Does British sociology offer a new perspective on finance? Exhibit number 1

May 21, 2012

A recent study of academic syllabi by Dan Wang offers good news for British sociology. Economic sociology, Wang suggests, offers a new and distinct lens to study the capital markets. And half of the publications that make up this paradigm are authored in the UK by British sociologists.

The observation is relevant in light of the controversy recently fired up by The Guardian’s Aditya Chakrabortty over the reaction of UK-based sociologists to the credit crisis. British sociologists, the journalist argued, have not adjusted their research programs in response to current times, and ignore financial markets. (As a self-interested sociologist of finance, I might be receptive to that claim). Furthermore, Chakrabortty added, the one British sociologists that studies finance, Donald MacKenzie, does so “without context or politics: the view is all cogs and no car.” The implication seems to be that MacKenzie’s research cannot provide a practical alternative to economics. It will never offer “a shot at changing capitalism itself.”

The findings of Dan Wong appear to point in the opposite direction. The piece, titled “Is there a Canon in Economic Sociology,” concludes that MacKenzie’s work, along with his UK-based coauthors Yuval Millo and Francisco Guala, are part of the canon of the discipline, and form its own distinct network grouping. As Kieran concludes:

You’ve got the structural/embeddedness people and the broadly cultural/Zelizerian work forming one large group, and then (disconnected from both) the insurgent social studies of science/finance people. 

The study is more consistent with my own impression of the UK than Chakrabortty’s. The paradox of The Guardian’s attack is that things could hardly be better in the British sociology of finance. It is British sociologists that are leading the world in the reframing of finance. Finance is the one area of sociology (alongside with the sociology of science) where British sociology is ahead of the rest of the world. I should know: I left a terrific job in New York for the sake of being in the UK and join this fascinating intellectual journey. And I have not regretted it for one minute. 

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