Monday, March 12, 2007

Peer Pressure, Social Networks, and Law School Isomorphism

This may too quickly identify my generation, but I remember watching Cipher in the Snow in elementary school as a part of my school's efforts to bring After School Special messages into the school, I guess maybe to tell us that you don't have to wait till 3:00 pm to learn that it's bad to do drugs, man and that you should just say no. This particular after school special message was communicated to my 7-year old self in the form of a 21 minute short film. And after a couple of decades, I still remember it (and my memory is refreshed by IMDB). In the film, a pre-teen named Cliff asks to get off the bus early, and then a few feet later, collapses and dies. His "favorite" teacher, e.g. the only teacher who had any interaction with him, is asked to notify Cliff's parents and write an obituary.

The problem is, no one really knows Cliff, not even his favorite teacher. The movie then goes back in time to show how Cliff arrived at his fate in the snow, and reveals that Cliff was a lonely, ostracized, and reclusive boy whom everyone ignored actively or failed to notice negligently. Cliff was a cipher, or a zero. Message: this is bad. Don't let this happen to your students and peers. Don't exclude, don't fail to notice or ignore the quiet kid, and make sure that each individual is a part of a group.

It's funny that this movie stuck with me, because I'm at once torn between wanting to feel more attached to my current institution and really wanting to be left alone. It's the plight of the academic, to want collegiality and community in the ivory tower (usually reserved for princesses and lepers, right?) or just being left alone to research and write. More recently, I've been feeling more attached to my institution, as I've been taking classes in a curricular concentration (say, "law and public policy") with the same set of instructors and classmates, in addition to representing my school at academic conferences. That's a neat way to feel like you are more than an ad hoc member or free agent in the school--social ties are great binding agents between individuals and their institutions.

Having a good relationship with your academic advisor and acquiring a few mentors (vertical ties), and forming social relationships among your peers (horizontal ties) go a long way to establishing your tie to the people in your organization and to the organization itself. Everything is dependent on the strength of the ties, but even weak ties (acquaintences, single-term relationships with professors) are important for the Rolodex--but strong ties (mentoring, friendship) prove to be most valuable for academic and career enhancing psychosocial support. A little bit of psychosocial support goes a long way to making your time in the organization feel valuable and valued--without a social network of colleagues, peers, mentors, you would feel like a zero--a cipher. And as I learned back in elementary school, that's bad man, not cool.

That said, sometimes I really wish I wasn't a part of certain social networks. I very much like the ones I have cultivated and created on my own very recently--my mentors are great, I like my new drama-free friends, and my adopted curricular program is pretty great in helping me churn out publishable papers and shaping my dissertation. However, the program I'm actually in sometimes operates as a classic example of the bad effects of social networks: exclusion from such networks, or social closure, is what happened to Cliff. However, pressure to join such networks or engage in conformist behavior to remain within the network sounds just as bad. Wasn't there another After School Special movie about peer pressure? Wait, weren't they all about peer pressure?

To draw from a real-life example, there is something at my school called "The Class Campaign." I don't recall my last law school having such a campaign--I'm sure they did, but there was not such aggressive fundraising as at my current school. Strangely, both are highly ranked public institutions with good-sized endowments in a state that underfunds public education, so it's not a function of public vs. private schools. In any case, my current institution has this horrible Class Campaign run by 3Ls that somehow recruited 5-7 of my resume-padding colleagues in the LLM program to use their connections to extort money from their own group. Each class here is divided into sections, and for some reason, there is an LLM section (but no SJD!). There is a public website showing a bar graph representing the percentage of each section's donation (goal: 100% per section), and a list of all the students who have and have not donated. Just as in elementary school there is a star by your name if you have donated, whether it is $5 or $500. To its credit, the amount is not listed. That is one very small concession I make.

