brackishness and economic sociology

For my ‘special fields’ paper as a graduate student, we had to write what was effectively an extended literature review – or rather an Annual Review of Sociology article. Mine was about ‘organizing accounts’ of economic activities. Clearly an idea worked out in combination with Berger and Luckmann’s The Social Construction of Reality and Mary Douglas’s How Institutions Think, I wanted to show that we need some sort of recovery efforts to get at economic institutions before they were stylized as ‘markets.’ Once there, they were transformed into a black box of effeciency, rationality, and self-evidence.

What this really meant, as I think about it a bit removed from it, was that I needed to be reading more economic historians.

I’m still thinking about these kinds of things, now in combination with my criticisms of embeddedness as a central motivating concept for economic sociology. The article is motivated by the idea of sociological and economic brackishness. ‘Brackish’ is the terms used to describe the waters where rivers meet the ocean, where fresh waters meet salt waters. The idea is that, rather than thinking about the boundaries between economic and social as being a sturdy barrier with occasional passages, instead the relationship bewteen economic and social is like brackish waters – separating out the salt and non-salt waters is less useful. What we need are studies that deal with eddies and currents, places where social and economic are thoroughly mixed, where there are gaps, consequences, etc.

Pretty esoteric. But pairing this with organizing accounts leads to a different sort of agenda. To do settlement accounts of economic and social activities, we would actually be doing the work of disaggregating ‘markets’ and such into things like actors, actions, and objects. The examples I’m looking at are in the realm of air pollution, markets for bodies/organs, and the origins of grain futures. In each of these cases, I should be making the empirical case that the separation of economic from social is a political project rather than a natural state of being. I actually don’t really love the idea of using bodies/organs, I’d prefer something about households. But given my concerns about gender being co-opted into household space, I shy away from it a little.

This is not, I think, so far away from Callon et al.’s arguments that econoimcs is performative. But it is a bit far away – they argue for the influence of economics to a degree that I don’t buy. It may be so for more contemporary market activities and institutions, but I am less certain about historical ones.

Comments are disabled for this post