Canadian Political Economy's Legacy for Sociology [1]

By Clement, Wallace | Canadian Journal of Sociology, Summer 2001 | Go to article overview

Canadian Political Economy's Legacy for Sociology [1]

Clement, Wallace, Canadian Journal of Sociology

Resume: Tout en y contribuant, la sociologie canadienne a ete transformee par le renouvellement du courant de l'economie politique canadienne qui prit naissance au debut des annees soixante-dix. La tradition macrosociologique de la sociologie canadienne's integra sans difficulte dans ce nouveau savoir. Cette communication traite de ces influences mutuelles et offre un prognostic concernant la viabilite de la sociologie au Canada.

Abstract: Canadian sociology has contributed to and been transformed by the "new" Canadian political economy tradition emerging in the early 1970s. The macrosociological tradition within Canadian sociology readily melded into this new scholarship. This paper reflects upon these mutual influences and ponders the prognosis for sociology's viability in Canada.

One of the most significant developments in Canadian sociology during the past thirty years has been the emergence of the "new" Canadian Political Economy tradition. While political economy is multidisciplinary in its influences and effects, its dynamic explanation of society has enriched the Canadian sociological tradition. This paper locates the tradition and its evolution within Canadian scholarship. The intent is to profile political economy within the discipline of sociology, rather than give a balanced account of the tradition itself. Such a "tour" is inherently personal since I have been engaged in a good deal of this recent history and do not feel detached from either the account or trajectory of this way of understanding, explaining and evaluating the world. Prospects are assessed at the end.

What is Political Economy?

For political economy, the political includes the comprehensive "state" of political and civil society; that is, not only government but governance. The economic encompasses the social, political and cultural constitution of markets, institutions and actors. Political economy, as it has evolved in Canada, embodies a holistic undertaking to explain society from a materialist perspective. It is materialist in the sense of placing at the forefront the way a society creates and sustains itself. It is fundamentally historical and dynamic in the sense of seeking understandings of social transformation, including the agents and forces of change. Tensions and contradictions embodied in society produce struggles and resistance to established relations and practices. As such, material relations are basic to the unfolding of social and technical changes in the labour force, households and institutions of the state and economy.

Spatial relations have always been central to the way political economy is practised in Canada, including its international and regional dimensions. More recently the concept "space" has been expanded to include the natural environment and a greater awareness of the place of ecology in the quality of social life. Since political economy regards politics as much broader than governments, encompassing all power relations, its concern with democratic practices extends to all features of social life, giving it a strong social justice underpinning. Also, since human agency is also basic to the dynamic of political economy, the way people explain and account for their lives matters in the sense of propelling social movements and creating systems of consent and legitimisation.

Methodologically, political economy calls upon its practitioners to be holistic; that is, to study totalities of social relations as embedded in the economic, political, cultural and ideological, all located in both time and space. Context matters. Contingencies reveal. The key methodological insight is to seek out tensions and contradictions within society as the basis for social change and struggle. The motivation is to know how societies are and can be transformed. Establishments seek to conceal the powers and assumptions that keep them in place. Political economy's task is to analytically reveal these. …

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