Public versus hidden faces of organizations



Think of a range of complex organizations and institutions — police departments, zoning boards, corporations, security agencies, and so on indefinitely. These organizations all have missions, personnel, constituencies, and policies and practices. They all do various things — they affect individuals in society and they bring about significant social effects. And, in each case there are at least three aspects of their realities — the ways they publicly present themselves, the ways their behaviors and effects are perceived by the public, and the usually unobservable reality of how they actually behave. Usually the public persona of the institution is benign, fair, and public- spirited. But how close is this public persona to the truth? In many of our basic institutions, the answer seems to be, not very. We are daily confronted with cases of official corruption, corporations that abuse their power, legislators who take advantage of insider status, and the like. So how can we conceptualize the task of getting a reasonably accurate perception of the hidden workings of our major institutions and organizations?

First, let’s consider whether it is possible to specify a minimum charter of good organizational behavior in a democratic society. This would be a partial answer to a part of our question: what defines the conditions of a socially acceptable and publicly defensible organization? Consider these aspirations —

  • The organization should have goals that are compatible with enhancing the public good.
  • The organization should have appropriate policies about behavior towards employees and the public.
  • The organization should genuinely incorporate a commitment of compliance to law and regulation.
  • The corporation should embody a faithful commitment to exerting its efforts on behalf of its stated mission and stakeholders.
  • The organization should be committed to transparency and accountability.

Bad business practices and corruption can often be traced to a violation of one or more of these principles. The most offensive practices by powerful organizations — predatory behavior, asset stripping, the use of coercion and threat to achieve organizational goals, fraud, deception, illegal behavior, toxic waste dumping, evasion of regulations, and bribery — all fall within the categories identified here.

So how are we to determine whether our existing organizations and institutions satisfy these minimal conditions? We might imagine a routine “scan” of major institutions and organizations that asks a small set of questions along these lines:

  • What are the real operational goals and priorities of the organization?
  • What are the operational policies that govern corporate action?
  • How do agents of the organization actually treat members of the public in carrying out their tasks?
  • To what extent are there discrepancies between policy and practice?
  • To what extent do powerful leaders and managers use their positions to favor their own private interests? (conflict of interest)
  • To what extent do business crimes occur — accounting fraud, investor deception, evasion of regulations for health and safety?
  • And, most generally, to what extent is there a discrepancy between the official story about the organization and its actual practices?

It is very easy to think of examples of bad organizational behavior illustrating each of these questions — waste management companies fronting for organized crime groups, pharmaceutical companies producing defective generic drugs, police officers accepting bribes from speeding drivers, mining companies hiring “security workers” to evict “squatters.” And it would be a very interesting exercise to try to provide brief but accurate answers to each of these questions for a number of organizations. Based on the answers to questions like these that we are able to establish, we could then make an effort to answer the question of how great a discrepancy there is between the benign public persona of major institutions and their actual workings.

In theory we might say that answering these questions is no more difficult than putting a man on the moon — costly but straightforward. However, as was said twenty years ago in the context of anti-ballistic missile technology, the difference is that the moon doesn’t fight back. Organizations — particularly large governmental and corporate organizations — are very adept at covering their tracks, concealing bad behavior, and re-telling the story in their own interests. So the investigative challenge is a huge one — we might speculate that corruption multiplies geometrically, while investigative capacity multiplies arithmetically (a sort of Malthusian theory of misbehavior). Any given abuse can be uncovered in the New Yorker or on the 6 o’clock news — but bad behavior outstrips investigative resources.

So the task of understanding this aspect of modern society amounts to finding effective ways of shining a light on the real practices and priorities of important organizations and institutions. And the practical interest we have in controlling bad organizations — controlling corruption, ensuring good environmental and labor practices, eliminating coercion and violence — comes down to the challenge of enhancing the ability of democracies to investigate, regulate, and publicize the standards and outcomes of behavior that are required.

(Earlier posts have addressed aspects of this issue, including comments on corruption and publicity.)

