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Review of Relational Inequalities: An Organizational Approach, with audio

cover of Relational Inequalities

I had the privilege of sitting on an author-meets-critics panel for the the book Relational Inequalities: An Organizational Approach, by Donald Tomaskovic-Devey and Dustin Avent-Holt, at the Eastern Sociological Society meetings this weekend. The panel was organized by Steven Vallas, and included Adia Harvey Wingfield. Because two other panelists canceled, I had a lot of time and ended up speaking for 25 minutes. We had a great discussion after the formal remarks, which only deepened my appreciation for the book. I recorded my remarks. Here is audio, with 4 minutes of ums and dead ends edited out:

 

And here is a lightly edited transcript:

I want to thank Steve, as well as Don and Dustin, for organizing and writing, respectively. It’s really been a pleasure. In the same way that once upon a time I used to run faster when I played competitive sports, because someone was yelling at me to run faster, reading a book knowing that I’m going to offer commentary on it to an audience of people whose opinions I respect makes me try harder and pay more attention, and focus more on it. So it’s a privilege to have this be one part of my job. I don’t normally read books all the way through and think about them carefully and sketch out my thoughts, so I really learned a lot doing that.

In the process, you know, it’s 10 months ago whenever we got this invitation, and then finally the book comes, and then I skim through it, then I put it down, and then you know it comes down to the last couple of days in my room reading the book carefully, and it’s been great. And fresh. Very fresh, right through breakfast.

I want to start by talking about my own work. Just kidding.

I have an outline. I start with praise. And then questions about what’s the relationship between organizations and inequality, as far as creating, reflecting, reproducing inequality; discussion of the role of education, as one of the things that it is external to organizations; and then a discussion of inequality within and between organizations, and where this fits in with the path of social change.

Praise

It’s a really really good book. And I look forward to putting it on our comprehensive exam reading list for the inequality reading group, I think it teaches this stuff really well – the literature on organizations and inequality. A great audience for it is people who are designing research projects having to do with inequality, and what is the role of organizations going to be in the work.

One of the things that’s really important, and you have to get to it right away, is the disconnect between the method of most research which is individual observation, and mostly surveys, and the theorized mechanisms about how inequality works, which are largely relational. And so we look at individuals and we say, oh look people with more education have more income, or we say we have racial inequality and we have immigration, and we have all these measures which are usually at the individual level, and then the mechanisms which we think are producing these are schools and segregation and discrimination, and things that are all interactional, or relational, between people within and around organizations. And so that’s just a sociological take that is very important here.

I love the mezo/contextual way of thinking in the analysis, between the individual and the country or the state or something like that, and at the organizational level that complexity and variation – how there is so much difference in the patterns of inequality within organizations. Yes, men make more money than women, but how that works is very different across different organizations and places and times, and the dispersion is different, and the patterns of dispersion change, and all that variation gives us leverage to understand how inequality works, but also where policy and law can intervene. Because if you have a range of practices, and you can see the consequences of the range of practices, that’s where you get something like the idea for a policy – we should do more of this and less of this, and so on. So that variation is key, and having it at the organizational level is important.

They set out a really useful research agenda. They talk a lot about workplace ethnographies and surveys, and various ways that organizational dynamics of inequality have been studied, and the research agenda that emerges has to do with comparative organizational studies, with attention to the role of external influences on organizations. So the gold standard is sort of multi-organizational research where the context is carefully considered between the different organizations and the workings of the relations within the organizations, and hopefully between them.

The relational framework they have here is sort of Charles Tilly’s Durable Inequality plus Cecilia Ridgeway – that’s my background reading on this, which is kind of thin, admittedly. And so it’s categories and the durableness of them within institutions and organizations, and putting people into cognitive categories and how that represents the integration of social structure into personality and interaction and so on. So that’s sort of the frame, which I think is really useful.

And then the moral framework they have is very clear, at the end; and the policies they give us to talk about, both “what about worker cooperatives,” and, “what about a universal basic income” – sort of state level and organizational level policies that address the variety of problems and inequalities that we have.

Organizations and inequality

A key question, and a motivating question for them, is what is the role of organizations in the wider system of inequality – that is, are they creating inequality, are they reflecting inequality that comes to them from the outside of the organization, what’s their role in the reproduction of inequality. And so you have the organization – it’s a workplace, which is mostly what they talk about – and there are things coming at it from the outside: cognitive categories and hierarchies, status between groups, privilege groups, esteem groups, minority groups that are less privileged and so on. And then there’s a law and regulatory policy environment that they’re working within, there are market conditions that they’re working within, and then there are the workers that are coming to them with their range of unequal skills and education, their health, their social capital, their histories of incarceration – everything that workers bring to the organization. So you could ignore organizations and say, look we have all this inequality out there, outside the organization, and the organization is basically just sort of applying formulas to this: “Well, men are privileged over women, so we pay them a little bit more, we discriminate against people with criminal records, if you don’t have the skills to do the job you’re out, if you’re health is not good, if you have children, if you can’t show up…” You could think of organizations as just sort of administering the system of inequality, the structures of inequality that they’re in, or you can think of them as implementing or enacting the inequality. So until the organization gets its hands on it, all that inequality is sort of not really operationalized, it’s not really functioning – the status inequality between men and women doesn’t really happen until somebody decides to pay the man more than the woman. That’s sort of their view, not necessarily – [Don: “I agree”] – not necessarily true, but that’s the question, are organizations doing that, or they just sort of receiving that.

