In this post I consider the theory of “social fields” developed by two influential American sociologists, Neil Fligstein and Doug McAdam, drawing principally on their book A Theory of Fields (Oxford University Press, 2012). A Theory of Fields offers “a general theory of social change and stability rooted in a view of social life as dominated by a complex web of strategic action fields” (p. 8), which are meso-level social orders (more on this below). This view of social life is claimed to fill major gaps in our understanding of the structure of contemporary society and the forms of action that shape this structure.
A sociological conception of human beings, Homo sociologicus, is also developed. This conception of human beings and social action is termed the “microfoundation” of the theory.
WARNING: this is a long post (~3,300 words), but this length is necessary to provide a useful account of this field theory and to explore its relevance to prospective practices. But reading this post is much quicker and easier than reading the whole 250 page book…!
Their concept of Homo sociologicus is a critique of rational choice theory and is grounded in two key concepts: the “existential function of the social” and “social skill”. They argue that the functions of human sociability have expanded from being materialist in nature (i.e. the survival or material advantages conferred by group life) to also addressing existential fears and associated existential issues. Specifically, humans fashion “meaningful worlds in concert with others that insulate us from the threat of the ‘outer perspective’ [in which we stand mentally outside our situation and reflect on it] and confirm our own significance” (p.42). Fligstein and McAdam argue that expanded self-consciousness is accompanied by increasing existential fears. They argue:
Our daily lives are typically founded in the unshakeable conviction that no one’s life is more important than our own and that the world is an inherently meaningful place. But one does will this inner view into existence on his or her own accord. It is instead a collaborative product, born of the everyday reciprocal meaning making, identity conferring efforts we engage in with those around us. In this we function as existential “co-conspirators” (p.42)
This quote is perhaps the best description yet provided of what generally happens on Facebook!
The core argument being advanced here is that “the human capacity and need for meaning and identity is as much a structuring force in social life as the material demands on the collective… the material/instrumental and existential are inextricably linked ” (p.43).
Fligstein and McAdam are especially interested in collective action. They introduce the notion of social skill to describe “the ability to induce cooperation by appealing to and helping to create shared meanings and collective identities” (p.46). Drawing on works by sociologists such as Mead and Goffman they note that “skilled social actors empathetically relate to the situations of other people and, in doing so, are able to provide those people with reasons to cooperate” (p.46). Skilled actors do this in service of institutional projects within fields.
This “microfoundation” has both analytical implications (e.g. for trend analysis) and also suggests considerations for those running prospective exercises. Practitioners should expect to encounter Homo sociologicus (who acts both to achieve instrumental advantage and “to fashion meaningful worlds for themselves and others” p.201) rather than Homo economicus (humans being as rational and narrowly self-interested actor). The meaning and membership benefits valued by humans can be both a powerful barrier to change and a source of change.
Strategic action fields and “field dynamics”
The concept of a ‘strategic action field’ at first seems highly abstract, perhaps too abstract to be practically useful. It refers to mesolevel social orders, which is comprised of “players who have something at stake” (p.168) – e.g. market share, political support, etc – and theoretically is “defined by the relationships between all of the players who view themselves as members of the field” (p.188). Fligstein and McAdam also point the “set of positions in a field of power relations” (p.217). That is, an important part of a ‘strategic action field’ is who gets what and why.
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). Anyone who has worked in business understands this. When developing a strategy you consider how your competitors might respond and routinely take other key stakeholders into account.
It also becomes less abstract when we consider additional examples. For example, a collection of universities in a country that is competing for resources (e.g. funding), enrollments and more generalised status rewards can be understood as a strategic action field; so can a professional sporting league (and each team within this league also constitutes a strategic action field in its own right). The two case studies in A Theory of Fields examine the US housing mortgage market from 1969-2011, and the ‘field of racial politics’ in the United States during the contention over civil rights and race.
So, a strategic action field can be further understood as being “a socially constructed arena in which embedded actors compete for material and status rewards” (p.5), as per the above examples. A field is based on a shared, but not necessarily consensual, understanding of the:
- Purpose of the field – what is going on and what is at stake in the field;
- Rules that govern legitimate action in the field;
- Key relationships and actors (including which actors have power and why); and
- Broad interpretative frame that individual and collective strategic actors bring to make sense of what other actors in the strategic action field are doing.
The overall perspective advanced by A Theory of Fields is of a complex social world that is populated by a vast array of such social fields, which both exhibit their own dynamics and are interconnected with other strategic action fields. Consistent with this image of the social world, they note that 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 operates as a strategic action field in its own right, and divisions all report to a central office and vie with other divisions for the firm’s resources.
A range of related concepts are adapted and developed by Fligstein and McAdam, including:
- Incumbents, challengers and ‘internal governance units’: Incumbents are actors who wield disproportionate influence within a field and whose interests and views tend to be reflected in the organisation of the field; challengers occupy less privileged niches in the field. Internal governance units are charged with overseeing compliance with field rules and facilitating smooth functioning and reproduction of the system (e.g. bond rating agencies, certification boards that are often established in formal professions, etc);
- Episodes of contention: this is a period of emergent, sustained interaction between field actors in which new forms of action are utilised vis-à-vis one another. Another feature is sense of uncertainty/crisis regarding rules and power relations; and
- Settlement: a settlement refers to the establishment of agreed field rules and cultural norms (i.e. a sense of order and certainty).
