Interview with SASE President Akos Rona-Tas
SASE: Can you tell us about yourself and your academic career?
Rona-Tas: I grew up in Budapest and began college as a literature major interested in literary theory and philosophy, but I soon became drawn to sociology. At that time sociology was a young discipline in Hungary, as it had been banned for decades as a bourgeois pseudo-science by the Communist state. In 1981, I was invited by my distant relative, one of the founders of behavioral economics, George Katona, to spend a year in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Katona, who was a cousin of my grandmother, the first female Ph.D. in economics in Hungary, left in the 1920s to study psychology in Berlin with Max Wertheimer, the father of Gestalt psychology. As the Nazis gained power, both Katona and Wertheimer fled to the United States and landed at the New School for Social Research, with other famous refugee scholars. During World War II, Katona worked for the federal government doing survey research on economic issues and went on to be one of the founders of the Institute for Social Research, at the University of Michigan. He is best known for inventing the Consumer Sentiment Index (now, it is also known as the consumer confidence index). He was very critical of neoclassical economics and its assumptions about human psychology. He demonstrated that in a completely rational world, all inflations would inevitably become hyper-inflation, as the rational reaction to the smallest signs of rising consumer prices is to spend one’s money before it loses its value, which would lead to more inflation, in an unending vicious cycle. As hyper-inflation is the exception not the rule, Katona argued that how people feel about the future is what matters, not the way they calculate rationally immediate gains. In many ways, it is quite appropriate that our 2019 meeting will be at the New School for Social Research, where Katona started his American career in 1935 and on the theme of the future, a topic he wanted to liberate from rational choice economics.
Katona died shortly before I arrived at Ann Arbor, but my one-year stay got extended indefinitely. At the University of Michigan, I got interested in statistical models and the intersection of economic sociology and social stratification. My first book, Great Surprise of the Small Transformation was based on my dissertation. It was a statistical and historical analysis of the creation of the private sector in Communist and post-Communist Hungary as a corrective to an economy dominated by large-scale enterprises. It was also a polemic with Karl Polanyi, arguing that the social devastation Polanyi describes in his classic book, the Great Transformation, and that he attributed to a laissez-faire market, happened under Communist industrialization too with the complete suppression of the market. What proved to be detrimental to the social fabric in both 19th century England and post World War II Hungary was the creation of large-scale production. By the late 1990s, my attention turned to consumer credit and the way uncertainty is handled by economic actors in assessing creditworthiness. I started a large project on credit card markets that involved in-depth field research in several countries that resulted in a book, Plastic Money, written with my colleague, Alya Guseva. Currently, I am a Professor of Sociology at the University of California, San Diego, in a department that values intellectual curiosity and creativity over methodological dogma.
What are you working on right now? Could you tell us about your active research projects?
As an extension of my work on credit, I am doing research on consumer surveillance and the way credit assessment has expanded into a general assessment of character and become a new tool of governmentality. I am also working on a new project on predictions, on what is new about recently developed predictive technologies based on computer algorithms and big data, and how they reshape the social world around us. I have a few other, smaller projects as well. I agree with the late Arthur Stinchcombe, who said that he found working on multiple projects easier, because if he got stuck on one, he could turn to the other.
You are primarily an economic sociologist. How has economic sociology evolved since you’ve entered the field and in what directions do you see it moving in the coming years? More specifically, what role can economic sociology play in public policy debates?
When I began graduate school in Michigan in the 1980s, American economic sociology as a subfield was invisible. There were many areas of U.S. sociology that studied topics related to the economy. Organizational sociology was one, and I used one of its textbooks as a reliable sleeping aid until new institutionalism reinvigorated the field in the late 1980s. Social mobility research was a lively area of research, but its increasingly sophisticated statistical methodology intent on finding patterns between origins and destinations largely ignored the labor market that connected the two. A dwindling number of Marxists were interested in political economy, but they were overly fixated on the working class’s failure to fulfill its historic mission of overthrowing capitalism. The turn is commonly dated to Mark Granovetter’s seminal 1985 piece on embeddedness. Many important articles and books soon followed. This first period of economic sociology developed as a critique of mainstream economics. Having a strong opponent had its advantages. It forced economic sociologists to offer sharp counterarguments against clear theoretical claims by economists, it created a core of common concerns for the discipline, and it pressured economic sociologists to deliver high-quality empirical research. Unlike in other fields, sociology could not just preach to the converted, it had to convert. Yet arguing against an opponent also locked us into the questions economists wanted to ask and made it difficult to re-frame issues and offer new solutions.
