In Defense of Economic Sociology

Denis Colombi is making my life miserable. He keeps writing these great long posts on important sociological topics that I then feel obligated to summarize here in English because he writes on these much better than I could. The latest edition is a lecture note (HA! A note?? Goes to show that the meaning of "note" is not the same in France as it is here) on economic sociology based on Colombi’s reading of Mark Granovetter‘s La Sociologie Economique. As always, I’ll editorialize when I feel like it. So, here goes:

Sociological interest for economics is not new. The founding fathers of sociology, Durkheim, Pareto and Weber (not to mention Marx) took the economy seriously in their sociological analyses while confronting the then-dominant economic orthodoxy. Progressively, American sociology, dominated by Talcott Parsons until the 1970s, progressively abandoned the study of markets and rational actions to economists, leaving irrational actions for the sociologists to study (a bit simplistic, though, Denis… there were many currents in American sociology that covered "side" aspects of economic activities).

However, when economist Gary Becker decided to extend the economic method to all domains of social life, he broke that uneasy ceasefire. This "economic imperialism" (Colombi’s expression) triggered a backlash: the renewal of economic sociology and it is the context in which one must read Granovetter’s books as well as the "school" he initiated: new economic sociology (NES). NES took the fight to the economic terrain: markets, rational action, etc. and revealed what sociologists have to say but also that they can offer better answers through rigorous scientific analysis.

But what is NES, exactly?

Granovetter’s major critique directed at orthodox economics (and certain sociological approaches… which ones?) is its view of atomized individuals in the context of the classical sociological problem of social order. Where Hobbes’s solution was the Leviathan, economics finds the competitive market as source of trust and confidence and solution against malfeasance. In the economic framework, we see an under-socialized individual whose only interactions are economic transactions. Other types of social relations are in the background with limited impact and relevance. Similarly, for Granovetter, for structural-functionalist approaches of Parsonian affiliation, individuals behave in reaction to internalized values and norms, in which case, there is over-socialization and other forms of social relations become secondary. Market or culture, take your pick, but this leaves us with very one-dimensional views of human social behavior.

For Granovetter, action, especially economic action, needs to be embedded into the social structure, hence the now famous expression "strength of weak ties" (one of Granovetter’s most famous articles). In this article, Granovetter demonstrates that actions taking place on the labor market are deeply embedded in social relations: most people find jobs through networks and connections. And actually, weak ties – acquaintances, friends of friends – are actually more important in that respect. Such weak ties act as bridges to connect different networks and facilitate the circulation of information. And because these ties are weak, they are not just dependent upon trust, but also on mutual controls (strong ties tend to rely on trust rather than reciprocal mechanisms of control).

With this in mind, the view of markets as the locus of articulation of supply and demand processes become oversimplistic.  One needs to consider social relations in which actors are embedded and how these influence actions. Granovetter demonstrates that when orthodox economic theory hits the wall of social relations, it just resorts to fuzzy concepts such as company "culture" or "atmosphere" as account of institutional configurations. What matters, for Granovetter, is the nature of networks between individuals of different companies when it comes to explain salary levels. Where productivity is hard to measure, networks become central in the determination of salaries, norms and mobilization capacities.

On top of this instrumental layer of action where social relations can be seen as social investments (social capital?), Granovetter considers other layers of action: sociability, status, recognition, trust or power. These dimensions have to be taken into account as well as they shape the structure of incentives.

This leads to another aspect of social life that whose treatment by economics Granovetter finds wanting: social institutions. Granovetter is critical of the view that institutions are rational responses to specific problems, such as transaction costs. Institutions exist because they are efficient. Here again, Granovetter demonstrates, through the classical example of the rise of the electricity sector, that social relations matter: Edison’s model was not chosen because it was the most efficient but because his assistant was able to mobilize a set of relations (in science, industriy and politics) to push it through, at the expenses of the competitive model. Moreover, social institutions are also social constructions (see Berger and Luckmann). In other words, efficiency is not the one and only criterion of institutional evolution.

Based on these developments, Colombi summarizes NES around three principles:

  1. Economic action IS social action, in the Weberian sense, that is, not just based on economic instrumentality but also directed at others.
  2. Individuals are embedded into concrete and continuous social relations.
  3. Institutions are socially constructed.

