Theory and Society

, Volume 37, Issue 1, pp 1–44

Bourdieu and organizational analysis


    • Sociology DepartmentUniversity of Wisconsin
  • Victoria Johnson
    • Organizational StudiesUniversity of Michigan

DOI: 10.1007/s11186-007-9052-y

Cite this article as:
Emirbayer, M. & Johnson, V. Theor Soc (2008) 37: 1. doi:10.1007/s11186-007-9052-y


Despite some promising steps in the right direction, organizational analysis has yet to exploit fully the theoretical and empirical possibilities inherent in the writings of Pierre Bourdieu. While certain concepts associated with his thought, such as field and capital, are already widely known in the organizational literature, the specific ways in which these terms are being used provide ample evidence that the full significance of his relational mode of thought has yet to be sufficiently apprehended. Moreover, the almost complete inattention to habitus, the third of Bourdieu’s major concepts, without which the concepts of field and capital (at least as he deployed them) make no sense, further attests to the misappropriation of his ideas and to the lack of appreciation of their potential usefulness. It is our aim in this paper, by contrast, to set forth a more informed and comprehensive account of what a relational – and, in particular, a Bourdieu-inspired – agenda for organizational research might look like. Accordingly, we examine the implications of his theoretical framework for interorganizational relations, as well as for organizations themselves analyzed as fields. The primary advantage of such an approach, we argue, is the central place accorded therein to the social conditions under which inter- and intraorganizational power relations are produced, reproduced, and contested.

Despite some promising steps in the right direction, organizational analysis has yet to exploit fully the theoretical and empirical possibilities inherent in a relational perspective upon the social world. In particular, it has yet to explore in systematic fashion the implications for organization studies of the writings of Pierre Bourdieu, perhaps the most important of all recent contributors to the project of a relational sociology. Bourdieu has had virtually no impact on organizational analysis, perhaps in large part because, despite extended analyses of organizations in works such as The State Nobility (1996a [1989]) and Homo Academicus (1988 [1984]), he engages with organization theory and economic sociology most explicitly in work that has only recently appeared in English translation: The Social Structures of the Economy (2005 [2000]).1 To be sure, certain concepts associated with his thought, such as field and capital, two of the cornerstones of his sociology, are already widely known in the organizational literature. However, the specific ways in which these terms are being used provide ample evidence that the full significance of his relational mode of thought has yet to be apprehended. Moreover, the almost total inattention to habitus, the third of Bourdieu’s major concepts, without which the concepts of field and capital (at least as he deployed them) make no sense, further attests to the misappropriation of his ideas and to the lack of appreciation of their potential usefulness. (Equally unhelpful is the occasional inclusion of Bourdieu among the “postmodernists” – a label that betrays a profound lack of understanding of his work – by well-intentioned researchers hoping to bring postmodernism into organization theory.) It is our aim in this article, therefore, to set forth a comprehensive account of what a relational – and, in particular, a Bourdieu-inspired – agenda for organizational research might look like. We seek to perform a generative reading of Bourdieu’s ideas, one that creatively transposes those ideas onto a new intellectual and professional terrain while preserving what is most fruitful and exciting about them. In so doing, we aspire to contribute to the ongoing debate over how best to make sense of organizational structures and processes.

It cannot be disputed that the concept of field has, in recent decades, appeared with increasing frequency in organizational analysis. In this context, the concept has been deployed to capture dimensions of the interorganizational – as opposed to intraorganizational – level of analysis. The concept of “organizational field” has typically referred to a set of organizations active in what DiMaggio and Powell call “a recognized area of institutional life” (DiMaggio and Powell 1991a: 64); e.g., automobile manufacturing, the prison system, book publishing, or real estate. This concept has appealed to many organizational theorists because it offers at least one distinct advantage over other widely used environment-level concepts such as that of organizational population. Unlike the latter, an organizational field includes not just one type of organization (e.g., all car manufacturers), but all the organizations that play one role or another in the activity in question (e.g., car manufacturers and steel suppliers, dealers, consumers, insurers, and local and federal government agencies regulating the manufacture and operation of cars). Because the institutions governing a given organization’s structure and practices are often influenced by a wide variety of other organizations – a variety not adequately captured by other organization-theoretic concepts – the concept of organizational field has been of particular value to neo-institutionalist scholars. It is in this area of organizational scholarship, therefore, that the concept of field has received the most extensive use and elaboration.2 However, while the concept of organizational field has indeed offered a powerful improvement on earlier understandings of organizational environments, we believe that the potential utility of the field concept as originally formulated and subsequently refined by Bourdieu has been diminished by its application solely to the level of organizational fields. A truly unified field-based framework for organizational analysis must bring the field-theoretic approach to bear, not only on the analysis of clusters of organizations, but also on the analysis of the social configurations in which organizational fields are themselves embedded – configurations too often designated by vague terms such as “the economy” or “the political sphere” but analyzed in detail by Bourdieu as a system of semi-autonomous fields – as well as on individual organizations themselves. Furthermore, we maintain that the field concept has lost explanatory power in being separated from Bourdieu’s accompanying concepts of capital and habitus and imported alone into organization theory.

Like the concept of field, the concept of capital has enjoyed widespread use in organization theory. It has been omnipresent in organization studies, in fact, ever since the very origins of that enterprise in classical sociology. Most typically, it has connoted money or financial resources – in a word, economic capital – although in recent decades, two other species of capital, human and social, have also garnered sustained attention, both of them entering as well into the vulgate of the business world. A shortcoming of these extant usages of capital, however, has been the substantialist ways in which they have been (implicitly or explicitly) deployed. The very value of economic or social capital is constituted by its past and present uses, by the structure of the field(s) in which it is deployed, and by its specific differences vis-à-vis other types of capital. The relational nature of capital is only partially grasped even by the many studies that see it as emerging from the relations embodied in social networks. This is because, while social capital in particular is often analyzed as a property of networks and would therefore seem to escape the problem of substantialism, the study of social networks sheds little light on the processes by which the value of social capital is produced in the first place, a process that occurs above and beyond (as well as through) the formation and reproduction of concrete social network ties. As Bourdieu puts it, “capital does not exist and function except in relation to a field” (Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992: 101). Those who perpetuate this way of thinking would do well to recall the Marxian dictum, one whose truth extends beyond the original context of intellectual problems within which it originated, that “capital is not a thing, but a social relation” – a succinct expression of the relational mind that speaks as forcefully and critically to organizational analysts today as it did to the classical political economists of more than a century ago. Economic, human, and social capital, moreover, do not exhaust the range of different species of capital that are at stake and in play in the contemporary world. To take but one example, the most important additional species of capital identified by Bourdieu and the one for which he is the best known – cultural capital – differs from the aforementioned both in the forms that it assumes and in its mode of functioning. Most important among its several forms is an “embodied” form that may be acquired by a social actor in the early family setting. This form of cultural capital allows the well-endowed to profit from formal and informal education in ways that those lacking in cultural capital cannot, thereby helping to reproduce the social world that originally produced it.

While field and capital are familiar concepts in organizational research, the third concept in Bourdieu’s triad – habitus – has been applied to the study of organizations only a handful of times.3 And yet, as DiMaggio and Powell (1991b: 25–6) argued over a decade ago to little avail, the concept of the habitus offers a powerful means of linking micro- and macro-level processes in organization theory. As elaborated below, by habitus, Bourdieu means the relatively durable principles of judgment and practice generated by an actor’s early life experiences and modified (to a greater or a lesser degree) later in life. Shaped above all by economic and cultural conditions – that is, specific fields with their specific distributions of capital(s) – within which it is acquired and carried forth as a guide to practice in future situations, the habitus is a mechanism linking individual action and the macro-structural settings within which future action is taken. The habitus also links past fields to present fields through the individual actors who move from one to the next. Thus, each member of an organization brings to it a habitus formed under specific past conditions, some of which will be shared with other members and some of which will differ from them substantially. Since different habitus structure judgment and practices in different ways and since the division of labor in most organizations results in the interaction of a variety of habitus, attention to the role of the habitus in organizational life promises to shed considerable light on how organizational structure is built up from the microprocesses of individual behavior. Indeed, it was precisely this power of the habitus concept that originally persuaded DiMaggio and Powell of the great promise of Bourdieu’s framework for organizational analysis. Among our chief aims is to demonstrate the power of this framework to overcome persistent and counterproductive divisions of intellectual labor in organizational analysis – such as, for example, between social psychologists who study microprocesses and sociologists who study macroprocesses – that have prevented this promise from being realized.

The concept of the habitus completes Bourdieu’s theoretical triad and makes a truly unified and relational sociology of organizations possible. Such an approach has the potential to help us overcome a number of unfortunate dualisms in the literature, especially that between micro- and macro-level research foci. In the first half of this paper, we articulate a theory of organizational fields that is based, unlike past usages of the field concept, squarely in Bourdieu’s theoretical framework; in the second half, we apply this same field-based approach to the level of the organization itself. In each case, we consider how the concept of field is constitutively bound up with those of capital and habitus. Our aim throughout is to lay out the implications of a theory that, rather than borrowing piecemeal from Bourdieu’s work, deploys the full power of this theoretical triad, thereby opening up fresh and innovative possibilities for theory as well as research. We do not claim, however, that this Bourdieu-inspired perspective will lead in every instance to substantive findings that are totally new to the organizational literature. It will be seen, rather, that a good part of the appeal of such a perspective lies precisely in its ability to draw together ideas and insights that have already been explored by others – particularly by those working in the neo-institutionalist and resource dependence traditions – but now within a more unitary, elegant, and encompassing framework of analysis.4 It is our hope that such an effort will contribute to enriching organization studies and to making this research enterprise both more analytically sound and more empirically fruitful.5

Organizational fields

“In the social sciences, nothing is more critical than the initial carving out of one’s object.” And in the study of organizations, such an endeavor necessarily entails, as an ineliminable first step, construction of “the network of the objective relations among establishments that, like heavenly bodies belonging to the same gravitational field, produce effects upon one another from afar” (Bourdieu 1996a [1989]: 131, 132). The concept of field, in fact – a concept that has been much invoked by organizational analysts but rarely with a sufficient grasp of the theoretical, indeed philosophical, assumptions underlying it – must be recognized as a crucial tool for organizational inquiry. Organizations must always be situated within the matrices of relations, the relational contexts, within which they are constituted in sometimes unseen or unrecognizable ways and with which they are ever dialogically engaged. For it is necessary at the outset to acknowledge the force of the relational argument for which – at least since Marx and in more elaborated fashion since Dewey – “association in the sense of connection and combination is a ‘law’ of everything known to exist. Singular things act, but they act together. Nothing has been discovered which acts in entire isolation. The action of everything is along with the action of other things. The ‘along with’ is of such a kind that the behavior of each is modified by its connection with others….” (Dewey 1988a [1927]: 250).6

The concept of an organizational field

What then, more precisely, is a field – and an organizational field? And how might those concepts, as we are proposing they be deployed, lead to greater theoretical clarity and empirical illumination in the study of organizations? Let us return to Bourdieu for a generic working definition. Fields are “structured spaces of positions (or posts) whose properties depend on their position within these spaces and which can be analyzed independently of the characteristics of their occupants (which are partly determined by them)” (Bourdieu 1993a: 72). This means, to begin with, that any field – one consisting, for example, of two or more organizations – must be conceptualized as a configuration of relationships not between the concrete entities themselves – e.g., the specific organizations at hand – but rather, between the nodes those entities happen to occupy within the given network or configuration. These points or positions in organizational space and the forces binding them together constitute (from a synchronic perspective) a structure or a temporary state of power relations within what is (from a diachronic perspective) an ongoing struggle for domination over the field. This struggle has as its object successful monopolization “of the legitimate violence (specific authority) which is characteristic of the field in question” (Bourdieu 1993a: 73). Such a perspective – and one can see already how it contrasts with approaches that minimize the role of power dynamics, such as Luhmann’s systems theory – foregrounds the structural tension between the dominants and the dominated within any (organizational) field.7 It requires, as we explain below, that any such field be conceived of as a terrain of contestation between occupants of positions differentially endowed with the resources necessary for gaining and safeguarding an ascendant position within that terrain.8 It also implies that the boundaries of the field extend only so far as the power relations – field effects – that are themselves constitutive of that field hold sway. In other words, the field can be demarcated only in a realist and not a nominalist fashion, the specification of its outer frontiers being a matter for empirical investigation and not a matter of operationalist imposition on the part of a researcher (Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992: 100, 104).9 That our intuitions about what might constitute a particular field are so frequently the product of disciplinary divisions of labor renders the process of field construction especially crucial and difficult. Think, for example, of the musicologist who undertakes a study of all the opera houses in a given country and epoch – but only the opera houses. Musicology’s institutionalized indifference to non-musical institutions that nevertheless play an important role in structuring the funding, content, and audience composition at opera houses (e.g., theaters, cinemas, and museums, but also non-art-producing institutions such as the state) encourages misunderstanding of the field-specific principles structuring opera’s production and consumption.10 Within organization theory itself, intradisciplinary specialization often leads to a focus on particular “industries” or “populations,” thereby encouraging a similarly premature application of criteria – with some researchers analyzing all the firms producing the same product, offering the same service, or displaying the same structure, etc. – that may prevent the accurate assessment of which organizations actually belong to the field in question.11

