Dissertation

My dissertation research centers around the experiences of shareholders at ‘State-Line Farm’, a small, sustainable, not for profit community supported agriculture (CSA) organization in the Midwest. Unlike many CSA organizations cropping up across the United States, State-Line farm is distinguished by its labor requirement, not for profit status, and strong identity as a community of like-minded ethical producers and consumers of food.  For two years I worked in the fields with shareholders as the organization grew and, ultimately, experienced a radical and unexpected change in structure.

Using a combination of participant observation and semi-structured interviews, my study of State-Line Farm’s CSA details the complex and interrelated mechanisms and processes that supported shareholders’ experience of community, shaped the cognitive and affective outcomes of their exchange behavior, and facilitated members’ construction of coherent and convergent explanations when the organization many had grown  attached to changed drastically without warning.

I begin by establishing how three social mechanisms at the organization level – the division of labor,  recruitment and homophily, and false consensus,  – allowed members to experience the CSA as a community of like-minded producers and consumers of ethical food despite the presence of ideological disagreements. Next, I demonstrate  how member’s identification with the organization as a community activated the associated community logic, influencing their perceptions of  social exchange. By both constraining the forms of exchange deemed normatively appropriate and priming sensemaking processes, the organization’s identity supported members’ experience of social exchange as being consonant with community ideals and  positive affective group bonds, even in instances where present social psychological approaches to exchange suggest that they should not. Finally, I articulate how the length of a member’s tenure and the strength of their identification with the organization were integral to their ability to construct coherent and convergent explanations when faced with the radical shift in the structure of the CSA. I show that long term members were more likely to engage in sensemaking, and are were better able to provide coherent explanations when they did, and that those who more strongly identified with the organization were more likely to offer convergent, ‘community lost’, narratives than members with weaker identification.

Through the integration of theories that span multiple subfields and levels of analytical focus, and the application of qualitative methods to areas of study dominated by quantitative or experimental approaches, my dissertation research is positioned to make a number of theoretical and empirical contributions. In my recent publication, People Like Me: Shared Belief, False Consensus, and the Experience of Community, I use CSA member’s ability to experience community to challenge the broader assertion found in contemporary theory that disagreement over core beliefs or values within a group always decrease the chance that a successful, sustainable community experience will develop, and calls for additional theorizing of the conditions under which homogeneity of belief, values, or ideology is necessary for these outcomes. My findings regarding member’s identification with the organization, and the development of convergent explanations in the absence of interaction with fellow members challenge the often assumed foundational nature of social interaction for sensemaking, and evidence that member tenure shapes sensemaking efforts provides a counterpoint to recent arguments emphasizing individual dispositions. Finally, by detailing the process through which CSA member’s experience of social exchange is shaped by a community logic I introduce social exchange theory to the institutional logics perspective, propose a general model of how institutions, via actor identification with organizational identities, shape social exchange behavior and its related cognitive and affective outcomes, and demonstrate the importance of moving beyond experimental methods for the advance of social psychological approaches to social exchange.