granovetter book forum 3: critiques and the future of economic sociology

In this final post on Society and Economy, I’ll discuss critical points with Granovetter’s text. Please read my previous posts for the overview and what I liked about it.

First, let me start with a strange criticism. As I was reading this book, I just kept nodding my head in agreement too many times. Why? Because Granovetter is the central scholar in economic sociology. Reading a book that synthesizes decades of his work was like re-reading the field’s greatest hits. This really feels like (in a good way) reading a book that digs up all of the stuff in my qualifying exam reading list and presents it in a beautiful package. In principle, that’s not a bad thing. But in terms of producing a forward looking text as opposed to a valedictory statement, it’s some what of a limit. If we all agree on these points, then the tension of the book is gone.

This leads me to a second point. I think Granovetter missed a real opportunity here for generating some tension and excitement. Like a lot of sociologists, he is stuck arguing against economics circa 1990. Back then, economics was “full imperialist.” At that point in time, economists tried to turn all studies of human behavior into applied micro-economics and they did so in a way that underplayed, ignored, or mis-interpreted the social dimensions of behavior. In a few words, economists just didn’t think the issues that Granovtter champions were legitimate.

That era is gone. I am not claiming that economics has “come to Jesus” and begun to love sociology. Far from it. But they have moved in interesting directions. For example, some have taken institutions (in Granovetter’s sense) very seriously, such as Daron Acemoglu. Others, have directly tried to model sociological processes, such as Akerlof’s theory of identity. Heck, there’s even an economist who has done economic modelling of “presentation of self” in the context of sex work. In other words, economists still revile sociologists, but they’ve done some interesting sociological work anyway. It would have been interesting to see Granovetter absorb and respond to that work.

This leads me to a bigger sin of economic sociology, though it is not exclusive to Granovetter. Society and Economy does not directly engage with a lot of economic literature. One of my long standing criticisms of economic sociology in general is that scholars in the field do not actually delve deeply into the economic literature. For example, in an old review article, I argued that population ecology/organizational demography essentially duplicated a lot of standard arguments in industrial organization theory.

Here’s an example from Society and Economy. Perhaps the leading economist who writes on institutions as a predictor of a nation’s economic performance is Daron Acemoglu. So you would think that Granovetter would compare his approach/the economic sociology approach to what Acemoglu and his collaborators have done. Perhaps Acemoglu’s work supports Granovetter, maybe it doesn’t. Yet, not a single citation to that massive literature. This is not to say that Society and Economy is totally disengaged from economic writing. Rather, the engage is selective and a more direct assessment would have been enormously useful.

I’ve been critical in this final installment. That’s ok. Granovetter’s work is massive and influential. My jabs won’t diminish that obvious fact. But what I do hope is that the few folks who’ve made it to the end of this review push the field in some new directions.

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Written by fabiorojas

June 1, 2017 at 12:01 am

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