Sometimes a rethinking of ontology and social categories results in an important step forward in social theory. This appears to be the case in some recent reflections on the relationships that exist between social movements theory and the sociology of organizations. The presumption of existing writings on these fields is that they refer to separate but related phenomena. One is more about social actors and the other is more about stable social structures. What happens when we consider the possibility that they actually refer to the same kinds of social phenomena?
This is the perspective taken by Neil Fligstein and Doug McAdam in a recent contribution to Sociological Theory, “Toward a General Theory of Strategic Action Fields”(link). (They develop these ideas more fully in A Theory of Fields.) In the Sociological Theory article they write:
We assert that scholars of organizations and social movements — and for that matter, students of any institutional actor in modern society — are interested in the same underlying phenomenon: collective strategic action. (2)
Fligstein and McAdam formulate their novel approach in terms of the idea of “strategic action fields.” They put it forward that “strategic action fields … are the fundamental units of collective action in society” (3). Power and advantage play key roles in their construction: “We too see SAFs as socially constructed arenas within which actors with varying resource endowments vie for advantage. Membership in these fields is based far more on subjective ‘standing’ than objective criteria” (3).
Here are types of social items they include in this theory:
- strategic action fields
- incumbents, challengers, and governance units
- social skill
- the broader field environment
- exogenous shocks, field ruptures, and the onset of contention
- episodes of contention
- settlement (2)
This approach is importantly couched at the level of social ontology: what sorts of things should we identify and analyze as explanatory factors in our theories? The move to SAFs is a move against the idea of the fixity of social “structures,” institutions, and organizations. For example, they write against the ontology of new institutionalism: “The general image for most new institutionalists is one of routine social order and reproduction” — or in other words, a static set of rules and constraints within which action takes place. Their ontology, on the other hand, emphasizes the fluidity of the constraints and circumstances of action from the actors’ points of view; so the field shifts as actors undertake one set of strategies or another. “This leaves great latitude for the possibility of piecemeal change in the positions that actors occupy” (5).
So both stability and change are incorporated into a single framework of analysis: actors react strategically to the field of constraints and positions within which they act, with results that sometimes reinforce current positions and other times disrupt those positions.
They account for what looks like institutional rigidity by calling out the power of some actors to maintain their positions in the social order: “Most incumbents are generally well positioned and fortified to withstand these change pressures. For starters they typically enjoy significant resource advantages over field challengers” (9). But institutions should not be expected to maintain their structures indefinitely: “The expectation is that when even a single member of the field begins to act in innovative ways in violation of field rules, others will respond in kind, precipitating an episode of contention” (9).
So what is intended by the idea of “strategic action” in this theory? Here is what they have to say on that subject:
We 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. The creation of identities, political coalitions, and interests serves to promote the control of actors vis-a-vis other actors. (7)
Here is one other interesting ontological feature of this approach. Their language suggests some parallels with assemblage theory (link), in the sense that social constructs fit upwards and downwards into strategic action fields at a range of fields. “We conceive of all fields as embedded in complex webs of other fields” (8). This set of ideas seems to suggest an unexpected affinity to “actor-network theory” and the sociological ideas of Bruno Latour (ANT) (link). But at the other end of some obscure spectrum of theory differentiation, their account also seems to rub shoulders with rational-choice theory, where both actions and rules are subject to deliberation and change by prudential actors.
There are several features of this approach that seem promising to me. One is the fact that it directly challenges the tendency towards reification that sometimes blocks sociological thinking — the idea that social “things” like states persist largely independently from the individuals who make them up. This new approach leads to a way of thinking about the social world that emphasizes contingency and plasticity (link, link) rather than rigid and homogeneous social structures. It also seems consistent with the thinking that leads to the idea of “methodological localism” — the idea that social phenomena rest upon “molecules” of socially constructed, socially situated individuals (link). I also like the fact that their analysis is explicitly couched at the meso level — neither macro nor micro.
One concern this approach raises, however, is suggested by the point mentioned above about its apparent proximity to some versions of rational choice theory — the view that all social outcomes and processes are ultimately the consequence of prudential actors pursuing their interests. But this assumption — which McAdam certainly does not share elsewhere in his writing (e.g. Dynamics of Contention) — threatens to push out of consideration social realities like normative systems, social identities, and distributed systems of power that somehow or other seem to demand inclusion in our understanding of social processes.
Finally, we can ask whether this innovation provides a basis for more fruitful empirical research into concrete phenomena like how corporations and revolutionary parties function, how demonstrations against Islamophobia take shape, and how resistance to racial discrimination emerges. If the theoretical innovation doesn’t lead to richer empirical research, then it is reasonable to be skeptical about why we should adopt the new theoretical tools.