Trust and corruption

The recent collapse of a major skyscraper crane in New York City last month led to a surprising result: the arrest of the city’s chief crane inspector on charges of bribery. (See the New York Times story here.) (The story indicates that the facts surrounding the charges are unrelated to this particular crane collapse.) Several weeks earlier, a Congressional committee heard testimony from three F.A.A. inspectors to the effect that the agency had permitted Southwest Airlines to fly uninspected planes (story), and some attributed this lapse to too cozy a relationship between the F.A.A. and the airline industry:

The F.A.A.’s watchdog role, to many Democrats in Congress who now oversee airline regulators, grew toothless. “We had drifted a little bit too much toward the over-closeness and coziness between regulator and regulated,” said H. Clayton Foushee Jr., a former F.A.A. official who led a recent inquiry by Mr. Oberstar’s committee. (story)

The basic systems of a complex society depend upon the good-faith commitment of providers to give top priority to safety, health, and quality, but they also depend upon regulation, inspection, and certification. Caveat emptor doesn’t work when it comes to airline travel or working in a skyscraper; we simply have to trust that the airliner or the building is built and maintained to a high level of safety standards. The food we eat, the restaurants we patronize, the airlines and railroads we travel on, and the buildings we live and work in (and send our children to) provide complex products for our use that we can’t independently evaluate. Instead, we are obliged to trust the providers — the builders, the airline companies and their pilots and mechanics, the restaurant operators — and the regulatory and inspection regimes that are intended to provide an assurance of quality, safety, and health.

And yet there are two imperatives that work against public health and safety in most modern societies: the private incentive that the provider has to cut corners, and the perennial temptation of corruption that is inherent within a regulatory process. On the providers’ side, there is a constant business incentive to lower costs by substituting inferior ingredients or materials, to tolerate less-than-sanitary conditions in the back-of-restaurant areas, or to skimp on necessary maintenance of inherently dangerous systems. And on the regulatory side, there is the omnipresent possibility of collusion between inspectors and providers. Inspectors have it in their power to impose costs or savings on providers; so the provider has an economic interest in making payments to inspectors to save themselves these costs. (See Robert Klitgaard’s fascinating book, Controlling Corruption, for a political scientist’s analysis of this problem.)

In a purely laissez-faire environment we would expect there to be recurring instances of health and safety disasters in food production, building construction, transportation, and the healthcare system; this seems to be the logical result of a purely cost- and profit-driven system of production. (This seems to be what lies at the heart of the Chinese pet food and toy product scandals of several months ago, and it was at the heart of the food industries chronicled by Upton Sinclair a century ago in this country.)

But an inadequate system of regulation and enforcement seems equally likely to lead to health and safety crises for society, if inspection regimes are inadequate or if inspectors are corrupt. The two stories about inspection mentioned above point to different ways in which a regulatory system can go wrong: individual inspectors can be corrupted, or honest inspectors can be improperly managed by their regulatory organization. And, of course, there is a third possibility as well: the regulatory system may be fully honest and well-managed but wholly insufficient to the task presented to it in terms of the resources and personnel devoted to the regulatory task.

These two tendencies appear to be resulting in major social problems in China today. There is little confidence in the Chinese public in building standards in even the major civil engineering projects that the country has undertaken in the past ten years (CNN story, BBC story), there is widespread concern about corruption in many aspects of ordinary life, and there is growing concern among consumers about the safety of the system of food production, public water sources, and pharmaceuticals (story). (The anger and anguish expressed by parents whose children were lost in collapsed schools in Sichuan appear to derive from these kinds of mistrust.) So one of China’s major challenges for the coming years is to create credible, effective, and trusted regulatory regimes for the areas of public life that most directly affect health and safety.

But the stories mentioned above don’t have to do with China, or India, or Brazil; they have to do with the United States. We have lived through a period of determined deregulation since 1980, and have been subjected to a political ideology that minimized and demeaned the role of government in protecting the health and safety of the public — in banking no less than air safety. It seems very pressing for us now to ask ourselves: how effective are the systems of regulation and inspection that we have in our key industries — food, pharmaceuticals, hospitals, transportation, and construction? How much confidence can we have in the basis health and safety features of these fundamental social goods? And what sorts of institutional reforms do we need to undertake?

