Tuesday, March 13, 2018

TIMN’s “forms” vs. their “fields” and “logics” (Part 3 of 4) — Fligstein & McAdam’s “Toward a General Theory of Strategic Action Fields” (2010)

Parts 1 and 2 in this series discussed “forms”, the concept TIMN is based on. Next up are two or three rival concepts, starting here with “strategic action fields”.

The best source for my purposes appears to be Neil Fligstein & Doug McAdam’s “Toward a General Theory of Strategic Action Fields” (2010). In it, they outline their “general theory of social change and stability rooted in a view of social life as dominated by a complex web of strategic action fields.” (p. 4)

I construct this Part 3 the way I did Part 2 on Levine: by excerpting numerous points about “fields” from their paper that resonate, more or less, with my usage of “forms”. Then I discuss whether their points overlap with TIMN and help validate it. (N.B.: Many of their sentences are dense with bibliographic references; I omit these from quotes I use.)

• Fligstein & McAdam propose a grand conceptual agenda for organizational studies — the study of “meso-level social orders” and “strategic action fields”. Their “radical view” is that all scholars of organizations, social movements, and institutional actors are “interested in the same underlying phenomenon: collective strategic action.” This term refers to “the efforts of collective actors to vie for strategic advantage in and through interaction with other groups in what can be seen as meso-level social orders. We call these orders “strategic action fields” and use the terms interchangeably.” Thus they present “a view of social life as dominated by a complex web of strategic action fields.” (p. 4) They seek “a generic field approach” (p. 38).

I take this to mean that TIMN’s four forms of organization — tribes, hierarchical institutions, markets, and information-age networks — are all strategic actions fields (as well as meso-level orders). Thus, what I study as “forms” Fligstein & McAdam study as “fields”, in a framework where TIMN’s “forms” amount to subsumed varieties of “fields”. Well, maybe, but let’s see what else they mean before I start raising objections.

• To define their central concept, Fligstein & McAdam state up front that “strategic action fields (hereafter, SAFs) are the fundamental units of collective action in society.” These fields are
“ … where actors (who can be individual or collective) interact with knowledge of one another under a set of common understandings about the purposes of the field, the relationships in the field (including who has power and why), the rules of the field, and a situation where actors have frames that produce an understanding of what other actors’ moves in the field mean.” (pp. 6-7)
Further clarifying their meaning, the authors state that “field processes are about who gets what” (p. 8). Moreover, in alternate phrasing, they define strategic action as “the attempt by social actors to create and maintain stable social worlds by securing the cooperation of others. Strategic action is about control in a given context.” So, the purpose of creating “identities, political coalitions, and interests is to promote the control of actors vis a vis other actors,” in and between particular fields. (p. 15)

That pretty much fits with TIMN. It’s forms are not exactly “the fundamental units of collective action”, but in their own way they’re pretty close, for they are the four fundamental forms of collective organization and endeavor that societies depend on using. And each form’s actors do indeed require “a set of common understandings about the purposes”, relationships, rules, and moves for assuring that form functions properly. This includes understandings about “who has power and why” as well as “who gets what” for each TIMN form. I’ve written as much.

Those are good ways to think about TIMN’s forms. Yet, as I write this, I sense that Fligstein and McAdam would not agree with me that TIMN’s four forms are the cardinal strategic action fields behind the organization and evolution of all societies. For they never make such a claim regarding any limited set of fields. Instead, they seem close to claiming that societies consist of unlimited plethoras of fields, though some (e.g., “states”) may be more cardinal than others.

And here’s another difference: Fligstein and McAdam repeatedly say that strategic action is about control. I find no mention of de-control. Yet, while each TIMN form is about a different kind of control, the TIMN progression depends on “de-control” — as a society becomes more complex, it’s crucial to let the next form’s actors and entities emerge to take over activities and address problems that the established forms are less suited to resolving. Here’s how I’ve written about this TIMN system dynamic before:
To advance through the TIMN progression, control must give way to decontrol: The evolution of complex societies is often said to involve increases in control (and coordination), partly so that all the differentiated parts work together. But social evolution does not revolve solely around ever-increasing capacities for control. Each transformational step in the TIMN progression requires some kind of decontrol — realizing that a new form and realm are taking hold, letting go of its activities, and allowing self-organization to develop around that form’s own rules. This is essential for the re-simplification and resynthesis process noted above. Over the long run, harmonious decontrol becomes as important as control; in advanced societies, power extends as much from decontrol as control. Thus, to refer back to the preceding proposition, the evolution of social complexity leads to increases in differentiation and control, but it also eventually requires some systemic de-differentiation and decontrol. Societies whose leaders exalt the tribal and hierarchical forms may have the hardest times with this.” (source)
Fligstein and McAdam’s approach involves so much contention and conflict, so much vying for control among strategic actors, that fields and their relations often give way to reorganization (see discussion below). But if I understand their approach correctly, this turmoil is explained solely in terms of shifts in power and control — not as transformative adaptations that may depend partly on deliberate attraction to de-control.

