Actorhood & Individual Empowerment

Actorhood & Individual Empowerment

Casting Call: The Expanding Nature of Actorhood in U.S. Firms, 1960-2010

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It is an unexpected twist of history that today we routinely discuss firms in the United States as coherent actors with an autonomous “self.” Although court decisions dating back to the 19th century granted corporations some of the same legal rights and protections afforded to individuals, firms were not envisioned as independent actors in the sense that the term is used today. Instead, firms were contexts for action or instruments for achieving owners’ goals and interests, which have been variously described along a spectrum ranging from benevolent to dangerously selfish.

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They Are All Organizations’: The Cultural Roots of Blurring between the Nonprofit, Business, and Government Sectors.

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Abstract. An important transformation is reshaping once-distinct social structures, such as charitable and religious groups, family firms, and government agencies, into more analogous units called organizations. We use the ideas of sociological institutionalism to build a cultural explanation for the blurring between traditional sectors. In contrast to mainstream theories of power or functionality, we argue that it is increasingly difficult to distinguish between these historically separate entities because of global cultural shifts characterized by a growing emphasis on science, which renders the world subject to systematic principles, and the expansion of individual rights, responsibilities, and capacities. Focusing mainly on nonprofits, our approach explains two important features of contemporary blurring that are overlooked in current explanations: that the practices associated with becoming more like business or government in the nonprofit sector spread beyond known instrumental utility and the demands of funders or clients, and that sector blurring is not simply a transfer of new practices into the world of nonprofits and government. All sectors are changing in similar ways in the current period.

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The Rise of Individual Agency in Conceptions of Society: Textbooks Worldwide, 1950-2011.

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A broadly recognized sociological insight is that rising levels of individualism increasingly characterize a growing number of countries. We examine the extent to which schooling is altered by, and transmits, this core cultural shift. We analyze 476 secondary school social science textbooks from 78 countries from 1950 to 2011 to see whether they increasingly portray society as made up of agentic individual actors of all sorts (e.g., children, women, minorities). We find emphases on older social institutions remain stable, but there are striking worldwide increases in emphases on people, especially ones empowered with rights. This global peopling of social science instruction, especially strong in the recent neoliberal decades, characterizes every type of country and textbook we can distinguish, and occurs over and above other features of books and countries.

Empowered Individualism in World Culture: Agency and Equality in Canadian Textbooks, 1871-2006.

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Abstract: The sacred status of individuals is a central pillar of world culture in research on education and beyond. The intended socialization of students is increasingly to become empowered individuals that respect human equality and diversity in a globally-interconnected world. At the same time, we have little understanding of what exactly the concept of individual empowerment means or how to capture it empirically. This study builds on prior observations about the growing status of individuals by delineating the rise of two separate but related dimensions of empowerment – agency and equality – and outlining the rise of these dimensions in the Canadian educational context. To this end, it draws on a unique dataset consisting of a systematically designed coding of eighty history, civics, and social studies textbooks used in Canada from 1871 to 2006. Refining the concept of individual empowerment reveals that its manifestations are shaped by the local context, in addition to the influences that come from world culture. Overall, increasingly empowered individuals and the structures they create (often organizations and associations of various types) become key actors in national and international society. Looking to the future, if taken to an extreme, expansions in individual empowerment may lead to instances of “hyper-empowerment”, where depictions and enactments of individual choice, control, and equality far outpace reasonable expectations.

Hyper-Organization: Global Organizational Expansion

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Hyper-Organization offers an institutional explanation for the expansion of formal organization in the contemporary era-in numbers, internal complexity, social domains, and national contexts. Much expansion is hard to justify in terms of technical production or political power, it lies in areas such as protecting the environment, promoting marginalized groups, or behaving with transparency.

The authors argue that expansion is supported by widespread cultural rationalization characterized by scientism, rights and empowerment discourses, and an explosion of education. These cultural changes are transmitted through legal, accounting, and professionalization principles, driving the creation of new organizations and the elaboration of existing ones. The resulting organizations are constructed to be proper social actors, as much as functionally effective entities. They are painted as autonomous and integrated but depend heavily on external definitions to sustain this depiction. So expansion creates organizations that are, whatever their actual effectiveness, structurally arational.

This book advances theories of social organization in three main ways. First, by giving an account of the expansive rise of ‘organization’ rooted in rapid worldwide cultural rationalization. Second, explaining the construction of contemporary organizations as purposive actors, rather than passive bureaucracies or loose associations. Third, showing how the expanded actorhood of the contemporary organization, and the associated interpenetration with the environment, dialectically generate structures far removed from instrumental rationality.

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