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?