Monday, July 12, 2010

Reading :: Between Hierarchies and Markets

Between Hierarchies and Markets: The Logic and Limits of Network Forms of Organization
By Grahame F. Thompson

I was quite excited to read Between Hierarchies and Markets, which compares three different approaches to networks - social network analysis (SNA), transaction-cost analysis (TCA), and actor-network theory (ANT) - in an attempt to situate the notion of networks in relation to hierarchies and markets. Given my readings in the last three years, I found myself wishing that I had discovered this book before finishing my own Network. But after Chapter 3, I changed my mind. That's because, although Thompson does a nice job discussing SNA and TCA, and especially their relationship with hierarchies and markets, he tends to reduce ANT too much for comparison's sake. It's still a worthwhile book, but I think it would have confused me about ANT.

Let's start at the beginning to see how this works out. In the first chapter, Thompson lays out the problem: the term "network" is used without clear conceptual underpinnings. It has become a catchall metaphor and lost analytical precision. Thompson wants to rescue the term's analytical use, particularly so that he can contrast it with other coordination/governing mechanisms with their own logics, mechanisms such as hierarchies and markets (p.2). He characterizes his work here as an interrogation into the term "network" and a commentary on how it's used (p.4).

Since Thompson is writing in the field of organizational communication, he's very interested in how the term "network" can be applied to particular forms of organizations. This leads us into the second chapter, in which he does a nice job of trying to disentangle networks, markets, and hierarchies. His chief concern, which surfaces in Chapter 3, is how to define networks in a way that doesn't make them a superset of markets and/or hierarchies (p.54). Of course, SNA and TCA are amenable to this sort of work, since they attempt to describe empirical organizational relations among human actors. ANT doesn't fit into this mold for a variety of reasons - including its symmetrical treatment of humans and nonhumans and its ontological bent - but in trying to compare it with the other two frameworks, Thompson extracts primarily the comparable elements, and the result is an unfortunate hash.

Although Thompson makes a good faith effort to portray ANT, when he tries to relate it to the market, he focuses necessarily, and too heavily, on Callon's essays in his 1998 collection Laws of the Markets. Here, Callon tried to apply a broader, more general ontological theory (ANT) to a particular coordinative mechanism (the market). Thompson, since he sees the network as a coordinative mechanism rivaling the market, has trouble making sense of or bounding ANT's project. He argues that ANT's problems include its inability to establish boundaries, particularly its inability to distinguish anything social that is not made up of actor-networks (p.78). He complains that ANT tries to explain everything, and therefore ends up explaining nothing (p.79). He compares it unfavorably with the other network approaches, in which "network" demarcates a more limited domain (p.79). And he wants to see ANT's networks as discrete systems (p.80). Thompson struggles here as he tries to make sense of what ANT would portray as a form of organization, concluding that ANT's networks are not intermediate forms of organization so much as sets of relations between actors and techniques (p.86); in contrast, I would say that actor-networks are not forms of organization at all, at least not in the sense that SNAs or TCAs are.

Let's put aside ANT for a moment, then, since actor-networks can be rather confusing in the first place, and compare apples to apples. In later chapters, Thompson has a great deal to say about organizational networks in terms of economic organizational structures. For instance, p.114 starts a strong section on cooperation, trust, and firm organization, drawing on the scholarly literature on the information economy: contractor-subcontractor networks, held together by informal and cooperative relationships, relying on trust, requiring flexibility, and working against vertically hierarchical structures (pp.114-115). He explores the shift from mass production to flexible specialization, something that Engestrom discusses under the heading co-customization, and emphasizes the role of trust in this new sort of organization, as Adler and Heckscher do (p.116).

Later, he discusses political and policy networks in the same terms, exploring the politics of networks in a way that reminds me slightly of the Tofflers' later work and a bit more of David Ronfeldt's policy discussions (p.150). Of particular interest to me was his discussion of "NGO networks of dissent," something that reminds me of Ronfeldt's Zapatista book (p.157).

On the other hand, Castells enthusiasts will be less enamored of Thompson's assessment of his work: "the thesis remains an exaggerated one" and "in the case of the 'network society' the argument is that it is just plain wrong" (p.193). Thompson doesn't like the loose way in which Castells uses the term "network" (p.193), he believes Castells is a bit of a technological determinist (p.192), and contra Castells, Thompson believes that recent time reduction in communication "makes possible different volumes of activity, and has speeded things up" but has not constitutes "a 'new global network order'" (p.224).

Ultimately, I found parts of this book to be very useful, once I moved past the ANT discussion. I wouldn't rely on this book for a critique of Callon et al., but I would use it to examine a more methodologically oriented, theoretically tight understanding of networks. If that's what you're after, check it out.

1 comment:

David Ronfeldt said...

interesting review. i recall not getting much out of this 2003 book when i read it a few years ago. i liked and got more out of his earlier volume: Thompson et al., Hierarchies and Networks: The Coordination of Social Life, Sage Publications, 1991.

he graciously came by for lunch once in santa monica. but we didn't seem to be on quite the same wavelengths.

i gather he's not continued working in the directions laid out in these two books.