Guest Blogger: Phaedra Daipha


I am pleased to announce that Dr. Phaedra Daipha, whose first book I wrote about and enjoyed, will be a guest blogger on Installing (Social) Order this month (October, 2016). She is going to be telling us about her recent work in a new post every week or so. Personally, I am excited to learn more about her work about forecasting (weather forecasting, in this case) and especially her re-thinking of decision-making that extends in new directions previous models of “decision science” from the business school crowd, organizational analysis, and organization studies.

Dr. Daipha a cultural sociologist working at the intersection of STS, organization studies, and social theory. Her research agenda centers on the nature, practice, and institutions of knowledge and technology production, with an eye toward understanding the development and transformation of systems of expertise and the emergence of new forms of coordinated action. She has employed a number of methods and data sources to examine such diverse fields of knowledge and technology production as academic sociology, weather forecasting operations, the commercial fishing industry, and medical care.

Despite the diversity of method and empirical focus, however, her work consistently pursues the following substantive themes: decision making in complex sociotechnical systems; visualization and expertise; object-centered sociality; and professional boundary work. She has pursued these topics in a series of papers, culminating with her recent book,
Masters of Uncertainty: Weather Forecasters and the Quest for Ground Truth.

She is currently in the process of completing her forthcoming book, How Doctors Make Decisions: The Role of Prognosis in Cardiology Practice, based on two and a half years of comparative fieldwork. This book builds on her previously developed model of the process of decision making to highlight the practical, materialist, prospective, and situationist character of clinical judgment and care. But it also considerably extends her earlier conceptualization by applying it to a decision-making field that is interventionist (rather than consultative), that relies on cross-functional (rather than single-specialist) teamwork, and that operates within a significantly longer window of uncertainty.

Welcome aboard! 

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?

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…