My pal Alice, campaign wizard and general all-round good sort, made the mistake a while ago of asking what my Master’s dissertation was about. So I sent it to her. And received some justifiably rude words back. Ever keen to minimize my impact, this is a (very long, but still shorter than my dissertation) blog specifically to try and explain my theory-heavy tome to her. I have blogged about strategic action fields and other ways of understanding the voluntary sector before, but this develops my thoughts on the theory further and hopefully gives you (Alice) an idea of why I’m so keen on theoretical frameworks in general, and how they affect how we talk about charities.
Why does theory matter?
First a quick bit on why I use a theoretical frame in the first place. As Alice already knows, there are different ways of looking at and understanding the world. Some people might see the world as just what’s in front of them; as researchers they might gather evidence and analyse it in ways that might be described as scientific, looking at the data and seeing what it tells them about an object of study or an intervention. Others might look at assumptions, meanings and structures that act alongside phenomena that affect and shape them, and the way we perceive them. So, the voluntary sector might be characterised by its nuts and bolts and shared attributes, or it might be explored as a set of shared meanings, power structures and other associational factors.
This starting belief about how the world works affects how you study it, what questions you ask about it and how you try to make sense of it. The central point is that theory matters because at the other end, what you produce says something about and has a bearing on real organisations and the people who work within them, because it shapes understandings, discourses and debates which in turn shape practice. The existential debates about voluntary sector independence and voice, whether we’re campaigning too much or too little, relationships with government and groups’ role in society over recent years are, in part, a product of theoretical debates about how we understand and make sense of the ‘sector’ and its place in the wider world.
This kind of work on the sector, even when it’s not the main focus, is fundamentally definitional; it sets the boundaries for what we understand and analyse as the sector. This, as Rob Macmillan says somewhere, is a political act. As such it is continuously influenced and influencing understandings, ideologies and spaces in society. So, say I take a nuts-and-bolts approach and define the sector as registered charities; there are inherent assumptions attached to such a definition – like the idea that legitimation comes from legal recognition, defined by the state; are unregistered organisations thus illegitimate? – that need to be examined, even before you get to that bit about most of ‘the sector’ being small and below the regulatory radar. That registered sector doesn’t exist in isolation from the rest of the world either; it is continuously being shaped by external events, political decisions and policy initiatives, as well as by those individuals and organisations who lead and speak for it. And by academics who write about it.
Some definitional theories rely on shared characteristics and modes of operation that go beyond the nuts and bolts, including organisational features that are distinct from those of private sector firms or public sector bureaucracies. These tend to run a serious risk of presenting a normative picture of what a voluntary organisation should look like. For me this often fails to reflect what they do look like. Too often they appeal to an ideal type grounded in a mythical and highly static golden age, which removes understanding of organisations from the changing dynamics, agendas and flows of associational activity that create understanding. It doesn’t encourage us to think about why we think, for instance, voluntary organisations should have unpaid boards, not distribute profits, a basis in membership and be acting for the public good – these principles don’t just exist, they have been constructed over years into norms of practice. Likewise there is also a question (again raised by Rob) about the extent to which ‘distinction’ is really a thing, or whether it’s an idea or construction that organisations trade on for advantage. That’s not necessarily a negative thing at all, more a useful way of considering how organisations collectively define and present themselves, and to what end.
There are many, many branches of theory used to understand the voluntary sector and what happens within it. Words like hybridity, isomorphism and embeddedness pop up on a fairly regular basis in the literature. In the interests of not taking up all of Alice’s time, however, I’m going to talk about just one here – the one that I find most exciting, and which best reflects my own experience of the voluntary sector (or maybe different bits of sector) – Neil Fligstein and Doug McAdam’s theory of strategic action fields.
What’s a strategic action field?
