Posts tagged ‘sociology of organizations’

Astro-baptists

| Gabriel |

On NPR the other day I heard a story about how a lobbyist forged letters to Congress from the NAACP and AAUW opposing the Waxman-Markey cap-trade bill. I thought this was amusing on several levels, only the first of which is that apparently the bill wasn’t convoluted and toothless enough to buy off all of the incumbent stakeholders as some of them hired this guy. The real interest though is that the blatant absurdity of this story heightens the basic dynamics of the bootlegger and Baptist coalition dynamic in that in this case the bootlegger was so desperate for a Baptist that he imagined one, much as the too-good-to-be-true quotes conjured by fabulist reporters heighten the absurd genre conventions of journalism.

The bootlegger and Baptist model is a part of public choice theory that argues that policy making often involves a coalition between stakeholders motivated by rentseeking and ideologues with principled positions. In the titular example, the policy is blue laws which would be supported both by Baptists who don’t like booze violating the sabbath and clandestine alcohol entrepreneurs delighted to see demand pushed from legitimate retailers to the black market. We had something close to a literal bootlegger-baptist model with the Abramoff scandal, in which various gambling interests paid the Christian Coalition to kneecap the competition. Another recent prominent example is that, before being airbrushed out of history for having, ahem, unorthodox political affiliations, Van Jones was best known for “green jobs,” which can be uncharitably described as a bit of political entrepreneurship proposing a grand bargain in which his constituents would get patronage jobs in exchange for supporting green policies.

Although bootlegger-Baptist is an econ model, soc and OB folks independently arrived at this same model by noting that resource dependence on the state is not a pure Tullock lottery, but is contingent on facial legitimacy. If you read chapter 8 of External Control of Organizations you’ll see that it’s not only the bridge between resource dependence and neo-institutionalism, but also a bootlegger-Baptist model avant le lettre.

One of the interesting things is that lately civil rights groups seem to have been the (real or imagined) Baptists of choice, and not just in the anti-Waxman-Markey forgery. So for instance a few weeks ago 72 Democratic Congressmen sent a letter to the FCC opposing net neutrality. It’s not surprising that the blue dogs were among them as you’d expect fiscal conservatives to oppose a new regulation. The interesting thing is that the letter was also signed by most of the Congressional Black Caucus, as well as “the Hispanic Technology and Telecommunications Partnership, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Asian American Justice Center.” Their (plausible) logic was essentially that preventing telecoms from charging content providers would delay the rollout of broadband and therefore maintain the digital divide. So here we have an issue combining rent-seeking telecoms hoping to soak content providers and prevent competition from VOIP forming a coalition with civil rights groups and their legislative allies who have a principled commitment to eliminating inequality in use of technology.

I got total deja vu when I read this as the exact same thing happened a few years ago when Nielsen was attacked by the Don’t Count Us Out Coalition. The backstory is that Nielsen and Arbitron traditionally rely on diaries to collect the audience data that is used to set advertising rates. Unfortunately respondents are too lazy/stupid to complete diaries accurately. In recognition of this problem both Arbitron and Nielsen have been trying to switch to more accurate passive monitoring techniques that aren’t dependent on the diligence and recall of the respondent, but they still use diaries for sweeps.

Nielsen had the bright idea of the Local People Meter project, which would eliminate sweeps diaries in the largest media markets and rely entirely on a large continuous rolling sample using passive monitoring. This implies a substantial improvement in data quality for a large part of the advertising market. This sounds like a good thing but Nielsen found itself attacked by the “Don’t Count Us Out Coalition” which argued that Nielsen was a racist monopoly, mostly on the basis that in one or two of the test markets for LPM they undersampled blacks. The “Coalition” got some serious support in Congress until Nielsen was able to demonstrate that it was just an astroturf* group set up by NewsCorp, which stood to see a ratings drop under the improved technology. (Or more technically, the new technology would reveal that the old technology had been exaggerating the ratings of NewsCorp properties. Peterson and Anand have a great article on a similar dynamic in recorded music sales).

