Economic Sociology for Economists

This past month I had the opportunity to spend some time with a group of mainstream economics graduate students interested in expanding their theoretical horizons. In particular, these students were attending the Duke Summer Institute for the History of Economics and most of them were doing so in part because of some felt dissatisfaction with the core of mainstream economics and a sense that returning to the history of their discipline might help identify where things went wrong, or look for forgotten alternatives. But these were also the sorts of students who, I think, would be most open to engagement with economic sociologists. So, supposing that a PhD student in economics asked you for a short economic sociology reading list. What would you put on it?

One obvious starting point would be work by sociologists that actually ended up in economics journals. For example, Fabio Rojas has a nice essay in the Journal of Institutional Economics, Sociological imperialism in three theories of the market.

Another place to start would be work on the role of economists themselves. Marion Fourcade’s book, Economists and Societies would certainly be of interest to many econ grad students as it gives a nice comparison of the structure of the discipline in three different countries over the last century, and thus shows nicely that what it means to be an economist is not some fixed, immutable essence, even in contemporary, Western societies. But perhaps more interesting would be work that focuses on the role of economists – that is, where economists are the independent rather than the dependent variable (to put it crudely). Here would of course be MacKenzie’s work on the financial economics. MacKenzie and Millo’s Constructing a Market, Performing Theory is a nice, succinct starting point, with MacKenzie’s two recent books both being excellent follow-ups, with Material Markets being slightly better (I think) at laying out the fundamental insights from the approach, although with much less rich historical material on economics itself. Last in this vein, Marion Fourcade’s newest work on the role of contingent valuation in oil spill lawsuits would fit here well, showing how the economist as expert plays a certain sort of tune in contentious public spaces (e.g. Cents and Sensibility: Economic Valuation and the Nature of “Nature”).

This strand of work would speak nicely to open-minded economists, but somewhat avoids the harshly critical tone of much of the new economic sociology, especially in its foundational efforts in the 1980s-1990s. Some of that work might speak to contemporary economists to: for example, Harrison White’s classic Where Do Markets Come From? has the virtue of being driven by a relatively sophisticated formal model, which for economists (unlike sociologists) is probably a plus. As important as Granovetter’s foundational essay is, I’m not sure how much economists would get out of it unless they were familiar with Oliver Williamson’s work, in which case I would recommend it. Granovetter’s earlier work on weak ties and labor markets would be easy suggestions, though perhaps their results are too taken for granted at this point. Beyond that, I’m not sure where to go: Uzzi’s famous papers on the apparel industry? Podolny’s work (a close cousin to economist Spence) on status and networks?

All of these would be relatively easy sells I think, and would be good starting points, but perhaps would be almost too comfortable (they rely on familiar statistical techniques, are in dialogue with literatures in economics and business, etc.). A bit more fun might be to suggest works of a very different style: say Viviana Zelizer’s cultural work on special moneys and the transformation of children from economic good to sacred objects.

Anyway, all of these are just ideas off the top of my head. What do you think? What suggestions would you give to an economist interested in getting something out of economic sociology?



  1. This is gracious, Dan, perhaps more gracious than is really warranted. There’s a long history of privilege embodied in the ‘tell me what I need to know about your [alt/subordinated] subject matter.’ This Jewish tradition is pretty interesting, what’s that about? Chinese New Year, huh, explain to me what that whole animal race/calendar thing is. These feminist critiques seem pretty interesting, what are the 3 key insights you think I should know to make me a better historian?

    I mean, it’s not like any of these things are particularly secret, and it really should be incumbent upon economists to find answers to their problems of economic orthodoxy. I guess I bridle a bit at the ‘educate me!’ vibe is all. If I want to find out what kind of work economists are doing, I read the journals. Unhappy economists should take some responsibility for educating themselves, just as unhappy sociologists should. And yes, many don’t. But some do!

    And, frankly, I don’t think almost any of the works you cite (maybe with the exception of White) would have any interest or effect. Why? Because the economics discipline rewards attention to particular problems and concerns, just like sociology or any other discipline does. I think the best you are going to get is something along the lines of ‘huh, that’s kind of interesting’, combined with more handwringing.

    Attempts to bridge the gap, as has been discussed endlessly it seems to me, end so routinely in predictably uninteresting outcomes. I just don’t get the continued effort. I guess I applaud that you’re willing to put in the effort, but I still don’t much get it.

