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The OCR Glossary

Field Theory

Deana Anntenette Rohlinger

Field theory is a conceptual framework used to clarify the regularities in organizational behavior by situating groups within a field of action. A field is a structured social space that comprises a network of relationships among actors with more or less power. A field is relatively coherent because the actors operating in it are oriented toward a particular value or prize (e.g., profit making) and agree on the “rules of the game” (e.g., competing with one another for consumer dollars) by which these values are accumulated. A key analytic benefit of field theory is that it identifies the factors internal to a field (e.g., competition, networks, and professional norms) and external to a field (e.g., actors from other fields as well as political and economic shocks) that influence actors’ decision making within a field. This entry examines how actors in a field can influence corporate reputation as well as how corporate and social movement organizations utilize different assets to alter the practices and norms in a particular field.

Reputation is important to understanding field dynamics for at least two reasons. First, reputation helps social scientists explain why firms selling similar products vary in profitability and customer loyalty. Generally speaking, actors in a field are competitors for public attention and consumer dollars. A firm with a favorable reputation can differentiate itself from its competitors as well as attract (and keep) customers. Second, reputation allows scholars to analyze how organizations that are not part of a field of action try to change the rules of the game under which actors within the field operate. Social movement actors, which advocate for changes in institutional policies and practices, are a good example in this regard. Activists routinely enter the economic field to alter the policies and practices of corporate actors. For instance, activists use boycotts, protests, and media attention to “name and shame” corporations into changing their policies and practices.

The ability of an actor outside a field to alter the practices and norms of a field varies according to the actor’s reputation, which may be relatively strong or weak. An organization with a strong reputation either (a) presents an identity and employs practices that correspond with the logic of the field that it is engaging or (b) has a strong reputation in another field, which it can leverage in the field the organization is targeting. Multinational corporations, for example, typically have strong reputations because they are important economic actors and are also set up to deal with the logics of different fields. Corporate actors often have a strong reputation in the political field because they can afford to hire lobbying firms that work on behalf of their interests. Their strong reputation in the political field allows corporate actors to influence policies at the national and state levels. Similarly, corporations have strong reputations in the journalistic (or news media) field because they provide ad revenue for news content and have personnel who can deal with journalistic requests for information. This strong reputation allows a corporation to influence when and how it is covered by news outlets.

In contrast, social movement organizations, which are often formed to challenge the status quo, sometimes rely on volunteers and do not have the human or financial resources necessary to fit themselves into the logic of the journalistic field. As a result, these movement actors often have a weak reputation relative to corporate actors, which makes it more difficult for them to access and influence how they are covered by news outlets. This is not true of all social movement organizations. Movement actors that mimic the structure and practices of corporate and institutional actors can build a strong reputation in the journalistic field, which they can leverage in other fields of action. For instance, social movement organizations with a strong reputation in the journalistic field will find it easier to get a journalist in a national, general-interest newspaper to write a story critical of a multinational corporation than a movement actor with a weak reputation. Negative media coverage can be consequential. Corporate actors may find that their reputations and stock prices have declined in response to the bad press. Movement actors, in other words, can leverage their reputations in the journalistic field to change the policies and practices of corporate actors in the economic field.

Bourdieu, P. (1998). On television (P. P. Ferguson, Trans.). New York: New Press.

Martin, J. L. (2003). What is field theory? American Journal of Sociology, 109(1), 1–49.

See Also

Brand; Corporate Social Responsibility

See Also

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