The process of constructing the field is, as Bourdieu points out, perhaps among the most difficult and challenging of all phases of research. It is a process that obeys “principles that are less than a method (a route that one retraces after the fact) and more than a simple theoretical intuition” (Bourdieu 1996a [1989]: 232). Guided at first by a basic knowledge of the field or space at hand, one seeks to identify the most pertinent indicators, properties, or principles of division within that field, “the system of criteria that could account for the set of meaningful and significant differences that objectively separate [entities within the field] or, if you will, enable the set of relevant differences among [them] to arise” (Bourdieu 1996a [1989]: 232). Bourdieu stresses that this is hardly accomplished in a single bold stroke, but rather, is a “protracted and exacting task that is accomplished little by little” (Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992: 228), in a series of choices that must always be guided by a sense of craft – or, as Bourdieu puts it, le métier. Early intuitions about the principles of division operative within a field are put to the empirical test and gradually refined until they yield an objective space, defined perhaps according to criteria quite different from those that had originally guided the study. Thus, to return to our opera example, the researcher attentive to the process of field construction begins from the hypothesis that the production of opera is the principle uniting member organizations in a single field; gradually, however, she expands the range of organizations under consideration as her research reveals that the activities of opera-producing organizations are influenced by the positions and position-takings of organizations engaged in other activities entirely (Johnson 2007b).12 Nor is this all. “If, at all events, it appears proven that we have introduced, within the limits of available information, all the relevant criteria, that is, those able to determine differences significant in view of the goal pursued and to show up the distribution of powers constitutive of the structure of the… field at the moment considered, it remains the case that research discovers and reproduces uncertainties which are inherent in reality itself: struggles for the imposition of the principle of legitimate hierarchization do in fact cause the dividing-line between those who belong and those who do not to be constantly discussed and disputed, therefore shifting and fluctuating, at every moment and above all according to the moment” (Bourdieu 1988 [1984]: 77). What makes the determination of a field’s boundaries so very challenging, then, is that those boundaries are always at stake in the object itself: as neo-institutionalist organization theorists have long recognized, it is a question for empirical research where these boundaries might lie at any given moment.13

The weapons used in the struggle for the imposition of an organizing principle, of course, are the various types of resources distributed unevenly across the structure of the field in question, such as, for example, political power, financial reserves, or exclusive access to key suppliers or buyers. Accordingly, an analytic distinction must always be maintained between the structure of the distribution of these resources in an organizational field and the interactions among organizations within that field: “[T]he structure of a field … is different from the more or less lasting networks through which it manifests itself” (Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992: 113–14.) Many organizational researchers have failed to recognize the full force of this distinction. By imposing their own understanding of what counts as relevant for the organization in question – for example, by concentrating on all the organizations engaged in the production of similar goods or on all the organizations linked to a given organization in networks of interaction (all of these being instances of the nominalist tendency described above) – and then proceeding to observe and record at face value and in their directly visible immediacy the encounters or transactions among these organizations, they have neglected to grasp the very real contestation that obtains among these organizations over the legitimate definition of the field itself and, a fortiori, the state of power relations within which that contestation unfolds and which (to a large extent) determines its winners and losers.14 They have not sufficiently analyzed, that is, the structural forces that realize themselves by means of these transactions and that gain outward expression in and through them. Such an interactionist perspective, shared implicitly even by those who stress power and profits in their explicit analyses, can only take us so far toward an adequate theoretical and empirical understanding of the larger mechanisms that preconstruct, shape, and constitute the deeper truth of those interactions.

Even some of the finest and most exemplary studies in organizational analysis partake of this interactionist fallacy. Examples of it abound, in fact, at the levels of both theory and research. At the theoretical level, Bourdieu argues that even Granovetter (e.g., 1985, 1992), for example, who is committed to understanding economic action as embedded in social relations, “avoid[s] ‘methodological individualism’ only to fall back into the interactionist vision which, ignoring the structural constraint of the field, will (or can) acknowledge only the effect of the conscious and calculated anticipation each agent may have of the effects of its actions on the other agents,” thus arriving at an approach “which, eliminating all structural effects and objective power relations, amount[s] to proposing a false supersession of the (itself spurious) alternative between individualism and holism” (Bourdieu 2005 [2000]: 198). Elsewhere, Bourdieu develops a parallel argument in respect to the interactionism of Becker’s celebrated Art Worlds (1982), saying that an artistic field “is not reducible to … the sum of individual agents linked by simple relations of interaction or, more precisely, of cooperation: what is lacking, among other things, from this purely descriptive and enumerative evocation are the objective relations which are constitutive of the structure of the field and which orient the struggles aiming to conserve or transform it” (Bourdieu 1996c [1992]: 205). Moreover, even those who have sought to turn organization studies most decisively in a relational direction by invoking the concept of field have sometimes failed adequately to emphasize the difference between relations of interaction and relations of structural force. For example, Scott, one of the most prominent of neo-institutional theorists, writes that “organizations are in the same field if they take one another into account” (Scott 1994b: 206). And even when theorists do recognize the importance of structural relations, the kinds of structural relations singled out are highly limited in type. In the same discussion, for example, Scott writes that the concept of field “also attends to organizations that are operating under similar conditions and are for this reason likely to display similar characteristics and relationships – structural equivalence and isomorphism – whether or not they engage in direct exchanges” (Scott 1994b: 206–7).

These overly circumscribed theoretical formulations have found their complement in empirical inquiries that similarly fail to effect an epistemological break with the facts of interaction as they appear to be. For instance, much (though by no means all) of social network analysis, which has proliferated in economic sociology and organization studies in recent years and which, in other respects, seems the perfect response to calls for a relational approach to organizational analysis, privileges the investigation of concrete ties over the modeling of network positions.15 Bourdieu’s criticism of work on corporate interlocks speaks to this larger issue: “It is through the weight that [firms] possess within [a] structure, more than through the direct interventions they may also make (in particular through the interlocking directorates which are a more or less distorted expression of it) that the dominant firms exert their pressure on the dominated firms and on their strategies: they define the regularities and sometimes the rules of the game” (Bourdieu 2005 [2000]: 195). Even White’s highly structuralist approach to producer markets can be taken to task here for its interactionist tendencies, for, as Bourdieu points out, it seeks to explain the strategies of firms not with reference to the constraints associated with their positions in a field of structural relations but instead with reference to firms’ observation of and response to the behavior and signals of competitors (Bourdieu 2005 [2000]: 207–08). One must be careful, of course, not to paint with too broad a brush in impugning social network analysis with this interactionist critique. Many classic studies in that tradition (e.g., White et al. 1976; Laumann and Knoke 1987; Burt 1992; see also DiMaggio 1986) have, in fact, inferred power relations among positions precisely from data on concrete network ties. What Bourdieu is attempting to do is not to reject this mode of inquiry tout court, but rather, to call for a more focused investigation of the objective relations among network positions.16 One alternative way of stating his criticism, perhaps, is to suggest that structure and interaction stand in a dialectical relation to one another, that they mutually presuppose one another, and that the one-sided analysis of the latter – in abstraction from the former – is ultimately a wrong-headed approach. Social network studies, not to mention other approaches often taken to task by Bourdieu, are to be faulted only insofar as they deny that the truth of interactions is to be found always (at least partly) outside those interactions themselves.17

Organizational fields as structures of power

Clearly, then, the conception of structure we have been counterposing to interaction is meant to invoke the idea of a configuration of power relations. But precisely here the question arises: how are such structures of power to be mapped out and investigated in a systematic fashion? To achieve such an end, an additional notion has to be introduced, a conception of capital that is relationally interdependent with that of field. Such a notion of capital, moreover, has to be deployed in a different and far more comprehensive manner than in economistic perspectives that focus analytic attention solely or predominantly on material resources. In the view we are outlining, capital encompasses a wide variety of different species of resources, convertible, in principle, into one another at different rates of exchange; many of these are typically operative within given fields at given times, both as weapons and as stakes in the struggle to gain ascendancy over those fields. Possession of any one or more of these types of capital – financial, informational, legal, technical, political, and so forth – can be said to “allow [the] possessors to wield a power, or influence, and thus to exist, in the field under consideration instead of being considered a negligible quantity” (Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992: 98); the degree to which this is the case, of course, depends on the volume and composition of the capital possessed and the degree of valuation that that capital enjoys within the field in question. “There is thus a sort of hermeneutic circle: in order to construct the field, one must identify the forms of specific capital that operate within it, and to construct the forms of specific capital one must know the specific logic of the field. There is an endless to and fro movement in the research process that is quite lengthy and arduous” (Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992: 108).18

Within the configuration of power relations that constitutes a field, particular positions or roles, including those that mark the dominant and dominated poles of the field, can be rigorously analyzed in terms of the distinctive profiles of capital associated with them. Thus, within any organizational field, different specific organizations – occupants of these distinct positions – can be said to engage in the struggles ongoing within that field as bearers of different amounts and combinations of resources, some of which yield greater advantages within that particular field than do others. Indeed, much of the contestation in which organizations take part can be said to concern the legitimate valuation that is to be accorded the precise species of capital in which they happen (actually or potentially) to be well-endowed. In such struggles, one typically encounters two sharply opposing strategies of action: on the one hand, a conservation strategy on the part of the dominant organizations, in which their overriding aim is to preserve the principle of hierarchization that is most favorable to them and to safeguard or even enhance their position within this hierarchy; and, on the other hand, a subversion strategy on the part of the dominated organizations in which their contrary aim is to transform the system of authority within the field, including potentially the very rules of the game according to which it ordinarily functions, to their own benefit. In analyzing any organizational field, it is important to determine in precisely which ways its different constituent actors, differently positioned as they are in the field and in the distribution of capital therein, perceive themselves, their competitors, and the field as a whole, in all its opportunities and challenges, and gravitate in the direction of one or the other of these opposing strategies of action in respect to it.19

Especially significant as both a stake and a weapon in these dynamics of contestation is what Bourdieu terms symbolic capital, or capital in any of its (aforementioned) forms insofar as it is accorded positive recognition, esteem, or honor by relevant actors within the field. (The heavy stress on this notion in Bourdieu’s writings shows the pervasive influence on his thought of late-Durkheimian insights into the significance of the sacred and of consecration processes, as elaborated in The Elementary Forms of Religious Life.) For example, within a field of economic firms, symbolic capital consists in the special authority that particular companies – say, Coca-Cola, Microsoft, or Sony – are able to exert over the market, perhaps by virtue of their “‘goodwill investment,’ ‘brand loyalty,’ etc.; as a power which functions as a form of credit, [presupposing] the trust or belief of those upon whom it bears because they are disposed to grant it credence” (Bourdieu 2005 [2000]]: 195).20 Or within the field of social science research, to take a very different example, the prestige that the major departments enjoy (e.g., in the Ivy League, or at the great universities of California or the Midwest) enables them to set parameters for knowledge production to which even lesser, would-be maverick departments, not to mention peripheral interdisciplinary programs, are required always tacitly or deliberately to respond. Or still closer to home, within the field of organization studies itself, programs whose intellectual profile stresses the analysis of markets and market-like behavior – programs of management studies and organizational analysis usually located inside business schools – often wield an intangible but very real symbolic authority vis-à-vis programs that are associated with sociology and psychology departments and that self-consciously oppose themselves to economistic tendencies within the field. Contestations over symbolic capital or authority – the sacred – are a key feature of nearly every field of organizational transactions, and those firms, academic departments, or other organizations that succeed in amassing it gain considerably thereby in their efforts to assume a dominant position within the field as a whole. (Indeed, it could be said in a reflexive spirit that this present article is itself a contribution to these struggles, assaying as it does an eminently sociology-centered construction or definition of the field of organization studies.) Relevant in this context, moreover, are not only the volume and composition of an organization’s capital in the present state of the field, but also its trajectory within the field over time, symbolic authority often (but by no means always) being attached to the most venerable establishments within the field rather than to the newcomers, challengers, or upstarts. Some useful contributions notwithstanding, organizational analysts could benefit from recognizing the full significance of such symbolic capital.21 An approach that takes symbolic capital more seriously, as does the approach we are propounding here – “I do not contend that everything is symbolic; I would only suggest that there is nothing which is not symbolic at least in part” (Bourdieu 1996b: 242) – would foreground existing literatures that attend to these symbolic dimensions and incorporate them more systematically into a unified and encompassing frame of reference.

