David Pedulla is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology and a Faculty Research Associate of the Population Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin. His research agenda examines the consequences of the rise of non-standard, contingent, and precarious employment in the United States as well as the processes leading to race and gender labor market stratification
Daniel Hirschman is a PhD candidate in Sociology at the University of Michigan and, starting in 2016, will be Assistant Professor of Sociology and Organizational Studies at Brown University. His dissertation shows how the availability of timely macroeconomic data transformed understandings of the role of the state in economic life. Other collaborative projects examine the interaction of financial innovation and financial regulation, the gender politics of insurance pricing, and race-based affirmative action at public universities.
Kimberly Kay Hoang is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Chicago. Hoang is the author of, Dealing in Desire: Asian Ascendancy, Western Decline, and the Hidden Currencies of Global Sex Work (2015) published by the University of California Press. David Pedulla is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology and a Faculty Research Associate of the Population Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin. His research agenda examines the consequences of the rise of non-standard, contingent, and precarious employment in the United States as well as the processes leading to race and gender labor market stratification.
Adam Goldstein is an economic sociologist with interests in finance, economic risk, and social inequality. His current research focuses on institutional change and social stratification in U.S. health insurance markets. He is currently a post-doctoral fellow in the RWJF Scholars in Health Policy Research Program. In 2016 he will assume a position as Assistant Professor of Sociology and Public Affairs at Princeton University.
Carly: What excites you about the future of economic sociology?
Adam: Two things. First there are many young scholars doing innovative and important work. You could really see that on display at this year’s ASA meeting. I don’t think the field is at risk of ossifying. Second, the fact that capitalism is so dynamic provides us with a never-ending supply of fresh subject matter. We’ve barely scratched the surface of interesting questions.
Daniel: I’m excited about the return of political economy. Or, perhaps better put, the reunification of economic sociology and political economy. Economic sociologists have always studied topics relevant to the big questions of political economy, but I think we’re starting to make those connections more explicit. There’s growing interest in corporate political behavior and the role of the corporate elite, the intersection of politics and finance, etc. At the same time, there’s been a lot of interesting work oneconomic sociology from an explicitly cultural lens on valuation and evaluation. I’m excited to see what happens when these two trends meet up.
Kimberly: I’m most excited about the continued scholarly engagement with other disciplines like anthropology, history, and political science. As a young section that only began in the 2000’s, much of economic sociology has focused on social stratification and on how market institutions intersect with broader historical, political, and cultural transformations. Scholars have gone through considerable lengths to connect the micro-practices, interactions, and relationships on the ground to broader institutional structures. We are now beginning to move in a direction that connects these institutions to actors on the ground (see for example works by: Karen Ho, Michael Taussig, Caitlin Zaloom, Anna Tsing, Michael Ralph among others). By connecting the micro-interactions on the ground with broader economic, social, and political transformations, we are beginning to have a clearer sense of how people move and shape markets.
David: I think innovative and exciting future work in economic sociology is likely to emerge from the areas where economic sociology intersects with other subfields in the discipline. Putting different sociological traditions into dialogue with each other raises new questions and new approaches to the study of economic life. Additionally, newer types of data – such as fine-grained digital trace data – as well as emerging forms of analysis have the potential to transform the way we think about economic activity. As economic sociologists more fully integrate these sources of information and tools of analysis into their work, I think the field is primed for substantial advances.
Carly: What are some of the “big questions” you’d like to see economic sociologists tackle (or that you are trying to tackle in your own work)?
David: New and changing forms of employment. Conversations about the changing economic landscape are everywhere – from the popular press, to discussions with family and friends, to academic journals. While there are many examples of these changes – recent debates over the legal status of Uber drivers comes to mind – they reveal that employers and workers increasingly find themselves in the midst of uncertain and contested social and economic terrain. What are the consequences of these changes for understanding processes of production, distribution, and consumption? How do these shifts influence the dynamics within organizations, occupations, and industries? And, more broadly, how do these changes in employment relations overlap with socio-demographic categories to mitigate or reproduce existing forms of social and economic inequality?
