My notes on Caplan, R., & Boyd, D. (2018). Isomorphism through algorithms: Institutional dependencies in the case of Facebook. Big Data & Society, 5(1), 2053951718757253.

Are data-driven technologies leading organisations to take on shared characteristics? This is the fascinating question addressed in this paper by Robyn Caplan and danah boyd which they begin with the example of news media. The popularity of social media platform as intermediaries has forced many news media producers to change their operations, increasingly producing with a view to popularity on these platforms. As they put it, “these platforms have upended the organizational practices of news-producing platforms, altering how both the newsroom and individual journalists operate” (2). They use the concept of isomorphism to understand how “algorithms structure disparate businesses and aims into an organizational field, leading them to change their goals and adopt new practices” (2). This is a process of homogenisation, as organisations reconstruct themselves into a field orientated around the assumptions embedded into the t mediating platform. The ensuing ambiguity has regulatory consequences, as social media platforms are not straight forward media actors but nor are they mere intermediaries. By theorising algorithmic mediation as akin to bureaucratisation, it become easier to identify the precise character of the role of platforms within it. It also makes clear the continuities with earlier isomorphic processes, for instance as corporate software platforms introduced common features to organisations.

The roots of this connection are deep. They argue that “algorithms that serve to pre- process, categorize, and classify individuals and organizations should be viewed as extensions of bureaucratic tools such as forms, that have been associated with the state in the past” (3). Software like Lotus 1-2-3 and Microsoft Office restructured business activity through the affordances it offered to digitalise bureaucratic processes and algorithmic technologies should be seen as a further extension of this process. The neutrality which animated the promise of bureaucracy is also often expressed in the belief that algorithmic judgement will negate the role of subjectivity and bias in decision making processes. This is obscured by the familiar black box of the algorithm but also the mythology of its uniqueness, seeing it as something distinct from previous organisational processes. However if we see algorithms as organisational phenomena then the problem comes to look quite different, simultaneously more straight forward but also more challenging because the problems will likely spiral outwards across dependent organisations. 

They use DiMaggio and Powell’s concept of isomorphism which considers how a common environment can lead otherwise different units of a population facing that environment to come to resemble one another. For organisations this occurs through one organisation becoming dependent on another organisation, with the expected degree of resemblance tracking the degree of that dependence. For instance in the case of Facebook’s newsfeed, the concept of what is ‘relevant’ has been redefined by the vast size of the audience whose access is mediated through this mechanism. The dependence of the news media on that mechanism means they come to reproduce its characteristics, increasingly operating with a view towards metrics like clicks, likes and shares. The early winners in the Facebook ecosystem were those publishers like Buzzfeed and Upworthy who “subsumed their own organizational practices to the logic of Facebook’s algorithms” (5). But Facebook’s attempts to modulate this mechanism in order to produce what they deemed better quality results inevitably leads the actors dependent upon it to make adaptive changes in response to these modulations. Mimesis thrives in this environment as they explain on pg 6-7:

“Changes stemming from coercive forces, especially when frequent, lead to an environment of uncertainty that prompts dependent organizations to learn from other dependent organizations that have successfully conformed to the structuring mechanisms. This process of ‘‘mimesis,’’ or imitating models for success, is another process DiMaggio and Powell (1983: 151) argue will induce similarity across an organizational field. In this sense, the dominant organization’s incentives or goals become embedded across an industry through the borrowing of practices that lead to success over the network. In the case of Facebook, this was seen in the adoption of data-driven metrics and analytics into newsrooms, as well as the growth of a new set of intermediaries that were fed directly by the Facebook API, whose role it was to analyze and com- municate Facebook metrics back to publishers”

A further ecosystem of intermediaries thrives under these circumstances, as new players emerge who help the firms concerned address their common problems. These responses to uncertainty are driven by a concern to “demonstrate to others that they are working to change their practices to be in-line with those of the dominant organization“ (7) as well as increasing possibilities for success. The discussion of professionalisation is really important for my interests. The roles themselves changed as a result of isomorphism, with normative pressure to enact new functions and perform new skills which contrbute to the success of the organisation. This is my concern about the institutionalisation of social media within higher education. There’s a lot here which I’m going to need to go back to and I think it’s crucial for my developing project on the digital university. 

