Alya Guseva caught up with Zsuzsanna Vargha, the current editor of the economic sociology_the european newsletter who is spending her sabbatical semester at MIT http://econsoc.mpifg.de/newsletter_current.asp
Zsuzsanna, many of our readers may not be familiar with the newsletter. Can you briefly tell us about its history, scope, distribution and goals.
“Newsletter” is actually a little misleading of a name for a journal of research papers, but the name is a remnant from the past. The Economic Sociology Newsletter is published by the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies in Germany. Every year it has a different Editor, who is invited to design the issues and invite contributions. The Newsletter was founded by the Max Planck in 1999, to foster the development of the then-novel field of economic sociology in Europe. The scope is broad-ranging from political economy to historical, cultural and social-technical approaches. It was designed to be distributed electronically, which at the time was an avant-garde thing to do. Today the subscribers, I have been told, number around 2,000.
What sorts of papers are published in the newsletter? Are they commissioned or do you also publish unsolicited pieces? Who are your typical authors?
Each issue of the Newsletter typically features a set of research papers. These are shorter in length than a regular journal article and either present original research or an original discussion of the author’s research projects (see some of the papers in “Working the market” issue by Sophie Dubuisson-Quellier and Pierre Francois). The authors are often located at European institutions and they are mostly sociologists, but neither are requisite attributes. As you may know, economic sociology in Europe is found in much broader berths—in management schools, geography departments, and engineering schools—so affiliations can be diverse. The authors come from all career stages, from very junior to very established scholars.
The Newsletter publishes pieces by invitation. Under my leadership these are mostly presenting new research, very often ideas that are shared publicly for the first time. Most Newsletter issues have been thematic, and I continue this tradition. I think this is a good venue for showcasing interesting problematics and emerging sub-fields – similarly to the previous Editor Asaf Darr’s approach. Some of the previous Newsletter issues have also featured position pieces on the state of an emerging field, for example on the sociology of finance, and many have featured interviews. This time I wanted to present readers with a wide range of empirical cases and theoretical approaches, and provide space for a variety of authors pushing the boundaries of our discipline, among them established authors engaging in new fields and early career authors introducing their projects to a wider public. The great advantage of the original format of the Newsletter, for both authors and readers, is that it allows and even welcomes a certain intellectual freshness.
You assumed the role of the editor this year, following a long list of well-known names like Olav Velthius, Nina Bandelj, Phillippe Steiner, Nigel Dodd, Patrik Aspers, Jens Beckert and Richard Swedberg, the last three, together with Johan Heilbron, also serving on the Newsletter’s editorial board. What are your goals for this year? How is the Newsletter different under your leadership?
My editorial goals for this year are twofold: first, to invite the economic sociology community to investigate how technical financial expertise shapes economic life and show the emerging sociological work that explores this area. Every Editor brings their own view of economic sociology and their own areas of expertise, and structures the Newsletter issues around themes they deem important. I have worked on the sociology of finance, looking at how finance is constituted in mass personalized sales interactions, and I have been studying the calculative infrastructure of accounting. These sub-fields have very strong bases in Europe. The Editorial Board invited me based on my research agenda in the sociology of finance and accounting. Accounting and insurance have been important in the formation of capitalism by establishing and redefining notions of risk, valuation and distribution.
The first issue which came out in November spanned across a wide range of questions around insurance, from marketing to discrimination and risk-based valuation, while the current issue coming out in March raises questions around old and new forms of valuation in accounting, from the epistemological status of financial statements to the social value of an organization’s performance. The third issue will focus on finance from the perspective of the consumer, the domestic, the household. This intersection of finance and consumption is rather new despite Zelizer’s work, and close to my own interests originating in the sociology of consumption (I also helped set up the ASA Section on Consumers and Consumption). This is also an area that you, Alya, have shaped in the US and beyond, not in the least by organizing topical sessions at the ASA and at SASE (Society for the Advancement of Socio-Economics), a core international economic sociology conference.
The second aim, or better, style, is to journalize the Newsletter even further—to focus on presenting longer research papers. This offers the opportunity for our readers to immerse themselves in the empirical stories, which is necessary to understand their significance. My view is that the stories of technical infrastructure require ample space to be told properly, and sociology has all too often wrapped them up neatly in the blanket of the “social”, so that the exact ways in which calculation matters have been obscured. The sociology of markets has contributed to doing away with this blanket in many ways. The longer papers also allow us to go beyond the technical description and appreciate the political stakes of tinkering with financial design.
The Newsletter is European, and you currently have a position at a European university though you are US-trained. Do you see a difference between European and American economic sociology traditions? Do you consider the Newsletter to be distinctly European or more of a bridge between European and American economic sociology communities?
I do see some differences, but these should also not be overstated, and the boundaries have been rather fluid in this field. The sociology of markets has typically been very transatlantic in its development, and the question of the social embeddedness of the economy has been an equally overarching one. There is also significant traffic of academics going between the US and Europe, which also helps link the discussions. True, some philosophical stances, which are fairly new or not used much in American sociology, are very important in Europe. I am talking about the influence of science and technology studies, but also of Foucault and other post-structuralist thinkers, on conceptualizing the economy and markets. You see this in some of the Newsletter articles. Having worked in both traditions, I see that some statements, which are completely accepted in one as a starting point, are deemed radical or superseded in the other. Some of the substantive interests have also been differently defined—in Europe the varieties of capitalism and the welfare state are key issues, which also have to do with the particular economies involved. But financialization has become global, and so has its sociology. Let’s also not forget that Bourdieu is alive and well on both sides of the Atlantic!
If there is a difference it is probably more in the style of sociology rather than in the topics, as many US sociologists have Europe as their object. Yet I think that robust conversations have overcome the differences in style. If anything, economic sociology could continue its path of becoming less Western-centric, wherever it is practiced. Not even mentioning beyond Europe for now, but within it, Eastern Europe, on which I have worked a lot, is not equally part of the discussions, nor present as a valued research site, and this is difficult to remedy, even if, ironically, Polanyi himself was Hungarian! The Newsletter has begun this process, however, for example with Vadim Radaev’s Editorship.
Overall, the Newsletter is distinctly European and it isn’t. On the one hand, it has aimed to present work being done primarily at European institutions, to a European, American, and increasingly global audience. On the other hand, we have had US-based and US-trained Editors and many contributors have also had intertwining trajectories. The Newsletter encourages this diversity by virtue of its structure, through the rotation of Editors, who shape discussions based on their varied backgrounds and takes on economic sociology. That is, the Editor of the Newsletter enjoys complete independence from the Board and is free to pursue his/her own intellectual agenda. Overall, my view is that the differences in styles of sociology tend to become secondary when we congregate around large shared intellectual issues. The questions may be asked a little differently, and the methods used may differ, too, but this only enhances our ability to address lasting questions about economic life. This is very much the view taken by the Newsletter, and as such it has acted as a bridge between the American and European economic sociology communities.