With three years under its belt and rapidly growing attendance, the annual Economic Sociology Conference provides an opportunity for members of our subfield, particularly graduate students on the market, to present their work and reflect on the state of the field. We spoke with past organizers of the conference to learn more about the intellectual history and planned trajectory of this important event.

The first conference, organized by Jason Greenberg in collaboration with Gino Cattani and Delia Baldassarri, took place at New York University in 2013. As Greenberg explains, his motivation for creating the conference was to establish a more robust community of economic sociologists in the New York area:
As a graduate student in economic sociology at MIT, I benefited greatly from the community of scholars working in economic sociology in the Cambridge area (not to mention the classes offered)…When I moved to NYU I realized how valuable the community I experienced in Cambridge was, how much I benefited from it, and, ultimately, how much I missed it. Notwithstanding a cluster of excellent universities and scholars, there simply was no robust community of economic or organizational sociologists in the greater NYC area. Gino [Cattanti] and I discussed organizing a workshop in economic sociology that would help foster and maintain a community of scholars interested in economic sociology in the greater NY area. When Delia Baldassarri joined NYU, I asked her if she would be interested in helping to organize such a workshop. She answered in the affirmative. The rest is history.

Subsequent organizers at Yale in 2014 (Olav Sorenson, Jim Baron, and Marissa King) and MIT in 2015 (Kate Kellogg, Ezra Zuckerman, Emilio J. Castilla, and Roberto Fernandez) shared Greenberg’s goals of promoting greater community among economic sociologists, bringing greater coherence to the subfield, and providing an opportunity for job market candidates to showcase their research. Although the conference’s format has changed over the years, it has always included presentations on the “state of the field” from eminent scholars. The most recent conference featured, among other expert presenters, Devah Pager speaking on employer discrimination, Shelley Correll on gender and organizations, and Mark Mizruchi on the political sociology of corporate action. As Sorenson notes, the organizers felt it particularly important for scholars to take stock of broad fields like economic sociology, in which members publish in a variety of venues and work in a range of institutional settings:
[What I found most useful about the conference was] hearing summaries of what has been happening recently in research areas of interest to me but which are not directly related to the research that I have been doing personally. Because economic and organizational sociology gets published across a wide range of outlets these days — everything from AJS, ASR, and Sociological Science to ASQ and Organization Science to field journals in sociology and management — it’s hard to stay abreast of the field simply by scanning journal tables of contents.

In addition to lending coherence to a larger research agenda, the conference also brings together economic sociologists housed within both sociology and management departments, an important feat in a subfield as frequently fragmented as our own. As Kellogg, Zuckerman, Castilla, and Fernandez explain:
This [conference] is perhaps especially valuable for students (and faculty) who are not in sociology departments. A conference like this, which is hosted by a business school but which includes many participants from sociology departments, helps to reinforce their (our) identity as sociologists. It also promotes awareness of economic sociology among non-sociologists.

The conference offers particularly meaningful benefits for young scholars. Conference attendees are asked to nominate one outstanding economic sociology student from their doctoral program who is on the job market that year to present in a poster session during lunch. This is a favorite aspect of the conference for both organizers and participants. Job market candidates who presented at the poster session noted that the format had many benefits. The poster presentations helped to raise candidates’ profiles within the subfield, allowed them to get feedback on their work at a critical time, and gave them a valuable opportunity to practice and refine their “elevator speeches” in preparation for campus visits.

Thus far, participation has been largely limited to the invited conference presenters, presenters’ doctoral candidates on the job market, and students, affiliates, or graduates of the host institutions. The 2016 event will be held at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. We admire and applaud the work of these economic sociologists, and extend our gratitude to Jason Greenberg, Olav Sorenson, Marissa King, Kate Kellogg, Ezra Zuckerman, Emilio J. Castilla, and Roberto Fernandez for their prompt and insightful responses.



Anthropologists on household in times of finance

How does the growing significance of finance in the global political economy reshape the contours of everyday economic life of one our most fundamental units of analysis, the household? How might we observe financialization in ethnographic fieldwork? These and other questions organized the conversation in the panel “Rethinking the Household for the Age of Finance” in the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association in Denver this past November.

The session, sponsored by the Association for Political and Legal Anthropology and by the the Society for Economic Anthropology, featured five papers by graduate student and early career researchers and two sets of comments from distinguished discussants. The goal of the panel (organized and co-chaired by two PhD candidates, Ainur Begim from Yale and Mateusz Halawa from The New School for Social Research) started from the premise that more conceptual work is needed to understand how these kinds of households become embedded in global financial flows and networks through consumer loans, mortgages, investment instruments, and individual retirement accounts. As these financial forms and practices spread well beyond the Anglo-American context and as global financial crises and neoliberal policies create new conditions of uncertainty and precarity, the household as a financial unit becomes critical for the study of everyday life post-2008.