I hate the idea of public shaming. I hate the idea of public outing and ostracization. If I choose not to donate, I hate that I get 5 emails telling me to donate, often starting off as a friendly, "look I'm your peer in your social network" message and then going on to cajole me into making a donation to "pay back" what I "owe" the school (in addition to the $36,000?!) and to fulfill the bizarrely empty goal of "getting to 100%." 100% for what? I really wanted to be a cipher. I wanted to just say no. As a testament to my low tolerance for annoying emails inviting me to lunch to "discuss this further" (I would pay to avoid that, so I might as well pay the blood money) and apparent lack of integrity, I caved and donated when I found out I could redirect my donation from the class fund to a particular curricular program. I hate that the Class Campaign officers used the facade of friendship to basically extort money. It did feel like I was being accosted at the lockers to go to that pharm party or smoke a joint because we're friends, man. Altogether distasteful, but I suppose no different than that coworker of yours who makes you buy candy or cookies from her kid or urges you to sponsor a Sally Struthers kid. And I suppose I wouldn't have such a problem with using channels of social networks and the veiled threat of social closure to induce member conformity and compliance if I could see this serving some valuable social goal like building solidarity or fostering mentoring and social relationships. I really just think they wanted my money, and thereafter, the friendly emails asking me to lunch stopped.

Law schools are interesting to study from an organzational theory perspective, mainly because in addition to being the breeding ground of peer-to-peer (and peer-to-mentor) human relationships, law schools are their own institutional beasts with its own isomorphic tendencies. Law schools purposely create small sections, or smaller social networks within the larger institution, to foster peer-to-peer interaction, group-building, and thus coercive social practices. Section/Mod/Unit 1/A, you'd better "represent" at the next Bar Review, Keg in teh Courtyard, or law school musical! That means YOU, Student #987654! Codes of collegiality and conduct are created by the schools, but they're really enforced and enacted by the students and their peers. Goals (both laudable and banal) are set by the institution, but it is the students who figure out how to achieve them and do the work. Apparently, getting 100% of a graduating a class to donate before the end of the year is a goal. Apparently, any means subtle or distasteful may be used to achieve this goal. Apparently, I did my part, and I'm not a cipher, I'm a part of a group or, I kid you not, "honor roll of donors."

This human-level isomorphism, going from coercive isomorphism (you must do this because there is a rule) to mimetic isomorphism (you should want to do this because everyone is, 100%!) to normative isomorphism (you ought to do this because it serves this goal) can be seen in how law schools act as institutions. See, e.g., DiMaggio and Powell, "The Iron Cage Revisited: Institutional Isomorphism and Collective Rationality in Organizational Fields." Law schools must follow the dictates of the AALS, and do what is necessary to attract and comply with donors wishes and graduate students who pass their state bars and go on to do Great Things so that they can donate later. Law schools also want to tend to do as and look like schools within their cluster rank and aspire to become like schools above their rank. That means lots of recruiting of top students, aggressive fundraising, lots of new named wings and chairs. Law schools also want to service their pedagogical goals and overarching vision, whatever they are. I do understand the push for individual and institutional compliance, conformity, and isomorphism.

However, in this actor and organizational level analysis of why people and why institutions act they way they do, I feel like the original goal is lost. I don't just want to know how or why people act, but rather the ex ante question of why there is this personal goal or institutional value in the first place? Why is it that nearly 100% of people in my LLM section are donating, what was the original point? Also, in examining the mechanics of social networks (Campaign Officer 1 knows Non-Donor A so 1 contacts A to...), I forget to think about why this is a social network in the first place, and whether it functions well. It may indeed be the case that we have each other's contact information, but are the ties weak or strong? What links us in the first place, other than our mere presence in the program? Are we heterophilous or homophilous?

I can't, or I'd rather not, answer that with respect to my specific program at my institution. But they are questions you might ask yourselves as you go about your day hiding in your office and writing or gamely going to that colloquium or committee meeting or student-sponosored school event: why are you there? What kind of ties do you feel to the people in the room, and to the school writ large? Are you there because you have to be, or because other people you know are there, or because you think you should be? Are you there for the reason you never think to contemplate--because you want to be there? Do you feel compliant, conformist, and isomorphic? Or do you just feel pretty good to be there?

Are you a cipher or are you 100%?