Academic journal article The American Journal of Economics and Sociology

Economic Sociology: An Examination of Intellectual Exchange

Academic journal article The American Journal of Economics and Sociology

Economic Sociology: An Examination of Intellectual Exchange

Article excerpt



Scholarly interest in the gray area overlapping economics and sociology has brought about intellectual exchange between the two disciplines concerning common issues. The work in this area concerns issues of interest to both economists and sociologists and has been called economic sociology, socioeconomics or socio-economics (Stinchcombe, 1983; Ritzer, 1989; Swedberg, 1990; 1991; Etzioni and Lawrence, 1991; Burgenmeier, 1992). Economic sociology is the intellectual arena where the "unrealistic, but clean models in economics and the 'verstehen' oriented dirty hands of sociology" meet (Hirsch, Michaels and Friedman, 1987, p. 324). Economists tend to be concerned with theoretically oriented mathematical models of rational individual maximization ("clean models"). Sociologists, on the other hand, tend to be theoretically disjointed and empirically driven ("dirty hands"). These divergent approaches of economists and sociologists prevented the intellectual exchange of research across disciplinary boundaries for much of the twentieth century (Swedberg, 1990).

Swedberg (1990; 1991) believes that the isolationist tendency of the two disciplines is coming to an end as economists use the economic method to explain social phenomena, and as sociologists use social theory to broaden the scope of economic theory. Economic sociology brings the two social sciences together. The intellectual exchange between disciplines will inform economic sociology and allow its practitioners to produce better research as well as to provide better policy recommendations.

Past attempts at a synthesis between economics and sociology have been made. For example, in the early 1950s at Harvard economists James Duesenberry, Carl Kaysen and James Tobin got together with sociologists Talcott Parsons, Neil Smelser and Francis X. Sutton. This effort, however, was short-lived and was not as productive as it could have been (Swedberg, 1990). Another attempt was made at Carnegie Tech by Herbert Simon, but his behavioral economics did not succeed in changing the mind-set of main stream economics (Swedberg, 1990).

Current attempts at integration between economics and sociology are being made by many influential theorists and researchers. While among the economists, Gary Becker stands out above the rest. Oliver Williamson and George Akerlof have also contributed. Becker's insight of using economic theory to explain traditionally "non-economic" phenomena has been taken seriously in economic sociology. Classics, such as Human Capital, Economics of Discrimination, and The Economic Approach to Human Behavior, have drawn considerable admiration and criticism from sociologists and economists (Swedberg, 1990). However, similarly insightful materials by sociologists (like Mark Granovetter, Ronald Burt, and Harrison White) appear to have been influential only in sociological circles, and for the most part, been ignored by main-stream economists. For these reasons, there seem to be two phenomena dominating the revival of economic sociology.

The first is "economic imperialism" and the second is "economic hubris." Economic imperialism, which has been well documented, occurs when economists use their own theory, namely neo-classical theory based on the three assumptions of (1) constant preferences (2) maximizing behavior, and (3) market coordination of social participants (Becker, 1976), to explain social phenomena (Radnitzky and Bernholz, 1987; Swedberg, 1990). Economic hubris, which has not been well documented, is when economists fail to recognize the important contributions by sociologists concerning topics of interest to both sociologists and economists. Economic imperialism is a good thing for social science in general, and sociology in particular, because it allows for a new approach to, and debate about, traditional sociological problems.

Economic hubris, on the other hand, is not beneficiary to the social sciences. …

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