This leaves this perspective open to the critique that it relatively ignores the larger institutional and political contexts but it has the benefits, according to Colombi, to combine sociological insights without rejecting wholesale economic ones. Granovetter does not reject the rationality hypothesis but he embeds it within a web of differentiated social relations.

Colombi finds useful the concept of social network as bridge or conduit between the micro and the macro level of sociological analysis of social relations without privileging one level over the other (like we’ve never have that debate in sociology before :-)). This seems very reminiscent of social mobilization theory of social movements where all sorts of resources and social relations contribute to the mobilization (or lack thereof) of groups. But for Colombi, this is what makes Granovetter’s work relevant beyond economics and useful for general sociology.

What Brings Families Together? Power Outages and New Technologies

Power outages = people don’t have anything to do with themselves, so, they have sex = mini baby boom nine months later… correlation? Causation? You be the judge, via Le Monde. Here is the story:

In Massdriel, Netherlands, the number of births increased by 44% in September 2008 compared to the same month in 2007. Officials found that puzzling. Then, they remembered the power outage that affected that town for 50 hours, nine months before. In December 2007, an Apache helicopter had accidentally cut power lines that brought power to nine villages of the commune. Guess what happened during these two days of darkness?

Sorry Robert Putnam, we may not bowl together anymore, but according to this BBC report (and an increasing body of research), new technologies may actually bring people closer together:

This report also shows that nuclear families are the structure more likely to be closely connected (as in parents use these gizmos to exercise greater surveillance of their children, even when these are young adults). What this means is not just an increase in the level of contact but also a shift in the qualitative nature of these contacts. So, yes, communal times may have decreased (for a variety of reasons) but contacts are maintained through other means.

As I myself wrote, in his best-selling book, Bowling Alone (2000), political scientist Robert Putnam deplores the loss of American community. For Putnam, the decline in American participation in bowling leagues symbolizes the increasing disconnection between people as they retreat from all sorts of civic and community participation and engage in more isolated activities, such as passive television watching.

Indeed, data regarding membership in associations, political participation, and volunteering show a decline. Putnam deplores such a state of affairs as such community activities were essential to civic-minded socialization where social norms were transmitted.

However, if participation in traditionally household-based activities, such as bowling leagues and PTAs, show a marked decline, other forms of sociability have increased. New communication technologies allow for new and different forms of sociability. For instance, virtual or online communities are on the rise. The best example of rising online communities are Facebook, MySpace or Flickr.  Such communities are different in that they are not household-based but individualized. They provide a different type of socialization than traditional communities.

Virtual or online communities show that far from disappearing, communities are changing. Traditional communities are neighborhood or village-based. In the age of globalization, disappearing borders and unprecedented movements of population around the globe, communities are not disappearing but reconfiguring into geographically dispersed networks.

According to Jeffrey Boase and al (2006), such geographically dispersed communities are facilitated by new electronic communication technologies, such as emails and the Internet. Moreover, research shows that new communications technologies extend our social connections but deepen them as well. People who interact face-to-face also tend to call each on the phone and exchange messages via emails or instant messages or text messages. This phenomenon of using multiple media to communicate is called media multiplexity.

New communication technologies promote what sociologist Barry Wellman calls networked individualism. Networked individualism refers to the fact that, thanks to the Internet, individuals can get in touch with other individuals for all sorts of purposes. In this sense, online communities do not replace traditional communities but supplement them. People can find information or help or simply create relationships from traditional sources, such as relatives or they can tap into extended networks of other individuals.

In this sense, being socialized into the competent use of new communication technologies becomes an essential skill not only to be able to access the wealth of information available but also to be able to be able to build individual networks of relationships with and (not or) without face-to-face interactions.

In her study of the virtual community Cybertown™, Denise Carter (2004) challenges the notion that virtual communities are only poor and shallow imitation of the “real thing”, face-to-face interaction. First, Cybertown™ is an elaborate virtual environment, not just a chat room or message board. It has more than a million citizens from all over the world earning citycash from jobs. It is designed like any large city in the world, with plaza, cafes, post office and police. The residents live in the suburbs in private homes and they can have (virtual) pets. It is truly a social space where people develop friendships and throw parties at their houses, or go to clubs. Residents usually maintain consistent personae, keeping the same username and avatar (virtual character). Frequently, people who meet and become friends at Cybertown™ end up meeting offline.

