// Ph.D. in Sociology

CHRISTOF BRANDTNER

// Organizations are a major driver of institutional change and sites of actions that structure and shape cities and nations. My research uses a variety of methods and original data sources to explore the reciprocal relationship between organizations and society, particularly in the context of civil society and urban innovation.

ABOUT ME

// I am a Postdoctoral Scholar in Sociology and an Institute Postdoctoral Fellow at the Mansueto Institute for Urban Innovation at the University of Chicago. I am also affiliated with the Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society and the Research Institute of Urban Management and Governance at the Vienna University of Economics and Business. My work is supported by the National Science Foundation and the Institute for Research in the Social Sciences. I hold a Ph.D. in Sociology from Stanford University and a B.Sc. in Business, Economics, and Society from WU. I am a member of ASA, EGOS, SASE, ARNOVA, and AoM.

 

RESEARCH & INTERESTS

 

// I study questions in urban, economic, and environmental sociology through and organizational lensMy empirical research examines how rational, economic principles of organizing enter and alter fields where social and democratic values loom large. This work is theoretically grounded in sociological institutionalism, which understand organizations' behavior as co-evolving with their external social and cultural environment. Methodologically, I combine quantitative, comparative analyses of many organizations with specific knowledge of the cases I study. This sometimes takes me into the domains of qualitative interviews, experiments, and computational social science (specifically quantitative text analysis). I am excited about building original datasets from scratch to test my arguments.

ECONOMIC RATIONALIZATION IN THE NONPROFIT SECTOR

CITIES AND THEIR ORGANIZATION(S)

ACCOUNTABILITY AND ORGANIZATIONAL EVALUATION

// Performance-oriented management practices and professionalism have spread from businesses to nonprofit organizations. Sociologists call this process rationalization, similar to when states started to rule through civil service and corporations were run by professional managers. I am interested in contradictions resulting from rationalization, which Max Weber described as the "disenchantment of the world," and how rational practices are actually implemented in value-oriented organizations and communities. At Stanford PACS, I am part of the Civic Life of Cities Lab.

// In the 21st century, cities bear unprecedented responsibility for fixing socio-economic inequality, planning for economic development, and mitigating climate change. My dissertation, Cities in Action, explores how organizational infrastructures (e.g., nonprofits, businesses, and movements) and macro-institutional influences (e.g., inter-city associations and networks) shape the local capacity to act strategically and innovatively in the context of cities' climate change strategies.

// One of the most important contemporary transformations in the institutional environment of organizations is that internet and ideologies have given rise to a plethora of accountability and evaluation mechanisms that expose organizations to external scrutiny. I study how organizations respond to evaluation, especially when their constituencies disagree about what matters for success. And I am curious about how open practices interact with established bureacratic structures, which are by definition averse to the public.

RECENT PUBLICATIONS

 

Nonprofits as Urban Infrastructure

Brandtner, C. and C. Dunning. 2020. Pp. 271–291 in The Nonprofit Sector: A Research Handbook, 3rd edition, edited by Walter W. Powell and Patricia Bromley. Redwood City, CA: Stanford University Press.

Cities are home to a vast array of nonprofit organizations, from hospitals and universities to tenant unions and community centers. Research on nonprofit organizations, however, has concealed the urban setting of the majority of nonprofits, instead favoring national and organizational levels of analysis. This chapter highlights how cities provide an important, immediate social context for nonprofits; and how nonprofits shape cities in important ways. To do so, we draw on nonprofit and urban literatures across the disciplines of sociology, history, and beyond. We conceptualize nonprofits as an urban infrastructure that undergirds the structure of the city and note five key roles which nonprofits play as urban infrastructure: 1) forges of civic capacity, 2) participants in urban governance, 3) conveners of network interaction, 4) anchors of belonging, and 5) builders of the physical environment. In short, cities and the nonprofits that inhabit them relate in meaningful ways. Throughout, we consider not only how the direct activities of nonprofits shape and are shaped by cities, but also the indirect ones too. Causally, these relationships are complex, because cities and their urban environment constitute and evolve each other. We conclude with a research agenda that recognizes and further explores the nonprofit sector as a constitutive element of the economic, political, social, and spatial environment of cities and encourage comparative analyses of cities and neighborhoods to investigate how local nonprofit sectors undergird the city in constructive and counterproductive ways.

Spatial mismatch and youth unemployment in US cities: Public transportation as a labor market institution

Brandtner, C., Lunn, A., and Young, C. 2019. Socio-Economic Review 17(2):357–379.