Mateusz Halawa’s paper, Making a Living: How Young Couples in Warsaw Start and Practice a Household was co-authored by Marta Olcoń-Kubicka, with whom Halawa studies the economic lives of young family households in Warsaw, Poland. They explored practices of handling money and financial instruments among the emerging middle-class in the first postsocialist generation. Many notions of the household reify it as a functional, bounded, and stable unit. In contrast, their paper treated the household as an ongoing process, not a ready-made thing, and attended to the practices of running a household in which individual desires and deeds converge and diverge, some resources are pooled while other are kept separate, and the very virtues and futures of living together are negotiated and, at times, questioned. The paper tracked the domestic uses of money and finance in order to argue that these intimate transactions not so much happen in the household, as they are constitutive of it.Read More »


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

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.

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As more economic sociologists take academic positions within business and policy schools, they face unique challenges and opportunities. How do they articulate the importance of our field for high-paying customers looking for actionable takeaways for non-academic jobs? To investigate where the ‘rubber meets the road,’ we spoke with two economic sociologists teaching master’s students in professional schools: John Walsh, Professor in the School of Public Policy at Georgia Institute of Technology, and Michel Anteby, Associate Professor of Organizational Behavior at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business. They offer these insights:

We’ve noticed that in professional schools it’s a lot easier to find economic sociologists teaching organizational theory than economic sociology more broadly defined. Why do you think that is, and what might be the implications?
John Walsh: I think that organization theory is an established part of the curriculum in schools of management, public administration, and policy, and the economic sociology perspective is a fruitful way of understanding organizations and presenting that material to students. One implication of this is that some of the broader meaning of the economic sociology perspective may get less coverage in the curriculum, although in an organizations course, there is often flexibility to incorporate related perspectives.

Michel Anteby: Most professional school students hope to manage at some point a private, public, or non-profit organization. To do so, their immediate attention is on their next career move (i.e., the stepping stone toward that goal) and the lessons they can bring to their new employers. Thus, focusing on the organizational implications of any theory is an easier fit with students’ aspirations, than, say, discussing one of my favorite articles: the commemoration of the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington D.C. (Wagner-Pacifici & Schwartz’s 1991 AJS piece). The implication is that we need to tailor the presentation of our research to students’ most pressing interests.

Which lessons of economic sociology do you emphasize when teaching professional students? How do you convey these lessons to a classroom of people likely looking for actionable takeaways for non-academic jobs? What is particularly challenging about this?
John: My goal is to present general theories of behavior and lots of examples. I tend to focus on empirical papers—some qualitative and some quantitative, so that the students can learn to generalize to the examples they are likely to find in their own setting. In my course, there is usually a mix of policy, management, and engineering students, and so I tend to mix examples from lots of different types of organizations, as well as to draw from students’ own examples with organizations they are familiar with. Even though my class is very theory oriented, students come to an understanding of how those theories can help inform their experiences and decision-making at work.

The challenge is getting the students to suspend disbelief for the duration of the class. Rather than focusing on specific applied management tools, I am focusing on theories of how organizations work. From there, the students can develop their own strategies for problem solving in the situations that arise in their particular settings. To do this, I try to keep the material lively, link it to a variety of contemporary examples, and try to get them to see some of the beauty of an economic sociology perspective.

Michel: The three main teaching venues for economic sociologists in professional schools are courses in (micro) organizational behavior, (macro) strategy, and ethics. While there are obviously other teaching venues (e.g., elective master’s courses or doctoral seminars), the three courses tend to be required of all students in master’s curriculums and therefore need to be regularly staffed. Depending on the course, different lessons can be conveyed. For “ethics,” the fit with economic sociology is perhaps the most obvious. For instance, discussing the efforts needed to construct moral frames can prove very informative to students. As an example, I have used surrogacy agreements involving intended parents in the United States, transnational commercial brokers, and surrogates in India to explore competing moral frames when engaging in “business” transactions. In organizational behavior courses, questions of how individuals find jobs, navigate labor markets, and are deemed fit or not for given positions can benefit immensely from an economic sociology lens. In all these courses, economic sociologists might find it most challenging to learn content beyond their expertise. Given the large student cohort size in professional master’s programs, it’s common for colleagues teaching another section of the same course to share their material with newcomers, thus easing the onboarding of economic sociologists into professional schools.

