Conceptualizing Organization Fields

Our discussion begins with the general concept of field and then moves to its application to organizations, considering both its contribu- tions to conceptualizing the environment within which a particular organization operates as well as its value as a new object of study.

1. Fields and Organization Fields

Field Conceptions

The concept of a “field approach” to explaining the behavior of an object has a long history in both the physical and social sciences. As detailed by Martin (2011), its origins lay in work during 19th century on electromagnetism and fluid mechanics in the physical sciences and, somewhat later, by German gestalt theory in psychology. What was common to these and related approaches is that the behavior of the objects under study is explained not by their internal attributes but by their location in some physically or socially defined space. The objects, or actors, are subject to varying vectors of force (influences) depending on their location in the field and their relation with other actors as well as the larger structure within which these relations are embedded.

This perspective came by various routes into the social sciences. Urban ecologists in the “Chicago school” led by Park and Burgess (1921) borrowed from the work of biological ecologists to examine “niche space” not only in geographic but in relational terms (McKenzie 1926/1983). Building on gestalt theory from the late 19th century, social psychologist Kurt Lewin (1951: 57) developed his version of field the- ory in social psychology as a tool to assess an individual’s “life space”—encompassing “the person and the psychological environ- ment as it exists for him.” Important features of Lewin’s approach were his insistence on the mutual interdependence of the many elements and forces surrounding the individual and on the centrality of the indi- vidual’s perceptive and interpretive processes: life space conceived as a cognitive map of one’s social environment (see Mohr, forthcoming).

Another important approach to fields came from sociologically oriented social psychologists in the work of Shibutani (1955), Strauss and colleagues (Strauss 1978; Strauss, Schatzman, Bucher, Erlich, and Sabshin 1964), and Becker (1974; 1982). These symbolic interactionists developed the concept of social worlds to refer to groups of actors with “shared commitments to certain activities, sharing resources of many kinds to achieve their goals, and building shared ideologies about how to go about their business” (Clark 1991: 131). These worlds are actor- defined and permit the “identification and analysis of collective activi- ties viewed as meaningful by the actors themselves” (Clark 1991: 135). Studies along these lines in social psychology and Chicago approaches to the sociology of work have developed until recently on a parallel tract to organization fields, but there are increasing signs of convergence (e.g., Clark 1991).

Particularly influential has been the work of sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (1971; 1984), who employed the concept of field to refer “to both the totality of actors and organizations involved in an arena of social or cultural production and the dynamic relationships among them” (DiMaggio, 1979: 1463). Bourdieu insists that “to think in terms of field is to think relationally” (Bourdieu and Wacquant, 1992: 96; italics in original), and he employs the analogy of a game, with rules, players, stakes, competition, and contestation, to depict its central features. Fields, for Bourdieu, are not placid and settled social spaces, but arenas of conflict in which all players seek to advance their inter- ests and some are able, for longer or shorter periods, to impose their conception of “the rules of the game” on others. Bourdieu’s treatment of field provided the blueprint for DiMaggio and Powell’s (1983) founding conception, as well as for the later approach of Fligstein and McAdam (2011; 2012).

Organization Field Conceptions

It was heavy lifting to move organizational scholars to attend to systems above that represented by the individual organizations. After all, it had been difficult enough to convince students of organizations that the organization itself could be studied in ways other than show- ing it had effects on individual behavior.1 Very soon after the organiza- tion itself had been established as a viable level of analysis, the open systems perspective swept into the arena during the mid-1950s (Scott and Davis 2007: Ch. 4). The environment of an organization took on new importance, and scholars struggled with ways to conceptualize and capture it as a new object of study.

Early investigators (e.g., Dill 1958; Emery and Trist 1965; Lawrence and Lorsch 1967) came to conceive of the environment as a disembod- ied set of dimensions—such as complexity, stability, munificence— whose states could impact the organization. There was little sense that the organization’s environment was itself organized. And there was little awareness that organizations operating within the same environment might inhabit quite distinctive locations providing diverse threats and opportunities. Ecologists suggested that community structures could usefully be examined as a network of interorganizational relations (e.g., Galaskiewicz 1979; Warren 1967), but these studies emphasized geographic boundaries. Useful next steps were the identification of the organization set (Blau and Scott 1962/2003; Evan 1966)—the organiza- tion’s primary exchange partners—and the organization population (Hannan and Freeman 1977)—a collection of similar organizations that compete for the same resources.

As described in Chapter 4, the concept of organization field was crafted by DiMaggio and Powell (1983) to refer to “those organizations that, in the aggregate, constitute a recognized area of institutional life: key suppliers, resource and product consumers, regulatory agencies, and other organizations that produce similar services and products” (p. 148). It thus incorporates both the organization set and organization population frameworks, while adding oversight units. Although based on Bourdieu’s work of fields, DiMaggio and Powell gave primary attention to social relational and network components. In their related work, Scott and Meyer (1983) stressed regulative and funding connec- tions, calling attention to the ways in which field complexity affected organizational structure. These frameworks insisted that the fields sur- rounding organizations were themselves organized in diverse ways that influenced the structure and functioning of organizations embed- ded within them.

