After writing last month’s post about what I learned from David Stark about performativity, I decided to pick up his new book, The Sense of Dissonance. Stark’s ideas about the value of play, ambiguity and uncertainty seemed to hold a number of important implications for research and education on economic issues. So I thought it would make an interesting blog entry to interview one of the foremost contemporary sociologists about his work. In the dialogue that follows, we discuss what inspires Stark’s research, and the lessons his book holds for practitioners and scholars.


Not a good metaphor for heterarchy, unfortunately.

Brooke Harrington: As someone who gives a prominent place to art and imagery in your research, do you have a visual metaphor for heterarchy? As I read The Sense of Dissonance, I formed a mental image of heterarchy as a kind of layer cake, in which the layers are orders of worth: the orders coexist, bound together by “frosting” to form a coherent social system. As soon as this image came to me, I wondered: what does heterarchy look like in your mind’s eye?

David Stark:: I had thought about metaphors while writing the book. That’s why I put three epigraphs at the book’s opening.

The first is from Dante, a passage from the Purgatorio of The Divine Comedy: “Fix not that mind on one place only.” I think it well expresses one of the core ideas of the book. A critical challenge of organizations in rapidly changing environments is the problem of getting trapped in your own successes. Heterarchies – organizations with multiple evaluative principles – are better able to avoid this cognitive lock-in because they are always looking out of multiple frames.

I allude to the Dante passage in the Preface where I briefly mention a sociological double vision. I like this notion. Of course, double vision is a kind of malady, things are out of focus. But “focus” can be overrated, especially if it’s the single-minded variety.

We so often hear advice, whether it is to organizations or, for example, to our students: “Get focused!” But, continuing with this visual metaphor, there is also something to be said about the importance of peripheral vision. It’s critical for athletes. It’s a useful and necessary skill for moving very quickly together with many other people, going in different directions, as I’ve been aware when navigating from one subway line to another during rush hour in the Times Square subway station. And it’s vital for organizations. If the strategy horizon is foreshortened, meaning that the future is not far away and it is highly unpredictable, then you should not be locked-in looking ahead but must also be attentive to the movement that is happening around you. Peripheral vision achieves awareness of that movement.

In personal terms, then, in thinking about advising students, we mustn’t neglect the “stay focused” part because there are serious dangers in flitting from topic to topic, a kind of attention deficit disorder. But if the injunction is limited to one, the better might be something more like, “be attentive” or “pay attention.” You can look in more than one place, but the goal to keep in mind is to be attentive to the real insights that are possible when both are held in view.

Brooke: What about the other two epigraphs?

David: If the first was a classic, the second is from pulp fiction. And whereas the first is from the Purgatorio, the second is from the Elmore Leonard’s crime novel, Mr. Paradise: “A good detective doesn’t know what he’s looking for until he finds it.”

Following on that line, the introduction of the book opens with the problem of search. But the critical search is not when I already know what I’m looking for. Search engines can do this. Instead, the more interesting search is when I don’t know what I’m looking for, yet I can recognize it when I find it.

Each side of the statement is important. As for the first, with John Dewey I’m interested in open-ended inquiry, in which the biggest challenge is less the analytic one of problem solving than the interpretive one of identifying the problem. On the second side, there are the moments of recognition. The challenges of innovation, whether in business, the arts, or science is be able to recognize the novel possibilities, and to be able to formulate them in ways that are recognizable by others. The more the innovation is outside existing categories, the greater the challenge.

Brooke: And the third epigraph, from William Carlos Williams?

David: That’s from his 1951 poem, Patterson:

if you are interested
leads to discovery.

This is a wonderful passage, and I like it so much. To recognize the accomplishment, one first has to be attentive to the poetic elements of the sounds themselves. You’ll need to read it aloud. Try it and you’ll hear. Dissonance if you are interested leads to discovery. It’s all consonance and assonance. As a result, the dissonance of the passage is not in the literal meaning of the words but in the discrepancy between the words and the formal elements. The words go one way; the sounds go another. The passage does what it says when you hear it in two simultaneous and dissonant voices.

In your initial question you asked, “what does heterarchy look like in your mind’s eye?” For me, it’s probably more the case of what heterarchy sounds like in my mind’s ear. There is an overarching metaphor of the book, which after all is right there in the title: The Sense of Dissonance. The metaphor is musical, polyphony. There are multiple voices, and they are not harmonious. Yet there can be a sense in this dissonance.

I would love to eat your layer cake for dessert, but it might be too sweet to be the metaphor that I would adopt. First, the notion of layers is a bit too flat. True, each order of worth is relatively discrete. Each is principled, and the principles are incommensurable across orders. Yet the layer cake metaphor misses the interaction among them. The musical metaphor of multiple voices gets at this interaction.

Diversity matters – in business organizations, in our universities. But if the diverse elements stand indifferently apart, there will not be innovative recombination. In the concluding chapter of the book, I address this in reference to organizational ecology which correctly pointed to the importance of the diversity of organizations. My work points to diversity within organizations, and even more pointedly to the organization of diversity. It’s laughable if taken literally, but I noted that organizational ecology lacks sex. What’s missing is the notion of cross-fertilization.

As the second point of difference from the frosting of your layer cake: the interaction among orders of worth is not smooth. Hence the concept of generative friction, another metaphor that appears throughout the book. From Oliver Williamson we got the message that friction is bad, smooth is better. I was immunized against that message by the notions of the designer capitalists who flew into the former Soviet bloc after 1989 with their recipes, formulas, and marching orders for a “smooth transition.” Frictionless notions also abound in pop sociology adages like, “Let’s all get together and iron out our differences.”

