Notions of Authenticity: Technology Systems as Representations of Authentic Organizational Form

by Jerome M. Hendricks

My current research explores the actions of intermediary firms in periods of rapid technological change. By asking how new developments in listening to and owning music have changed the music retail industry, I offer the independent record store as a case of such an intermediary. Through a longitudinal multimethod content analysis of media and industry documents, I’ve looked at the evolution of music retail from a variety of angles. Early consideration of the curious position of independent record stores led me to store representatives and their understandings of change and how they see their role in an industry trending toward digital technologies. Recently, I’ve been thinking more about the extent to which structural adaptation has occurred due to the same market changes. In the absence of detailed procedural histories of music retailers across the country, I identified all types of music retailers in my data set and coded the various technologies they utilize. My conceptualization of technologies draws on the social construction of technology (SCOT), actor-network theory, and performativity literatures where technologies are practical strategies, objects, practices, and knowledge that legitimate markets and maintain structures over time (Latour 1988, Callon and Muniesa 2005, Callon 2006, Mackenzie 2008, Bikjer 2010). As an initial step, I look to the extent to which technology systems might represent organizational forms.

However, articles from my data set like this one made me think more about the nature of contemporary organizational form. As one store closes and another opens, their assessment of what constitutes a good record store is noticeably different. And while adaptation seems inevitable due to the evolving composition of the market, these small, specialist firms must resonate with target audiences in order to maintain value and legitimacy. Indeed, recent work on organizational form emphasizes the role of these target audiences in a firm’s successful affiliation with a given form (Hsu and Hannan 2005). Projecting an authentic identity serves as a central component in the positive exchange between firms and audiences. Carroll and Wheaton (2009) identify three components of an organization’s identity that facilitate the projection of an authentic form: “(1) an identity claim must be visibly projected; (2) the purported identity must be credible; and (3) the identity must be perceived as reflecting the meaning of authenticity in question” (273). This suggests that (1) identifying dominant technologies (2) utilized by similar store types (3) in specific contexts can offer insight not only into organizational forms but also corresponding notions of authenticity legitimized in the field.

To take on this issue of authentic form, I used my coded data consisting of firms, products, and practices to build edgelists for the purpose of network analysis. I felt the visual representation that network data offers can provide a clear identification of similar firms and their associated technologies; a representation of form. Additionally, the industry and media sources that constitute the network data correspond strongly to salient identities in the minds of members and external audiences. While not every music retailer is represented throughout the sample, through the discourse of technologies over time, I argue the output uncovers legitimate membership standards and expectations by which all stores are evaluated. Finally, network analysis allows for the identification of statistically relevant communities, or systems of densely connected nodes, through modularity measures. The algorithm utilized in Gephi, the open source software I used, is called the Louvian method where partitions of connected nodes are created based on the maximum modularity measure achievable. The resulting example below (color coded for your convenience) shows six technology systems that consist of at least 5% of the total ties in the network. I use my knowledge of the music retail market to interpret these systems of retailers and associated technologies to identify dominant forms as well as expression of authenticity.

Figure 1. Time Period 1: 1994-1996

Figure 1. Time Period 1: 1994-1996

Major System Technologies

System A

System B

System C

System D

System E

System F

T18. Deep-catalog/
genre Specialization

T26. Customer Service

T35. Location

T08. Electronics/
Accessories

T01. CD sales

T04. Used Product

T02. Vinyl sales

T11. Exclusive Product

T10. Memorabilia

T36. Fanzines/
publications

T29. Large catalog/inventory

T16. Listening stations

T31. Ambiance

T17. Expansion/
Merger/Acquisition

T14. Live music

T21. Sales/
Pricing

T22. Popular titles

T05. Other media

T06. Lifestyle Items

I generally categorize the top-right quadrant, consisting of systems D and E, as the mass retail sector due to the focus on size, growth, and price. The major technologies of system E are sale pricing (T21) with a focus on popular artist releases (T22). These mass retailers, like Best Buy, Circuit City, Target, or WalMart used CDs as a loss leader product where low prices would lure customers in with the hope that they might also buy a television, a blender, and so on. The music superstores, like Tower Records, Virgin Megastore, or HMV, found primarily in system D, could not consistently compete with the low prices mass retailers could offer on popular releases. In response these large, music-only retailers structured their operations around quantity. The major technologies of system D include maintaining a large inventory (T29), providing customers with listening stations (T16) in order to sample a variety of titles, and expanding operations across the country (T17). The emphasis on ambiance (T31) found in this system was also connected to the sheer mass of many of these superstores; highly organized, technologically advanced, warehouses of music product.

