New theory for making sense of change and stability: ‘strategic action fields’

A Theory of Fields is a recent book published by Oxford University press and written by two influential American sociologists, Neil Fligstein and Doug McAdam. A friend, Alex Burns included it in his contribution to Roy Christopher’s Summer Reading list. It got my attention for three reasons: 1) social field theory is a core component of Otto Scharmer’s Theory U and the concept of a “living field” (or a social “generative field”) is also frequently discussed in the related book Presence: Human Purpose and the Field of the Future by Peter Senge, Scharmer and other co-authors; 2) the field theory discussed by Fligstein and Doug McAdam addresses ‘strategic collective action’, which is often central to action to address sustainability issues; 3) their “field” theory provides a new conceptual framework which aims to help analysts to make sense of, and to anticipate, both change and stability (social order).

In essence, the book presents a general theory of social change and stability that is rooted in a view of social life as dominated by a complex “web” of “strategic action fields”. (see definition below)

This post addresses the following four questions:

  • What is a “field”?
  • What’s the importance of “strategic action fields” and the conceptual framework presented in A Theory of Fields? (Some key points and concepts I’ve highlighted and pulled out)
  • How could this theory be used?
  • What’s the relevance to sustainability?

One aspect to foreshadow is the role such theory might play in considering the conditions under which strategic action is pursued, helping to determine what kinds of action make sense. Fligstein and McAdam argue skilled actors recognise the “structural situation” in which they find themselves – such as a fluid situation suiting entrepreneurial action, or a highly stable action field.

What is a “field”?

Fligstein and Doug describe a “field” in a few ways. Firstly, a ‘strategic action field’ is defined as a “mesolevel social order” that forms where something is at stake that actors are striving to control. A field is “concerned with all of the players who have something at stake” (p.168). They add that “theoretically, a field is defined by the relationships between all of the players who view themselves as members of the field” (p.188). In their approach to analysis of field dynamics is looking for “a set of positions in a field of power relations” (p.217) – that is, who gets what and why.

They provide many examples: a collection of universities in a given country; a professional sporting league (and each team constitutes a field its own right); markets (including the case study of the US housing mortgage market from 1969-2011); policy fields (including the case study of the US ‘field of racial politics’ during contention over civil rights and race in the United States), and mature industries. The modern State can also be viewed as an interdependent set of strategic action fields.

In essence, strategic action field ‘membership’ can be understood as comprised of “those groups who routinely take each other into account in their action” (p.167-168).

When I was reading A Theory of Fields a specific example came to mind: the strategic action field of mining taxation policy in Australia. A range of actors have something specific at stake (the taxation regime and associated interests, e.g. how much is paid or collected, by whom). The field has changed significantly, following the attempted introduction of a ‘super profits tax’ by the Rudd Government in 2010, in response to the recommendations of the Henry Review of the Australian tax system. A settlement was later fashioned following major conflict which, in part, led to the downfall of a Prime Minister. In this example, the “positions in a field of power relations” led to important outcomes, whereby the proposed taxation policy was altered to address the concerns of the big miners.

Strategic action fields can be like a “Russian Doll” with “a set of fields embedded in one another, to constitute a tightly linked vertical system” (p.204). An example is a firm in which every plant and office is a strategic action field in its own right. Divisions report to a central office and vie with other divisions for resources. Another example provided is the ‘international arms control’ field. It is a “field”, so is each national government within it, the set of fields that compromise each state’s military establishment, and so is each of the armies and forces in each military.

Secondly, the concept is positioned in relation to “the foundational problem of collective strategic action” (p.4). They argue “collective action occurs in and around fields” (p.197).

Fligstein and McAdam state that: “our main assertion is that there exists a deeper structure to social, economic, and political life such that collective strategic action has similar roots and dynamics across the otherwise different arenas in which those actions take place” (p.193). They believe “field dynamics are very general across arenas where social actors come to confront one another” (p.198)

Thirdly, they contrast ‘organised social space’ (which is a strategic action field) with ‘disorganised social space’. In strategic action fields “actors (who can be individual or collective) are attuned to and interact with one another on the basis of shared (which is not to say consensual) understandings” (p.9). Four categories of understanding in field-level interactions are highlighted:

  • Understandings regarding what is going on in the field – i.e. what is at stake;
  • Understandings regarding relationships to others in the field (including who has power and why); actors “share a generalized sense of how their position relates to that of others in the strategic action field”;
  • Understandings about the nature of the “rules” in the field; actors understand what tactics are possible, legitimate  of the  within the field; and
  • Understandings about the broad interpretative frame that individual and collective strategic actors bring to make sense of what others with the field are doing

Fields are socially “constructed” in “the sense that they turn on a set of understandings fashioned over time by members of the field” (p.10). That is, a set of shared meanings structure field dynamics.  A related key idea is ‘internal governance units’, which most fields have. These units “are charged with overseeing compliance with field rules and, in general, facilitating the overall small functioning and reproduction of the system” (examples of such units include ratings agencies in bond markets, the trade associations in most industry bodies, various accreditation bodies, etc.)

