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Economic Sociology: State of Play and Fault Lines for Future Research

Economic Sociology Forum – Thursday 23rd July, University of Sydney

Anoushka Benbow-Buitenhuis, RMIT University

Since the 2008 Global Financial Crisis, mainstream neoclassical economics as the dominating discourse has been challenged across the social and economic sciences. Influential works by economists Thomas Piketty and Joseph Stiglitz have enjoyed commercial success and helped to legitimize discussion about economic inequality and the negative effects of marketization on society. The Sociology of Economic Life Thematic Group held this forum to examine the current state of economic sociology in Australia and to highlight these new opportunities. The forum featured five eminent scholars: Emerita Professor Raewyn Connell, Professor Gabrielle Meagher, Dr Ben Spies-Butcher, Professor Jocelyn Pixley and Professor Michael Gilding. Alongside these distinguished speakers, we also had 51 in attendance – in this audience, a mixture of postgraduate researchers, Early Career Researchers and interested people outside the academy.

SoEL event

Ben Spies-Butcher opened the forum, observing that economic theories are newly recognising problems of economic inequality, which are traditionally sociological observations. This seismic shift allows economic sociologists to enter debates around markets and related phenomena. However, Australian sociology has historically deferred most of the discussion about markets to the economics discipline.

Michael Gilding identified three dominant strands of economic sociology in Australia: class analysis, political economy and critiques of neoliberalism. Prof Gilding proposed that sociologists need to study markets because of the social and the cultural aspects within their operation. Furthermore, this sub-discipline can be greatly assisted by interdisciplinary academic collaborations (with departments as diverse as computer science for their data expertise) and this will strengthen the contribution that economic sociology can make to society.

Raewyn Connell discussed how economic theory is framed by the experiences of the global North and its crises, which can be far removed from Australian concerns. She used the seminal work of Michael Pusey on ‘economic rationalism’ as an example of how Australian sociologists can map and theorise Australian political economic developments and global marketization. Thus, Connell concludes that sociologists have the important role in the public of constructing new agendas – in media, government and other arenas. Public intellectualism is highly important in this field, as we need to ask what issues we can acknowledge and how sociology, and its theories, can eliminate the problems.

Neoliberal governance and fairly recent, and ongoing, reforms to public service delivery has seen the public purse become a new goldmine for private profits. Gabrielle Meagher critically investigated the profitability of private enterprise and ‘public entrepreneurship’. Since the economic reforms of the 1980s, Australia has invited private organisations to tender for public service delivery, which sees services such as healthcare and social work subjected to market ideals such as efficiency and return to stakeholders. Multimillion dollar contracts are gained by multinational corporations which are commonly explicitly ‘for-profit’.

The final scholar, Jocelyn Pixley, argued that economic sociology needs to reintroduce questions and theories of money back into academia. Often the province of finance or accounting, money is a lever and an abstraction which shapes social relations. From Simmelian theories about economics inherently being social interaction to Giddens’ theory of money as a symbolic token within an embedded system, several sociologists have approached money as a conduit of sociality. While these largely theoretical examples are useful, a more detailed, and Australian, investigation is required to re-think how our society negotiates money in every-day lives.

After the main forum, the audience and panel undertook a lively debate on a range of issues, from the precariat labour pool working in academia, to how technology is disrupting older market practices (via AirBnB and Uber). The night had a very successful turn-out and confirms that economic sociology is a large interest area in Australian sociology. I would like to give special thanks to Dr Tom Barnes and Elizabeth Humphreys for their hard work and dedication in putting this fantastic event together. I would also like to take this opportunity to thank the five speakers – Emerita Professor Raewyn Connell, Professor Gabrielle Meagher, Dr Ben Spies-Butcher, Professor Jocelyn Pixley and Professor Michael Gilding – for their continuing service to Australian sociology and strong beginning in pointing us in a new direction for Australian economic sociology.

The debrief which I attended the next day with Ben, Elizabeth, Tom, Lara McKenzie and Quentin Maire allowed us to further discuss some of the issues raised the previous night and plan future events that promote and raise the profile of Australian sociology. Although talking to peers via social media and email is rewarding and provides the opportunity for great discussions, interacting face to face is very exciting and provides a different level of collegiality. On behalf of myself, Lara and Quentin, I would also like to thank TASA for the generous bursary that allowed us to attend this wonderful event.