Agendas for Chinese sociology

The challenge for Chinese sociology is the challenge of Chinese society. Chinese social sciences are presently in a period of deep uncertainty. Marxist ideas about method and theory are no longer governing, and new paradigms have not yet taken full form. This transition is especially important because of the magnitude and novelty of the social changes that China is experiencing today. Now is an important time for engagement between innovative Chinese and Western sociologists and philosophers in an effort to arrive at models of social research and explanation that work well for contemporary China.

Here is a brief inventory of some of the many social processes and challenges that are underway in China today, and that constitute an agenda of research for a distinctive China-centered sociology of the future.

Most visible among China’s current social changes is the economic transformation associated with market reforms in the past two decades. The reform of agriculture in the 1980s had massive effects that continue to reverberate in Chinese rural society. The reforms in the 1990s of the institutional setting of manufacture and international trade have created large currents and pressures in Chinese society: smashing of the brass rice bowl, stimulus to massive internal migration, creation of new ensembles of powerful players, creating of wealth, immiseration of some workers, …

Seen from a narrowly economic point of view, the question is this: How can China sustain 10% rates of economic growth? What further policy changes and institutional reforms will be necessary in order to both support and accommodate rapid economic growth?

Seen from the broader point of view, the question is: What are the social implications of this massive economic transformation? What changes have occurred within factories? How do workers reason about the choices they are faced with when privatization occurs? What is happening to displaced workers? What implications are emerging for public health, for the care of the elderly, or for access to education? What are the conditions of social well-being across China? How much inequality is resulting from these reforms, and how is it distributed across region and sector? How are these circumstances changing over time?

Something like 70% of China’s population is rural, with a sizeable percentage swinging back and forth between rural residence and low-paid urban work. The transformations that are underway in the countryside are very important. There is a profound readjustment of property rights underway, with a corresponding struggle between farmers and power-holders over ownership and control of land. The inequalities that have commonly existed between city and countryside are evidently more extreme than ever since 1949; incomes are rising rapidly in the urban manufacturing and service economy, and farmers’ incomes are stagnant. Western provinces such as Shaanxi continue to witness rural incomes in the range of $300 per year—the World Bank’s standard of extreme poverty. And farmers’ access to social services is very limited, including access to education; so opportunities for inter-generational improvement are much more limited than those presented to urban people.

Corresponding to some of these points about rural property ownership and inequalities, is a dramatic increase in the volume of rural protest and collective action. Tens of thousands of instances of collective protest and unrest occur every year in the countryside—and the incidence is rising. The state is concerned about conditions in the countryside; but its response is muted and confused. At some points the rhetoric of the state has been pro-farmer in the past few years; but there is also a “law and order” thread that offers the stick rather than social reform. Complicating the issue is the disconnect between the central government’s policies and the actions of local and provincial governments. The interests of the local and provincial governments are often tilted towards “development” and modernization – with corresponding lack of support for farmers’ rights. The central state appears to lack the ability to control the use of coercion by local authorities in putting down peasant collective action and protest.

A common cause of rural unrest is the fact of local corruption and abuse of the powers of local authorities. The study of corruption, and the institutions of state and market that might help to control corrupt practices, is an important subject for Chinese social scientists. Parallel to corruption is the question of the extension of the system of law. To what extent are players able to appeal to their rights and to gain access to processes of law enforcement? Are there emerging non-governmental organizations and other independent organizations that support workers’ and farmers’ rights? How can this institutional framework be extended and made more effective?

Internal migration and the status of ethnic minorities are other important subjects for study by Chinese social scientists. Once again, these are processes that are changing rapidly; it will be important for Chinese demographers, social policy analysts, and ethnographers to put together effective research programmes that will track and explore these processes.

The social behaviors that affect the environment and energy use, including changes in the volume of transportation and motor vehicles, present evident challenges for the future of Chinese society. Social scientists need to provide insight into the drivers of these behaviors, and social scientists can help to design social policies and institutions that might steer Chinese consumption patterns in directions that are more compatible with China’s longterm environmental sustainability.

