Social Heuristics

Professor Nicole Woolsey Biggart 

Co-Author: Thomas D. Beamish


Following Philip Selznick’s lead in using pragmatist social science to understand issues of public concern we conducted a study of failed innovation in the commercial construction industry. We find that social heuristics—collectively constructed and maintained interpretive decision making frames—influence economic decision making practices and material outcomes. Social heuristics are widely institutionalized and commonly relied upon to reduce uncertainty in decision making; they provide actors with both a priori and ex post facto justifications for economic decisions that appear socially rational. In the commercial construction industry, a project-centered production network (PPN), social heuristics sustain social order but also discourage novel technologies and impede innovation. Social heuristics are actor-level constructs that reflect macro-level institutional arrangements and networked production relations. The concept of social heuristics offers the promise of developing a genuinely social theory of individual economic choice and action that is historically informed, contextually situated, and neither psychologically or structurally reductionist.