What is Economic Sociology?

John Markley

The study of how economic structures and exchanges influence society, and how society influences economic systems, is called economic sociology. Economic sociologists study subjects such as the role of religion in the development of economic systems, how the division of labor affects social ties and how capitalism and industrialization shape the way people live, among other subjects. It should not be confused with socioeconomics, though sometimes there is overlap between the two fields. Socioeconomics generally has a narrower focus than economic sociology and is the study of the social effects of particular economic events, such as the closing of a factory or a shift in consumption patterns, rather than large-scale institutions. It also should not be confused with fields of economics that use economic principles to analyze social phenomena, such as the economics of religion, the economics of the family or cultural economics.

Sculpture of Karl Marx (foreground) and Friedrich Engels.
Sculpture of Karl Marx (foreground) and Friedrich Engels.

Contemporary economic sociology, often referred to as the new economic sociology to distinguish it from earlier work in the field during the 19th and early 20th centuries, places great emphasis on the social consequences and meaning of economic exchanges and their effects on other social relationships. It also frequently emphasizes how economic activities take place within a web of other social ties and relationships, a concept called embeddedness. Important thinkers figures in this area include Harrison White and Mark Granovetter, a man whose work on the effects of the strength of social bonds and the spread of information through social networks helped spark the field's resurgence.

Herbert Spencer believed that militant societies encouraged militarism, hierarchy and subordination.
Herbert Spencer believed that militant societies encouraged militarism, hierarchy and subordination.

Many important works of what is now considered early economic sociology predate the emergence of sociology as a specialized academic discipline, because the division of the social sciences into distinct fields such as sociology, economics and psychology had not yet occurred in the early and mid-19th century. Like sociology as a whole, early economic sociology began as an outgrowth of subjects such as philosophy and political economy. Economic sociology is often regarded as beginning in the first half of the 19th century, although 18th-century figures such as Montesquieu are sometimes considered forerunners. Alexis de Tocqueville is often regarded as an important pioneer in the field, through works such as Democracy in America and The Old Regime and the Revolution.

The thinker most prominently associated with the application of sociology to economic systems is Max Weber, who worked in the late 19th and very early 20th centuris. Weber's enormously influential book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism argued that Protestantism, and especially Calvinism, was an important factor in the rise of capitalism in Northern Europe. According to Weber, Protestantism had an important effect on economic attitudes by emphasizing and praising the moral virtue of hard work and productivity in mundane, secular occupations. At the same time, the loss of a trusted, absolute religious authority in the form of the Catholic Church created greater feelings of religious uncertainty that led people to pursue success in worldly matters through labor and commerce as a sign of God's blessing and approval. In Weber's theory, this encouraged productivity, rational self-interest, and entrepreneurialism, thus creating a more favorable environment for the growth of capitalism.

Karl Marx was an extremely influential figure in economic sociology during the 19th century. Marx's approach to the study of society, now commonly called historical materialism, treated economic factors as the foundation of all social phenomena. In classical Marxist theory, a society's “mode of production” — its technology, productive resources and economic relationships — is the primary force determining the nature of that society, including its social, cultural and legal institutions, and it is changes in that mode of production that drive changes in other areas of society. Marx's ideas would be an important influence on a number of prominent 20th-century economic sociologists, such as Theodor Adorno and Herbert Marcuse.

Another major economic sociologist was Herbert Spencer, who believed that a society's nature and structure were heavily influenced by the primary means by which wealth was obtained in a society. In what Spencer called “militant” societies, wealth was primarily accumulated through force and compulsion, usually by an elite who controlled the state. In “industrial” societies — with “industrial” used in the sense of work or productivity, rather than referring specifically to manufacturing — wealth was gained primarily through labor and voluntary exchange. Spencer believed that societies that were primarily militant encouraged values such as militarism, hierarchy and subordination, and more industrial societies evolved toward greater individuality, equality and mutual sympathy between people. The extent to which a society is militant or industrial is a spectrum, not a binary division, and Spencer believed that as a society moved to a more industrial or more militant mode, its values and institutions would evolve in ways appropriate to it.

Some argue that Calvinism was an important factor in the rise of European capitalism.
Some argue that Calvinism was an important factor in the rise of European capitalism.

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