Neo-Pluralist Political Science, Economic Sociology and the Conceptual Foundations of the Comparative Capitalisms Literatures

By Bruff, Ian; Hartmann, Eva | Capital & Class, February 2014 | Go to article overview

Neo-Pluralist Political Science, Economic Sociology and the Conceptual Foundations of the Comparative Capitalisms Literatures


Bruff, Ian, Hartmann, Eva, Capital & Class


Introduction

The rise of the comparative capitalisms (CC) literatures has been an important development in the debate on capitalist diversity. One of the most significant aspects of this has been the strong connection between theory and empirical studies when seeking to account for the persistence of diversity across the global political economy. That is, instead of merely demonstrating empirically that there is 'really existing diversity', many scholars have also sought to account conceptually for why this is, and will continue to be, the case. This has enabled these contributions to achieve two things: to rebut some of the wilder claims made about the (supposed) homogenising impacts of 'globalisation'; and to assume a position of dominance in the debate among those who accept the existence and persistence of capitalist diversity.

However, it would be mistaken to believe that this scholarship emerged principally as a response to the globalisation debates of the 1990s, although it certainly rose to greater prominence during and since this time. Such approaches have a long history, and have made significant contributions across a number of disciplines (for example, Shonfield 1965; Zysman 1983; Maurice et al. 1986). The sheer breadth and depth of such work makes it necessary for us to focus on certain literatures in order to comment on contemporary scholarship that is aligned with this heritage (see also Bruff et al. 2013a; Coates 2013; Jessop 2013; numerous papers in this special issue, especially in this section). In this article, we discuss two of the most important bodies of work for CC research--neopluralist political science and economic sociology--in order to establish a more historically grounded conceptual basis for enquiring critically into this field. Although other literatures have been of significance for the development of CC scholarship--'business systems' research (Whitley 1999), for example--neo-pluralism and economic sociology have been key points of reference for many of the most notable contributions.

Neo-pluralism and economic sociology differ to the extent that the former is interested in the politics of capitalism, which takes many different forms across the world, and the latter is concerned with the ways in which capitalism is embedded in different societies and contexts, but they share much common ground. Principally, this is based on the (often implicit) assumption that the study of capitalism is meaningful only when one redefines 'capitalism' as 'the economy'. This enables one to capture precisely, and in a sophisticated manner, the ways in which 'the economy' inter-relates with the specific political and social conditions present in the country being studied. This is in contrast not only to the literature which focuses on globalisation's claimed homogenising impact, but also to more traditional critical political economy approaches (such as Marxism), which find it difficult to account for the huge range of 'types' of capitalism that exist across the world, because 'capitalism' as a mode of production is assumed to be more important than the diverse forms in which it exists.

This has enabled the CC literatures to make a series of important interventions on the existence and also the persistence of capitalist diversity. However, we argue that the very advantages of this approach--such as the aforementioned attention to detail--come at a high price. Put briefly, the redefinition of capitalism as 'the economy' does two things: (1) it focuses research agendas on the specific political and social conditions found across the world, leaving 'the economy' relatively untouched; and (2) in consequence, 'capitalist diversity' is quickly, and often silently, equated to 'political diversity' or 'social diversity'. As such, a key weakness of CC scholarship that is identified by many of the authors in this special issue--that it does not provide a satisfactory theoretical understanding of capitalist societies--is a problem that runs deeper than the limitations that can be observed in contemporary debates. …

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