Which economic sociology topics (or general lessons) do you find professional students find most useful or beneficial? Which works do they have the easiest time connecting with? Read More »


Circuits of Global and Local Knowledge
By: Oleg Komlik
Oleg Komlik is a Lecturer in the School of Behavioral Sciences at the College of Management Academic Studies and a PhD Candidate in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Ben-Gurion University, Israel. He is a founder and editor-in-chief of the Economic Sociology and Political Economy ( global academic community which brings together more than 37,000 members from about 115 countries. He also serves as the Chairman of the Junior Sociologists Network of the International Sociological Association.

Economic sociology in Israel is thriving. After years of gradual disciplinary evolution and scholarly elaboration, Israeli economic sociology has become soundly established. This essay aims to explain the emergence of this field of research and to profile the contemporary economic sociology in Israel.

Our point of departure lies in the contention that Israeli economic sociology – as an umbrella term for the variety of socio-political studies of economic organizations, institutions and processes – has been constituting from the 1980s onward in the spirit of two concurrently unfolding academic trends: on the global level, the stimulating revival and remarkable spring of economic sociology in the US and Europe, and on the local level, the growing influence of critical sociological approaches on Israeli sociology as a whole. Decades after the establishment-oriented structural-functionalist sociology ceded the economy as a topic of inquiry to economics and produced papers echoing the dominant ideology and government policies, researchers associated with different streams of critical sociology, especially interested in elites, power and political economy of labor, have begun to problematize notions of economic phenomena which for years were conceptually simplified and (un)intentionally omitted. Finally, the institutionalization of economic sociology was intensified by the transformative and detrimental consequences of the Neoliberal conquest of the Israeli society and polity during the 1990s (e.g. Shafir and Peled 2002; Shalev 1998). In 1992, after returning from Columbia University where he obtained his PhD, Ilan Talmud pioneered the first courses in ‘new economic sociology’ in Israel – “Social capital” and “State and entrepreneurship” (see also Talmud 1992, 1994; Burt and Talmud 1993). Daniel Maman started offering a course on Social Networks in 1996, several years after submitting his dissertation on the institutional linkages between the economic, political and bureaucratic elites in Israel (see Maman 1997a, 1997b). Today, at the beginning of the 2016, all sociology departments at universities and many colleges boast of having at least one or two faculty members dealing with sociology of the economy. These researchers have a noticeable presence at international conferences, they fruitfully collaborate with American and European colleagues, and their students are awarded competitive doctoral and postdoctoral fellowships abroad.
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Interview: Don Light and Adam Reich

In what ways can economic sociology inform medical sociology, or the study of medical organizations and institutions? What might be some potential areas of research for those interested in studying at the intersections of these two subfields?
Adam: There’s been lots of great work that straddles the fields of economic and medical sociology (Kieran Healy’s Last Best Gifts comes immediately to mind, as does the work of Donald Light, W. Richard Scott, and Rachel Best). Since medical spending makes up more than 17% of U.S. GDP, it would be surprising if economic sociology did not have a contribution to make here!

Don: Medical sociology divides roughly into two parts: sociological patterns and trends in health and illness, and sociological studies of health care organizations. Economic sociology can inform patterns of health and illness in terms of gender and the ethnic economy, the key role markets play in promoting either health-damaging or health-improving products or services, and the ways in which pharmaceutical markets persuade patients and doctors to prescribe new drugs that 90 percent of the time are found little or no better by independent review teams, yet pose substantial risks of harm. How do markets for controlled painkillers like Oxycodone differ from markets for heroin? Deaths from the former exceed deaths from the latter, and profit margins are probably higher.

On the provider and organizational side of delivering services, health care services are a major part of the economy and growing rapidly. They pose deep challenges to assumptions in economics and economic sociology. Theoretically and practically, they do not fit prevailing models of markets and competition, especially in the United States, which ironically believes market forces should drive medical decision-making. Yet health care least meets the requisites for beneficial competition. Buyers do not know the cost or value of many services. Market signals are vague and delayed. What economists call “market failure” is pervasive; yet it’s not so much failure as pernicious competition, where sellers exploit the vulnerabilities of end user (i.e. patients), who are often not buyers.

Market relations are layered, with sellers’ middlemen (“managed care”) and patients’ middlemen (their insurers) claiming to make clinical services more cost-effective and efficient. Why is it then that they have produced the most costly, segmented health care among affluent nations, with the worst outcomes? Why is theory so at odds with reality? Why does “moral hazard” apply more to providers than to patients? Bilateral oligopolies and monopolies prevail – all claiming on TV and billboards that they offer “the best” care. Uncertainty and fear play large roles, as Parsons originally noted. So there are fascinating studies of economic sociology in health care waiting to be done.