• Matters get complicated when Fligstein & McAdam begin arguing that SAFs are everywhere in society — so myriad that many are nested “like Russian dolls”, while others overlap and intermingle side-by-side, with new ones being created whenever two SAFs interact. Moreover, since they’re all SAFs, they’re all generically similar, despite specific differences from SAF to SAF. Here’s the pertinent quote:
“All collective actors (for example, organizations, extended families, clans, supply chains, social movements, and governmental systems) are themselves made up of SAFs. When they interact in a larger political, social, or economic field, that field also becomes an SAF. In this way, SAFs can look a lot like Russian dolls: open up an SAF and it contains a number of other SAFs. … Each of these SAFs constitutes a meso-level social order in the sense that it can be fruitfully analyzed as containing all of the elements of an order from the perspective we outline here.” (p. 7)
Does that benefit or contradict TIMN? I’m not sure. Their approach to “fields” seems more like Levine’s expansive approach to “forms” (see Part 2) than like TIMN’s delineated approach. It’s four forms do correspond to strategic action fields, or sets of fields. And the entities and actors that embody TIMN’s forms may well intermingle and interact in ways that create smaller (or bigger?) new fields of endeavor.

But so far I don’t find this illuminating for TIMN. Fligstein & McAdam’s “fields” offer a different way of looking at tribes, institutions, markets, and networks — but I don’t see that it’s better than the “forms” approach. Besides, it looks to me as though their approach, as it presently stands, risks descending into a hunt for micro-fields rather than helping identify grand system dynamics that apply across TIMN’s four forms.

• If I understand Fligstein & McAdam correctly, there are so many kinds of “strategic action fields”, in theory and practice, that only some can be mentioned, few can be typologized, and many are creatures unto themselves and unto others as well. Here’s what I mean by that:

> As they lay out their theoretical perspective, much of their paper critiques rival views about organizational theory, notably new institutional theory (including institutional-logics theory), network analysis, and social movement theory, plus Pierre Bourdieu’s “habitus theory” and Anthony Giddens’ “structuration theory” (p. 5; p. 37ff). I skip over most of that, but must point out that they all get subsumed as ways to study SAFs.
> Indeed, as noted above, they treat “All collective actors (for example, organizations, extended families, clans, supply chains, social movements, and governmental systems)” as strategic action fields (p. 7). That’s further evidence that their SAF concept encompasses all four TIMN forms — those “extended families” and “clans” pertain to the T/tribal form, and “governmental systems” to the +I/institutional form.
> A little later, still writing in a theoretical sense, they use their “insight that action takes place in meso-level social order” to show that their SAF concept also encompasses what are variously called “sectors, organizational fields, games, fields, networks, or, in the case of the government, policy domains. In the economic realm, markets can be thought of as a specific kind of constructed order” (p. 7). Apropos TIMN, I see no mention of “forms” here, but at least “markets” and “networks” show up.
> Then, more concretely, when they apply their perspective to analyzing the civil rights revolution (1932-68), the five SAFs they highlight are: America’s competitive party politics; the Democratic Party; the cotton economy; the field of U.S. constitutional law; and the international system of nation states (p. 45ff). Wow, those are very very different kinds of “strategic action fields” than the ones mentioned elsewhere.
> Finally, in conclusion, they remark “ … it is clear that action in states, markets, and non state-non-market fields do have different dynamics.” They further note that “the invention of new forms of collective action and their spread has not been well theorized. The modern world has created the “social movement”, the “organization”, and the idea that one can deploy networks to expand one’s power.” (p. 51) Again, apropos TIMN, notice the highlighting of “states” and “markets”, plus a nod to “networks”.
At least all of TIMN’s forms — tribes, institutions, markets, networks — get mentioned by them in some fashion. But I hesitate to say there’s much overlap with TIMN. It looks to me as though TIMN might get buried in their approach.

