Fields and Infrastructure? A comment to Fligstein on orgtheory

As a guest blogger on orgtheory Neil Fligstein started a series of posts about his and Doug McAdam´s new book “A Theory of Fields ” (Oxford 2012). It seems to me that to continue the debate on Instiutionalism and Infrastructuralism we should take his analysis that most of what is called NI today is – although continuously citing Meyer/Rowan, Dimaggio/Powell and of course the Powell/Dimaggio book – no longer working out the “old neo institutional” programm but try to deal with problems of ongoing activity, constant and gradual change and overlapping fields. In Fligsteins words:

One critical argument of the “new” new institutionalism is that actors are always jockeying for position in existing fields. They are always trying to better their situation and in doing so, can create change in both their position and the underlying order of the field. This produces two distinct kinds of change, the change whereby a new institutional order comes into existence and the more common situation whereby change is more gradual and continuous.


But this view of the world posits two radically different states, one where we can be agents and make our world and the other where we can do little about it. “A Theory of Fields” undermines this entire line of argument by asserting that actors are always acting and this means they are always struggling. They are in a battle for position and the game is always being played. This means that “A Theory of Fields” is part of a “new” new institutionalism that honors actors, sees purposes, interests, and identities, and allows for stuff to happen all the time.

Although I would reflexively add that what Fligstein seems to do here is itself the activity of an instiutional entrepreneur – trying to change the rules of the field or – if that turns out to be impossible – prepare the setup of a new field, I guess there are some common problematiques that both the proposed new new institutionalism and the infrastructuralist agend have in common: a focus on practice (The Theory of Fields draws heavily on Bourdieu), a focus on constant change, a curiosity for the question of how in a world of constant change patterned activity is produced and the focus on struggles (although we might be critical about the psychological undertone of the term struggle and rather speak of trials of strength).

6 thoughts on “Fields and Infrastructure? A comment to Fligstein on orgtheory

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  6. Hendrik, Sure, that is one position to take; accept one reductionism or another, its more a matter of choice than real alternatives. That sounds fine, and as you say, many people simply do not mind reducing or essentializing some facets of society and so on. .However, there is something of an alternative available, however, and I’ve been writing about it on the blog for the last two weeks. The basic point falls like this: how do we reject (but not fully do away with) essentializing or reductive ideas? .For me, of course, the state comes to mind immediately. How can we sit around like smart little scholars saying "the state does not exist" (with a Foucauldian grin), meanwhile the rest of the Western world thinks about states as actors with quasi-interests and so on (as Hobbes might have had us believe in Leviathan)? How can so many people mistake this reductive idea for what’s actually happening on the ground? How can so many people think of the state as somehow set apart from what must be, in principle, its constitutive elements? .From this vantage point, reductionism is not so much something to assume (as you suggest, we must assume one way or the other) and becomes a new source of questions: how did this reduction happen and how is it supported? .That strikes me as quite interesting, and not really such a trap; provided we think of irreductionism as a source of questions rather than just another assumption, some new territory might be pioneered (that was a nice, American metaphor, eh!?)….


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