And the authors point out – I’ll give you a little taste of this (p. 14): “Most inequalities are generated through the relationships in and around workplaces.” That’s a very strong statement, although “most” is a little bit vague, it’s 51% to 99%. That clearly gives you a strong reason to focus on workplaces, and it’s somewhat debatable.

And they point out in a footnote (p. 58): “Obviously, power can be exercised as violence in addition to discursive claims-making [so it’s not just people debating over rewards within organizations]. Strong-armed robbery and colonial conquest are examples of violent exploitation, genocide, ethnic cleansing, political suppression via arrest of social movements’ claims of dignity and access are the violent faces of closure.” Well, none of that stuff is happening within workplaces. So if you think colonial conquest, genocide, ethnic cleansing, and political suppression are important parts of inequality, and we know that those aren’t happening within workplaces, you know the field is generating a lot of inequality outside workplaces. You have to weigh that up against their, “most of inequality comes from within workplaces,” And to their credit, it’s an empirical question, which they note. It’s hard to quantify and it’s kind of pointless to quantify but the question is where should our focus be?

By the time they’re to their conclusion, they write, “We are not arguing that only organizations matter for inequality,” ok, they are definitely not arguing that – but if you have to say that, it’s obviously relevant, so that’s a question. It really is an organizations manifesto, the book, the importance of organizations, and it makes the case very strongly. It’s extremely useful and valuable and informative. And the fact that they make the claims really strongly helps motivate it and make it clear. And whether I want to argue about whether it’s 51% or 80% of inequality that comes from workplaces, for most uses of it that’s not the point.

Related to the question of what organizations do – whether they’re creating or reflecting – is inequality, unequal what? What are we talking about? Most obviously money, some people have more money than others. But especially when you’re talking about intersectional questions, are race and class and gender just three different ways of deciding who’s going to have how much money? No, it’s much more than money, it’s cultural in terms of who’s valued and esteemed, and who gets to set the discourse, and it’s status in terms of whose opinions get respected, and voice within organizations, and it’s also geographic with segregation, and so on. And so they talk a lot about “organizational resources” being what’s at issue. Whenever I teach inequality I push sociology grad students to get beyond thinking of all these status inequalities as being different ways of deciding how much money we get. And especially, what is the content of the inequality. Unequal amounts of what are we actually talking about? And that’s why I think the feminist discourse over sexuality is so important. Because control over sexuality is sort of orthogonal to the amount of money that you have – it’s obviously related, but it’s a different quality. So that stuff is really important and there’s a lot of food for thought on that here.

I mentioned genocide and ethnic cleansing, and there are other things which are happening outside organizations that are relevant. Things that happen outside workplaces, that may be in other organizations: welfare, taxation, the education system, residential segregation, incarceration – these are all things that are packaging inequality that arrive at the doorstep of the workplace. So I’ll give two possible policy ideas that are totally outside workplaces: if we had a 90% marginal tax rate on upper incomes, you might say, “who cares about inequality within organizations?” You get rich, and the government takes your money and gives it to poorer people. And so that lowers the stakes. And partly they focus on organizations because in the United States we don’t do that. And so that question of how much empirically are organizations creating of the system of inequality, is partly that number is higher because we don’t have that kind of society. So it’s not a statement about how inequality will always forever work, it’s really driven by the reality that we have now. And the other policy challenge to thinking organizationally is reparations. If the government stepped in and had a big reparations program and orientation, that is totally outside of individual workplaces, what would that do? So those are just things to think about.

Education

Their attitude toward education is interesting. And it’s – what do you call that when it’s not traditional, it’s not “heretic,” it’s very challenging. [The word I was looking for is “heterodox.”] They basically treat education as a proxy for claims-making resources. So the amount of education people have, when they get to the workplace, allows them to essentially bargain for or demand more or less money. Which, if you’ve ever had surgery, from a doctor, you want your surgeon to have gone to medical school. [Don: “You want your surgeon to be a good surgeon.”] Right, exactly. In our system, the proxy for that is that they’ve gone to medical school, and the board certifying and all that. So their issue is how much doctors are paid, not who gets to be a doctor. They’re not talking about inequality in the education system, all the things that create the unequal distribution of medical education.

Consider this also: there are limits to the organizational variation in this. There are no organizations in the United States that let people perform surgery without medical degrees. So that’s something very strong coming from the external reality that workplaces have to deal with. They can only hire people with medical degrees to do surgery, and surgery is very valued, it commands a lot of money in the market. So if they’re going to say “wages and jobs are organizational phenomena,” which they say, and education is this way of making claims on those things, then it’s interesting to push them on this issue of who gets to have the education. They say, sort of grudgingly in my opinion, yes, sometimes educational credentialing has to do with the skills required to do the job, but basically it’s about how much money you can extract from your employer. That’s why I focus on surgery, because lots of other education is just a cruder proxy for particular skills and whatnot.