    • Peter,

      I get your frustration and agree with your cynicism. I wouldn’t have written a post like this except for it being prompted through dialogue with particular economics graduate students who were already searching for alternatives – and hence spending two weeks in Denver reading Smith and Marx and Hayek and asking a lot of the foundational philosophical and methodological questions that are usually devalued or ignored in contemporary, mainstream discourse. So, given a set of economics graduate students who were already casting about, what would I try to hook them with? Not with the theory that this would lead to a significant shift in the discipline of economics, but rather to interest particular individuals who already found themselves somewhat outside the space of their own field and were looking about. In other words, I am looking for ways to bridge the gap at the level of a handful of already somewhat out-there students, not at the level of the field (i.e. no pretensions at grand synthesis or even making them better economists, especially as currently defined).

      In re: their obligation to read the journals on their own, etc., I agree. And I certainly follow a few of the major econ journals with that in mind. But when I get interested in a new subfield, I still go to my friends and ask, “What should I read first?” So this post was written in that spirit – as if an economics graduate student already dissatisfied with their field came to you and said, “What should I read first to get a sense of what economic sociology is about?” (Which one basically did, in conversation.)

  2. I would focus more on texts regarding political economy rather than specifically economics, itself. Mainly, because political economy tends to focus more on the social relations that comprise the economic, and thus, political spheres, rather than isolating them as is common practice.

    Marx is obviously a good place to start — especially from a sociological perspective — but it might be worthwhile to look at more modern examples. Unfortunately the only ones I may suggest are Canadian (Gary Teeple, or Wallace Clement, for example), but I don’t doubt that you might find others more suitable to American audiences as well. That being said, I know that those two have more theoretical works that do not rely specifically on an understanding of specifically Canadian issues.

  3. As an economic anthropologist (well, such creatures don’t really exist anymore – as an anthropologist studying capitalism) here are some anthropological works I’d suggest:

    Weber’s Protestent Ethnic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Nuff said.

    Karen Ho’s Liquidity. It does a good job of demonstrating how investment banks, as institutions, instill certain dispositions in individual bankers that leads them to approach “the market” according to a particular rationality.

    Susan Greenhalgh’s article “Deorientalizing the Chinese Family Firm.” It does a good job cutting through a lot of discussion of what is Chinese in Chinese Capitalism (Well, she’s writing about Taiwan, but that’s another conversation). Rather than fall into the idea that there’s some sort of Confucian work ethic, or that Chinese culture creates a certain form of capitalism – she looks at how the institutional and social makeup of the Taiwanese market led to specific forms of businesses. Basically, Native Taiwanese (Those who were there before the 1949 KMT retreat) were systematically excluded from participation in political life, leading them to focus on business. But it was hard to get bank loans, and any sort of organization larger than a certain level was suspect. This led people to draw on the uncompensated labor of family members as a resource. So, there was a specific institutional arrangement in which people could deploy a cultural logic of Confucian family obligation.

    Rachel Murphy’s article “Paying for Education in Rural China” looks at how the economic reforms in China led to changing ideas of human nature. Basically, in the socialist era inequality was seen as political and a failure of the state socialist project. Part of economic reform has involved depoliticizing social inequality (which hasn’t been entirely successful) and creating a form of identity that equates human value (suzhi) with success in the market. So, as rural education is underfunded due to fiscal decentralization, teachers and students are taught to understand their disadvantaged state as a result of their own lower quality. The solution is not to question the policies that lead to underfunding of social services in the countryside, but to have them focus on either improving themselves through self study, or to develop skills befitting people of their low level of quality – so rural children are taught to make straw brooms as an appropriate lifeskill.

    These are good for a number of reasons. They’re easy to read, and don’t directly critique economics. They illustrate the extent to which the market rests of historically emergent ideas of human nature, rationality, etc. that aren’t reducible to an ahistorical and acultural homo economicus. And they talk in very concrete terms about how the market, the political, and society get separated at particular historical moments. So it would, hopefully, start a conversation about the role of culture and society in the market. I’m not really sure what an anthropologically informed economics would look like, but I think that would be a good start.

  4. joshmccabe

     /  June 29, 2011

    I just recommended Zelizer, Dobbin, and Fligstein to an economics grad student interested in culture and development. He had previously been reading Avner Greif so I’m hoping he can get past the game theoretic models and look at the bigger picture. Dobbin and Fligstein come closest to North’s concept of mental models which should be conducive to learning.

  5. Going by all these recommendations – as a past economics graduate who’s now in policy and working on history and data – I am struck by the wide variety of recommendations but also their topic areas. I am no expert on where the boundaries of disciplines lie, but got a lot our of Keith Tribes’ “Land, Labour and Economic Discourse” and Mary Poovey’s “Genres of the Credit Economy” …

    But if that is Economic Sociology I couldn’t tell you, I can tell you it was something an economist sorely needed to read though – at least to understand parts of his disciplines past and current issues.

  6. bpitt

     /  July 4, 2011

    A nice piece in the AJES is “Post-Classical Political Economy” by Virgil Storr and Peter Boettke.