Beyond the Market: The Social Foundations of Economic Efficiency

By Jens Beckert; Barbara Harshav | Go to book overview

INTRODUCTION

ALTHOUGH sociology and economics have ignored one another for decades, developments in both disciplines during the past twenty years suggest that cautious rapprochements are beginning to crack the solid lines that have separated them. Catch phrases like those advanced by the American economist James Duesenberry (1960: 233)— that “economics is all about how people make choices; sociology is all about how they don’t have any choices to make,” are no more valid as a description of the relationship between the two fields today than they were when first pronounced.

Ever since the early 1970s, starting from criticism of the restrictive assumptions of the general equilibrium theory and developments in game theory, economics has clearly been opened to problems and subjects that had previously been ascribed essentially to the domain of sociology. These include developments in the economics of information, the transaction cost theory, principal-agent approaches, the new historical economy, and the incorporation of bounded rationality into game theory. No matter how varied these modeling strategies are, they all agree that more consideration should be given to psychological and social constraints, and that studies need to investigate how equilibrium models change when the heroic assumptions of information and structure of the standard models of economics are loosened.

Meanwhile, in the 1960s and 1970s, sociology moved away from functionalist and structuralist theoretical approaches and became increasingly devoted to approaches based on theories of action. Criticism of functionalism led especially to projects intended to make social structures and processes intelligible in reference to social action, without being tied to the rational-actor model for its behavioral typology. On this background, a renewed interest in socioeconomic problems has developed since the 1980s. In the 1950s and 1960s, economic sociology dealt with problems that were marginalized by economics. But the “new economic sociology” claims to be able to demonstrate on the ground of the substantial core areas of economic theory how economic functions can be understood better through sociological conceptualizations. Even though the objectives of the new economic sociology must be seen in the context of the repudiation of economic imperialism, it nevertheless reveals an opening to economics because sociology starts dealing with social phenomena that had long been considered the exclusive domain of economics.

In the mutual debate over the issues and approaches of each other’s discipline, sociology and economics intersect. Thus, some of the modeling

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