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What future for economic sociology in Australia?

by Elizabeth Humphrys on May 12, 2015

Economic sociology is synonymous with the study of political economy. With roots in institutional economics, Marxian political economy and urban studies, as well as classical contributions from Max Weber, Émile Durkheim and Karl Polanyi, the field fits well with political economy’s insistence that economic life be studied as an inter-disciplinary, social scientific endeavour. It has also gained a good following in North America and Europe since the 1980s, with expansive literatures on, for example, social capital; money and finance; and neoliberalism.

Given the centrality of economic inequality in his work, Thomas Piketty’s challenge to 21st century economics is a further sign of economic sociology’s relevance, coming in the context of a new defiance to neoliberal governmental practice in Europe, particularly in Greece and Spain. One might think that Australia too should be a breeding ground for economic sociology and related fields in the context of a continuing politics of austerity—underpinned by questions over Australia’s economic prosperity, with the mining boom largely over, manufacturing in seemingly terminal decline and urban exclusion, lack of housing affordability or access to basic services like childcare and public transport as ongoing problems in our major cities.

ECONOMICBut it is not so obvious that economic sociology has made the same gains here as overseas. The field seems more fragmented and lacks coherence. For example, the Australian Research Council has ‘field of research’ codes for economic geography, international political economy, urban studies and even heterodox economics but not for economic sociology (nor economic anthropology for that matter). There are few places where students can enrol in economic sociology or related courses—the University of Sydney is one exception where students can study the field in the School of Social and Political Sciences (in two departments, Political Economy and Sociology). Past attempts to take stock—see, for example, the special issue of Journal of Sociology—have not necessary led to a stronger, more coherent field.

If economic sociology is so relevant and useful in the social sciences, why does its status and disciplinary coherence lag behind the quality of research and teaching offered by those scholars scattered across the country? To address this problem, The Australian Sociological Association (TASA) is supporting an event held at the University of Sydney on 23 July. The event, titled Economic Sociology: State of Play and Fault-lines for Future Research in Australia, will be a roundtable discussion between eminent scholars in the field, including:

  • Emerita Prof Raewyn Connell, a world-leading scholar and pioneer in the sociological study of gender, education and social theory (among other topics) who continues to open new vistas in the study of neoliberal globalisation, particularly from a southern perspective. Prof Connell is the author or co-author of several ground-breaking texts, including Ruling Class, Ruling Culture (1977), Class Structure in Australian History (1980), Making the Difference (1982), Gender and Power (1987), Masculinities (1995) and, more recently, Southern Theory (2007).
  • Prof Jocelyn Pixley, an economic sociologist who will bring her expertise on the social study of money and finance to this forum, as well as economic and social policy. She has written several books, including Emotions in Finance (second edition, 2012) and Financial Crises and the Nature of Capitalist Money (co-edited with Geoff Harcourt, 2013).
  • Prof Michael Gilding, an economic sociologist who has made important contributions to the social study of innovation, business and entrepreneurship, among other areas. He is the author of several works, including The Making and Breaking of the Australian Family (1991) and Secrets of the Super Rich (2010). Prof Gilding has also played a leading role in focusing past debate about economic sociology in Australia in the Journal of Sociology.
  • Dr Ben Spies-Butcher, also an economic sociologist, whose research focuses on social and environmental policy, and political participation. He is the author of The Concept of Social Capital (2009) and co-author of Market Society (2012).
  • Prof Gabrielle Meagher, a leader in Australian social policy research, co-editing the Australian Journal of Social Issues from 2010-13, and an expert on social care provision as well as gender, ageing and social attitudes. Prof Meagher is the author or editor of several books, including co-authoring Social Policy for Social Change (2009) and co-editing Paid Care in Australia (2009) and Australian Social Attitudes 1 and 2 (2005 and 2007).

The initiative comes from TASA’s Sociology of Economic Life thematic group, which exists to cohere and promote economic sociological studies in Australia. The forum is an initial step to solidify the sub-discipline and discuss the fault lines for research, in a context of ongoing fragmentation of economic sociology as a sub-discipline in Australia. The range of research topics pursued by members of this group underscore the importance of building this field. Topics include studies of climate change; the financialisation of everyday life; studies of new work and employment, ‘precarity’ and insecurity; child-care and the political economy of households, families and care-giving; inequality and workfare targeting of indigenous Australians; and, a renewed focus on disability in the context of the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS).

In addition, there is ongoing interest in urban marginality, affordable housing, urban space and cities, state theory and state formation, and, in the context of our region, socio-economic links between Australia and the rising powers of the Asia-Pacific. There are also important disciplinary links to policy and social practice via governments, NGOs and community sector organisations.

Thus, the case for economic sociology in Australia remains strong. This forum will pose the following questions:

  1. What is the state of play for economic sociology in Australia?
  2. What lies at the cutting edge of the ‘discipline’ and what are the key fault-lines for research?
  3. Given its fragmentation, is economic sociology the best ‘frame’ for approaching the study of market society?
  4. What is the state of play for teaching economic sociology?

The panel will be based on a roundtable discussion between the speakers, with an opportunity for questions and comments from the floor. In addition, the forum endeavours to address the multi- and inter-disciplinary character of economic sociology, including the field’s relationship to political economy and economics as well as political science, international relations and anthropology. We also hope to live-stream the event online and there is a limited funding pool available for PhD students and casual academics who want to attend from inter-state areas. For more information, please contact us: or . We hope to see you there!

Elizabeth Humphrys
Elizabeth is a Scholarly Teaching Fellow in Social & Political Sciences, within the Communications program, based in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, at the University of Technology Sydney.
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  • Patrick
    May 18, 2015 at 4:23 pm

    The poster for this event prompts a question: is Economic Sociology (ES) the ‘right frame’ for studying ‘market society’?
    Was or is ES the right frame also for studying, for instance, Keynesian-based welfare-backed societies (that may have preceded some ‘market societies’)? Greater social control over capitalist economies (e.g. as in varieties of Keynesian economic society) does not make economic sociology ‘less’ relevant in principle. If so, market society may not make ES ‘more’ relevant?

    ES may be at risk of being ‘pop-up sociology’ if its relevance is limited to a specific time or place of capitalist activity.
    An apparent increase in neoliberal and market ideas in shaping society I think is the wrong framing of the question for positioning sociological analyses of economics.

    Looking forward to hearing much more at the event!

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