Findings & Trends

Before Inequality Was In Vogue

Before Inequality Was In Vogue

Interview with Donald Tomaskovic-Devey, University of Massachusetts, Amherst
By Frederick Wherry, Princeton

Fred: I remember you telling me a story about how inequality got left off of the agenda as the Economic Sociology Section was being launched. What happened?

Don: The year when the section organizing meeting happened at the ASA, I was invited to attend, as was Paula England. I figured we represented inequality oriented scholars who were critically engaging economists (or at least their ideas). The early post-Granovetter 1995 embeddeness economic sociology, was very much about launching a sociological critique of 1970s neoclassical economic models.

I remember that I walked into a room largely full of white men (like me). Paula England and I sat together, wondering what was to come. While there was lots of intellectual excitement about how economic sociologists were empirically approaching the role of institutions and how we were diving into the ways that markets are embedded in society, after over an hour of excited discussion there had been no mention of inequality, nothing on gender or race or even class. I was thinking that maybe this section was not quite right for me? Over the long term I am glad I stayed around and the study of economic inequality in the economic sociology section is now taking off.

Eventually one comparative advantage of economic sociology relative to existing inequality studies was that economic sociologists were able to think about firm level processes and get their hands on firm level data. But from the start, I felt that economic sociology opened intellectual space for relational questions about inequality. It took a while for the space to be filled, leading to a sense in the rest of sociology for a long time that econsoc was the preserve of white men who did not care much about inequality. The inequality intellectual space is now filling rapidly and perhaps the perceptions are (or will be) shifting too?

Fred: What helped you keep faith with economic sociology as a section and as a field?

Don: Economic sociology was useful for me because it gave me a set of tools to examine economic exchange. I was already using data on jobs and organizations and talking about the relationships among actors and structures within organizations, relationships that made some organizations more desirable places to work than others. You see, the conventional stratification work at the time had no actors and no organizations, operating almost exclusively at a micro-level. Although routinely invoked, markets were never observed. So economic sociology proved invaluable in helping me think about relational and organizational processes that led to unequal outcomes and helping me to develop strategies to identify these processes empirically.

Importantly, economic sociologists were saying that markets are not about some invisible hand but rather about relationships and institutions. Economic exchange was not automatic, but rather an instituted process. So in a sense, while economic sociology started out as the intellectual antagonist of the 1970s version of the economics profession, for me it played a similar role relative to status attainment and human capital inequality models. 

Fred: How do you think economic sociology is changing in its attention to inequality?

Don:  Some of the change has occurred between cohorts. The students of those first generation sociologists, even if they were in business schools, turned out to be dyed in the wool sociologists, infected with a concern for distributions and status inequalities. The density of sociologists in business schools also meant that they were able to get access to real data on what’s going on in firms, with people like Roberto Fernandez and Emilio Castilla following distributional outcomes in real workplaces. Now, more and more, the new cohorts of faculty and new PhD students are not only asking about where markets come from and how they work, but specifically they are asking about the distributional consequences for different groups.

Fred: Read any good books lately?

Don: Yes, of course. One of the more recent books that I really appreciate is Olivier Godechot’s Wages, Bonuses, and Appropriation of Profit in the Financial Industry: The Working Rich.  Olivier runs Max Po, an economic sociology research and training program at Sciences Po in Paris. His new book uses the tools of economic sociology to identify the relational structures shaping distributional outcomes in the finance industry. It helps us see how economic sociologists can identify how various markets are relational structures and how these structures have distributional consequences.  I am also a big fan of Katherine Kellogg’s Challenging Operations, which compares the micro-level struggles over masculinity and surgical status hierarchies in three teaching hospitals. This one shows the dynamic, organizationally contingent response of actors to institutional reform pressures

Fred: You’ve been hard at work on questions of inequality. What does the economic sociology of inequality look like from where you’re situated?

Don: Lately I’ve been working closely with Dustin Avent-Holt. We’ve been asking what an economic sociology of inequality would look like? How do we make sense of how some actors can make claims on resources or can exclude others from making claims? What are the mechanisms of closure from exchange? Of exploitation in exchange? How can we better analyze the baseline issue of organizational resource variation across firms?

This week, I am particularly interested in the last question. It is not just economic sociologists, but nearly everyone including economists, seem to ignore (by not measuring) whether they are studying a rich firm or a poor firm. Economic sociologists doing firm level case studies typically ignore this issue as well. I think that we need to spend more time thinking about the resources embedded within firms and where they come from. This is a fundamental constraint on inequality in distributions produced by organizational resources. Labor economists typically recognize this constraint, but rarely move beyond resource constraint assumptions to observations of variation. We can see some of this in the economic sociology of financialization, where the massive flow of income into the finance sector has been observed.

