28 - 31 August 2013
Torino, Italy

RS07 – Field Theory

Christoph Haug haug@gu.se University of Gothenburg, Sweden
Neil Fligstein fligst@berkeley.edu University of California at Berkeley, USA

The theme of the 11th ESA conference – Crisis, Critique and Change – reminds us that the problem of stability and continuity is not only a pressing practical challenge in times like these, but also a theoretical one.

The problem of mesolevel social order is the central problem of a social science interested in how people engage in collective action, how they construct the opportunity to do so, the skills they bring to the enterprise, how they sometimes succeed, and if they do succeed how they seek to stabilize and maintain the resulting order.

While Fligstein and McAdam’s “A Theory of Fields” (OUP 2012) claim to successfully combine the strengths of a number of existing theoretical traditions and to overcome at least some of their weaknesses, other field theorists might disagree and insist on the superiority of other approaches to the problem of mesolevel social order. In particular, it remains subject to debate, whether the dynamics of strategic action fields can be reduced to the essence of “who gets what” and hence winners and losers, as Fligstein and McAdam maintain, or whether interpersonal ties that bind the actors in a field together (can) take precedence over the competition for whatever is at stake in the field. Others may question whether the theory is actually successful in injecting a greater sense of agency into other versions of field theory and (new) institutionalism. Again others may wonder why language and communication, which the authors grant a key role in human evolution, is otherwise so strikingly absent from the theory.

The theory of strategic action fields obviously raises many more questions, including the one that any new theory will be confronted with: what (new) answers does it actually give and to what kind of knowledge does it contribute. Fligstein and McAdam’s theory, as such remains a skeleton, which may be seen both as a strength and a weakness, and it is the aim of this research stream to provide a forum for debate and exchange around these questions and to assess how the theory relates to various fields of ongoing research.

We invite

  • Empirical applications and tests of field theory or specific parts of it
  • Theory comparisons, especially with:
    • institutional theory
    • structuration theory
    • the work of Pierre Bourdieu and related theories
    • network theory
    • social movement theory
  • Methodological papers (e.g. correspondence theory, network theory)
  • Conceptual discussions (introduction, refinement and critique of field related concepts)
  • Meta-theoretical reflections on how “A Theory of Fields” may reconfigure existing research fields and relations between them

In order to facilitate the discussion across papers, we would like to ask authors to relate to the following concepts wherever possible (if only to dismiss them):

  • Strategic action fields
  • Incumbents / challengers, and internal governance units
  • Social skill
  • field environment (esp. the state)
  • exogenous shocks, mobilization, and the onset of contention
  • episodes of contention
  • settlement

These are defined in the first chapter of “A Theory of Fields” as well as, more briefly, in Fligstein & McAdam (in Sociological Theory 29(1), 2011), but in the context of this research stream, they are not meant to prescribe a particular theoretical angle, rather a common point of reference.


Thank you very much to all participants for making esa torino an outstanding conference.