In economic sociology, there has been an effort to reject the notion that economic interests/money necessarily corrupt personal relations and social realms. Do you think this applies to medicine? Can there be a market for health care or are market forces completely incompatible with the provision of health care?
Adam: An important insight within recent economic sociology is that markets do not necessarily debase moral values—that market exchange can be constitutive of social life rather than threatening to it. This is a tremendously useful idea, but I think there are a couple of limitations with it. One is that it tends to focus on the way people and organizations make sense of market processes rather than on the material consequences of these processes. Perhaps wealthy people love Downtown Abbey in part because it helps them feel comfortable with our country’s tremendous economic inequality. But if the market can make a morality in its own image, then observing the coincidence of morals and markets only gets us so far! A second is that the moralized markets school tends to privilege cases in which morals and markets are successfully reconciled, rather than cases of failure or disruption (Catherine Turco’s excellent work on failed moralization attempts has been important to my own work).

Don: For the first half of the 20th century, leading economists consistently explained why markets do not work in clinical medical services because they fail to meet basic criteria for normal, beneficial price competition. Then a new generation of conservative economists asserted that markets would make medicine more efficient, without addressing the previous reasons why they would not. With exceptions where a service can be routinized, costed, and compared, applying markets to medicine leads to pernicious competition. Even when they can, like prescription drugs, the sellers control testing and produce biased results. They repeatedly hide harmful side effects and hire ghost-writing teams of unnamed science writers to shape the medical literature, and they negotiate confidential price contracts. How does a market with secret prices work? Yet billions are spent in such markets.

Regarding the first claim that economic interests do not “necessarily corrupt personal relations and social realms”; in medicine, many studies have shown that physicians confidently claim that taking favors or being paid by drug companies does not affect their hard-earned, board-certified clinical judgment. Yet many studies document it does. Drug companies track the pay-back for the billions they spend to alter what physicians do compared to colleagues not on the take.

Adam, based on your fieldwork in hospitals, how important do you consider money and financial incentives for creating successful organizational cultures and for motivating professionals to give good care? How does money interact with other sources of motivation for healthcare professionals?
Adam: I’m skeptical that financial incentives alone can create the organizational cultures that deliver quality care. It just seems too easy for physicians and other health care practitioners to game the financial incentives in place (either over-treating or undertreating depending on what is more highly compensated). But I do think that health professionals are quite sensitive to social pressure, and that this has been used as a very effective tool to create and sustain quality care. Doctors have long been expected to review (and be reviewed by) their peers. The rise of electronic medical records might be able to make this sort of peer-review more rigorous.

In the book, you implied that a “fee-for-service” financial structure may promote overtreatment; however, the emphasis on cost reduction/effectiveness in the standardization of care was also described as potentially producing undertreatment. Is it possible to avoid both overtreatment or undertreatment in the current US medical market?
Adam: In the case of the U.S. at this point in time, overtreatment seems like a much more glaring problem than undertreatment, except where access to care is concerned. But what’s the best model to avoid both overtreatment and undertreatment? This is the million, or rather trillion, dollar question. I think pre-paid group care organizations like Kaiser Permanente and Intermountain Health are on the right track. The problem is that because they have to compete with organizations providing too much care, they cannot be entirely up front about how they ration it. Rationing is a dirty word in U.S. health care, but resource allocation has to happen one way or another. This is one of the many interesting tensions between mission and market in the health care field.

Don, you are a lifelong critic of the pharmaceutical industry and its practices in the US; however, the concerns and problems you describe are persisting. What organizational policies should be implemented in order to build a patient-oriented pharmaceutical industry? How can we overcome pharmaceutical industry resistance in the US since they are so powerful as an actor?
Don: I’m not a critic. I just describe what companies do and they keep producing examples of misleading research and testing and promotion. Chances of getting companies in the US to stop biased research, testing and promotion are practically nil; but consider what the team of sociologists, political scientists and others of us at the Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard found. The industry retains twice as many lobbyists as members of Congress to “help” them write legislation that, for example, prevents the FDA from requiring evidence that new drugs are clinically better than existing ones for patients, or from giving “safety” (the going term for serious clinical harms like liver damage) much priority. Congress prohibits Medicare from doing what all other affluent nations do: negotiate prices based on added value. Instead, laws allow companies to set whatever price they want for new drugs and mandates that taxpayers pay for them without question. Companies can also raise their high prices further in subsequent years. We call this dynamic “market spiral pricing.” (see

