Sun Jul 20, 2003

Shake'n'Bake Social Theory

Real innovation in social theory is hard but brute-force approaches can yield results. Henry’s comments on Public Choice Theory reminded me of a simple way to innovate theory that you’re welcome to apply in various contexts as you please.

Take a few basic kinds of institutions, structures or practices that can be identified across many different social contexts. There are markets, say, and there is politics. There is ritual. There is culture. There are hierarchies. There are networks. And so on. (Not all of these are the same sort of thing; that doesn’t matter at the moment.) Identify the basic features of each. Now, pick one, take its defining features and see if you can find them at work in one the others.

For example, you can say Politics is really Markets. This is Public Choice Theory, waiting to be elaborated. Because the market form is such a dominant feature of contemporary societies and of talk about them, applying the “x is really a market” trick to any given x is by now quite a common trick. It can tell you a lot about what you’re studying, and it can even provoke that “Of course!” experience that Fredrich Blowhard had. It’s important to see, though, that you can do exactly the same thing in reverse, or with other combinations of concept and institution, and to similar effect.

Markets are really Politics. Out of many, Neil Fligstein’s work is a good example.

Markets are really Culture. Viviana Zelizer’s The Social Meaning of Money takes the world of apparently cold-blooded economic exchange and shows how the ritual creation of social ties between people is fundamental to the nature of money. Alternatively, for a comparative approach read Frank Dobbin’s Forging Industrial Policy to see how 19th-century economic policy about Railroads took as its model different conceptions of the polity in each of France, Britain and the United States.

Politics is really Ritual. Meyer and Rowan’s “Institutional organizations: Formal structure as myth and ceremony” makes this case.

Markets are really Hierarchies. Sounds like a tough one, but Art Stinchcombe has a go in “Contracts as Hierarchical Documents.”

Markets are really Networks. Harrison White. I should say, “Production markets are really self-reproducing interfaces created by the mutual monitoring of firms trying to find a sustainable niche in a production system.”

And so on. The “x is really y” approach to explanatory theory can be very productive, especially if you can come up with a comparison that hasn’t been done before. There are other tricks to try when looking for a good explanation to some empirical problem—or when looking for a good problem in search of an explanation. Howie Becker’s book Tricks of the Trade: How to Think About Your Research While You’re Doing It has a bunch of useful heuristics.