Click on the links following each paper’s co-authors to view a draft.

The Early Success Trap: Group Creativity, Ambition, and the Grammy for Best New Artist

with Spencer Harrison and Lydia Hagtvedt


How do groups manage early creative success? Through an inductive, grounded theory study of bands that were nominated for a Best New Artist Grammy between 1980 and 1990 we develop a theory of ambition in creative groups. Ambition in this context is identified is striving to produce a creative product that will garner recognition of its virtuosity from relevant audiences or judges. Our multi-method analyses include using oral histories from members of each band and triangulating the emergent process they describe with quantitative data on album sales, critical reviews, chart performance, and machine learning algorithms to quantify acoustic qualities of bands’ songs. Our findings reveal that ambition is a double-edged sword: for most groups, early success inflates their need for recognition and distorts the groups’ working and coordination patterns, inhibiting creativity. However, some groups are able to “insulate” their ambition and sustainably produce creative outputs over time.

The Social Foundations of Creativity: Evidence from Popular Music, 1955-2000

with Michael Mauskapf, Eric Quintane, and Joeri Mol.


Creativity is central to cultural production, but what conditions makes certain producers more likely to innovate than others? To answer this question, we leverage original data on over 25,000 musical artists and 600,000 songs recorded and released between 1955 and 2000, using fine-grained musical features to construct a continuous measure of creative output (i.e., song novelty). We then test whether musicians draw creative inspiration through (1) the recombination of diverse ideas, or are instead (2) stimulated by the creativity of their musical neighbors. We find that both of these mechanisms explain an artist’s propensity to write and release novel songs, but in systematically different ways: creative artists tend to recombine material from diverse genres that they encounter through their collaboration networks, while they draw inspiration from—and are granted legitimacy by—other creative artists with shared genre, record label, and/or geographic affiliations. This pattern holds even after controlling for an individual’s historical propensity to produce novel songs. These findings suggest that the likelihood of generating new ideas is influenced not only by direct interaction and collaboration with others, but also through indirect exposure via shared cultural, organizational, and geographic contexts. Understanding when and how creative potential travels across these “spheres of influence” sheds new light on the production of novelty in music and the social foundations of creativity more generally.

What Makes Popular Culture Popular?:
Product Features and Optimal Differentiation in Music

with Michael Mauskapf. Available at American Sociological Review.

Click here for a TEDx talk I gave on this research.


In this paper, we propose a new explanation for why certain cultural products outperform their peers to achieve widespread success. We argue that products’ positioning within feature space significantly predicts their popular success. Using tools from computer science, we construct a novel data set that allows us to test how the musical features of nearly 27,000 songs from Billboard’s Hot 100 charts structure the consumption of popular music. We find that, in addition to artist familiarity, genre affiliation, and institutional support, a song’s perceived proximity to its peers influences its position on the charts. Contrary to the claim that all popular music sounds the same, we find that songs sounding too much alike—those that are highly typical—are less likely to succeed, while those exhibiting some degree of optimal differentiation are more likely to rise to the top of the charts. These findings offer a new contingent perspective on popular culture by specifying how content organizes competition and consumption behavior in cultural markets.

Institutionalizing Authenticity in the Digitized World of Music

with Joeri Mol. See a pre-publication version of the chapter here. Or find the published version in Research of the Sociology of Organizations here.


Since the arrival of mass production, commodification has been plaguing markets – none more so than that for music. By separating production and consumption in space and time, commodification challenges the very conditions underlying economic exchange. This chapter explores authenticity as the institutional response to the commodification of music, rekindling the relationship between isolated market participants in the increasingly digitized world of music. Building upon the “Production of Culture” perspective, we unpack the commodification of music across five different institutional realms – (1) production, (2) consumption, (3) selection, (4) appropriation, and (5) classification – and provide a thoroughly relational account of authenticity as an institutional practice.

Threading the Diversity Needle: The Impact of Minority Group Presence on Perceptions of Organizational Status


Amidst competition for status, colleges in the U.S. position themselves as desirable places to spend four years, highlighting their unique academic, social, and extracurricular benefits. Part of this positioning includes an important, if amorphous, commitment to diversity. Each applicant, in selecting where to apply, has an idiosyncratic understanding of what diversity actually means; preferences differ accordingly. This leaves diversity-promoting schools to figure out roughly what constitutes an “appropriate” mix of students, while applicants then choose from an array of institutions. In aggregate, students’ selections have consequences for the status of the school as applicants’ decisions signal desirability and prestige to future applicants. Against this backdrop, two seemingly incongruous phenomena exist: increases in the proportion of a school’s Asian American students—a high scoring and high achieving group—improve a school’s ranking, but appear to cause harm in the eyes of applicants . This is a key constituency from whom schools seek status rewards in the form of applications. I explore the loss of status associated with increased Asian American presence on campus and discuss the implications of these dynamics.

