Interview with Dustin Stoltz

Originally published in Section Culture: Newsletter of the ASA Culture Section. Winter 2018. Vol. 30 Issue 1.

The Newsletter editors interview the graduate assistant to the editors and the newsletter typesetter Dustin Stoltz (PhD Candidate, Notre Dame)

What first brought you to sociology?

Montana raised me. My parents worked in heavy highway construction for most of my childhood, and we hopped around the state. The long stretches of daydreaming spurred by riding around in semi-trucks all day certainly played some role in my path to academia! We finally settled down in a tiny town in Ravalli County where I finished high school. As its claim to fame, Jared Diamond  picked this county as the opening example of how culture contributes to societal failure in Collapse (2005)—my Social Problems class debated his chapter last fall, finding it a rather weak cultural argument. My family had a small plot of land and started raising animals—chickens, geese, cows, pigs—for food and extra income. The hog operation quickly ballooned into several hundred head per year. I’m not sure why I left our little farm to attend college. My original intention, I suppose, was to study business and then continue working with livestock (and I did take almost enough business courses to double major). During orientation, however, there was something so alluring about the short blurb introducing sociology in the course book. I declared right there.

What is your current research?

The general concern of my research is ideas — right now, ideas about the economy, business, labor, and management. I focus on the people and work involved in keeping certain ideas in circulation. I call this imaginative labor: conceiving of times, places, processes, and audiences that one is not experiencing (and often cannot), and using these ideas to justify actions or advise others to act. A lot of jobs entail imaginative labor, but some people’s imaginative labor is valued more than others, and understanding why and with what consequences is the core of my dissertation (The Sociology of Elite Advisors). In short, I explore how ideas about the economy live and die through the imaginative labor of professional services firms.

Tightly coupled to this are questions about the future of work more broadly. The organizational fields of professional services firms maintain a highly bifurcated prestige hierarchy. Those at the top have considerable influence over powerful actors—C. Wright Mills called them the “captains of [the power elite’s] higher thought and decision.” If there are aspects of imaginative labor which can be automated, however, are these elite advisors vulnerable to losing status and along with it the influence and premiums it affords? Or, will automation shore up this division, causing a starker distribution?

How did you first become interested in these topics?  

Toward the end of my undergraduate career, a mentor suggested consulting would be a good way of fusing my interest in business, organizations, and sociology. I’d never heard of consulting, and as I learned more, I was both suspicious of, and intrigued by, the field. Telling Fortune 500 firms what they ought to do is a far cry from raising hogs in rural Montana. To make a long story short, I decided to go into a different kind of advising as a Peace Corps Volunteer. Encouraged by my advisor Steve Swinford (to whom I owe so much) to continue academia, I discovered that a single university offered a master’s degree in sociology along with my Peace Corps service at the Stevenson Center for Community and Economic Development. Two of my undergraduate professors, Susanne Monahan and Wade Cole—both student’s of John Meyer—introduced me to neoinstitutional theory. Specifically, I remember reading Sue’s (and Beth Quinn’s) “Toward a Neo-institutional Explanation of Organizational Deviance,” and in Wade’s political sociology class I read  his “Human Rights as Myth and Ceremony.” I was struck with how organizational models were sometimes very consequential and other times ceremonial. Ever the ethnomethodologist at heart, I intended to study international development workers as diffusers of these models on the ground. My master’s thesis ended up being about something different, but through the exceptional mentorship of Aaron Pitluck and Frank Beck I really learned what doing sociological research was all about and I loved it. After the Peace Corps and a year or so with a corporate bank in Japan, I decided it was time to pursue this study of professional service firms and the global production and distribution of ideas that I’d been thinking about for almost half a decade.

How do you see your work connecting to or contributing to cultural sociology?

For me, culture as a concept is triangular, tying together three substantive traditions: the production of culture perspective, culture as patterns (in thought, talk, text, objects, and actions), and culture as embodied. Ever since I read Jennifer Lena and Richard Peterson’s “Classification as Culture” — in my very first print copy of ASR — I’ve been fascinated by the production of culture perspective. It is through this lens that I conceive of professional services firms as a field of cultural production. In the place of paintings or music, advisors produce ideas about the economy, realized in PowerPoint “decks,” spreadsheets, websites, and white papers.

It was also in Wade’s political sociology class that I first read Karen Cerulo’s “Symbols and the World System.” This paper planted the seed of thinking of cultural models in formal terms but it wasn’t until a few years ago that I began to conceive of the ideas espoused by professional services firms in terms of formalized patterns. I took Omar Lizardo’s “Culture and Cognition” course, where I discovered (among other things) embodied cognition and Conceptual Metaphor Theory, and shortly thereafter was fortunate enough to audit John Levi Martin and Terry Clark’s “Sociology of Culture” course, where I re-encountered Durkheim, Evans-Pritchard, Lévi-Strauss, and Douglas (among others), reading them now through the lens of embodiment and conceptual metaphors. It is at this intersection of the patterned and embodied approaches to culture that several of my colleagues at Notre Dame and elsewhere are working—(see the newest entry in the sociological blog circuit: Specifically for me, as part of my dissertation, I target the relationship between language and embodiment (rather than language as disembodied symbol systems) as well as the imagination and embodiment (in contrast to imagination as free space, unconstrained by culture and social interaction).

How has the Notre Dame sociological community contributed to your development as a cultural sociologist?

Prior to Notre Dame, I felt I had a good handle on economic sociology, political sociology, and organizations, but many of the questions confronting me while conducting my master’s fieldwork in Azerbaijan were cultural and I felt ill-equipped to answer them. I distinctly recall, on a hot train ride from Baku to my field site, reading Viviana Zelizer’s excellent Economic Lives, which was my pathway to (among other things) relational sociology and eventually to Ann Mische and Omar’s work. Add the excellent teaching, research, and mentorship of Terry McDonnell and Lyn Spillman and we have covered a wide swath of specialties in cultural sociology. Perhaps the single best thing I can say about the Notre Dame community: I was treated like a colleague by students and professors from day one. This congeniality and willingness to entertain new ideas has lead to numerous collaborative projects. For example, Erin McDonnell approached Marshall Taylor and me in the hallway after our Culture Workshop about survey data she had collected. That turned into a much longer conversation about a new methodological technique and eventually a paper under review now, and more that are in the works.

What are your plans for future and what are you most excited about now?

I will be dipping my toe into the job market this fall, and that is both exciting and terrifying! In the near term, as my dissertation uses natural language processing and network analysis along with semi-structured interviews, I’m encouraged by the debate surrounding the place of computational methods within sociology (in my case, in collaboration with qualitative methods like interviews) as well as the place of sociology within the computational social sciences. Thinking much more long term, my general interest in the ways ideas are produced, patterned, and embodied is a framework easily adapted to studying fields other than professional services firms. For just one example, Mike Wood (PhD Candidate at Notre Dame) and I have been sketching out a research design to study self-help—from fitness, health, and personal relationship gurus to pick-up artists, prosperity preachers, techno-utopians, and transhumanists—as a field of cultural production. In particular, the historical emergence of the modern industry, the institutional processes leading to self-help markets (both producers and consumers), and how this intersects with patterns of privilege and disenfranchisement. We are also interested in whether there are a limited number of cultural models of self-help, and if so, how do they repeat themselves over time, and how does the diffusion of certain models impact populations more broadly.