Lots of different institutional theorists use the idea of ‘fields’; they’re described in different ways, even called different things, but they’re basically an arena in which organisations, groups or other actors come together around different things like shared goals (like existing for the public good) and organisational behaviours (say, being not-for-profit). Theories like Fligstein and McAdam’s are designed to help understand both what a field looks like, and how change happens (or doesn’t) within it. Like all theories, it builds on other people’s work that’s gone before – in this case people like Bourdieu, Webber, Giddens and other neo-institutional theorists. I’m hoping I can build on it in turn.
There are some key building blocks to this theory which are important to understand before we start thinking about applying it. The field itself is a ‘social order’ or an organised space within our social world. It is made up of incumbents and challengers. An incumbent is an organisation or actor that essentially dominates the field – sets the rules and messages and understandings, and reproduces them too. They’re basically interested in preserving the stability of the field, and their own position. When there’s a crisis they’ll seek to find a message or solution that helps them maintain their position. A challenger is likely to have fewer resources, will contest messages or ways of working, and challenge an incumbent in order to better their own position. When there’s a crisis, skilled social actors might offer alternative messages and solutions that, if they’re accepted by other actors in the field, will help them to make gains. This doesn’t mean fields are always desperate battle grounds, and it also doesn’t exclude collaboration and cooperation (there’s a kind of spectrum of fields from hierarchical to cooperative) but contestation seems to be a fairly permanent fixture. Incidentally, as Alice is a campaigner, I think this can be particularly useful for analysing the dynamics in different campaigning fields. The shared language, (implicitly) agreed methods and dominant players versus those that challenge the predominant practices are pretty easy to identify, and even in coalition campaigning there are hierarchical dynamics, often driven by resources, at play. I think we quite naturally identify these and work out how to work with (or against) them to suit our own aims – this isn’t a bad or a cynical thing, although considering it critically might help us to consider whether there are other possibilities.
Crises happen for different reasons. There might be an exogenous shock – something that happens outside of the field, like a new government after an election or a big financial crisis – that destabilises the field, and can lead to big changes in the rules of the game. Lots of voluntary sector histories are hooked on these – the ‘rediscovery of poverty’ moment in the 1960s, Thatcher’s neoliberal experiment, New Labour orthodoxy of partnership in service delivery, then the era of austerity and, arguably, political delegitimisation of the voluntary sector. These are often related to activity in proximate fields (those nearby, with links to the field you’re looking at), and proximate state fields are particularly important. This tends to place policy and ideology rather at the centre of things – Alice will start to see why this appeals to me.
But changes to fields might also come from within; because there is constant contention and jostling for position, challenges can make a difference to internal hierarchies over time. I’m quite interested in how this process happens, and the extent to which it’s measurable. For instance, I think we’ve recently seen a number of shifts in rhetoric from charities themselves on charity campaigning – both in terms of how the ‘problem’ is framed and who’s ‘to blame’ – tied up with attitudes to and relationships with Government. As much as these are legitimate conversations themselves, I think they can also be seen as part of the contention within a field still trying to reassert its role in society, in the face of a state field that’s changed the rules of the game.
The last thing that’s important to note is fields can exist within organisations, as well as being something they inhabit. You can look at, for instance, a large charity as a series of nested, hierarchically organised fields. There will be the same incumbent/challenger hierarchy, the same sets of shared goals, understandings and rules of the game, and the same type of contention over these, as within a field of organisations. I find this really useful; too often I think we talk about organisations as just being one thing – a campaign organisation, service delivery organisation, a fundraising organisation – whereas this type of frame lets us look at the multiple roles an organisation has, and the conflict and contention inherent within that.
So it’s all pretty simple really, right? Well now let’s look at the problems with it.
Is there anything this theory can’t do?
Yes, I reckon so. But I also reckon we can borrow from some other theories, and maybe recast a couple of elements, to give us a solid basis for understanding and measuring change and development in the voluntary sector.
It can’t account for consensus
Or rather it can, but the emphasis is so much on contention that this sometimes gets lost. I think it would be good to draw the consensus and joint collaborative action side of life more, because I don’t believe that improving one’s position over another group’s is really a sole, or even prime, motivator in lots of situations.