For Carter, virtual communities are appealing because they do not rely on traditional kinship bonds (based on blood ties) but allow the development of chosen friendship ties. Friendship is not based on hierarchy. Moreover, where kinship ties are defined by tradition and customs, friendship persists based on the quality of relationships. In Cybertown™, people are specifically looking to build new relationships where gender, race and other ascribed statuses are irrelevant and where the quality of the relationship is the only criterion that matters. Moreover, the fact that many residents are able to sustain such friendship offline suggests that relationships developed online are not shallow but free from cultural and social constraints.

So, is all well and good and safe in the virtual world? Not quite. Another Le Monde article (whose link seems broken right now, I’ll update if necessary) explores how social prejudices may actually be amplified online as anonymous communications may protect individuals from the social disapproval and sanctions they might face in real life for overt expressions of prejudice. This will not be news to anyone hanging around YouTube or anyone who followed the American presidential campaign. There is no doubt that the Democratic primary unleashed an enormous amount of sexism and there is no putting back that nasty genie into the bottle. This has been analyzed expertly elsewhere, especially by Scary Smary Anglachel and over at Corrente, so, I won’t belabor the point.

The bottom line is that is we should resist oversimplified depictions of the way new technologies shape the way we interact, either to deplore the good old days where people REALLY communicated with each other (like any nostalgia, it’s largely reconstructed memory), or to project a socially liberated mode of communication, free from social determinations.

The uses of new communication technologies are still shaped by mechanisms of social stratification (the digital divide) and still allow people to easily project their prejudices as well as extending their social capital in a variety of directions on a global scale.

However, in these global mediascapes (to use Appadurai’s terms), not everyone is included and processes of marginalization and exclusion operate as well. At the same time, these have permitted the emergence of truly global social movements and facilitated the rise of the global imaginaries.

Islamists Stone Woman in Somalia

Disgusting, via the Independent.

“Somali Islamists have stoned to death a woman accused of adultery, witnesses said, the first such public killing by the militants for about two years.

The 23-year-old woman was placed in a hole up to her neck for the execution late yesterday in front of hundreds of people in a square in the southern port of Kismayu, which the Islamist insurgents captured in August.

Stones were hurled at her head and she was pulled out three times to see if she was dead, witnesses said. When a relative and others surged forward, guards opened fire, killing a child.

“A woman in green veil and black mask was brought in a car as we waited to watch the merciless act of stoning,” one local resident, Abdullahi Aden, told Reuters.

“We were told she submitted herself to be punished, yet we could see her screaming as she was forcefully bound, legs and hands. A relative of hers ran towards her, but the Islamists opened fire and killed a child.””

And here is how religion reduces people to blobs of idiocy:

“Relatives of the woman executed in Kismayu, whom they named as Asha Ibrahim Dhuhulow, were furious.

“The stoning was totally irreligious and illogical,” said her sister, who asked not to be named. “Islam does not execute a woman for adultery unless four witnesses and the man with whom she committed sex are brought forward publicly.”

Islamist leaders at the execution said the woman had broken Islamic law. They promised to punish the guard who had shot the child in the melee around the execution.

“We apologise for killing the child. And we promise we shall bring the one who opened fire before the courts and deal with him accordingly,” one unnamed Islamist leader told the crowd.”

I’ll spare you my usual rant regarding religion and gender while I go throw up. Oh, and by the way, no word on what happened to the man who committed the other half of the sinful act.

Good News on The Slavery Front

It does not happen that often, so it is worth noticing when the good guys win!

Let’s hope this sets a precedent that former slaves can obtain compensation in court and rebuild their lives. Unfortunately, Ms Mani’s story is both horrific and not unusual for slaves in that part of Africa.

What is again important here is that the panel of judges in this case was composed of magistrates from different countries. A good example of regional governance:

This is a case where regional jurisprudence should be used to fight against local customary rule which, quite often, contributes to the maintenance of harmful practices, often directed against women as part of traditional patriarchal structures.

