Ideational Embeddedness or Adversarial Politics?

I’m re-reading Somers and Block (2005) on ideational embeddedness. They posit an explanation for the rise of what they call “market fundamentalism” (putting aside the fact that this ill-defined concept is problematic in itself. They define market fundamentalists as those “who believe in the moral superiority of organizing all dimensions of social life according to market principles.” What this means or who might fall under this category is left to the reader to imagine) as it culminates in the 1834 reform of the English Poor Laws and the 1996 welfare reform efforts in the United States. They build on the ideational turn in sociology by “expanding market embeddedness to include the ideas, public narratives, and explanatory systems by which states, societies, and political cultures construct, transform, explain, and normalize market processes. No less than all the familiar mechanisms by which markets are shaped, regulated, and organized, so too, they are always ideationally embedded by one or another competing knowledge regime.” At this point, the concept looks promising, but they then go on to describe market fundamentalism as possessing a unique “epistemic privilege” which makes it immune to empirical challenges. A promising concept quickly turns into a cheap shot at neoliberalism.

According to Somers and Block, three characteristics of market fundamentalism give it this epistemic privilege – social naturalism, theoretical realism, and conversion narratives. Social naturalism is the idea that markets, if left to their own, will be self-regulating. Theoretical realism is the idea that empirical evidence can be deceiving and therefore the social observer must rely on some (untestable) general principles deduced from thought experiments. Conversion narratives are stories told, not to explain, but to delegitimize older narratives and convert people to the new one.

With these concepts in hand, Somers and Block attempt to explain how market fundamentalism could overpower previous conceptions of welfare and lead to more market-drive institutions. Unfortunately, their evidence rests on shaky grounds. Their story centers on the writings of Thomas Malthus. Throughout their essay, they assume that Malthus, of all the classical economists, was the impetus for the ideas behind the 1934 Poor Law reforms to the exclusion of all other possible influences. Malthus, of course, was the dreariest of the classical economists known for his social Darwinism. This leads one to wonder why Somers and Block pick him to tell their story. The quotes they pull from the Report from His Majesty’s Comissioners for Inquiring in to the Administration and Practical Operation of the Poor Laws seem cherry-picked as well to fit their story as well.

Given the weakness of their ideational thesis, I began to think about other possible explanations. As with most of my thinking lately, this led me to Monica Prasad’s work on adversarial politics. She looks at the role of adversarial policies in the shift toward neoliberal policies across four countries in the 1970s and 1980s. She argues that the American welfare state was truly redistributive at the time as the burden from a progressive tax structure fell almost completely on the wealthy while welfare means-tested welfare programs targeted the poor. This resulted in a backlash that started in Reagan, and by extension, we could argue culminated in the 1994 welfare reforms of Clinton. Similarly, the old English Poor Laws were financed by highly salient property taxes while means-tested relief programs targeted the poor. More importantly, the reforms came only two years after the franchise was extended to the English middle class which would be consistent with the thesis that adversarial policies pit the upper and middle class against the poor.

This is important because Somers and Block base their argument on the methodological point that ”Cases that differ along every parameter except the dependent variable are particularly suited for comparative sociology’s method of agreement – a method that makes a robust causal argument for the one hypothesized independent variable common to both cases.” We now have two independent variables common to both cases thus throwing Somers and Block’s thesis into question. How do we adjudicate the dispute between the two possible explanations? There’s a paper in that…

  • Josh McCabe

Some Things to Consider When Working with Couples

Blow and Hartnett (2005) define Infidelity as a sexual and/or emotional act engaged in by one person within a committed relationship, where such an act occurs outside the primary relationship and constitutes a breach of trust and/or a violation of agreed-upon norms, or boundaries, (explicit or implicit) by one or both individuals in that relationship in relation to romantic/emotional or sexual exclusivity.

Factoids About Infidelity (Blow and Hartnett, 2005):

  1. Infidelity is not correlated with marital unhappiness/dissatisfaction.
  2. Opportunity, e.g., the workplace, business trips, professional meetings, and academic conferences, is a significant factor independent of rates of unhappiness.
  3. “Personal factors” or vulnerabilities such as “low self-esteem” or generational transmission of tolerance of, and perhaps encouragement of, infidelity.
  4. Levels of “sexual satisfaction” do correlate inversely with levels of infidelity.  For example, a high level of sexual satisfaction correlates with a low rate of infidelity, and vice-versa.
  5. Female risk for infidelity is highest during the first seven years of marriage.
  6. Male risk for infidelity is highest “later” in a marriage.