• Fligstein & McAdam’s aim (stated late in their paper) is “to account for field emergence, stability and transformation” by laying out a theory of strategic action fields “that allows us to understand how new meso-level social orders are produced, sustained, and come unraveled.” (p. 43) Thus they seek to offer “a much broader view of social change and conflict, one that grants attention to a much larger cast of characters and centers on the interplay of a good many state and non-state SAFs.” (p. 44)

This approach leads to several theoretical consequences (laid out earlier in their paper). One is that “fields are constructed on a situational basis, as shifting collections of actors come to define new issues and concerns as salient.” (p. 9) Another is that “All of the meanings in a field can break down including what the purpose of the field is, what positions the actors occupy, what the rules of the game are, and how actors come to understand what others are doing.” If so, then “the whole order of an SAF is up for grabs” — possibly leading to a “whole new order”. (p. 12)

In so saying, Fligstein & McAdam clarify that the key actors in these fields are “comprised of “incumbents, challengers, and sometimes governance units.” The authors also clarify that they view “all fields as embedded in complex webs of other fields” — with relations depending on whether these other fields are distant or proximate, vertical or horizontal, and/or state or non-state. Moreover, states themselves amount to “dense collections of fields, whose relations can be described as either distant or proximate and if proximate, can be characterized by horizontal or vertical links.” (pp. 12, 16-17)

Quite a picture emerges from this analysis. Collective strategic action fields are characterized by so many links and ties, so much “connectedness”, that they become “embedded in one another”. Such high levels of interdependent interaction mean these fields are never really separate and settled — they don’t amount to “self-contained autonomous worlds.” As a result, these fields are open to “exogenous shocks, field ruptures, and the onset of contention”. They’re “in some flux” and “continuously contested” — often afflicted with “round after round of reactive struggle”. (pp. 6, 12, 20) All of which leads the authors to conclude as follows:
“The main theoretical implication of the interdependence of fields is that it is a source of a certain level of rolling turbulence in modern society. A significant change in any given SAF is like a stone thrown in a still pond, sending ripples outward to all proximate fields.” (p. 18)
Wow. All quite understandable from their “fields” perspective. Lots of overlaps with Levine’s “forms” perspective too (see my Part 2 installment). But I see only limited instructiveness for TIMN.

For one thing, “roiling turbulence” can be found somewhere in most societies, not just modern ones. Yet many systems afflicted with turbulence often do not change much for long periods of time, especially in societies that may be culturally too tribal or institutionally too hierarchical (from a TIMN perspective). In such societies, that roiling turbulence may be kept under control by deeply embedded, deliberately concerted rigidities. TIMN seems better suited to explaining this than does Fligstein & McAdam’s approach (though they/I will address that further in the next bulleted sub-section).

More to the point, TIMN is mostly about evolutionary change and stability over long periods of time. Fligstein & McAdam’s view seems directed at analyzing change (and stability) over much shorter periods of time. TIMN could be used to diagnose a society’s evolutionary status and potential at any given time, including short periods. But the picture that would emerge would be about how that society is using and combining TIMN’s four cardinal forms. I don’t see that TIMN could be improved by substituting a fields approach, especially in light of what appears to be its bias toward emphasizing turmoil, instability, even conflict.

• Nonetheless, Fligstein & McAdam turn to analyze “the conditions that make for stability and change in strategic action fields and the potential role of strategic actors in these processes.” Their view is that “SAFs tend toward one of three states: unorganized or emerging, organized and stable but changing, and organized and unstable and open to transformation.” (p. 22) [Hmm: note the presence of some kind of turbulence in each of those three states.]

So they pose a series of propositions about this. The ones that resonate with TIMN are as follows: “Proposition 2: Skilled social actors are pivotal for new fields to emerge. … Proposition 3: Skilled social actors can help produce entirely new cultural frames for fields. … Proposition 8: Emergent fields produce new forms of organizing.” (pp.24-26) I’d say all three apply to the rise of each TIMN form, for each requires “skilled social actors” who fashion “new cultural frames” and “new forms of organizing”. Those are good points — I’ve written as much, though not that way.

