Simone Polillo (Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia)
How did you become interested in economic sociology? How has this interest shaped your academic career and research endeavors? What makes you excited about being an economic sociologist?
First of all, thank you for the opportunity to share some of my thoughts with the readers of Accounts! There are many things I find exciting about economic sociology, and on top of that, my interest in the field has shifted over time. In college, I majored in economics and social theory (I went to a liberal arts college where majors were self-directed), and at that point, I was very interested in issues of global inequality and economic development. Graduate school in sociology opened up a new world to me. I was lucky enough to work with people of the caliber of Mauro Guillen and Randall Collins. When I realized you could study economic systems empirically, comparatively, and historically, that’s when I also realized I wanted to be part of this field. I start focusing on the sociology of money, reading voraciously from world-system inspired theories (like Geoffrey Ingham’s Capitalism Divided and Giovanni Arrighi’s Long Twentieth century) to the microsociology of money (Viviana Zelizer and the terrific community of scholars she fostered). Now I am increasingly interested in the sociology of economic expertise and specifically in how applied economics informs not only economic knowledge, but our understanding of data in general.
How do you think your work, and economic sociology more broadly, can influence the social, economic, and political landscapes of contemporary society? Are there particular outcomes you hope your research achieves?
This is a particularly difficult question. From a political standpoint, and thanks to the terrific work of fellow economic sociologists, it’s becoming increasingly clear to me that expertise is mobilized selectively in the political process. As a result, there is no linear relationship between what we produce as scholars and what political leaders, and potential audiences and constituencies, do with our work. I think one of the most powerful things we can do as economic sociologists is to create strong networks of knowledge, striving for synthesis as well as breadth, so that we can at least influence the shape of public conversations, if not the content. To give you an example from my own research on financial economics, I am interested in how some financial economists are able to turn fairly simple statistical concepts into concepts heavily imbued with economic value (think of the efficient market hypothesis as an illustration), whereas their more bayesian counterparts are less successful at shaping the discipline than they are at shaping markets. Both camps strive to legitimize their knowledge by first struggling over what constitutes an appropriate test, and what an appropriate test should achieve. But different tests serve different purposes. As economic sociologists, to be sure, we don’t have to convince markets that what we produce is valuable (though we are increasingly successful at that). So the challenge is to synthesize what we know in the field and map out venues that promise the most innovative breakthroughs.
Your work traverses a number of subfields within sociology. How do you bridge the diversity of these areas? In what ways is this beneficial for your work?
I can think of a very large number of economic sociologists whose work could be described in such terms–so one easy way to answer this would be to simply point that the diversity of the field is a crucial source of creative strength. But the issue of how to communicate across sub-disciplinary divides is a crucial one. My preferred way of spanning many different areas of specialization is through historical research. In fact, historical genealogies often uncover common origins for widely disparate research communities. It’s really important to contextualize debates, let alone beliefs, institutions, and ideologies, so as to get a sense of what remains constant in the presence of constant pressure to change. The second way I find it useful to turn the diversity of the field into a source of strength, is to mine it for insights into the perennial sociological question of stability and change. Thinking of economic processes historically is very valuable in this respect as well.
Please tell us about any projects you have in the works right now.
I am currently working on a book manuscript on the rise and consolidation of financial economics from the point of view not of theory or of its interpenetration with markets, but rather from the point of view of methods and applied economics. I think the way financial economics uses methods to consolidate itself into an autonomous discipline yields insights into broader questions about the role data play in the production of knowledge, and about the role different methods play in communicating knowledge within a discipline and beyond. In this respect, financial economics can also inform our understanding of the rise of big data. I published a preliminary sketch of this in a 2015 special issue of the European Journal of Sociology. A second project focuses on the modes that central banks communicate to the public. We have a lot of literature on the relationship between central banks and economic and political elites, but not nearly as much on the relationship between the central bank and broader publics. Partly this is because central banks have for a long time practiced secrecy and eschewed any contact with public opinion. I am focusing on the Bank of Italy since it historically fits this profile of austere and impartial detachment from the daily struggles of economic life. However, in the late 1960s through the 1970s–a period of intense and bloody class conflict–by virtue of its increased engagement with public debate, the Italian Central Bank finds in the Italian Communist Party one of its major supporters. Understanding this unexpected convergence can give us important insights into the nature of economic authority in capitalist democracies.