Socioeconomics & Economic Sociology
This article presents an overview of the new multidisciplinary field known as socioeconomics. Although socioeconomics resembles the older cross-disciplinary field of economic sociology in that both generally examine economic data and behavior from a sociological perspective, socioeconomics attempts to incorporate virtually all the social sciences, philosophy, law, business and management studies, and more recently the natural sciences. The impetus for the cross-disciplinary study of sociology and economics is primarily the pronounced relationship between social patterns and economic structures and processes, which Karl Marx and Max Weber recognized well. Amitai Etzioni, the sociologist who contributed to the foundation of the Society for the Advancement of Socio-Economics (SASE) in 1989, termed his multidisciplinary discipline "socioeconomics." An extension of the multidisciplinary "paradigm" associated with socioeconomics is termed Science II by its proponents. Economic sociology and sociological economics (a vague precursor of socioeconomics) were largely defined by Max Weber, but both schools of thought have also expanded substantially — as have other forms of multidisciplinary economics. The curious element about socioeconomics is that it encompasses both normative (that is, idealistic and moral) goals and the technical and financial practices of corporate managers and executives.
Keywords Communitarian; Economic Sociology; Embeddedness; Etzioni, Amitai; 'I' and 'We' Model of Zones; Deontological Economics; Economic Man (Homo Economicus); Institutions; Moral Economy; Neoclassical Economics; Science I; Science II; Society for the Advancement of Socio-Economics (SASE); Sociological Economics; Social Economy; Third Sector
Whereas economic sociology is largely considered a prominent sub-discipline within both economics and sociology (Zafirovski, 1999), sociologist Amitai Etzioni considers socioeconomics a "bridging" (or "interstitial") discipline like biochemistry or social psychology. The "socio" in socioeconomics is meant to represent numerous social sciences rather than just sociology. His ambitious goal is to develop a new "paradigm" that moves away from (or "decenters") individualistic neoclassical models in the social sciences. As such, he admits that socioeconomics is a highly provisional and speculative field (Etzioni, 2003), and he does not hesitate to be bold, partisan, or, for that matter, to invite criticism of his speculate models. The challenge to decenter the neoclassical model of social science has been embraced through an effort to link social science and natural science by the Science II model.
The multidisciplinary nature of socioeconomics and the efforts of the Society for the Advancement of Socio-Economics (SASE) is the means by which this "paradigm shift" is encouraged. In other words, such a cross-field approach is intended to counter the sub-specialization of academic disciplines by creating a "nested structure" that allows for disciplinary change (Hollingsworth, Müller, & Hollingsworth, 2002). Etzioni (2003) identifies Galileo, Darwin and Freud as innovators in the history of science who have very successfully drawn on multiple disciplines. Darwin, for example, has influenced biology, geology, meteorology, and even computer science (Hollingsworth & Müller, 2008).
Although socioeconomics has not been thoroughly established as a distinct academic discipline, more representation in the field is evidently in demand in the business sector. Some participants in the SASE, however, are not overly interested in influencing public policy and public opinion (Etzioni, 2003). Etzioni's specific criticism is directed at the individualistic ideological assumptions he identifies in neoclassical economics, but other studies in socioeconomics, particularly those in the Socio-Economic Review, extend the critique to other social sciences (Hollingsworth, Müller, & Hollingsworth, 2002). The SASE, which is represented in dozens of countries and includes academics, members of the business sector, politicians, and other organizational leaders, is more diplomatic in its approach. The homepage of the SASE states that "economics is not a self-contained system, but is embedded in society, polity, and culture," and that the methodology it embraces is intended to be "predictive, exemplary, and morally sound" (Society for the Advancement of Socio-Economics, 2008).
The alterative Etzioni provides to the individualistic neoclassical model is straightforwardly termed a "social" paradigm. These two models or paradigms are termed the "I" (or individual) and "We" (or social) zones, and each is ascribed an appropriate field of economic activity. Lynne (2000) interprets this distinction as a reflection of polarization among the social sciences with economics and sociology at opposite ends of the spectrum. Hollingsworth, Müller, & Hollingsworth (2002) interpret the "social"/"We" paradigm as a normative and political alternative to the dominant underlying assumptions of academia more generally.
Etzioni's alternative model can also be termed communitarian, but he does not attempt to undermine the traditional emphasis on competition and equilibrium in the supply and demand of needed resources in neoclassical economics. Rather, he attempts to illustrate how the conventional model of competition does not account for social factors. The SASE homepage neatly summarizes this distinction:
Socio-economics regards competition as a subsystem encapsulated within a societal context that contains values, power relations, and social networks. The societal context both enables and constrains competition. Socio-economics assumes that interests are not necessarily or automatically complementary and harmonious, and that societal sources of order are necessary for markets to function effectively (Society for the Advancement of Socio-Economics, 2008).
