Mark Granovetter on the social foundations of the economy

In light of SASE’s 2022 conference, “Fractious Connections: Anarchy, Activism, Coordination, and Control,” it seemed only right to check in with Mark Granovetter, whose pioneering work in economic sociology has focused on social networks and social institutions. In his most recent book, Society and Economy: Framework and Principles, he has turned his attention to the social foundations of the economy. This first volume of an anticipated two-volume work, published in English in 2017, was recently released in French and has elicited lively debate among Francophone scholars—and the French-speaking contingent of SASE in particular.

The book draws on a lifetime of research, offering new insights and fresh angles for understanding the connections between the economy and society in ways that often transcend the boundaries of economic sociology. It examines three pillars of the economy—norms, trust and power—and in the interview below Granovetter discusses its long gestation, the ways in which it ties back to his previous work, and the upcoming second volume.

Interview conducted by Martha Zuber, SASE Executive Director Emerita

This must have been a very difficult book to write.  What were your initial ideas about it, and how did they change as you went along?
There was a delay of almost thirty years from the original due date of 1987! I had teaching responsibilities and many other writing commitments, and these meant that I gradually made many changes in how I conceived the book. My editor at Harvard University Press kept threatening he would be retired before I finished the book!

I actually had several chapters fully drafted in the late eighties and early nineties, but I became dissatisfied with how they were read by others, who mistook them for literature reviews, which was very frustrating to me, as I wanted to be making theoretical arguments. But it seemed that as I had initially written them, these theoretical arguments were so mixed through with the empirical cases that they didn’t stand out enough.

Is that why your book opens with a theoretical chapter? What finally pushed you to change your approach?
Well, part of it was simply that by the early 2000s, I had settled on a different type of organization. But I later realized that I was probably unconsciously imitating my idol, Max Weber: he put a series of very dense theoretical chapters at the beginning of Economy and Society and then followed them with a large number of more empirical chapters.

It turns out that Weber put the theoretical chapters at the beginning only as an afterthought, but I had a goal: my thought was that placing the theoretical chapters at the beginning would provide a theoretical structure to support the empirical and applied chapters to follow. Then the question became, what are the basic theoretical issues that really matter in trying to understand the economy?

So… what are they?
The ones I found recurring in my empirical work were norms, trust, and power.

Before we talk more about what you did cover, could you give us an example of what you decided not to pursue?
One thing was the importance of social status in the economy. As Moses Finley argued in his work on ancient Rome and Greece, their economies were not like modern ones because people were not driven by the desire to maximize profits. Rather, they needed to support their status claims in their societies.

And what about social networks?
Again, in the early 2000s it was becoming increasingly clear to me that while networks are a critical mechanism, they don’t deserve causal priority. Rather, social networks are a causal link between small-scale or micro-level activity and the nature of societies at a more macro-level, by which I mean features like institutions, culture, and patterns of socializing.

In causal chains, social networks typically explain how, at the small scale, what individuals do aggregates into larger patterns—in fact, that’s exactly the argument of my first published article, “The Strength of Weak Ties.” 

And speaking of networking, why didn’t you write about social media? Your ideas were there before it existed.
In his otherwise very kind review Nathan Ferret chided me for this, and while I do think they have actually made social networks and ties more important, I don’t have the empirical evidence, so I didn’t write about it.

You mentioned “The Strength of Weak Ties”—I was surprised to learn recently that this article which is now seen as seminal was rejected by a major U.S. sociology journal. That should give hope to young scholars starting out in the field!
To my mind, those early rejection letters are classically foolish reviews—in fact, I show them to graduate students to make the point that even articles that people think are good and are widely cited can get very negative and patronizing reviews.

To return to what made it into the book, what is the unifying theme?
Just getting our concepts straight! Eliminating all the underbrush of what I consider mistaken or overly complicated theorizing that makes it impossible to see what is really going on. This may sound modest, but it’s actually quite a job.

Could you say a bit about how the field of sociology has changed?
In the U.S., at least, it has moved away from economics and politics, and toward the study of gender, race, and sexuality.  Those are all important, but I am sad to see the neglect of what I see as larger level that typically determines the parameters and framing of these critical societal patterns.

Your book includes a fascinating discussion of the vicissitudes of modular production in recent years, especially in the car industry, where you explore how modular production actually ended up doing the opposite of what it was intended to. Tell us a bit more about cars…
When I started to work on that I knew absolutely nothing about how cars are made. But I was on sabbatical that year, and I happened to have some former students and colleagues such as John Paul MacDuffie and Josh Whitford who had written quite a lot about the auto industry—they helped me figure out what was going on. My point in that part of the book was to show that some institutional developments do not come to fruition, but instead fall rather rapidly by the wayside. I’m sure there are applications outside the auto industry, but to deal with that would have taken me far afield. People usually write about institutions as if they were inevitable, and I thought this example was a good way to illustrate that they are not—something I believe it’s important to remember.

Is the book’s discussion of the “pragmatic man” a new strand in your work?
Yes, it is, at least insofar as I have not formally stated it before. Not everyone is happy about it, though; some argue that pragmatism is just another version of methodological individualism—which I think is absolutely wrong. A great deal of my book is devoted to showing why.

Why did you decide to split the text into two volumes?
That’s easy; I didn’t want to be like Max Weber and have the whole thing appear posthumously! 

Can you give us a sneak peek at what we can expect in the sequel?
The sequel will be a series of cases and applications. Right now, I am working on the question of how to understand when economic transactions are carried out through personal ties rather than impersonally, which turns out to be a much bigger and more complicated question than I had imagined. That means it is taking me longer than I expected—but it’s a lot of fun.

And what can we understand from that?
Well, the quick answer is that it’s simply ridiculous to assume that modernity and efficiency mean a move to impersonality….  but the devil is in the details, and the details are incredibly complicated. 

Any other major topics to look forward to in the second volume?
Lots—there will be other topical chapters on issues such as corruption, corporate governance, and business groups.