Read any good books lately? That’s the question we asked a handful of scholars this summer, with the nudge that thoughtprovoking books can come from beyond sociology. Here’s what they had to say.
NEIL FLIGSTEIN (UC BERKELEY)
The Moral Background: An Inquiry in the History of Business Ethics By Gabriel Abend Princeton University Press, 2014, 416 pages
Economic sociologists and cultural sociologists have spent a lot of time talking about the issue of morality in everyday life recently. But, so far, a useful conceptual framework has not existed to think about how people make moral decisions. Gabriel Abend develops a thoughtful framework and uses it to consider business ethics. This is less a book about economic sociology and markets and more a book about how to think about morality as a multilevel problem. Abend argues that morality consists of three levels: moral and immoral behavior, or the behavioral level; moral understandings and norms, or the normative level; and the moral background, which includes what moral concepts exist in a society, what moral methods can be used, what reasons can be given, and what objects can be morally evaluated at all. This background underlies the behavioral and normative levels and supports, facilitates, and enables them.
ASHLEY MEARS (BOSTON UNIVERSITY)
Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding By Sandra Blaffer Hrdy Belknap Press, 2009, 432 pages
This is an evolutionary anthropology of parenting and empathy, which are two things I didn’t necessarily think of as belonging together, but this book completely changed how I think about family and what it means to raise a human. The thesis is provocative: for homo sapiens to evolve as we did, human mothers needed help — baby humans are so costly, mothers need the help of fathers, siblings, grandparents and all other “alloparents,” or non-maternal care providers, to raise their young. We then get natural selection on those babies and mothers most capable of eliciting help, i.e., through social skills to bargain for it or, in the case of babies, by making eye contact and cute goo goo ga ga babbles. As humans evolved to be cooperative breeders, we had to learn how to develop empathy. As an economic sociologist and gender scholar, this makes me even more bewildered as I contemplate the near absence of childcare supports in the United States. Women get 12 weeks of unpaid leave from work, we live far away from our relatives, quality childcare is private and expensive. None of this is conducive for raising humans.
JENS BECKERT (MAX PLANCK INSTITUTE FOR THE STUDY OF SOCIAL SCIENCES, COLOGNE)
The Empire of Value: A New Foundation for Economics By André Orléan MIT Press, 2014, 360 pages
Questions of value and valuation have become important research topics for economic sociologists in recent years. The French economist André Orléan has just published a study on this subject which is of great interest also to economic sociologists. Orléan is one of the founders of the French regulation school and has worked especially on money and finance. His book combines concerns of the regulation school with topics discussed in the other vital French school of heterodox economics, the école des conventions. Orléan makes extensive use of the sociological classics, mainly the works of Durkheim, Simiand, and Weber. The result is thus as much a sociological book as it is a book in economics. The Empire of Value starts with a critique of the explanation of value in the economics tradition. Orléan focuses on classical economics and the neoclassical tradition, including general equilibrium theory and the efficient market hypothesis. Both of these traditions advocate a substantialist notion of value, attributing it either to labor or to utility. Based on the Knightian notion of uncertainty, Orléan rejects concepts of substantial, intrinsic, or fundamental value that are central to mainstream economics. Instead, he argues that value is entirely a social phenomenon and must be understood from a relational perspective. Value is not inherent in goods, but is created in the process of exchange itself. The theory of value that Orléan proposes refers mostly to the Keynesian idea of valuation as a mimetic process. Value is constituted through the observation of the behavior of other market actors and its imitation. This implies that markets are not moving toward equilibria, but are creating bubbles that burst when evaluation conventions prevailing in the market lose their credibility for actors. The central themes of The Empire of Value are money, financial markets, and financial crisis. The book is also a comment on the most recent financial crisis and the role standard economics played in it. The Empire of Value is an excellent read, theoretically sophisticated, thought-provoking, and a milestone in addressing a major issue in economic and sociological scholarship: how to explain the valuation of economic goods and services.
SARAH SOULE (STANFORD UNIVERSITY)
Ironfire: A Novel of the Knights of Malta and the Last Battle of the Crusades By David Ball Delacorte Press, 2003, 688 pages
As summer is winding down, I am going to submit a title for an historical novel, that I quite enjoyed reading for summer fun. Ironfire by David Ball. The book is about the Knights of Malta, and chronicles the period at the end of the Crusades. I read it because I was traveling to Malta on vacation, but as an economic and organizational sociologist, I was drawn into the role of religion and social class in the contestation for power over the strategically important island of Malta. A really fascinating and compelling read.
DONALD MACKENZIE (UNIVERSITY OF EDINBURGH)
Flash Boys: Cracking the Money Code By Michael Lewis W. W. Norton & Company, 2014, 288 pages
High-frequency trading or HFT (the automated, ultrafast trading of large numbers of shares or other financial instruments) is an important component of today’s financial markets, and a fascinating topic. It forces us to consider a deep, difficult question: what becomes of economic sociology when the direct economic actors are no longer human beings but computer algorithms? Published work in economic sociology on HFT is still sparse, although impressive ethnographic research is being conducted by Ann-Christina Lange of the Copenhagen Business School and Robert Seyfert of the University of Konstanz. Given that, one has to turn to wider sources. Flash Boys, published last year, has its flaws: Lewis shoehorns complex and contradictory materials into a simplistic morality tale. Some of the underlying investigative journalism, however, is first-rate: I’ve been researching HFT for five years, and I found stuff in the book that I didn’t know. I particularly enjoy Lewis’s focus on the material infrastructure of trading: the book begins with a fascinating chapter on the construction, initially in secret, of a new, more direct – and therefore faster – fiber-optic cable between Chicago (where futures are traded) and northern New Jersey, where US shares are traded. If you are a specialist in finance, you’ll probably already have read Flash Boys. If you haven’t, I’d recommend it. Lewis writes well, and it’s a perfect book for an airplane trip or train journey.