Field Theory

Economic Approaches:

Key assumptions and aspects:

  • Economies are made up of: Meso-level social arenas with shared meanings and rules, also known as fields
  • Human beings are: Competing for better positions in fields with their social, cultural, economic, and symbolic capital
  • Economies change through: Strategic power struggles between actors and alternations in the rules of competition
  • Favoured methods: Wide variety, from network analysis and multiple correspondence analysis to historical analysis and participant observation.

Field theory, sometimes also called the political-cultural approach, is a young approach, at least in its application to economic topics, as its first studies were conducted during the 1990s. One could distinguish two main branches of field theory, one located in the US of which Fligstein is a core proponent, and the other in France in which Bourdieu is central. Fligstein’s version of field theory overlaps significantly with the sociological neo-institutionalist approach. Not to be confused with institutional economics, these two approaches have some links, as both field theory and sociological institutionalism emphasize the importance of institutions, legitimacy and the focus of organizations on survival. The core idea of field theory is that actors (people or organisations) orient their behavior to one another within meso-level social orders, called fields. Fields could be seen as social arenas in which constant games of jockeying for position are being played. In this game, it is necessary for actors to understand both the shared meanings and rules of a field and what others are doing, in order to act themselves. The structure of the field and an actor’s position in it, shape the actor’s interests and way of thinking, but do not fully determine it as the actors have the freedom to pursue their own strategies within fields. 


  • Varieties of Field Theory by Daniel Kluttz & Neil Fligstein, from 2016.
  • Markets as Politics: A Political-Cultural Approach to Market Institutions by Neil Fligstein, from 1996.
  • What is field theory? by John L. Martin, from 2003.
  • The architecture of markets: An economic sociology of twenty-first-century capitalist societies by Neil Fligstein, from 2001. 
  • The Social Structures of the Economy by Pierre Bourdieu, from 2000.