Brian A. Pitt


Ahhhh!! I’ve resisted for as long as I could but it looks like I’m finally being sucked into the debate. I stayed away as long as possible only because I associated performativity with the God awful works of Bruno Latour and ANT. The great discussion by Dan and Fabio are what’s piqued my interests. I’m not ready to take sides though and speak only as a curious bystander. The question which is currently on my mind is the applicability of performativity theory to other areas of markets at other time periods.

As far as I can tell, performativity comes out of the social studies of finance tradition over in the United Kingdom. Most of the studies done has obviously looked at financial markets while others have looked at accounting and marketing. What is the value of performativity beyond these areas? Who reasons related to my interpretation of Ludwig Lachmann, I have trouble seeing the applicability of performativity as it is theorized today to aspects of markets which aren’t so driven by participants’ expectations of the future. This isn’t to say that its not a fine theory but if I don’t study financial markets then it looks like performativity is of little use to me.

Secondly, although Callon and others employ a very broad definition of economics, it still limits the time periods we can study to those where we have an economic science or profession or discipline or whatever might be necessary. Could we also argue that Marxian class analysis is performed by capitalist or working class actors? Or maybe that Hobbesian views of the state were performed by autocrats? I’m not sure what level or formal modeling we need for performativity to apply or whether we could even have a pre-economics performativity.

I’m going to be part of a panel discussing Deirdre McCloskey’s new book, Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can’t Explain the Modern World. Each of the discussants is charged with taking a particular angle and I’ve been called upon to give the “sociological perspective.” Rather than regurgitate a bunch of Arrighi, Wallerstein, or some other materialist defense, I figured I would go at it from an ideational standpoint – Somers and Block’s ideational embeddedness, Blyth’s ideas in crisis times, or Schmidt’s discursive institutionalism. I don’t plan to take a firm stand on any of these view. Rather, I just want to open up the discussion and introduce the ideas to people who might not otherwise know about them (free market economics). The question is whether I can add performativity to the list. According to McCloskey, “A big change in the common opinion about markets and innovation, I claim, caused the Industrial Revolution, and then the modern world. The change occurred during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in northwestern Europe. More or less suddenly the Dutch and British and then the Americans and the French began talking about the middle class, high or low – the ‘bourgeoisie’ – as though it were dignified and free. The result was modern economic growth (xi).” Could I argue that the bourgeois was performing the changing views on commercial trade and innovation? I see two possible problems with this argument. The first is that these views might not have had science status (i.e. came from the moral philosophers of the time). The second is that I can’t imagine how they contributed to the calculability of the actors participating in the market.


  • Josh McCabe

The Day Frederick Douglass Left the World

Frederick Douglass passed away on February 20, 1895.  Of all of his speaking and writing, this quotation, from “What a Black Man Wants,” is my favorite:

Everybody has asked the question … “What shall we do with the Negro?”  I have had but one answer from the beginning.  Do nothing with us!  Your doing with us has already played the mischief with us.  Do nothing with us!  If the apples will not remain on the tree of their own strength, if they are wormeaten at the core, if they are early ripe and disposed to fall, let them fall!  I am not for tying or fastening them on the tree in any way, except by nature’s plan, and if they will not stay there, let them fall.  And if the Negro cannot stand on his own legs, let him fall also.  All I ask is give him a chance to stand on his own legs!  Let him alone!

African American Social and Political Thought 1850 – 1920 (edited by Howard Brotz)

Brian A. Pitt

Putting Bacon-Davis into Perspective

The Boston Globe reports that GOP efforts to suspend the Bacon-Davis Act for the remainder of the year have failed in the house. The article frames the debate surrounding Bacon-Davis as pertaining to the costs of public infrastructure and ideological battles over the role of unions. I’m sure that these are both important factors in people’s perceptions of the act, but there’s another angle people aren’t mentioning.

