Sociomaterial Processes of Category Emergence and Naturalization

This past week, at the Academy of Management Annual Meeting in Boston, I was part of a workshop entitled: Revealing the Cultural in Entrepreneurship and Innovation. The other presenters, discussants and organizers included included:

  • Jean Clarke; University of Leeds
  • Joep Cornelissen; VU University Amsterdam
  • Davide Ravasi; Bocconi University
  • Tyler Wry; University of Pennsylvania
  • Krsto Pandza; University of Leeds
  • Howard Aldrich; University of North Carolina
  • Miriam Wolf; University of Leeds
  • Robin Holt; University of Liverpool
  • Charlotte Coleman; University of Leeds

My talk was on Sociomaterial Processes of Category Emergence and Naturalization. It drew on two of my existing papers, as well as ongoing work.

The presentation is available through Slideshare.

Sociomaterial Networks and Moral Agencements

A good friend of mine recently sent me this TEDx talk in which Nitin Nohria, Dean of Harvard Business School, explores what he calls moral overconfidence and argues for the practice of moral humility as an antidote.

According to the talk’s abstract: Whenever we see examples of ethical or moral failure, our knee-jerk reaction is to say “that was a bad person.” We like to sort the world into good people who have stable and enduringly strong, positive characters, and bad people who have weak or frail characters. So why then do seemingly good people behave badly?

The centerpiece of Dean Nohria’s talk is the Milgram Experiment, which is typically argued to show that — given a strong enough situation — even “good people” will do “bad things.” More particularly, following Stanley Milgram’s own interpretation, most consider the experiment as showing the potentially dangerous consequences that may result from blind obedience to authority.

In light of my own research on values work, it seems the entire line of inquiry may be a false start — it presupposes from the beginning that good and bad are individually located. An alternative interpretation of the Milgram Experiment might start by taking notice of the many heterogeneous social and material actors that were required to be enrolled in the performance of “bad things.” Yale University, newspaper advertisements, experimental designs, subjects, confederates, experimenters, lab coats, electricity, shock machines, voltages, vocabulary tests, payments. In short, the experiment requires the enrollment of an ensemble of sociomaterial actors. If any of them had resisted, the experiment might have “failed.” So why is the actor at the end of the network the one to blame?

Such an interpretation is broadly consistent with actor network theory, in which the explanation for action can no longer be reduced to individual agency. In fact, such attributions are themselves part of what is in need of sociological explanation. What if the Milgram Experiment says more about the culture in which it is located than it does about the subjects it tested? After all, what kind of society is required for test subjects to be held responsible for the actions of an entire network, without which their performances could not have gone off? One can well imagine alternative societies in which different conclusions might have been drawn from the very “same” experiment.

In other words, we need to pose a more fundamental question. As Latour puts it, where is the morality? Is it in me, or in the objects? After reflecting on automobiles, seat belts and police officers, he concludes that morality is located in a network of humans and things. Networks make me (im)moral. Rather than an individual attribute, the definition, recognition and performance of good and evil are the result of moral agencements; moral agency is sociomaterially constituted.

See: Bruno Latour, 1992, ‘‘Where Are the Missing Masses? The Sociology of a Few Mundane Artifacts,’’ in Wiebe E. Bijker and John Law, eds., Shaping Technology/Building Society: Studies in Sociotechnical Change, MIT Press, pp. 225-258.

My First Publication

I’m very pleased to report that a paper I began working on in September 2008 has recently been published, which is actually quite rapid as these things go. (If you need immediate gratification, a career in academics is probably not for you.)

Institutions and Entrepreneurship

The paper is called Categorization by Association: Nuclear Technology and Emission-Free Electricity. In the paper we (Raghu Garud, Peter Karnøe and I) analyze the categorization of nuclear technology from 1945 to 2010. In particular, we were intrigued to understand how a technology once categorized as an atomic bomb has been able to transform itself into a technology now considered as a potential source of sustainable and emission-free electricity. Of note, our paper draws on actor network theory and a sociology of associations perspective, and conceptualizes technologies as sociomaterial — that is,  materially anchored, institutionally performed, socially relevant and entrepreneurially negotiated. Based on our findings, we consider some implications for our theoretical understanding of categorization processes. Specifically, we propose that it may be useful to re-conceptualize categories as a relational phenomenon. Rather than being established once and for all, categories can be understood as always in the making. We then suggest directions for future research that such an insight opens up.

The paper appears in Research in the Sociology of Work Volume 21: Institutions and Entrepreneurship, edited by Wesley D. Sine and Robert J. David. Other contributors to the volume include: W. Richard Scott, Howard Aldrich, Mary Ann Glynn, Candace Jones, Stephen J. Mezias , Theresa K. Lant, Paul Ingram, Jason Owen-Smith, Paul Ingram, Philippe Monin and others.

Along the way, my co-authors and I were privileged to have presented working versions of the paper at a number of conferences, including the European Group for Organization Studies Colloquium (July 2009), the Medici Summer School in Management Studies (July 2009), the Wharton Technology Conference (April 2010), the Society for the Advancement of Socio-Economics (June 2010), the Cultural Entrepreneurship Network Workshop (June 2010), the Academy of Management (August 2010), and the West Coast Research Symposium (August 2010).