Kimberly: U.S. based scholars have long studied varieties of capitalism across North America, Western Europe and to a smaller extent Japan and Central Europe. I would like to see more work that extends this focus to other parts of the world and that theorizes new types of emergent capitalisms. How do we make sense of the new Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank or the New Development Bank with it’s BRICS partners that serve as new alternatives to the existing US-dominated World Bank and the IMF? New data from HSBC and UNCTAD indicate that the recycling of capital through New York and London will diminish over the long term. South-toSouth investment flows are increasingly important. How then do we make sense of these new flows? What role do emerging markets (like Argentina, Brazil, China, India, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Taiwan) play in global development? How does financialization vary in other parts of the world where people come to the market with different cultural practices?
Adam: Personally, I think the most interesting economic sociology is that which tries to make sense of significant institutional transformations in the economy. Financialization has been one of the big stories. But there are many others, too. I am particularly interested in the devolution of risk and how that transforms the relationship between households and markets. Ulrich Beck started theorizing about this decades ago, but it hasn’t attracted very much empirical research. On a related note, I think economic sociologists have a great deal to add to the study of stratification and debates about rising inequality. Marion Fourcade and Kieran Healy recently wrote a provocative piece about how systems of market classification like credit scoring shape life chances. I’m skeptical that the stratifying effects of those technologies are as great as they suggest, but it opens up a whole new set of important empirical questions. On the theoretical front I think that economic sociologists should engage more seriously with behavioral economics. Sociologists have written extensively about our stance vis-a-vis economics, but we’ve barely engaged with what is arguably the biggest intellectual trend in economics over the past two decades. At the very least we could benefit from a fresh set of null hypotheses.
Daniel: Two of the biggest issues facing sociology in general are economic inequality and climate change. I think economic sociology has a tremendous potential to contribute to both topics. The first we’ve taken up much more strongly (though there is much to do). The second we’ve largely ignored. I think the publication of the report by the ASA Task Force on Climate Change is a great time to take stock of what economic sociology in particular could bring to this pressing topic.
Beyond that, I think sociology needs to make technology, and technological change, more central. In economic sociology, this focus could take many forms, from engaging with broad economic debates about the role of skill- and capital-biased technological change in producing economic inequality, to detailed analysis of how particular tools facilitate new forms of work and potentially exploitation (i.e. just-in-time scheduling for retail workers, Uber and similar platforms). And of course, there’s already been fantastic work that pays close attention to the technologies of finance (somewhat ironically under the heading of “social studies of finance”) which explores how economic theory, organizational arrangements, particular software, and so on shaped the rise of finance and the recent financial meltdown.
Carly: What, to your mind, distinguishes economic sociology from related disciplines and sub-disciplines, such as economics or social stratification?
Adam: Structure and action, respectively. Of course I’m being glib here. We are separated from economics by a whole host of disciplinary and theoretical chasms. The demarcation with social stratification is blurrier and more incidental. Plenty of scholars have long bridged these subfields, particularly folks who study labor markets. But both could benefit from additional cross-fertilization. As I said above, I think the intersection of economic sociology and stratification is one of the more exciting areas for future research.
Daniel: This is a great question. In some ways, the gap between economics and economic sociology is large and growing larger, and I think that’s probably ok. In the 1980s-1990s, economic sociology spent a ton of time and energy trying to prove that a certain narrow vision of economics was inadequate to explain the functioning of real markets. That path yielded some impressive insights, but petered out a bit, in part because economics itself moved on. Behavioral economics, experimental economics, and the “credibility revolution” in applied microeconomics are very different undertakings than the post-war orthodoxy economic sociology spent so much time critiquing. In turn, contemporary economics has grown much closer to the contemporary sociology of stratification and development – a lot of careful empirical (often experimental or quasi-experimental) work on individuals and households along with increasing skepticism towards grand theoretical claims.particularly stratification. For example, Lauren Rivera’s research connects insights from economic sociology, social stratification, and cultural sociology to understand hiring processes and has influenced the way that many scholars think about employee selection. Similarly, Alexandra Kalev’s research has linked insights from economic sociology with scholarship on race and gender stratification to advance our understanding of inequality within organizations.
