Looking through different lenses

Ray Reagans, Alfred P. Sloan Professor of Management and Associate Professor of Organization Studies, offers a new look at social capital

Ray ReagansRay Reagans

Ray Reagans says he has always been drawn to how race, ethnicity, and inequality intersect, but as an undergraduate he was concerned by the fact that it seemed to be more passion than analysis that would determine people’s positions. This is what led him to pursue these issues from both a sociological and an economic perspective. Receiving degrees in both areas as an undergrad at Brown, he then went on to earn his PhD in sociology from the University of Chicago, but even then he did so very much through the lens of economics.

“As a PhD student, I was initially moved toward issues of urban poverty,” he explains, “but then I found myself becoming more and more interested in the study of organizations, because the folks who were doing research on organizations were using these two very different lenses to study outcome inequality. They were sociologists who took economics very seriously.”

Since then, Reagans’ research has been focused largely on issues of social capital—exploring the ways demographic factors like race, gender, and age affect the development of networks, and how network structures affect performance outcomes.

A quantitative approach

In his work to explore social dynamics it was the study of social networks that yielded the greatest insights for Reagans. It is a way, he says, of taking the question of context—the idea that where people find themselves can determine how they behave as individuals—very seriously. “People in the area,” he says, “have developed quantitative techniques for measuring social context and they are actually linking those measures to a variety of performance outcomes.”

“Clearly how I behave is in part a function of who I am as an individual,” says Reagans, “but it also has something to do with the social context in which I find myself. And while I have always found this to be a very intuitive, attractive idea, until I found people who studied social networks it had always just seemed fuzzy to me. People who study social networks have found a way, at least in my mind, to make context more concrete.”

“I study learning and knowledge transfer, I study teams and team performance, and I study demographic diversity, but in each instance I study each one of those from the perspective of a researcher with an interest in network forms of social capital.”

Serious about economic sociology

Reagans says the fact that MIT Sloan is the only business school that has a PhD program in economic sociology is, in itself, something that drew him to the School. But he also says he was drawn by the fact that two close friends, Roberto Fernandez and Ezra Zuckerman, were already members of the faculty.

“On the fifth floor the idea of economic sociology is being taken very seriously, and two important ingredients on the fifth floor are friends of mine. So just imagine all the benefits of MIT and you’ve got your friends around as well. This is what attracted me most.”

Reagans also says he has been deeply impressed by the students here at MIT Sloan. “The thing that struck me is that the students spend an incredible amount of time volunteering and being concerned with other people. In class we spent some time introducing ourselves and getting to know each other and they were all doing something absolutely amazing outside of the business school that represented major investments in other people—going down to Brazil to set up a tutoring program, organizing basketball camps for people in Boston—just things that you normally wouldn’t associate with people who are getting MBAs. Not only are they bright, but there seems to be this public service component that I actually hadn’t seen in MBAs.

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