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*Given the rather promiscuous way that people throw around the term “astroturf” it’s necessary to clarify the term. I reserve the term “astroturf” exclusively for fax machine and letterhead operations organized by a lobbyist, pr firm, or the like. It is not analytically useful to extend the term to cover things like the tea parties where elites mobilize ordinary people to come and protest. If you want to distinguish such things from the Platonic ideal of grassroots mobilization fine, call them “fertilizing the grassroots” or something, but astroturf they ain’t. Likewise, it is lazy and slanderous conspiracy-mongering to assume without further evidence that anyone who takes the same position on an issue as a stakeholder must of course be bought by the stakeholder. If you want to echo Orwell and call such people “objectively pro-X” then fine, but that don’t mean the Baptist lacks a principled reasons for siding with the bootlegger on a particular issue.

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November 4, 2009 at 4:31 am 1 comment

Towards a sociology of living death

| Gabriel |

Daniel Drezner had a post a few months ago talking about how international relations scholars of the four major schools would react to a zombie epidemic. Aside from the sheer fun of talking about something as silly as zombies, it has much the same illuminating satiric purpose as “how many X does it take to screw in a lightbulb” jokes. If you have even a cursory familiarity with IR it is well worth reading.

Here’s my humble attempt to do the same for several schools within sociology. Note that I’m not even to get into the Foucauldian “whose to say that life is ‘normal’ and living death is ‘deviant'” stuff because, really, it would be too easy. Also, I wrote this post last week and originally planned to save it for Halloween, but I figured I’d move it up given that Zombieland is doing so well with critics and at the box office.

Public Opinion. Consider the statement that “Zombies are a growing problem in society.” Would you:

  1. Strongly disagree
  2. Somewhat disagree
  3. Neither agree nor disagree
  4. Somewhat agree
  5. Strongly agree
  6. Um, how do I know you’re really with NORC and not just here to eat my brain?

Criminology. In some areas (e.g., Pittsburgh, Raccoon City), zombification is now more common that attending college or serving in the military and must be understood as a modal life course event. Furthermore, as seen in audit studies employers are unwilling to hire zombies and so the mark of zombification has persistent and reverberating effects throughout undeath (at least until complete decomposition and putrefecation). However race trumps humanity as most employers prefer to hire a white zombie over a black human.

Cultural toolkit. Being mindless, zombies have no cultural toolkit. Rather the great interest is understanding how the cultural toolkits of the living develop and are invoked during unsettled times of uncertainty, such as an onslaught of walking corpses. The human being besieged by zombies is not constrained by culture, but draws upon it. Actors can draw upon such culturally-informed tools as boarding up the windows of a farmhouse, shotgunning the undead, or simply falling into panicked blubbering.

Categorization. There’s a kind of categorical legitimacy problem to zombies. Initially zombies were supernaturally animated dead, they were sluggish but relentlessness, and they sought to eat human brains. In contrast, more recent zombies tend to be infected with a virus that leaves them still living in a biological sense but alters their behavior so as to be savage, oblivious to pain, and nimble. Furthermore even supernatural zombies are not a homogenous set but encompass varying degrees of decomposition. Thus the first issue with zombies is defining what is a zombie and if it is commensurable with similar categories (like an inferius in Harry Potter). This categorical uncertainty has effects in that insurance underwriters systematically undervalue life insurance policies against monsters that are ambiguous to categorize (zombies) as compared to those that fall into a clearly delineated category (vampires).

Neo-institutionalism. Saving humanity from the hordes of the undead is a broad goal that is easily decoupled from the means used to achieve it. Especially given that human survivors need legitimacy in order to command access to scarce resources (e.g., shotgun shells, gasoline), it is more important to use strategies that are perceived as legitimate by trading partners (i.e., other terrified humans you’re trying to recruit into your improvised human survival cooperative) than to develop technically efficient means of dispatching the living dead. Although early on strategies for dealing with the undead (panic, “hole up here until help arrives,” “we have to get out of the city,” developing a vaccine, etc) are practiced where they are most technically efficient, once a strategy achieves legitimacy it spreads via isomorphism to technically inappropriate contexts.

Population ecology. Improvised human survival cooperatives (IHSC) demonstrate the liability of newness in that many are overwhelmed and devoured immediately after formation. Furthermore, IHSC demonstrate the essentially fixed nature of organizations as those IHSC that attempt to change core strategy (eg, from “let’s hole up here until help arrives” to “we have to get out of the city”) show a greatly increased hazard for being overwhelmed and devoured.

