Four Questions for Hayagreeva Rao

Originally published in Section Culture: Newsletter of the ASA Culture Section. Fall 2019. Vol. 31 Issue 2.

Dustin Stoltz (Univ. of Notre Dame) interviews Hayagreeva “Huggy” Rao (Stanford) on the past, present, and future of cultural analysis and sociology.


Dustin Stoltz: How​ ​ did​ ​ you​ ​ become​ ​ interested​ ​ in sociology and​ ​ the​ ​ study​ ​ of​ ​ culture? 

Huggy Rao: I’m originally from India, and finished business school in India. There, it was a surprise when a number of my classmates said, “You know, you really ought to be a professor.” Until then I had never thought of doing that. I assumed I would be an executive—which is what I eventually did, but I got completely bored with it!  There was a bunch of my colleagues who had PhDs from Case Western Reserve, and they all said you ought to go there. And, so I did. 

There, I had a wonderful mentor, Eric Nielsen. He was a Harvard sociologist, a student of Robert Bales, and a product of the Department of Social Relations. One thing I remember from his class was a writing assignment about imagining we were waiters serving Durkheim, Marx, and Weber and about their conversation—and I thought that was a lot of fun. 

My dissertation was actually on savings and loan associations, and it suggested there were two organizational forms. The main point, though, was that they weren’t merely organizational forms, but premised on the social surrounding. If you had a savings and loan association in Cleveland, you had a lot of community monitoring. Whereas, if you look at the stock form of savings and loan organizations, a for-profit joint stock operation, it was premised on the notion of a community as a society of strangers. What I found was that as the mutual form was recruited by entrepreneurs in places like Arizona and Nevada and so on—where there was considerable social mobility—there wasn’t a stable demographic to monitor people. What happened to these mutual savings and loan organizations was that they became quasi-firms. The promoter gave loans out, but also was a builder and civil engineer and so on—the loan was part of a system. It became an input into a budget rather than what it was originally as a cooperative where everybody monitored everybody. That was my start in sociology.

My first job was at Emory University where I had two incredible mentors who were organizational theorists in the business school and also people in the sociology department who welcomed me to seminars. For example, Richard Robinson and John Boli, and then the political economist Alex Hicks. But, the big change for me was spending a sabbatical at the Univ. of Michigan in 1996-1997. There, Mayer Zald was a very significant mentor of mine. We would have lunch every Wednesday and he we would quiz me on the classics and push me to think about collective action and culture. And, all of this had been themes in my childhood. In the city where I was born, when I was a child, I didn’t understand why people were protesting because they wanted a steel plant. My dad would say, “India is a centrally planned economy and one way to actually get resources is to use your voice.” That  always stuck in my mind.


DS: What​ ​ work​ ​ does​ ​ culture​ ​ do​ ​ in​ ​ your​ ​ thinking,​  and what do you see as the​ ​ benefits​ ​ and​ ​ limitations​ ​ of your approach as compared to alternatives?

HG: When I think of culture, I largely think of it as a system of representations. I do have a more cognitive view of culture, but I also think culture constitutes individuals and organizations and so forth. 

Take a simple thing like narratives. A narrative is ultimately something profoundly cultural. Ann Mische, I think, has done wonderful work in this area. Ann says we actually use narratives to imagine the future, in that sense they are simulations. But, does the act of imagining actually lead you to a productive future? One of the interesting questions that’s occupying my mind is: does the “tense” of narrative with which you imagine the future make a difference? Is a retrospective narrative of the future going to be more helpful to you or is it a prospective narrative of the future? Does having that model help me be more alert and prepared? And, you can quickly see the connection between culture and its microfoundations.

Another interesting angle into culture is in the work on cultural holes. When we think of cultural holes, what comes to mind? We often think about boundaries and barriers. But, what is it that creates these cultural holes: is it that queues are not being integrated or that queues aren’t available? Perhaps you and I are separated by a structural hole, in Ron Burt’s sense, but what is to be gained from bridging the structural hole if you and I entertain the same beliefs about the world? In other words, we are so coordinated that I’m not going to be getting new information from you and you’re not going to get new information from me. We often measure cultural holes in terms of co-citations or linguistic differences or semantic distances, but we can also understand cultural holes in problem-solving terms. For example, we are doing a study of diagnosing diseases that jump from animals to humans, zoonotic diseases. When the human health people made their diagnosis, the animal health people said, “it shouldn’t be crows that are dying, it should be some other bird,” but the human health people tuned them out. In our study we found there were twenty-six attempts to transmit this information, and finally it got through on the twenty-seventh pass. That is a wonderful example of the importance of cultural holes.

Thinking about the microfoundations of culture, another kind of fascinating research is schema diffusion within people. For example, we are doing a series of experiments where people read about contagious diseases, like the flu, and afterward they prefer ethnocentric foods. What is happening is the moment I attune you to biological contamination you become more alert to cultural contamination. This has implications for culture and consumption because what you are able to show is that your schema of biology is actually shaping your preferences for consumption. When I was presenting this paper at a lovely festschrift for John Mohr people were asking what is the practical implications of this study? I said, “don’t try to push immigration reform during flu season!” 


DS: How​ ​ does​ ​ your approach to culture​ ​ shape​ ​ your​ ​ choice​​ of​ ​ research​ ​ topics​, ​settings, and methods? 

