Imagining Economic Sociology

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Wolfgang Streeck
Wolfgang Streeck

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Imagining Economic
Or what is socio-economics anyway?
Economic Sociology (or socio-economics)
can be characterized
• As a set of research programs that appear to have little to
do with each other
• Today, I want to explain why that is
Three points
• Describe how the field became organized in a social
movement like fashion to integrate a heterogeneous set of
research programs
• Consider how economy and society are taught and the
works that form a “canon”
• Suggest what is good and bad about the canon and the
research programs that dominate the field
A brief history of the organization of
economic sociology (or socio-economics)
• How are scholarly fields constructed?
• The theory of fields tells us that fields form where actors
orient their actions towards one another and something is
at stake
• The formation of academic fields has the structure of a
group of scholars who share a common set of interests
and orient their works towards each other; i.e. a field
Field formation processes are social
• Field formation relies on creating a collective identity for a
group frequently in opposition to another group
• It also requires mobilizing resources and creating political
compromises to get groups to agree to be members of a
field even if they are in contention with one another
• This frequently results in a “vague” collective identity that
only asks participants to have a shallow agreement
Economic sociology (socio-economics)
followed this pattern
• Classical sociology had a large dollop of economic
• Marx, Weber, and Durkheim understood modernity as a
social transformation of the traditional ways of living
• But in sociology after World War II, much of the study of
the economy was relegated to economics
• The social scientist who was not an economist with the
clearest orientation towards understanding the economy
was Karl Polanyi
In the 1960s and 1970s
• Sociologists began to return to trying to understand
• Mostly this reflected a Marxist turn
• But, Marxist theory was problematic in a number of ways
• The study of the economy in sociology was centered on
trying to cut out a space for sociology vis a vis economics
mostly framed in opposition to neoclassical economics
This push came initially from scholars
working in the fields of
• Political economy
• Organizational theory
• Network analysis
• Social Stratification
The 1980s witnessed an explosion of works that
wanted to take on neoclassical theory
• This reaction to neoclassical economics occurred not just
in sociology but also political science, management
studies, and legal studies
• Given these collective critiques of neoclassical
economics, scholars working on a great many different
kinds of issues with very different methods and theories
discovered a common enemy and found themselves to be
unlikely allies
As a result of this heterogeneity, the three organizational manifestations of economic
sociology (socio-economics) all worked to be pluralist in their substance, theory, and
methodological approaches
• They did so to create a field of scholars who subscribed to
a new collective identity, economic sociology or in the
case of some non-sociologists, socio-economics
• I note that many who have attached themselves to SASE
view their work not as economic sociology but as political
Earliest organization was SASE
• Amitai Etzioni founded the Society for the Advancement of
Socio-Economics in 1989
• Etzioni was a communitarian and published “The Moral
Dimension” (1990) as a call for a new kind of economic
• Communitarianism disagreed vehemently with the
neoclassical view that a capitalist economy left unfettered
was the economy likely to produce the most good for the
greatest number
SASE mission statement
• “As an emerging meta-discipline, socio-economics begins with the
assumption that economics is not a self-contained system, but is
embedded in society, polity, and culture. Socio-economics regards
competition as a subsystem encapsulated within a societal context
that contains values, power relations, and social networks. The
societal context both enables and constrains competition. Socioeconomics assumes that interests are not necessarily or
automatically complementary and harmonious, and that societal
sources of order are necessary for markets to function efficiently.
• SASE has little interest in criticizing neoclassical economics per se,
and seeks to develop alternative approaches that are predictive,
exemplary, and morally sound. Socio-economics does not entail a
commitment to any one ideological position, but is open to a range
of positions that share a view of treating economic behavior as
involving the whole person and all facets of society.
