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Special issue

“Business Communities and Corporate Elites”

Scientific coordinators :
Catherine Comet (Clersé, Université de Lille)
Antoine Vion (CENS, Université de Nantes)
Mohamed Oubenal (CEAS, IRCAM)


Corporate leaders’ relations shed light on how their social circles and the business communities they structure have evolved. Contributions to this special issue will probe the theoretical and methodological relevance of a relational perspective for understanding how capitalism is organized, whether or not it is still anchored nationally, and possible fragmentation or reconfiguration of the dominant classes in various regions of the world. By relational perspective we mean, following Mustapha Emirbayer (1997), an analytic approach in which actors are conceived not as entities that exist independently of relations but the opposite : as entities produced by relations. We see four main lines of inquiry structuring this sociology of corporate communities.

The first line of inquiry concerns the cohesion and political power of corporate elites. The literature reflects a disagreement on this point : fragmentation versus class dominance. Proponents of the first position argue that corporate elites have become “fractured” (Mizruchi 2013). After winning the major political battles in the 1970s and 1980s, they were no longer motivated to act collectively and lost the interlocking directorates (an interlocking directorate occurs when the same person sits on the board of directors of two or more companies) needed for coordination. Proponents of the second position cite corporate elites’ many alternative types of coordination, such as kinship, select clubs, alumni associations, and most importantly, think tanks (Barnes 2017 ; Domhoff 2013). However, all of this may be, the decline of interlocking directorates does call into question the established notions and practices used in this research field. If holding several board memberships at once is no longer an effective indicator of status, particularly since the adoption of diversity policies, then how is status to be measured ? How does implementing quotas in governance bodies change status hierarchies ? Moreover, do the trajectories of women and other minorities in these business circles differ ? These questions concern the broader question of the subject of collective action. Are we dealing here with corporate elites, or rather inner circles (Useem 1984) ? What are their boundaries, and how can they be empirically identified ? Does fragmentation of the corporate elite really mean that such elites no longer act collectively or are less effective when they do ?

The second line of inquiry probes the relevance of changing geographic scales and connections between analytical levels. In a comparative study and theoretical assessment of how corporate business has evolved, John Scott (1997) saw national capitalist classes being fragmented, but not yet superseded by a transnational capitalist class (Sklair 2001). Since then, the focus of debates has shifted from the magnitude and speed of transnationalization (Carroll and Fennema 2002) to how best to measure it (Burris and Staples 2012), giving rise to studies covering more or less extensive geographic scales. Burris and Staples suggested measuring the cohesion of corporate elites by way of inter-individual networks rather than the inter-organizational ones that researchers usually investigate. But at a more general level, after using multilevel models to untangle individual effects and organizational ones (Snijders and Bosker 2011), what do we find ? What do those models tell us about the continuing decline of interlocking directorates ? More broadly, how can longitudinal analyses be used to account for such structural changes ? Are the time limits and intervals chosen to study the observed structures well adapted to them ? How can we construct relevant data sets that will take into account firm entry and exit from panels ?

The third line of inquiry concerns the meaning of and stakes involved in corporate relationships. Early studies of the structure of corporate relations done in the United States and later in Europe focused on formal ties—specifically, interlocking directorates. Those entities were controversial, raising the question not only of their exact signification (Mizruchi 1996) but also their possible insignificance (Stinchcombe 1990). In the wake of research by Maurice Zeitlin (Zeitlin, Ewen, and Ratcliff 1974), the first studies of personal relations brought to light the importance of friendship in structuring some financial circles (Kadushin 1995) ; studies of Asia, meanwhile, showed the importance of kinship relations (Numazaki 1986, 1996). The question of what corporate relations signify raises many other questions that continue to be relevant today. But collecting data on personal relationships is highly problematic. How can those problems be mitigated ? And how can qualitative and quantitative approaches be made to work together ? Such studies also require comparative approaches if we are to systematically test the hypotheses they give rise to. How does the social embeddedness of corporate relations vary by country, and as a function of what factors ? Can different country categories be determined by noting the arenas in which corporate elites circulate ? How does such circulation evolve over time ? Do we find different trajectories for attaining one or another position of power depending on the country or countries under study ? What might those different trajectories mean in terms of capital accumulation or conversion, or competition among elite groups ?

The fourth line of inquiry probes influence and how leaders use it. What channels does influence take ? Research studies increasingly focus on “quiet politics” (Culpepper 2011). Some emphasize the role of think tanks in planning public policy ; others that of the international organizations that bring together major corporations, such as the European Roundtable of Industrialists or particular economic forums. How do channels of influence evolve and how are they renewed ? How do they differ by corporate elite faction ? Research targeting specific sectors or fields has shed light on the regulation work performed by invisible colleges. How do these sector-specific processes fit together with collective action by business communities or corporate elites ? Other studies have looked into media control (Arsenault and Castells 2008 ; Doyle 2013) and relations of interdependency between major corporations and journalists (Schlesinger 1990). Do such relations contribute to collective action and the cohesion of a possible “managerial class” (Graeber 2014) made up of leaders of major bureaucracies ? These studies also bring to light complex “gift exchange” relations (Ferrary 2003) and generalized “political exchange” (Pizzorno 1978). Above and beyond blurred boundaries and revolving doors, it has been shown that these relationships give rise to economic structures with crime-inducing properties (Mannle 1995 : 907)—a challenge for researchers (Sutherland 1945, 1949).

