Sociologist Lyn Spillman Investigates Business Culture

Author: Sara Burnett

Lyn Spillman

From the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to the International Concrete Repair Institute, there are more than 4,000 active business associations in the United States. And contrary to popular misconceptions, says Notre Dame sociologist Lyn Spillman, they do more than just lobby politicians and promote products.

As she reports in her latest book, Solidarity in Strategy: Making Business Meaningful in American Trade Associations, the most common—and major—focus of these groups is to promote camaraderie, professionalism, and sociability.

One of the first in-depth explorations of the role these associations play in economic culture, Spillman’s book is also particularly timely.

“The economic crisis of 2008 made people a lot more aware that there can be more and less destructive ways of doing business,” she says. “The strategic pursuit of self-interest isn’t all there is to it.

“A lot of us studying economic culture are challenging basic assumptions about economic self-interest, and my book contributes to that discussion.”

Filling a Gap

Spillman, an associate professor in the Department of Sociology, has long been interested in the symbols and rituals we take for granted in everyday life. After completing a book on national identity and an anthology of cultural sociology, she decided to look at business and economics from a cultural point of view.

“As a sociologist, I’m struck by the fact that economic actions like working, buying, selling, saving, and giving are a fundamental part of everyday life,” she says. “All spheres of society, from family to religion to politics, involve economic action, and social groups can affect economic outcomes.”

With support from a Guggenheim Fellowship, Spillman began digging and soon uncovered just how many national business associations there are, representing all types of industries—from the Mulch and Soil Council to the Firestop Contractors to the Cosmetic, Toiletries, and Fragrance Association—and with some dating back more than a century.

“There’s a national association for everything you could possibly think of, and usually more than one,” she says. “People want to talk to people who understand what they do, however obscure that is. If your business repairs concrete, you’re really interested in the outstanding concrete repair jobs.”

Spillman was also struck in her research by just how little serious study had been done of these associations. “I thought that gap definitely needed to be filled and that I could learn a lot about business culture by doing the study,” she says.

Because it had not been done before, Spillman had to compile her own database on the more than 4,400 associations she identified. She then chose 25 groups to study in greater depth, collecting all the information she could about their activities and analyzing their business culture from multiple points of view.

“My point is that, even at the heart of capitalist business, culture is important,” she says. “A purely strategic approach [to business] isn’t sustainable.”

Expanding the Scope

Solidarity in Strategy is set to be included in a review of recent books on economic culture in a forthcoming issue of Contemporary Sociology, says Spillman, who has made her data publicly available to other scholars.

As word spreads about the research, Spillman is hopeful that more sociologists will pay attention to these associations and will adopt the approach to studying economic culture she used in this project, combining broad background data with deep cultural analysis.

Her own next project, she says, will explore economic culture in the media and public discussion and will include a book on interests and strategic action.

“I think we have a really limited understanding of strategy and the pursuit of self-interest; usually, we assume it’s natural,” Spillman says. “Solidarity in Strategy challenges that idea in one way. But now, I’m also developing a broader cultural theory of interests.”

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Originally published by Sara Burnett at on April 18, 2012.