Let’s hope indeed. In the meantime, score one for the good guys.

Heading for a Mayan Collapse?

At the very least, there are lessons to be learned from complex societies that collapsed, as Jared Diamond demonstrated.

Hmmm… let’s see, environmental pressures? Check. Economic collapse? Check. Failure of political leadership? Check? Seems we have all the right conditions here for a major global disaster. It would not be a bad idea to reflect back indeed on Jared Diamond‘s book, Collapse.

How much can we stretch these parallels between ancient and modern? Well, one need only re-read Thomas Frank‘s One Market Under God to be reminded of the potency of The Market as religious dogma.

What is obvious though is the current convergence of conditions that point to a perfect global storm on multiple levels. Add to our current environment, economic and political woes the rising global inequalities within and between societies and the persistence of religious fundamentalist movements combined with the inability of the elites to provide leadership and new perspectives (all these bailouts are more of the same and only reinforce the crisis of legitimacy), and the picture is indeed quite gloomy.

The big question will be whether we will take measures to deal with this multi-layered crisis and whether these measures will be enough.

Criteria for Sustainable Tourism

What is sustainable tourism or eco-tourism? It seems a more and more popular option for globally conscious travellers but what criteria determine exactly what such tourism involve? Who decides? Via the Worldwatch Institute , there are now specific criteria determined by a coalition of tourism professional organizations and environmental groups formed into the Partnership for Global Sustainable Tourism Criteria :

"The partnership – a collection of 27 organizations from the tourism industry and environmental community – said the unified standard provides a resource that could become as widely recognized as the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) label for wood products or the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED designation for green buildings.

"There is mass confusion about what is sustainable tourism," said Tensie Whelan, executive director of the Rainforest Alliance , which organized the partnership alongside the United Nations Foundation and various United Nations agencies. "This body will help to make this information available…and ensure that it is indeed reliable." (…)

The criteria require that tourism operations conduct their business without having an adverse impact on a destination’s habitats, local communities, or cultural heritage. If widely adopted, the standard could further expand efforts to green the supply chain of hotels and resorts as well as lessen the impact on wildlife and local communities, organizers said."

So what are the criteria ? (Below the fold)

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Zygmunt Bauman on The Progressive Future

As part of the Guardian’s Who Owns The Progressive Future? Series, master social theorist (and a favorite of mine) Zygmunt Bauman wrote a column dealing with the differences between the left and the right on economic matters (or lack thereof). His verdict is quite bleak:

Indeed. What is now meant by the "the left" is either "the left-of-center" or simply, as is the case for the current US Democratic Party, right-of-center moderates who split from the insane warring right (I can safely predict that an Obama presidency will be a right-of-center presidency). Actually, what "progressive" means, if one looks at the major blogs, is the taking-over by libertarians and moderate conservatives of the label "progressive" (the Obama camp and its economic advisers from the University of Chicago), elbowing out old-fashioned liberals (the Hillary camp). That battle was fought in the primary, the liberals lost. The Democratic Party now belongs to conservatives, moderates and libertarians (with the ideological luminaries such as Kos, Huffington and other former Republicans).

It is quite noticeable that social policies rank very low in the hierarchy of priorities of this political clique as opposed to the self-affirmation derived from just being the good guys who "nominated the black guy" as another figure of the "progressive" blogosphere put it a while back. Don’t expect universal healthcare and other social policies. It’s already a done deal that it is not going to happen and the economic crisis provides cover for that. After all, Obama was a strong advocate of the Wall Street bailout while he has already stated that he will not implement social policy plans, on education, for instance, he had indicated in his platform.

But for Bauman, the liquidation of the left (and, for anyone familiar with Bauman’s work, the concept of liquidity is central, so, my pun is definitely intended) has a lot to do with one central aspect of globalization: the declining political and economic significance of the nation-state.

Again, this argument is applicable to the American political situation: the Democratic victory of November (it will be a Democratic victory, the only question will be that of actual numbers of senators and representatives) is actually more the collapse of the Republican party, as dominated by the neo-cons (failure of military and foreign policy), neo-liberals (economic collapse) and religious fundamentalists. That particular coalition is at an end and the rats are leaving that sinking ship as fast as they can (see: Powell, Colin). It will take probably several years for the Republicans to reexamine their coalition and rebuild it.