Spatial mismatch between homes and jobs within a city can create unemployment despite the presence of unfilled jobs. This is especially problematic among young people who have limited transportation options and high rates of joblessness. Car ownership is a possible solution to spatial mismatch, but private vehicles are expensive and involve negative externalities. Public transportation provides an alternative infrastructure that reduces structural unemployment by matching supply and demand. Using longitudinal models of public transportation in the 95 largest US cities between 2000 and 2010, we test whether better public transit services reduce youth unemployment. Public transportation systems can serve as a labor market institution, but there are two worlds of public transportation in American cities. Improvements in public transit are mostly beneficial in cities that are already less dependent on private automobiles. Path dependence in transportation design means that some cities see little benefits to incremental investments in public transit.

Serve or Conserve: Mission, Strategy, and Multi-Level Nonprofit Change During the Great Recession

Horvath, A., Brandtner, C., and Powell, W. W. 2018. Voluntas 29(5):976–993.

Change is frequently afoot in the nonprofit sector, both in the wider institutional environment in which nonprofits operate and within the organizations themselves. Environmental transformations—funding sources, supply and demand for collective goods, and administrative norms—create the circumstances in which organizations operate. Internally, change involves the alteration of goals, practices, and personnel. To explore how multiple aspects of change intersect across levels, we ask how organizations’ practices influence their experience of and reaction to changes in the environment. Turning open systems theories inside out, we argue that internal planning, routines, and missions give rise to organizational mindsets that imbue evolving environmental circumstances with meaning. We illustrate our argument using a unique longitudinal dataset of 196 representative 501(c)(3) public charities in the San Francisco Bay Area from 2005 to 2015 to assess both accelerators and obstacles of change. Empirically, we investigate predictors of organizational insolvency and the ability to serve constituents in the wake of the Great Recession. We find that strategic planning decreases the likelihood of insolvency whereas an orientation toward the needy increases spending. We conclude with our contributions to understanding of multi-level organizational change and nonprofit strategy.

Putting the world in orders: Plurality in organizational evaluation

Brandtner, C. 2017. Sociological Theory 35(3):200–27.

Sociologists have shown that external evaluation stimulates convergent organizational behavior, yet many evaluative practices are superficial or susceptible to manipulation. When does external evaluation lead to convergence in organizational fields? Organizations regularly and increasingly experience fragmented social orders based on orthogonal notions of value, or so-called plurality. I propose that the plurality of evaluative landscapes, i.e., the universe of rankings, ratings, and awards in an organizational field, compromises the potential homogenizing influence of any single evaluative practice. Plurality in the evaluative landscape weakens the causal channels through which evaluative practices influence organizational behavior. Because evaluative activities are responsive to social conditions, plurality is suggested to be highest when external audiences are diverse, value is institutionalized, and rationalized rules limit access to evaluation. I conclude that neo-institutional organizational theory and the sociology of valuation, both of which inform this paper, would benefit from a more integrated account of evaluative landscapes. 

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TEACHING & PASSIONS

ORGANIZATIONAL AND ECONOMIC SOCIOLOGY

CITIES, COMMUNITIES, &

SOCIAL INNOVATION

RESEARCH DESIGN AND QUANTITATIVE METHODS

// I was a teaching assistant for Mark Granovetter's Economic Sociology and Sarah Soule's Organizational Design. I have also participated in research workshops on organizations, social networks, and economic sociology for several years, including a boot camp for young faculty on Organizational Effectiveness at CASBS, which I attended in 2016 and facilitated in 2017. 

// At the Mansueto Institute of Urban Innovation, the emerging field of urban science meets the foundations of urban sociology. Before coming to UChicago, I also as a teaching assistant for Woody Powell's class on the Sociology of Innovation and Invention and for Fred Stout's Introduction to Urban Studies. These issues converge nicely with my passion about civil society and philanthropy as social forces, topics debated vigorously at Stanford PACS.

// At Stanford, I offered statistical software consulting for undergraduate and graduate students. I also had the pleasure of instructing several stellar undergraduate research assistants in developing datasets from scratch and performing qualitative and quantitative analyses.

COLLABORATORS

// I am grateful for my collaborators in both the U.S. and Europe. If you are looking for a reference, these people can probably tell you all about me. Walter W. Powell and Aaron Horvath are my collaborators on the Civic Life of Cities.

At Stanford, I have also worked with Patricia Bromley, Michelle Jackson, and Cristobal Young (junior faculty) as well as Aaron Silverman and Anna Lunn (grad students). Outside Stanford, I have worked with Markus Höllerer (WU, UNSW), Martin Kornberger (EM Lyon), Renate E. Meyer (WU, CBS), and David Suárez (U of Washington). With Juan Pedroza I have once submitted a tiramisu titled Problem of Embreadedness to Stanford's annual dessert competition. You can read more about the sweet side of sociology in my CV.

COMMITTEE

// The people who told me to finish my dissertation are Walter W. Powell (Stanford GSE, chair), Xueguang Zhou (Stanford Sociology), and Sarah A. Soule (Stanford GSB).