Economic Sociology

Economic Sociology: A Systematic Inquiry

Alejandro Portes
Copyright Date: 2010
Pages: 320
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt7skzn
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  • Book Info
    Economic Sociology
    Book Description:

    The sociological study of economic activity has witnessed a significant resurgence. Recent texts have chronicled economic sociology's nineteenth-century origins while pointing to the importance of context and power in economic life, yet the field lacks a clear understanding of the role that concepts at different levels of abstraction play in its organization.Economic Sociologyfills this critical gap by surveying the current state of the field while advancing a framework for further theoretical development.

    Alejandro Portes examines economic sociology's principal assumptions, key explanatory concepts, and selected research sites. He argues that economic activity is embedded in social and cultural relations, but also that power and the unintended consequences of rational purposive action must be factored in when seeking to explain or predict economic behavior. Drawing upon a wealth of examples, Portes identifies three strategic sites of research--the informal economy, ethnic enclaves, and transnational communities--and he eschews grand narratives in favor of mid-range theories that help us understand specific kinds of social action.

    The book shows how the meta-assumptions of economic sociology can be transformed, under certain conditions, into testable propositions, and puts forward a theoretical agenda aimed at moving the field out of its present impasse.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-3517-1
    Subjects: Economics, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Figures and Tables
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Preface
    (pp. xi-xiv)
    Alejandro Portes
  5. CHAPTER ONE Economic Sociology: PAST ACHIEVEMENTS AND PRESENT CHALLENGES
    (pp. 1-9)

    Economic sociology has experienced a remarkable rebirth. This trend has been chronicled and celebrated in a number of publications and reached its height with the appearance of two successive editions of a massiveHandbook, edited by Neil J. Smelser and Richard Swedberg.¹ This feat, added to the influence achieved by Mark Granovetter’s article on the social “embeddedness” of economic action, appeared to signal that the field was well underway.² Yet, in more recent years, there seems to have been a loss of direction. While purportedly sociological studies of economic activity have proliferated, basic texts in the field continue to chronicle...

  6. CHAPTER TWO The Assumptions That Ground the Field
    (pp. 10-26)

    1. The operation of the Jewish informal economy in the former Soviet Republic of Georgia centered on the clandestine production and distribution of consumer goods.¹ Production took place in state-owned factories and with state-provided raw materials in direct violation of official rules. Heavy prison sentences awaited those caught. Despite this threat, the system flourished and functioned smoothly for years. It required securing low official production targets and a high wastage allowance to accommodate clandestine production. Bookkeeping was systematically altered. Production lines, for example, were declared “in maintenance” at times of peak unofficial production. Substandard parts and inputs were used to...

  7. CHAPTER THREE Social Capital
    (pp. 27-47)

    The concept of social capital and the related one of social networks have become key explanatory mechanisms in the field of economic sociology, fleshing out the implications of its meta-theoretical assumptions.¹ It is in networks that much (although not all) economic action is socially embedded, and one of the most important outcomes of that embeddedness is social capital. A commonly accepted sociological definition of social capital is the ability to gain access to resources by virtue of membership in networks or larger social structures.² Clearly, such ability flows out of embeddedness, becoming one of its most tangible manifestations.

    Similarly, unexpected...

  8. CHAPTER FOUR The Concept of Institutions
    (pp. 48-70)

    This chapter introduces a second explanatory mechanism that, like social capital, is applicable to a wide range of economic and economically relevant phenomena, but whose heuristic value is also under threat for different reasons.¹ Recent years have brought a significant change in economics and sociology, including an unexpected convergence in their approaches to issues like firms and economic development. This convergence pivots around the concept of institutions, a familiar term in sociology and social anthropology but something of a revolution in economics, dominated so far by the neoclassical paradigm.²

    This trend has been accompanied by much confusion about what the...

  9. CHAPTER FIVE The Concept of Social Class
    (pp. 71-100)

    Marshal Michel Ney, one of Napoleon Bonaparte’s greatest generals, was approached on a social occasion by a countess of the old French nobility who, wanting to poke fun at the parvenu nobles created by the Bonapartist regime asked him, “And Marechal, who are your ancestors?”¹ Raising his towering figure over the assembled audience, Ney replied, “Madame, I am my own ancestor.”² The answer was, no doubt, influenced by the winds of egalitarianism whistling from the all-too-recent Jacobin past and the example of the newly crowned emperor, in military obscurity one day and onto the French throne the next. Despite these...

  10. CHAPTER SIX Social Class (Continued)
    (pp. 101-129)

    This chapter extends the preceding analysis of social class with an empirical application. Its purpose is to show how definitions of classes can vary with the social context and how, despite this variation, it continues to be central for analyzing concrete processes of economic and social change.¹ The context in question is Latin America in the late years of the twentieth century, and the problem at hand is the impact on society of radical economic adjustment programs in the region, inspired by the neoclassical school of economics and supported by influential organizations such as the U.S. Treasury and the International...

  11. CHAPTER SEVEN The Informal Economy
    (pp. 130-161)

    Having examined a set of three midrange ideal types that function as explanatory tools for economic sociology, this chapter introduces the first of strategic field sites for research mentioned in chapter 2.¹ Each of them is the subject of an extensive literature in which the meta-assumptions of the field, as well as its explanatory mechanisms, figure prominently. They are by no means exhaustive of all such subjects but serve to illustrate, with clarity, the ways in which sociological concepts can be used for the study of economic phenomena.

    The phenomenon of the informal economy is deceivingly simple and extraordinarily complex,...

  12. CHAPTER EIGHT Ethnic Enclaves and Middleman Minorities
    (pp. 162-194)

    This pair of concepts, ethnic enclaves and middleman minorities, has served well to analyze the economic behavior of nonmainstream groups and the internal dynamics that have made their enterprises viable and sustainable over time.¹ Although these phenomena appear marginal in comparison with large corporations and other major economic institutions, they represent a strategic site for economic sociology for two reasons: First, they help explain how apparently poor and resourceless minorities have managed to move ahead and create enterprises that compete effectively with larger mainstream firms. Second, they illustrate the embeddedness of economic action with singular clarity, revealing facets of these...

  13. CHAPTER NINE Transnational Communities
    (pp. 195-219)

    A third strategic research site is, in a sense, the obverse of the second. While ethnic enclaves and middleman minorities call attention to distinct economic activities of foreign-origin groups within receiving societies, transnationalism calls attention to the multiple social and economic networks they create across space and with places of origin.¹Globalizationhas become the term of choice to refer to the process through which powerful economic actors, such as transnational corporations, progressively integrate nations and localities into a single homogenous system.² “Transnationalism” may be regarded as a form of “globalization from below” in which individuals and communities mobilize their...

  14. CHAPTER TEN Markets, Models, and Regulation
    (pp. 220-236)

    In concluding, I wish to return to the meta-assumptions that ground the field and to a so-far-unremarked aspect of them. It turns out that, in addition to being “lenses” to see the economic world from, they also may be transformed, under certain conditions, into midrange concepts amenable to measurement and inclusion into testable propositions. Classic authors associated with each can also be invoked to buttress this transformation of perspective into explanatory concept. I draw on a recently completed study of economic institutions and national development in Latin America to illustrate these points.¹

    Easily the assumption most susceptible to this transformation...

  15. Notes
    (pp. 237-260)
  16. Bibliography
    (pp. 261-290)
  17. Index
    (pp. 291-307)