There’s an interesting section of In The Plex which details quite how much Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer hated Google. From pg 282-283:

Just how intensely Microsoft’s CEO, Steve Ballmer, despised his competitor to the south became clear in depositions that would be filed in the Lee lawsuit. The year before, in November 2004, a top Microsoft executive named Mark Lucovsky had gone to Steve Ballmer with the unwelcome news that he was leaving Microsoft. “ Just tell me it’s not Google ,” said Ballmer, according to Lucovsky’s sworn testimony. Lucovsky confirmed that it was indeed Google. Lucovsky testified that Ballmer went ballistic: “Fucking Eric Schmidt is a fucking pussy! I’m going to fucking bury that guy! I have done it before and I will do it again. I’m going to fucking kill Google.” (The reference to having “done it before” seemed to refer to Microsoft’s anticompetitive actions during the browser war, when Schmidt was aligned with the Netscape forces.) For good measure, Ballmer threw a chair across the room, according to Lucovsky. (Ballmer would later say that Lucovsky’s account was exaggerated, but the CEO’s denials were not made under oath.)

The competition between Microsoft and Google is easily explicable in terms of the dynamics of a number of intersecting markets, with their respective positions within them changing as a result of their rivalry, in the process contributing to the transformation of the markets themselves.

But what makes this a matter of grievance? It’s an interesting question to ask what influence personal antagonism exerts over inter-organisational conflict. Is it a product of this organisational competition? Is it a driver of this competition? Or is it both: does the organisational conflict (continently) lead to personal antagonism, by creating situations in which it thrives, which in turn amplifies the organisational conflict, by introducing personal animus into corporate decision making?

These look fantastic. I’ve just this week been thinking that I need to start engaging with ethnographies of organisational life for the new book. But I had no idea where to start beyond the minute amount of tech literature like this I’m familiar with. But now I stumble across exactly what I was looking for, in the city I live in no less:

eminars for 2015/16
4pm – 5.30pm
MBS East Building, Room B5

Seminars will be instructional, incisive and analytical offerings to a select number of academics who register to attend these events. Spaces will be limited for attending these seminars with some worldclass ethnographers.

Dr Damian O’Doherty
Manchester Business School
University of Manchester

‘MAG Men’: Politics and the Corridors of Power in Corporate Organization’
Click here to read the abstract and further information

Professor Albena Yaneva
Manchester Architectural Research Centre
University of Manchester

‘Blinded by the Sun: Testing Glare, Crafting Cosmopolitical Designs

Professor Ann Cunliffe
Bradford Business School
University of Bradford

‘Generating Socially Robust Knowledge: The Possibilities and Challenges of Multi-sited Participatory Ethnography’

Professor Daniel Neyland
Goldsmiths, University of London
‘Studying the Market Ethnographically: Can Markets Solve Problems?’

Dr Amanda Peticca
Grenoble Ecole de Management
Studying Project Work Ethnographically

Jeremy Aroles
PhD Candidate, Manchester Business School
University of Manchester

An Ethnography of Organizational Facts
John Foster
PhD Candidate, Department of Social Anthropology
University of Manchester

‘The End of Work? An Ethnography of Manchester ‘Job Clubs’
Professor Bill Maurer
University of California, Irvine

‘Studying Money: Lateral Ethnography’
Dr Tiago Moreira
School of Applied Social Sciences
University of Durham

‘Unsettling Standards in Health Care: The Biological Age Controversy’
Dr Darren Thiele
Department of Sociology
University of Essex

‘Studying Construction Ethnographically’
May 11th
Sideeq Mohammed
PhD candidate, Manchester Business School
University of Manchester

‘The Trafford Centre: An Ethnography’
Oz Gore
PhD candidate, Manchester Business School
University of Manchester
‘Ethnographic Encounters with the Economy’


What was initially obnoxious ranting and then a mildly interesting but bad tempered argument is turning into a really fascinating discussion on org theory:

What a lot of CR proponents seem to  fail to understand is that American’s sociology scientific image is not a set of philosophical “positions” (postmodernism, positivism, etc.) in the British or continental style. I hope I don’t have to bring up Randall Collins to make the point that in a resource poor, largely qualitative environment, where sociology resolves itself into lonely people sitting in offices writing books about the human condition, then it would seem that sociology is just a collection of such thought camps. But the problem is that American sociology is no such animal. Instead, it is a complex network of invisible colleges, cross-generational intellectual projects, highly differentiated subfields endowed with heterogeneous methodological and epistemic standards, strongly coupled to really existing (material) technologies of knowledge production, and firmly ensconced in a university complex of such size and magnitude (Michele Lamont when talking to her European counterparts usually refers to American sociology as a “machine”) as to make British (or French, or  German, or Dutch) sociology the equivalent of an ASA section.  Inthis environment, the standard CR rhetorical tack of arguing against “positions” does not work, because such positions do not really exist. Instead, the critic is reduced to inventing such positions and then imputing themto people. But you do not have to be a Bourdieusian field theorist to understand that this is a strategy that is bound to fail because (as Bourdieu loved to remind us) the word “categorization” comes from the Greekkategorien which meant “to accuse publicly.” Meaning that when you categorize me (in a context in which the category does not make much sense, and thus gives me a lot of leeway to controvert your categorization), those are fighting words, and I’m going to categorize you back. Unfortunately, a lot of recent CR work has resolved itself into this (wasteful) project of position construction and associated name-calling and this is going to make it even less palatable to a larger sociological audience. One thing that proponents of CR need to understand is that the intellectual strategies that worked in the British intellectual field will not work in American sociology, because the nature of the field is radically different.

