contradictions: DiMaggio and Caudill

Contradictions, but not paradoxes, at least not this time.  The two things I need to blog this time are at opposite ends of several spectra...  new and old, nonfiction and fiction, social theory and historical fiction... okay, those last two aren't even on a spectrum together, but you get the point.


"The Iron Cage Revisited:  Institutional Isomorphism and Collective Rationality in Organizational Fields" by Paul DiMaggio and Walter Powell
My favorite theorist, from undergrad social theory class, was Max Weber whose talk about the Protestant Ethic and bureaucratization made sense, for me, out of hundreds of seemingly nonsensical bureaucratic experiences.  DiMaggio and Powell take Weber one step further, to discuss why organizations tend toward "isomorphism," or all having the same shape.  Or you could say, looking the same.  Or at least using the same rationale, like when libraries call their people "customers" and borrow from business models.  I like this kind of theory, in that it takes a big step back from the particular values of the day (such as "cost recovery" in the university) and instead think about why institutions do or don't look the same.  They point out the inadequacy of the business-is-biology metaphor by pointing out that institutional forms homogenize around different central forms, and therefore it's less survival of the fittest and more metamorphosis (hi there Kafka).  Coercive isomorphism, mimetic processes, and normative pressure are the mechanisms they name for the structural homogenization of institutions.  For librarians, or maybe for LIS instructors, the last is the most relevant, in that professionalization tends to lead to homogenization.  I saw this vividly in my research on early children's librarians uses of surveys.  In 1882, Caroline Hewins did a national survey of libraries asking about children's services, using just one open-ended question.  By 1898, the survey had morphed into a nearly 20-question rubric of "good services."

Of course, I'm always thinking about what use this might be... Dimaggio and Powell are building theoretical frameworks.  It makes me think about the ways I continually strive to push my students to contextualize, to understand that, while professional standards are vital, the ways that standards are implemented can and should vary wildly in different locales, different social contexts.  But the real use value for me of this article is simply that it explains why fewer librarians do real storytelling in story hours and tend to gravitate toward programming books.  Institutional isomorphism.  It's safer to tread the path that has been marked, and perhaps it's more efficient.  It's also a recipe for reducing risk, and that's a creativity killer.  We still need librarians who invent, create, and respond to their child audiences in libraries, especially in public libraries, however homogenous and isomorphic the institutional structures become. 

And now for something completely different.


Barrie and Daughter by Rebecca Caudill
It's not a novel I would pick up otherwise, but Caudill's Barrie and Daughter turned out to be a relaxing and reasonably enjoyable read, if very slow by today's standards.  Caudill is the namesake of the big reader's choice award in Illinois, but that's not why I'm reading her.  I'm reading her because I want to see how race was depicted in her books.  They are historical fiction, set in the mountains in Kentucky.  This story is about a girl, Fern, who old-fashioned mother Blanche takes much convincing to allow her to take up shopkeeping when her father, Peter, decides to open a store to compete with the overpriced store nearby.  It's also about Fern growing up, taking responsibility, and very gradually falling in love.  There are guns and horses and really dramatic moments near the end, but for up to 200 pages the narrative meanders like a lazy river, nice to read but not especially gripping.  And the answer appears to be that, in fact, race is completely ignored or edited out of this book.  Fortunately, I have the correspondence between Caudill and her editor May Massee, so I'll know which soon enough.  And that's the topic of the paper too, the editorial/publication process and race in children's literature.  Two more to go by Caudill, Tree of Freedom and Susan Cornish, and then I'll be ready to reexamine the archival documents and get to writing.