Nonetheless, Fligstein and McAdam state that they expect to see different ‘interpretative frames’ reflecting the relative position of actors in a given field (and not a strong consensus): “one key difference between our perspective and most versions of institutional theory is that we see fields as only rarely organized around a truly consensual ‘take for granted’ reality” (p.11).

What’s the importance of strategic action fields and the associated conceptual framework presented in A Theory of Fields?

Fligstein and McAdam write that “the theory of strategic action fields is about how once in place, the mesolevel social orders that structure our lives offer us anchors as to what to do, when to do it, and, how to do it” (p.178). In these social orders “there exist rules and resources that we draw on (or are victimised by) as we go through the motions of what we do each day”. They argue that we need to recognise that these rules and resources both “constrain and enable us” (p.178).

Fligstein and McAdam further remark that they embarked in this project because of the challenges they faced in making sense of change and stability in the cases they were studying. I too have faced this theoretical/empirical challenge as both an analyst and process facilitator.

This aspect of their project is clearer when considering more elements of their framework:

Differentiation between three field “states”

Emergent fields

(Field formation or emergence)


See pp.86-96

Field formation involves the creation of a stable meso-level social order out of a chaotic “action arena” – requiring the negotiation of an initial ‘settlement’ that achieves a degree of consensus on four key issues noted above (E.g. what is going on and at stake, etc).Four dynamics: 1) Emergent mobilisation (process by which actors fashion new lines of interaction with others based on altered understandings of opportunties/threats; 2) Social skill and the fashioning of a settlement; 3) State facilitation; and 4) Internal governance units.“If two or more organizations or groups are attempting to attain ends that are sufficiently similar that they are compelled to take one another’s actions into account in their behaviour, then we can say that we are observing an attempt at field formation” (p.167)
Stable field

See pp.96-99

“A stable field “is one in which the main actors are able to reproduce themselves and the field over a fairly over a fairly long period of time” (p.9).Such a field can be built on coercion, competition or cooperation; fields contain elements of all three.If an initial ‘settlement’ proves effective (creating an arena advantageous to who fashioned it) it is likely to prove highly resistant to change; Incumbents will be disinclined to mount a challenge to the status quo.“In essence, we see reproduction as the ‘default option’ normally preferred by all field actors” (p.96)

(Field transformation)

See pp.99-108

Sources of field destabilisation:

  • Invasion by outside groups (e.g. a new entrant into an established industry)
  • Changes in fields that the strategic action field in question is dependent
  • Rare macro-events that destabilise the broader context in which the field is embedded (e.g. war, major economic recession or depression)

Key processes for re-establishing field stability

  • Forging a winning coalition
  • Seeking State Allies and the Ratification of Change

Settlement’: A ‘strategic action field’ has emerged when actors who comprise the field have a shared understanding of the “rules of conduct and membership criteria that routinize interaction in pursuit of common aims” (p.92); this in normally the result of concerted efforts of collective actors.

‘Incumbents, challengers and governance units’: Fligstein and McAdam see fields as composed of incumbents, challengers, and very often governance units.

‘Social skill’: “the ability to induce cooperation by appealing to and helping to create shared meaning and collective identities”. They actors draw on empathy and understanding of others “to provide an interpretation of a given situation and to frame [proposed] courses of action” (p.46).

This concept is introduced by Fligstein and McAdam “to make sense of what people do to attain collective action”. It is seen as rooted in ‘symbolic interactionism’ (a major sociological perspective), with “actors’ conceptions of themselves shaped by their interactions with others” (p.47). It also “underscores the ‘cultural’ or ‘constructed’ dimension of social action” (p.17).

‘Existential function of the social’: This refers to the collaborative and everyday processes of reciprocal meaning making, whereby “our daily lives are grounded in the unshakeable conviction that no one’s life is more important than our own and that the world is an inherently meaningful place” (p.42). Furthermore: “We function as existential ‘coconspirators’, relentlessly – if generally unconsciously – exchanging affirmations that sustain our sense of our own significance and the world’s inherent meaningfulness” (p.42).

