Economic Sociology: A Systematic Inquiry

Economic Sociology: A Systematic Inquiry

Economic Sociology: A Systematic Inquiry

Economic Sociology: A Systematic Inquiry


The sociological study of economic activity has witnessed a significant resurgence. Recent texts have chronicled economic sociology's nineteenth-century origins while pointing to the importance of context and power in economic life, yet the field lacks a clear understanding of the role that concepts at different levels of abstraction play in its organization. Economic Sociology fills this critical gap by surveying the current state of the field while advancing a framework for further theoretical development.

Alejandro Portes examines economic sociology's principal assumptions, key explanatory concepts, and selected research sites. He argues that economic activity is embedded in social and cultural relations, but also that power and the unintended consequences of rational purposive action must be factored in when seeking to explain or predict economic behavior. Drawing upon a wealth of examples, Portes identifies three strategic sites of research--the informal economy, ethnic enclaves, and transnational communities--and he eschews grand narratives in favor of mid-range theories that help us understand specific kinds of social action.

The book shows how the meta-assumptions of economic sociology can be transformed, under certain conditions, into testable propositions, and puts forward a theoretical agenda aimed at moving the field out of its present impasse.


The idea for this book dates back to 2005 after a series of conversations with colleagues at Princeton, Cornell, and the University of Pennsylvania about the growing field of economic sociology and the direction, or lack thereof, that its development was taking. Over the years, I have published a series of essays on concepts and processes normally included among those of interest to specialists in this area. It occurred to me that assembling these in a single volume could be useful to those interested in economic matters and may help advance the sociological perspective on them. I also thought at the time that the project would not take too much effort—a question of stitching together published materials and highlighting the common threads among them.

Alas, that expectation proved to be most unwarranted. Reviewers of the first version of the manuscript, while polite and complimentary, could not see the common threads, nor figure out what the basic purpose of the volume was. A textbook? A collection of essays? Their well-taken critique forced me back to the writing table in an attempt to clarify the purpose of the project: no textbook intended, but no collection of essays, either. The motive for writing the book was grounded on the observation that contemporary economic sociology consists largely of exegeses of the classics, repetition of one of the founding notions of the field, and a growing number of individually valuable but disparate studies.

Earlier training in epistemology and the philosophy of science led me to the conclusion that such a disheveled state of affairs could not lead to sustained theoretical progress. Empirical studies in the field do not cumulate, in general, into new or refined theories and tend to conclude with a reassertion of the field's founding assumption: that sociability and social ties significantly mold economic behavior. My philosophical roots led me to a search for some order in this massed literature, seeking to identify what other elements existing studies have in common, and in what ways could they cumulate in theoretical progress beyond the classics. The readers will judge whether the proposed framework meets the test; ultimately, the success of this project will depend on whether other practitioners take the goal of theoretical growth seriously, either by adopting the ideas put forth in the coming chapters or proposing others to better fit the task.

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