Either way, the Western block is facing a crisis of legitimacy and the left has not been able to take advantage of the global disasters brought about by US policies to advance a truly social-democratic agenda (at least not yet, one can always hope).

My view on this is that the promotion of a social-democratic program will have to be articulated in global terms and promoted by structures outside of the traditional political party. It will come from the global civil society organizations and social movements (such as the World Social Forum) and will seep through the interstices of the decaying nation-state structures and the current loopholes of the global system. Of course, there will be struggle involved as the current powerholders (the global financial sector) still have the power to demand the emptying of national coffers in the name of the global economic system and obtain the satisfaction of such demands without much protest, which, in itself, is quite revealing of the state of the left, either complicit or neutered or in disarray or co-opted.

Of The Invisibility of Social Privilege and Institutional Racism

Via the indispensable Ampersand:

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This should be mandatory material for any introduction to sociology course to explain the simple yet often hard to understand for our students fact that we do not all experience the social structure and interact with its social institutions in a similar fashion. Our social statuses, here race, generate a whole set of social circumstances, privileges and disadvantages that are often left unexamined. Which is why it is absurd to even discuss "equal opportunities" as something other than clever propaganda and foundational myth.

Moreover, social disadvantages and privileges are invisible, especially for the dominant categories (and sometimes even to the disadvantaged who might buy into the dominant ideology). That society is overall experienced as more structurally and interpersonally violent for the disadvantaged is a greatly under-discussed social fact that contributes to the reproduction of these forms of violence.

The Anthropology of YouTube

All the cool kids are talking about this and they’re right. It’s brilliant and worth every minute of anyone’s time:

Michael Wesch is of course the brilliant author of the web 2.0 YouTube video:

These are great materials to discuss issues pertaining to society, culture, technology, social interaction, social capital… and add some stuff on the digital divide as there is the common tendency to describe these things as if "everybody’s doing it."

Joseph Stiglitz on Global Financial Regulations

Even after the big bailout, here is the problem, according to Stiglitz:

And part of all this is because, contrary to the dogma (and it is a dogma), markets do not function perfectly:

Information imperfection has always been Stiglitz’s specialty, so, it is not surprising that he would see that as one of the main obstacles to competition. And of course, "too big to fail" institutions are both a product and a cause of lack of competition: monumental profits in good years, massive public bailout if they lose = major incentive to make risky investments.

And while we’re on the topic of incentives:

Let me emphasize this:

"Markets only work well when private rewards are aligned with social returns."

The IMF To The Rescue… Really?

Apparently,

That is, if DKS (who’s just been cleared of abuse of power) can keep it zipped (what is it with the leaders of multilateral institutions, first Wolfowitz at the World Bank, now DSK at the IMF? Sheesh) and if he still has some credibility. Anyhoo, what’s the plan, then? First, the UN Secretary General called for special help for poor countries. After all, rich countries are forking over $4 trillion for their banks, what’s in it for the poor who had nothing to do with the crisis but will suffer from it anyway:

Oh, good, because peripheral countries need more borrowing. After all, there is no debt crisis in the developing world thanks to the brilliant policies of the IMF. So, it’s all good.

And now, watch the not-so-subtle power shift in who leads / will lead the global governance system:

There is no doubt that China and the European Union are getting closer, while no one really pays attention to what Bush says anymore. If China and the EU push for stricter global financial regulation, there is little that the US can do to stop them. And Bush’s claims that "Free markets are TEH AWESUM" ring hollow to everyone else.

It also means that whoever becomes president in 2009 will not make much of a difference since the US is financially considerably weakened and Obama has not shown any real global economic leadership here either. So, the stage is set for China and the EU to take a more prominent role. In addition, if peripheral countries manage to increase their voting shares at multilateral institutions (as with the IMF, for instance), then the Us might find itself quite isolated.

Again, using Michael Mann’s typology regarding the US:

  • Political power: isolated
  • Economic power: ruined
  • Ideological power: tortured to extinction
  • Military power: stuck in the sands of Iraq and the mountains of Afghanistan