This concept refers to what they term Homo sociologicus, “who requires meaning as the ground of his or her being and achieves that meaning by engaging in collaborative action with others (p.46). That is, they foreground the “central importance of meaning making in group life” (p.46).

Fligstein and McAdam emphasise “the distinctive human capacity and need to fashion shared meanings and identities to ensure a viable existential ground for existence” (p.18). “People do what they do both to achieve instrumental advantage and to fashion meaningful worlds for themselves and others” (p.43). They argue that this ‘existential function’ is what “enables the ‘social skills’ that undergird the forms of strategic action” discussed in A Theory of Fields (p.34).

The broader ‘field environment’ in which any given strategic action field is embedded: A given field is conceived of “as embedded in complex webs of other fields” (p.18). Three distinctions are made: distant/proximate fields; dependent/interdependent; and state/nonstate fields. Fligstein and McAdam invoke the following “basic imagery”: “a society consisting of millions of strategic action fields linked by various types of relations” (p.101).

A strategic action field may be highly dependent on another (and therefore potentially more at risk of reorganization) or have many linkages to other strategic action fields and draw on different resources (which therefore is likely to insulate them from external shocks). The analyst should define the external fields that are most important for the reproduction of a particular field.

‘Episodes of contention’ which centrally feature “a shared sense of uncertainty/crisis regarding the rules and power relations governing the field” (p.21), obliging all parties to a conflict to continue to struggle. It can be defined as “a period of emergent, sustained contentious interaction between … [field] actors utilizing new and innovative forms of action vis-à-vis one another”.

How could this theory be used?

A few key ideas came to mind when reading A Theory of Fields – it could be used to:

  1. To consider the importance of cultural ‘frames’
  2. To better understand stability and change (as well as the prospect of either)
  3. Informing action: such as the form of strategic interventions, and their timing
  4. Informing action: additional contextual considerations

1. To consider the importance of cultural ‘frames’

Fligstein and McAdam have a lot to say about strategic collective action, interpretive frames, and related social processes (e.g. as part of strategic action field transformation). They note that “in times of dramatic change, new ways of organizing “cultural frames” or “logics of action” come into existence” (p.4). They similarly asset that “one form of action that is ubiquitous during episodes of contention is framing” – “all manner of combatants … can be expected to propose and seek to mobilise consensus around a particular conception of the field” (p.22).

In a section titled ‘Social Skill in Action’ they comment that “the basic problem for skilled social actors is to frame ‘stories’ that help induce cooperation from people by appealing to their identify, belief, and interests, while at the same time using those same stories to frame actions against their various opponents” (p.50-51).  As a quick aside, this is clear in election campaigns!

Fligstein and McAdam similarly draw attention to the ‘interpretative frames’ that individual and collective strategic actors employ in a strategic action fields. These may be quite diverse, and are likely to reflect an actors’ own position and perspective in the field (p.170).

Field creation: “every field is born not so much of shared interests as of a creative cultural process that binds field members together through a constructed narrative account of the new collective identity that units them and the shared mission that is at the heart of the field” (p.110).

Similarly, the process they term ‘emergent mobilisation’ (which in one of the dynamics that can shape the process of field formation) “refers to the process by which collective actors fashion new lines of interaction with other actors based on altered understandings of the opportunities or threats to group interests that they perceive” (p.91).

2.  To better understand stability and change

The theory of fields suggests all actors tend to have a stake in an existing social order, and that this “would appear to owe as much to our physiology and psychology as anything else” (p.104). (For example, see the above discussion on the ‘existential function of the social’). It also proposes that field rules will be established in ways that suit the interests of incumbents, defended by ‘internal governance units’ (this seems clear in conflict over mining taxation in Australia).

A key quote: “Existing [field] settlements represent an often imposing cognitive barrier to contentious action. After all, such settlements define stable, predictable worlds and sources of meaning and identity for all participants in the strategic action field. To overcome this barrier, challengers must fashion alternative conceptions of control that simultaneously undermine the existing settlement, which providing a new animating vision for the field” (p.107).

Incumbents can be expected to resist significant change in a field and to bring their significant resources to bear on the outcome; states tend to be invested in field stability (pp.104-106). Additionally, they assert that the ‘internal governance units’ are “generally there not to serve as neutral arbiters of conflicts between incumbents and challengers but to reinforce the dominant perspective and guard the interests of the incumbents” (p.14)

Nonetheless, it is possible to measure the degree to which identities of the various positions in the field and the underlying conception of the rules in the field are stable or not (p.175); consider the prospect for change; and consider events or processes that serve to destabilise a field.