The interplay of a wide variety of different species of capital (including symbolic capital) leads to the emergence within any organizational field of a capital specific to that particular field, which enables the dominant(s) within that field to exercise power over the field as a whole and “over the different particular species of capital [operative within it], and especially over the rates of conversion between them (and thereby over the relations of force between their respective holders)” (Bourdieu 1998a [1994]: 42). This means that those who possess this specific capital – whatever type it might be – gain thereby the capacity to determine, within the field in question, the relative values of all other kinds of resources, such as the value of financial or legal as opposed to technical or political capital, within the overall distribution of capital that constitutes the state of power relations within that field; they gain, moreover, the capacity to produce the recognition of the legitimacy of this distribution among the other contending parties. Competition over this ultimate resource is especially acute (and consequential) among the organizations that one might describe, loosely speaking, as the “ruling class” of the organizational field. Bourdieu elaborated the relational concept of a field of power – understood as a configuration of power relations within which the dominants (or preeminent holders of the major varieties of capital) of a society are arrayed and pitted against one another – to replace the common substantialist (or at best, interactionist) notion of a “class” or “population of agents who occupy positions of power” (Wacquant 1993: 21). This idea now lends itself – with a slight terminological modification to take into account the shift in levels of analysis – to the study of organizational fields: upon attaining a minimal level of complexity, the latter themselves develop something like an internal field of power, or what we shall sometimes call a space of struggle for organizational power. Think, for example, of the great ateliers or couture houses (e.g., Chanel, Hermès) that mark the inner core of the international fashion industry, or of the major schuls – Orthodox as well as Reform – that constitute the religious center of the New York City synagogic field. It is here, within these spaces of struggle for organizational power, that one typically encounters the contestations that ultimately prove most significant for the contours and dynamics of those fields as a whole.22

Organizational positions and position-takings

If the drives for distinction and for recognized and legitimate power are the hallmarks of all organizational fields, then how do these processes unfold? What are the most significant mechanisms for organizational researchers to attend to? To answer these questions, we shift our focus of attention from the analytic domain of social structure, where we have dwelt thus far in discussing objective relationships among positions within organizational fields, to that of culture. Organizational actors distinguish themselves from others within their field by means of symbolically meaningful position-takings – e.g., works, services, acts, arguments, products – which derive their semiotic significance in relational fashion from their difference vis-à-vis other such position-takings within a space of position-takings.23 Common schools in nineteenth-century America, for example, distinguished themselves from their sectarian Protestant as well as Catholic competitors on the basis of the pan-Protestant moral and religious instruction they imparted (Emirbayer 1992). Social movement organizations today differentiate themselves on the basis of the stances they assume in respect to strategy, goals, and identity, not to mention also the kinds of benefits they provide to actual and prospective members. And economic firms mark their products off from those of their competitors by way of symbolic differences, much as Pepsi (a product and therefore a position-taking) is marked off from Coke (another product and position-taking): “In the space of the business world every firm is defined according to its originality, that is, to what I would term its symbolic capital, according to the differences that distant [sic] it from the others. The mark [i.e., brand] idea is a quasi-linguistic notion…” (Bourdieu 1996b: 242). This semiotic approach to the analysis of “quasi-linguistic” phenomena, much closer in its dialogic and processual overtones to Peirce and Bakhtin than to work in the Saussurean tradition of semotic structuralism – the latter embodied, for example, by Alexander’s early forays into cultural sociology (Alexander and Smith 1993) – stresses that culture has as much to do with action as it does with structure; its attempt to transcend the all-too-frequent and pernicious division between statics and dynamics marks it definitively as what one might call a relational pragmatics.

Now, what is the relation between culture, understood as a space of position-takings, and social structure, understood as a space of positions? Bourdieu has given more than one answer to this question, vacillating between a reductionist point of view – the space of positions as primary – and another that affirms the analytic independence of cultural formations.24 In our own view, while the structure of the field of positions restricts the (actual and potential) position-takings available to specific actors within it, conversely, the structure of the field of position-takings effectively permits only certain kinds of organizations to assume particular stances or to enter into the field or market producing particular kinds of goods or services. Hence, the space of position-takings retains, as a semiotic structure of differences, a degree of relative autonomy vis-à-vis the space of positions and the occupants of those positions, such that culture itself can be said to be relatively autonomous in respect to social structure (in this regard, we find Alexander’s arguments to be the most persuasive and Bourdieu’s in need of reconstruction). The former is organized, then, like the latter, in terms of a bipolar structure, with close correspondences of position-takings at its dominant and dominated poles with the occupants of the dominant and dominated poles, respectively, of the space of positions. These spaces are intimately interrelated; indeed, the two are mutually constitutive, as in a Galois lattice diagram: positions in the one are distinguished by means of their corresponding position-takings in the other and vice-versa: hence a duality of the spaces of positions and position-takings. The research implications of this fundamental insight – articulated in its classic form by Simmel (1955) and elaborated since by Breiger (1974) – are considerable: take, for example, a corporation that has chosen to donate money to some charitable cause. This position-taking – not only the fact of donation, but the fact of donation to this rather than that cause – cannot be grasped in its meaning except with reference to the corporation’s position and trajectory in its organizational field; thus a single instance of corporate philanthropy will require the researcher to reconstruct the present and past states of the field in which the corporation in question has been positioned. At the same time, the donation – analyzed in relation to the philanthropic choices made by other corporations – itself helps the researcher to pinpoint the position of the corporation in question inside its organizational field. We can see here how attention to the space of position-takings in such a case could serve to complement network-analytic research such as that by Galaskiewicz and Wasserman (1989), who show that concrete ties (in the form of shared members) between two organizations influence similarity in organizational position-takings with regard to corporate philanthropy.

The usefulness of the concept of a space of position-takings becomes even clearer once it is recognized that this space can be approached, not only from the vantage-point of the social-scientific observer, but also from that of the organizational actors themselves, engaged as they are in the contestations that mark their field. From those organizations’ point of view – or, to be more specific, from the point of view of the intraorganizational actors struggling within each organization to control its policies, identities, and strategies of action – the space of position-takings is apprehended as a “space of possibles,” as a space of “objective potentialities, things ‘to be done,’... adversaries to combat, established position-takings to be ‘overtaken’” (Bourdieu 1996c [1992]: 235). It is also apprehended, by the same token, as a space of im-possibles. Thus, it presents itself both as a cultural structure that imposes constraints on organizational innovation, delimiting the space of what can conceivably be attempted or accomplished, and as a set of openings or windows of opportunity for innovative action – its presences simultaneously also implying absences that, when apprehended through categories of perception capable of grasping the creative possibilities inherent in them, allow for a certain degree of “freedom under constraints.” (It is precisely at this analytic juncture, as we shall see, that the concept of habitus becomes so very important.) Such is the case when, for example, under public scrutiny and at risk of litigation for contributing to health problems, the fast-food giant McDonald’s invents a response wholly within its own grammar: the adult Happy Meal. The adult version substitutes pedometer, fitness guide, salad, and bottled water for the action figure, hamburger, fries, and soft drink of the child’s Happy Meal. In Bourdieu’s words, “A veritable ars obligatoria, as the Scholastics put it, [the space of possibles] acts like a grammar in defining the space of what is possible or conceivable within the limits of a certain field, constituting each of the ‘choices’ taken … as a grammatically consistent option (in contrast to choices which lead one to say the [organization] ‘will do anything’); but it is also an ars inveniendi which allows the invention of a diversity of acceptable solutions within the limits of grammaticality” (Bourdieu 1996c [1992]: 236). One of the signal contributions of the theoretical orientation we have been advancing is its overcoming of false dualisms, here the dualisms of necessity and freedom or structure and agency; one can see how such a task might be accomplished with specific reference to the study of organizational actions and initiatives.

In summary, the idea of a space of possibles (a semiotic or cultural structure), conceived in its interrelation with a space of positions (a social structure), provides us with crucial insights into the conditions for – and constraints on – organizational creativity. It allows us to see how new position-takings become possible within organizational fields – but possible only for some and under highly delimited conditions – and how those possibilities then get acted on and realized by particular organizations. Organizations can have an important impact on the fields within which they are located, apprehending and seizing upon opportunities (lacunae) within the extant field of possibles and introducing key innovations within that field which other organizations then have to take into account and to respond to dialogically in turn. Field-transformative events – such as the digital and biotechnology revolutions – all involve and build upon such moments of organizational creativity, in contrast to (perhaps also preceding in time) the processes leading to organizational isomorphism that neo-institutionalists have done so much to highlight in recent decades. The symbolic authority of dominant models within the space of position-takings, not to mention also the “non-orchestrated orchestration” of the habitus within the space of dispositions (a topic about which we shall also have more to say below), might in most instances lead toward organizational homogeneity, but the approach we are espousing also leaves open (but always within constraints) significant possibilities for far-reaching change.

The internal logic of organizational fields

It should be apparent that fields are hardly the inert structures, devoid of all processuality, that a simple dichotomization of statics and dynamics assumes. Built into their very logic, in fact, is a dynamism of potential innovation and a motor for ceaseless change: “What defines the structure of the field … is also the principle of its dynamics” (Bourdieu 1993c: 135). One must always be wary of the false separation of structure and history. Stinchcombe (1965) stressed this point emphatically when urging students of organizations to explore questions of historical origins and trajectories. Despite his eloquent appeals, however, the “historic turn” that swept the humanities and social sciences in the 1970s–1980s bypassed many organizational researchers. Questions concerning the relation between past and present that marked that new historical sensibility received less attention than they merit; organization scholars focused instead on contemporary corporations, most of which had been extant for less than a few decades. Indeed, study of the legions of organizations born and dismantled in the “distant” past was left largely to historical sociologists, with the notable exception, of course, of organizational ecologists, whose own interest in the history of organizations nevertheless bore little resemblance to the explicit concerns of historical sociologists with theoretical categories such as process, causality, temporality, and eventfulness.25 It is further symptomatic of this false separation of statics and dynamics that the analysis of the genesis and transformation of organizations was commonly relegated to a different intellectual category altogether – and a different subfield of academic specialization – than studies of their present state. This was in direct contradiction to the insight, so well articulated by Durkheim, that the history of all social institutions is to be found embodied in their current condition and must be systematically taken into account for any adequate understanding of that condition to be attained: “For the truth is that the present, to which we are invited to restrict our attention, is by itself nothing: it is no more than an extrapolation of the past, from which it cannot be severed without losing the greater part of its significance” (Durkheim 1977 [1904–1905]: 15). In recent years, calls for increased attention to the historical dimensions of organizational life have, in fact, been renewed (Scott [e.g., 1992]; Zald [e.g., 1990].) And work by historical sociologists of organizations, particularly that of Dobbin (1995, 2001) on early railroading and of Fligstein (1985, 1990) and Guillén (1994) on twentieth-century conceptions of managerial control, has shown that a long historical attention span is crucial to grasping and explaining both our current institutionalized assumptions about the nature and functioning of organizations in general and the nature and functioning of individual organizations in particular. Such work has reinserted contemporary organizations into the centuries-long historical process of which they represent only particular and highly mutable congealments. Valuable as these contributions have been, however, they continue to represent only a small portion of the work being done on organizations.

The dynamism and processuality constitutive of all organizational fields do not, of course, necessarily entail perpetual revolution. The fact that in nearly all cases the dynamics of competition within such fields result not in their far-reaching subversion but rather in outward stability and reproduction is doubtless due to the shared interests that constituent organizations have in the existence and fundamental stakes of those fields themselves, despite their ongoing struggles to reshape them to their own advantage. “[T]he precondition for entry to the field is recognition of the values at stake and therefore recognition of the limits not to be exceeded on pain of being excluded from the game. It follows that the internal struggle can only lead to partial revolutions that can destroy the hierarchy but not the game itself…. [Attempted innovations are] always in the name of the game, the spirit of the game” (Bourdieu 1993c: 134). Thus organizations not only have interests – and corresponding strategies of action – grounded in the discrete positions they happen to occupy within fields, interests that drive them into competition with one another, but also shared commitments to or investments in those fields as a whole, “an objective complicity that underlies all the antagonisms” (Bourdieu 1993a: 73). For example, the competing school systems of the nineteenth-century American educational field, despite their opposing stances in respect to moral and religious education, all shared in the presupposition – a bedrock assumption – that schools ought always to involve themselves in the shaping of moral character and that that character ought to be grounded in (some form of) Christian values. When studying organizational fields, such as that of public schooling, it is crucial always to inquire into the tacitly shared commitments that constitute the “admission fee,” as it were, into those fields, a task that, we might add, often reveals investments – e.g., in Christian virtue – that constitute a veritable negation of the kinds of material interests stipulated by all but the most expansive (and therefore vacuous) formulations of economism.

In fact, rational actor models of organizational behavior notwithstanding, it is well known, thanks in large measure to the efforts of neo-institutionalist scholars, that organizations do not conduct themselves most of the time as so many incarnations writ large of homo economicus.26 Rather, they proceed on the basis of largely unreflective presuppositions and valuations that give way to explicit calculations within the realm of discursive consciousness (as Giddens would have it) only when problematic circumstances arise that render such habitual or iterational modalities of response no longer feasible. Action is best conceptualized, as the classical American pragmatists showed long ago, as largely practical or non-strategic conduct, driven in most instances by “active dispositions” that have been “formed through past experience” (Dewey 1988b [1922]: 33, 48). One might speak here of an organizational habitus, were it not for the dangers of reification inherent in such a usage, dangers to which Bourdieu himself points whenever he invokes such generalizing notions as the class or group habitus. As we elaborate in the latter half of this article, emergent position-takings on the part of an organization must always be understood, not as the self-expressions of a singular actor, but rather, as compromise products of a whole complex of negotiations and contestations unfolding over time within that organization understood as itself a field. What remains truly useful, at any rate, about the notion of an organizational habitus is its highlighting of the fact—better grasped, for example, in the business world by executives required by the exigencies of the market to know their competitors’ dispositions well than by academic modelers of economic action who work in relative impunity from penalties ordinarily imposed by a false vision of the social world—that organizations, even business firms, are never driven solely by considerations of self-interest in the narrowest sense; they are also driven by interests specific to the game in which they are taking part, interests, to be sure, perceived and acted upon in different ways depending on the different positions these organizations occupy within the field at hand.

