Evading efficiency arguments is what sociology is good at

Why is sociology so affraid of efficiency arguments?

After re-reading this great old piece …

Oberschall, Anthony, and Eric M. Leifer. 1986. “Efficiency and Social Institutions: Uses and Misuses of Economic Reasoning in Sociology.” Annual Review of Sociology 12:233-253.

… I was reminded that sociology has made something of a history of explicitly avoiding extant arguments regarding efficiency.

Marx, for example, rejected efficiency and emphasized exploitation of labor by the bourgeoisie. Given Marx’s economic theory of value and labor, exploitation was the only way to get more value than was invested by fairly paid labor (e.g., the wage from six hours a day is enough to feed and clothe a family of four for a day; however, without the means of production workers might work eight hours per day rather than six for the same wage since they have no bargaining power). Thus, the creation of surplus (i.e., profit). However, a falling rate of profit was expected as capitalists competed with each other in hopes of attracting more and more laborers, which ultimately cut into profit margins. Enter machines. The primary problem, however, for Marx was that machines could bring no real efficiency or profit; machines are incapable of producing profit (or only for a short time) because all competitors will soon have them. At this point, each capitalist is back to “square one.” Simlutaneously, the price of machines goes up and the price of products goes down. Thus, profit has to fall and efficiency is lost (however, according to contemporary economics: profits fall within the business cycle, but not across cycles, showing some flaw in Marx’s thinking). Still, as it happens, “Machinery and improved organization provide … [enhanced efficiency] too, because they increase the productivity of labor” (p. 42, Collins and Makowsky 1998).

Also writing at a time of great scientific and industrial progress, Durkheim, in contradiction to rationalists, finds “society … a ritual order, a collective conscience founded on the emotional rhythms of human interactions” (p. 102, Collins and Makowsky 1998). Even though specialization (in the form of organic solidary) hold society together (despite the loss of mechanical solidarity), efficiency seems to play a lowly role in Durkheim’s models of integration.

Weber seems the closest for allowing efficiency some room to breath. Still, above efficiency was his deep-seeded concern over organizational stability. The organization of groups stabilized through strong personal ties (patrimonialism) or by setting rules (bureaucracy), which follows broadly from Tönnies (Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft, respectively). Domestic or personalistic organizations, like that of a family estate, wherein close friends and family members made-up the bulk of enterprise employees and related services (be they war, trading, tax collecting, etc.). Of course,  personalistic forms of organization are not easy to control and seemingly inefficient (as compared to, for instance, a bureaucracy). The organization of communications is poor—what starts as a direct order at the top chain of command ends up a rumor, a whisper, or nothing at the bottom rungs. Under certain circumstances, innovation is ignored or resisted falling back on tradition—doing as was done the last time or as far back as can be remembered for sake of personal ease and safety from criticism from above. Authority from the top dissipated over time as their top assistants grew in power and potentially ceded.The bureaucracy would fix all that by establishing rules and regulations to guide individual behavior even in the absense of authoritative oversight. While bureaucracy can be interpreted as an efficiency argument, Weber’s focus on cultural underpinnings of groups like Protestants as shaping historical achievements along with his works on Judaism, China, India, etc., the library of work leads me to believe that culture, rather than efficiency, was the root of his arguments.

There are no doubt many more — certainly the old functionalists like Selznick and Merton (who showed the disfunctions of bureaucracy) would fit right in…

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This entry was posted in STS, Uncategorized and tagged , by Nicholas. Bookmark the permalink.

About Nicholas

Associate Professor of Sociology, Environmental Studies, and Science and Technology Studies at Penn State, Nicholas mainly writes about understanding the scientific study of states and, thus, it is namely about state theory. Given his training in sociology and STS, he takes a decidedly STS-oriented approach to state theory and issues of governance.

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