Diffusion. Viral zombieism (e.g. Resident Evil, 28 Days Later) tends to start with a single patient zero whereas supernatural zombieism (e.g. Night of the Living Dead, the “Thriller” video) tends to start with all recently deceased bodies rising from the grave. By seeing whether the diffusion curve for zombieism more closely approximates a Bass mixed-influence model or a classic s-curve we can estimate whether zombieism is supernatural or viral, and therefore whether policy-makers should direct grants towards biomedical labs to develop a zombie vaccine or the Catholic Church to give priests a crash course in the neglected art of exorcism. Furthermore marketers can plug plausible assumptions into the Bass model so as to make projections of the size of the zombie market over time, and thus how quickly to start manufacturing such products as brain-flavored Doritos.

Social movements. The dominant debate is the extent to which anti-zombie mobilization represents changes in the political opportunity structure brought on by complete societal collapse as compared to an essentially expressive act related to cultural dislocation and contested space. Supporting the latter interpretation is that zombie hunting militias are especially likely to form in counties that have seen recent increases in immigration. (The finding holds even when controlling for such variables as gun registrations, log distance to the nearest army administered “safe zone,” etc.).

Family. Zombieism doesn’t just affect individuals, but families. Having a zombie in the family involves an average of 25 hours of care work per week, including such tasks as going to the butcher to buy pig brains, repairing the boarding that keeps the zombie securely in the basement and away from the rest of the family, and washing a variety of stains out of the zombie’s tattered clothing. Almost all of this care work is performed by women and very little of it is done by paid care workers as no care worker in her right mind is willing to be in a house with a zombie.

Applied micro-economics. We combine two unique datasets, the first being military satellite imagery of zombie mobs and the second records salvaged from the wreckage of Exxon/Mobil headquarters showing which gas stations were due to be refueled just before the start of the zombie epidemic. Since humans can use salvaged gasoline either to set the undead on fire or to power vehicles, chainsaws, etc., we have a source of plausibly exogenous heterogeneity in showing which neighborhoods were more or less hospitable environments for zombies. We show that zombies tended to shuffle towards neighborhoods with low stocks of gasoline. Hence, we find that zombies respond to incentives (just like school teachers, and sumo wrestlers, and crack dealers, and realtors, and hookers, …).

Grounded theory. One cannot fully appreciate zombies by imposing a pre-existing theoretical framework on zombies. Only participant observation can allow one to provide a thick description of the mindless zombie perspective. Unfortunately scientistic institutions tend to be unsupportive of this kind of research. Major research funders reject as “too vague and insufficiently theory-driven” proposals that describe the intention to see what findings emerge from roaming about feasting on the living. Likewise IRB panels raise issues about whether a zombie can give informed consent and whether it is ethical to kill the living and eat their brains.

Ethnomethodology. Zombieism is not so much a state of being as a set of practices and cultural scripts. It is not that one is a zombie but that one does being a zombie such that zombieism is created and enacted through interaction. Even if one is “objectively” a mindless animated corpse, one cannot really be said to be fulfilling one’s cultural role as a zombie unless one shuffles across the landscape in search of brains.

Conversation Analysis.

1  HUMAN:    Hello, (0.5) Uh, I uh, (Ya know) is anyone in there?
2  ZOMBIE1:  Br:ai[ns], =
3  ZOMBIE2:       [Br]:ain[s]
4  ZOMBIE1:              =[B]r:ains
5  HUMAN:    Uh, I uh= li:ke, Hello? =
6  ZOMBIE1:  Br:ai:ns!
7  (0.5)
8  HUMAN:    Die >motherfuckers!<
9  SHOTGUN:  Bang! (0.1) =
10 ZOMBIE1:  Aa:ar:gg[gh!]
11 SHOTGUN:         =[Chk]-Chk, (0.1) Bang!

October 13, 2009 at 4:24 am 21 comments

A garbage can Moodle of organizational choice

| Gabriel |

My university recently switched from our in-house course management system ClassWeb, to the off-the-shelf course management system Moodle. I thought ClassWeb was fine but after a few hours of working with Moodle, I wrote to our IT people and asked them to let me just hand-code my own site (using html so primitive that it’s more optimized for Lynx than Firefox). Part of this is that I hate the Moodle GUI (I would say that a GUI for web design is a bad idea but the WordPress GUI is great) and part of it is that Moodle is structured to encourage a kind of course website that I think is silly for a traditional course (though probably excellent for distance learning).

