Favorite Papers

So, as I continue reading for my impending prelims, I’ve begun to realize that I have a set of favorite papers and books*. In Sociology (as in most social science-y disciplines, I would imagine) there are good papers, and important papers, and important straw-man papers, and part of the socialization process in becoming a practitioner is learning to recognize these things and properly categorize them (e.g. seeing “Meyer and Rowan 1977, Dimaggio and Powell 1983” is a pretty instant tip off of impending neoinstitutionalism). Sometimes a paper will get used repeatedly by practitioners of one variety of social science as the straw man of another – with justification or not- for example, Williamson 1975 for New Institutional Economics. Other papers, like Granovetter 1985, are just so important (and, frankly, good) that everyone cites them and knows them.

But then there’s another set of papers which may or not be truly excellent, but which hold a special place in one’s heart for some reason. Seeing one of these papers cited makes me smile, and makes me think the author is a kindred spirit. I’ll list a few of mine and some parenthetical thoughts on why I like them. Some of these are classics cited thousands of times, others have only a handful of cites.

  • Jepperson 1991 “Institutions, Institutional Effects, and Institutionalism” (Best definition of an institution I’ve ever seen, if only everyone could get on board and be consistent with it.)
  • Schelling 1960 “The Strategy of Conflict” (Game theory done awesome. It’s really too bad most Rat Choice gets such a bad name, since it makes scholars predisposed to ignore the incredible insights tucked inside the tradition in volumes like this one.)
  • Schelling 1984 “Self-command in practice, in policy, and in a theory of rational choice” (Like above, but more specific to the particular problem of stable preferences and what bullshit that is. The writing is pretty incredible.)
  • Johnson 1997 “Communication, Criticism, and the Postmodern Consensus: An Unfashionable Interpretation of Michel Foucault” (Political theorist Jim Johnson makes sense out of Foucault and begins to make him useful, to me anyway.)
  • Lukes 1974 “Power: a radical view” (Ok, I admit I haven’t finished reading this one all the way through, but I know whenever I see it cited that the author has some idea how to talk about power. It’s so frustrating to read something in, say, the corporate control literature, for example, that throws around terms like ‘control’, ‘discretion’, and ‘power’ as if they had singular, stable, common-sensical meanings.)
  • Mitchell 2002 “Rule of Experts: Egypt, Techno-politics, Modernity” (The first chapter is titled “Can the Mosquito Speak?”. It’s pretty awesome, and does a nice job of bringing things (objects, animals, nature) back into social analysis without forgetting the social.)
  • Krippner 2001 “The elusive market: Embeddedness and the paradigm of economic sociology” (Krippner makes sense out of the conflicts between Polanyi and Granovetter, and suggests a way forward for economic sociology that’s not just about proving the economy isn’t disconnected from other social ties.)
  • And as a bonus, I also love any time my favorite fiction author, J.L. Borges, gets cited (especially if it’s not just someone citing Foucault citing “The Analytical Language of John Wilkins”. I mean, that story is good and all, but there’s other amazing stuff in Borges, for example, “On Exactitude in Science” is brilliant and brief.). A favorite example of this: In “Frame Analysis”, Goffman has a footnote wherein he applies his frame analytical technique to Borges’ corpus and argues that much of the effectiveness of his stories involves making and breaking frames superbly well. Reading that footnote made me grin for hours. I don’t entirely know why.

    So, what are your favorites? What citations bring a smile to your face? … Or is it just me?
    Also, putting in all those links may or may not have just been a procrastination effort…

    * I realized this while reading Dobbin’s “Forging Industrial Policy”, which cites Jepperson 1991 and Lukes 1974, so far anyway.



    1. Oh, two others I forgot but don’t want to lose track of:
      Abbott 1988 “Transcending General Linear Reality” and my favorite article about migration from my year as a soc of immigration person, De Haas 2005 International migration, remittances and development: myths and facts.

    2. Interesting list. As for Schelling, sociologists may be ignoring him, but many political scientists are drawing on his work. For one thing, it’s cited frequently in one prominent branch of the international-relations literature, where the search for “rational causal mechanisms” goes merrily on, for better or worse. I can provide a couple of examples if you’re interested.

    3. Sociologists aren’t entirely ignoring him, but Sociology is a somewhat scattered discipline (as far as I can tell) and the people who read and talk about Schelling are not necessarily the ones who would get the most out of him. I like Schelling best for his (sometimes implicit) social theory, rather than for his emphasis on causal mechanisms, say, or formal rational choice. But I think, as with Lukes, Schelling’s much more nuanced discussions of conflict of interest and coordination would be of use to historical sociologists, for example.

      How is Schelling being used in IR? I know IR is heavy into formal game theory. Is that mostly where he is cited?

    4. No, he is also cited outside of formal modeling & game theory. His book Arms and Influence (published several years after The Strategy of Conflict) is still on (some) reading lists and is still being cited in discussions of deterrence and related matters. The first chapter of that book, “The Diplomacy of Violence,” is considered a classic statement about coercive diplomacy (basically, the use of threats and sanctions) and is in anthologies for introductory courses.

      What I was thinking of when I wrote the above comment, however, is a fairly recent piece which jumps off from Schelling’s notion of territorial boundaries as ‘focal points’ in an attempt to explain ‘territorial attachment’ — i.e., why people came to feel connected to some bits of land, perhaps far from where they live, rather than other bits of land — without relying for the explanation on nationalism or patriotism or ethnicity or common culture/history, etc. The author’s argument strikes me as somewhat circular, but that’s beside the point here; the piece is H.E. Goemans, “Bounded communities: territoriality, territorial attachment, and conflict,” in Kahler and Walter, eds., ‘Territoriality and Conflict in an Era of Globalization’ (Cambridge U.P., 2006), pp.25-61.

      Schelling is also cited in Stephen P. Rosen’s ‘War and Human Nature’ (2005). These are just a couple of examples that come to mind.

    5. For what it’s worth, I assigned several chapters from Arms and Influence in my Introduction to International Relations Theory course last semester. Most students, unfortunately, didn’t get terribly much out of it, but the ones who appreciated it, really appreciated it. I taught it in the context of deterrence, primarily.

    6. droads

       /  July 28, 2008

      Uh I will have to think about my favorites. but deff anything marx 🙂 yea i know …..everyone jumps on that wagon, or is it jumps off ? anyway Just found your blog and am already enjoying it A LOT.

      I start graduate study in Clinical Sociology at the University of Northern Colorado this fall, any advice? 🙂



    7. Huh. I know nothing about clinical sociology – if I may ask, what is it and how does it connect to clinical psych or social work?
      My advice is to find near peers who know more than you (older grad students and the like) and learn as much as you can from them as quickly as possible. It makes navigating your own way much easier. Also, check out the grad school rulz on orgtheory.
      I also really liked “Disciplined Minds”, a book about resisting grad school.

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