Padgett, Powell & DiMaggio en Columbia

Nuestra corresponsal en New York, M. Pilar Opazo (que escribe en inglés ya que está usando un voice-recognition software), reporta sobre un reciente encuentro con tres muy connotados sociólogos económicos.

Last week, John Padgett, Walter Powell and Paul DiMaggio came to the Sociology Department at Columbia University as part of the event “Distinguished Visiting Scholar Series” organized by Professor Diane Vaughan. These series of talks were developed in honor of Harrison White, a highly influential scholar in multiple sub-fields of sociology including, network analysis economic sociology, and the sociology of arts. During three days, students from different universities of the East Coast were able to attend to talks that revolved around the topics of organizational innovation, transformation and change. Here I share three moments of this series of talks that I found particularly interesting from an academic standpoint and that, I think, can contribute to our thinking on contemporary sociology.

First, I will briefly summarize DiMaggio and Powell’s retrospective account of the process of creating their article “The Iron Cage revisited,” a seminal piece within the neoinstitutionalist approach in organizational sociology. Second, I will describe Padgett and Powell’s ongoing process of “developing innovation” by explaining their current work on the forthcoming book “The Problem of Emergence”, which examines the undertheorized question of the emergence of organizational novelty. I will finish with an anecdote of John Padgett about the first time he taught a course with Harrison White at Harvard University. I end with this, because I have had the privilege to know Harrison White personally, and I think that this story allows us to get a glimpse of what makes Harrison a great mentor and a brilliant scholar. Also, because I believe that there is much to be learned from this story for our own academic endeavors.

I. Retrospective sense-making: The Iron Cage Revisited

The first ideas for DiMaggio and Powell’s known article “The Iron Cage Revisited” were developed at Yale University in 1979. Today, this article has approximately 20,000 citations according to Google scholar. The authors began the talk by showing the two first outlines that each one wrote prior to the development of the article, outlines that were essentially broad and quite chaotic. As DiMaggio and Powell pointed out, back then they did not have an in-depth familiarity with the organizational sociology literature, something that now they recognize as an advantage in having been able to develop such an original piece of work. Many academics contributed to this paper including faculty members at Yale University and also people from outside their Department, some of them people that they have never met before. This group of academics kindly replied with extensive comments and suggestions through letter exchanges (including Art Stinchcombe, John Meyer, Harrison White and Dan Chambliss).

As the story goes, DiMaggio and Powell first submitted the article to AJS, and a few weeks later they got a rejection letter saying: “this paper is not interesting enough “. Not knowing what to do, the authors asked Mark Granovetter for advice. “Put the manuscript in an envelope, don’t touch it, and send it to ASR,” Granovetter suggested. For their surprise, shortly after the ASR editor replied with a supportive letter saying “we accept your paper for publication, please check the typos and send it back”. Recalling this moment Powell’s noted, “We haven’t had one of those nice receptions for a long time.”

What are the processes through which an academic paper becomes institutionalized? The process by which the paper flowed within the academic community began slowly in Sociology and later diffused into other disciplines such as Management or History. DiMaggio and Powell identified different factors that might have contributed to explain the good reception of their paper. “The first that one can imagine is luck. The paper caught a wave,” giving rise to wide range of second-order interpretations and empirical applications of their arguments. “At that point Chandler and Williamson’s theories emphasized the multidimensional forms of organizations, and what we proposed was something completely different”. Building on this, DiMaggio mentioned that the paper benefited from “creative treason”, that is, the fact that many readers reproduced texts in ways that the authors would not have originally imagined.

Interesting lessons that they provided based on their experience of writing this highly influential piece were the following: “keep it simple” and “keep in mind that it is important to come up with a good title.” In a straightforward manner the paper “The Iron Cage Revisited” proposes a theoretical framework and identifies specific mechanisms to understand why organizations come to look alike – what the authors describe as organizational isomorphism.”If we have knew as much then on organizational theory as we do now, we would have thought that this was too complicated. We would have realized that the arguments explained in this paper would not have gone through”.

Before they finish the talk DiMaggio and Powell highlighted the importance to continue encouraging “crucky, fresh and original thinking” among young scholars. In their words, “unfortunately, more and more, creative thinking does not get to see the light so much these days.”