In 1999, SASE migrated to Europe
• Wolfgang Streeck at the Max Planck Institute in Koln
revitalized the project of studying capitalism from a noneconomic prospective going
• With interest in the “Varieties of Capitalism” throughout
the 1990s and 2000s, SASE became more political
economy oriented
SASE went on to create a journal, the
Socio-Economic Review
• In 2012, SER was the 11th (out of 137) ranked journal in
Sociology and 8th (out of 167) in Political Science
• This shows the true inter-disciplinarity of the field
• SASE is a vibrant organization with around 1000
• Over 800 people are at this conference
The Economic Sociology Section of the
American Sociological Association
• Brian and Uzzi and I put together a conference in 1998 to
discuss the field of economic sociology
• While many were skeptical such a field existed, after the
conference, a sense of momentum grew
• Wayne Baker helped facilitate the forming of the Section
The Economic Sociology Section had a
mission statement similar to SASE
• “The mission of the Section on Economic Sociology is to
promote the sociological study of the production, distribution,
exchange, and consumption of scarce goods and services. It
does so by facilitating the exchange of ideas, information, and
resources among economic sociologists, by stimulating
research on matters of both theoretical and policy interest, by
assisting the education of undergraduate and graduate
students, and by communicating research findings to policy
makers and other external audiences. Economic sociology is a
distinct subfield. It is ecumenical with respect to method and
theory. Economic sociologists use the full range of qualitative
and quantitative methods. No theoretical approach dominates;
the field is inclusive, eclectic, and pluralistic.”
• The Section now has almost 900 members
Richard Swedberg, Jens Beckert, Johan Heilbron, and Ton Korver decided to
create the newsletter at the annual meeting of the European Sociological
Association in Amsterdam in August 1999
• This newsletter became the main vehicle to organize the
Economic Sociology Research Network at the European
Sociological Association
• It currently has about 1300 members
Richard Swedberg’s argument in explaining the
purpose of the newsletter in its first issue:
• “Economic sociology is often defined as the
application of the sociological perspective to
economic phenomena as well as to phenomena
which are economically relevant and
economically conditioned (Max Weber). This is a
very broad definition, and practically all varieties
of economic sociology can be made to fit under
it. It is also my hope that this newsletter will
encourage all of the different types of economic
sociology that already exist as well as those
which are about to surface.”
My short history of the emergence of the field of
economic sociology (and socio-economics)
• The field formed in a broad rejection of neoclassical economics
• It contained a large number of scholars from sociology but also
allied disciplines interested in a variety of topics from a variety
of perspectives
• The founders of organizations dedicated to furthering the field
worked to create a broad umbrella that would be willing to
welcome all scholars with little emphasis on pushing people to
agree to any first principles
• This explains the current heterogeneity of the field (i.e. it has
become institutionalized with all of its divisions intact)
• How is economic sociology (or socio-economics) taught?
• Is there a “canon”?
• If so which authors are in it?
Dan Wang’s study of syllabi
• Why study syllabi?
• How did Dan Wang do his study:
• ----Method: Members of ASA Economic Sociology Section were invited to submit
• ----52 did; 45 of 52 were classes taught in Sociology Departments; 80% in North
• ----Syllabi were mainly from sociologists but also included management studies,
political science, policy studies, and anthropology
• ----Only 22 were titled Economic Sociology
• ----Average syllabi has 55 readings
• ----54% of the classes were taught to undergraduates
How are syllabi constructed?
• Works are used by instructors to teach what they think is
important in the field
• Works are also put into dialogue with one another
• This suggest two approaches to finding a canon:
• ---- look for works that appear frequently across syllabi
• ----look for works that appear together in a particular week
of a syllabus can be mapped as a “network”
• Wang does this
Top 20 references among syllabi that don’t use
Swedberg/Granovetter text
Rank Citation
1 granovetter, m-1985
2 polanyi, k-1944
3 fligstein, n-2001
4 mackenzie, d-2003
5 fligstein, n-1996
6 geertz, c-1978
7 uzzi, b-1997
8 zelizer, v-2005
9 smelser, n-2005
10 zelizer, v-1978
11 abolafia, m-1996
12 bourdieu, p-1983
13 granovetter, m-1973
14 weber, m-1922
15 bourdieu, p-2005
16 polanyi, k-1957
17 uzzi, b-1996
18 white, h-1981
19 dimaggio, p-1998
20 fligstein, n-2007
Number of syllabus appearances
Top 20 authors by number of syllabi appearances
What can we conclude?
• There are a core of common works used in syllabi
• These works suggest several dimensions to the canon of
economic sociology
• ---- “classical works” like Polyani, Geertz, Marx, Weber
• ---- more modern canonical texts by Granovetter, Fligstein,
Zelizer, and to a lesser degree White
• ---- research programs centered on topics like organizations,
networks, political economy, market
devices/commensuration/sociology of finance, and
Where does this leave us?