What is Social Status? An Integrative Framework

with Matthew S. Bothner, Frédéric Godart, and Wonjae Lee.


Although status constitutes a core research concept in the sociology of organizations and markets, questions about what status is persist. We start with a flexible, provisional definition of status as a zero-sum relational asset that is possessed by social actors insofar as they are highly regarded by highly-regarded others. Using this definition as a backdrop, we begin by developing a fourfold typology of conceptions of status. This typology allows us to consider the implications of understanding status as an asset–either signaling quality or providing a good for conspicuous consumption–and of viewing status-conferring ties to highly-regarded others as deference- or dominance-based. We work toward greater conceptual clarity by comparing and contrasting status with several related concepts: quality, reputation, power, and legitimacy. We conclude with implications for future research, including cautionary remarks regarding network-analytic measurement in light of the definition we propose.

Status-Aspirational Pricing: The “Chivas Regal” Strategy in U.S. Higher Education, 2006-2012

with Matthew S. Bothner. Available at Administrative Science Quarterly.


This paper examines the effect of status loss on organizations’ price-setting behavior. Our main prediction, counter to existing status theory, is that a status decline prompts a focal organization to charge a higher price. We also develop two moderating hypotheses: the positive effect of status loss on future price is strongest (1) for organizations with broad appeal across disconnected types of customers and (2) for organizations whose strategically similar rivals have charged high prices previously. Using panel data from U.S. News & World Report’s annual rankings of private colleges and universities, we model the effect of drops in rank that take a school below an aspiration level. Findings show that schools set tuition higher after a sharp decline in rank, particularly schools with broad appeal among college applicants and whose rivals are expensive. Scope conditions on our predictions are proposed. Implications for status theory, performance feedback theory, and organizational research on rankings are discussed.

Emergence of Stratification in Small Groups

with Matthew S. Bothner and Wonjae Lee. Early version of the paper.

Published in Wiley & Sons’, “Emerging Trends in the Social and Behavioral Sciences: An Interdisciplinary, Searchable, and Linkable Resource.”


Stratification within small groups is virtually inevitable. Understanding the precise mechanisms by which it occurs and the nature of its consequences is an important sociological endeavor. Individuals’ pre-existing qualities, as well as advantages emerging from intra-group interactions, affect the flows of respect and deference accruing to each member of a group. Differences in these flows in turn create a hierarchy. In this article, we first discuss foundational research on the causes and consequences of stratification before turning to more current trends. We focus on the ways in which status, the primary determinant of one’s location in a group’s hierarchy, is created and maintained or lost. We discuss the Matthew Effect—a process by which high-status group members receive disproportionate credit for their contributions, and also more easily maintain their status. We also address the circumstances and activities that can curb the Matthew Effect. We then move to current research, which centers on two main concepts: first, we consider peer effects, discussing the various means by which an individual’s closest peers shape his or her status; second, we take a broader perspective by examining small groups as open systems. This section considers how a group’s external environment, including other nearby groups, affects the level and stability of within-group stratification. We emphasize key issues and implications for future research on these topics.

Peer Effects in Tournaments for Status: Evidence from Rank Dynamics of U.S. Colleges and Universities

with Matthew S. Bothner.


Individual outcomes in tournaments for status result not only from participants’ own qualities and behaviors, but also from those of their most proximate peers. In this article, we take an alter-centric view of status dynamics, examining the effect of peers’ perceived quality on future changes in a focal organization’s status. Utilizing the yearly tournaments created by U.S. News & World Report’s rankings of national colleges and universities, two competing predictions are investigated. The first is that peer’ advances in perceived quality impair the future status of a focal school, reflecting inter-school competition for finite resources and rewards. The second is that peers’ improvements incite a focal school to make cosmetic or material adjustments, leading to an increase in its status. Peers are defined in two ways: by proximity in the prior iteration of the tournament and by network-based structural equivalence. Using fixed effects models predicting future changes in annual USN ranks, we observe opposing forces at work, depending on the type of peer exerting influence. When peers identified by prior rank proximity improve in perceived quality, they exert status-eroding effects on a focal school. Conversely, when structurally equivalent peers in the college-applicant market show improvement, the focal school subsequently increases in status. We examine the mechanisms responsible for this divergence by focusing on the bases of each type of peer-affiliation, presenting interaction effects that highlight the contextual conditions that shape the influence of peers on status change. Future directions for research on peer effects and status are discussed.

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