On microfoundations and Barley

Seems the comment tool on Posterous is not working today, so here is my comment to Jan-H. about Barley, the neo-I crowd, and technology.

While I have always liked Barley’s work on technology, there is something I have got to get off my chest: in his super famous 1986 paper, the one about radiologists and new workplace technology (ASQ?), what was he really showing in that paper that made him so famous?

He showed that technology does not have a straightforward consequence when it enters a work place and instead can have different consequences in different workplaces. Well, I’d say “of course”. After all, the paper provides a counter point to a non-issue. Even in the literature at the time, it was almost unfair to ask: what is the single consequence of this technology for all work? Thus, his argument was pinned against is flimsy one, even for org studies.
Here is why: they have been searching for that answer since the 1960s with Woodward who assumed one could “unlock” the consequences of industrial manufacturing technology, namely, the assembly line, for work in general, laborers, managers, etc.
Guess what? She couldn’t. There was no single consequence.
Tech did not uniformly speed things up.
Tech did not shape each organization the same.
Tech did not … and so on.
Woodward assumed it would, or hypothesized as much, but Woodward was, in fact, learning what Barley would later test as a hypothesis the other direction. Barley assumed it the other way — that there would not be just one consequence of technology — and, unsurprisingly, found it. Well, in a way, of course he did; he found what scholars had been finding (but not looking for) for decades.

Microfoundations, institutions and two ways of studying technologies

Quite some time ago we had a couple of posts on the possible links between STS and Neo-Institutionalism (see here, here, here and here) and about how both camps can be fruitfully matched in their attempts to get a grasp a the black-boxed, taken-for-granted or institutionalized character of modern practices.

One of the basic lines of linkage we identified back then was this: while Neo-Institutionalism is great at pointing out the empirical details and explaining the diffusion and isomorphisms of patterns that are taken-for-granted (institutions), they lack (following Powell and Colways 2008) a perspective on the respective microfoundations. THAT on the other hand is something that (most) STS approaches are quite good at – but they on the other hand – see for example the underdetermined concept of black-boxing – lack an understanding of how the “functional simplification” (Luhmann 1997) that technology enacts is comparable to other forms of making something taken for granted: habitualization (in the bourdieuian sense), embodyment, signification, formalization, institutionalization.

After reading Barley´s and Tolbert´s 1997 paper in Organization Studies on Institutionalization and Structuration and after reviewing Barles´s research on technologies at workplaces I wondered a. if and how the Powell and Colways argument about the missing micro-foundations has ever been valid in institutional theory given the amount of thought that Barley and Tolbert are investing in designing their concept of scripts and the methodology to analyze them and b. why STS approaches to technology do not seem to play a large role in institutional analysis that deal with technologies on the one hand and why these institutional approaches to technology on the other hand do also not play a significant role in STS? Any thoughts?

Some shameless self-promotion: On Technology and Society

Nicholas’s public question if there is a book on what the old theorists thought about technology offers a tempting opportunity for some “shameless self-promotion” that I was nearly too modest to seize. But in the pre-ASA mode that nearly every sociology blog I read is in at the moment…well, I´ll jump at the chance: I wrote a book similar to the one that Nick requested – only (sorry) in german and not outlined as a list of old scholars thoughts, but as a sociologized concetual history of explaining the relationship between technology and society.

The usual story is that there was first technological determinism, then social constructivism – a story of a big STS success. But a closer look reveals that the two underlying modes of explanation – technicism and cuturalism – are with us for at least 150 years. This conceptual dichotomy, already established in philosophy and early social theory (Kapp, Marx, Durkheim, Weber), enforces during a first crisis of modernity in the first decades of the 20th century a first explicit version of technicism (Veblen, Dessauer) and a first version of culturalism as a reaction to it from the 1930s (Spengler, Gilfillan, Mumford) on. As once stabilized theoretical artifacts these modes of explanation deal with the social and technical transformations of modernity by attributing them either to an inherent logic of technological development or to major and minor changes of modern society. This leads to pessimistic versions of technicism (Ellul and Jünger) and a critical version of culturalism (Adorno, Horkheimer, Heidegger) after World War II, an anthropological version of technicism (Freyer, Gehlen, Schelsky) and a rationalist culturalism (Marcuse, Habermas) that accompany the stabilization of organized modernities until the 1960s. As a reaction to a second crisis of modernity from the 1970s up to today two versions of technicism and a radical relativist culturalism emerged: while new media technology and digital computing enforces a revival of deterministic thoughts (McLuhan, Postman, Flusser), a large number of empirical work focused on technology assessment was based on modest versions of technicism (Ogburn, Heilbronner, Rapp). The sociology of scientific knowledge (Barnes, Bloor) fosters first a moderate empirical micro-constructivist culturalism (Latour/Woolgar, Knorr-Cetina), then a historical macro culturalism (Hughes, Constant, Dosi) and finally a radical social constructivist culturalism (Bijker, Pinch, Law).

From the 1960s on these theoretical and conceptual differences have been additionally stabilized by bringing them in theory-political as well as real political opposition. By this the basic conceptual distinction between technology and society has been virtually naturalized, it has not been seriously drawn into question since the 1930s. But from the 1980s on a number of attempts have been made to wipe the slate clean in social science theories of technology. These new approaches understand both dynamics and stability of society and technology as entangled and interrelated phenomena in need of explanation. Actor-Network-Theory (Latour, Callon, Law), neo-pragmatist technology studies (Star, Fujimura) and systems theory (Luhmann) are just three of theses new approaches. Despite their differences they teach us to ask and answer questions about the relevance of materiality for the emergence and transformation of the social, about the material and technical mediation of agency and communication, about the importance of artifacts for the formation and change of social institutions and ideas and about the role of technological developments in transforming modernity. To ask and maybe answer them, the discourse on social science theories of technology will have to be connected to the general discourse on social theory, on theories of society and modernity.


Public Question: What did the old theorists think about technology?

A while back I asked “does anyone know if there is a good paper or book about what Weber thought about technology?” which is an interesting question in light of new STS work. Marx has been paid some attention by scholars, but here comes the public question:

Is there a book that tackles, one chapter at a time, what the old theorists thought about technology?

This seems like a great edited book or mini-conference or mini-conference that turns into a great edited book.

So, next question:

Is there any interest in a book that tackles, one chapter at a time, what the old theorists thought about technology?

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…