American journal of sociology. Power plays. American sociological review

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conception of the field. If fields succumb to other fields (i.e. sociology yields to economics, for instance), they risk colonization and absorption.

This exercise reassures me that sociology has a lot to add to these discussions, something that economics and political science will have great difficulty doing. I believe that all institutional theories need a theory of fields based on the differential power of organized actors and their use of cultural tools, and the sociological version is the most compelling.

All institutional theories need a theory of action as well. Rational choice and game theory have produced a stylized model that is attractive and intuitive. I have sketched out what I think part of a sociological alternative is. But this answer remains undeveloped in this context (see Joas, 1996, for a general argument about the importance of the interactionist model). This means there is a lot of work to be done.

In sociology, there has been another reaction to both rational choice theory and more traditional structuralist approaches, one that has been called "a turn towards the cultural", or more radically, "social constructivist". This is usually intended to suggest that all social interaction requires culture and context to make sense. This is often intended as an argument against both structural and rational accounts. But, as I have tried to show, all new institutional theories, including rational choice, view institutions as social and cultural constructs and emphasize context. Indeed, the central agreement of all of the new institutionalisms is the need for both a theory of local structure and action.

Modernity has produced the conditions under which actors can fight back under crisis conditions and produce redefinitions of fields. But it has also meant the production of effective social technologies to stabilize fields and prevent challengers from doing so. A theory that ignores either will have little luck explaining the dynamism of modernity and the unique twists and turns it has taken.

My more panoramic vision of a theory of society built from a theory of institutions is even sketchier than the theory of fields and action. To move this theory along, will require deeper delving into the links between the important organized institutions of modernity, the state, organized politics, social movements, and the economy. The theory of action and fields is a set of evolving practices, a set of myths, and part and parcel of organized social life as we live and experience it every day. We are still at an early stage in discovering it and its effects.


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Axelrod, R. 1984. The Evolution of Cooperation. New York: Basic Books. Bendix, R. 1954. Nation Building and Citizenship. New York: Wiley.

Bourdieu, P. 1977. Outline of a Theory of Practice. Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press.

-----------. 1988. Homo Academicus. Stanford, ca.: Stanford University Press.

-----------and L. Wacquant. 1992. Invitation to a Reflexive Sociology. Chicago, Il.: University

of Chicago Press.

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