They review literature on how factories work in Mexico and the U.S., including within the same multinational company, and the gender difference between maquiladoras. But if you think globally, the difference between a doctor in the U.S. and a factory worker in Mexico, and the vast inequality in resources they command, is not determined by the practices of their organizations, right? And an interesting thing about doctors in particular, is we pay a fortune in this country because the government (because of doctors) doesn’t let foreign doctors come practice here. Our doctors get paid ridiculously high amounts (Dean Baker, the economist, has written very compellingly about this). If we allowed foreign doctors to come here, foreign doctors would make a lot more money than they’re making, our doctors would make less money, and we would all pay less for equally good healthcare. So that’s a state policy, and not something that the hospitals can address.

While we’re thinking about the external factors, and I’m pushing them on this, they do a little review of Devah Pager’s work, “the mark of a criminal record” – employers don’t hire people with criminal records – so is that a problem of employer practices or is that a problem of mass incarceration and the distribution of criminal records? It’s both, but you couldn’t understand it by only studying the practices of employers, because that’s not a fixed quantity of a randomly distributed stigma.

So when you get to the intersectional stuff – consider race, class, and gender in our system of inequality. They point out gender and race integration in education “led to a weakening of gender and race based closure” (and that shows up in Don and Kevin’s previous book, and that’s reviewed here). So there’s less job segregation by race and gender than there used to be, and less exclusion, “while leaving unchallenged, or perhaps even strengthening, education based closure.” Well, by one way of thinking, of course, if race and gender are becoming less determinative of workplace outcomes, and education is becoming more determinative, that’s literally the goal of rational modern society, is to stop with the ascriptive criteria, and start using rational educational criteria, for skills and productivity. So they’re all up in arms about this, but it’s interesting to say, well, wait a second isn’t that kind of the point, like meritocracy. “There is an intersectional reality weakening closure on the basis of race and gender even as closure rules around education remain hegemonic.” So it would be worth it to explain, and I guess they do explain, why they think this is not the definition of progress. I’m being provocative. It’s not like education is fairly distributed, so it’s still all about ascriptive inequalities through the education system.

Between and within organizations

So what about inequality between and within organizations. And here it’s interesting because the world has changed while they were writing this book. In making their case for why organizations are so important, they write, “We are born and die in organizations.” OK, I like that, they obviously think it’s very important. “We spend a great deal of our lives working alongside others in organizations” – and then listen to this list of sort of other things: “We go to one organization to be educated (schools), to another to get income (workplaces), which we then spend in another (stores), in order to bring food and clothing to a fourth (households).” So they’re telling your other organizational fields. What’s interesting is that in schools, stores, and households, there’s more inequality between than within organizations. And so they’re very focused on workplaces, where probably you find more inequality within the organizations. They’re interested in those dynamics: What causes inequality within organizations, why do CEOs make so much, why is there gender segregation in the division of labor, and so on. Interestingly, and the trend over time is probably toward more inequality between. And if you think about families, in the old days, if you had an employed man and three children and a woman who had no income, then you have a tremendous amount of inequality within that organization, within that family. Nowadays if you have two children and the parents both have jobs, you have fewer people with no income and more people with income, and so there’s less within-household inequality, and that’s a trend over time.

In their second-to-last chapter they have a very good discussion about how this is also happening with firms and workplaces in the U.S. So if General Motors outsources their custodial service (I’m just making this up), some big company outsources lower status, or higher status, work, there’s a firm that is less hierarchical somewhere, that’s just all custodians. And there’s a firm that’s just all engineers. And General Motors is like bundling those services. So the inequality is increasingly between organizations there, rather than within. So instead of hierarchy within Amazon being from Bezos to the drivers, the drivers are all contracted, and so on. And Uber, and self-employment, and the gig economy, and all that stuff is sort of like if every Uber driver is an organization the way Uber thinks they are, then the inequality is all between organizations.

And so that’s the direction of social change, and it’s a challenge for their theory. If their theory is focused on inequality within firms, and organizations, then what’s happening in world, and how does their theory address this? And they say, “even if there were no internal inequalities within firms, there still might be considerable inequality between firms, as a function of firm resource inequality.” So they’re sort of already projecting to a world where every company had no inequality within it. We’re not there at all, but their answer to that is maybe more aspirational than empirical, and I think it’s debatable, and it’s worth debating, it’s: “The processes governing inequality between organizations is fundamentally the same as that governing inequality within organizations: relational claims-making, exploitation, and social closure.” OK, that’s a very strong statement. It says we’ve sketched out this whole theory about how inequality works within organizations, we see that the world is moving toward inequality between organizations, and we’re going to apply the concepts that we’ve developed to this new reality also. And that is a challenge for future work in this area. And so I’m not expecting them to have established this empirically before they do it, but that’s their case.

That’s one of the many examples of the great research agenda that comes out of this really interesting and important work. And with that I close. Thank you.

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