Academic journal article The American Journal of Economics and Sociology

Spontaneous Social Order: Economics and Schutzian Sociology

Academic journal article The American Journal of Economics and Sociology

Spontaneous Social Order: Economics and Schutzian Sociology

Article excerpt


Introduction: Economics and Sociology

Traditionally, an abyss has yawned between the modes of explanation and models of agency applied by economists and sociologists to the understanding of social phenomena. The voluntaristic, intentional mode of explanation that has always been the hallmark of economics has generally proved alien to sociologists brought up within the Durkheim-Parson tradition. Economists, in their turn, have often ridiculed the strong functionalist slant encountered in this sociological tradition, as well as the portrayal of individuals as mere puppets, completely at the mercy of norms. Furthermore, the social institutions that have always occupied center-stage in sociological analysis have not traditionally been considered the kind of meat in which economists could sink their teeth.

However, it is becoming increasingly clear that this portrayal of the relation between sociology and economics is descriptively incorrect. To a large extent, this is a matter of developments on the sociology side, such as an increasing number of sociologists who adopt a rational choice approach (Coleman 1990). But relevant things are happening on the economics side also. A growing group of economists (probably best classified as "neo-institutional") argue that economic theory not only can, but should enter the domain of social phenomena usually reserved for sociologists. Prominent representatives are, in a somewhat inclusive reading, economists such as Richard Langlois (1986), Douglass North (1990), Andrew Schotter (1981), Robert Sugden (1986), and Oliver Williamson (1985). In the work of these theorists economic man is now much less under-socialized than he was approximately two or three decades ago; his choice set is explicitly seen as being influenced by all sorts of side-constraints in the form of institutions. Moreover, institutions are explicitly seen as being given to an economic (efficiency) explanation.

There is also reason to mention some other developments, internal to the economics discipline, and which have produced a vanishing demarcation line between economics and sociology. First, is the increasing sophistication of techniques, particularly with respect to game-theory, which has allowed economists to continually expand their theoretical apparatus and the domain of application of this apparatus. Secondly, is a gradually changing attitude on the part of economists with regard to the core of their discipline. It is no longer held that the basic tools of orthodox economics, equilibrium and maximization, should be applied in an unchanged and indiscriminate way to any social phenomenon. An increasing number of top theorists are willing to let conceptualizations of social phenomena feed back into theory development, rather than to let conceptualizations of empirical phenomena be wholly dictated by which theoretical and mathematical tools are available. George Akerlof's (1984) work on social norms may be a particular pertinent example of this trend.

The upshot of these developments is that the arrogance that undoubtedly characterized economists' relation to sociologists only one or two decades ago is gradually vanishing. The tendency seems to be that there really is something for economists to learn from sociology. This paper, written in that spirit, also seeks to suggest some still relatively unexplored areas where economists may have something to learn from sociologists, and to inquire briefly into them. I have in mind the paradigmatic problem of economics, what may be called "the coordination problem." How are economic agents, occupied in a complex and increasing division of labor, able to coordinate their actions with some measure of success, when each of them have only very limited knowledge about the actions of the others (Ebeling 1987)? Or, in other words, how should one theoretically approach the emergence of spontaneous social order? I look at various answers to this still basically unsolved problem. …

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