Economic Sociology

Economic subdisciplines: 

Economic sociology has been an important part of sociology since its origins. Many of its founders, such as Auguste Comte, Karl Marx, Émile Durkheim, Max Weber, Georg Simmel, and Vilfredo Pareto, wrote extensively on the economy. In fact, most of them can be regarded as both a sociologist and economist (and often philosopher, historian and political scientist as well). After the formation of the discipline of sociology, most sociologists, however, ceased studying the economy, causing the subdiscipline of economic sociology to move to the background. 

This rigid division between the two fields came about as a sort of truce, where both economists and sociologists agreed not to study each other’s fields. The origins of this truce are associated with Talcott Parsons and Lionel Robbins in the 1930s. Economists would solely focus on the means to achieve given ends, while sociologists studied those ends and the values people have. According to this logic, institutional economics was no longer considered to be proper economics, and economic topics should no longer be studied by sociologists. But with the partial disappearance of institutional economics and economic sociology, large parts of the economy fell outside the scope of any field of study. 

This changed again in the 1980s. The truce to not study each other’s fields was broken because of a revival of economic sociology and the rise of the imperialism of neoclassical economics (e.g. Granovetter, 1985). Since then, economic sociology has emerged as one of the main fields within sociology and as such it has produced multiple new approaches and insights. The main approaches within economic sociology are social network analysis, neo-institutional economics and field theory, the cultural approaches, and performativity theory. These different approaches analyse how markets are socially constructed with the help of state structures, social relations, and cultural norms, or in other words how they are embedded in society. There is, for example, a strand of research that investigates how the lifestyles and morals of people shape what they do, and do not, buy.

Further reading:

  • The handbook of economic sociology by Neil J. Smelser & Richard Swedberg, most recent edition from 2010. This extensive and yet accessible book for non-sociologists, provides an impressive and useful overview of the field of economic sociology.
  • Principles of Economic Sociology by Richard Swedberg, from 2003. An insightful introduction into economic sociology, with chapters devoted to different theories and topics, such as firms, markets, consumption, law and gender.
  • The Sociology of Economic Life by Mark Granovetter and Richard Swedberg, from 2011. This informative collection of classic and recent influential essays in economic sociology, focusing on theoretical foundations, markets, firms and the historical development and varieties of capitalism.
  • Society and Economy: Framework and Principles by Mark Granovetter, from 2017. A useful introduction into economic sociology with chapters on mental constructs, trust, power and social institutions.