Testing and Being Tested in Pandemic Times
Two types of testing are proliferating during the coronavirus pandemic. The first type is testing – medical tests to diagnosis the virus as well as epidemiological models that project its course. In the second type, actors, organizations, and institutions are being tested in a moment of social and political crisis. This essay analyzes the similarities and differences between these two major types of tests in order to understand their entanglements in the crisis.
David Stark, “Testing and Being Tested in Pandemic Times.” Sociologica 2020, vol 14, no 1, pp. 67-94.
Put to the Test: For a New Sociology of Testing
Tests have become such a familiar genre that today it seems almost anything can be a test situation. There are stress tests and screen tests, personality tests and citizenship tests, tests of strength and tests of faith. The challenge that a new sociology of testing must address is that ubiquitous testing changes the relations between science, engineering and sociology: It is not that the tests of 21st Century engineering occur within a social context but that it is the very fabric of the social that is being put to the test.
Noortje Marres and David Stark, “Put to the Test: For a New Sociology of Testing.” Lead essay for a special issue of the British Journal of Sociology (2020) in press.
The Performance Complex
What happens when ever more activities in many domains of everyday life are evaluated and experienced in terms of performance metrics? The ratings and rankings of such systems do not have prices but are more like the prizes of competitions. Yet unlike organized competitions, they are ceaseless and without formal entry. Instead of producing resolutions, their scorings create addictions.
In the networks of observation of the performance society all are performing and all keeping score. I refer to this assemblage of metrics, networks, and their attendant emotional pathologies as the performance complex.
David Stark, “The Performance Complex,” introductory essay for The Performance Complex: Competitions and Valuations in Social Life, edited by David Stark, Oxford University Press, in press.
Underground Testing: Name-Altering Practices as Probes in Electronic Music
Name-altering practices are common in many creative fields – pen names in literature, stage names in the performing arts, aliases in music. This paper explores the dynamics of pseudonymity, polyonymy, and anonymity that surround the use of aliases in electronic music. More than just artistic habits or brands, name-altering practices are test devices to probe and validate one’s artistic identity in the music scene, and to assay and negotiate its boundaries. In the context of creative subcultures, name-altering practices constitute a subtle but effective form of underground testing.
Formilan, Giovanni and David Stark, « Underground Testing: Name-Altering Practices as Probes in Electronic Music.” British Journal of Sociology, in press.
What’s Observed in a Rating? Rankings as Orientation in the Face of Uncertainty
Elena Esposito and I agree with the criticisms of ratings and rankings as simplistic, obscurantist, inaccurate, and subjective. But why are they becoming such an increasingly influential social form. We argue that they function well enough not because they mirror how things are but because they offer a highly visible reference point to which others are attentive and thereby provide an orientation to navigate uncertainty. The concluding section places the problem of ratings and rankings in a broader historical perspective contrasting the ranked society to the society of rankings. Responding to uncertainty, ratings and rankings perpetuate rather than eliminate anxiety.
Elena Esposito and David Stark, « What’s Observed in a Rating?: Rankings as Orientation in the Face of Uncertainty.” Theory, Culture & Society, 2019, volume 36, no. 4, pp. 3-26.
Link to video.
The Möbius Organizational Form: Make, Buy, Cooperate, or Co-opt?
This paper examines the emerging contours of a new organizational form, in which firms move beyond the cooperative pacts of alliances to a radicalized, aggressive co-optation of external assets. Taking our point of departure from the literature on the “networked” firm, we point to an alternative to the make, buy, or cooperate decision: in the Möbius form, firms co-opt resources, unsecured by any alliances, formal or informal. Some companies are brazen in their co-optation, leveraging external assets so thoroughly that they might well be considered a core part of the firm. Enabled by developments in computing technologies, such co-optation challenges traditional models of organizational identity. These fluid boundaries recall the Möbius topological model, which we take as the metaphor for this nascent organizational form. We chart this new behavior by discussing a range of firm activities, including the functions of marketing, research and development, and managerial decision-making, as they are replaced with assets co-opted from other firms in the private sector, government agencies, and lastly the firm’s own users.
