TEACHING ECONOMIC SOCIOLOGY

As the range and scope of research in economic sociology has expanded, teaching insights from the subfield to undergraduates has become at once more valuable and more complicated. How can instructors construct courses that navigate such diverse theoretical approaches and an array of substantive topics, while also making the material interesting and digestible to undergraduates?

To find out, we asked two veteran instructors of economic sociology: Mark Mizruchi, Professor of Sociology and Business Administration at the University of Michigan, and Sarah Quinn, Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Washington, who offered these insights:

How do you go about crafting your syllabus? What topics does it cover, and why did you choose to focus on these particular areas?

Mark: Once I’ve established a syllabus for a class, I usually tinker with it from year to year, but I tend to stick with the basic format over time. That’s a long-winded way of saying that it’s been a long time since I first conceived my class in economic sociology. What I was generally trying to accomplish was to give students a historical sense of the field- where it came from, how it developed, important theoretical controversies, and how they apply to contemporary issues. My goal was to begin with the classical roots of economic sociology, discussing differences between sociological and economic ways of looking at the world, the ideas of Adam Smith, Polanyi, Marx, and Weber, the rise of the large corporation (which led to theoretical debates on the nature of economic action- from which we discuss transaction cost economics, neo-institutional theory, and the “embeddedness” framework), and then a focus on topics, beginning inside the firm with some organizational theory, then discussing labor markets, and then moving on to relations between business and the larger society, including material I added on the financial crisis after it occurred. I knew that I wouldn’t be able to cover every area in the field, but I was trying to get a relatively broad sweep.

Sarah: My approach varies with the class. For example, one of my favorite economic sociology courses to teach, called “Extreme Markets,” uses a Trojan horse approach to syllabus design. The class is an undergrad seminar on culture and politics in markets, but I teach it through case studies of particularly intimate, taboo, unusual, or risky exchanges. The compelling cases get students excited about potentially dry and intimidating topics like property rights and risk management. Into Thin Air, Jon Krakuaer’s account of the 1996 Mt. Everest disaster, was the inspiration for the class. The book tells the story of how eight people died after a bottleneck on the mountain slowed the climbers’ progress, leaving them exposed when a blizzard hit. In any market, competition can drive people out of business; the harsh climate of Everest meant that when efforts to coordinate guided trips up the mountain failed, people actually died. It is a great way to teach undergraduates about how shared understandings, institutions, and government regulations to create a stable social order in markets. For that course, I chose topics based on giving students the tools to understand the case, and then looked for dramatic illustrations of the subject at hand. For example, in a unit on the role of the state in stabilizing markets, we read Vadim Volkov’s ethnography of post soviet gangs. This design would not work for every class. It is less relevant for graduate students who are already invested in the course materials. But I find that it has been a nice way to introduce students to economic sociology who might not otherwise have been drawn to the subject.

What do you hope students remember most after taking your course? What’s the big take-away?

Mark: What I try to get them to see is that everything that we think of as economic in fact has some kind of social component. In other words, economic action is social action, in that it occurs within a particular social context, and even markets have to be understood within that framework. If the students are economics majors, as many of them typically are, I hope it helps them view the economics they learn within a broader context.

Sarah: I want students to remember that markets are simply one of the many things people do in groups, and so we can use all the tools of sociology to understand them. Instead of being intimidated by finance or deferring to economic systems, we can use the tools of sociology to demystify them.

What advice or guidance do you have for future economic sociology instructors? What should they keep in mind when designing a course?

Mark: I approached the class from a particular perspective, and I’m not sure that everyone would want to follow my advice. My goal was to speak primarily to the economics majors and those who were skeptical of sociological explanations. I figured that the sociology majors were already going to be convinced, and that what they needed was mostly information, but that the economics majors and other skeptics needed to be persuaded to look at the world in a different way. Some of the sociology students therefore complained that the class was oriented too much toward economics, but I expected that, and it was a price I was willing to pay. So I’m not sure my approach is for everyone.

Sarah: Wired Magazine has terrific articles on markets. Craigslist ads make great examples. You can have fun with course content without compromising on substance and rigor. And syllabi, like papers, get better with revision. How can we make economic sociology courses more meaningful and relevant to students’ lives?

Mark: I wasn’t aware that we were not already making them relevant, but I do think that today’s students are harder to reach than earlier generations were (or else I’m just getting old! It’s probably a combination of both). I try to fill my classes with examples that I hope are relevant to them (I talk a lot about the job market, for example). I’ve tried making the class more interactive, which is difficult to do in a large lecture. One useful tactic is to survey the class at the beginning of the term and ask them why (other than the convenience of the time or the need to fulfill a requirement) they decided to take the class and what they are hoping to get out of it. At least that can give you a feel for where they’re coming from.

Sarah: I recently started off a class by collecting relevant examples from students’ lives, and I have never had a more engaged audience. I began our session of Mauss’s The Gift by presenting students with a set of questions: Did you ever go to an event despite not wanting to attend? If so, why? Did you ever invite someone you don’t like to a party? Why? Did you ever get a gift that made you uncomfortable? What about the gift bothered you? And so on. Students had about 10 minutes to discuss these questions in small groups and then were invited to share their stories with the class. After that I launched into a lecture on The Gift, using their examples as illustrations. They loved it, and I made a note to try this structure again. One caveat, however: when students are making connections to their own lives sensitive issues sometimes come to the surface. It is important to have set clear guidelines for respectful discussion beforehand. For more challenging readings I’ll often do this kind of exercise at the end of a unit. Years ago I finished up a section on Marx with a “mix tape” activity. Students were asked to pick a song to analyze in one or two paragraphs using Marx’s theory, supporting their arguments with quotes from the original text. In class students presented their analysis and we played some of the songs. To this day whenever I hear Death Cab for Cutie’s “When Soul Meets Body” I think of the student who used it as an example of praxis. So, in general I find that students are eager and able to make connections between the readings and their own lives. I just need to remember to give them theopportunity to do it.

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