We reject the notion that the disintegration of interlocks should put an end to research on corporate relations and inner circles (Chu and Davis 2016). Priority for this special issue will be given to empirical studies that probe and connect at least two of the four lines of inquiry and put forward theoretical and methodological propositions that will help renew approaches to the issue by way of original combinations of research fields and analytic traditions. Studies can focus on corporate leaders at various geographic scales or analytic levels, on business communities of one or several countries or regions, but they must take a relational perspective ; that is, emphasize actor interdependence. We have indicated here a number of avenues that connect the individual and organizational levels of analysis, apply comparative approaches, and take into account the social embeddedness of business relations, sector boundary porosity, etc. Contributors are of course not restricted to them.

REFERENCES

Arsenault, A.H., and M. Castells. 2008. “The Structure and Dynamics of Global Multi-Media Business Networks.” International Journal of Communication 2 : 707-48.
Barnes, R.C. 2017. “Structural Redundancy and Multiplicity Within Networks of US Corporate Directors.” Critical Sociology 43 (1) : 37‑57.
Burris, V., and C.L. Staples. 2012. “In Search of a Transnational Capitalist Class : Alternative Methods for Comparing Director Interlocks Within and Between Nations and Regions.” International Journal of Comparative Sociology 53 (4) : 323‑42.
Carroll, W.K., and M. Fennema. 2002. “Is There a Transnational Business Community ?” International Sociology 17 (3) : 393‑419.
Chu, J.S.G., and G.F. Davis. 2016. “Who Killed the Inner Circle ? The Decline of the American Corporate Interlock Network.” American Journal of Sociology, 122, 3, p. 714‑754.
Culpepper, P.D. 2011. Quiet Politics and Business Power : Corporate Control in Europe and Japan. Cambridge : Cambridge University Press.
Domhoff, G.W. 2013. Who Rules America ? The Triumph of the Corporate Rich. New York : McGraw-Hill Education.
Doyle, G. 2013. Understanding Media Economics. Newcastle upon Tyne : Sage.
Emirbayer, M. 1997. “Manifesto for a Relational Sociology.” American Journal of Sociology 103 (2) : 281‑317.
Ferrary, M. 2003. “The Gift Exchange in the Social Networks of Silicon Valley.” California Management Review 45 (4) : 120‑38.
Graeber, D. 2014. “Anthropology and the Rise of the Professional-Managerial Class.” Hau : Journal of Ethnographic Theory 4 (3) : 73‑88.
Kadushin, C. 1995. “Friendship Among the French Financial Elite.” American Sociological Review 60 (2) : 202‑21.
Mannle, H.W. 1995. “Organized Crime” in F.N Magill, ed. International Encyclopedia of Sociology, London, Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers.
Mizruchi, M.S. 1996. “What Do Interlocks Do ? An Analysis, Critique, and Assessment of Research on Interlocking Directorates.” Annual Review of Sociology 22 (1) : 271‑98.
— 2013. The Fracturing of the American Corporate Elite. Cambridge, MA : Harvard University Press.
Numazaki, I. 1986. “Networks of Taiwanese Big Business : A Preliminary Analysis.” Modern China 12 (4) : 487‑534.
— 1996. “The Role of Personal Networks in the Making of Taiwan’s Guanxiqiye (Related Enterprises).” in G.G. Hamilton, ed. Asian Business Networks. Berlin : de Gruyter : 71‑86.
Pizzorno, A. 1978. “Political Exchange and Collective Identity in Industrial Conflict.” in A. Pizzorno, ed. The Resurgence of Class Conflict in Western Europe Since 1968. London : Palgrave Macmillan : 277‑98.
Schlesinger, P. 1990. “Rethinking the Sociology of Journalism : Source Strategies and the Limits of Media-Centrism.” Public Communication : The New Imperatives : 61‑83.
Scott, J. 1997. Corporate Business and Capitalist Classes. Oxford : Oxford University Press.
Sklair, L. 2001. The Transnational Capitalist Class. Malden : Blackwell.
Snijders, T.A., and R.J. Bosker. 2011. Multilevel Analysis : An Introduction to Basic and Advanced Multilevel Modeling. Newcastle upon Tyne : Sage.
Stinchcombe, A.L. 1990. “Weak Structural Data. Review of ‘Intercorporate Relations : The Structural Analysis of Business. Edited by Mark S. Mizruchi, Michael Schwartz’.” Contemporary Sociology 19 (3) : 380‑82.
Sutherland, E.H. 1945. “Is ‘White Collar Crime’ Crime ?” American Sociological Review 10 (2) : 132‑39.
— 1949, White Collar Crime. New York : The Dryden Press.
Useem, M. 1984. The Inner Circle : Large Corporations and the Rise of Business Political Activity in the US and UK. New York : Oxford University Press.
Zeitlin, M., L.A. Ewen, and R. E. Ratcliff. 1974. “‘New Princes’ for Old ? The Large Corporation and the Capitalist Class in Chile.” American Journal of Sociology 80 (1) : 87‑123.


Contribution proposals must be between 1,000 (minimum) and 1,500 (maximum) words (excluding bibliography) and written in either French or English. They must include the following : 1) A definition of the research subject and brief presentation of the relevant literature ; 2) Indication of material and methods ; 3) Expected results ; 4) A short bibliography (5 references maximum).
Please send proposals to Christelle Germain, assistant editor (christelle.germain@cnrs.fr) and Catherine Comet (catherine.comet@univ-lille.fr) by October 31, 2021.
Contribution proposals will be examined jointly by the scientific coordinators. Acceptances will be sent out by December 15, 2021, at the latest.
Authors of accepted proposals must submit their texts by April 1, 2022. Articles may not exceed 75,000 characters (including spaces, references and figures). Each article will be evaluated independently by the scientific coordinators and anonymously by the Revue editorial committee.


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