But I wonder about their Proposition 4, where they claim that “Initial resource allocations affect whether or not SAFs become organized hierarchically or cooperatively.” They claim that there are only two ways for SAFs to settle “the problem of order”: impose hierarchy, or form political coalitions. (p. 24) What I find unclear is whether Proposition 4 is about people settling the rules for managing a field, or about determining the very nature of the field. If the former, well, maybe so. But if the latter, no way — the hierarchy-coalition dichotomy is insufficient to capture the varied natures of TIMN’s four forms. Fligstein & McAdam’s field theory does not — cannot? — account for how and why the tribal form rises first, the institutional form next, then the market form, and now the network form. Nor can their theory account for why different problems of order lead to the rise of different forms (fields?) of order over the long course of social evolution.

I’d also comment on Proposition 11, which states that “Strategic action fields are generally destabilized by external shock originating from other strategic action fields, invasion by other groups of organizations, actions of the state, or large scale crises such as wars or depressions.” (p. 30) That makes sense, as does their follow-up point that “The more fields involved in these crises, the more likely the state is to become destabilized. To the degree that these crises reach epic proportions, the opportunities for collective action to transform the entire system may be present.” (p. 32) Yet, much as I appreciate these Proposition 11 points, they don’t strike me as unique or unusually insightful — they’re rather traditional points reiterated in SAF language. As I recall, Levine makes virtually identical points from a forms viewpoint (see Part 2 post), and I don’t see that their “fields” approach can outperform her (or my) “forms” approach.

I also think there is something valuable about Proposition 12, which posits that “The more connected an SAF is to other SAFs, the more stable that SAF is likely to be. Similarly, new SAFs or those with few connections will be unstable.” But a page later they also point out that “The "connectedness" of SAFs is a source of both strength and weakness.” (pp. 33-35) I could ask, so which is it? But I think a better point to make is that this disparity helps shows that, because of their fields orientation, they have spotted an important duality about connectivity — sometimes it strengthens and solidifies, and sometimes it weakens and disturbs relations. However, I can’t tell where they want to go with this observation. Yet, according to where I think TIMN is headed, but contrary to their Proposition 12, extreme levels of connectivity between forms is a bad sign. Too much connectivity — connectivity to the point of infestation, say between the tribal and institutional forms, or between the institutional and market forms — is likely to have all sorts of adverse effects that end up distorting and decreasing a society’s potential for next-step evolution.

From my TIMN perspective, then, Fligstein & McAdam have made a start at showing how their “fields” framework may help explain social stability and change, and whether, how, and why a society may become “open to transformation”. But from what I see, their fields approach isn’t designed to explain social evolution. TIMN’s “forms” approach is better designed for that.

• In concluding their overview, Fligstein & McAdam reiterate that they “have tried to sketch … the central animating principles of a theory of SAFs that we think makes sense of strategic collective action across these nominally distinct social realms.” But while their paper mostly treats all “collective strategic action as having similar theoretical underpinnings”, here at the end they finally observe “it is clear that action in states, markets, and non state-non-market fields do have different dynamics.” Which leads them to ask “if the modes of collective action are similar in markets and politics, then what makes them different?” They add that “It is also the case that the invention of new forms of collective action and their spread has not been well theorized” — including “the idea that one can deploy networks to expand one’s power.” (pp. 50-51)

I’m pleased to see their closing recognition that “action in states, markets, and non state-non-market fields do have different dynamics.” That is almost TIMN-ish, even though it comes with a reiteration that all collective strategic action has “similar theoretical underpinnings”. But they leave unresolved how and why different dynamics arise in the fields of “markets and politics”, despite both being “fields” that are supposed to be theoretically similar. Which means they still have quite a research agenda ahead of them. Perhaps, I wonder, they will end up having to go in directions that TIMN is already going.

Also, here in closing, they suddenly note that “the invention of new forms of collective action and their spread has not been well theorized”. Forms!? What do they mean by “forms” — a term they rarely use elsewhere? Don’t they mean “fields”? Or, here at last, is a conflation? I can’t tell. But I’d sure like to know how they see “forms” and “fields” as being different, and what they’d make of the differences they see.

In sum, I see no reason to switch from “forms” to “fields” as a basis for TIMN. Their theory is too filled with whirling swirling interactions in fights for power and control, and too lacking in long-range evolutionary structures and dynamics to warrant my switching. But I’ve benefitted from reading their work, and so may others whose focus is on “forms”.

To read Fligstein & McAdam’s paper for yourself, go here for easy access:
Next up, a look into another alternative for TIMN: “institutional logics”.