On the Bookshelf

SASE is an international organization with members around the globe, reading thousands of books related to socio-economics every year across topics and languages. To get a sense of what is on SASE members’ minds, the newsletter editors asked some of the voracious readers that make up our association to recommend a few books they are reading (or re-reading) and to tell us a bit about them.

José Ossandón, Copenhagen Business School

Daniel FridmanEl sueño de vivir sin trabajar (Siglo XXI, 2019; previously published as Freedom from Work, Stanford University Press, 2016)

This book is an ethnographic account of people in Argentina and the U.S. who followed a financial self-help program. The promise of the program was to convert those who participated (which means reading the books, playing board games, participating in the seminar) from dependent employees to autonomous investors. Theoretically, it is a story that contributes to the understanding of governmentality and performativity, but perhaps the book’s main accomplishment is Fridman’s own self-discipline as a storyteller. This is a book that respects and does not patronize the lived experience of self-converted neoliberals.

Philip Mirowski and Edward Nik-KhahThe Knowledge We Have Lost in Information (Oxford University Press, 2017)

The authors trace a very important but often unnoticed transformation in recent economics. The market is not what it used to be. The key concept is information: the market is now understood as an information processor. Economists, however, do not have a shared understanding of what information is or does—what we have is different schools of information economics. What these schools share is that their market is very different to the market of neo-classical economics: here economic actors have only a partial and limited perspective, the key agency is not the entrepreneur but the market itself, and economists see themselves as market designers.

Juan Pablo Pardo-GuerraAutomating Finance (Cambridge University Press, 2019)

There is a recent interest in what we could call the figure of the “market organizer.” This means that sociological analyses of markets are not only about entrepreneurs, consumers, or competition, but about those whose work it is to make markets work. Automating Finance, by Juan Pablo Pardo-Guerra, re-tells the history of the stock exchanges in London and New York from the perspective of the work of back-office engineers. What we get is a fresh version of automation and an account where the border between market and formal organization is almost indistinguishable.

Max WeberEconomy & Society (Harvard University Press, 2019)

With a group of colleagues, I recently started a reading group of the new translation of Weber’s Economy & Society. For now, I can highly recommend the introductory text by the translator, Keith Tribe. Tribe’s text is like a book within the book. It is also an exemplar of academic effort and dedication, and, perhaps, one the best available introductions to Weber’s work.

Caitlin ZaloomIndebted: How Families Make College Work at Any Cost (Princeton University Press, 2019)

Finally, I am halfway through Caitlin Zaloom’s Indebted: How Families Make College Work at Any Cost. The object of the book is what Zaloom calls the “financial student complex”: the multilayered system developed around student loans in the U.S. The book uses an ethnographic sensibility to construct a public intervention that both opens up the black box of the complicated financial student complex and makes the reader feels the existential situation of those affected by this quite mad approach to helping students.

Mariana Luzzi, Universidad Nacional de General Sarmiento

Ariel Wilkis (ed.), El poder de (e)valuar: La producción monetaria de jerarquías sociales, morales y estéticas en la sociedad contemporánea (UNSAM Edita-Universidad del Rosario, 2018).

This edited volume gathers the work of 12 Argentine scholars trained in very different fields, from economic anthropology to art history. Their research is on diverse topics, including financial trading, foreign exchange illegal markets, real estate markets, gambling, medical services, sex work, art auctions, armed forces litigation, and economic reparations for state terrorism victims. What they share is a common interest in valuation and especially in the ways in which monetary valuations are entangled to moral evaluations. The book is not only the first contribution to the valuation studies field that has been published in Spanish but also a very interesting example of how socio-economics can also provide new perspectives to other fields of social research, such as legal studies or art history.