Many Chinese intellectuals are posing questions about the role of values in Chinese society. Are there traditional Chinese values that might help secure a stable and harmonious future for Chinese society? Are there strategies or policies that might help to stabilize a social consensus about the legitimacy of governmental institutions and the distributive justice of China’s economic development? Social scientists can probe these questions at a variety of levels, asking the empirical question of the current distribution and variation of social values and the institutional question of the forces that influence future developments in social values.

Finally, the social challenges that will be posed by an aging Chinese population, in the context of a dramatically smaller cohort of younger workers as a result of the one-child policy, will be increasingly important in the coming two decades. Health care, income support, housing, and mental health services will all be important challenges for Chinese society, and once again, there is very little precedence for the magnitude of these challenges in other parts of the world.

Plainly, there is an urgent need for a new surge of effective social-science research in China. But equally, it is clear that these many areas of change represent a mix of different kinds of social processes and mechanisms, operating according to a variety of temporal frameworks, with different manifestations in different regions and sectors of Chinese society. So we should not expect that a single sociological framework, a unified sociological theory, or a unique sociological research methodology will suffice. Instead, Chinese sociological research needs to embrace a plurality of methods and theories in order to arrive at results that shed genuine light on China’s social development.

Social change in rural China

Contemporary China is a vivid demonstration of the fact that sociology is not a “finished” science. The processes of change that are underway in both rural and urban settings are novel and contingent. Existing sociological theory does not provide a basis for conceptualizing these processes according to a few simple templates — modernization, urbanization, structural transformation, demographic transition. Instead, a sociology for China needs to engage in sustained descriptive inquiry, to untangle the many processes that are occurring simultaneously; and innovative theory formation, in order to find some explanatory order in the many empirical realities that China represents. The social reality of China is complex — many separate processes are simultaneously unfolding and interacting; and it is diverse — very different conditions and processes are occurring in different regions and sectors of Chinese society.

Consider one complex example, the wide and heterogeneous range of processes involved in the transformations of rural society: the explosive growth of a periurban sector that is neither city nor village; the rapid expansion of businesses and factories; the creation of an entrepreneurial social segment; the migration of tens of millions of people from rural areas to cities and from poor areas to more affluent areas; the emergence of new social groups in local society; the push-pull relationships between central government and regional and local government; the shifting policy positions of the central government towards rural conditions; the occurrence of social disturbances — rural and urban — over issues of property, labor, environment, and corruption; the rise of ethnicity as a political factor; various permutations of clientelism as a mechanism of political control; and the social consequences of family planning policies (e.g. skewed sex ratios). These are all social processes involving policy makers, local officials, entrepreneurs, farmers, workers, business owners, activists, and other agents; they are processes that have their own dynamics and tempos; they are processes that interact with each other; and they aggregate to outcomes that are difficult or impossible to calculate on the basis of analysis of the processes themselves.

In other words: we can’t understand the current and future development of rural society in China based on existing theories of social change. Instead, we must analyze the current social realities, recognize their novelties, and perhaps discover some of the common causal processes that recur in other times and places. And we should expect novelty; we should expect that China’s future rural transformations will be significantly different from other great global examples (United States in the 1880s, Russia in the 1930s, France in the 1830s, etc.).

I began by saying that China demonstrates that sociology is not a finished science. But we can say something stronger than that: it demonstrates that the very notion of a comprehensive social science that lays the basis for systematizing and predicting social change is radically ill-conceived. This hope for a comprehensive theory of social change is chimerical; it doesn’t correspond to the nature of the social world. It doesn’t reflect several crucial features of social phenomena: heterogeneity, causal complexity, contingency, path-dependency, and plasticity. Instead of looking for a few general and comprehensive theories of social change, we should be looking for a much larger set of quasi-empirical theories of concrete social mechanisms. And the generalizations that we will be able to reach will be modest ones having to do with the discovery of some similar processes that recur in a variety of circumstances and historical settings.