It can’t tell everyone’s story within the field (but it could…)
This is linked to the consensus issue; is it necessary that everyone must be grouped as a challenger or incumbent, or does that leave some people out? I think creating a third category – something like ‘passenger’ – for those organisations that clearly exist within the field but don’t either lead it in the sense of an incumbent, or challenge the agreed rules, might enable a more realistic picture. These organisations would still be engaged in reproducing the status quo, through following the rules, aims and ways of working agreed and promoted by the incumbents, but because of reasons of resources, or even just satisfaction, may not engage in contention. You couldn’t reasonably call them incumbents because they do not make the decisions that shape the field, but rather go along with them and work within them.
There’s a separate but linked issue here about outsiders. I am concerned – as I am with other theories – that the work involved in boundary setting (saying who’s inside or outside of the field) is problematic. In some ways setting boundaries is a pragmatic decision that has to be made and justified. What I’m more concerned about is an organisation’s ability to say ‘nope, not me’, and where that leaves them if they do. There are radical organisations engaging in what I would still identify as associative voluntary action, and indeed which are often identified in the historical literature as such, who explicitly site themselves as outside of any ‘voluntary sector’ field (check out #solidaritynotcharity on your social media platform of choice). So where does this place them? Does including them in the field, as I’d be tempted to do, co-opt or ignore their radical identity? I’ve seen raised elsewhere the issue of larger charities benefiting from associating themselves with the strengths of small local grass roots groups; I’m not wholly convinced by this line of argument, but it’s one that needs to be considered when thinking about defining the edges of a field.
Organisations are only in one field
The way the theory is written, and usually the way it is applied, is to look at organisations as inhabiting one field. Proximate fields are important, and have knock on effects in the field you’re choosing to look at, but the complexity of existing across multiple fields isn’t really explored, as far as I can see. It is, however, touched on in an article by Taylor, Rees and Damm on the Work Programme as a sub-field of the wider employment services field. Challengers came into this field and successfully changed the rules of the game, bringing a focus on generic employability services rather than specialist ones. Private sector organisations were ready and able to react to these new rules, and reaffirm their position. Voluntary sector organisations weren’t, because they had to consider their mission and the reputational risk inherent in moving away from specialist work with a defined client base. This is surely the result of those organisations existing across different fields – in the Work Programme field, employment services, but also their sector fields. I think the theory can allow for this but it doesn’t account for it. My proposal is to borrow one part of a theory put forward by academic David Billis – the ‘prime sector’ approach – which suggests organisations will have their root in a particular field, and will act or refer to that field’s rules (Billis isn’t into fields, I’m adapting it to my needs here). I think this is a moveable feast – an organisation might choose to position itself strongly in one field over another for its own gain – which also helps to explore how different bits of an organisation can act in different fields at once. This does make it sound quite complicated, but I think as a researcher you can choose which bit to focus on within that system. And I also think it reflects a reality for organisations that do span multiple fields, and are defined by actions, goals and frames, rather than static characteristics.
It doesn’t tell us what resources are important
There is a question about how the relative importance of different resources is assessed, because this makes a huge difference to how the field is structured, and how you can realistically make sense of it. In studies I’ve looked at, authors tend to maybe pick something like income or number of contracts, or sometimes position on a published list of ‘top 50 businesses’. They’re all valid (I think the last one has a dual function of acting as a measure for relative strength, but also determining or reinforcing that strength, and the associated behaviours for success), but I think there are more abstract resources like reputation, relationships, mass appeal, and so on. I think there’s also a need to consider how class, race, gender and other factors play into field hierarchies, potentially as forms of capital (or capital deficits), but I’ve not quite worked out how.
So, are you glad you asked? Are you exhausted? I sure am. I’m sure there are other criticisms that can be levelled, and other theories that offer elements of strength to build on further (I’ve got 3 more years to find all that out. Only 3 years…) But, dear Alice, these are the principle questions the dissertation asks. I’m 100% sure I’ll come up with new problems next week.