Mark Granovetter, Stanford University

Arndt Sorge, The Global and the Local: Understanding the Dialectics of Business Systems (Oxford University Press, 2005)

I recommend to SASE readers a remarkable book by the German sociologist Arndt Sorge, The Global and the Local: Understanding the Dialectics of Business Systems. Sorge poses the question of how actors draw on the set of institutional patterns laid down, especially in Germany, from medieval times to the present, to create arrangements that meet their current needs. Patterns that have been superseded do not disappear, but lie dormant as sedimented institutional memory that actors can draw on many decades and even centuries later. Sorge also chronicles how the turmoil of war and invasions, as in the Napoleonic era, further complexifies the menu of institutional possibilities that actors may draw upon. In my own book, Society and Economy: Framework and Principles (Harvard University Press, 2017), I draw heavily on Sorge’s scholarship in my argument about how pragmatic actors pick and choose from this menu, in a kind of bricolage, to deal with problems they define and want to manage. Typical pragmatists, they are less concerned with the quest for consistency attributed to actors in the “varieties of capitalism” literature than with getting things done. Yet they are heavily constrained by the menu that history has set out for them. As Marx observed, people make history, but not just as they please, rather under circumstances transmitted from the past. As sociologists, we have the responsibility to elaborate just how this takes place, especially if we are not persuaded that dialectical materialism provides sufficient answers. Sorge’s book provides an excellent starting point.

Sophie Dubuisson-Quellier, Sciences Po and Centre de Sociologie des Organisations

Francesca Trivellato, The Familiarity of Strangers: The Sephardic Diaspora, Livorno, and Cross-Trade in the Early Modern Period (Yale University Press, 2009).

I recently read The Familiarity of Strangers: The Sephardic Diaspora, Livorno, and Cross-Trade in the Early Modern Period, by Francesca Trivellato, which was translated into French in 2016. Trivellato is a historian but her questions and methods resonate with what we do in economic sociology. In her book, she studies a specific diaspora of traders, Sephardic families from Livorno in Tuscany during the 18th century, who built large international trading networks that connected Eastern Mediterranean cities to Portuguese Asia through Lisbon and Aleppo. She demonstrates that these networks circulated information about market prices and opportunities for profit, but also market conventions, convincing other traders to engage in these very long-distance relationships and building trust. I found of particular interest the detailed analysis that Trivellato provides of the commercial correspondence that fosters both legal customs and social norms for trade relationships and ensures control of the agents in the network. It echoes what I observed several years ago in the case of trading relationships between large retail companies and their fruit and vegetable farmer suppliers. Despite the existence of many different contractual instruments, frequent discussions by phone or email were absolutely necessary to build trust and make other actors’ behaviors predictable. Today, studying discussions within trading relationships may prove very useful for understanding the power dimensions of market relations.

Mariana Heredia, Universidad de Buenos Aires

Timothy Mitchell, Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil

(Verso, 2011)

Brooke Harrington, Capital without Borders (Harvard University Press, 2016)

Special Issues on Thomas Piketty

Pablo Lapegna, Soybeans and Power: Genetically Modified Crops, Environmental Politics, and Social Movements in Argentina (Oxford University Press, 2016)

Mariana Luzzi and Atiel Wilkis (eds.), El Dolar: Historia de una moneda Argentina, 1930-2019 (Crítica, 2019)

It’s hard to pinpoint just a few books out of the rich production in recent years. There are three books, however, that made an impression. First, Carbon Democracy, by Timothy Mitchell shows an amazing ability to join Science and Technology Studies with a geopolitical analysis of inequalities. His unique point of view, together with his erudition, produces one of the most interesting works of decolonization studies I have read. I also appreciated the several special issues on Thomas Piketty including one in the British Journal of Sociology (2014), an anthology by Boushey, Delong, and Steinbaum (2017), a special Issue of Annales, Histoire, Sciences Sociales (2015), and a policy report by the CATO Institute (2017). These writings reveal the potential of socio-economics today. Capital without Borders, by Brooke Harrington, is a good example of how to construct a path to study the difficult subject of the wealth of the 1%. Pablo Lapegna’s Soybeans and Power: Genetically Modified Crops, Environmental Politics, and Social Movements in Argentina is an excellent ethnography of peasants facing the growing genetically modified crops business and the political challenges they face. Finally, Mariana Luzzi and Ariel Wilkis’s Historia de una moneda Argentina, 1930-2019 is a long-term cultural analysis of the rise and spread of the use of U.S. dollars in Argentina.