Organizational fields, in short, always function according to their own internal logic, which can only be rendered imperfectly into the economistic logic of rational actor theory. Each organizational configuration, like a Weberian life-sphere, stands as a microcosm unto itself, as its own relatively autonomous universe, exhibiting always its own highly unique stakes and distinctive dynamics. An important implication of this principle is that in seeking to understand the stability or transformation of an organizational field over time, one must carefully examine the ways in which external forces and developments are refracted through the prism of its specific interests. “[T]he only way external determinations are exercised is through the intermediary of specific forces and forms of the field, that is, after having undergone a restructuration, and this restructuration is all the more major the more autonomous the field and the more capable it is of imposing its specific logic….” (Bourdieu 1996c [1992]: 232). This specificity accounts for the fact that, in the midst of changes unfolding all around it, an organizational configuration can sometimes itself manifest only very insignificant or at best gradual change. We can see, for example, how the intelligence community of the United States, including the C.I.A. (but also other organizations), continued for years to orient itself to Cold War operations, even as what it needed to acquire information about changed irremediably from the covert actions of centralized states to the covert actions of decentralized networks.

Organizational fields vis-à-vis other fields

Despite the relative autonomy of fields, external changes do matter. Substantial innovations in an organizational field typically occur only when there is a linking up of the strategies of action of participants in the internal contestations of a field with the strategies of homologous actors, individual or collective, in other fields. The latter are crucial in that they provide support for the former, material as well as symbolic. Such sources of reinforcement, of course, are not themselves always available but must be generated in and through a host of historical developments elsewhere. Only a theory of organizational change that approaches the problem in terms of conjunctures of independently developing lines of causation – some emerging within the field in question and others outside it – can adequately explain the most significant alterations of organizational configurations.27 Whence, then, such reinforcements for subversive strategies within organizational fields, reinforcements from outside those fields themselves? One important place to look is the state, which Bourdieu (1998a [1994]) conceptualizes – much as Meyer (1994: 38) urged organization theorists to do, and much as Laumann and Knoke (1987) pursued in empirical fashion – not as a monolithic actor, but rather as itself a field of bureaucratic-administrative agencies, a bureaucratic field. Such a conceptualization allows us to grasp, not only the direct and obvious influence of state officials and agencies on the structure and dynamics of organizational fields through regulatory policies, but also the more indirect transformations that may arise through a synchronization of the strategies of (less dominant) actors within the state – actors with a powerful interest to seek subversion and change – with those of homologous actors within (less dominant) organizations within organizational fields. In parallel fashion, too, the economy, also conceptualized as a field made up of particular organizations and configurations of organizations, serves as a frequent point of origin for organizational innovation. Viewed in the broadest perspective, world-historical processes of rationalization within both of these fields, the bureaucratic-administrative and the economic – processes of the sort that Meyer and his colleagues have highlighted – play a crucial role in stimulating innovation in organizational fields of all kinds.28

Also important for understanding far-reaching change in configurations of organizations is inquiry into the spaces of class, gender, and race relations, which tend to be (but are not necessarily) coterminous with the boundaries of national states and economic fields.29 From within these spaces, dominated (or at least not dominant) categories of individuals can lend support to field-transformative organizational initiatives. For example, new boutique hotel chains could not have succeeded in reshaping the terrain of the upscale hotel field, both national and global, in the absence of an avid clientele of “new middle classes” to be found in sales, advertising, and other occupations that provide “symbolic goods and services,” consumers whose high cultural capital, ample discretionary income, and bourgeois origins – “a relation … to the social world [which they aspire] to extend or re-establish” – predisposes them toward lifestyles given over to the pursuit of the “stylish” and “trendy” (Bourdieu 1984 [1979]: 357). Similar stories could also be told in respect to gender- and race-based dynamics. As changes in the “positions of the dispositions” – classed, gendered, and raced – of collective actors alter the dynamics of consumption, so too do opportunities open for changes in corresponding fields of production. Here, it is important to move beyond the limitations in Bourdieu’s own model of “the social space as a whole,” which stipulates a priori that class relations are the “fundamental determinants” of this space while gender and race are “secondary properties” moderating class effects (Bourdieu 1984 [1979]); such a principle contradicts Bourdieu’s own best insights into the multiplicity and intersectionality of fields and represents yet another respect in which certain of his arguments need to be reconstructed carefully.30

Another important source of support for organizations seeking to transform their own fields of struggle is to be found in fields consisting of similar kinds of organizational actors but at a more encompassing – ultimately, global – level. That is, since many organizational fields are embedded inside similar fields of even greater scope, dominated organizations from within the latter (say, at a transnational level) can supply much-needed capital, symbolic or otherwise, to organizations in homologous positions within the former (say, at a national or local level) – this always occurring, of course, in mediated fashion given the relative autonomy of all fields. In some cases, the relevant actors in the more encompassing fields might be positioned in the most dominated regions of those fields, as is true of international terrorist organizations such as al Qaeda, for example, which stand well outside the global field of power. Al Qaeda is able to pass on invaluable support, of both a material and a symbolic nature, to terrorist groups inside specific national states, as well as to play an important role in (re-)shaping, within each national state, the overall field of political contestation. In another category of cases, however, it is actually more established actors – organizations that, unlike al Qaeda, are positioned securely near the dominant poles of their respective fields – that perform this crucial function. Typically, these are the “dominated dominants” within those fields, organizations that occupy subordinate positions within fields of power and that are accordingly the less privileged among the most privileged in those spaces. Synchronization of forces among these dominated dominants from different organizational fields might facilitate significant change within one of these fields, as is the case, for example, when an ailing medical products company teams up with university researchers (dominated members of the field of power) to produce a cutting-edge medical technology so successful as to transform the structure of the medical technologies field itself.

Organizations as fields

We have spoken thus far of fields of two or more organizations exclusively. However, the full analytic power of Bourdieu’s ideas can only be grasped when it is recognized that these ideas retain a certain “self-similarity across levels,” as White (1992) would have it, and prove useful not only when deployed horizontally, as it were, in comparisons across the self-same level of analysis – between, say, fields of non-profit and for-profit organizations, or across the educational, religious, and other domains – but also vertically, encompassing, for example, not only fields of organizations but also particular organizations as fields. Such self-similarity across levels calls into question the false division of labor – and along with it the theoretically false and vacuous attempts subsequently at synthesis – between the macroscopic and microscopic levels of analysis. If, as has been suggested, “researchers’ attention [has shifted recently] away from behavior within organizations … toward the behavior of organizations as entities in and of themselves” (Baum 2002: 73), then our relational approach promises to redirect some of that attention back onto processes taking place inside the boundaries of organizations, but now within a more unified and comprehensive analytic framework. In what follows, we take a closer look at some of the implications of examining organizations as fields from such a theoretical perspective.

The concept of the organization-as-field

How are organizations to be conceived of as fields? We can begin with a simple proposition by Bourdieu: “If we enter the ‘black box’ that is the firm [or organization], we find not individuals, but, once again, a structure – that of the firm [or organization] as a field” (Bourdieu 2005 [2000]: 205). In the organization, as in the world beyond, the analysis of interactions alone (e.g., among individuals) can never, despite efforts by students of intraorganizational behavior such as ethnographers, social psychologists, symbolic interactionists, ethnomethodologists, and (in many cases) analysts of intraorganizational networks and social capital, suffice to reveal the larger framework of power relations that expresses itself within such interactions – and that helps to frame them in the first place.31 Here again, of course, researchers face the thorny problem of determining the structure of the field – in this case, of the organization-as-field. In our view, such an inquiry involves determining the key figures or groups in an organization and assessing the kinds of capital (financial, cultural, technical, etc.) that they possess and that appear to be at stake in their interactions, but also being ever alert – to some extent in the spirit of older students of organizations such as Gouldner (1954), Blau (1955, 1964), and Crozier (1967, 1971), all of whom underscored such concerns – to the crucial distinction between official organizational posts, with their formally decreed powers, and the specific volume and forms of capital actually held by the occupants of different positions in the organization-as-field. For while official posts do endow their occupants with capital that inheres in the posts themselves, the profits attached to any given post are not the only source of capital for their occupants, who also bring in their train a specific volume and composition of capital (economic, political, educational, and so forth) acquired in and reproduced by other fields, such as the social capital produced (as Burt [1992, 2000] has demonstrated) within intra- and interorganizational networks quite distinct from the formal structures within which it often exerts its influence.32

How far, then, do the boundaries of an organization-as-field extend? Here again we find a crucial difference between the organization and other kinds of fields, this time inhering in the fact that, unlike the cultural field, the economic field, or particular organizational fields, an organization is endowed with formal, often legally codified, boundaries. Many economists and some economic sociologists have sought to theorize organizations as single unified actors, “as basic units of social structure analogous to individual organisms” (Davis 2005: 9). But such a perspective, for all its elegance, requires them to overlook intraorganizational conflicts whose outcomes may indeed take on the appearance of strategic organizational action, but only after the fact, resulting in a substantial cost to our understanding of the actual processes underlying organizational behavior. Furthermore, as many organizational scholars, beginning in the 1980s, have shown, theorizing the organization as a single actor makes it far more difficult to understand the emergence and effects of interorganizational arrangements such as alliances, franchising, outsourcing, and temporary, project-based teams that cross and blur the traditional boundaries between individual organizations, such that “the real unit of economic action [now] is increasingly not the isolated firm but networks of firms” (Stark 2001: 77).33 In recognizing the error of taking formal organizational boundaries at face value, many other researchers have suggested a variety of criteria – among them membership, types of activities performed, and networks of interaction – to aid in the determination of organizational boundaries (Scott 2003: 187; Baker and Faulkner 2002). Techniques of social network analysis have proved especially useful in documenting the shift from old to new organizational arrangements, although we might repeat here that such studies have rarely examined – as is called for in a Bourdieu-inspired approach – the process by which the very value of the resources exchanged through these ties is contested, constituted, and contested again.34 Our own view is that the concept of the organization-as-field, whose deployment in organizational research would call for the reconstruction of this latter process, can better help us to meet the challenge of analyzing today’s more fluid and amorphous organizational entities.35

From a relational perspective, then, there can be no a priori answer to the question of boundaries, and the issue can be decided by imposition on the part of the researcher no more than it can be decided by decree on the part of (dominants within) the organization or the law. In this regard, inquiry into the boundaries of the organization-as-field in no way differs from inquiry into the boundaries of other fields: what is at stake in all of them is the legitimate definition of the dominant principle of domination. What does differ, however, is the degree to which the principles of domination are in flux and at stake – as Baker and Faulkner (1991: 285) make clear, for example, in comparing the fluidity of the Hollywood film industry to the relative stability of the professions studied by Abbott (1988). This means that the question as to which social actors connected with an organization – executives, board members, employees, or shareholders – are part of the organization-as-field can only be determined through systematic empirical inquiry into the nature and state of the field, for struggles among these groups to place this rather than that successor in the post of CEO, for example – or to force out the current occupant – are attempts to impose the various forms of capital held by these groups as the legitimate form, and they have the effect of shifting the boundaries of the organization-as-field by excluding the holders of the defeated forms of capital. Similarly, in the current public debate over the existence of a causal relation between the growth in shareholder power since the 1980s and the recently uncovered and in some cases criminal excesses of certain CEOs, we find a generalized version of the contestation of organizational boundaries that one inevitably encounters in the analysis of particular organizations. It is crucial to stress here that such contestation is not always deliberately pursued: that is, social actors are not always and invariably oriented toward conflict. For example, in Goffman’s classic work on Asylums (1961), in which total institutions are revealed to be sites of ongoing recalcitrance on the part of the dominated, the struggles examined only sometimes involve strategic action aimed at challenging organizational dominants’ stances or power. Just as often, thanks to the effects that particular position-takings may have on the structure of relations in the field as a whole – even position-takings in no way meant as a challenge to anyone else, such as the “removal activities” by which prisoners or mental patients seek to block out awareness of their oppressive surroundings – we can find a “production of difference which is in no way the product of a search for difference” (Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992: 100).

What determines the structure of positions in an organization-as-field, as the more or less durable outcome of struggles over the conservation or devalorization of what counts (at a given moment) as the legitimate form(s) of capital obtaining therein – and thereby of struggles over which actors are to exercise the most influence in organizational decision-making – is the volume and structure of capital held by each actor within the field. Organizational researchers have thus far devoted most of their attention to capital in its economic, social, and human forms. However, Bourdieu’s theoretical and empirical work also demonstrates the importance of a number of other kinds of capital, most importantly cultural and symbolic capital. The former encompasses educational capital – i.e., number of years in school or degrees obtained – as well as possession of cultural objects and (even more importantly) possession of the cognitive, affectual, and even bodily means to appropriate and use them: that is, long-lasting dispositions of the mind and body that vary significantly along class, gender, and race lines. Cultural capital differs from economic capital in being transmissable only by means of an investment of time, which itself requires “distance from necessity”; it differs from human capital in being not an individual-level phenomenon, but rather, a subjectification of objective structures within the mind and body of the singular actor36; and it differs from social capital in being the product, not merely of extant network ties, but, more deeply, of a person’s life history, understood as the experience of and passage through a number of distinct social fields. Conceptualized in these ways, it is a key source of power in organizations, one that has remained, with the exception of its more outward or institutionalized modalities as educational capital, relatively underexamined. Symbolic capital, for its part, designates—as we mentioned above—any type of capital (including but not limited to cultural capital) insofar as it is accorded honor or recognition by relevant actors. Struggles over symbolic authority (or consecration, as Bourdieu, in a Durkheimian spirit, would call it) are often among the most significant of organizational dynamics.37 Business schools, for example, which bring together MBA students, faculty, and administrators – holders of a variety of different types of capital – are frequently the sites of conflict over whether academic or business competence is to be the most highly esteemed. Similarly, in a complex arts organization such as an opera house, the dominant capital held by the principal conductor – specifically musical in form and often symbolized by the title “Artistic Director” – frequently stands in more or less constant tension with the administrative capital held by the house’s “General Manager.” At any given moment in the life of such organizations, one or the other kind of competence commands more respect and deference from the majority of members. It acts, in other words, as symbolic capital, conferring upon its holders certain advantages in conflicts within the organizations in question.

