I met Richard Swedberg on March 18th in the lobby of his hotel in Copenhagen (therefore the music that accompanies this recording). The interview was carried out the day before the beginning of his activities at Copenhagen Business School, where he gave a public lecture and conducted a smaller seminar. I was lucky to sneak into both of them, which helped me to better grasp some of the topics discussed in this interview. Particularly, Swedberg’s recent attempt to conceptualize the role played by confidence in financial markets, and, perhaps more fundamentally, his passionate defense of theorizing (not in the sense of automatically recycling the classics, but as an active research practice). In these events, I got the impression that this latter project is motivated by a deep dissatisfaction (that I don’t know if I share) with the state of sociological theory today. There were certainly many other things discussed during these two days that are not registered in this conversation (for instance, a story about Swedberg interviewing Parsons and a recorder that didn’t work as well as an analogy between doing theory and dancing tango). What you do get here are answers to nine questions about key challenges of current economic sociology from one of the most important actors in the institutionalization of this influential sub-discipline.
[Answers in audio files].
Q1. You have written widely about entrepreneurship and, at the same time, you have become an entrepreneur yourself. In fact, it is very difficult to find a more active agent in the production of the New Economic Sociology. You are everywhere, editing handbooks and collections, re-reading classics, etcetera. This is why you have also become a central witness of the history of this sub-discipline. In an interview for our blog Viviana Zelizer suggested that the early expressions of the New Economic Sociology were strongly shaped by economics. Not in the sense of following the theoretical foundations of this discipline, but rather in the sense of doing science in a way that could seem convincing for economists: that is quantitative analyses, regressions, test of hypotheses, etc. Then, my first question is: how important was mirroring economics for the early New Economic Sociology?
Q2. One of the characteristic elements in your work is that you do not only do sociology, but you have been very interested in building a dialogue with economists. In fact, you have written a lot about economists such as Schumpeter, and, as you mentioned, you edited this very nice book of interviews that builds a kind of virtual dialogue between sociologists – such as Harrison White, Mark Granovetter, James Coleman – and economists – such as Gary Becker, Oliver Williamson, George Arkelof and Kenneth Arrow. I guess this interest has been directed not only at improving economic sociology, but at building a new space where these different disciplinary approaches can talk to each other. Today the situation, I think, is very different from 20 years ago. There are, actually, some institutions (such as The Society for the Advancement of Socio-Economic), or few journals (such as the SASE Review, Economy and Society, the journal for Cultural Economy, Organization Studies, and so on) that do provide a space for this type of discussion. At the same time, there is an increasing collaboration between people from different disciplines talking about economic issues. However, my impression is that there is still a “great division”. On the one hand, there are anthropologists, geographers, sociologists, and historians that can work together, or at least read each other (for instance in recent “finance studies”). And, on the other, there are economists, psychologists, and neuroscientists that talk to each other but do not cross these divisions. In this context, how feasible and how important is it to keep trying to build a dialogue between economic sociology and economics today?
Q3. While your name is surely associated with the New Economic Sociology, your own research method is far from network analysis. Actually, most of your monographs are “close readings” of classical texts, which situates you closer to the humanities. A first question in this regard is: how do you work with these texts?
Q4. You mentioned Weber, and also Schumpeter, both seem to be authors that try to do some kind of synthesis or to build a common ground for approaching economic issues. A question then is: where are you heading with your reading of classical authors? My impression is that you are not trying something like, let’s say, Parsons’ early work, where he suggests that the classics of social science were going in the direction of some kind of common theory (his own theory!). It seems to me that you don’t want to build a common theory, but you just mentioned that it is important to find a new common ground to think economics broadly…
Q5. And do you think this happens in the same way in Europe as in the US? I mean you are connected to both continents, and, thinking about your audiences on either side of the Atlantic, it could be that your work is categorized as more “sociological” in the US and in a broader category in Europe?…I don’t know, I am just guessing, but…
Q6. Then, if you don’t want to build a synthesis, as you said “a Heidegger type of synthesis”, what do you want your books to do? What is the impact you want to produce with your work about Weber or Schumpeter?
Q7. Another of your topics of interest is markets. You organized the different sociological approaches to markets in your chapter for the Handbook of Economic Sociology and, in a more empirical direction, you have discussed the part played by confidence in the last financial crisis. Are you planning to work further on this latter issue? Is this a new line in your work?
Q8. In your article about markets and confidence you mention Peirce’s semiotics. And, just this morning, I read your article in the journal of Cultural Economy where you connect Peirce and Simmel as two ways of thinking an epistemology that is different from Weber-Kantian social constructionism, which could eventually be interesting for a materially grounded economic sociology, or to further extend the communication with Callon and these people. So how important is this and where are you going with these connections?
Q9. Just to finish, do you think these more sociologically informed approaches to markets could eventually be useful in a new financial crisis? Or, perhaps, could they eventually inform policies to deal with new crises?