Field Sociology




Sometimes the idea we use to improve something may or may not be true, but we act on it anyway because it feels good and is familiar from childhood experience.


Math, reading and writing came easily to me, so I bought into being a scholarly, conforming child.  Then, when I had to face my allergies, crowded teeth, sloppy speech and clumsiness, I committed to allergy shots, orthodontics, elocution lessons and ballet, none particularly helpful, but I wanted to fit in.


When I went to university, economics did not appeal to me and sociology did.  Economics defines people as individuals, both self-dealing shoppers constantly trading off price-quality and investors, weighing risk and return.  The discipline seemed small-minded to me and uninspiring.  Sociologists, and I became one, see people as members of organizations and learners of the culture of their gender and social class.  People live morally in the context of their role expectations, as I knew from my childhood experience.


Sociology made sense to me at the time, but as I look back its assumptions seem oppressive and depressing.  Recently I discovered the sociology of Neil Fligstein, a developer of “field theory”.  According to Fligstein, organizations rarely transform themselves under their own steam.  Organizational leaders have supportive internal governance units that are sufficiently sophisticated to quash reformers and to resist adaptive change if it is costly to those in power.  Either organizations are stable while the elite enforce the rules, or, when their fields weaken, leaders stay in charge anyway.  In theory, failed leaders and organizations are winnowed out.


However, and this is what is so refreshing about field sociology, when something        significantly disturbing happens in an organization’s field, some people, rarely the current leaders, extrude their role expectations and become social entrepreneurs who successfully reconfigure the organization and improve its field.  Turbulence rolls through society and when it hits, people naturally gifted at empathy and negotiating show up to reconstruct.


Field theory is a more activist, optimistic view than traditional sociology and I am pleased that it has developed.  Then I had the chilling thought that field theory may be too disrespectful of authority to feel good, and it may not be intrinsically true either.  Field theory is valid because modern society has made it so.  If the economists are right, we have built a world where people optimize what they buy and make investments that efficiently produce wealth.  If the early sociologists are right, we are good people who conform and make our organizations as high performing as possible within the rules.  What else is there to do but govern for stability and clean up immanent collapse?  Field theory has a ring of truth about it for modern times.


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