There were at least two great cataclysms that shook the self-confidence of economics and created an opening for economic sociology. The first one was the collapse of communism. Initially, this looked like a big victory for mainstream economic theory that always claimed that socialist, planned economies were doomed to failure. Their collapse was taken as proof that free markets were the only way to the future and legions of Western economists, armed with their charts and equations descended on the post-communist world to instruct locals in proper market behavior. However, it was soon discovered that before people can truck, barter, and exchange, they need markets and those are not the natural order of the world that emerge spontaneously once state tyranny is peeled away. They are social and political constructions that rely on economic, political and social institutions, technology, cultural norms and practices, and particular forms of social inequalities. Constructing a market is different from running a market once it is built. Economic sociology, however, not much interested then in policy, was unprepared to step up to this task.
The second crisis was the collapse of the housing and financial markets in 2007-8 and the subsequent Great Recession. This was the second time in two decades when economic theories proved to be inadequate and led to deep soul searching among economists. Economic sociology, even though this time had a much larger arsenal of research, still remained on the sidelines.
For economic sociology to play a larger role in public policy debates it needs to do at least three things. First, it needs to do good, solid research that is convincing to skeptical outsiders. Many of us are doing just that, as any issue of Socio-Economic Review would demonstrate. There is a role for keeping arguments within the community of likeminded people. This helps develop theories and arguments in their early phase but to matter in policy debates, one must break out of intellectual insularity and speak to opponents. Second, as the public becomes increasingly fragmented, we have to find the parts of the public that our work can address. This works differently in the U.S. and the EU, as their political institutions and policy regimes are different. And third, public policy is always about the future. Few policy makers are interested in creating a better past. Socio-economics must be forward-looking to be heard by political actors. Understanding how things happened or are happening is very important because it helps us frame problems and allows us to ask the right questions. But policy debates are about competing answers not about brilliant questions.
Having said that, economic sociology is a large ecosystem, where research with direct policy relevance is only one of many things we do. Not everyone, not even the majority has to address policy concerns, just enough people have to do it, and they will benefit from work of the rest of the discipline.
SASE as an organization promotes interdisciplinary research on socio-economics. Are there any recent interdisciplinary works that you find particularly exciting?
Almost all work in SASE is interdisciplinary. Work linking science studies, sociology of emotions or anthropology with economic sociology proved to be extremely fertile combinations. More recently, works combining cognitive science (how we form categories and expectations), computer science (the way AI, big data and digitization are revamping the labor market and societal governance) and law (consumer protection and privacy) with socio-economics have been promising directions. I think we will also have to reach out to literary theory and rhetoric, building on Deirdre McCloskey’s work, if we want to understand how future expectations become persuasive.
This year’s conference theme is “Fathomless Futures: Algorithmic and Imagined”. Could you unpack this for us?
Today the future is hard to fathom. Every day we are reminded how poor our capacity is to predict our future. The social sciences have not been much of a help. Western political scientists were shocked to see the Soviet empire crumble. Now with Brexit, the 2016 U.S. elections and the EU teetering on the edge of political abyss, their inability to foresee momentous changes even closer to home is painfully obvious. Economists had to come to a similar realization after the collapse of global finance ten years ago. If sociologists and anthropologists avoided public humiliation over bad predictions, it was not because they have a better measure of the future, but because they tend to avoid talking about it.
