Beyond the Market: The Social Foundations of Economic Efficiency

By Jens Beckert; Barbara Harshav | Go to book overview

FIVE
ANTHONY GIDDENS: ACTOR AND STRUCTURE
IN ECONOMIC ACTION

Formulating a theory of action in the social sciences demands
theorizing the human agent.

—Anthony Giddens

STUDYING the theories of Durkheim, Parsons, and Luhmann showed that we can infer elements from their sociological concepts of economics which at least partially go beyond the limits of economic theory presented in chapter 1. Yet none of the three theoretical outlines turns out to be sufficiently inclusive to be able to interpret it as a comprehensive solution to the problems cited. The insufficient emphasis of the active and creative role of actors appeared in each of them in a different form as a serious limitation. For the solution of the cooperation problem, Durkheim and Parsons refer to the shared notions of morality or the general system of values. It can be maintained with Durkheim and Parsons that the solution of the pervasive free-rider problem and the prisoners’ dilemma requires social norms, but the question of how these norms can guide action in economic contexts of modern societies if they are not effectively assumed by custom or a process of internalization is still open. A theory that wants to answer this question must consider the reflective involvement of actors in the action situation—at least according to the assertion that is yet to be proved.

The discussion of Luhmann’s theory showed the significance of structural rigidities for the ability to act in situations with uncertainty. Here, clear connections can be found to the new economic sociology but also to institutional approaches of economic theory. Eric Leifer and Harrison White explain the existence of social network structures in economic contexts with direct recourse to the problem of uncertainty:

Structures exist and reproduce themselves in part because information
needed to pursue maximization and efficiency is not available. In other
words, an individual frequently does not know in advance which option will
produce, for example, the highest profits or the lowest costs. In these circum-
stances, the only tangible guidance available to the actor is that which can
be inferred from the patterns and outcomes which emerge from relations
among actors. (Leifer and White 1986:86)

-241-

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