I know that my complete opt-out is a bit extreme and I don’t think many other people are likely to do it, but on the other hand neither do I think many faculty are likely to use the system in the way its designers intended. I browsed through a few of my colleague’s course websites and most of them have just posted the syllabus to the main page, maybe a few readings links from the weekly subpages. Only one page that I saw seemed to be using it with anything remotely approximating the ambition for which it was designed (though it’s hard to tell because Moodle defaults to walled garden for everything beyond the main page). Thus we seem to have a case of partial adoption with most of the faculty going along with it, but only in a superficial way.

So what are these features for which it was designed? To caricature it slightly, Moodle is premised on the idea that your course website should be Facebook (which I also hate, as it strikes me as the re-AOL-ization of the internet). There are plenty of discussion forums and the whole thing is based on a plug-in API designed for extensibility. Some of these things seem to be pretty useful, for instance the course Moodle pages here automatically link to the course’s reserve reading page at the library. Many of the features are things that were probably exciting to code and/or relevant to distance learning but don’t fit well into traditional pedagogy. For instance, Moodle can host quizzes, something that sounds useful but it will snow in Hell before I assign quizzes to be done at home. There’s so much of this sort of web 2.0 gee-whizzery that other things that are highly salient to the faculty (like, oh, the syllabus) are pushed into a fairly inconspicuous place.

All this is to say that Moodle is the answer to a question that the faculty didn’t ask. Now college faculty have a lot of highly salient pedagogical issues. We complain that students don’t do the reading, that they don’t pay attention in lecture, that they don’t engage in discussion section. I recently spent over an hour discussing grade-grubbing with a colleague. However I have never heard any professor complain that our students don’t create enough user-generated content on the course website. Broadly speaking, I think it’s fair to say that most professors expect the course webpage to be just a place where they can post the syllabus and other materials, basically a replacement for handouts (and the need to give replacement copies of lost handouts).

In contrast if you read much about the Moodle philosophy you’ll see an explicit rejection of the “I teach – you learn” pedagogy and an emphasis on the teacher as a guide for student self-development. Here’s the Wikipedia summary:

The stated philosophy of Moodle includes a constructivist and social constructionist approach to education, emphasizing that learners (and not just teachers) can contribute to the educational experience in many ways. Moodle’s features reflect this in various design aspects, such as making it possible for students to comment on entries in a database (or even to contribute entries themselves), or to work collaboratively in a wiki. In Moodle, standard features often provide for a greater degree of learner-generated content than is found in other learning management systems. For example, the glossary tool can be configured to allow students to actively collaborate and contribute content.

If you read some stuff by some of the university IT advocates for Moodle (but not I should note those at my school)* it gets a bit more blunt. For example the InsideHigherEd Technology and Learning Blog writes:

We see the lecture system of teaching as a remnant of a pre-Guttenberg economy and social order of information scarcity. We believe that people learn by doing, by creating, and that the lecture system of passive note-taking and information regurgitation is about the poorest method for learning ever invented.

Oh, I see. I have my doubts about this as an issue of pedagogy (for most types of material), but let’s put aside the question of technical efficacy and consider it as an issue of diffusion in an organizational context. So basically, the IHE guy is suggesting that the organization’s central stakeholders do something that requires acquiring a new skill set and making a substantial time investment which if successful will undermine their status claims. It’s not that I expect most of the faculty to actively resist this, but I highly doubt that they are going to actively embrace Moodle and foster the kind of web-centric constructivist pedagogy it expects us to.

So here’s my confident prediction. Moodle will become increasingly popular because IT people see it as practical (it’s a standard and it’s free) and/or a way to leverage status claims (it implies that the faculty ought to aspire to being web developers soliciting user-generated content instead of lecturers relating their expertise).** Ironically, because most of the faculty don’t care that much about the course website they will go along with Moodle, but only in a very superficial way. The constructivist pedagogy people will claim success on the basis that there are umpteen million Moodle-based pages without noticing that almost every one of these pages consists entirely of a syllabus and a bunch of completely empty discussion forums, weekly subpages, etc.

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* I don’t think that the IT staff here are trying to push a particular pedagogy on the faculty. From talking to them and reading the relevant documents I get the impression that they mostly see switching from ClassWeb to Moodle as an issue of harmonizing technical standards and providing capability (including special grants) to those faculty who choose to do an ambitious web 2.0 website. I should also add that our IT people have done a pretty good job of creating tools to migrate content from ClassWeb to Moodle and to make Moodle more closely match the design aesthetics of my school.