Watkins E. A., & Stark D. “The Möbius Organizational Form: Make, Buy, Cooperate, or Co-opt?” Sociologica vol 12, no 1 (2018), pp. 65-80
For What It’s Worth
This essay takes its point of departure from the intellectual milieu in the mid 1980s that gave rise to Luc Boltanski and Laurent Thévenot’s book, On Justification: Economies of Worth. It shows how exposure to ideas and concepts in that book came to take varied forms as they were elaborated and modified in my work across several decades of research in diverse empirical settings. The essay appears in a volume on Economies of Worth and French Pragmatist Sociology edited by Charlotte Cloutier, Jean-Pascal Gond, and Bernard Leca.
In Research in the Sociology of Organizations. 2017, Volume 52., pp. 383-397
Diversity Makes You Brighter
This essay with co-author Sheen Levine, was published as an OpEd piece in The New York Times, December 9, 2015. On that day, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the affirmative action case of Fisher versus the University of Texas. « Ethnic diversity,” we argue, “is like fresh air: It benefits everybody who experiences it. By disrupting conformity it produces a public good. To step back from the goal of diverse classrooms would deprive all students, regardless of their racial or ethnic background, of the opportunity to benefit from the improved cognitive performance that diversity promotes.”
The New York Times, December 9, 2015.
Pragmatist Perspectives on Valuation: An Introduction
Michael Hutter and I wrote this introductory chapter for an edited volume, Moments of Valuation: Exploring Sites of Dissonance (Oxford University Press, 2015). In making the case for a pragmatist perspective on valuation, we emphasize that valuation takes place in situations. Tastes can be put to test, and these tests are themselves contested. As situations, the contestations over valuation are spatially localized and temporally marked.
Moments of Valuation: Exploring Sites of Dissonance, Oxford University Press, 2015.
Game Changer: The Topology of Creativity
In this paper, Mathijs de Vaan, Balazs Vedres, and I study the social sources of creative success in the video game industry. Teams are most creatively successful when they are composed of overlapping groups that are cognitively heterogeneous.
American Journal of Sociology, 120(4):1144-1194, January 2015.
Ethnic Diversity Deflates Price Bubbles
In this paper from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Sheen Levine and I (together with other co-authors) examine a prominent marekt failure: price bubbles. We propose that bubbles are affected by ethnic homogeneity in the market and can be thwarted by diversity. Using experimental markets in Southeast Asia and North America, we find that market prices fit true values 58% better in ethnically diverse markets. In homogenous markets, overpricing is higher and traders’ errors are more correlated than in diverse markets. The findings suggest that homogeneity promotes conformity. Price bubbles arise not only from individual errors or financial conditions, but also from the social context of decision making. Informing public discussion, our findings suggest that ethnic diversity disrupts conformity and leads to better information processing.
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, November 17, 2014.
This commentary reviews key themes posed in a special ssue of the journal, Social Sciences, and points to open questions. For example, does resilience in socio-technical systems degrade with use or, like immune systems, is resilience upgraded with use? Similarly, is resilience about responding in the face of the rare event? Or, is it being prepared for the rare event? Is it useful to think about the evolution of resilience? What are the risks posed by models of risk? That is, do models to reduce vulnerability to risk, increase vulnerability? What is the role of reflexivity in the analysis of resilience?
Social Science 2014, 3, 60–70; doi:10.3390/socsci3010060.
Observing Finance as a Network of Observations
You can observe a lot just by watching,” says Yogi Berra. I use quips by Yogi as a device to organize a commentary on a paper contributing to observation theory by Elena Esposito. The exchange is published in the online journal Sociologica. Yogi’s observation that “The future ain’t what it used to be,” turns out to be a nice summary of Esposito’s analysis of the role of financial models. The second half of the paper is itself a second-order observation. It uses another viewpoint (that of observation theory) to reinterpret my earlier ethnographic and network analytic research on finance.
Attention Networks: A Two-Mode Network View on Valuation
When multiple agents allocate their attention across multiple situations, they create an attention network. In this paper, Matteo Prato and I study how attention networks shape cognition. We argue that how we value something depends on the viewpoints from which we assess it (the background of other objects across which we allocate our attention) and the views of others to which we are differentially exposed because of the network structure of attention. We analyze US financial analysts’ stock coverage portfolios and their estimates of listed firms’ earnings per share from 1993-2011. The study is based on some 10,994,000 analyst-firm observations.
