About Me

“Business as usual” is increasingly an exceptional state of affairs; recent decades have challenged organizations with traumatic environmental disasters, radical new technologies, drastic political changes, and large-scale industrial reorganization, among other changes. My research concentrates on how organizational behaviors and performances in response to these moments emerge from individual and collective sensemaking and boundary work. I use mixed methods, including analysis of archival material, interviewing, ethnography, and statistical methods, to bring a nuanced perspective to these processes, allowing me to both adumbrate novel theories about causes and mechanisms, as well as to rigorously test those theories. Because social changes both emanate from and result in inequalities in the distribution of resources, an important theoretical contribution of my work is to elucidate the link between culture, social change, and inequality. My research also has significant practical implications for managerial and public policy–When we understand the role of culture in social change, we can both design more effective corporate strategies for resilience and adaptation, and we can also construct better public policies for promoting equity and justice in a changing society.

Dissertation: Organizational Essentialism as a Response to Exogenous Change

My dissertation concerns one of the most important events of the past few decades, the COVID-19 pandemic. In the first chapter, I investigate the emergence and operationalization of “essential” businesses exempt from lockdowns as the signature response of the early pandemic period. States differed in whether they considered many functions, such as construction, manufacturing, real estate, essential, but why? I conducted interviews with state policymakers and obtained internal communications using freedom of information requests to answer this question. My qualitative analysis reveals that while factors such as partisanship, industrial structure, and viral intensity played a role in who counted as essential, the primary motivating force for how policymakers drew this boundary was their perception of the novelty and seriousness of COVID. When policymakers believed COVID was an existential event, states designated relatively few businesses as essential, but in a localized way; when they interpreted the situation as manageable and routine, they prioritized inclusive and flexible exemptions.

In the second chapter of my dissertation (also my Job Market Paper), I examine how state-level variation in the definition of essential business related to two consequential cultural changes brought on by the pandemic—the brief but deep “lockdown recession,” and the massive and enduring shift to telework. With the help of two research assistants, I constructed a novel dataset of lockdown exemptions for all 50 states and the U.S. territories across, over 200 industry types. I show that government-imposed lockdowns played a modest role in the transition to telework and job loss, organizations and individuals played a far more dominant role in interpreting both whether they were essential and how they should respond. The effects of being deemed essential were highly moderated by whether managers and employees were susceptible to President Trump’s use of the “bully pulpit” to undermine lockdowns. The meaning of “essential,” then, was ambiguous and subject to culturally and politically motivated interpretation.

In the final chapter of dissertation, I investigate the circumstances under which organizations deem objects “essential,” which I call discursive essentialism. Employing a comparative historical approach, I use the COVID-19 lockdowns, as well as the articulation of human rights in the 18th century, debates about the literary canon in the 1980s, and the construction of “too big to fail banks” in the financial crisis, to theorize how organizations can successfully use discursive essentialism to adapt to, foment, and resist large-scale change.

Additional Research: Cultural Interpretation of Endogenous Change

In a second stream of research, I investigate the role of culture in situations when organizational change is endogenous. Prior to the pandemic, I conducted an ethnographic study of a hospital pharmacy undergoing a shift from a manual to a robotic dispensing system. I found that pharmacy technicians exhibited an array of responses to automation, from alienation to empowerment; these responses were highly correlated with their career aspirations. In a paper with Aruna Ranganathan, we conducted interviews with toymakers and folk singers in India to discover when they were willing to subordinate themselves to entrepreneurial professionals. We articulate a theory in which both cultural capital and gender play a role in determining both whether the artisans will be willing to collaborate, and whether the entrepreneurs will be able to successfully engage in cultural appropriation. Finally, in a working paper, I examine a public policy initiative in Boston intended to make the city’s business culture more welcoming to outside investors. I develop a new theory in which failed cultural entrepreneurship can sometimes originate in a collective action problem that leads to suboptimal outcomes for all.

Future Research: Cultural, Institutional, and Organizational Evolution and Adaptation

My dissertation has provided me with data and research questions to support a strong pipeline of additional projects. I intend to use additional documents acquired through public records requests to examine how the boundaries of who was “essential” led to non-compliance and lobbying. I have also compiled the requisite data to examine how those boundaries evolved over the course of the pandemic; I hypothesize that the evolution was driven more by factors such as popular narratives and lobbying, rather than either economic or epidemiological prerogatives. Finally, I have assembled a large trove of data concerning how the meaning of “essential worker” in the mass media and popular imagination became decoupled from its legal-political definition.

I am planning several additional projects to study how organizations navigate “grand challenges.” In particular, I would like to study how city governments decide to protect or sacrifice populations and infrastructures as they produce climate adaptation plans. I would also like to study the emergence of norms in weakly institutionalized environments, such as digital platforms.  A third upcoming project is to understand the ways that workforce development institutions adapt curricula in the face of new technology. The throughline of these seemingly disparate projects is to understand how culture persists from established social systems into nascent ones.