The concept of market (Part 3)

[El nombre de esta sección es “artículos en cuotas”. La idea es, como en una novela por entregas, ir subiendo partes de papers a medida que vayan saliendo. El texto abajo es un borrador de un artículo en el que trabajo. Presenté la primera versión en EGOS este año y esto que estoy subiendo acá es una segunda versión, pero aun, borrador y sin edición del inglés. Además de la introducción, el artículo se compondrá de cuatro secciones. Cada parte será una entrega que iré subiendo a medida que tenga las nuevas versiones listas. El texto abajo es la tercera entrega. Como siempre, sugerencias son muy bienvenidas]

The concept of Market (Part 3): Conceptual stances after the concept of organization

(Part 1 available here, and Part 2 here)

draft 14/12/2017

Sociologist of Czech origin, Egon Bittner published in 1965 a paper titled ‘The Concept of Organization’. The article problematized some of the challenges notions like ‘formal and rational organization’ pose to the researchers that use them.

In Bittner’s words:

‘the sociologist finds himself [sic] in the position of having borrowed a concept from those he seeks to study in order to describe what he observes about them’ (Bittner 2013 [1965]; p.176).

Concepts like formal and rational organization are used by researchers, like sociologists and experts in management, and are used also by practitioners involved in the everyday practice of organizing, such as managers and consultants. Researchers, Bittner explains, have so far followed two strategies to deal with this situation. Often times, they ‘proceed to investigate formal organization while assuming that the unexplicated common-sense meanings of the terms are adequate definitions’ (Bittner 2013 [1965]; p.180). Notions like formal and rational organization are taken as terms that are understood by those who use them and therefore do not need a more specific treatment. Other times, researchers take an almost opposite path. They provide technical definitions for terms such as organization that might well contradict the meaning given to these notions in their ordinary usage. In this latter case, ‘interest in the actor’s perspective is either deliberately abandoned, or some fictitious version of it is adopted’ (Bittner 2013 [1965]; p.176). The two strategies, Bittner suggests, are unsatisfactory. In his view, social researchers cannot simply ignore the fact that notions like formal and rational organization are part of their object of inquiry; these are ‘schemes of interpretation that competent and entitled users can invoke in yet unknown ways whenever it suits their purposes’ (Bittner 2013 [1965]; p.182). Accordingly, researchers should develop analytical strategies to study how actors skillfully use and deploy these terms in their practices. For instance: they could study how different activities are deemed irrational and which ones are tolerated or how actors invoke different meanings of a similar concept in different situations.

Bittner’s paper was part of a wider debate conducted at the time. This was a period in which – inspired by the work of Wittgenstein and developments in pragmatism and phenomenology – some of the basic principles of social research set early in the century, including the nature of social scientific concepts (Blumer 1954, Schutz 1953) were importantly problematized. Bittner’s contribution was set against Weber’s strong demarcation between scientific and everyday idealizations. In his hugely influential methodological writings, Weber strongly warmed against the negative consequences of confusing native terms and concepts. In his words:

‘the use of the undifferentiated collective concepts of everyday speech is always a cloak for confusion of thought and action. It is, indeed, very often an instrument of specious and fraudulent procedures’ (Weber 1949; p. 64).

When scientific concepts and normative ideals are confused, Weber claimed:

‘ideas are naturally no longer purely logical auxiliary devices, no longer concepts with which reality is compared, but ideals by which it is value-judged […] The sphere of empirical science has been left behind and we are confronted with a profession of faith, not an ideal typical construct’ (Weber 1949; pp. 56-57).

In Weber’s view, social scientific concepts have to be clearly separated from everyday notions. But, it is not that Bittner expected to fuse the terms of everyday action and social research. What he attempted, instead, was to provide a different type of social scientific position. From this position, everyday conceptualizations become objects of inquiry; the analysist observes the work made by social actors in defining the situations in which they take part. A position such as Bittner’s, requires, in turn, of new social scientific concepts that can equip this particular analytical angle. This is what he actually does in his collaboration with Garfinkel, for instance in the well-known piece, ‘Good organizational reasons for ‘bad’ clinic records’ (Garfinkel & Bittner 1984 [1967]).

From our contemporary perspective, it could be said that one of the legacies of these mid-20th century discussions is an important bifurcation. At the moment of confronting notions such as organization, researchers, explicitly or implicitly, have to choose. As Howard Becker succinctly put it, sociologists can either let ‘the concept defines the case’ or let ‘the case defines the concept’ (Becker 1998; p. 124). After Bittner, researchers interested in studying organization do not only have to choose between different definitions of organization, but between different conceptual stances. Stances, as Du Gay and Vikkelsø have recently explained (2017), do not refer to different statements about an object, but, different scientific attitudes. Different conceptual stances, to borrow now from Deleuze’s and Guattari (2014), ask different requirements for the research personae that use them. Researchers can follow the classical stance set by Weber, in which the task of the social researcher is to develop neatly defined ‘thought constructs’ that ought to be clearly distinguished from the notions used in everyday speech and normative-practical action. Or, researchers can take Bittner’s ethnomethodological alternative, in which the analyst studies how concepts are deployed and defined by those who use them in their own practices.

The next section answers the question of what if the distinction between conceptual stances introduced here in relation to the concept of organization is used to organize recent research dealing with the different but equally troubled concept of the market.

José Ossandón


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