II. Forthcoming book “The Problem of Emergence”

Padgett and Powell will be the editors of a forthcoming book titled “The Problem of Emergence”. This book is comprised of 16 empirical chapters written by several authors and a few theoretical chapters at its start.

Borrowing concepts from chemistry and biology, such as the notion of “autocatalysis”,[1] Padgett and Powell address the problem of novelty in social life (i.e., people, organizations, markets etc.). In other words, who is choosing? And how does selection processes occur? Rather than assuming the existence of ecologies of organizations, they start by asking, how do social actors emerge in the first place? The authors take a co-evolutionary approach to examine how organizational innovation and organizational invention happens. According to their account, the former refers to incremental changes across domains, whereas the second refers to vertical changes that reverberate within a domain and that change the way things are done.

The empirical chapters of the book use social modeling, network analysis techniques and innovative methodologies to get at the causes that might explain the emergence and continual transformation of different forms of social life. Three types of self-production processes or “autocatalysis” are identified: the reproduction of objects and products, the reproduction of cells or biographies and linguistic reproduction. Moreover, the studies in the book identify mechanisms that explain the restructuring processes of elements such as “transposition and refunctionality”, “anchoring diversity”, “incorporation and detachment”, etc.

This edited volume of Padgett and Powell will be published this summer by Princeton University Press. Several scholars contributed to these work including Lee Fleming, Kurt Sandholtz, Jonathan Obert, Balaz Vedres David Stark, Fabrizio Ferraro and Siobhan O’Mahony, among others.

III. Anecdote of John Padgett: teaching a course with Harrison White

Padgett started the presentation of the forthcoming book by telling a story about the time he spent at Harvard with Harrison White. “I took a job at Harvard because Harrison sweet-talk me”, said Padgett. “Before even telling me how much I would earn, he was explaining me how much I would learn and inviting me to teach a course with him in the following academic semester. As a young scholar, I could not resist”. Long before the course started, Padgett came to know that the title will be something sufficiently broad and abstract that anything could fit into it – “topics in social organization”. Months later, concerned with the fact that the new academic semester was about to start, Padgett asked Harrison what they were going to teach in this course. To which Harrison replied: “Oh don’t worry, we’ll figure that out later.” To his surprise, Harrison continued to give a similar answer each time he tried to ask him during the following weeks. Only two days before the course was scheduled to start, Padgett came to Harrison again and said, “Harrison….shouldn’t we have a syllabus for the course?. “Oh yes, of course, a syllabus….I will take care of that,” Harrison replied.

Padgett arrived to the first class and introduced himself to around 30 students who have showed up. A few minutes later, Harrison came into the classroom and said: “This is how it works: there is no syllabus for the course. So you will have to create your own. The homework for our next class will be to bring the best 10 books that you have read in your life.”

The following week, Padgett had carefully selected 10 books from his library. Biased by his former training at the Michigan School, many of his books were part of his “Herbert Simon collection”. Harrison’s collection, instead, consisted of obscured books that examined, for instance, the social life of some remote African tribe or that described the evolution of the taxation system in the US. In silence, picking up one of Harrison’s book, Padgett thought to himself: “Can this really be one of the best 10 books he has ever read!?”

Harrison followed to explain to the now 20 students that remained in the class the purpose of their weekly meetings: “we will choose 10 books out of all these books that we all have brought. And our assignment for each class will be to read one book a week. The idea will not be to talk about the theory that is in these books, but to develop a theory ourselves building on the content of the books.”

As Padgett indicated, only 10 students came to third class. But the life of those 10 was changed by that course. The group engaged with the content of the books in tremendously powerful ways. Rather than trying to understand the content of the books, they embarked on the task of constructing their own theory from them. In short, the course provided them with the opportunity to learn what theorizing means, its challenges and difficulties. As Padgett remembers, “Most of the class was nonsense. But occasionally some brilliant sparks emerged out of our conversation.” “The course reminded us the questions that arise from the process of theorizing are more  important than the answers that different theories might provide.”

M. Pilar Opazo

[1] The use of the concept “autocatalysis” might be of particular interest to organizational scholars familiar with Luhmann’s theory and his application of Matura and Varela’s concept of “autopoiesis”.

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