Socio-Economics in a Changing World
Socio-economics is not a traditional field but rather a shared orientation: a concern for questions about the social roots and ramifications of the economy, a tendency to look for answers by transcending methodological and disciplinary boundaries, and a tradition of connecting ideas from different fields and geographic locations to generate new insights. This orientation is particularly important in 2020, at the start of a new decade that promises to accelerate uncertainty and unpredictability at the national and global scale.
Editor-in-Chief Laura Adler spoke with Professors Sophie Dubuisson-Quellier (Sciences Po and Centre de sociologie des organisations, France), Alice Evans (King’s College London, U.K.), Mariana Luzzi (Universidad Nacional de General Sarmiento, Argentina), Margaret Peters (University of California, Los Angeles, U.S.), and Wei Zhao (École Supérieure des Sciences Commerciales d’Angers, France). Each scholar raised crucial issues and emphasized novel directions for future research, using a variety of formats and styles to convey their insights. Below, we synthesize their responses to highlight key themes and contributions.
To begin with a focus on substantive topics, which issues merit more attention within socio-economics than they currently receive?
- Climate crisis: At the global scale, Evans emphasized the pressing issues of climate breakdown and variation in social and political responses to the environmental crisis. In particular, she stressed the need for more research on the causes of progress, including studies of places that have made significant improvements or have implemented effective regulation, providing lessons for other states and social movements.
- Social movements and the economy: Dubuisson-Quellier pointed to the need to extend the exploration of a fundamental issue: the connection between social movements and the capitalist system. Citing room to build on the insights of Viviana Zelizer, Luc Boltanski, and Eve Chiapello, she argued that we should focus on advancing the understanding of how social movements force economic institutions, organizations, and markets to change.
- Gender, domestic labor, and childrearing: At the personal scale, Peters explained that the value created in the process of childrearing still receives little attention in socio-economics. Alongside other types of less-visible work, like domestic and emotional labor, childrearing is a critical source of value in society, with connections to other facets of the economy that deserve greater scrutiny.
- A more ambitious socio-economics: For Zhao, the primary shortcoming of socio-economics has been its willingness to accept a marginal position in explaining the same phenomena as economists. Socio-economics can realize its potential by picking up the project started by Weber and continued by Parsons: a comprehensive understanding of how social order emerges in modern capitalist society, encompassing phenomena at the micro scale, such as the relationships among internal departments of a corporation, and at the macro scale, acting as a “science of history” to describe the coevolution of economic organization with social meanings, values, norms, and laws.
How might scholars collaborate across disciplinary and international boundaries to address these new concerns?
- Crossing disciplinary boundaries: In recent years, socio-economics has grown into a substantial field around the world, but Luzzi points out that there remains a need to increase the engagement between scholars of socio-economics and other fields. Dubuisson-Quellier noted two areas where socio-economics can learn from other disciplines. From management studies, we have the opportunity to develop the understanding of ethics, corporate social responsibility, and how organizations work internally, including how decisions are made, how corporate power develops, and how competition affects organizational behavior. By engaging with cultural theory, she noted, we can advance the understanding of consumption and consumer behavior, and how these shape the economy.
- Crossing national boundaries: Because the U.S. is a work-centered and individualistic culture, Peters observed, in the U.S. socio-economics tends to imply issues related income and usually focuses on the individual level, rather than engaging questions of group or collective status. U.S. scholars can develop a stronger understanding of socio-economic status by exploring with cultural variation in the meaning of both socio-economics and the notion of status. These benefits are coming to the fore in a book project, for which Peters is collaborating with other researchers to understand how conceptions of dignity vary across social contexts, including how social relations like connections with family and community endow us with dignity.
- Focus on phenomena, not schools of thought: Innovative theory often arises when scholars adopt a “bottom-up and down-to-earth” approach, starting from the empirical phenomenon without imposing particular concepts or theories. This is the strength of contemporary French socio-economics, according to Zhao: where American and Chinese scholars often follow particular theoretical innovations, French and other European researchers develop novel insights by drawing from multiple disciplines to explain a well-observed issue.