As our example of the opera house indicates, the most consequential of internal struggles typically take place within an organization’s own internal space of struggle for organizational power, its internal field of power, where what is at stake is nothing less than the capacity to determine which of the various species of capital extant within the organization will be the most influential in defining its activities and in formulating its policies. (Fligstein puts forth a similar idea, labeling this heart of the organization’s power struggles the “subunit power base” [1990: 17].) Internal struggles may pit holders of economic capital against holders of cultural capital, as in the fields of power of societies writ large (according to Bourdieu), but more often than not they may unfold among holders of contrasting species of cultural capital itself. The specific character of these struggles, which depends heavily upon, say, the industry in which an organization is active and the state of that industry at the time period in question, must be empirically determined for every case. In the space of struggle for organizational power at the heart of a U.S. pharmaceutical company, for example, we are likely to find two types of apparently similar educational capital pitted against each other, both deriving from degrees granted by postgraduate professional schools: the cultural (because educational) capital represented by an MBA degree, which may be reinforced when paired with experience in management, and the cultural capital represented by an MD degree, capital that may likewise be enhanced by clinical or research experience. Holders of these different types of capital within that corporation’s space of struggle for organizational power are likely to differ in their conceptions of the corporation’s legitimate goals, activities, and policies. In another industry, or indeed in the same industry in another country, a different grouping of species of capital might come into play in the organization’s internal field of power. But the broad dynamics of the conflict will undoubtedly be the same in every case: holders of the currently dominant species of capital will be found to stand in opposition to those working to bring about the legitimation of their own less valuable species. (To take yet another example, one invoked by Bourdieu himself [Bourdieu 2005 [2000]: 249 fn.23], Fligstein’s [1990] work has revealed a similar opposition between managers advocating a “finance conception of control” and others clinging to a “sales and marketing conception of control,” with the former eventually – and no doubt temporarily – emerging as the dominant organizing principle in the majority of large American firms.)

Positions, position-takings, and habitus in organizations

If the organization-as-field is the site of conflict over the legitimate principle of domination, then how do organizational members choose positions in these conflicts? In the first half of this article, we saw that organizational fields may be conceptualized both as spaces of objective positions and as spaces of position-takings; we saw as well that these correspond, roughly, to the concepts of social relations and of culture, respectively. Similarly, an organization-as-field may itself be analyzed as a space of positions (occupied by intraorganizational entities, whether persons, agencies, and so forth, possessing different amounts and types of capital) and as a space of position-takings (a semiotic or cultural structure consisting of different statements, actions, etc., on the part of these intraorganizational entities); these spaces “must be analyzed together, treated as ‘two translations of the same sentence’, as Spinoza put it” (Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992: 105), and seen as both homologous and mutually constitutive (although, again, we see occasional hints on Bourdieu’s part of a tendency analytically to prioritize the space of positions).38 The source of this relationship of homology and mutual constitution is the habitus, “the durably installed generative principle of regulated improvisations” (Bourdieu 1977: 278). (We might note that this notion of the habitus as a system of dispositions generative of action strategies is what is so conspicuously missing in Foucault, not to mention also mechanisms for accounting for the differential distribution of practices – or “techniques” – within and across fields.)

But how does the habitus influence position-takings by social actors? And how might we find the habitus operating in organizational settings? As can be seen perhaps most fully in Distinction (Bourdieu 1984 [1979]), a person’s habitus, as a system of dispositions conditioned by social origins and subsequent trajectories (modes of being in the world, incidentally, that subsume the emotional dimension and thereby point us beyond the cognitivism pervading so much of neo-institutionalism today), gives rise to a sense of the possible position-takings, that is, to the “space of possibles,” open to that person in a given field of practice. Thanks to the collective and individual experience embodied in the habitus, an actor in an organization similarly experiences certain position-takings as possible. At the same time, the habitus structures the perception of some of these possible position-takings as more appropriate or desirable than others. In organizations, such practical evaluation of possible position-takings occurs at every level and in every imaginable arena. From a prospective employee’s first contact with an organization – indeed, from the very fact of submitting an application for this rather than that kind of job and at this rather than that organization – a person is constantly engaged in the act of position-taking. Once officially admitted to the organization, the employee who chooses Monet rather than family photos to decorate the office – or, who, in the name of professionalism, chooses not to decorate at all – is engaged in position-taking, as is the female employee who chooses to wear “fun” short skirts rather than “drab” pantsuits to work.39 It should be noted, of course, that position-takings at every level are governed by the formal rules dictated by the organization, the rigor and breadth of which depend on the specific organization in question; therefore position-takings by organizational members must be analyzed, additionally, for their compliance with or opposition to these rules. But in any case, these position-takings serve to provide other organizational members (most often unconsciously, or at least secondarily) with the information they use (just as often unconsciously) to classify the position-taker. And the habitus provides further classificatory information through such small signals as the posture of an executive as he walks the corridors of the company he controls or the borough-born accents of the thousands of secretaries who populate the towers of midtown Manhattan; no less telling, moreover, are such interpersonal position-takings as the demands a male manager makes of his women peers for mundane practical or emotional labor (perhaps accompanied by the latter’s tendencies, sometimes despite themselves, to comply), or the contrasting cognitive, affectual, and even bodily cues with which a white woman professor approaches her white (as opposed to black) women colleagues or students. (The concept of the habitus puts very much in the foreground such matters having to do with the body and its corporeal dispositions.) It hardly bears pointing out that these kinds of data are often elided in organizational inquiries, despite even the continuing resonance of landmark works such as those of Gouldner (1954), Blau (1955), Crozier (1967), Kanter (1977), and Burawoy (1979). When examined in relation to the space of possibles and the space of actual position-takings, however, these apparently trivial bits of daily life may act as powerful indicators, not to mention potential producers, of the principles of opposition structuring the organization-as-field.40

Nevertheless, from the point of view of an organization’s overall behavior and trajectory, the most decisive position-takings are likely to take place not in the secretary’s cubicle but in the executive suite itself. There, as elsewhere throughout the organization, position-takings abound, as the most powerful organizational members advocate varied approaches to the strategic issues common to many firms, such as, for example, developing a new product, exiting an overcrowded market, or restructuring an ailing company division. Once again, the habitus of each member is at work in generating a sense of the possible position-takings, and among these, the desirable ones, while a member’s power to enforce her position-taking on others and therefore on the organization as a whole depends in large part on the volume, composition, and relative value of her capital – in other words, her position in the organization-as-field – at a given moment. The species of capital and the habitus imported by each member into her organization have been constituted in large part – precisely how large being a matter for empirical investigation in each case – through her experiences, both past and present, in other fields. It follows that the configurations of power relations within an organization – including within its own space of struggle for organizational power – tend to display a structure of opposition roughly homologous to that found within the fields that are the source(s) of the most important forms of capital and habitus in that organization. Bourdieu (2005 [2000] ) offers the example of a French cement-production company whose meetings he observed; position-takings in debates over whether the company should or should not focus its resources and energies on product diversification, he found, were roughly aligned with oppositions in both the field of cement-producing organizations and the educational field in which the parties to the debate – members of the company’s internal field of power – had acquired their particular academic capital: e.g., degrees from the HEC business school, the École Polytechnique, etc. The implications for the study of intraorganizational behavior are clear: any attempt to establish the relations among members of the organization must attend not only to “internal” organizational structure, but also to the relations between the organization-as-field and the larger complex of fields within which it is embedded.41

The habitus concept must also be further specified to take into account the conditions – including but not limited to social class – under which it was acquired and subsequently altered. On the basis of empirical research in a variety of settings, Vaughan (2002) has recently argued that because people acquire the taken-for-granted understandings that inform their practical action not only in the class conditions surrounding their early lives but also in the organizational settings in which they are active later in life – Bourdieu distinguishes here between the “primary” and the “specific” habitus – any refinement of the habitus concept must take “into account the fact that individuals belong to multiple organizations, both sequentially and simultaneously: labor unions, families, gangs, business organizations, churches, sports teams, political groups, and so forth” (Vaughan 2002: 34; Vaughan’s own best-known research centers on the organizational context of NASA, with all its attendant rules, conventions, and taken-for-granted assumptions). Scholarship on micro-level organizational processes has rarely attended to this relation between organizational members’ social origins and trajectories and their attitudes, choices, and actions in organizational settings; thus, the concept of the habitus – despite any limitations arising from Bourdieu’s own formulation and deployment thereof – brings with it considerable potential to deepen and strengthen our analyses of organizational processes, whether these be processes of reproduction or change. Here we begin to see how current social–psychological approaches to intraorganizational behavior – such as, for example, the highly influential theory of “sensemaking” articulated by Weick (1994) – might be enriched and extended by engagement with Bourdieu’s theory of the habitus, which helps us to grasp the link between present action and the social past.

Change and reproduction in organizations-as-fields

As we noted earlier, organizational analysts frequently interpret as the mission, strategy, or goal of an organization, conceived of as a unified entity, that which is actually the temporary outcome of struggles to impose particular position-takings. Overlooking the relation between the social origins and trajectories of organizational members, on the one hand, and their positions and position-takings, on the other, such an approach remains unable to grasp the endless cycle in which macro-level organizational phenomena (behaviors “of” the organization) are the result of micro-level phenomena (the dispositions and position-takings of individual members) that are themselves the product of macro-level phenomena (the structure of the social spaces – both intra- and extra-organizational – within which the dispositions of the habitus were acquired). In the mutually constitutive relationship between the distribution of capital structuring a given field and the dispositions of the habitus active therein, “the analysis of objective structures logically carries over into the analysis of subjective dispositions, thereby destroying the false antinomy ordinarily established between sociology and social psychology” (Bourdieu and de Saint Martin 1982: 47, quoted in Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992: 13).

As one of the most satisfactory solutions yet put forth to the sociological problem of how micro-level processes result in macro-level phenomena, Bourdieu’s approach is likely to prove particularly useful in addressing a perennial concern of organization theory: namely, the process by which organizational change or organizational reproduction emerges out of individual actions. (Giddens’s structuration theory, so similar to Bourdieu’s in many respects, holds out a related promise, although it also lacks Bourdieu’s complementary concerns with fields as spaces of powers and struggles and with habitus as generative principles of strategies of action in relation to such fields.) Organizational change, for instance, might be understood to emerge from a pattern of mismatches between members’ habitus and their positions in the organization-as-field. “[T]he specific efficacy of habitus,” writes Bourdieu, “can be clearly seen in all the situations in which it is not the product of the conditions of its actualization…: this is the case … when old people quixotically cling to dispositions that are out of place and out of time; or when the dispositions of an agent rising, or falling, in the social structure … are at odds with the position that agent occupies” (Bourdieu 2005 [2000]: 214). Of course, such mismatches might lead to individual or organizational failure, as when an aging company founder who has built his own business from the ground up finds himself acquired, and gradually edged out, by a firm whose executive offices are peopled by MBA-holding devotees of the latest managerial trends. But more positive outcomes such as organizational innovation might also result, especially when dissonances between the conditions under which the habitus was acquired or subsequently shaped and the current organizational setting allow organizational members to see windows of opportunity hidden to other members of their own organization or to members of other organizations. Such was the case, for example, when a plumber’s son – John Galliano – with family roots in Spain and South London and a personal trajectory that included the London club scene revitalized the venerable couture house Christian Dior with a love of showy excess that drew a raft of new, moneyed clients to an establishment that Galliano himself described as having been, upon his arrival, a “dowager.”

The reproduction of organizational practices and structure, too – the phenomenon of “structural inertia” – might profitably be theorized as an effect of the interaction between habitus and position. This phenomenon, while of particular interest to ecologists (e.g., Hannan and Freeman 1984; Hannan 1997; Carroll and Hannan 2000), is frequently invoked by a wide variety of organization theorists; as yet, however, it has not been completely understood. The concept of the habitus may shed light on it by underscoring the need to study those specifically organizational processes through which individuals are weakened and deprived of possibilities for transformative action, particularly by means of the vast legal and economic powers wielded by for-profit enterprises in the present day, but also, in many cases, by means of more subtle, insidious, and even invisible mechanisms. If, as Bourdieu suggests, “[w]e may think of field as a space within which an effect of field is exercised, so that what happens to any object that traverses this space cannot be explained solely by the intrinsic properties of the object in question” (Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992: 100), then we are also led to consider those individuals who have been fired, sickened, or otherwise damaged (including psychically) by an organization as belonging as well to the field of that organization and, indeed, as being involved, however unintendedly, in that organization-as-field’s perpetuation. What come to the fore are those processes whereby organizational life produces individuals predisposed to perceive, feel towards, and act within organizations in ways that conserve the power of the latter, precisely in and through the active complicity of the former. Bourdieu, in works such as Masculine Domination (2001 [1998]), terms such processes symbolic violence.

