from a stellar menu. Which two?

Possible summer reading list (In Progress):

  • Identity and Control by Harrison White
  • Sociology of Philosophy by Randall Collins
  • Constitution of Society by Anthony Giddens
  • Volumes 2 and 3 of The Information Age by Manuel Castells
  • The Hacker Ethic By Pekka Hinamen
  • something by Bourdieu…
  • Brokerage and Closure by Ron Burt
  • Something by Charles Tilly, Big structures, large processes, huge comparisons or Identities, Boundaries and Social Ties
  • Code v 2.0 by Lawrence Lessig
  • The Hacker Ethic by Pekka Himanen (for  teaching really).

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Filed under Books, Castells, New Projects, organization studies, organization theory, Orgs Stuff (theory, science, studies), Social Networks, social theory

Blau Exchange: Charles Tilly Interview

This was a treat to find.  And reassuring as it is basically the trajectory I am trying to follow.

Blau Exchange: Charles Tilly Interview
Paul DiPerna:

If you have any advice for the next generation of scholars and researchers in the social sciences, what would you like to tell them?
Charles Tilly:

Don’t get blindsided by neuroscience, which is going to make individualistic, brain-centered accounts of human behavior even more popular for the next ten years or so. Anticipate the following phase, when even the neuroscientists will begin to recognize the importance of social interaction in the formation of individuals.
Paul DiPerna:

Along similar lines…. if you have any hopes for the next generation of scholars, what would you like to ask of them?
Charles Tilly:

Figure out how to do relational analyses that provide valid explanations of individual behavior and are accessible (at least in simplified form) to readers outside of social science.

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Filed under Great Quotations, Networks, Scholars, social theory, sociology

New journal outlet for me?

This came over the transom:

Management Revue, with a long tradition as a German language journal, is opening up to an international audience. Now under new editors, Management Revue is using a novel concept as a European journal.

Well, that is great!  The upcoming CFP on power may be particularly compelling.

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Filed under organization studies, organization theory, Research, social theory

Charles Tilly is gone…

The Bwog
Charles Tilly, the eminent Joseph L. Buttenwieser Professor of Social Science, passed away this morning. An official University-wide announcement is still in the works, though some of his students and colleagues have organized a vigil tonight at 7 p.m. that will take place under his Fayerweather office’s (514) window.

You can read more about Tilly and some of his work here. Although, if you’ve taken any courses in social science, it’s likely you’re already well-acquainted with his ideas.

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Filed under Scholars, social theory

Discussion from Socnet on Organizing and Networks

Here is Blyden Potts’ response to a socnet query bout who first started refering to organizations as networks…

It seems to me that asking the question the way your friend does
misunderstands the nature of the issue.
Social organization means patterns of social relations, and any pattern of
social relations is — or at least can be understood as — a social network.
Social networks are not a “fundamental form” of social organization, they
are a way of conceptualizing any and all social organization.

If your friend’s desire is to argue that people are organized in social
networks no reference to any literature would seem to be needed. It is
essentially tautological to say that people are organized in social
networks, a bit like saying the weather is organized meteorologically, and
if it really needs to be demonstrated then why not ground it directly in
empirical examples? The “new era” discovery of social network research was
not finding a new way in which people were organized. It was in finding a
new way to conceptualize and analyze whatever ways people are organized.

I think your friend would do well to reframe his approach from understanding
social networks as a type of organization, which it is not, to understand
social networks as a way of thinking about social organization, which it is.

And I would think Barnes would be a good example of an early work that lays
the foundation for the network way of thinking about social relations:

“Each person is, as it were, in touch with a number of other people, some of
whom are directly in touch with each other and some of whom are not…. I
find it convenient to talk of a social field of this kind as a network.* The
image I have is of a set of points some of which are joined by lines. The
points of the image are people, or sometimes groups, and the lines indicate
which people interact with each other. We can of course think of the whole
of social life as generating a network of this kind. For our present
purposes, however, I want to consider, roughly speaking, that part of the
total network that is left behind when we remove the groupings and chains of
interaction which belong strictly to the territorial and industrial systems.
… what is left is largely, though not exclusively, a network of ties of
kinship, friendship, and neighborhood. This network runs across the whole of
society and does not stop at the parish boundary.”  (p.43)

*Barnes’ footnote for “network” makes clear he is talking about an “image”
and “convention” for depicting social relations, not some particular KIND of
social relation.

Blyden Potts

Its a great quotation to have of Barnes.

I thought Simmel did some early conceptual framing… but i never got around to reading Simmel.  :<)

Barry Wellman’s original query:

Continue reading

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Filed under economic sociology, Networks, Scholars, Social Networks, social theory