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Economic Sociology


sociology, scientific study of human social behavior. As the study of humans in their collective aspect, sociology is concerned with all group activities—economic, social, political, and religious. Sociologists study such areas as bureaucracy, community, deviant behavior, family, public opinion, social change, social mobility, social stratification, and such specific problems as crime, divorce, child abuse, and substance addiction. Sociology tries to determine the laws governing human behavior in social contexts; it is sometimes distinguished as a general social science from the special social sciences, such as economics and political science, which confine themselves to a selected group of social facts or relations.

The Evolution of Sociology

A number of Western political theorists and philosophers, including Plato, Polybius, Machiavelli, Vico, Hobbes, Locke, Montesquieu, and Rousseau, have treated political problems in a broader social context. Thus Montesquieu regarded the political forms of different states as a consequence of the working of deep underlying climatic, geographic, economic, and psychological factors. In the 18th cent., Scottish thinkers made inquiries into the nature of society; scholars like Adam Smith explored the economic causes of social organization and social change, while Adam Ferguson considered the noneconomic causes of social cohesion.

It was not until the 19th cent., however, when the concept of society was finally separated from that of the state, that sociology developed into an independent study. The term sociology was coined (1838) by Auguste Comte. He attempted to analyze all aspects of cultural, political, and economic life and to identify the unifying principles of society at each stage of human social development. Herbert Spencer applied the principles of Darwinian evolution to the development of human society in his popular and controversial Principles of Sociology (1876–96). An important stimulus to sociological thought came from the work of Karl Marx, who emphasized the economic basis of the organization of society and its division into classes and saw in the class struggle the main agent of social progress.

The founders of the modern study of sociology were Émile Durkheim and Max Weber. Durkheim pioneered in the use of empirical evidence and statistical material in the study of society. Weber's major contribution was as a theorist, and his generalizations about social organization and the relation of belief systems, including religion, to social action are still influential. He developed the use of the ideal type—a working model, based on the selective combination of certain elements of historical fact or current reality—as a tool of sociological analysis. In the United States the study of sociology was pioneered and developed by Lester Frank Ward and William Graham Sumner.

The most important theoretical sociology in the 20th cent. has moved in three directions: conflict theory, structural-functional theory, and symbolic interaction theory. Conflict theory draws heavily on the work of Karl Marx and emphasizes the role of conflict in explaining social change; prominent conflict theorists include Ralf Dahrendorf and C. Wright Mills. Structural-functional theory, developed by Talcott Parsons and advanced by Robert Merton, assumes that large social systems are characterized by homeostasis, or "steady states." The theory is now often called "conservative" in its orientation. Symbolic interaction, begun by George Herbert Mead and further developed by Herbert Blumer and others, focuses on subjective perceptions or other symbolic processes of communication.


See P. Sorokin, Contemporary Sociological Theories (1928, repr. 1964); R. Nisbet, The Sociological Tradition (1966); R. Merton, Social Theory and Social Structure (enl. ed. 1968); G. D. Mitchell, A Hundred Years of Sociology (1968); H. Blumer, Symbolic Interactionism (1969); J. H. Abraham, The Origins and Growth of Sociology (1973); J. E. Goldthorpe, An Introduction to Sociology (1974); L. Broom et al., Essentials of Sociology (3d ed. 1984); W. Feigelman, Sociology Full Circle (1989).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2013, The Columbia University Press.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

Economic Sociology: A Systematic Inquiry
Alejandro Portes.
Princeton University Press, 2010
Exchange, Action, and Social Structure: Elements of Economic Sociology
Milan Zafirovski.
Greenwood Press, 2001
Readings on Economic Sociology
Neil J. Smelser.
Prentice-Hall, 1965
The Course of Human History: Economic Growth, Social Process, and Civilization
Johan Goudsblom; Eric Jones; Stephen Mennell.
M. E. Sharpe, 1996
The Social Meaning of Money
Viviana A. Zelizer.
Basic Books, 1994
Economic Sociology and Embeddedness: How Shall We Conceptualize Economic Action?
Beckert, Jens.
Journal of Economic Issues, Vol. 37, No. 3, September 2003
Cognitive and Cultural Embeddedness: Combining Institutional Economics and Economic Sociology
Dequech, David.
Journal of Economic Issues, Vol. 37, No. 2, June 2003
The Economic Approach to Sociology
Coleman, James S.
The World and I, Vol. 20, No. 1, January 2005
Economics for the Common Good: Two Centuries of Social Economic Thought in the Humanistic Tradition
Mark A. Lutz.
Routledge, 1999
A Review of the Troops: Social Economics in the Twentieth Century
Waters, William R.
Review of Social Economy, Vol. 51, No. 3, Fall 1993
Rural Land Tenure in the United States: A Socio-Economic Approach to Problems, Programs, and Trends
Alvin L. Bertrand; Floyd L. Corty; Southwest Land Tenure Research Committee.
Louisiana State University Press, 1962
On Custom in the Economy
Ekkehart Schlicht.
Clarendon Press, 1998
Social Structure and Mobility in Economic Development
Neil J. Smelser; Seymour Martin Lipset.
Aldine Publishing, 1966
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