** This is an analytical point, not a put-down. One of the running themes of this blog is that I admire techies and think more social science academics should learn how to program. If it’s a choice between Randy Waterhouse and GEB Kivistik, I’m with Randy in a heartbeat. One of my problems with Moodle is it seems to be a case of the Randys embracing their inner Kivistiks.

October 6, 2009 at 5:10 am 3 comments

Fool’s Gold and Organizational Inertia

| Pierre |

Daniel Beunza at Socializing Finance links to Donald MacKenzie’s LRB review of Fool’s Gold, Gillian Tett’s new book on the financial crisis. I just finished reading the book, and I can only recommend it. Tett is an editor at the Financial Times; she also has a PhD in anthropology from Cambridge, which probably explains why the book somehow reads more like an econ-soc analysis of the crisis than as a journalistic account. In his review piece, MacKenzie gives a clear and detailed overview of the book’s main argument — and as such, his review is one of the best and most accessible accounts of the recent developments in structured finance I’ve read so far. But there’s a point that bothered me in the book, and which MacKenzie doesn’t seem to touch on:

Tett tells us about the crisis mostly from the standpoint of bankers and credit derivative specialists at J.P. Morgan — a bank which, by and large, stayed out the mortgage-backed securities mess and emerged relatively unscathed from the crisis. There’s nothing suprising about this: it is probably easier to find people willing to be interviewed on the crisis at J.P. Morgan nowadays than at, say, Citigroup or AIG. But this angle is precisely what makes the story so fascinating. The book starts from a simple but puzzling observation: the credit instruments at the center of the crisis (those pools of loans that were sliced into multiple tranches with distinct risk levels, which were in turn sold with overly optimistic ratings, aka collateralized debt obligations or CDOs) originated not from the home mortgage market but from the corporate bond market. Arguably, the crisis was largely caused by the belief that the same structured products could easily be used to transfer home mortgage risk away from banks’ balance sheets—although estimating the risk of CDO tranches turned out to be much more complex for mortgages than for corporate debt (in particular, there wasn’t any reliable data allowing to estimate the correlation of default probabilities). But surprisingly, the pioneer and leader in corporate debt CDOs, J.P. Morgan, decided not to further their advantage in structured finance: instead of moving into the mortgage-backed securities market and applying the same recipes they had just developed for corporate debt on a much wider scale, J.P. Morgan largely stayed out the market. Incentives were there: J.P. Morgan had expertise in such structured products; investment banks could collect enormous fees for underwriting CDOs and the market was booming; but JP Morgan executives, Tett observes, stayed on the sidelines and were even puzzled by the development of the market. So, what happened?

Tett’s account is essentially an organizational story. She argues that the prevailing culture at J.P. Morgan (a rather old-fashioned, boring and elitist institution) favored more prudent risk management strategies and more effective oversight than at other banks. This is an interesting hypothesis, but it may be, in part, the product of Tett’s methodology: the evidence supporting this argument comes mostly from interviews with J.P. Morgan executives — which are of course subject to response bias, recall bias and so forth. MacKenzie seems to generally agree with Tett’s thesis: what made J.P. Morgan different from other banks was the foresight of its management. Maybe reading too much organizational sociology has made me more cynical than I should be, but there’s an alternative explanation that Tett never fully explores or dismisses: organizational inertia. At the begining of the housing bubble, J.P. Morgan was specialized in corporate debt, and had no experience with home mortgages unlike BoA or Citi (J.P. Morgan was later absorbed by Chase Manhattan — but even then, only Chase got involved in mortgage CDOs). I do not doubt that organizational culture played an important role, but I did not see much evidence in the book that J.P. Morgan’s corporate culture (coupled with its expertise in structured finance) made its management more aware of the fragility of the mortgage CDOs than its competitors — if this were truly the case, one would have expected the bank to bet against the market by massively shorting CDO indexes, as a few hedge funds did. The alternative hypothesis, of course, is that organizational culture contributes to organizational inertia — and while it did not necessarily make J.P. Morgan’s executives more prudent or more aware of the risks inherent in the mortgage market, it may have prevented the bank from taking positions (long or short) in a segment of the industry it did not belong to.

June 10, 2009 at 5:43 pm 1 comment


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