Thus, an approach grounded in Bourdieu’s framework adds new meaning to the proposition, also articulated by Perrow (1999 [1984]: 12), that the crucial issue in understanding the harmful and even catastrophic effects of certain organizational configurations and dynamics is “not risk, but power.” Very importantly, however, it directs the attention of organizational researchers not only to the intentional uses of power in organizational life, whether these be the overt intraorganizational political processes emphasized by Pfeffer (e.g., 1981, 1992), the covert political conflicts examined by Morrill et al. (2003), or the more narrowly and explicitly political behavior of corporations analyzed by Mizruchi (1992) in his study of political campaign contributions, but also to those elusive (and often more consequential) relations of domination embodied in and perpetuated by the dispositions of the habitus. It helps us better to understand what Bourdieu terms “the paradox of doxa.” This is the fact that “the established order, with its relations of domination, its rights and prerogatives, privileges and injustices, ultimately perpetuates itself so easily,” including at the organizational level, “that the most intolerable conditions of existence can so often be perceived as acceptable and even natural” (Bourdieu 2001 [1998]: 1). Symbolic violence operates inside organizations by virtue of the fact that the dominated in those contexts perceive and respond to the organizational structures and processes that dominate them through modes of thought (indeed, also of feeling) that are themselves the product of domination: the “order of things” comes to seem to them natural, self-evident, and legitimate.42 Such an insight neither grants everything to structural causation nor blames the hapless victim. “[T]he only way to understand this particular form of domination is to move beyond the forced choice between constraint (by forces) and consent (to reasons), between mechanical coercion and voluntary, free, deliberate, even calculated submission. The effect of symbolic domination … is exerted not in the pure logic of knowing consciousnesses but through the schemes of perception, appreciation, and action that are constitutive of habitus and which, below the level of the decisions of consciousness and the controls of the will, set up a cognitive relationship that is profoundly obscure to itself” (Bourdieu 2001 [1998]: 37). The stark division, in other words, between explanations in terms of causes and explanations in terms of reasons – so much a constant in organization theory ever since Weber’s classic characterization of modern organizations as complexes of formal and impersonal rationality (the “iron cages” of his darkest broodings) and simultaneously of rational action (deliberately and voluntaristically engaged in by the bureaucrats who staff them) has to be overcome in favor of explanations in terms of the logic of practice and the lines of conduct generated by the habitus. And this in turn has an important practical implication, namely, that what is required is a radical transformation of the social – including organizational – conditions of production of the habitus that is actively complicit in its own domination. The only way to bring about organizational change that does not entail merely replacing one modality of domination with another is to address specifically and to undo the mechanisms of dehistoricization and universalization – “always and everywhere it has been this way” – whereby arbitrary workings of power are enabled to continue. Here is one respect – and Freud hoped the same for psychoanalysis – in which Bourdieu’s enterprise of socioanalysis promises to lead through enhanced knowledge (in this case, of collective, not intrapsychic processes) to greater possibilities for human autonomy and fulfillment.

This is not to say, of course, that actors within organizations-as-fields cannot conduct themselves in ways that from the perspective of intentionalist theories of action seem eminently rational. It is only to suggest that individualistic finalism is a “well-founded illusion,” in which the strategies of habitus that are “naturally” and immediately adjusted to their respective fields present themselves misleadingly under the appearance of “aiming at” explicitly formulated goals, since the actions they entail are always proper and well-timed – one acts spontaneously as one “should,” like a fish in water – while lines of action objectively incompatible with the conditions at hand are excluded as unthinkable. Organizational actors can certainly be said to pursue interests. But in the approach we are advocating, the concept itself of interest, whose opposite is not disinterestedness but indifference, a total lack of commitment to the game at hand and its stakes, is defined capaciously to include all manner of investments. It is meant to encompass not only, say, the rationalist and calculating dispositions of senior executives in modern corporations, but also the libido administrandi of junior officials in the civil service, typically petits bourgeois whose habitus marked by formalism, punctuality, and a strict adherence to regulations has taken on the form of an abiding investment in “virtues demanded by the bureaucratic order and exalted by the ideology of ‘public service’: probity, meticulousness, rigor, and a propensity for moral indignation” (Bourdieu 1981: 312). In light of such insights, it should come as no surprise that rational action theory is best viewed, as Bourdieu likes to say, as a secondary or derivative case of the general theory of fields, rather than the other way around.

Methodological considerations

The promise of the relational framework we have been outlining runs the risk of remaining just that – an untapped promise – so long as the methods for conducting empirical research within it remain obscure even to interested scholars. This risk is enhanced by the fact that, in the reception of Bourdieu’s work in the United States, attention to the sheer scope and complexity of his theoretical framework, as compared to most sociological endeavors, has outweighed attention to the role of relentless empirical research in the evolution of his thought. Accordingly, we turn in these final pages of our essay to the question as to how these organizations-as-fields too can be studied empirically (although what we have to say on this matter can surely be generalized to organizational fields as well). Two basic points ought to be borne carefully in mind. The first is the inseparability of the theoretical and empirical dimensions of research: all research, regardless of claims to a purely theoretical or a purely empirical pedigree, involves both. The construction – in Bourdieu’s words, the “initial carving out” – of the object of inquiry necessarily rests on assumptions about, and therefore theories of, the social world, as does every subsequent decision about methodology and data. At the same time, social-scientific theories are, for Bourdieu, always the product of confrontation with empirical phenomena, whether or not the “theorist” acknowledges this fact. Social scientific research thus requires “theories which are nourished less by purely theoretical confrontation with other theories than by confrontation with fresh empirical objects” (Bourdieu 1996c: 178). A second basic point flows from this first: if apparently trivial methodological decisions may be of great theoretical import, the much larger decision of which social scientific methods to employ must be made not in advance but instead repeatedly in the course of the construction of one’s object. The tendency of social scientific researchers to specialize in this or that methodology – social network inquiry, regression analysis, experimental research, ethnography – all too often leads to the thoughtless imposition of a single method at the expense of all others and regardless of its suitability to the construction and analysis of the object. No methodological approach should be ruled out in advance as the researcher tacks back and forth between the construction of the object and the production of the data necessary for construction of the object.43

Bourdieu’s theoretical ecumenicalism is not, however, without a guiding principle: social scientists, regardless of their particular objects of inquiry, should always think and practice relationally. The first implication of this mandate is that researchers should attend both to the objective indicators of positions (e.g., size of organization, its sales volume, or the number and status of its clients) and to the indicators of position-takings (e.g., attitudes toward labor unions, benefits offered to employees, patterns of charity giving or political giving, decisions to produce particular goods or brands, ways of presenting information to stockholders, and so forth). The ultimate aim of such a dual approach is synthesis of these two spaces – those of positions and of position-takings – into a map of the field or fields in question. As some methods of social scientific analysis are more fundamentally relational in their assumptions and procedures than others, it follows that certain methods lend themselves more easily to the relational mode of analysis this requires. Prime among these is correspondence analysis, which permits the plotting of a two-dimensional representation of the inter-relationships among multiple sets of elements (e.g., positions, position-takings). The advantage of this method is that both sets of relationships can be mapped simultaneously onto the same space, thus showing how each set of elements is positioned by means of its association with the other. This visual device allows one to grasp intuitively, in terms of spatial distribution upon a map, formal patterns of relationships among elements of a particular order (e.g., positions), while simultaneously seeing how these are arrayed relative to similar patternings on the other order of social phenomena (e.g., position-takings). For organizational researchers, yet another relational methodology, one considerably more familiar than correspondence analysis, is social network analysis. It should be clear, however, from what we have earlier suggested regarding the distinction between structure and interaction that different variants of network analysis are unequally suited to the task of generating a map of the underlying structure of relationships among positions or among position-takings and of thereby avoiding the interactionist fallacy. Moreover, network-analytic approaches to the study of relations among position-takings have lagged behind approaches to the study of relations among social positions: social network analysis, in other words, has been slow to take the cultural turn.

Just as certain approaches to data analysis are more useful than others in the relational mode of social scientific thought, so too are certain approaches to the generation of data more likely to aid the researcher in developing a map of the field. Bourdieu points out, for example, that surveys can be designed to generate information on actors’ positions within an organization-as-field (for example, not simply their educational level but particular institutions attended) as well as on their position-takings (for example, their opinions on issues of likely importance within the field in question). Those surveyed, however, must always be selected according to their likely representativeness of key sectors of or positions within the organization: “In contrast to random sampling, which would dissolve the structures (especially since a structurally determining position can be represented by a very small number of people and sometimes… by a single person), this mode of selection enables us to characterize the positions of power through the properties and the powers of their holders…. It goes without saying that the composition of the constructed population depends on the criteria – that is, on the powers – which we have chosen” (Bourdieu 1988 [1984]): 76). In addition, the “first-hand knowledge” required for such a relational design and execution of surveys must itself often be acquired, as Bourdieu demonstrates, through ethnographic and historical research. Ethnography, surely the most effective method for investigating the habitus of different actors within organizations-as-fields, is by no means unusual in organization studies, yet a truly relational approach to ethnography demands cognisance on the part of the researcher that the actors in question interact not only in their concreteness but also as occupants of positions in a structure of relations (and thereby as bearers of different types of dispositions from within a space of dispositions). Effecting this break with the interactionism that is second nature to most researchers requires that the ethnographer cultivate as far as possible a “grasp of the circumstances of life and the social mechanisms that affect the entire category to which any individual belongs (high school students, skilled workers, magistrates, whatever) and a grasp of the conditions, inseparably psychological and social, associated with a given position and trajectory in social space” (Bourdieu et al. 1999 [1993]: 612). The general organization of fields of all kinds into dominant and dominated forms of capital – with intermediate positions in between – provides some important guidance here: it orients the ethnographic researcher toward selecting, for observation and dialogue, precisely those actors who occupy positions within these three distinct sectors of the field (on this point, see Bourdieu 1990 [1987]: 160). And the likely structure of field relations must itself first be sounded out on the basis of hunches about the principles organizing those relations and subsequently tested against survey responses. Here again we find the necessary and perhaps discomfiting circularity required of the organizational researcher committed to a relational framework.

One other feature of a Bourdieu-inspired approach to studying organizations is the vast amount of relevant historical knowledge that must be amassed by the researcher. The organizing principles of a given organization-as-field (or even of an organizational field) always lie both in the history of the field and in the history of its relations to the larger fields in which it is embedded. Yet the available apparent shortcuts through this history – biographies of prominent figures; histories of particular organizations, industries, or even whole countries – often fail, themselves, to make explicit, or even to suggest, relevant organizing principles to which the present-day researcher might profitably attend. The relational scholar of organizations thus faces a dual challenge with regard to the extant historiography on the given field. The first challenge is that, “[t]o enter, for each case, into the particularity of the historically considered configuration, one must each time master the literature devoted to a universe which is artificially isolated by premature specialization” (Bourdieu 1996c [1992]: 184). The second is that, at the same time, this very literature must be supplemented in each case (as much as practicable) with original archival research that situates the hagiographies and attacks of past historians within their own historical conjunctures. It goes without saying that professional strictures upon the intellectual directions and energies of organizational researchers discourage such intensive historical study. Being ever-mindful of history remains, nevertheless, fundamental to the development of a truly relational organizational analysis. It is our hope that this imperative, taken together with the other methodological guidelines we have set forth and with the preceding generative application of Bourdieu’s framework to organization theory, will help to “indicate the direction which should be taken by a social science concerned with converting into a really integrated and cumulative programme of empirical research [a] legitimate ambition for systematicity” (Bourdieu 1996c [1992]: 184) – an ambition of the sort that drives research on organizations.

