Statement from the Chair, Economic Sociology Section

Frederick F. Wherry
Professor of Sociology
Princeton University

Before turning to the state of the field, let me remark quickly on the honor of leading this section. When I enrolled in recently established graduate seminars on economic sociology in the late 90s (part one taught by Alejandro Portes; part two, Viviana Zelizer), I did not imagine that I would later chair the section or publish Money Talks with Zelizer, the section’s first chair, and with Nina Bandelj, the past chair from 2013-2014. I am grateful for this opportunity to continue the section’s advance.

What is the state of the field of economic sociology, as you see it?

Leave it to a crisis to focus the public’s attention on how markets work. There have been so many in the past decade, starting with the Great Recession of the late 2000s and early 2010s, and increasing concerns about unemployment, the changing nature of work, and more. Then came the contested 2016 presidential elections, raising concerns about the effects of trade deals, the appetite for globalization, and the rise of economic nationalism. What will happen to healthcare, welfare spending, and tax policy? How do fragile families deal with their fragile finances? And what should we expect as protected sectors of the economy become more vulnerable (taxis undercut by Uber, hotels challenged by Airbnb, tenured professors switched out for exploited adjuncts)? As economic sociologists we feel compelled to interrogate what happened and what it means. These questions highlight the difference between textbook economics and the lived experience of economic life.  By enquiring about the construction, unequal participation, and contestations of markets and market actors, economic sociologists have raised questions with practical implications and theoretical possibilities. 

Sociologists have long had what Alejandro Portes calls a penchant for impertinence. Drawing on Bourdieu, Portes has argued that impertinence keeps sociology pertinent.¹ Sociological questions may sometimes seem out of place or puzzling. Why, for instance, talk about people working on their relationships when they match different monies with different transactions rather than focus on individuals learning how to optimize mathematically their budgets? Why map relational networks where experiments can detect the magnitude of an intervention’s effects? Our task is to demonstrate that our impertinent questions offer unexpected and crucial answers. 

Uprooting accepted understandings and finding alternative explanations for economic institutions and behaviors have long and distinguished histories. This impertinent practice began at the discipline’s founding. Although we have yet to give W.E.B. DuBois his due in his investigations of black capitalism, the decline of African-American caterers in Philadelphia, and the challenge of attracting investors for ventures that seem to “fit” the entrepreneur, our field has taken seriously Max Weber’s understanding of economic and economically relevant behaviors as having expressive content, situation specific meanings, and non-monetary constraints. The Protestant Ethic irreverently identified the economic functions that religious beliefs and practices could play. By contrast, Emile Durkheim identified the role of ritual in establishing property rights and questioned why material conditions were understood as they were by mobilized workers. And Karl Marx pushed social analysts to peer into the hidden abode.² He demonstrated how value could remain invisible (though consequential) without a theoretical apparatus to bring it to light, and he believed that seeing the unfair generation, storage, and re-appropriation of value might not only help social scientists understand the world but also to change it. 

Understanding the world is not the same as changing it. Is it time for a more activist version of economic sociology?

Activism is such a strong word, and it can encompass different types of public engagement. I prefer the adjective action-oriented as a broader term that includes activism under its umbrella. In my own work, I practice an interpretive social science that is also objective; by objectivity I mean that my methods enable me and a community scholars to challenge my interpretive findings. If we’re trying to prove ourselves wrong (to ensure that we have not falsely concluded that our favorite hunch is true), those of us engaged in action-oriented research will sometimes find ourselves uncovering patterns that do not benefit our political allies. (The same is true for economic sociologists working in private sector firms.) 

It is important that the members of the economic sociology section feel support as they engage in public debates, or even policy making, about economic life. As a section that represents the interests and needs of economic sociologists (deemed so through declaration, training, and/or practice) who have joined a professional association, we have an obligation to acknowledge respectfully the different orientations of our members with regard to public engagement. We also have a duty to create an environment where the highest quality academic work can be nurtured and disseminated, and where students (or our academic colleagues) do not experience a hostile learning (or research) environment where a particular political orientation seems to be a requirement for good standing. 

There are at least three ways to think about activism, public policy, and our role as social scientists specializing in economic sociology. Some of us conduct policy relevant work (but are not policy-engaged); others are engaged in policy debates with a strict code of sticking to the data; and still others operate as scholar-activists who can’t always wait for the data to come in when critical decisions require immediate attention. Pretending that I pay attention equally to these different approaches would be dishonest. What I know is necessarily a small part of a whole. I can only be respectful in acknowledging that much happens outside of my own sphere of activity and acquaintance. 