HG: When I think of all my past projects, I would say a large majority of them have been the outcome of accidents. One example of an accidental project was on French cuisine. It wasn’t like I was thinking of studying France or French cuisine. It so happened that when I was at Emory University there was a Frenchman, Rodolphe Durand, who was visiting. He had taken a job in Léon in France and he seemed kind of despondent, and I asked him “What’s the problem with Léon?” He said, “well there’s no real industry in Léon, there’s no software, aerospace, or biotech… there’s nothing in Léon.” And, I replied “Well, there’s food in Léon!” Food telegraphs so much about people and I told him I thought Leon was at the center of a revolution in French cuisine. He recalled one of his colleagues at the business school in Léon was actually trained at one of these culinary institutes. That’s how the French cuisine project started. I should also point out the paper title, “Institutional Change in Toque Ville,” my wife deserves credit for that—she’s a professor of gerontology. 

If a graduate student was starting out, my advice would be to pick a problem that would interest people way outside your field: do your grandparents express excitement, do your parents say “oh that’s interesting!” Once you have a problem, the way to embark on it, in my mind, is to always mix clean models with dirty hands. Our French cuisine problem wasn’t just econometrics or statistics; we actually spoke to chefs, we spoke to critics. When you talk to these people you start to understand that a Michelin star isn’t a status, but actually an identity. You realize how central this all is to their lives. When we talked to chefs for the first time, they didn’t even talk about stars because it caused so much anxiety. When you talk to people you can be sensitized to data coding conventions and archiving conventions. My advice to people is to get out in the field. When you only sit at your desk, everything is clean and easily modeled. But, in the end, these are living, sentient, human beings with an identity and a sense of self and social surroundings that we need to appreciate.

DS: What was it like to introduce culture and cultural concepts into business scholarship? 

HG: I think the surprising thing for us was that people in organizations were very receptive. Let me give you an instance, the paper with Klaus Weber and L.G. Thomas, “From Streets to Suites: How the Anti-Biotech Movement Penetrated German Pharmaceutical Firms.” The interesting problem here was why didn’t the pharmaceutical industry in Germany, the most powerful industry in Germany, get into biotechnology. Why were the smaller German companies able to establish presence but not these big powerful firms? Also, when you look at the anti-biotechnology movement in Germany, you see that it was a very small group of people, maybe 100-120 real activists, and it was a coalition of diverse groups—radical feminists, Catholics, communists, anti-Nazi and anti-eugenics groups. The question was how did this small, disconnected—almost an archipelago—activist movement able to stop this large German companies in their tracks? We find that the anti-biotechnology movement got “inside” these big companies. For example, the activists would actually challenge the companies to debate them, and the firm’s would send scientists to a small town in Germany. A couple hundred people show up, the scientist is in a suit, and the activists is dressed up as a misshapen apple! The optics didn’t look good for the firms, they didn’t stand a chance. The other way the activists got in was by working to impose regulations which would delayed commissioning of plants. Since the biotechnology portion of the company was small, and the larger portion is in chemicals. The companies would rather invest in more reliable aspects of the company, and ultimately these big companies starved the biotechnology sectors of the firm. So the delays infected or contaminated their decision-making calculus. These are some of the ways the movement penetrated these large companies. 

For people in organization research, they often thought corporate strategy was about profitability. But suddenly you see social constraints on technology choice, social constraints on diversification. And all of this gave people a very different view of what strategy was all about. 

Recently I attended a conference at Apple University, and they posed the question to all of us: “Where do great strategies come from?” A number of my colleagues from business schools were arguing that they come from great people. Steve Jobs was a great person with great insight. My point was: not really. An equally plausible argument is that great strategies come from identity movements. Who was Steve Jobs? He was actually a person who was constituted by the personal computing movement which sought to challenge the hegemony of a priesthood that was in charge of centralized computing. At the time you couldn’t even touch a computer. Your cards and tapes were all managed by this priesthood. The movement was, then, about freedom and autonomy and centered on a proliferation of home-brewing computing clubs. It was in the culture of this movement that the ideas emerged that infuses Apple to this day. And Steve Jobs was a person constituted by this movement. Maurice Halbwachs, a french sociologist, sees people as intersections, shaped by collective contestations, and Steve Jobs was one such individual. There might’ve been other Jobs, and Steve Jobs just got lucky.

My overall point was strategy isn’t just about competition, strategy is about mobilizing enthusiasm, mobilizing passion, about cultural movements. And people in business and business schools were very receptive to this idea.

huggyrao-1630.jpgHayagreeva “Huggy” Rao is Atholl McBean Professor of Organizational Behavior and Human Resources at Stanford Graduate School of Business. Rao graduated from Andhra University with a Bachelor of Arts (‘78) and a Postgraduate degree in business from Xavier Labor Relations Institute (‘80). Rao went on to complete his doctorate in organizational behavior at the Weatherhead School of Management (‘89). His dissertation was “The Social Organization of Trust: The Growth and Decline of Organizational Forms in the Savings and Loan Industry; 1960-1987,” which he would go onto publish in the  Administrative Science Quarterly with his advisor Eric Nielsen as “An Ecology of Agency Arrangements.” After finishing his doctoral work, he joined Emory’s Goizueta Business School, followed by Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management, before arriving at Stanford in 2005. His first book, Market Rebels: How Activists Shape Innovation (Princeton Univ. Press), argued successful innovation requires a “hot cause” — igniting interest in consumers — but also a “cool solution” — one’s that don’t look silly. Using these two concepts, Rao demonstrates why, among other things, the much-hyped Segway was a flop. His most recent book with Robert Sutton, Scaling Up Excellence (Random House) was a Wall Street Journal best seller. Rao was also a former editor of Administrative Science Quarterly, and with Phillipe Monin and Rodolphe Durand, he was the co-winner of the 2005 W. Richard Scott Award for Distinguished Scholarship from the Organizations, Occupations and Work Section for “Institutional Change in Toque Ville: Nouvelle Cuisine as an Identity Movement in French Gastronomy” (AJS).