 3. Informing action: such as the form of strategic interventions, and their timing

The conceptual framework developed in A Theory of Fields specifies conditions: 1) under which fields emerge; 2) that lead to different field structures (e.g. hierarchical or coalitional field structure); and 3) that encourage fields’ development, stabilisation and transformation (e.g. see p.188). This theory might be used or adapted to help to inform interventions in strategic actions fields.

Fligstein and McAdam argue that different forms of strategic action make more sense under different field states, and that through empirical research analysts can understand the current field conditions and, therefore, the possibility for social change in given fields (pp.174-175). Analysts must differentiate between three field “states”: 1) Field formation or emergence; 2) Stable field; and 3) field destabilisation (see discussion of field ‘Rupture/Crisis/Resettlement’ above).

They suggest that the degree to which a strategic action field is in crisis implies the degree to which to which it is ripe for transformation. Crisis goes beyond routine conflict. It refers “to a situation in which the legitimacy of the principles of the field is being threatened such that they no longer are able to deliver valued ends” (p.176) – also see an ‘episode of contention’ (p.176). A field can be highly conflictual but stable; issue is whether there’s an underlying social order (p.171)

4. Informing action: additional contextual considerations

The capacity and role of the State: Fligstein and McAdam also emphasise the often decisive role of the State in promoting both field stability and crisis. They comment: “Prior to the rise of centralized national states, framing, coalition building, and other internal mobilization processes might have been sufficient to impose a new settlement on an existing strategic action field. Even today, under circumstances of limited state capacity, these same internal [field] processes may be sufficient to bring about the transformation and resettlement of a particular field. But under conditions of moderate to high state capacity, the resolution of most episodes of field contention will necessarily involve both successful internal mobilization and eventual imposition and ratification of the new settlement by relevant state (or other external) actors” (pp.107-108).

An associated issue is that field theory states that state actors can be expected to be conservative and allied with incumbent(s) in a strategic action field. They can be expected to resist destabilising change in any major strategic action field (p.108). However, Fligstein and McAdam also assert that “the same aversion to instability gives state actors a powerful motive to intervene to effect a new settlement if and when they perceive the old system as no longer viable” (p.108).

Settled Vs. destabilised strategic action fields: that is, considering whether a mesolevel social structure is emerging, stable, or in the process of transformation (p.27). An important theme (e.g. see pp.109-112) is the need for actors to tailor action to the current “state” of a field.

What’s the relevance of this theory to sustainability?

Field theory appears to have enormous relevance to sustainability action – indeed, it seems possible to very usefully apply the theory to an enormous range of issues and complex tasks ranging from climate policy negotiations through the UNFCCC, the operation and evolution of energy markets (e.g. Australia’s national electricity market), river system governance (e.g. the Murray-Darling Basin), efforts to destabilise the fossil fuel industry, through to new product development.

That is, the formation, destabilisation and transformation of strategic action fields appears central to such action. Indeed, if Fligstein and McAdam are right “collective action should be understood as occurring “in and around [strategic action] fields” (p.197).

Assessing field conditions and the associated possibility for social change in a given field: This theory can be used in empirical research that interprets the nature of current field conditions and how “ripe” field is (or isn’t) for transformation. Additionally, Fligstein and McAdam argue that different forms of strategic action make more sense under different field states (see table below, which is adapted from material that is presented in Chapter 2 and Chapter 6)

Field conditions Expected characteristics Example actions
  • Multiplicity of collective identities
  • Division of resources
  • Actors seeking to effect a ‘settlement’ – imposed or collaboratively. Fields are birthed through collective action projects

“The absence of shared rules and understandings makes this an inherently unstable situation” (p.109)

  • Skilled social actors will work to stabilise their group internally while also interacting with would-be field members
  • Actors may seek to impose an order, or to arrive at a collaborative arrangement (depending on their resource endowments)
  •  Entrepreneurship
  • Higher degree of stability of identities of the positions in the field and underlying conceptions of rules in the field
  • Pecking order of groups and organisations would remain constant
  • View of appropriate behaviour would remain constant, consensually shared
  • Leaders of organisations would be homogenous in the background

Overall, “a set of understandings comes to organize a strategic action field” (p.176)