The term embeddedness reflects a well known principle that resulted from the attempts of sociologists and economists to incorporate moral, ethical, or normative principles into economics much earlier in the twentieth century. Socioeconomics attempts to provide a further explanation of the extent to which economic markets are embedded in social structures and, as such, affect societal development. Hollingsworth, Müller, and Hollingsworth (2002) identify "institutionalism" as the key factor in the multidisciplinary approach that is intended to pose — or just identify — questions highly-specialized academic disciplines can leave undressed and thereby expand upon the general understanding of embeddedness. Social institutions include values, norms, rules, and customs and conventions, but "institutionalism" is meant to extend the study of the social and structural elements of social institutions across the conventional geographic, political, organizational, and — especially — disciplinary boundaries (Hollingsworth, Müller, & Hollingsworth, 2002). Science II provides one such strategy, but it might well be even more speculative than Etzioni's version of socioeconomics.
Socioeconomics largely encompasses economic sociology, and both fields attempt to examine the social factors that traditional economics tends to neglect (Bruyn, 2005). The probable point of differentiation is that Etzioni goes a step further and seeks to minimize the deductive logic (that is, arguments that proceed from the general to the specific) used in neoclassical economics to explain individual economic behavior; this deductive model is associated with the concept of "Economic Man" (or Homo Economicus). In other words, Etzioni attempts to alter a fundamental theoretical assumption of neoclassical economics and posit an alternate logical method based on inductive reasoning (that is, based on provisionality and probability and that moves from the specific to the general) (Etzioni, 2003).
The SASE homepage provides an example of how this approach would function: "Methodologically, socio-economics regards inductive studies as co-equal in standing with deductive ones. For example, a study of how firms actually behave has the same basic merit as treating the firm as an analytic concept in a mathematical model" (Society for the Advancement of Socio-Economics, 2008).
Economic sociology is broadly concerned with the social elements of areas in which economic activity and non-economic institutions interact, including the consumption, creation, exchange, and distribution of goods and services; in other words, with sociological features of economic systems. Socioeconomics is more specifically concerned with behavioral factors including:
- Competition in social institutions;
- Social networks in economic contexts; and
- The nature of individual economic choices (Bruyn, 2005).
Etzioni (2003) agrees that economic changes do affect societal structure and that customs, values, and social bonds affect economic behavior, but his point of emphasis is that the economic market is not an independent, "self-sustaining" system.
Etzioni (2003) attempts to illustrate that rationality or reason, for better or worse, is not often an important element of economic behavior. Zafirovski (1999) terms Etzioni's theory "moral economy" (that is, a moral theory of the economy) or "deontological economics": a moral, social, and obligation-based theory rather than a utility-based functional or structural theory of how economic principles operate. He argues, for example, that individual choices are limited by both imperfect knowledge and impeding values and emotions, that moral and social obligations are in almost constant conflict with a desire to seek pleasure or pursue utility (that is, self-interest or profit-maximization), but also that obligation-based economic decisions can be either financially efficient or inefficient (Etzioni, 2003).
In one respect, his argument resembles the conventional economic arguments of economists that economic behavior has an internal logic or a "natural" field (Zafirovski & Levine, 1997), but his criteria for determining efficiency includes further psychological factors. Etzioni (2003) claims, for example, that detached "observers" would likely find most economic decisions less than fully rational; that groups usually make sounder decisions than individuals; and that economic behavior should be examined on a long-term rather than short-term basis (2003). He does not exactly, however, seem to claim that morality and social obligation should always be included in the study of economics. Rather, he claims, albeit speculatively, that failing to account for the psychological effects of meeting or rejecting social obligations results in an incomplete understanding of economic behavior.
Both socioeconomics and economic sociology, in short, attempt to take what neoclassical economics assumes is as a single, constant, and rational factor regarding economic decisions and treat it as a variable or multiple variables in need of explanation (Zafirovski & Levine, 1997). Bruyn (2005) observes that economic sociology is "ecumenical" in the sense that it is inclusive and pluralistic, and it uses both quantitative and qualitative methods in order to examine how issues such as culture, health, freedom, and dignity are related to an understanding of economic behavior. The focus is often primarily on how economic behavior informs social behavior. These categories provide some of the "variables" that the conventional notions of utility and self-interest may not explain (Bruyn, 2005).
Etzioni provides a specific methodological formula for analysis in this context: a social "independent variable" is applied to economic "dependent variables." The appropriate issues this method addresses might include:
- Whether ideological conservatives tend to save more of their income than other ideological groups;
- Whether socially isolated individuals tend to be unproductive employees;
- Whether political lobbyists affect the prices of industrial or consumer products; or
- Whether economic growth is dependent on specific social, political, or economic conditions.
Etzioni identifies Max...
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