Teaching Socio-Economics: Challenges and Approaches

The socio-economic perspective is flourishing not only in academic journals and at research conferences, but in the classroom as well. Yet as the socio-economic canon grows ever larger, managing to fit its many insights into just one semester or quarter can be a tricky endeavor. This is especially the case when plenty of students arrive with little prior knowledge of the field. Newsletter editors Assaf and Barbara asked three scholars in the field of economic sociology how they’ve gone about crafting their courses given these challenges. Francesco Duina, Professor of Sociology at Bates College (USA), Rebecca Elliott, Assistant Professor of Sociology at the London School of Economics (UK), and Daniel Maman, Associate Professor of Sociology at Ben Gurion University (Israel), spoke to them about putting together syllabi, grappling with the mainstream approach to economics familiar to many students, teaching across national contexts, and much more.

The following interviews have been conducted by SASE Newsletter editors Assaf Bondy and Barbara Kiviat.

How do you think about constructing a course at a high level? 

Daniel Maman: My undergraduate course “Introduction to Economic Sociology” is organized around two principles: explanatory approaches and empirical subjects. Specifically, it refers to three sociological approaches to the economy—institutions, culture, and social networks. In addition, I cover many core topics: markets; money and finance; networks and economic life; economic organizations; gender and the economy; culture and the economy; capitalism and varieties of capitalism; state in the economy; and globalization.

Rebecca Elliott: I teach a graduate (Masters-level) seminar in economic sociology, but even still, many of my students are completely new to the subfield. Many come to the course because they’ve had some background in economics and they’re craving more diverse perspectives for explaining economic phenomena. In this context, I try to make it clear where economic sociology is in direct, critical conversation with mainstream economics, while also developing a picture of how and in what ways economic sociology provides distinct frameworks and concepts for revealing and explaining economic life—it’s not all about critiquing economists/economics! This means offering a course that takes a broad view of what constitutes “the economy” or “the economic,” in addition to historicizing and deconstructing those categories. 

Francesco Duina: My overall approach is to keep in mind that I inevitably have students in class that are majoring in various fields, including economics, political science, psychology, the hard sciences, and of course sociology. The course needs to reveal to all those students the basic sociological insights about the economy, and how it differs from (a) mainstream economic theories about atomized individuals seeking utility maximization, the availability of abundant information, etc., and (b) other disciplinary approaches to economic life (such as psychological ones).

How do you go about deciding what to include on the syllabus?

Elliott: Our terms are very compressed—just 10 weeks—so this is always a struggle. As for any instructor, my course design reflects my particular fascinations, which tend to pertain to the moral, cultural, and historical fundaments and significance of economic life. Thus, key themes on my course include: moral economies; price, value, and worth; the politics and cultures of economic activity; and debt and credit. I also teach weeks on the sociology of economics/economists; embeddedness; consumption; and inequality. 

It’s also important to me that my students learn economic sociology by doing economic sociology. In the last week of the course, I have them do group presentations for a week I call “University, Inc.” Here, each group provides an economic sociology of the contemporary university, with a particular thematic focus: accessing and paying for school; universities “on the market”; and universities and the broader labor market. This requires that they apply economic sociology tools related to quantification, ranking, inequality and social differentiation, student debt, job seeking, and consumption to an empirical case and lived experience that they know quite well. 

Duina: I believe that research articles are valuable for students to read. They offer insights into our discipline: how we structure our work, the sort of data we use, etc. I think undergraduate students are capable of understanding that kind of material. At the same time, I rely on introductory texts, such as the “Economy and Society” series that Polity Press produced over the years specifically for economic sociology students. It includes an affordable series of books on topics like global capitalism, institutions and the economy, networks, the state and the economy, credit, etc. 
I’d also like to stress the merits of having students engage in exercises outside of the classroom. In my course, I ask students to spend time in shops and organizations to observe, firsthand, some of the dynamics and principles we discuss in class (for instance, how information is unevenly distributed and available; how colors, music, and other environmental factors shape a particular setting; how informal procedures and practices guide and limit exchanges).  Students deliver presentations in class about their observations, and these sorts of exercises greatly contribute to the quality and impact of our discussions.

Are there any scholars or readings you see as absolute must-haves on the syllabus?

Maman: There are several scholars that I perceive as “must-haves” on the syllabus: Weber, Granovetter, Swedberg, Zelizer, Fligstein, Bourdieu, Carruthers, Dobbin, and Beckert. In addition, I have decided that most of the readings would be based on papers that were published in prestigious edited volumes, such as The Handbook of Economic Sociology (edited by Smelser and Swedberg, 2005), The Sociology of Economic Life (edited by Granovetter and Swedberg, 2001), and The Oxford Handbook of the Sociology of Finance (Edited by Knorr Cetina and Preda). I also rely extensively on Swedberg’s book, Principles of Economic Sociology (2003), and Carruthers and Babb’s book, Economy/Society (2000).    

Elliott: Given my angle on the subfield, works by Viviana Zelizer, Marion Fourcade, Kieran Healy, Ashley Mears, Nina Bandelj, Akos Rona-Tas, Alya Guseva, Greta Krippner, and Fred Wherry appear across my syllabus. Students also love these readings and they are easy to teach because all of these scholars do such rigorous and beautifully rendered empirical work—there’s real meat, based on fascinating topics, to dig into. 

