The Sociology of Dying Fields

Institutional theory in sociology is replete with stories of field formation – the coming into being of new ways of organizing social life, from contemporary think tanks (Medvetz 2012) to all sorts of early capitalist organizations and more (Padgett & Powell 2012). Rarer, I think, are studies of dying fields.

Growing up, I think I had more exposure to institutional fields in decline than in formation. My mother just now retired after four decades working as a copy editor at a major daily newspaper. Newspapers may have been doing ok in the 1990s, but 21st century has not been kind as advertising revenues plummeted. Detroit’s major newspapers continually reduced their workforces, and reduced home delivery. For the generation who made their whole careers at the daily paper, the question now is will the papers close (or completely online and dramatically reduce their workforce, as Ann Arbor’s major paper did) before the workers can retire.

My father’s life was also circumscribed by a declining field. My father* is a professional bridge teacher and player. The card game bridge was a tremendously widespread hobby in the US in the first half of the twentieth century, with estimates in the 1950s ranging from 30 to 50 million players (Scott 1991). Somewhere in the 1960s, the game lost its widespread appeal, and by the late 1980s the number of players had dropped to 11 million, and the decline continues to present. The average age of the American Contract Bridge League, the main organization for tournament bridge, is around 70. Much of my parents’ generation learned, but most of them abandoned the game, and almost no one younger than them picked it up. When I played in bridge tournaments as a child, I was often the youngest person playing by more than a decade, and my father was usually significantly younger than the median.

The texture of these fields in decline reminded me a bit of the city of Detroit itself. Constant are the narratives of rebirth. Innovations that seem dramatically unequal to the problem are introduced and often quickly abandoned. Individuals still struggle within the field for recognition and field-specific capital, but the whole enterprise acquires a gloomy feel. No one wants to plan for decline, rather, everyone wants to find ways to reinvigorate the field (or the city). How much do these observations generalize? What else do dying fields have in common? What happens once everyone know that everyone knows that the field as a whole is collapsing? And so on.

If anyone can point to existing research on the subject, I would be very curious as to what’s already been written on the subject, and what the canonical cases of the death of fields might be.

*…who reads this blog from time to time. Hi, Dad!



  1. Martin Hirschman

     /  October 29, 2012

    Hi back at you.
    “Dying” might be the wrong word. Maybe “contracting” or “shrinking.” “Dying” suggests that you know we (e.g., your examples: Newspapers, bridge and the City of Detroit) are all golng out of business. That might be true or not in a given case. Both newspapers and bridge have partially moved onto the Internet. Are they dying?
    Other thoughts: Generations of people die out. If a certain activity or organization is specific to that generation… Industries and ways of doing business have more or less died out: Home delivery of milk, doctor visits where the doctor came to your house. (Now I must really sound old.) All those old devices (pictures of which keep showing up on my facebook page), now unrecognizable to anyone under 50 (40?).

  2. andrew

     /  October 30, 2012

    i’m not sure what to call it, but it seems to me that bookstores are all going out of business. on top of that, local government budgets are being cut, and libraries with them. “intellectual public space” ?

    why is this important? i admit that i buy most of my books online or i downlaod them via Kindle – however, Paul Krugman once said “you can always find what you’re looking for on Amazon, but it’s at the store or library browsing through the aisles that you find what you weren’t looking for.” i think that’s very true

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