Political Holes in the Economy: The Business Network of Partisan Firms in Hungary
When firms reach out to allies in the political field, the logic of partisanship can constrain the choice of business partners in the economy. Balazs Vedres and I interviewed CEOs and politicians in Hungary and constructed a dataset of all senior managers and boards of directors of the largest 1,696 corporations and the complete set of all political officeholders. Firms of either left or right political affiliation exhibit a preference for partnerships with firms in the same political camp while avoiding ties with firms in the opposite camp. Subsequently, firms with politically balanced boards seize a brokerage opportunity to occupy the political holes in the economy opened up by the growing division between left and right.
American Sociological Review, October 2012, 77(5):700-722.
From Dissonance to Resonance: Cognitive Interdependence in Quantitative Finance
How do traders deal with the fallibility of their models? The answer, Daniel Beunza and I show in this ethnographic study of an arbitrage trading room is to use devices for dissonance that disrupt the taken-for-granted and prompt them to reconsider the assumptions built into their databases. Warning: the same socio-technical networks of reflexive modeling that are a source for correction can also lead to the amplification of error.
Economy and Society, 2012, 41(3):1-35.
This essay is the concluding chapter for The Worth of Goods: Valuation and Pricing in the Economy, edited by Patrik Aspers and Jens Beckert (Oxford University Press, 2011). I start with an insight of John Dewey’s that the terms price, prize, and praise all share a common Latin root. To this triplicate I add a fourth, perform, using these four concepts as a device to discuss the papers in the volume. In one section, I address the phenemon of Top Ten lists: On-line ratings and rankings by consumers now provide vast sources of data on prizing and appraising – new means to register value judgments in the economy.
Concluding chapter of The Worth of Goods: Valuation and Pricing in Markets, Patrik Aspers and Jens Beckert, eds. Oxford University Press, 2011, pp. 319-338.
Structural Folds: Generative Disruption in Overlapping Groups
What is a social group across time in network terms? This is the key sociological question that Balazs Vedres and I address in this paper. We identify a distinctive network position – the structural fold – at the overlap of cohesive group structures. We show that this structure contributes to creative disruption: groups with structural folds show higher performance but are also more unstable. In the final part of the paper we identify lineages of cohesion: across a longer time frame, groups separate and reunite in an ongoing pattern of interweaving.
American Journal of Sociology January 2010, 115(4): 1150-90.
PowerPoint in Public: Digital Technologies and the New Morphology of Demonstration
This paper examines the use of PowerPoint to make demonstrations in the public arena. Our first set of demonstrations are the PowerPoint presentations in December 2002 by the seven finalist architectural teams in the Innovative Design competition for rebuilding the World Trade Center. Our second case occurred some blocks away, several months later: Colin Powell’s PowerPoint demonstration at the United Nations. We argue that Edward Tufte’s denunciation of PowerPoint does not capture the cognitive style made possible by this pervasive new technology.
Theory, Culture & Society 2008, 25(5):31-56.
Socio-technologies of Assembly: Sense-making and Demonstration in Rebuilding Lower Manhattan
Drawing on Science and Technology Studies, Monique Girard and I propose that forms of public assemby vary as distinct combinations of social networks, technologies, and protocols. The key technologies of a public hearing, for example, are a microphone and a stopwatch, combined with rules for who can speak and for how long.
Governance and Information: The Rewiring of Governing and Deliberation in the 21st Century. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.
Social Times of Network Spaces: Network Sequences and Foreign Investment in Hungary
In this paper, Balazs Vedres and I develop a social sequence analysis to identify distinctive pathways whereby firms use network resources to buffer uncertainty, hide or restructure assets, or gain knowledge and legitimacy. In place of properties of the global network, we focus on variation in local properties. In place of a single system time, we model the processes of social times. Our contribution to a more historical network analysis does not simply include time as a variable but, instead, recognizes time as variable.
American Journal of Sociology, March 2006, 111(5):1367-1411.