Moisés Kopper, Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies

Alexander L. FattalGuerrilla Marketing: Counterinsurgency and Capitalism in Colombia (University of Chicago Press, 2018)

As a scholar working at the intersection of political and economic anthropology, I have always been interested in how markets and their associated infrastructures—technologies, instruments, pedagogies, and expertise—are deployed to achieve certain political ends. I am currently finalizing a manuscript, Architectures of Hope, in which I look into the imbrications of different forms of hope and the contentious implementation of social housing programs. As I wrote this book, I paid more and more attention to the subtle ways in which state interventions and absences not only bear effects, but also modulate the affects of the people we work with. Guerrilla Marketing: Counterinsurgency and Capitalism in Colombia, by Alexander L. Fattal, presents a rich ethnography of how market technologies, in particular marketing and branding, are actively deployed by the Colombian

Rebecca Bryant and Daniel KnightThe Anthropology of the Future (Cambridge University Press, 2019)

Lately, there has been no shortage of books and articles tackling the issues of future-making, prediction, futurity, and fictional imaginations. How we conceive of the future, particularly its intersections with pressing issues such as climate change, algorithms, and artificial intelligence, have become core concerns of sociological and anthropological inquiry. Conceptual clarity in this emerging field remains fuzzy. However, advancements have been made in books like The Anthropology of the Future, by Rebecca Bryant and Daniel Knight, which devotes entire chapters to concepts like hope, expectation, anticipation, speculation, potentiality, and destiny, all in an effort to analytically tease them apart.

Jenny AnderssonThe Future of the World: Futurology, Futurists, and the Struggle for the Post-Cold War Imagination (Oxford University Press, 2018)

The problem of actionable time, or how to create the conditions to mold, repurpose, and steer the future into particular orientations at the present, is also tackled in the book The Future of the World: Futurology, Futurists, and the Struggle for the Post-Cold War Imagination, by Jenny Andersson. In it, the sociologist centers on the problem of prediction in the aftermath of World War Two—that is, how experts and activists imagined the Cold War and post-Cold War, how they envisioned tools to act upon the foreseeable future, and the methods they devised to change that world. The book is a fascinating intellectual history of these legacies and the varieties of futurism and future-making they entail. Additionally, it has the merit of bringing together a variety of hitherto unexplored archival data.

Perry AndersonBrazil Apart: 1964-2019 (Verso, 2019)

Lastly, I began reading Brazil Apart: 1964-2019, by Perry Anderson. I have been in search of scholarly and perhaps more conjunctural accounts of the political, economic, and social events that transpired in Brazil in recent years, including the sharp turn toward far-right politics materialized in the 2018 election of Jair Bolsonaro, a fervent admirer of Brazil’s military dictatorship. Anderson’s book is an excellent point of departure: it offers a lucid and insightful balance of Brazilian political economy since the 1990s, cutting through major macropolitical events, including the re-democratization of the country in the late 1980s; the instauration of the Plano Real in 1994, which stabilized the economy and controlled inflation; the unique combination of neoliberalism and social protection programs of the Lula years (2003-2010); the rise of Brazil’s international profile as the leading voice of the BRICS under Dilma Rousseff (2011-2016); and, finally, the gradual falling apart of the Left, the deepening of corruption investigations that put away some of the most prominent and influential figures in the country, the complete stagnation of the economy, the controversial ousting from office of the Workers’ Party, and the ascension of a new age of right-wing sympathizers. Anderson covers essential elements leading up to this “socio-political drama without equivalent in any other major state.” It is a fundamental reading to those interested in understanding the consequences of the expansion of conservative populism underway in different parts of the world today.


If you would like to contribute a book review to “On the Bookshelf” in the future, contact admin@sase.org.

This article is taken from the SASE Winter Newsletter 2019 – 2020. Click here to go back to the contents.