The metaphor of dissonance displaces the commonly-held idea that coordination is all about our shared understandings. True, here as with the notion of focus and attention, organizations cannot cohere if there is absolutely no shared sense of purpose. But musical pieces can have beautiful, meaningful dissonance. Take, for example, the mature work of Charles Ives in which the overlapping of discordant musical themes – as when in “The Fourth of July” the orchestra splits into two marching bands that come crashing towards each other – creates extraordinary, and extraordinarily beautiful, dissonance.

It’s for these reasons that I titled the book The Sense of Dissonance. I sensed that the reader would see that there can be sense – reason – in the dissonant clash of heterogenous performance principles. I hoped that a few might also connect to an additional connotation that organizations might vary in their ability to have a sense of dissonance, not directly analogous to the senses of sight or hearing but more like how individuals can vary in having a sense of self, or even better, a sense of humor.

Brooke: Your description of the value of play in organizations—in the context of playing with ambiguity (p. 185 in particular)—offers a distinctive take on innovation strategy. How could someone working in a business organization apply those insights? In other words, how does one organize to promote play and thus innovation?

David: Play is hard work. Take writing, for example. I’ll sometimes try to exploit the polysemic character of terms in which there are multiple connotations operating at once. Think of accounts (narrative and book keeping), performance (a skilled staged activity and a metric), demonstrations (technical, commercial, or political with very interesting interplays among them), or the difference between two words in which one is seemingly the plural of the other – value and values. But I never think about this as “playing with words.” It’s working with words. Writers who make words work overtime should give them due recognition, as Humpty-Dumpty says in Alice in Wonderland, “When I make a word do extra work, I’m always sure to pay it very well.”

"When I make a word do extra work, I'm always sure to pay it very well."

I’m not sure that I write about “playing with ambiguity.” Perhaps there is such a phrase in the book. But more frequently I write about keeping ambiguity in play. That can take some effort. There is productive friction; but friction can also come in destructive forms. The difference is that whereas the latter is personalized and frequently petty, the former is principled. But that doesn’t mean it has to be played out in deadly seriousness.

Brooke: By the way, your description of the trading floor in Chapter 4 was strikingly reminiscent of a place where we’ve both spent a lot of productive, intellectually innovative time: the Santa Fe Institute think tank. That might be surprising to readers who take the view that academia (including think tanks) is a world apart from business, and never the twain shall meet. Can you comment on the links—or at least the potential linkages—between the two arenas?

David: SFI is an excellent example. Take first the intellectual architecture as a place where many people are working in multiple registers. Lunch time throws together people from all over the disciplinary map. And not only that, but the typical introduction is frequently something like “I’m from physics but I’m working on this problem in biology.” Or, “I’m in biology and I’m working on this problem in computer science.”

And then there is the physical architecture, as close to an open plan layout as any I know about in academia. Some smaller offices, but much of the work taking place in the common spaces, with folks writing equations on the windows. It’s not an accident that there are family resemblances between SFI and innovative businesses. Among those who had a decisive voice in the design of the new space that was opened around 1998 were not only the resident scientists (and the “external faculty”) but also major donors who had made their mark in Silicon Valley. They had a strong sense of serious play.

Brooke: In the book’s concluding chapter, you draw out some methodological implications of your work on strategic ambiguity, foregrounding the value of ethnography for studying situations—the locus of reflexive cognition and innovation through “play.” This may be surprising to those who know of your work through the series of articles you’ve published in the most prominent journals in sociology using quantitative analyses (most recently in the January 2010 issue of the American Journal of Sociology). As one of the few people in our field who have successfully straddled the quantitative/qualitative divide, how would you respond to those who question the contribution of ethnographic methods to social scientific knowledge? What value does ethnography add in a field where quantitative methods are increasingly dominant?

David: Yes, working both in ethnography and network analysis is probably an example of following Dante’s dictum of not locking into a single strategy. If those efforts have been successful, it is because I have been able to work with very talented collaborators. It was wonderful to do field research with Monique Girard in the Silicon Alley new-media startup and later in our project on socio-technologies of assembly. Daniel Beunza has to be one of the most gifted ethnographers in the field. He’s a keen observer, and no one writes better field notes. Balázs Vedres is a brilliant network analyst, never shying from a challenging theoretical problem, and making innovative methodological advances with every new project. Writing, revising and resubmitting, revising and resubmitting again… it could be a pain but with Balázs it’s really been a source of enjoyment.

You ask about the value of ethnography. The good ethnographer is inquirying, precisely in the Dewian sense. If there is something common to all good ethnography it is that one does not start out knowing what one is looking for. That’s a rule, the first. And then there are rules of method about the conditions under which one can conclude that some practice has been recognized.

Because, at some level, science is not about making truths but about opening up the terrae incognita, the inquiring posture of a good ethnographer and a good quantitative analysis are not so very different. Accordingly, there are skills that are fungible across the research techniques. At one moment while we were doing the preliminary analysis working deep into the data for “Social Times of Network Spaces,” Balázs excitedly interjected “You’re doing ethnography of the data.”

In the last chapter of the book, I do advocate moving from the study of institutions to the study of situations. Ethnography is especially well-suited for analyzing situations. Not trivially, it is done in situ. It’s there – in the spaces and places where people live and work – that people make sense of their world and where we can get a sense of the important issues. It’s in perplexing situations that we can recognize what counts. If economic sociology is about the study of worth (not only in business but in many realms of life), that seems to be a good place to be.