There are some excellent current examples of research on contemporary China that conform to this approach. Kevin O’Brien attempts to discover a mechanism of social protest in his theory of “rightful resistance”(Rightful Resistance in Rural China); C. K. Lee identifies a set of mechanisms of mobilization in her treatment of “rustbelt” and “sunbelt” industries (Against the Law: Labor Protests in China’s Rustbelt and Sunbelt); and Anita Chan identifies some common mechanisms of the exploitation of immigrant labor in China’s Workers Under Assault: The Exploitation of Labor in a Globalizing Economy. Each of these books is a positive example of the kind of sociological research that will shed the most light on China’s present and future: empirically rich, theoretically eclectic, and mindful of contingency and multiple pathways as state, society, environment, and other social processes interact.

Power: corporations

How do large corporations wield power? What are the kinds of outcomes that corporate leaders want to influence? What are the instruments available to them through which they can influence outcomes? And are there impersonal means through which corporations influence society — i.e., wield power or exert causal influence?

Consider first the outcomes. Corporations are businesses with interests. These include first and foremost profitability — short, medium, and longterm. Profitability is influenced by a number of economic, legal, and political factors: a favorable trading environment; a favorable environment for secure property and contract rights; a favorable regulatory environment; favorable and predictable relationships with the workforce and unions; and favorable attitudes from consumers and the public. So corporate officers are charged to do everything possible to bring about positive results for the company in all these spheres.

Lobbying is a central activity through which the corporation pursues its agenda. The corporation employs professionals at a range of levels whose job it is to persuade and influence political and agency actors — legislators, staffers, agency officials, lower-level agency workers who can influence regulations and findings. Lobbying works through personal relationships, campaign support (including campaign gifts), and other forms of influence. (The subject of corruption and conflict of interest and commitment comes in here, but not all lobbying effort
falls in that category.)

Advertising, communications, and public relations are related efforts by the corporation through which the corporation exercises influence. The corporation expends substantial resources to “get its message out” — and these expenditures have measurable effects. Targeted audiences change their opinions and behavior as a result of these efforts.

So far we have identified instruments of suasion and incentives — persuading various actors to act in ways that are favorable to the corporation. And these efforts are substantially effective because of the weight of the resources the corporation can devote to the effort. Are there also more coercive means available to the corporation? There are. A company can threaten various constituencies through redirection of business activities to compel actions favorable to its agenda. For example, it can threaten to close a factory, or to lay off a group of workers, or to move production to overseas locations. These threats influence the behavior of municipalities, state governments, and unions.

In some historical circumstances corporations can also use violence and the threat of violence as part of its strategy for achieving its agenda. Examples of violence and intimidation can be found in China and Columbia today, and in the British and American business- labor struggles of the past. Violence and intimidation are among the tools through which strategic actors may pursue their goals.

This inventory indicates that businesses behave strategically in pursuit of their interests; that they have means of influencing powerful political and social actors through resources, organization, and intimidation; and that the results of this strategic action over time significantly influence the social space in which business activity, political rule-setting, and labor activism occur. In other words, corporations have significant causal powers in modern societies, and corporations constitute a significant locus of power in the contemporary world.

Is globalization unjust?

Globalization has many aspects. But consider this narrow definition: extension of international economic interdependence through unfettered international trade and investment. This process leads to a shifting of centers of economic activity as investors and entrepreneurs seek out favorable locations for business activity–mining, manufacturing, financial services, transportation and logistics, etc. Businesses will seek out low-cost environments for doing business activities. Among other factors, labor costs, environmental costs, and resource availability will drive patterns of investment. The process results in economic growth — that is, an absolute increase in the wealth and income created by the system as a whole. The resulting patterns will have consequences for incomes, environmental effects, and the flows of wealth among places on the planet.

Neo-liberal trade theory asserts that this international trading system will be welfare-enhancing overall: the gains to winners will exceed the losses to losers. The theory also disaggregates: a poor country will make better use of its resources and will be better off than before globalization. Let’s take these points as true for the sake of argument — though many critics of neo-liberal economic theory would dispute the assumptions that this assessment makes.

So, once again, is this process just, or does it simply perpetuate the debilitating effects of past injustice?