Kimberly: Economists often focus actors in controlled settings whereas sociologists study people and their interactions in their natural settings. Substantively, economic sociology at its core is very interdisciplinary. It is a place where economic approaches to financial markets can learn from history, religion, law, and even literature. Economic sociology at its core has a way of bringing diverse groups of scholars to the same table pushing the field in innovative directions. Economic sociology is methodologically diverse. It uses surveys, archival databases, social network analysis, ethnography, interview based case studies, as well as comparative historical methods. An increasing number of scholars are also employing mixed methods.
Carly: What do you think economic sociologists can do to increase their influence in the public sphere?
Daniel: Blog and tweet! The sociology blogs (including scatterplot, where I blog, and OrgTheory, which has wonderful economic sociologist bloggers) are relatively underdeveloped in comparison to political science and economics. There is a lively and surprisingly influential conversation happening in places like the Monkey Cage, Crooked Timber, and Marginal Revolution. The Monkey Cage is a particularly interesting success story. The blog started as a private one but was eventually brought onto the Washington Post’s site. It now serves as an incredible venue for political scientists to talk about their research in their own voices to a (relatively) larger audience. The Upshot at the New York Times is another similar venture, although one started by the paper. Related to that, the rise of explainer journalism has created a big opening for social scientists with relevant data. All of the writers at outlets like Vox are on Twitter, and they love to engage with social scientists about their stories. I recommend everyone take a look at a new report on “Defining Financialization” by journalist and blogger Mike Konczal and Neil Abernathy published by Roosevelt Institute. The report cites many economic sociologists, and puts their work into dialogue with economists, political scientists, and legal scholars. We need to figure out how to get more of our research into the hands of people like Konczal.
David: Two ways come to mind. First, there is more room for economic sociologists to work with the media. Insights from research in economic sociology are relevant to many conversations about public policy. One path forward would be to work more closely with journalists and media outlets to ensure that these insights reach the public, policymakers, and regulators. Second, policymakers are concerned with cause and effect: What effect will a particular policy intervention have on the problem the policymaker is trying to address? Given the concern among policymakers with causality, experimental and quasi-experimental research designs that provide empirical evidence about questions that are central to economic sociology may gain additional traction in the policy world.
Kimberly: Economic sociologists do a great deal of work in the public sphere already, but we can always do more. For many of my undergraduate students, making sense of the 2008 financial crisis was daunting. As educators and researchers, we must shift the public discourse away from a “crisis rhetoric” toward one that demystifies markets and exposes how markets reproduces inequality. A larger number of economic sociologists already have blogs, twitter accounts, and are a part of broader conversations through social media. Beyond the public, I think economic sociologists should focus on penetrating think tanks that inform economic policy, as key decisions are often made behind closed doors in an undemocratic fashion. The Scholar Strategy Network directed by Theda Skocpol is a great venue forscholars to engage in policy relevant conversations connected to a broader public.
Adam: That’s a difficult and important question. Economic sociology occupies a somewhat unique position among sociological subfields insofar as our area of study is dominated by another discipline. Economistic thinking (or at least some hackneyed version of it) is pretty well entrenched everywhere. So I don’t think we’re in a position to seize the pulpit in any paradigmatic sense. In the short-term, though, I think the most effective strategy to insert sociological perspectives into public debates is to focus on producing and publicizing sharp empirical findings. These can capture wide attention when they speak to policy debates and/or challenge conventional wisdom. One recent example is Christobal Young and Charles Varner’s work on migration responses to tax policies. They even elicited a response from Chris Christie! Only once economic sociology has amassed some public attention is there opportunity to voice influence. One tactic in this vein is to engage in more active media outreach. Online journalists and magazine writers are hungry for fresh stories based on academic findings. They especially love when stories come to them because they don’t have enough time to sit around prowling abstracts. I have a friend who writes about cities for The Atlantic. He is always asking me about research that could form the basis for a story. So economic sociologists ought to be pitching our research. Most of it won’t go viral or reach the New York Times, but there is no reason why we shouldn’t be filling the pages of Slate. Also, because others are doing the writing, this approach does not conflict with professional time demands to the same extent as traditional modes of popularization (e.g. writing op-eds, etc.).