Finally, there is the question as to whether this “ambition for systematicity” clashes with the in-depth examination of specific cases, that is, whether the pursuit of an encompassing frame of reference does not actually require a “large-n” research design. (This is the question of the relationship between the particular and the universal.) Our answer on this score is that single-case studies of organizational fields and even of singular organizations-as-fields can contribute importantly, despite or perhaps even because of the sheer intensity and particularity of their focus, to a generalizing and cumulative enterprise – that is, to the project, as enunciated by Bourdieu, of elaborating a comprehensive theory of the invariant properties of organizational, and, indeed, of all fields. They can help, in other words, in delineating the specific forms taken in each case of fundamental mechanisms (field effects) that obtain across a multiplicity of cases, thereby leading to a surer grasp simultaneously of both the particular and the universal, the idiographic and the nomothetic. To accomplish this end, however, single-case studies must take into account, both theoretically and empirically, the constitutive effects on their object(s) of study of belonging within determinate relational configurations; they must avoid the substantialist error of attributing to preconstituted entities (or sets of entities), viewed in isolation, properties that can only be adequately understood in relational, i.e., field-theoretic, terms. What a systematically relational approach does rule out are studies of the sort all too familiar in organizational research, monographs that purport to tell the story of this-or-that organizational network, this-or-that firm or educational institution, in disregard of effects upon that object of the broader system of organizations within which it is located. “[C]onstructing the particular case as such [thus] obliges us in practice to bypass [the false alternative of] pitting the uncertain and hollow generalities of a discourse proceeding by the unconscious and uncontrolled universalization of a singular case against the infinite minutiae of an erroneously exhaustive study of a particular case which, for lack of being apprehended as such, cannot deliver either what it has of the singular or what it has of the universal” (Bourdieu 1996c [1992]: 183–84).44


In this article, we have presented the outlines of a theoretical framework for organization studies, one whose elegance, comprehensiveness, and internal coherence and consistency recommend it as a significant alternative to prevailing models. We have shown that Bourdieu’s framework carries with it many promising implications for the study of structures of interorganizational relations. It allows one to reconceptualize configurations of organizations as structures of power; to analyze systematically the contrasting strategies of action of organizations differentially located within these structures of power; to examine the semiotically distinct positions or stances that organizations assume in their efforts at conservation or subversion and the conditions under which they undertake bold initiatives; to see how all these organizational processes and dynamics unfold according to their own relatively autonomous logic; and to comprehend the sometimes intricate ways in which such processes and dynamics are influenced by developments in external fields. In addition to sketching the implications of Bourdieu’s framework for interorganizational analysis, we have also sought to show that this framework carries with it promising implications for the analysis of intraorganizational relations. It allows one to reconceptualize each individual organization as a more or less temporarily stable structure of power; to examine the positions or stances assumed by individual organizational members and the effects thereof on organizational structure; to analyze the intra- and extraorganizational sources of members’ position-takings; and to analyze systematically the complex relationship between the individual organization and its larger social context. Thus, regardless of whether one agrees with Stern and Barley’s (1996) provocative claim that organization theory has neglected its original mandate to analyze the impact of organizations on society or with Scott’s insistence, in response, that organization theory has not “turned its back on the larger world” (Scott 1996: 169), Bourdieu’s framework provides a powerful new set of tools with which to analyze precisely how organizations structure, and are structured by, the larger social configurations in which they are embedded.

In mapping the contours of a Bourdieu-based approach, we have acknowledged the ubiquity and the proven utility of the concept of field in past organizational analyses, particularly those of a neo-institutionalist bent. At the same time, we have argued that this utility has been limited by the use of the concept of field in the absence of the concepts of capital and habitus. We have shown, for example, that in Bourdieu’s theorization it is the concept of capital that allows one to map the structure of the field in the first place, because a field is by definition nothing other than those social relations produced by differential access to a particular, dominant kind of capital. Deployed in organizational research without the concept of capital, the concept of field has tended to function as a loose metaphor rather than as the rigorous analytical tool that was originally envisioned by Bourdieu. And while the concept of organizational field has, without question, allowed researchers to broaden and deepen their understanding of the determinants of organizational behavior, we believe that this understanding can be rendered still more thorough and persuasive through the theorization and analysis of fields in conjunction with the concept of capital. Moreover, it is the theorization of the field as a structure of power relations – relations grasped through analyses of the varieties of capital at stake in the field – that permits Bourdieu the key insight that even social action that is in no way consciously oriented toward the current state of power relations has an effect on these relations, an effect that may either be perpetuating or transforming in nature. Such an insight, applied in organizational research, offers a powerful means of synthesizing the attention to overt political conflict so visible in early institutionalist research on organizations with a concern to analyze the influence exercised by field-level institutions on organizational life, a concern that was later to become central to neo-institutionalist studies.

Just as the use of the concept of field in the absence of the concept of capital limits its analytical rigor and force, the concept of field deployed without that of habitus prevents organizational research from realizing the promise of many key accomplishments of Bourdieu’s framework, chief among these a link between the social past and the social present; an alternative to both determinist and voluntarist theories of action; and a link between the micro and macro levels of analysis. It is through the relation of the habitus – a social actor’s embodied experience of past social fields – to the field(s) presently occupied by that actor that Bourdieu is able so powerfully to incorporate the relation between past and present into his analyses; it is likewise through the relation of the habitus, understood as a practical and creative guide to action, to a given field that Bourdieu is able to theorize action as neither wholly determined by social context nor wholly free therefrom; and it is through the relation of the habitus, understood as the embodied product of a given set and series of experienced social relations, to a given field – which is itself nothing more or less than a particular set of social relations – that he offers a means to circumvent the counterproductive division between the micro and the macro. It is for these reasons that we agree with DiMaggio and Powell (1991b) that the concept of the habitus, deployed in relation to Bourdieu’s other key concepts, holds great promise for organizational analysis. In particular, we believe that attention to the formation and functioning of the habitus of organizational members stands to enrich current institutionalist approaches by joining their considerable achievements to what Stinchcombe once called the “virtues of the old institutionalism.” Chief among these virtues, Stinchcombe argued, is the recognition that institutions do not emerge and persist in the absence of actors but precisely because “somebody somewhere really cares to hold an organization to the standards” represented by those institutions (Stinchcombe 1997: 17). Bourdieu’s framework is so promising in this context because, as we have shown, it is precisely the relation of an actor’s habitus to the field in which it is operative at a particular moment that accounts for that actor’s feeling of investment in, or commitment to, this or that institution.

Such considerations, along with others we have presented in the course of this article, suggest that the unified and systematic application of Bourdieu’s framework in organizational analysis offers researchers a number of advantages over their piecemeal use as well as pointing the way toward improvements on current approaches. Our primary goal has been to present the main features of Bourdieu’s framework and to suggest the implications of this framework for the study of organizations. While there are many possible avenues for a program of future organizational research that is anchored in Bourdieu’s framework, we see several as presenting particular promise. First, the notion of habitus, used in conjunction with those of field and capital, represents an innovative conceptual tool for research on organizations, one that can help to erase the current division of labor between social psychologists and sociologists and thereby lead to better explanations of the emergence and reproduction of both inter- and intraorganizational institutions. A second promising line of inquiry is suggested by Bourdieu’s emphasis on the symbolic dimension of social life, grasped and analyzed with the aid of a variety of concepts, including those of cultural capital (in certain of its forms), symbolic capital, and position-takings. More sustained attention to the crucial but under-analyzed symbolic dimension of organizational life could shed better light on a range of important inter- and intraorganizational processes such as, for example, the production of organizational reputations or the dynamics of friendship or distance among organizational members. Finally, we believe that Bourdieu’s fundamentally relational understanding of power, as the product of field-wide relations whose effects may be felt in the absence of direct social proximity, substantially expands on current conceptions. Future research that is guided by this approach stands to generate a far more thorough account of the widely varying ways in which relations of power govern the daily life of organizations.

It is perhaps not out of the question that organizational researchers will in fact pursue these lines of inquiry, or others inspired by Bourdieu, since the framework we have outlined in this article is so closely aligned with the growing interest in relational approaches to organizational analysis recently described by Scott: “Although still a minority position, a growing number of scholars have begun to embrace a relational or process conception of organizations…. [I]n relational approaches, if structures exist it is because they are continually being created and recreated, and if the world has meaning, it is because actors are constructing and reconstructing intentions and accounts, and thereby, their own and others’ identities” (Scott 2004: 13). We believe the preceding elaboration of Bourdieu’s framework – without doubt among the most ambitious expressions to have been formulated thus far of a relational understanding of the social world – will prove useful to scholars who are seeking a comprehensive relational framework to guide future organizational analysis.


For example, not one of the 38 articles in the encyclopedic Blackwell Companion to Organizations (Baum 2002) mentions Bourdieu. Among the rare attempts to draw on Bourdieu’s framework for the purposes of organizational analysis are Kurunmaki (1999) and Oakes et al. (1998).


It was DiMaggio, instrumental in interpreting Bourdieu’s work for American sociologists before the translation of Distinction in 1984, who was the first to use the concept of organizational field. In an early article (1983: 149), he proposed that the organizational field be thought of “in the dual sense in which Bourdieu uses ‘champ,’ to signify both common purpose and an arena of strategy and conflict.” Though the concept is now widely used in organization theory, few scholars besides DiMaggio have acknowledged the original connection between Bourdieu’s field concept and that of the organizational field, and almost none has used the concept as part of the theoretical triad to which it belongs.


Among the rare instances in which the habitus concept has been employed in organizational analysis are Corsun and Costen (2001), Ciborra (1996), Mutch (2003), and Hallett (2003).


By the “neo-institutionalist” tradition, we mean the approach to organizational analysis first articulated in the 1970s and 1980s by scholars such as DiMaggio and Powell (1991a [1983]), Meyer and his collaborators (e.g., Meyer and Rowan 1991 [1977]; and Meyer and Scott 1983), and Zucker (e.g., 1977, 1983), who were themselves building on the earlier institutionalism of Dalton (1959), Gouldner (1954), and Selznick (1949, 1957). We also mean more recent work by the above (e.g., DiMaggio 1991; Meyer 1994; Meyer et al. 1994; Powell 1991; Scott 1991; 1994a) as well as by scholars who subsequently expanded upon the initial neo-institutionalist formulations (e.g., Dobbin 1994a, 1995; Fligstein 1990, 2001; Guillén 1994, 2001; Hoffman and Ventresca 1999; Mezias 1990, 1995). By the “resource dependence” tradition, we mean the approach to organizational analysis originally articulated by Pfeffer and Salancik (2003 [1978]) and subsequently expanded by organization theorists such as Burt (1982), Mizruchi and Stearns (1988), and Gulati and Gargiulo (1999).


The approach we are advocating points beyond the limitations of “middle-range” theories, for a key feature of relational thinking is its refusal to remain content with formulation of small or partial “laws of the middle range,” the mode of theorizing so dear to Merton: scientific propositions have significance “only within the theoretical system they constitute, not in isolation. Science admits only systems of laws” (Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992: 96).


For discussions of the concept of relationality, see Emirbayer (1997) and Somers (1995).


Bourdieu calls the limit case of fields in which struggles over power have largely been extinguished apparatuses; he suggests that Luhmann’s systems theory pertains more to the latter than it does to fields proper. He adds, however, that the limit of apparatus “is never actually reached” (Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992: 102). Moreover, the degree to which a given configuration of relations has field-like—as opposed to apparatus-like—properties is strictly a matter for empirical investigation. Historical sociologists of organizations can sometimes even discern a historical transition from the one state to the other, as in the cases of French painting during the mid-nineteenth century, when the apparatus-like ascendancy of the French Academy was broken by the symbolic revolution of Manet (Bourdieu 1993b), or of American sociology during the mid-twentieth century, when the “Capitoline” ruling triad of Parsons, Merton, and Lazarsfeld was supplanted by the warring theoretical and methodological tendencies of the 1970s and thereafter (Bourdieu 1991).


In the importance to Bourdieu’s field concept of struggles for dominance, one can see similarities to a number of past organization-theoretic approaches that likewise emphasized competition and struggle. Examples include Zald’s (1970) concept of “political economies” (see also Wamsley and Zald 1973 and Benson 1975); Levine and White’s (1961) concept of “interorganizational exchange”; Yuchtman and Seashore’s (1967) “system resource” approach; Warren’s (1967) concept of “interorganizational field”; and Pfeffer and Salancik’s (2003 [1978]) “resource dependence” approach. The rise of the neo-institutionalist paradigm, however, tended to draw attention away from conflict both within and between organizations, as neo-institutionalists themselves (e.g., Brint and Karabel 1991) came to recognize. We believe that the renewed attention to struggle and conflict stimulated by a Bourdieu-inspired approach goes far toward answering recent calls (e.g., Morrill et al. 2003) for a renewal of the attention to conflict so central to those earlier organization studies.


Social network analysis, at least since its early elaboration by the Manchester school of social anthropology (e.g., Barnes 1954; Mitchell 1956), has recognized with great clarity this issue regarding the demarcation of boundaries. However, it has not always taken sufficient account of the accompanying issue of contestation and struggle. In Bourdieu, these two issues always and necessarily go hand in hand. We shall have more to say shortly about the social networks tradition.


For an overview of the state of, and relations among, the academic disciplines engaged in the study of opera organizations, see Johnson (2007a). While it is difficult to imagine sophisticated practitioners of organizational analysis making such an error, disciplinary specialization means that scholars studying organization-based phenomena in many fields, not just musicology, are, in fact, often susceptible to such naivete.


Organizational fields sometimes, of course, include individual actors who act in the absence of organizational affiliations. Just as the presence of such actors has correctly been acknowledged in past research that relies on the concept of organizational field, the field-theoretic approach here under consideration requires that we not presume that the fields in which organizations are active are composed entirely of organizations. It does, however, require that we approach individual actors in a fundamentally relational manner, ascertaining in each case their positions in and trajectories through the fields in which they are active. We have in The Rules of Art, in fact, a book-length template for studying the impact of a single actor (the novelist Gustave Flaubert) on a field composed in part of organizations (the literary field in nineteenth-century France). It should be noted, however, that it is increasingly difficult to distinguish the impact of individuals in these fields from the impact of the organizations they head. How, for example, are we to distinguish the influence of Donald Trump’s person from that of his companies when examining the organizational fields in which Trump himself is active? How, similarly, can we explain the appearance of a nineteenth-century Russian novel (Anna Karenina) at the very top of the U.S. best-seller list in 2004, just 1 week after Oprah—an individual social actor, but also the head of an entertainment company whose name is, tellingly, her own first name spelled backwards—announced it was “her” new book selection?