Between this debate and the realism event I organised (with Tom Brock and Michelle Farr) last Friday, I’ve been thinking a lot about position taking in social theory. I’ve sometimes wondered if I seem much more ideological than I am in this retrospect because there are certain issues which I can become deeply argumentative about. But the thought occurred to me during the event on Friday that there are actually only two such issues: reflexivity and ontological stratification. I feel the need to argue about these points because an awful lot hinges on them in explanatory terms. If you hold the views that I do then it follows that a failure to accept these two notions at a meta-theoretical level, though they can be conceptualised very differently at the level of substantive theory, will inculcate a tendency to significantly misrepresent the social world. For instance I’m  distinguishing between someone not accepting the notion of ‘internal conversation’ that I’m working with and someone outright denying that human beings have a capacity for reflexivity or that it is at least potentially causally efficacious. Disagreement at the former level is a great basis for constructive conversation given we work from a shared premise but disagree about its implications. The problem with disagreement at the latter level is not the disagreement itself but the practical implications I take the position I disagree with to entail. It’s a very specific category.

However beyond these two points, I couldn’t really care less about position taking in social theory & perhaps showing the residual influence of Rorty on my thought, it seems that a preoccupation with theoretical disagreement precludes sociological theory as a practical enterprise. But where my outlook has changed, rendering it superficially unrecognisable in terms of the the pragmatism I used to espouse, is that I don’t think quietism is any sort of  solution to this problem. Not talking about ontology doesn’t make ontological questions go away – it just licenses crap responses to them. What I’m interested in is how to recognise the irreducibility of ontological questions but to treat them pragmatically in terms of their practical implications rather than becoming preoccupied by abstraction. It’s just hard to claim that ‘irreducibility’ without giving the impression that you think sociological research hinges on the pronouncements of sociological theorists.

I mean I agree with 99% of what is being argued here. In fact we had a long discussion on Friday at our seminar about this tendency towards insularity and the need to conduct constructive dialogues across perspectives, though we were thinking of Actor Network Theory and Social Network Analysis (it’s easier to do this as an event) more than the sort of general engagement across the philosophy of social science being suggested here. But hopefully events like the former could help engender a climate in which more of the latter gets done as part of ongoing intellectual work.

 CR of course packages itself of as a synthesis, but by the time they are done giving you the tour, you figure that you have to make so many enemies to join the club that you figure that it is definitely not worth it. Bit of advice: stop it with the position criticism and let’s do more constructive work. This is already there in some of the best CR inspired work (e.g. What is a Person?), but people have such a negative taste on their mouth by the time they get to the constructive stuff that they no longer trust the messenger (this problem besets John Martin’s The Explanation of Social Action, so there is nothing particularly CRish about this issue).

An added problem of arguing against positions is that it has left CR with a somewhat outdated picture both of the scientific image of American sociology, but also of the field of Philosophy of Science in general. The problem is that this can lead to an over-valuation of the novelty of what you are saying, because you think that Philosophy of Science is Popper and Hempel, when in reality (as I alluded to above) it is in fact Cartwright, Darden, Bechtel, Bunge, etc. My favorite philosopher of science (Ronald Giere) wrote a book called Science without Laws, but you would not know this from the modal CR paper trying to introduce basic Philosophy of Science to sociologists. Now this is weird because convergent developments in modern (analytic) philosophy of science should be making CR people happy: “told you, Bhaskar was right after all.” But (this is the most incisive field-theoretic point made by Kieran which has been missed by most people) the fact that it does not has to make you a bit suspicious, in the sense that maybe CR people don’t want you go go shopping around for functionally equivalent insights from others, because they want you to buy their product. I don’t think that this is true, but the (sometimes odd) recalcitrance to update CR with contemporary insights from Philosophy of Science not only reproduces the (objectively; this is not a value judgment) peripheral position of CR in the field, but seems to show a sort of “in-groupy” (and certainly not healthy) tendency to revel in your marginality. Once again, I don’t think that this is true, but this will be the objective payoff of continuing to pursuit an isolationist and not than synthetic intellectual strategy vis a vis mainstream philosophy of science.