Excerpt: Viviana Zelizer, How I Became A Relational Economic Sociologist, & What Does That Mean?

Why the embeddedness-bashing? We can explain it in part as a predictable historical shift in paradigms. Embeddedness certainly has had its day, profoundly transforming our understandings of economic activity. We might therefore expect that the field is ripe for a conceptual shift. More substantively, however, for many of its critics embeddedness does not go far enough in debunking standard economic models. Skeptics complain that the concept typically assumes a social container within which economic processes, not fully conceived as socially constituted, operate. In this view, social relations, Krippner and Alvarez note, “affect the economy from the outside.”[…] Harrison White made that point forcefully in Markets from Networks: “Producers are not just embedded in a market, as the
sociologist Mark Granovetter (1985) would argue.” Instead, White notes, “they actually constitute the market‟s interface in, and as the set of, their perceptions and choices.” […] David Stark likewise challenges embeddedness’ lingering allegiance to what he calls “Parson’s Pact” by which sociologists agree to lay claim “on the social relations in which economies are embedded,” but not the economy itself. […]

To move forward, therefore, economic sociology must become even more transgressive by focusing on the meaningful and dynamic interpersonal transactions that make up all forms of economic activity. In this alternative view, negotiated interpersonal transactions, not the individual, become the starting point for social processes. Once we agree with the premise that economic transactions are fundamentally social interactions, the search is on for a better theory of social process to account for economic activity. A relational work approach moves towards such a theory. It posits that in all areas of economic life
people are creating, maintaining, symbolizing, and transforming meaningful social relations. As they do so, moreover, they are carrying on cultural symbolic work. The goal, therefore, is to study variability and change in those social relations.

From Viviana Zelizer, “How I Became A Relational Economic Sociologist, & What Does That Mean” (2011), available online.

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