Before we can even begin to answer the question, we have to decide what we mean by “justice” in a global economic setting. Is a just system one in which everyone gets what he or she deserves? Or one in which everyone’s outcome corresponds to his or her contribution to the product? Or one in which everyone’s outcome is sufficient to permit him or her to satisfy basic needs for human development? Might we say that a just system is one that treats all parties fairly? And where does “fair equality of opportunity” come into the formula — would we want to say that an outcome is just whenever it has resulted from a non-coercive, rule-governed process in which conditions of fair equality of opportunity have been assured for all participants? And, of course, what do each of these formulas come down to in practical terms?

One reason why problems of justice are so difficult to think about in the context of global development, is the fact of the extreme inequalities that existed, and continue to exist, internationally — both before and during the processes of globalization. Many of these
inequalities were manifestly unjust — because they derived from coercive and unfair relations between countries of very unequal power (colonialism and conquest, for example). So what would be a just pathway of transition, from an unjust prior distribution of wealth and
power, to a later more just distribution of wealth and power?

We might also say that the situation of global justice is a bit similar to the situation of bargaining among parties with grossly unequal prior assets. Some people would judge that an unforced agreement between two parties is guaranteed to be fair by the fact of consent; the fact of consent implies that each party judges that he/she is better off with the agreement than without it — so each has improved his/her welfare. (This is what underlies the theory of Pareto-optimality.) But if the bargaining situations of the parties are significantly unequal, then it is easy enough to see how the stronger party can “take advantage” of the weaker party (the central result of bargaining theory). The division of the benefits of cooperation will be tilted towards the more well-off party; so is this a fair division of the fruits of cooperation?

So consider three different answers to the question, is globalization unjust?

* No, globalization is not unjust in the ideal circumstance in which every country and region can make free choices about the use of its resources and the agreements it makes with other parties. Each country will strive to make the choices that maximize the creation of
wealth and income it produces within the global system. What would make globalization unjust is if the process depends on coercion, corruption, and fraud.

* Yes, globalization is unjust, because the benefits of global cooperation are enormously biased to favor the interests of the rich and powerful. And even if the rules of international cooperation are unbiased (a claim that is often disputed), the superior bargaining situation of the wealthy nations guarantees a division of the benefits of cooperation that favors the wealthy over the poor.

* It is too early to say either way. The answer depends on what the outcomes are in fifty years. If international trade theory turns out to be true; if every region is able to develop its resources and human talent; if every region experiences significant economic growth and improvement of human development — then we may judge that globalization was a just process. If inequalities and human deprivation are even greater in some parts of the world in fifty years, then the process has proven to be unjust.

What is "power" in the twenty-first century?

Is “power” different in the twenty-first century?

Is power the same as “ability to influence behavior”?

Do the internet and new forms of communication and social networking create new opportunities for power–for good or bad purposes?

Think about the ways power was created and used in the nineteenth or twentieth centuries: the power of the state to regulate and enforce; the power of the police to arrest and confine; the power of Europe and North America to administer global empires; the power of the press to focus attention on subjects of concern (political corruption, tainted food, child labor).

These forms of power turn on a few more basic ideas: the ability to use force in order to coerce or threaten; the ability to use mechanisms of communication to influence public opinion and action; the ability to deploy a dispersed bureaucracy in order to organize the actions of distant actors.

Has the balance of power shifted between organized states and networked anti-state organizations?

The exercise of power is a crucial mechanism of social causation, and the analysis of the sources and organization of power is an important task for social science and social theory.

International social research?

I find it intriguing to imagine the sociological insights that might come from a discussion of a specific social problem that brings together the perspectives of some of the international visitors to this web site. How would observers from Manila, Lagos, Shanghai, and Detroit be able to contribute different perspectives on the issue of rising income inequality? Or the issue of racial discrimination? Or the issue of corruption? Or the challenge of an aging population?

Is there a place in the task of creating a new discipline of sociology, for the networked intelligence of observers throughout the world?

Does existing sociological theory and practice give us a basis for analyzing the important social problems that surround us — or do we need to seek out new theories, new perspectives, and new methods?

Can the richness that is present within a distributed community of thoughtful observers be the basis for a better science of sociology?

%d bloggers like this: