Academic journal article The American Journal of Economics and Sociology

Enriching Exchange: Cultural Dimensions of Markets

Academic journal article The American Journal of Economics and Sociology

Enriching Exchange: Cultural Dimensions of Markets

Article excerpt


ABSTRACT. As economic sociologists have been arguing for some time, markets are not to be abstractly opposed to other social relations but rather to be understood as embedded in them, and indeed subject to the same kinds of analysis as other social relations. However, many accounts of embeddedness explain it in structural terms and still operate with an impoverished notion of culture. On the other hand, relatively few cultural sociologists have considered cultural dimensions of economic action. I first argue that there is a rich agenda for cultural investigation which has yet to be fully exploited in economic sociology, and fascinating work on economic embeddedness which could be enriched with more culturally oriented analysis and research. I go on to distinguish three issues on this agenda which are more often collapsed, arguing that the meaning of markets should be investigated in terms of the cultural construction of objects of market exchange, the cultural construction of parties to market exchange, and t he cultural construction of norms of exchange. Distinguishing these three dimensions of market culture is productive because it links apparently disparate types of investigation and allows more precisely specified questions about their relations. Finally, I suggest that norms of market exchange are drawn from a richer symbolic repertoire than is usually imagined: reciprocity and redistribution, as well as market norms, are likely to be important as norms of mundane market action.



IN CHARLES DICKENS'S A CHRISTMAS CAROL, Ebenezer Scrooge experiences a conversion from fervent attachment to market norms and values to an equally fervent commitment to companionship, warmth, kindness, and giving. At the beginning of the story, Scrooge is committed to a view of life in which all actions are assessed according to a harsh version of just market exchange: those who do not bring their time or skills to the market are negligible, calls on peoples' time or skills which cannot be accorded market value are rejected, even death is only significant for creating market opportunities. In the end, he learns that a life lived according to market norms will create heavy burdens: even more, he learns joy and relief in warmth and giving. Dickens creates a parable based on an emblematic opposition which runs deep in both popular and sociological presuppositions about economic behavior in modern societies.

But economic sociologists have been arguing for some time that markets are more embedded in other social relations than this opposition assumes: their questions, now, center on unpacking varying dimensions and consequences of embeddedness in different circumstances. They point to the enormous social energy in the institutionalization and maintenance of anything resembling "pure" market relations, and to the interpenetration of market with non-market social relations. Geertz's ([1978]1992: 226) prescription for "incorporation of sociocultural factors into the body of discussion rather than relegating them to the status of boundary matters..." is in the course of being fulfilled.

However, much of this work tends to operate with an impoverished notion of culture, treating it as a primordial and overarching dimension of entire societies which provides little analytic purchase on social difference conflict, and change. Economic sociologists have not been fully aware of advances in our understanding of cultures, and have been reluctant to give any independent weight to culture in their analyses of economic "embeddedness." Conversely, cultural sociology has tended, with some important exceptions mentioned below, to bracket questions on topics which might give any appearance of "economism," even though it seems clear that economic embeddedness has important cultural dimensions.

But if economic sociologists argue that the economy is too important a social phenomenon to be left to economists, we might also point out, analogously, that cultural sociology has a lot to contribute to the understanding of market embeddedness which economic sociologists are articulating (DiMaggio 1990). …

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