TEACHING ECONOMIC SOCIOLOGY: Michel Anteby and John Walsh

As more economic sociologists take academic positions within business and policy schools, they face unique challenges and opportunities. How do they articulate the importance of our field for high-paying customers looking for actionable takeaways for non-academic jobs? To investigate where the ‘rubber meets the road,’ we spoke with two economic sociologists teaching master’s students in professional schools: John Walsh, Professor in the School of Public Policy at Georgia Institute of Technology, and Michel Anteby, Associate Professor of Organizational Behavior at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business. They offer these insights:

We’ve noticed that in professional schools it’s a lot easier to find economic sociologists teaching organizational theory than economic sociology more broadly defined. Why do you think that is, and what might be the implications?
John Walsh: I think that organization theory is an established part of the curriculum in schools of management, public administration, and policy, and the economic sociology perspective is a fruitful way of understanding organizations and presenting that material to students. One implication of this is that some of the broader meaning of the economic sociology perspective may get less coverage in the curriculum, although in an organizations course, there is often flexibility to incorporate related perspectives.

Michel Anteby: Most professional school students hope to manage at some point a private, public, or non-profit organization. To do so, their immediate attention is on their next career move (i.e., the stepping stone toward that goal) and the lessons they can bring to their new employers. Thus, focusing on the organizational implications of any theory is an easier fit with students’ aspirations, than, say, discussing one of my favorite articles: the commemoration of the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington D.C. (Wagner-Pacifici & Schwartz’s 1991 AJS piece). The implication is that we need to tailor the presentation of our research to students’ most pressing interests.

Which lessons of economic sociology do you emphasize when teaching professional students? How do you convey these lessons to a classroom of people likely looking for actionable takeaways for non-academic jobs? What is particularly challenging about this?
John: My goal is to present general theories of behavior and lots of examples. I tend to focus on empirical papers—some qualitative and some quantitative, so that the students can learn to generalize to the examples they are likely to find in their own setting. In my course, there is usually a mix of policy, management, and engineering students, and so I tend to mix examples from lots of different types of organizations, as well as to draw from students’ own examples with organizations they are familiar with. Even though my class is very theory oriented, students come to an understanding of how those theories can help inform their experiences and decision-making at work.

The challenge is getting the students to suspend disbelief for the duration of the class. Rather than focusing on specific applied management tools, I am focusing on theories of how organizations work. From there, the students can develop their own strategies for problem solving in the situations that arise in their particular settings. To do this, I try to keep the material lively, link it to a variety of contemporary examples, and try to get them to see some of the beauty of an economic sociology perspective.

Michel: The three main teaching venues for economic sociologists in professional schools are courses in (micro) organizational behavior, (macro) strategy, and ethics. While there are obviously other teaching venues (e.g., elective master’s courses or doctoral seminars), the three courses tend to be required of all students in master’s curriculums and therefore need to be regularly staffed. Depending on the course, different lessons can be conveyed. For “ethics,” the fit with economic sociology is perhaps the most obvious. For instance, discussing the efforts needed to construct moral frames can prove very informative to students. As an example, I have used surrogacy agreements involving intended parents in the United States, transnational commercial brokers, and surrogates in India to explore competing moral frames when engaging in “business” transactions. In organizational behavior courses, questions of how individuals find jobs, navigate labor markets, and are deemed fit or not for given positions can benefit immensely from an economic sociology lens. In all these courses, economic sociologists might find it most challenging to learn content beyond their expertise. Given the large student cohort size in professional master’s programs, it’s common for colleagues teaching another section of the same course to share their material with newcomers, thus easing the onboarding of economic sociologists into professional schools.

Which economic sociology topics (or general lessons) do you find professional students find most useful or beneficial? Which works do they have the easiest time connecting with?
John: They like the informal organization perspective, and the garbage can/organization learning models. More generally, they resonate with the insights from the bounded rationality perspective (we read Simon early on). The network theory models are also popular, although here I try hard to push them beyond an individualistic “strategic networking” perspective to a more structural, whole-network perspective. They also appreciate reading original research articles rather than twice-digested policy or management textbooks.