System A is the largest system identified in Figure 1, containing almost 24% of the total connections, and overlaps with almost every other system. For these reasons, I define system A as the mainstream independents or small chains that increased as a result of the market growth during this period. As indicated in the major technologies of system A, many of these stores specialized in specific genres (T18) and prided themselves on customer service through expert knowledge (T26). Like the mass retail quadrant, the geographical location (T35) that might ensure regular foot traffic was of great importance to these firms. And, like many types of music retailer, these mainstream stores were diversifying into electronics and accessories (T08). Systems B and F also highlight the mainstream store strategy of diversification at this time. Some stores began to carry a wider variety of media (T05) as well as lifestyle items (T06) like music-centered clothing as we see in system F. Many small chains began selling used product (T04) on a large scale as is evident in system B. While the modularity measure separates these technologies into three distinct systems, they are best understood as three mainstream responses to the price wars initiated by mass retailers.

The remaining system C also overlaps heavily with the mainstream stores but offers a distinct form that separates it from the others. I categorize system C as the tastemakers because of its focus on rare and collectible product as well as the presence of Do-It-Yourself technologies. The major technologies in system C are vinyl records (T02), exclusive product (T11), and memorabilia (T36) which suggest a strong connection to collector markets outside of the CD dominance of the 1990s. Moreover, many of these stores carried local publications or fanzines (T36) and some ran their own independent record labels (T28) showing a distinct connection to their regional music scene. The juxtaposition of technologies in systems C with those in the mainstream systems are very similar to the discussion of differences between coalitions found at this time. Drawing on the typology of organizational authenticity explicated by Carroll and Wheaton (2009), the mainstream systems in this period largely exemplify a brand of “type” authenticity by conforming to audience expectations of a specialized music store. The expertise and selection they provide in highly visible retail spaces legitimates these retailers as an original type of music retailer and an alternative to mass retail forms. The rare and collectible product and Do-It-Yourself practices of the tastemakers tend more toward a brand of “moral” authenticity. Here, the consumer is asked to not only evaluate the product sold by the firm but also the personal objectives of the store owner, managers, or employees. The connection these retailers have with collector markets and the vinyl record medium exemplify an emphasis on cultural values contrary to the price wars at the time. Appealing to an audience’s love of a music scene or a collectible history draws lines between those that sell music as a retail item and those that have given their lives to music.

As I’m writing this, I have drafted an extended version of this analysis that tracks both form and notions of authenticity over four distinct time periods in the music retail history. I argue that tracking changes in these technology systems (mindful of the context in which the change happens) can tell us a great deal about how these retailers have adapted and survived despite changes in the field that disadvantage them. Moreover, I argue that structural changes in what has commonly been identified as an independent record store suggests that our understanding of authenticity is not fixed and, instead, adapts to the context in which it is interpreted. I am curious what others might think of my use of network analysis and the application of “technology systems” to the concept of organizational form. I’m hoping to use this post to improve upon my explanation of the networks and the connections I aim to make to organizations literatures. Questions, comments, or concerns are welcomed!!!!

Works Cited

Bijker, Wiebe E. 2010. “How is Technology Made? – That is the question!” Cambridge Journal of Economics. 34:63-76.

Callon, Michael and F. Muniesa. 2005. “Peripheral Vision: Economic Markets as Calculative Collective Devices.” Organization Studies 26(8):1229-1250.

Callon, Michel. 2006. “What does it mean to say that economics is performative?” Working paper, Ecole des Mines, Paris.

Carroll, Glenn R., and Dennis Ray Wheaton. 2009. “The organizational construction of authenticity: An examination of contemporary food and dining in the U.S.” Research in Organizational Behavior. 29(0):255–282.

Hsu, Greta and Michael T. Hannan. 2005. “Identities, genres, and organizational forms.”  Organization Science. 16, 5: 474.

Latour, Bruno. 1988. Science in Action: How to Follow Scientists and Engineers Through Society. Harvard University Press.

Mackenzie, Donald. 2008. An Engine, Not a Camera: How Financial Models Shape Markets. The MIT Press.

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