The main problem, however, is not so much that we can’t guess correctly what inevitably will happen to us. The interesting component of the future is always the part that is not fixed, that is still undecided, that we can still influence and change. To know for certain that the stock market will collapse is useful only if one has options to profit from it or can mitigate the damage. Of course, in real life we know only likelihoods and then our interest is either in preventing or securing the predicted but uncertain outcome. What the social sciences lost was not so much their ability to peek into the inescapable and therefore potentially predictable future – they have never been very good at that – but their capacity to ponder alternative outcomes and to offer options for action if certain things happen. They could not imagine that the Soviet Union would vanish or that the global financial system could collapse. And once the unthinkable happened, they were unprepared. It wasn’t just that they could give no counsel on what options we had, initially they could not even articulate just what had come to pass.
The central theme invites people to think more seriously about the future-facing aspect of economic and social action in general, and about future challenges posed by powerful forces such as automation, information technology, genetics, and the environment.
Our 2019 annual meeting will also celebrate the 30th anniversary of SASE. While the theme is forward-looking, we will also acknowledge the three decades of work that went into the creation of what is now a very successful scholarly association.
It also just so happens that our partner and venue, the New School for Social Research, will celebrate its own centennial. This will be a festive meeting.
This summer, during the annual meeting in New York, SASE will organize its fourth Early Career Workshop. Could you tell us what SASE wants to accomplish with this workshop? Why should early career researchers participate in it?
The Early Career Workshop was created to identify and support talented young scholars at the start of their careers. In recent years, we selected around 20 from 60 to 80 applicants. For those chosen, we pay registration, lodging and contribute to their travel expenses. Our goal is fourfold. First, we try to give them the most valuable academic commodity scholars can get: attention and constructive and critical intellectual engagement with their research. Two senior scholars and four or five of their peers discuss their work in one session. Second, we give them career advice on publishing and other aspects of the academic profession. Third, we want to connect them to each other so that they become members of an international community of young scholars of socio-economics. And finally, we would like to provide SASE with fresh ideas and energy that come from young generations. Those are vital for the long-term success of the association.
Our exit surveys show that the workshops are successful and the participants appreciate them and are enthusiastic about the experience. They also provide insightful comments that are useful for developing the program.
Do you have any specific goals for your presidency? What do you hope to accomplish?
SASE has grown steadily since the economic crisis of 2008. With over a thousand members worldwide, we are now a midsized scholarly association with biennial regional conferences, and we have to adjust to this new situation. We have to decide how far we want to grow. We can be a bit more selective and we must provide more services to our members. Until recently, SASE lived only during the days of our annual meetings, then it went dormant for the rest of the year. SASE was mostly a conference venue with a journal. My goal is to make SASE serve its members beyond the hectic days of our conference. SASE is an international and interdisciplinary organization, its main goal is to create and maintain an academic community of diverse scholars. We have started two years ago this new newsletter which is a tool to keep our conversations and community alive between meetings. We are installing a new membership database and a visualization software to access it to make it easier for members to find and network with each other. We will start a new book award, named after Alice Amsden, the world-renowned political economist, to acknowledge every year the best book published in our academic domain. It will be awarded first in New York. As SER is crucial for our association, and it also grew along with SASE, we will find ways to improve the working conditions for our journal.
As president, my role is also to facilitate and support member initiatives that promise to benefit our association. Diversity has emerged as an important concern and I will do everything I can to make SASE a more inclusive organization in its membership, governance and activities. I appointed a Diversity Committee and asked them to submit a report next June to the Executive Council, on what SASE can do in this regard. Another initiative has come from network organizers, who would like to have a more active role in the life of SASE. Connecting our 18 networks and turning them from boards of judges of conference submissions into dynamic organizers of their respective intellectual fields is another initiative I support. I would very much like to avoid the balkanization of SASE. Another creative initiative tries to craft a venue to deliver our expertise to civic organizations connecting SASE and its members with people active on issues we study.
Interview conducted by Alaz Kilicaslan
* This article is taken from the SASE Winter Newsletter 2018/19 – Click here to go back to the Contents Page*