These early formulations, however, overstressed relational sys- tems to the neglect of cultural connections. Building on Bourdieu’s work, cultural theorists such as Wuthnow began to remedy this defi- ciency by pointing to the importance of meaning systems. Rather than pursuing Bourdieu’s focus on subjective states, as in his concept of habitus (internalized dispositions), Wuthnow (1987) stressed the utility of focusing investigation on objective indicators of culture (e.g., the analysis of texts, discourse, gestures, and cultural products). He noted that approaches may vary from the “structuralist,” that examines general patterns in texts that can be seen, recorded and clas- sified; to the “dramaturgic,” focusing on rituals, ideologies, and other acts that symbolize and dramatize the nature of social relations; to the “institutional” that calls attention to the roles played by organizations and occupations in producing and disseminating goods and services (e.g., Becker 1982; DiMaggio 1991). Wuthnow (1989) employs the term “discursive field” to characterize the “fundamental categories in which thinking can take place” developed over time by an interacting group of individuals and organizations. As Spillman (1995) argues, “discursive fields mediate between structure and meaningful action.”

Or as Snow (2008: 8) points out: “They provide the context within which meaning-making activities, like framing, are embedded.” An alternative approach to conceptualizing the symbolic aspects of field structures is, of course, that of institutional logics, as discussed in Chapter 4 (see Friedland and Alford 1991; Thornton, Ocasio, and Lounsbury 2012).

Thus, the concept of organization field represents a major step for- ward in enabling organization scholars to craft a coherent image of the relevant environment for a given organization. By focusing on the examination of specific relational linkages and patterns of activities employing network and other methodologies and by attending to the role of meaning systems as assessed by textual and discourse analysis, the environment can be much more clearly conceptualized and empir- ically assessed than was previously possible. As Ferguson (1998: 598) indicates, the concept of field allows investigators to “focus on tangible products and identifiable pursuits.” Field creation is an admixture of top-down and bottom-up processes. Ferguson also suggests, “a field constructs a social universe in which all participants are at once pro- ducers and consumers, caught in a complex web of social, political and cultural relations that they themselves have woven and continue to weave” (p. 598). In a pithy aphorism summarizing their work on a variety of organization fields, Padgett and Powell (2012: 2) conclude: “In the short run, actors create relations; in the long run, relations cre- ate actors.” I would add: In the short run, actors create and modify meanings; in the long run, meanings create actors, both organizational and individual identities.

While the concept of organization field has proven to be invaluable in helping analysts understand the nature of the environment for a given organization, it is also, as I have noted in previous chapters, in itself a valuable new level of analysis for investigating social systems and processes. Some of the most important organizational scholarship of the past four decades has examined the origin, structuration, and change and/or decline of organization fields. Some of these studies have already been discussed in earlier chapters and additional work is reviewed later in this chapter (see also Fligstein and McAdam 2012; Thornton et al. 2012; Wooten and Hoffman 2008).

As Martin (2011) insists, the existence of a field is a matter to be empirically determined:

Whether a set of persons [or organizations] or their actions actu- ally forms a field must be an empirical question and cannot be true by definition or methodology. A field theoretic analysis requires that the positions of persons [or organizations] in a field must be based on their orientations to each other, either directly through their interpersonal relations or in a mediated manner via shared goals. (pp. 269–270)

At the same time, the boundaries of the field are set in part by heu- ristic processes: allowing investigators to pursue those matters of prime interest to them and/or their subjects.

The concept of organization field celebrates and exploits the insight that “local social orders” constitute the building blocks of con- temporary social systems. It urges the benefits of the “meso level of theorizing,” which recognizes the centrality of these somewhat circum- scribed and specialized realms in the construction and maintenance of social order (Fligstein 2001b: 107). The field concept is productively employed in examining delimited systems ranging from markets to policy domains to the less structured and more contested arenas within which social movements struggle. Thus, as Hoffman (1997) has argued, fields can be created around an issue as well as a set of products or services. The field of environmental protection joins together partici- pants from selected industries, governmental agencies, and environmen- tal activists as, over time, each of these groups attempts to influence and reacts to the control efforts of the others. It is this conception of organization field—as a contested arena within which multiple types of players pursue their interests and defend their turf—that has been adopted and developed by Fligstein and McAdam (2012) as they develop the links between organization studies and social movements (see also Davis, McAdam, Scott, and Zald 2005).

The field concept also fulfills a vital role in connecting organiza- tion studies to wider, macro structures—sectoral, societal, and transna- tional. Organizations are themselves major actors in modern society, but to understand their broader significance, it is necessary to see their role as players in larger networks and systems. As I have argued, most organizations engage with not one, but multiple fields and are subject to multiple institutional logics. Pizarro (2012) suggests that organiza- tions operate within a “sectoral field”—one containing their primary competitors and exchange partners and defined by a shared logic— but also within a “contested field” comprising other types of players in diverse fields motivated by different logics, who attempt to influence the behavior of the focal organization. Organization fields not only reflect many of these conflicts, both in relational patterns and logics, but help to mediate and broker among them as an important compo- nent of social change processes. As DiMaggio (1986: 337) asserts, “the organization field has emerged as a critical unit bridging the organi- zational and the societal levels in the study of social and community change.”

Source: Scott Richard (2013), Institutions and Organizations: Ideas, Interests, and Identities, SAGE Publications, Inc; Fourth edition.

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