First, let me address the policy-relevant, but not engaged, stance. Some social scientists do not operate with policy questions in mind. If their findings happen to contribute to policy discussions, so be it, but their primary concern lies in the set of theoretical and empirical puzzles that have long concerned the discipline. What is the nature of action (economic or otherwise)? How and why are different groups categorized and distributed in different places? These core questions have been closely related, however, to questions of the state, power, and inequality since the founding of the discipline. That does not mean that answers to these questions can offer prescriptions for what to do necessarily as a state policy or a program design. 

Second, some of us pursue research questions that we believe can inform policy. Those who are policy engaged will still ask what is sociological about the phenomenon and how any case speaks to a wider set of cases. More importantly, the policy engaged will spend much time trying to prove that a favored policy approach might reap outcomes opposite of those intended. The long-term commitment to skepticism and to systematic investigation places the policy engaged in an awkward position. Most of the time, allies in the activist or lobbyist arena will find the policy engaged to be a stalwart and powerful resource. However, only by looking for reasons why an effect might be spurious can the policy engaged ensure that attention and resources are directed to where they can be useful. Offering a more empirically informed and theoretically interrogated view of economic action allows scholars, for example, to explain what inequality means for the people experiencing it in different demographic (or other) groups within a society and between different societies. This sociological view might reduce the harms that accompany well-meaning policy makers or others from “fixing” lives unbroken.

Finally, scholar-activists and the practitioners of economic sociology can be found in a wide range of sites, from think tanks, neighborhood advocacy groups, and journalism on the activist side; to the World Bank, the Federal Reserve Bank and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, on the practitioner side. For some types of policy debates, the concepts and findings from economic sociology provide a different narrative to reframe the policy discussion. How do people organize their budgets and why? What possibilities are there for people without insurance in the formal sector to increase their family’s stability? How might informal sector activities be used as spaces for innovative thinking, allowing program designers to reimagine the structure and delivery of much needed services?  

As an incoming member of the Boston Federal Reserve’s Community Development Research Advisory Council³ I am beginning to encounter economic practitioners who have a strong family resemblance to economic sociologists. I also got to know some interesting policy-types a year and a half ago in the Roosevelt Room of the White House during a meeting on financial inclusion. The St. Louis Federal Reserve’s Center for Household Financial Stability, led by Ray Boshara, tracks household wealth, updates us on the use of alternative financial services, and investigates why differences by race in wealth persist. There is clearly an appetite (and a craving) from these policy groups for what economic sociologists can offer.

What can our section offer scholars and practitioners investigating economic life?

Our section should be a meeting ground for those working directly on public policy questions as well as those completely detached from policy debates. Some economic sociologists (and other social scientists) work in places like the Federal Reserve Bank, the PEW Charitable Trust, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the World Bank, and elsewhere in the US and abroad. These practitioners go to the economics association meetings to stay on top of research findings and new ideas. Our section should serve that function.

Our section can also be more strategic in launching dialogues with economists, cognitive psychologists, economic anthropologists, and comparative-historians. Keep in mind that the Financial Access Initiative at New York University is headed by an economist (Jonathan Morduch) who works happily with sociologists and other social scientists. (Morduch just published The Financial Diaries with Rachel Schneider and a chapter in Money Talks.) What if we hosted interdisciplinary discussions on moral repugnance in markets, following up on Kieran Healey’s efforts. (See his paper co-authored with Kimberly Krawiec and presented at the American Economic Association Meetings: This is only one possibility. 

What if we revisited the idea of interest? The motivation for and consequences of consumption? The economy as a social institution? These are the questions that excite me, but there are many more we could ask. While my own work has been part of the bringing culture into economic sociology as well as ethnographic methods, the section will flourish as we include multiple, legitimate theoretical and methodological approaches. 

In short, let’s offer the sign of welcome and grow.

Note: The author thanks Nina Bandelj and Viviana Zelizer for commenting on earlier versions of this statement.

¹ Portes, Aleandro. 2001. “Sociology in the Hemisphere: Past Convergences and a New Conceptual Agenda.” The Center for Migration and Development, Working Paper Series. Working Paper #01-04. Princeton University. 

² Portes, Alejandro. 2000. "The Hidden Abode: Sociology as Analysis of the Unexpected?" The 1999 Presidential Address.  American Sociological Review 65 (1): 1-18.