Beyond the Market: The Social Foundations of Economic Efficiency

By Jens Beckert; Barbara Harshav | Go to book overview

SIX
PERSPECTIVES FOR ECONOMIC SOCIOLOGY

THE critique discussed in chapter 1 referred to the limits of the rational-actor model as a basis for understanding action in economic contexts. It is not the assumption of behavior aiming at utility maximization that is problematic in itself but rather the assumption generally considered valid that actors could make maximizing decisions and would thus achieve optimal allocation. This critique was intended to show the significance of the complexity inherent in the situation, novelty, and the cooperation dilemma as areas of investigation that cannot be understood fully from the perspective of the rational-actor model. The result of this critique is that an economic theory that wants to address these problems comprehensively requires a different basis of action theory in its core.

Sociological theory is a suitable source for seeking such a foundation. As sociologists, Durkheim, Parsons, Luhmann, and Giddens agree that, even in economic contexts, we cannot understand action on the basis of an a priori introduced, individualized, utility-maximizing actor. This does not necessarily mean that actors do not act intentionally oriented to their perceived interests. But actions or decisions are constitutively linked with the social nature of action situations. Only by getting away from optimization as an empirical assumption does the difference between action intention and action results become a possible subject for study. By avoiding the a priori commitment to optimizing decisions, sociological theories systematically open ways to understanding the three discussed action situations of cooperation, uncertainty, and innovation.

The discussion of the four sociological theories showed what significance is attached to structural and institutional rigidity for action in situations with uncertainty. In addition, it sharpened our view of the assumptions under which actors engage in cooperation. Moreover, we elaborated how we can understand innovations in their constitutive link with the action process. None of the theories discussed offers a complete basis of a desirable action theory. In a certain sense, however, Giddens’s structuration theory, which connects central elements, comes close. This theory is valid not only for the systematic link of structure and action in a relation of mutual constitution but also, for emphasizing the processual nature of action. Giddens acknowledges the significance of structural rigidities, but also maintains the perspective of action theory. Thus the central significance of reducing complexity in situations that evade optimizing decisions

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