My recent explorations of the work of the Anthropology of Administration group at Minpaku, Japan's National Museum of Ethnology, have led me to have a look at recent developments in organization theory. That is how I recently stumbled upon

John F. Padgett and Walter W. Powell (2012) The Emergence of Organizations and Markets. Princeton:  Princeton University Press.
This first posting about the book is to test the degree of interest in what it has to say. Feedback will lead to my posting more thoughts about it. Lacking feedback, I will keep my thoughts to myself. 
Why do I think this book should be of interest to anthropologists? Consider the first two paragraphs in Chapter 1, "The Problem of Emergence."
Darwin's question about the origin of species is worth posing and remembering as much in the social sciences as it was in biology. Human organizations, like living organisms, have evolved throughout history, with new organizational forms emerging and transforming in various settings: new types of banks and banking in the history of capitalism; new types of research organizations and research in the history of science; new types of political organizations and nations in the history of state formation. all of these examples are discussed in this book. The histories of economies and polities are littered with new organizational forms that never existed before. In biological language, this emergence of new forms is the puzzle of speciation.
 
We economists, political scientists, and sociologists have many theories about how to choose alternatives, once these swim into our field of vision. But our theories have little to say about the invention of new alternatives in the first place. New ideas, new practices, new organizational forms mus enter from off the stage of our imaginary before our analyses can begin. Darwin asked the fundamental question, but our concepts are like those of Darwin before Mendel and Watson and Crick. We understand selection and equilibrium, but we do not understand the emergence of what we choose or who we are. Our analytical shears are sharp, but the life forces pushing things up to be trimmed elude us.
 
As I began to read the first paragraph, what popped into my head is a whole chorus of familiar anthropological complaints.
 
  1. Cultural evolution is NOT biological evolution.
  2. The mechanisms of cultural transmission and genetic transmission are NOT THE SAME.
  3. What is this, another one of those stupid stories constructed by evolutionary psychologists?

Then, of course, as I started the second paragraph, I noticed the absence of anthropologists from the in-group described as "We economists, political scientists, and sociologists." Why, I wondered, were we excluded?
So, I went back and re-read these two paragraphs, more carefully this time. I began to ponder the last three sentences in the second paragraph.
Darwin asked the fundamental question, but our concepts are like those of Darwin before Mendel and Watson and Crick. We understand selection and equilibrium, but we do not understand the emergence of what we choose or who we are. Our analytical shears are sharp, but the life forces pushing things up to be trimmed elude us.
 
These authors are clearly not promoting a crass "genes explain human behavior" view of human nature or the processes that lead to organizational innovation. They see Darwin as framing a problem in a way that still lacked the contributions of Mendel and Watson and Crick—the science that would make great strides toward solving the original problem but also generate many, many more. They recognize that the sharp-edged tools of their disciplines  are useful but not almighty. 
Where, then, will they look for fresh inspiration? Not it turns out to the familiar genes and memes analogy  of crude evolutionary psychology. Instead, just a preview, they look to the work of biologists whose problem is autocatalysis, the process by which life emerged from prebiotic chemicals. 
Want to learn more? Respond to this post. Keep the conversation going. 

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Replies to This Discussion

Interesting.  The biological analogies can be revealing, although I think even such metaphorical comparisons feed into a notion that market forces are somehow natural.  Yet, as you note John, they certainly end these paragraphs with the right sorts of question.  I'd be interesting in hearing more.

Ted, your wish is my command. Here  are some more of my notes from the introduction. The comments about the relationship of the biochemically inspired models to historical cases, the biology as opposed to the physics view of science, and the mantra—in the short run, actors create relations; in the long run, relations create actors—strike me as very interesting, indeed. All tickle my fancy because they represent an approach to rethinking the "science" in social science that does not fall back into the classic science vs humanities, scientific laws or interpretive meanings dichotomies.