• Economic sociology (socio-economics) is a mature field
• Its main research programs are relatively well defined
• I want to consider what is “good” and “bad” about this
• I want to suggest some ideas about trying to create a
more cohesive economic sociology by putting the various
research programs in more direct dialogue with one
What are research programs?
• Research programs are broad ambitious conceptual frameworks that
are allied with a research methodology that can be easily used in a
wide variety of contexts
• Such programs frequently depend on a particular scholar engaging a
set of graduate students and perhaps a set of colleagues
• The biggest rewards in social science are now for individual scholars
to work to create new research programs
• This offers an opportunity for collaborative work oriented toward a
narrow set of goals and the most successful of these programs
provides us with new knowledge
• But it also pushes scholars into trying to make what they are doing
sufficiently distinctive that it encourages the creation of jargon and a
willful ignorance of similarly placed perspectives.
In economic sociology (and socio-economics)
we can identify many such programs
• Network analysis of firms and markets
• Social studies of finance
• Studies of market conventions and commensuration
• Political economy and the study of comparative capitalisms
• Institutional analyses that focus on the emergence and
transformation of sets of common understandings of markets
and their organizations (both governmental but also firms)
• Markets, culture, and morality
• While it is useful in the initial phase of creating a new
research program to have blinders on, in the long run, it is
important for these research programs to eventually begin
to confront one another
• Once a research program has begun to run out of steam,
it loses its interests to even its adherents and ends up
Why is this bad?
• Brian Uzzi and his colleagues have shown that most of
the innovation in natural science has occurred when
scholars work at the interstices between research
programs and apply what we already know in one context
to new contexts
• That means that a lack of exchange between research
programs means that the opportunity for the accumulation
of knowledge is lost
• To overcome this would require explicitly acknowledging
and borrowing from different research programs and not
working to produce such programs as if they existed only
unto themselves
• Thus the idea is not to work on the edge of some mature
existing research program with the goal of expanding it
• But instead, one should be on the lookout for new ideas
from different research programs to borrow to make sense
for what should be done next
• So, for example, Granovetter’s re-imagining of Polyani
using network ideas in his “embeddedness” article
One big source of opportunities is empirical puzzles
that one research program uncovers but is unable to
• So, for example, the sociology of finance has alerted us to the
importance of financial instruments, market devices, and
commensuration in organizing these markets
• But this perspective has produced a functionalist account of these
markets whereby these cultural and organizational features structure
market interactions and some have gone so far as to see actors as
irrelevant to what goes on in such markets and unable to control them
• But the recent past has shown that banks in most of the largest financial
markets have colluded and committed fraud in the largest international
financial markets
• This notion, that a small set of firms engaged in behavior could have
fixed the LIBOR (London Inter Bank Offered Rate) or colluded to control
prices in the global foreign exchange markets implies that other kinds of
social process matter for the structuring of activities in financial markets
This implies that a good explanation needs to include
work from other research programs
• What has happened leads back to Harrison White’s original
idea that market participants watch each other
• Or my view that market actors will engage in any kind of
activities that they can get away with in order to produce
stability for themselves and guaranteeing profits
• The interesting question this raises, is when do market devices
work to produce stable markets and when can they be
exploited for gain by rent seeking actor?
• A good theoretical answer to this question is likely to advance
the field by combining insights from multiple research programs
• The heterogeneity of our field reflects the political
construction of the field around a pluralist identity that
promised a big tent to include anyone opposed to
neoclassical thinking
• The field is now quite intellectually mature with set of
established research programs many of which are now
30-40 years in the making
• Their exists a canon of works that scholars teach to
explain hoe sociologists think about the economy
Both Max Weber and Thomas Kuhn recognized that Sociology
•as a discipline might be doomed to never cumulate knowledge.
• Sociology would proceed as a set of research projects which reflected
the current concerns and interests of a small set of scholars
• When the group hit a dead end in producing novel results, the
research program would die out only to be replaced by another one
• Progress in economic sociology is likely to be made by putting our
research programs into dialogue with one another to make sense of
how the various mechanisms that structure markets interact
• Failure to do so risks the field fragmenting of the field into ever
smaller pieces and remaining subject to fashion and fad

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