This theory of fields also elucidates relationships within and between fields which is termed the broader field environment. Fields are conceived of as being embedded in complex webs of other fields, with three core distinctions: proximate fields (which have recurring ties to, and whose actions routinely affect, the field in question) and distant fields; independent, dependent and interdependent fields; and between state and nonstate strategic action fields.
Below I pull out from A Theory of Fields additional aspects that are relevant to ‘foresight’ work.
Insights into the potential roles of prospective practices
This theory of fields can help us to consider the roles of such practices. For example, “when field rules are uncertain, actors tend to be more receptive to new perspectives and to engage in search processes to identify alternatives” (p.23). Van Lente (2012) has noted that anticipatory perspectives can also provide direction to ‘search processes’ and future expectations help actors to reduce uncertainty. “Typically, there are many possible paths while choices have to be made” and, additionally, “the optimal direction cannot simply be calculated” (p. 774).
Thus suitable contexts for prospective practices are likely to be one where the rules of the game – i.e. field rules – have become, uncertain (an example that comes to mind is tertiary education and the rise of free online courses) or during an “episode of contention” in which there is a “shared sense of uncertainty regarding the structure and dominant order of the field” (p.21).
Additionally, Fligstein and McAdam argue that “the basic problem for skilled social actors is to frame “stories” that help to induce cooperation” (p.50). This is potentially a way to interpret the use of scenario, roadmapping and visioning techniques. These all provide ways of framing and communicating stories which can be used to try to induce greater cooperation.
Understanding turbulence in, and the dynamism of, modern society
The core theoretical implication of the interdependence of field is “that the broader field environment is a source of routine, rolling turbulence in modern society” (p.19), adding:
A significant change in any given strategic action field is like a stone thrown in a still pond sending ripples outward to all proximate fields. This does not mean that or all even most of the ripples will destabilize other fields. Like stones, changes come in all sizes. Only the most dramatic are apt to send ripples of sufficient intensity to pose a threat to the stability or proximate fields (p.19)
These continuous moments of turbulence have the following further characteristics:
- They will offer challengers opportunities to better their position and change the rules in already existing fields (i.e. they can try to exploit the situation); and
- They occasionally can lead to a major ‘episode of contention’. For example, the recent subprime mortgage crisis imposed a crisis on many proximate fields
Furthermore, the view of society provided by field theory:
Implies that much of the dynamism of modern society comes from the opportunities and crises that are constantly being presented to individuals, groups, and organizations and that enable them to occupy, create, and transform their local situations. This dynamism is not only internal to the logic of strategic action fields but also works at their edges. The dependence of strategic action fields on other strategic action fields and the overall dependence of modern society on an elaborate system of state fields provide a key source for both stability and change (p.112).
For stable fields, “the relationship between fields is … the central source of change” (p.113).
Institutional barriers to change and creative futures thinking
Field theory predicts that existing social orders will usually remain in place, even though all actors (e.g., incumbents and challengers) are constantly accommodating changing conditions in and outside a field. Specifically, it predicts that “reproduction” of a field and the main actors within it will be “the ‘default option’ normally preferred by all field actors, challengers no less than incumbents” (p. 96). If a settlement creates an arena advantageous to those who fashioned it “it is likely to prove highly resistant to challenge”. At the same time Fligstein and McAdam note that “conflict and piecemeal change are ubiquitous in the life of fields” (p.206).
This is a central diagnosis. Elsewhere they similar contend that:
Incumbents can be expected to resist significant change in the field and to bring their own considerable resources – existential as well as political and material – to bear on the outcome of any struggle for control over a given strategic action field. Given these great advantages, it is hardly surprising that one very common – perhaps model – outcome of contention within a field is simply the reestablishment of the old order (p.106)
Incumbents are both “products as well as architects of the worldview and set of understandings they have helped to create. They are now dependent upon this worldview, and this dependency restricts their ability to conceive of alternative worlds or course of action” (p.96). I have faced these barriers when working on scenario projects with the employees of incumbents.
Significantly, it is also argued that “potential challengers (e.g. field actors who are disadvantaged relative to incumbents) can be expected to help reproduce the strategic action field on a daily basis, unless they see a real opportunity to advance their interests by violating field rules and acting in transgressive ways” (p.96).
A potential example that immediately comes to mind is the Kyoto Protocol, an international agreement linked to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Despite the apparent limitations of this sort of international agreement for addressing climate change, a second commitment period was entered into (which applies to emissions between 2013-2020) and efforts now focus on negotiating a legal agreement to be implemented by 2020. Potential key challengers (e.g. the Alliance of Small Island States) continue to play along.
A set of additional factors and processes are outlined, including:
- The founding and initial stabilisation of a field is almost always accompanied by the creation of internal governance units and establishment of strong ties with allies;
- States are often invested in field stability and “are also likely to resist change in strategic action fields because of particular ties to leading incumbents” (p.106); and
- Incumbents can be expected to strongly resist significant change in the field.
