* Research for this paper was supported by a grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. I am grateful to Jurgen Grote, Will van den Hoonaard, Charles Snow, and the CJS reviewers for their comments on earlier drafts of this paper. The usual disclaimer applies.
Abstract: Criticism of the limited public policy relevance of sociological research has led to urgent calls for more policy-oriented knowledge. I discuss the promotion of industrial districts for economic development as an area where sociologists could play a prominent role in public discourse. I argue that industrial districts are primarily social, not technical, systems, and propose that sociologists pay closer attention to the institutional processes by which interfirm structures are created and transformed.
Resume: La critique de la pertinence limitee de la politique gouvernementale sur la recherche sociologique a cree un besoin urgent d'une connaissance davantage axee sur les politiques. J'aborde la promotion des districts industriels pour le developpement economique comme un secteur ou les sociologues pourraient jouer un role predominant par rapport au debat public. Je soutiens que les districts industriels sont principalement des systemes sociaux, et non techniques, et propose que les sociologues accordent une attention accrue aux procedes institutionnels par lesquels les structures interentreprises sont creees et transformees.
Not too long ago Giddens (1987:44) predicted that "there will be a deepening involvement of sociology with the formation of practical social policies or reforms." He based this prediction on the assertion that government policies which are informed by a view of the omniscience of markets will not be very durable. Economic institutions do not emerge automatically in response to economic needs, but are constructed by individuals whose actions are both facilitated and constrained by the social networks in which they are embedded (Granovetter, 1985; Giddens, 1987; Hirsch et al., 1987). Many of the protective institutions which have been constructed to manage the ill effects of markets are now under attack in Western societies, as governments are relying more on markets to stimulate economic growth. But the history of industrialization has shown that individuals will tolerate only a certain degree of insecurity and uncertainty before they seek protection from the market through institutional arrangements (Polanyi, 1944). Despite the rise of market models, there are urgent calls for novel institutional structures that can help to ease the pain of adjustment to social and economic change. It is here that sociology, as a science of institutions, can make a significant contribution and help solve some of the practical problems of "postmodernity" (Beck, 1992; Huber, 1995).
In this paper, I discuss an area of inquiry and policy action where sociologists could play a prominent role: the promotion of industrial districts for regional economic development. Because industrial districts have gained prominence among regional planners and industrial strategists, sometimes even to the point where they are considered a canonical model for economic development, they require a careful assessment of their potentials and limitations. Careful scrutiny is all the more necessary because of the tendency of policy practitioners, aided by economic development consultants, to overgeneralize the district approach and to apply it in a paradigmatic and context-independent fashion, despite occasional admonitions from sociologists that institutional solutions for industrial districts are highly place-specific and that the existing set of clearly successful districts is quite limited (Masi, 1991; Zeitlin, 1992; Amin and Thrift, 1994). This policy view is unfortunate for it can lead to serious distortions in the application of what may in fact be an effective model of regional economic development, albeit only under specific circumstances, which are yet to be explored systematically. …