Karl Polanyi’s  The  Great  Transformation

is an important text to tackle early, given the legacy of the concept of ‘embeddedness’ in the subfield. Bourdieu’s The Social Structures of the Economy is also an important text in my course. Many students are familiar with the Bourdieu of Distinction but haven’t really thought of him as an economic sociologist until they see some of the implications of his sociology of consumption extended and elaborated in this former book. 

Duina: I resist thinking that a canon in economic sociology exists and that some scholars must be included in any one syllabus. With that said, among many, I admire Viviana Zelizer’s work a great deal, and also John Campbell’s. I think John W. Meyer’s seminal work on organizations, even if not explicitly presented as economic sociology, is foundational. So, I make sure to refer to their work in my course. Over the years, I have also found Jeff Hass’ Economic Sociology: An Introduction (2007) to be especially clear, comprehensive, and useful.

How, if at all, do you include perspectives from other disciplines in your syllabus?

Duina: In my view, economic sociology was born in reaction to mainstream economics and its approach to economic activity in society. As a result, I always begin my course with the essential principles of standard microeconomics first: rational actors, abundant information, many choices, optimizing behavior, etc. This helps set the stage for our readings. Once we get going, I include material from world culture theory, historical and institutional sociology, and constructivist international political economy: they intersect nicely with economic sociology and allow students to see important points of connection to other theoretical perspectives.

Maman: In several subjects, I refer constantly to perspectives from economics. For example, I refer to classical and neoclassical economics when dealing with markets, and to organizational economics when dealing with firms and business groups.

Elliott: Like many economic sociologists, I have students read some Gary Becker early in the term—but I don’t want them to think economic sociology takes an overly narrow view of its own intervention vis-à-vis economics, nor do I want to understate the diversity of thought within the discipline of economics. To address this, this year I brought in a representative from a UK organization called ECNMY, which seeks to diversify and democratize economics, who gave a fantastic lecture that historicized the concept of “the economy” and explained how economics has historically been and is currently taught in the UK (i.e., neoclassical and heavily mathematized). I’m also now including      Foundational          Economy 

(Manchester University Press), a book written by a collective of socio-economic researchers, on my syllabus, to illustrate the creative ways that heterodox economists redefine central concepts, offering really provocative policy implications as a result.

How do you think about the diversity of voices included on a syllabus?

Duina: This is a great question, in part because I think issues of gender, race, sexual orientation, and—to some extent—class, have not been given enough attention by economic sociologists. Your latest newsletter was good example of how gender, for instance, can and should be brought into the discussion far more than has been the case. So, in the course we talk about class a lot, especially as it relates to the formation of preferences, for instance, or the availability of information in poorer districts, etc. I also incorporate discussions of race (this does come up in the context of the existing literature on immigrants, say, but not enough so) and gender (for instance, how family finances are run in my students’ homes). These sorts of discussions really enliven our class meetings and discussions.

Elliott: When you look at my syllabus, it’s clear that much of my favorite material in economic sociology—and what I therefore assign—is by women scholars and scholars of color. So by this definition of diversity, I don’t have to do much deliberative reflection to produce a list that is not overwhelmingly white or male. The bigger challenge for me is to get beyond American economic sociology: this is something I’m still working on. I was trained in the U.S. and I am an American, so it’s the version of the subfield I know best and it is an empirical context that is intrinsically more interesting to me than it may be to my students at the LSE, who come from all over the world. I want students to see their own experiences and interests reflected in the course readings, so this means doing more to choose readings by scholars working on, or in, other national contexts. SASE has been really generative for this, given the international community it attracts.

Maman: The syllabus includes papers published by scholars from different generational groups and not exclusively from American universities. For example, when dealing with capitalism and varieties of capitalism, the syllabus includes papers by Randel Collins, “Weber’s last theory of capitalism” (1980), Jens Beckert, “Capitalism as a system of expectations” (2013),  Yann Boutang, Cognitive Capitalism (2011), and Nina Bandelj, “On postsocialist capitalism” (2016).

How, if at all, does teaching in different national contexts change what you include on a syllabus and/or how your students react to the material? (If you have taught in more than one country)

Duina: I have taught mostly in the in the U.S. but also South Korea and Canada.  In Canada, I was at the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Vancouver, British Columbia, for two years. Vancouver is a very global and diverse city, with close connections to Asia. Students in my courses came from many different countries. This naturally prompted me to adapt my syllabus so that we would cover the political economies of some Asian countries. Questions we asked included: How did Singapore and South Korea develop so quickly? What state policies favor the chaebol model of industrial organization in Korea? How has democracy both helped and slowed down India’s economic trajectory? The questions are endless, and being in a different setting has encouraged me to change my syllabi accordingly.

What do you hope that students who walk away from your course remember?

Elliott: Mostly, I hope that by the end of the course they feel empowered to offer their own sociological analyses of economic phenomena, rather than presuming they ought to defer to economists on these questions. If they can internalize that economic action is social action, then the tools they have developed not only on my course, but across their courses in the sociology department, prepare them to understand and explain various economic phenomena in terms of their social structuring, embeddedness, and significance.

Maman: I hope that students will learn that economic sociology provides concepts and ideas that enable them to understand economic phenomena. I also believe that after taking the class, students will be less intimidated by economic and financial issues insofar as they confront them be it as consumers, workers, scholars, or informed citizens.

Duina: Ultimately, I want students to take away the basic sociological insight that all of social life happens in rich cultural, institutional and structural contexts. I stress that our course, which focuses on economic life, is just an application of that fundamental insight.

* This article is taken from the SASE Summer Newsletter 2019 – Click here to go back to the Contents Page *