Rooted Transnational Publics: Integrating Foreign Ties and Civic Activism
In the literature on globalization there is a widespread belief that civic associations with transnational ties are uprooted from their domestic societies. Laszlo Bruszt, Balazs Vedres, and I contend that there is not a forced choice between foreign ties and domestic integration. In fact, we find that transnational organizations are more domestically integrated than those without such ties. We base our argument on a survey of 1,002 of the largest civic organizations which we conducted in Hungary. We specify several forms of domestic integration and several forms of transnational ties. By demonstrating a systematic relationship between the patterns of foreign ties and the patterns of domestic integration, we chart three emerging forms of transnational publics.
Theory and Society 2006 35(3):323-349.
Resolving Identities: Successive Crises in a Trading Room after 9/11
How do organizations cope with extraordinary crisis? In the second paper about the experiences of our Wall Street traders after September 11th, Daniel Beunza and I report on the process whereby they returned to their restored trading room in the World Financial Center. The trading room did not face one crisis – the immediate aftermath of September 11th – but many: anxiety about additional attacks, questions of professional identity, doubts about the future of the firm, and ambiguities about the future re-location of the trading room. A given crisis was resolved by restoring identities; but identities, once restored, redefined the situation and lead to new crises. That is, the successive waves of crisis were produced by each success in managing crisis.
Pp. 293-320 in Nancy Foner, Wounded City: The Social Impact of 9/11. New York, Russell Sage Foundation Press, 2005.
Researchers in science and technology studies have long-recognized that the design process is not completed when manufacturers ship out a new product. Instead, users complete the design process when they resist some uses inscribed in the product, identify other affordances, and modify the product. All products, and especially new and unfamiliar ones, entail considerable interpretive flexibility. The new user innovation communities make this insight a part of corporate strategy. Instead of a hit or miss approach, they actively foster communities of users and involve their participation at ever-earlier stages of the design process. This is search when you don’t know what you’re looking for, relying on the users to recognize it when they find it.
Society Online: The Internet In Context. Sage, 2003, pp. 173-88.
The Organization of Responsiveness: Innovation and Recovery in the Trading Rooms of Lower Manhattan
The September 11th attack on the World Trade Center destroyed the trading room where Daniel Beunza and I had been conducting ethnographic research. The traders invited us to witness their recovery, and so Daniel was with them already during the first week after they resumed trading on September 17th. This paper reports on our observations in their makeshift trading room in New Jersey. The breakdown of technology, we argue, is society made visible.
Socio-Economic Review 2003, 1(2):135-164.
Crisis, Recovery, Innovation: Responsive Organization after September 11
On December 5, 2001, Columbia’s Center on Organizational Innovation organized a roundtable discussion with senior executives and contingency planning specialists from key World Trade Center firms. This paper with John Kelly reports on that meeting and other interviews that our research team conducted in the early weeks after 9/11. It documents the importance of strong personal ties, lateral self-organization, and nonhierarchical relations in the recovery process. As a response to uncertainty, organizational factors that explain recovery are similar to those that generate innovation.
Environment and Planning A, September 2002, 34(9):1523-33.
One Way or Multiple Paths? For a Comparative Sociology of East European Capitalism
This essay, written with my frequent co-author, Laszlo Bruszt, was published in The American Journal of Sociology (January 2001) as part of a very lively debate with Michael Burawoy.
American Journal of Sociology, January 2001, 106(4):1129-1137.
Recombinant Property in East European Capitalism
Some years ago, when they were little kids, my children invented a hybrid game. Having left the houses and hotels of their Monopoly set at a friend’s house, they started to use Lego building blocks (much preferred to the Monopoly pieces even after returned) to construct ever more elaborate structures in a game whose rules evolved away from bankrupting one’s opponents and toward attracting customers to the plastic skyscrapers that towered over the Monopoly plain. This strikes me as a good metaphor for innovation and the process of social change. East European capitalism was not built on the ruins of communism but with the ruins of communism.
American Journal of Sociology, January 1996, 101(4):993-1027.
Frequently Asked Questions
In this essay, Gernot Grabher and I play with the genre of Frequently Asked Questions. Keywords: innocence, anticipation, confusion, frustration, resignation, desperation, provocation, hostility.
Environment and Planning A 2009, 41(2):255-257.