- Changing the professional incentives: The value of cross-disciplinary and cross-national research is immense, Evan explains, but there are obstacles facing scholars who try to conduct this type of research. While interdisciplinary scholarship has fantastic intellectual pay-offs, is not always individually rational: crossing disciplines may lead to novel insights that are challenging to introduce into traditional disciplinary conversations and disciplinary journals, conferences, and committees may overlook or devalue interdisciplinary research. For the benefit of socio-economics, we should build communities of scholarship where interdisciplinary research—and the work required to engage across disciplinary borders—is valued.
Which methodological and theoretical developments deserve greater attention in the field?
- Wider embrace of disciplinary methods: As a field that encompasses multiple disciplines, socio-economics provides its scholars the unique opportunity to embrace methods from other disciplines. From the field of development, Evans explained, other scholars can learn to leverage comparative analysis, which improves both general theorizing and sharpens insights into specific cases. From political science, Peters notes, scholars can reap the benefits of progress in experimental methods.
- A new theory of the state: For Dubuisson-Quellier, there is a pressing need to enrich the theory of the state, which is too often limited to a Weberian perspective that disproportionately focuses on the U.S. model of a “weak state” that uses only coercive regulation. New theories are needed to study contemporary global problems. She highlights that the work of historians points to a more diverse set of ways in which economic organizations are porous to the state and its priorities.
- Social norms and norm perception: To understand global issues like climate change—including successful and failed attempts to address it—Evans notes that we need to advance the study of social norms and, specifically, the issue of norm perceptions: how our beliefs about what others expect or value shapes our individual and collective behavior. Norm perception can enable or constrain collective action. In Evans’s words: “If activists never see radical reform, they may underestimate resistance, lower their ambitions, and despondently comply with the status quo. Yet if activists observe peer mobilization, securing concessions, they may gain collective efficacy, and mobilize relentlessly.” If socio-economics hopes to chart a path toward addressing global crises, understanding how individuals, groups, and social movements learn from one another is essential.
- A global perspective: As Zhao put it: “A viable economic sociology should be applicable to every economy in the world.” As a field, he argues, our goal should be to develop theory that can shed light on many different economic arrangements, so that theory developed in Europe can help explain transformations in the Chinese economy, while Chinese theorizing can help to illuminate developments in the Americas. This can have benefits within and beyond socio-economics: “In an economically globalized world, theory is the best carrier of international cooperation of social sciences.”
- More data: Any efforts to leverage collective resources and expand the amount, enhance the quality, and broaden access to data will be a boon to all researchers, but especially those who are interested in issues that cross disciplinary boundaries. Peters notes the importance of current efforts in the areas of inequality and migration to access more data and merge datasets to enrich analysis.
Today’s students will be the leading scholars of the next generation. Their interests both reflect the current world and foreshadow the scholarship to come. We asked which topics are particularly interesting to students today.
- Financialization and digitalization: Dubuisson-Quellier explained that students are increasingly interested in the changing infrastructure of the economy, including the rise of financialization, the response to the 2008 financial crisis, and the growing dominance of digital companies, digital socializing, and digital currencies. Luzzi noted that financialization has also drawn attention in Latin America, particularly in the context of the financialization of household economies and new forms of welfare.
- Migration, inequality, environment: Peters explained that the three interconnected issues of migration, inequality, and the environment reflect students’ engagement with both local contexts—for instance, in Southern California, where the U.S.-Mexico border is proximate and wildfires are increasingly ferocious—but also the global context, as students emphasize the salience of the Syrian refugee crisis and the broad social trend towards growing inequality.
- Money and monies: In Argentina, Luzzi explains, students are increasingly interested in money, its uses, and its forms, including the issue of monetary plurality. As in California, these interests have arisen in response to recent developments in the local area: in addition to international topics like cryptocurrency, students in Argentina are responding to the multiplicity of monies including the use of the U.S. dollar, the invention of alternative currencies in Argentinian states, and the return of local barter networks.
Interviews conducted and edited by Laura Adler