A Theory of Fields

Fligstein, Neil and McAdam, Doug
9780199859948 (hb)

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Cover of book This book is a bold attempt to generate an integrated theory of social change and social order in circumscribed social arenas. Fligstein and McAdam see many issues in contemporary sociological theories. What are these? At a broader level, they do not approve of what one could call the sociological theories of helplessness:

A recurring theme in sociology is the existence of powerful social institutions or structures that are extremely resistant to change... Capitalists always win, states always beat nonstates, and social movements are generally doomed to failure. Our perspective is that this perspective is best partial, at worst, highly misleading (p.31)
At a more meso-level where Fligstein and McAdam lay out their theory, they acknowledge the theoretical and empirical advances made by different specializations such as social movements, organizational theory, economic sociology and institutional analysis (p. 4). Nevertheless, there is fragmentation and too much empirical focus in such specialised studies of the 'socially constructed arenas in which embedded actors compete for material and social status' (page 5). The book therefore argues that the common conceptual elements in these specializations, namely collective action, social space, culture, organization, the state and mobilization have not materialized into an integrated theory of social action, order and change.

Fligstein and McAdam engage with these specializations to substantiate their arguments. It is with these engagements in the introductory chapter titled The Gist of It, their theory of fields takes substance. To begin with, theirs is a theory of fields, elucidating the relationships within a field and across fields, which Fligstein and McAdam argue makes their theory a more comprehensive one than Bourdieu's theory of field. The other difference is Fligstein and McAdam's theorization and focus on collective strategic action in fields (pp. 24-5). The authors qualify a field with 'strategic action' and describe it as a meso-level social order in which individual and collective actors with differing resource endowments compete for material and social status on the basis of their shared but not necessarily consensual understanding about the essence, purpose and reproduction process of this order. Just to give the reader a flavour of how the book goes beyond the specializations Fligstein and McAdam draw on in their theory, they make a distinction between their notion of shared understandings and the concept of institutional logics in organisation theory. They argue that the latter implies a consensual frame that holds for all actors 'who are mutually attuned...resulting in a "taken for granted" everyday reality' (p.10). Instead, Fligstein and McAdam posit the co-existence of different interpretive frames that emerge in a Bourdieusian fashion and process everyday reality accordingly. From an order and change perspective, such as this culturalist-cum-structralist view, a field is contentious and inhabited by actors who are 'constantly making adjustments [jockeying] to the conditions in the field given their positions and the action of others.' (p. 12)

While some of the theoretical highlights of the strategic action fields are as above, there is a substantive list of constituting elements of the theory: (1) incumbents, challengers, and governance units; (2) social skills and the existential functions of the social; (3) the broad field environment; (4) exogenous shocks, mobilization, and the onset of contention; (5) episodes of contention; and (6) settlement. Fligstein and McAdam discuss each of these key elements in detail and demonstrate what is new in their theorization of intra-field and inter-field relations. While most of these elements seem self-explanatory, what I particularly find novel among them is 'social skills and the existential functions of the social'. The second chapter Microfoundations is devoted to this element. This chapter sketches a historical and theoretical answer to the essence of human sociability: collective meaning making via our unique language capacity that provides us with an existential refuge given the essentially unguided human nature. Fligstein and McAdam then employ this answer to account for norms, socialization, collective identity, social scripts, and routines- the building blocks of "oversocialized man" (pp. 55-6).

From order and change perspective, social skill refers to the ability to fashion and preserve shared worlds and identities to mobilize collective action. In unsettled times in a strategic action field, as explained in detail in Chapter 3 & 4, trigged by exogenous shocks and exacerbated by the interdependence of fields, social skill becomes the key to mobilize people. In settled times, social skill underpins the preservation and reproduction of status quo. As explained in detail in Chapter 2, the introduction of the existential function of the social and social skills takes Fligstein and McAdam's theory beyond purely structural, rational choice, or cultural perspectives, and gives it leverage to account for purposive action for material and existential stakes.

Chapter 5 provides two illustrations of the theory, one on the civil rights movement and one on the transformation of the mortgage industry in the USA. These compact theory-driven narratives demonstrate how these seemingly different social arenas are shaped by the very same key elements identified in the theory of fields. The book has two more very useful chapters. Chapter 6 engages with epistemological and methodological issues that stem from the aforementioned fragmentation and provides research design advice to readers. The book concludes with a recap of the theory and how to move forward with a general theory of fields: conversation and cooperation among 'scholars studying all sorts of phenomena from a field perspective' (p. 221).

As stated in the Introduction, this book is a bold attempt at generating an integrated theory of order and change at meso-level. In a discipline where Parsonian theories are long abandoned and a great deal of distinguished careers has flourished around the aforementioned specializations, we can expect heated theoretical and empirical exchanges around this book between the incumbents and the challengers of the field of field researchers!

Emre Tarim
Chyrstal MacMillan Fellow in Sociology, The  University of Edinburgh