Avent-Holt and I have a bunch of articles out there and a new book, Relational Inequalities: An Organizational Approach, coming out this year from Oxford, exploring these processes. The book owes a great deal to Chuck Tilly’s Durable Inequality, but expands the conceptual range, ties the ideas squarely to discussions in economic sociology, and provides observational strategies his important book lacked. Relational approaches to inequality are where we’re headed, I think -- or at least hope.

Fred: What do you see as promising developments in the field? 

Don: The use of administrative data could be transformative. The big data revolution and those close to computer science scraping the web scholars are exciting, but let’s not forget that all the bureaucracies in the world have these giant archives of data on complete populations and economic exchange. Cost of storage went down around 1990, and so government statistical agencies are creating population data linked across all sorts of domains. We are just beginning to see these data be used by social sciences. I am particularly excited by linked employer-employee data. 

We run some risk of conventional economic models dominating these administrative data. Economists are better on stats and on data management that sociologists, and as the neoclassical orthodoxy collapses, many economists are becoming empirical specialists. But economists are never going to theorize inequality in the way relational or institutionally oriented sociologists would. It is important that economic sociologists utilize these administrative data to study organizational inequalities as well as markets as network processes. Right now I have a project with a bunch of social scientists working together to invent how to use these data to answer our kinds of questions. We call this the COIN (Comparative Organizational Inequality Network) project. You can see what we are up to in Economic Sociology: The European Electronic Newsletter.

I also hope that there will be more productive crossover of qualitative studies of workplaces and network studies. We need more engagement between those scholars doing qualitative and quantitative comparisons of inequality in organizations. Our new book, Relational Inequality, does this explicitly. Research by people like Kate Kellogg, with her comparison of dynamic relationship conflicts in teaching hospitals, are in a good position to develop theory that can operate across methods. There is also an innovative paper by Steve MacDonald and Richard Benton, both economic sociologists, on career mobility within 11 workplaces. They first invented a way of thinking about mobility as a network structure. And then showed that among these 11 organizations, all part of the same firm, that status hierarchies were exaggerated in higher income inequality workplaces. 

Fred: What are we missing in the economic sociology of inequality?

Don: The flow of people and money across organizations is OBSERVABLE. Labor and product markets should not be treated as invisible hands. Similarly we, often end analyses of class or income inequality trends by lamely concluding that things are getting worse. What we don’t do is ask what organizational dynamics produce those trends. How can we observe the organizationally embedded flows of people, jobs or money to better understand how disturbing distributions occur?

Fred: And how should we think about race and inequality?

Don: I had this NPR interview yesterday about discrimination in the oil and gas industries. The journalist had noticed that almost no African-Americans are employed in firms in those industries. And these are really high paying job for working class people. My empirical contribution to the interview was modest, not only are African Americans not there, but they are also available in the labor markets where this work is done. One of the things I never liked in the human capital or status attainment literatures was the focus on the left-over race effect that we can’t explain (residual), that was then labeled discrimination, Since there were no employers or firms in the model, we were simply proving that bias existed somewhere in society. Thinking about race as left-over inequality simply won’t do as a research strategy. We need to ask which employers do better or worse by African Americans (or women or the aged or disabled or the skilled). In any case, the idea I stressed in the NPR interview was that we need to ask what is management’s responsibility for producing these segregated high wage workplaces? Why do oil and gas firms look worse than other firms? We need to look at both sides of the employment relationship, especially the more powerful side – employers.

I have a project working on these more applied inequality problems (which made it possible to create estimates on labor supply for oil and gas firms). Two colleagues from economics –Lee Badgett and Fidan Kurtulus -and I got a grant from National Science Foundation to create EEODatanet, an interdisciplinary network of scholars working with firm level data from Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and to link those scholars back to the EEOC’s enforcement project. Now once a year we have a conference at the EEOC with social scientists studying these processes getting together with EEOC researchers as well as the EEOC’s lead and systemic investigators. Economic sociologists Frank Dobbin, Alexander Kalev, Elizabeth Hirsh, and John-Paul Ferguson are often at the sessions. These are scholars taking a relational, organizational approach to inequality and getting their hands dirty in the real world where there are substantial consequences. Clearly, our colleagues in economics have a path dependent comparative advantage in the public policy field. Perhaps a more mature economic sociology is ready to inhabit new more public, policy relevant territories?


Tomaskovic-Devey is Professor of Sociology and the Director of the newly founded Center for Employment Equity, both at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

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