Michel: My sense is that professional students really appreciate the interconnected view of human behavior that economic sociology promotes. Most of these students have worked and have come to recognize the complexity of our society. They like that economic sociology accounts for what they experienced. As an illustration, when learning about ethics, students love to discover studies into given markets (e.g., work by Rene Almeling, Marion Fourcade, Kieran Healy, and Viviana Zelizer). These deep dives allow them to make sense of competing moral views and revisit the complexity of morality. In organizational behavior courses, I often build on Harrison White’s insight that identities are built in contrast, as a means of teaching about how identities can drive efforts and actions. I would never dream of assigning “Identity and Control” to my professional students, but I do ask them to reflect on who they are, who they are not, and how relations to these “others” impact their career decisions. Economic sociology helps students gain a better grasp of inter-connections and inter-dependencies at work.

What has teaching professional students taught you about how economic sociologists might broaden the appeal of their work to audiences beyond the academy?
John: I think it is important to focus on real contexts in which our theories get developed and tested, and to show that these can guide practical decision-making. The main effect of this perspective is that it provides students and practitioners with increased awareness of their surroundings and gives them a language for understanding what they are seeing in organizations.

Michel: Teaching to professional students has taught me to anchor my research in empirical puzzles. This anchoring is also helpful, by the way, to any book or article writer. Puzzles are what drive most people and readers, so these students are a good sounding board for any sociologist.

What advice would you give to economic sociologists teaching professional students for the first time or those considering this direction for a career?
John: Focus on the sociological insights in these contexts, rather than following the professional school “toolbox” model. One of the hardest things is to break the bias toward “action” in professional schools. I find that students from management and policy have been trained to offer opinions, but are not as well trained at thinking through problems and offering insights that are consistent with the observations (in the papers presented and in prior papers they have read). So, they often seem disappointed when I push them to justify their opinions based on the empirical evidence at hand. But they eventually come to think sociologically and begin to apply what they have learned from a body of theory and empirical evidence in order to address circumstances that they face in their particular work setting. Thus, my advice is to “stick to your guns,” and demonstrate the utility, and the fun, of the sociological perspective by applying it through a variety of empirical examples that illustrate the different theoretical perspectives and insights that economic sociology brings to the study of organizations.

Michel: Regardless of audiences, I would generally tell sociologists to teach about what they know. Students appreciate and recognize expertise. It also helps to be upfront about your expertise. You will never be able to compete in terms of “insights” or “life lessons” with a management practice faculty (e.g., a former CEO now teaching at your school), but your strengths reside in making research insights resonate with students’ lives. For instance, while a practice faculty might encourage students to adopt merit-based promotion systems in organizations, you can add that some meritocracies have been shown to favor men vs. women and suggest why this might happen (cf. Castilla & Benar’s 2010 ASQ piece). Similarly, when a practice faculty might tell students to follow their “true north” in selecting careers, you can help students understand the current occupational segregation in the United States and discuss why some categories of individuals have been selected or select into certain lines of work (cf. my work with András Tilcsik and Carly Knight on gay and lesbian occupations). Economic sociology can provide a more complex and realistic view of workplace dynamics and thus help students distinguish data and facts from managerial ideology and dogma.

Is there anything else you think readers of Accounts might benefit from hearing or thinking about?
John: Bringing a sociological imagination to professional schools is an exciting opportunity for economic sociologists. Close engagement with practitioners (through teaching and through consulting) can provide new examples, data, and research questions that can help economic sociology develop as a field. A strong vocational ethos in contemporary American universities makes it likely that professional schools may be the growth opportunity in the university. Economic sociologists can participate in this growth while still engaging in the disciplinary program of economic sociology, both in teaching and in research.

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