  • Skilled social actors are trying to either reproduce their dominance or to find openings to contest that dominance
  • Skilled strategic actors in dominated groups tend to take what the system gives them (p.111)
Crisis / rupture / transformation (the degree of)
  • Legitimacy of the principles of the field is threatened, “such that they are no longer able to deliver valued ends”
  • Inability of field incumbents to reproduce themselves (i.e. they start to fail)
  • A true crisis represents an “episode of contention” during which the field rules and power relations are up for grabs; Sustained uncertainty and conflict

See measures on p.177, which can be used to assess how close to crisis a particular field is (is isn’t)

Note: indications of crisis is expected to come from the actions of challengers

  • Incumbents will continue – at least for a while – to try to enforce the social order
  • I.e. Actors in dominant groups typically respond to a crisis by hewing to the status quo (p.11)
  • If these efforts fail then possibilities for new forms of strategic action open up
  • Entrepreneurship – new visions and new lines of innovation action often undertaken by challenger or invader groups (p.112)

A related argument is that the opportunity to be an entrepreneur depends critically on the state of the field. That is, “entrepreneurs appear not in settled social fields but in those that are emerging or those that are on the verge of transformation [destabilised fields]” (p.181). They add:

“It is a role that is available under certain conditions of social fields. Entrepreneurs can act to bring together other groups in a political coalition in a social movement-like fashion by forging collective identities that allow the structuring of the field. They do so by recognizing what the system gives them. So, they are likely to build a coalition under condition in which no one group can be dominant. But these same skilled strategic actors may also realize that their group has the most resources and can act to crush or dominate the opposition in a social field. It is this recognition by actors of the structural situation in which they find themselves that gives them the opportunity to help forge new social space. (p.181)

As a brief aside, field theory and dynamics may be a useful in scenario building/analysis processes.

Requirements of – and barriers to – strategic and collective action: action to address sustainability issues often needs to be strategic and collective.  Strategic action – as defined in A Theory of Fields – entails “the attempt by social actors to create and sustain social worlds by securing the cooperation of others” (p.17). This field dynamics theory argues that the human need for a “viable existential ground for existence” is both a barrier to change and a driver of successful collective action.

The related core issue is Fligstein and McAdam’s assertion that “in essence, we see reproduction as the ‘default option’ normally preferred by all field actors” (p.96). In other words, they’re arguing that efforts of sustainability change agents to achieve major systemic changes are likely to face major ‘head winds’. For example, they argue that “existing [field] settlements represent an often imposing cognitive barrier to contentious action” (p.107). Existing social worlds define “predictable worlds and sources of meaning and identity for all participants in the strategic action field”.

Indeed, they also express cautions and highlight ambiguities. “It is easy to overestimate the ability of skilled strategic actors to make a difference even in … fluid situations. This is because they often confront other groups with strategic actors that possess the same skill to organize the field” (p.181). They add: “one of the main ambiguities in such situations is exactly what a resource is. In some ways, actors have to use what they have. They may or may not know if what they have is powerful enough to allow them to organize the field” (p.181).

‘Structure-agent problem’: Additionally, Fligstein and McAdam have plenty to say about the ‘structure-agent problem’. “We are asserting a much more active, agentic view of social life than would appear common in sociology” (p.56). They critique Marx as part of their argument that “meaning and identity is as much a structuring force in social life as the material demands on the collective” (p.43). (They contend that Marx over-emphasised ‘an underlying material logic of society’). Their critique of materialistic determinism ­– which reduces human choices to the influence of material factors – appears to be relevant to critiques of environmental determinism.

Similarly they discuss the “tendency [in sociology] to see individuals as products rather than architects of social life” and related issues with a ‘structural deterministic view’: “Notwithstanding the empirical fact of social change, the institutionalist argument remains dominant in sociology. Changing existing fields is seen as exceedingly difficult” (p.178). In contrast, Fligstein and McAdam contend that: 1) we exercise at least some degree of agency all the time; and 2) the dominant view “ignores the fact that social life is largely played out in fields” (p.180). This “theory of action stresses that individuals or groups are always acting and they are always looking for an edge. But it is the structuring of those fields that determines which kinds of action make sense”.

Indeed, “field reproduction takes a lot of work by skilled strategic actors in incumbent organizations. Their counterparts in challenger groups need to constantly work to maintain whatever positions they have” (p.180).

They also advocate avoiding the tendency for extreme positions which can lead to people simply being reduced to positions in social structures (e.g. slaves to various forms of social influence like norms) or viewing them as so agentic that are seen at every moment to be creating and re-creating society. They also see “the tendency of humans to hew to social norms, to conform to group pressures, reflects nothing so much as the existential function of the social” (p.56).

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