While this approach to locating the boundaries of the field superficially resembles network-analytic methods insofar as the latter proceed by means of an empirical mapping of relations between organizations rather than a nominalist imposition of boundaries around a population of organizations (see, e.g., Lincoln and Gerlach 2004), the emphasis of network analysis on concrete ties clearly distinguishes it from Bourdieu’s focus on relations among organizations that may have no concrete ties to one another but that are, nevertheless, participants in the relations of force and contestation structuring the field as a whole.


Under pressure to bound populations for the purpose of empirical research, organizational scholars frequently sidestep the lengthy inquiry that would in fact be required to reconstruct thoroughly the (shifting) power relations that allow certain players in the field to impose their own conception of the field on other participants. Among neo-institutionalist theorists who have acknowledged the delicacy of demarcating boundaries are DiMaggio (1983, 1986) and Fligstein (1990).


One notable exception is Baker et al.’s (1998) theoretical and empirical synthesis of dimensions of organizations often studied independently—namely, competition, power, and institutions.


Brass et al. (2004) provide a useful overview of the current state of network-analytic research on organizations.


Bourdieu has by no means been alone in levying such criticisms. Others have similarly argued, but from a resource dependence perspective, that network analysis has focused too often on observed interactions, while failing to analyze “the context of institutions, including rules and roles,” in which interaction takes place (Salancik 1995: 2).


The final part of this sentence is a paraphrase of one of Bourdieu’s own favorite formulations. Bourdieu’s statements of this formulation, it should be pointed out, never include the words “at least partly.” His way of stating the matter, in contrast to our own, arguably exposes Bourdieu to the charge that, in the end, he replaces the interactionist fallacy with an equally problematic structuralist fallacy. Does he not fall short of his own dialectical standards by insisting so one-sidedly on the priority of structure over interaction? This is one respect in which Bourdieu’s theoretical framework quite possibly requires careful reconstruction.


A substantive illustration of this point—and of much of the rest of what is discussed in this section—can be found in Emirbayer and Williams (2005).


Here again one can see how Bourdieu’s field concept could reinvigorate useful work initiated by earlier theorists of organizations, in this case, work regarding interorganizational struggles over the power to determine the structure, membership, and boundaries of organizational “environments” or “domains.” Most prominently, these earlier theorists included Blau (1955, 1964; see also Blau and Scott 1962), Thompson (1967), Aldrich (1971, 1979), and Pfeffer and Salancik (2003) [1978]. More recently, Fligstein (1996) has elaborated a model closely analogous to Bourdieu’s, one that focuses on the tensions between “incumbents” and “invaders.”


The phrases “goodwill investment” and “brand loyalty” appear in English in the original.


Contributions that might prove particularly useful in exploring the concept of symbolic capital on the organizational level have come from scholars working on the related but distinct topics of reputation, status, prestige, legitimacy, and branding. Key studies on reputation, which has to do with outside assessments of an organization’s past performance, include Shrum and Wuthnow (1988), Zajac and Westphal (1996), Staw and Epstein (2000), and Whetten and Mackey (2002); on status, which refers to an organization’s position in a network or other social structure, see, e.g., Podolny (1993), Stuart et al. (1999), and Jensen (2003); on the closely related concept of prestige, see Perrow (1961), Thompson (1967), Pfeffer (1981), and D’Aveni (1990); on legitimacy, which refers to the normative approval or cognitive acceptance of an organization’s purpose and practices, see Meyer and Rowan (1991 [1977]), DiMaggio and Powell (1991a [1983]), Ruef and Scott (1998), Glynn and Abzug (1998), and Lounsbury and Glynn (2001); finally, on branding, a process through which organizations consciously attempt to enhance their reputation, status, prestige, or legitimacy, see especially Aaker (1991, 1992).


While we cannot specify an instance in which Bourdieu deploys the concept of a “field of power” at the meso-level of organizational fields (although he does come close in his analysis of the organization of the field of institutions of higher education in France according to the division between the grande porte and the petite porte [Bourdieu 1996a (1989): 142–52]), we feel justified in extending this idea to the meso-level because of (a) the general logic of Bourdieu’s theory of fields; and (b) his own use of this very concept in speaking of even more circumscribed fields, namely, what we shall go on to term organizations-as-fields: “We can speak of the logic of the struggle within the field of power in the firm, that is to say, the competition between those holding one of the relevant powers. Everything [takes] place as if the structure of the field of power was organized at every moment in terms of different oppositions which, particularly in moments of crisis, could crystallize into strategic alliances among the holders of the various different forms of power” (2005 [2000]: 218). However, despite this usage on the part of Bourdieu himself, we carefully refrain in what follows from speaking of an organizational “field of power” because we do not wish to confuse it with the macro-level arena of struggle to which he more commonly applies the term. We speak instead of a “space of struggle for organizational power,” or at most of an organization’s “internal field of power,” thereby sacrificing elegance of style and economy of language for what we believe is a gain in conceptual clarity.


One potentially important way in which Bourdieu’s framework could be further elaborated and reconstructed is by adding to these analytic domains of social relations and culture a third homologous domain of collective emotions, also understood in semiotic terms as a space of relations of opposition and difference. There is much in Bourdieu that already makes such a step both feasible and desirable, in particular his keen attentiveness to the affectual dimensions of life, which, as he makes clear, are a terrain for socioanalysis every bit as much as for psychoanalysis (see Emirbayer and Goldberg 2005). Theoretical and empirical work has already begun along these lines, often but not always aligned with work on gender in organizations (Fineman 1993; see also Albrow 1997). In what follows, we restrict our attention to social relations and culture, to positions and position-takings, leaving for future work the pursuit of this additional and, we feel, highly intriguing possibility.


For example, he asserts that “in a situation of equilibrium, the space of positions tends to command the space of position-takings” (Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992: 105; italics in original).


Besides organizational ecology, there were two other strands emerging around this time that evidenced a greater sensitivity to historical questions than most organizational research. Work on labor relations by scholars such as Marglin (1974), Goldman and Van Houten (1976), Jacoby (1978), Edwards (1979), and Burawoy (1979) was firmly grounded in a neo-Marxist concern with the long sweep of capitalism. And studies of authority and managerial control—inspired by Bendix’s (1956) classic comparative-historical study of industrialization and labor, as well as by Chandler’s (1962, 1977) profoundly influential work on the rise of managerial capitalism in the United States—examined historical transformations in organizational control structures. (Among the latter were Rumelt 1974, Williamson 1975, and Barley and Kunda 1992.) Such historically informed research, however, was overshadowed by the contemporary focus of most organizational analysis.


In addition to the classic studies (e.g., Zucker 1991 [1977], 1983 DiMaggio and Powell 1991a [1983], and Meyer and Rowan (1991 [1977]), more recent work on managerial fads (e.g., Abrahamson and Fairchild 1999, Abrahamson 1991, and Barley and Kunda 1992) has underscored this point forcefully. Likewise, debates in the field of corporate governance over precisely what goals organizations actually pursue, and how they do so, have enriched our understanding of the non-rational dimensions of organizational behavior; for an overview of this debate, see Mizruchi (2004).


Here we are advocating an approach quite similar to that taken by Stark and Bruszt in their study of post-Communist East Central Europe, a region that, they argue, “must be regarded as undergoing a plurality of transitions in a dual sense: Across the region, we are seeing a multiplicity of distinctive strategies; within any given country, we find not one transition but many occurring in different domains—political, economic, and social—and the temporality of these processes is often asynchronous and their articulation seldom harmonious” (Stark and Bruszt 1998: 81).


See, for example, Meyer and Rowan (1991 [1977]), Jepperson and Meyer (1991), Meyer et al. (1994), and Meyer (1994).


One might also bear in mind here that changes in organizational fields exert as well, for their own part, significant pressures on spaces of societal actors, dispositions, and position-takings.


A Bourdieu-inspired program of inquiry can learn much in this respect from the growing wave of research on race, class, and gender within the social sciences in general and, admittedly still to a more limited extent, within organizational studies in particular. The neo-Marxist tradition in organizational studies (e.g., Burawoy 1979) always highlighted class relations within organizational life. More recently, authors such as Acker (1990) and Martin (2003)—inspired by the seminal work of Kanter (1977)—have devoted increasing analytic attention to gender-based relations. Still somewhat weak in organizational analysis, by comparison, has been the investigation of race and the study of intersections among class, gender, and race.


As Baker and Faulkner (2004) point out, for example, social network analysts disagree among themselves about the conditions under which network ties give rise to the positive effects associated with the concept of social capital and those under which such ties are actually the source of harm or exploitation. The approach we are advocating suggests that such issues can never be completely resolved until researchers conceive of networks and capital as deriving their value and producing their effects through the structure and dynamics of the field(s) in which they are embedded. On the other hand, of course, one must be careful not to move so far in this structuralist direction that one also loses sight of the (dialectically equally significant) moment of interaction.


A substantive illustration of this point—as indeed of much of the rest of what is discussed in this section—can once again be found in Emirbayer and Williams (2005).


Among the most influential early work on network forms of organization were Piore and Sabel (1984), Sabel (1989), Powell (1990), Gerlach (1992), Lincoln and Gerlach (1992), and Lincoln et al. (1992).


Relevant in this context as well are the Manchester school’s early applications of social network analysis to the challenge of demarcating boundaries (see footnote 9). Whether the concrete object to be investigated is tribal societies or (post-) modern organizations-as-fields, the theoretical challenges involved remain much the same.


It is important to note here that just as a network-based approach to the relationships of individual actors by no means goes hand in hand with the more deeply relational way of thinking that we lay out early in this article, neither does a network approach to interorganizational relations entail such a perspective. The analysis of inter-firm networks is, of course, in the most superficial sense the analysis of a set of relations. However, in the absence of a framework (e.g., the concept of the organization-as-field) for understanding the creation and reproduction of the worth or value of organizational posts or organizational resources, network analysis will tend to divorce the structure of intraorganizational groups and units from the larger societal contexts—organizational and other kinds of fields—through which this structure is produced in the first place.


For articulations of the concept of social capital, see Coleman (1988, 1994), Portes (1998) Burt (2000), and Adler and Kwon (2002). For recent uses of cultural capital, see, e.g., Holt (1998), Throsby (1999), and Lareau and Weininger (2004).


For a useful general discussion of the relevance of Durkheim for the study of organizations-as-fields, see Lincoln and Guillot (2004).


The idea of a space of position-takings opens exciting possibilities for a creative dialogue between Bourdieu-inspired organizational analysts and the considerable number of researchers who have already been contributing to the study of organizational cultures and subcultures. (We mentioned in an earlier note that configurations of collective emotions can be subsumed as well under this idea of a space of position-takings: see Emirbayer and Goldberg 2005.) For comprehensive surveys of the literature on organizational culture, see Smircich (1983), Martin (1992, 2001), Barley and Kunda (1992), and Dobbin (1994b); for perhaps the best-known empirical study of organizational culture, see Kunda (1992).


For recent analyses of how such position-takings are shaped by ethnic and national attitudes to work and professionalism, see the studies by the social psychologist Sanchez-Burks (e.g., 2002, 2004).


One direction in which such inquiry might certainly lead is toward an analysis of gendered dispositions and actions within everyday organizational life; for earlier such studies, see not only the aforementioned work by Kanter, but also Acker (1990) and Martin (2003).


Despite important differences in their theoretical frameworks, Bourdieu’s emphasis on the link between actors’ external trajectories and their position-takings within an organization is anticipated by Crozier’s (1967) analysis of the relation between employees’ extra-organizational “social status” and their attitudes toward their work in a French clerical agency. Likewise, Bourdieu’s approach to the analysis of conflict at the heart of the cement company calls to mind Crozier’s (1967) inquiry into the power struggles among the managers of an organization he labels, for purposes of anonymity, “the Industrial Monopoly.”


“In the particular (and particularly frequent) case in which the habitus is the product of objective conditions similar to those under which it operates, it generates behaviors that are particularly well suited to these conditions without being the product of a conscious, intentional search for adaptation” (Bourdieu 2005 [2000]:213–214).


Needless to say, these methods are not necessarily mutually exclusive. What Bourdieu derides is the tendency of many researchers to act as if they were: “Thus we will find monomaniacs of log-linear modeling, of discourse analysis, of participant observation, of open-ended or in-depth interviewing, or of ethnographic description. Rigid adherence to this or that one method of data collection [and analysis] will define membership in a ‘school’” (Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992: 226).


In The State Nobility (1996 [1989]: 197–214), Bourdieu does provide two illustrations of how “structural histories” of specific organizations can be produced while still remaining within a broader field-theoretic framework, thereby transcending the usual dichotomy between particularizing and generalizing strategies: see his extended discussions of the École des Hautes Études Commerciales and of the École Nationale d’Administration.



We wish to thank the following persons for their very helpful comments: Wayne Baker, Neil Brenner, Michael Cohen, Matthew Desmond, Jane Dutton, Joseph Galaskiewicz, Michael Jensen, Shamus Khan, Jason Owen-Smith, Erik Schneiderhan, David Stark, Klaus Weber, Mayer Zald, and the participants in the ICOS Seminar at the University of Michigan.

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