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p. 1

The literature on "organizational innovation" is voluminous, but that literature largely focuses on learning, search, and diffusion, and often uses patents as indicators. The term innovation in organization theory refers to products and ideas, never to the emergence of organizational actors per se.
 
p. 2
 
The three modeling chapters in part 1 extract the foundational concept of autocatalysis from the existing chemical literature on the origins of life and then apply this concept, through agent-based computer models, first to the self-organization of economic production and second to the evolution of primitive language and communication. These simple, biochemically inspired models are in no way rich enough to capture the phenomena or the array of emergence mechanisms observed in historical case studies. But they do provide an analytical framework for specifying with some precision the social science problem of emergence. [emphasis added]
 
Organizational genesis does not mean virgin birth. All new organizational forms, no matter how radically new, are combinations and permutations of what was there before. Transformations are what make them novel. Evolution, therefore, is not teleological progress toward some ahistorical (and often egocentric) ideal. It is a thick and tangled bush of branchings, recombinations, transformations, and sequential path-dependent trajectories, just as Darwin said it was....
Historical path dependency does not imply that there are no transformational principles at the base of endless open-ended generation. Scientific prediction in open-ended creative systems such as life's is not the specification of a fixed-point equilibrium. It is the description of processual mechanisms of genesis and selection in sufficient detail to be capable, in the rich interactive context of the study system, of specifying a limited number of possible histories. This is the biology, not the physics, view of science.
 
A barrier, however, inhibits social science investigation into processes of organizational emergence or speciation. Most social science proceeds according to the logic of methodological individualism..."Actors" are objects imbued with boundaries, purposes and choices whose teleological behavior is explained thereby....The problem is not that the social science concept of actor is not useful. The problem is that the atomic conception of actor precludes investigation into the construction and emergence of real people and organizations that we refer to by that abstraction....
 
In this book, we take the following as our mantra: in the short run, actors create relations; in the long run, relations create actors. The difference between methodological individualism and social constructivism is not for us a matter of religion; it is a matter of time scale.
The time scale idea is intriguing, and I do like the formulation that "in the short run, actors creat relations; in the long run, relations create actors.". And I think there is something to this. I am less comfortable with saying that methodological individualism (with all its baggage) therefore is most appropriate in the short run. What is your take John?

They aren't, on my reading, suggesting that short run explanations are stuck with methodological individualism. On the contrary, the central thrust of their program is to move beyond methodological individualism whose models assume atomic actors with fixed properties. A possible example that comes to my mind is the changing nature of the worker with the development of modern industry, from craftsman to skilled to unskilled labor as workers' relationships to the means of production changed. More on this later. I am currently in the happy state of having work clients pay for in the inbox, so it will likely be a couple of days.

Hi, Ted. Grabbed a moment today to read a bit more of the book. The following is a quote from page five.

>>>
p. 5

To proffer a definition we build on throughout this book: Innovations improve on existing ways (i.e., activities, conceptions, purposes) of doing things, whereas inventions change the way things are done. Under this definition, the key to classifying something as an invention is the degree to which it reverberates out to alter the interacting system of which it is a part. To some extent we understand micrologics of combination and recombination. Yet the invention puzzle is that some innovative recombinations cascade out to reconfigure entire interlinked ecologies of "ways of doing things," whereas most innovations do not. The poisedness of a system to reconfiguration by invention is as much a part of the phenomenon to be explained as is this system's generation of the innovation itself. Invention in the wild cannot be understood through abstracting away from concrete social context because inventions are permutations of that context. But to make progress in understanding discontinuous change, we need to embed our analysis of transformation in the routine dynamics of actively self-reproducing social contexts, where constitutive elements and relations are generated and reinforced.

[innovation/invention=improved stability/discontinuous transformation=limited enhancements/transformative reverberation throughout the system]

[I am reminded of the classic Manchester school distinction between rebellion and revolution, where the former changes the actors but not the system, while the latter changes the system. One is cyclic and restorative, the other discontinuous and transformative.]

br /> The remarks in brackets are my first reflections on the scheme being developed here. I would greatly appreciate any ethnographic or historical examples that illustrate and/or threaten these distinctions and any references to anthropological or other theory that expresses similar ideas in different terms.

N

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