Economic Sociology in Retrospect and Prospect: In Search of Its Identity within Economics and Sociology

By Zafirovski, Milan | The American Journal of Economics and Sociology, October 1999 | Go to article overview

Economic Sociology in Retrospect and Prospect: In Search of Its Identity within Economics and Sociology


Zafirovski, Milan, The American Journal of Economics and Sociology


MILAN ZAFIROVSKI [*]

ABSTRACT. Theory and research in the field of economic sociology have seen steady advancements in recent years. Economic sociology has become a legitimate branch of sociology as well as of economics. Nonetheless, the treatment of economic sociology in both modern economics and sociology leaves much to be desired. Various formal-terminological confusions and theoretical-substantive misconceptions are still present in the field. The present article advances some proposals for remedying this situation. In particular, it provides clarifications of and amendments to the current treatment of issues, such as the relationship between economics and sociology, the character of economic sociology, its links to economic theory, socio-economics, and rational choice theory, as well as the question of the old versus the new economic sociology. Special emphasis is placed on the relationships between economic sociology and rational choice theory, given the latter's claims to universality. It is hoped that the article will the reby redress certain inconsistencies found in some previous treatments of economic sociology as well as stimulate further refinements.

I

Introduction

THERE HAS BEEN A TENDENCY toward theoretical-methodological separation between economics and sociology since their inception. The tone was set by the founders of both economics and sociology. For example, this tendency was exemplified by Smith's differentiation between the "theory of moral sentiments" as some kind of pre-sociology and the "theory of wealth" as economic science. It was also implied in Comte's status of economics as just a distinct branch of sociology. Such a treatment was based on the view that "there can be no scientific study of society if it is separated into portions, and its divisions are studied apart [but] viewing each element in the light of the whole system" (Comte 1983, 226-229). Reminiscences of both positions can be found in neoclassical and modern social theory. As an illustration, Smith's position has been reflected in Pareto's (1932, 1594-1595) division of labor between economics and sociology on the basis of a dichotomy between logico-rational and non-rational actions, respecti vely. This division is characteristic for most contemporary economists (Samuelson 1983, 90-92). Then most sociologists and some economists (like the Austrians) tacitly follow Comte by placing economic theory within an overarching sociological framework, be it the theory of social institutions and structures, the theory of social action, or the theory of the social system.

The division of economics and sociology from each other continues today. Some recent trends such as the extension of the economic principle or rational choice theory to all social life have only exacerbated this condition because of the perceived theoretical imperialism of such efforts. Most sociologists experience these attempts as economic imperialism triggering defensive reactions on their part and thus further alienating their discipline from economics. In this sense, rational choice theory has not yet proven to be the link between economics and sociology as many have hoped. [1] (Granovetter and Swedberg 1992) Moreover, in its hard line formulations, rational choice theory effectively denies the need of sociology and any social science other than an "economic approach to human behavior."

However, not everything has been lost in this regard. For many economists and sociologists alike, a discipline has always held promise for overcoming the isolation of economics and sociology. That discipline is economic sociology. In certain strands of economics and sociology, economic sociology has been viewed as a possible bridge between the two social sciences. Such a prospect has been shared by various economists and sociologists, as shown by the origins and development of economic sociology in each of the two disciplines. For example, many economists treat economic sociology--also called social economy/economics and socio or sociological economics--as a legitimate branch of economic science. …

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