Research finds that the current rules and practices reward companies to produce mostly minor variations that can warrant a new patent and monopoly pricing. These drugs bear substantial risks of harmful side effects, and prescription drugs have become a major health hazard – the 4th leading cause of death. The probability of serious harm exceeds the probability of benefit. Yet all are approved as “better” by the FDA, where reviewers are paid by the company submitting the drug in a bold conflict of interest. In order to build a patient-oriented system, rather than a patent-driven system, for researching better drugs, one would have to de-commercialize it. A patient-oriented health care system would start by identifying the greatest unmet patient needs and then funding research to seek effective drugs or other interventions. Then one would have competitive grants based on blinded reviews, and the research teams would use practices developed by the Mario Negri Institute to minimize corporate influences that now so widely compromise science and bias medical knowledge. Promising compounds would be tested for clinical superiority so that patients and their doctors would know the probabilities of benefits and harms. Over 90 percent of all clinical trials today are incapable by design to provide such information. This R&D process costs a fraction of current corporate practices and is fully funded so that once approved, drugs could be cheap as well as more effective than so-called innovative drugs now.

You raise a controversial idea that eliminating the profit motive does not negatively affect creativity and innovation. What can replace profits and patents as engines for scientific progress?
Don: Patents do not promote creativity and innovation. The explosion of patenting after the Bayh-Dole Act in 1980 has not produced more new drugs or more clinically superior drugs – the two definitions for “innovation.” (see

Most of the important medical advances occur out of the same motives that drive first-class economic sociologists: an intense curiosity, a drive to solve a problem, a desire to do something important, a passion for making the world a better place. Like medical researchers up to the current, commercialized era, they received a salary and often worked from grant to grant. Why is it controversial to say that most medical and pharmaceutical advances have not been driven by profits?

When I drew on NSF data, I found that more than four-fifths of global funding for basic drug research to discover new molecules (only half of which improve patient health) comes from non-commercial sources. This is obscured by companies taking over the end of the development pipeline and final application so that we read “Merck has developed a new…” when often the company did not develop it but bought in after discovery and even early development. For playing this role, companies set prices at 50-100 times ex-factory costs, and then we think we cannot live without them!

REVIEW ESSAY: What Can Economic Sociology Say About Health Care?

By Alaz Kilicaslan and Carmen Rowe
Doctoral Students, Boston University

More economic sociologists should study health care, and here is why. On the one hand, health care is treated as a real “commodity” in today’s world, particularly in the US. Despite the role played by the public sector, medical goods and services are overwhelmingly bought and sold in the market through a variety of actors, including the pharmaceutical industry, insurance companies, hospitals, or nursing homes, which all make immense profits. One of the largest and most rapidly growing industries, accounting for more than 17% of the US’s GDP, health care is increasingly becoming an essential part of political rhetoric, as evidenced in the current presidential campaign.

While health care reform currently tops presidential candidates’ agendas, with views ranging from abolishing the Affordable Care Act to creating a single-payer system, they also offer solutions to address outrageous medication prices, especially following public fury over Daraprim’s 5000% price hike (http://www.nytimes. com/2015/09/21/business/a-huge-overnight-increase-in-a-drugs-price-raises-protests.html), which occurred overnight, this past September. With a growing awareness across the nation that the American health care system is costly and ineffective, economic sociology may shed light on the market dynamics in this industry and their social antecedents and consequences. On the other hand, health care is remarkably distinct from most other industries, in that moral judgments and debates pervade this field more than any of its counterparts, not least because it relies on a strong relationship of trust and information asymmetry between providers and clients. Thus, health care provides a fertile ground to study how values interplay with market forces; and with what outcomes for the actors involved, as well as for the larger society.

This review looks at two books, Good Pharma by Donald Light and Antonio Maturo and Selling Our Souls by Adam Reich, which are timely attempts towards understanding the potentially problematic relationship between money and medicine. Although they look at different sectors (pharmaceuticals and hospitals, respectively), both books address markets in the medical field through detailed examinations of health care organizations. The vital question Light/Maturo and Reich try to answer can be summarized as: Is it possible for medical organizations to remain loyal to their missions/ values, and simultaneously survive in today’s commercialized health care field? Light/Maturo and Reich not only vividly demonstrate the moral and professional challenges that the market poses to these organizations, but also show that there are different ways for health care providers to grapple with market forces and demands, in striking contrast to neoliberal ideology, which claims the embrace of free-market principles as the only viable way to thrive.
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