Fligstein and McAdam further point to related cognitive barriers and processes:
Existing [strategic action 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).
These points reminded me of some work I did six years ago with primary school teachers. Many of these teachers were resisting shifts towards greater e-learning and changes to the prevailing pedagogy. Their existing social world was stable, predictable, and a source of meaning and identity. Change threatened all this. Consequently, there was a need to help these teachers to address their existential fears and to adopt a new vision for education.
A final key contention, regarding stability and crisis in strategic action fields, is that fields are normally destabilised by exogenous “shocks”. Examples: invasion by outside groups; changes in related fields, i.e. fields upon which the strategic action field in question is dependent; and macroevents that destabilise the social/political context in which the field is embedded.
Additional considerations for socially skilled, effective interventions
Field theory points to the importance of field “states” and taking account of different locations in “the pecking order of the strategic action field” (p.109):
Skilled social actors tailor their actions to the current state of the field (i.e., emergent, stable, crisis), their place in that field, and the current moves by skilled actors in other groups in the field (p.109).
Another consideration is awareness of the relationship between commitments to an existing order and whether new visions are expressed and innovation actions are undertaken:
New visions for the field and new lines of innovation action are most likely to be undertaken by challengers or invader groups because they are the ones who are least committed to the old order. Those defending the status quo can accept a new order and adopt some new position in that order. But this will require their leaders to change their identity and interests in order to justify their new position (p.112)
Another aspect emphasised by field theory is the importance of the macroenvironment surrounding a field (and not only considering internal field dynamics):
We can only make sense of any given field by embedding it in the broader environment of other fields that powerfully shape its fate over time… both field stability and crisis / transformation typically owe at least as much to external events and processes as those internal to the strategic action field (p.203) [For example, shocks emanating from significant events or change processes in nearby fields that serve, in turn, to destabilize relations within the field in question and perhaps other fields as well]
Collective strategic action and mobilisation processes
Finally, field theory is linked to the “foundational problem of collective strategic action” (p.4). Fligstein and McAdam argue “collective action occurs in and around fields” (p.197). Another way of putting this is that field formation and change involves collective action, e.g.:
Fields are born of the concerted efforts of collective actors to fashion a stable consensus regarding rules of conduct and membership criteria that routinize interactions in pursuit of common aims. We term this set of understandings a “settlement”. We can say that a stable strategic action field has emerged when the actors who comprise the field share an understanding of this settlement and act routinely to reproduce it (p.92).
Moreover, as per the microfoundation, it is further argued that the need for meaning and for membership is at the basis of peoples’ efforts to get and sustain collective action.
Some concluding thoughts
A “field” is useful general construct that can be applied to political domains (e.g. international agreement negotiations, as noted earlier) and economies (e.g. institutions such as markets, industries), and many other phenomena (e.g. academic disciplines, sporting leagues). A general theory of fields (mesolevel social orders) is thus potentially extremely useful:
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, of course, how to do it. There exist rules and resources that we draw on (or are victimised by!) as we go through the motions of what we do every day. These rules and resources constrain and enable us (p.178; emphasis in original)
Turning to my own research, of particular interest is the overarching perspective that field theory provides on social change and stability. Fligstein and McAdam make a compelling argument that “reproduction” of established strategic action fields and the main actors within it is “the ‘default option’ normally preferred by all field actors” (p.96). The associated barriers to significant change are issues will have been experienced by all sustainability advocates. Field theory provides a sociological explanation for such institutional barriers to change.
Still, field theory should not be understood as a structural determinist perspective. Fligstein and McAdam are careful to present and justify a much more agentic view. They point out that “we exercise at least some degree of agency all the time” (p.180), whilst arguing that “the organization of the field is what determines what kinds of strategic action make sense” (p.181) and even in fluid situations “resources will matter a lot” (p.181). The argument is that certain roles and forms of strategic actions are “available under certain conditions of social fields” (p.181).
This sociological view of ‘strategic action’ is important and is further defined as “the attempt by social actors to create and sustain social worlds by securing the cooperation of others” (p.17). In addition to the importance of context, this view emphasises: 1) the role of cognitive capacities (which they term “social skill”); 2) working to fashion shared worlds and identities – what they also term “existential packages” (p.17); and 3) carefully framing associated lines of action. The central point is that actors who undertake strategic action “must be able to use whatever perspective they have developed in an intersubjective enough fashion to secure the cooperation – willing or otherwise – of others” (p.17). The clear implication is that practices that enhance these cognitive capacities and framing activities can assist with strategic action.
Their concept and theorisation of ‘episodes of contention’ is also useful. These are periods of intense contestation in which the rules and power relations of a given field are up for grabs – a situation in which a given field is “ripe for transformation” (p.177). The challenge here is of measuring the degree to which a strategic action field is in crisis (not just the constant routine conflicts). At this moment a targeted intervention could have transformative impacts.
For more information see: Fligstein, N. & McAdam, D. 2012, A Theory of Fields, Oxford University Press, New York: New York.