In his much underappreciated book Only One Place of Redress: African Americans, Labor Regulations, and the Courts from Reconstruction to the New Deal, David Bernstein traces the origins of the Bacon-Davis Act. He finds that the original impetus for the legislation came from racist white labor unions in the north who wanted to limit competition from black workers. As other authors have pointed out, many labor organizations thought of these sorts of things as strictly a white man’s affair. Despite the sinister origins of this law, it is still on the books today.

Now, you might say to yourself: “Sure it had racist origins but things aren’t like that anymore and the law is put to good use today.” First, you’d have to accept the assumption that construction unions a) aren’t racist anymore or b) don’t exclude black workers through structural mechanisms anymore. In my opinion, this would take a leap of faith. Second, let’s go ahead and assume that contemporary unions have indeed overcome their legacy of discrimination and now include black workers. So what? In Freeman and Medoff’s two faces of unionism, wages still played a big part. Ruth Milkman has called this “taking wages out of competition.” Most economists would just call it raising wages above the market equilibrium. No matter how you spin it, when you raise wages above an equilibrium price, an oversupply of workers results. The jobs will not be allocated by market competition but in some other arbitrary manner. Back in the day, the mechanism was race. White union members got the job while black workers were excluded. The same mechanism applies now; It’s just a different group which is excluded.

We can look to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina for hints as to who gets excluded. When President Bush suspended the Bacon-Davis requirements in order to speed up the recovery process, labor unions again expressed outrage at the thought of competing with other workers. In this case, it was Mexican workers who had the nerve to think they should be eligible for the same jobs as Americans. One could argue that this only highlights the need to incorporate Mexican immigrants into the labor movement (as Milkman does) but this doesn’t change the fact that Bacon-Davis and similar laws will always have the effect of excluding some workers. It’s the same situation with different faces.

My co-blogger Brian rightly points out that today’s libertarian movement doesn’t seem to be concerned with the most marginalized in society. Changing the way we discuss labor laws such as Davis-Bacon and other minimum wage laws is a great place to start.

  • Josh McCabe

Neoliberalism and the Globalization of Economics

I’m re-reading Sarah Babb’s Managing Mexico for my comprehensive exams. Babb zeroes in on the role of economists in Mexico’s moves toward neoliberalism. Her approach is interesting as she takes into account the debate about the role of ideas and material conditions in social change. Although economic ideas are at the center of her study, she is really studying the material conditions which led to the rise of certain ideas at one point or another in time. Specifically, she argues that ideas need to have some sort of “constituency” to provide the idea-bearers with resources. “Professions need not generate widespread belief in their expertise; it is sufficient to find a group that is willing to pay for it.” In the professions literature, there is so much emphasis on status and legitimacy that we forget that these are only concerns to individuals who already live a comfortable life. In the case of Mexico, resources were more important than status in guiding the path of the economics profession.

In the early period, the fact that economists received training in state-run school (UNUM) which they expected to lead them to jobs in the state bureaucracy had an important effect on their economic outlook. As Babb puts it, “Mexican economics was essentially ‘invented’ by a group of postrevolutionary state-builders.” The private sector (included academia) was underdeveloped, so it was natural for economists to seek employment in the growing state sector. Most “academic” economists were really state bureaucrats with a second job. Given that the economist of this period worked for the state bureaucracy, is it any wonder that they tended to favor state intervention into the economy?

The transition from UNUM to ITAM reflects the change in constituencies. The latter school was private, funded by business interests, and stocked with economists who had been trained abroad. A small but substantial number of ITAM graduates still find their way to government jobs, but now with a more “Americanized” outlook for economics.

Babb’s analysis raised a couple of questions for me. The first has to do with the idea of “constituencies” which seems like a variant of class interests. While she found a historical case study where the state-run school was more statist and the private university was more market-friendly, I’m not sure how applicable this observation is to other cases. Another good example of this is Guatemala which has three state-run schools which all tend to be statist in outlook. A couple of decades ago, some libertarians (with the backing of a group of business elites) started the country’s first private university ( UFM ) which is extremely free market in outlook. I’ve talked to several people at the school who attribute the ideological differences to the public/private differences. Is this the same for developed countries like the U.S. where we see leftist economics at both UMass Amherst and the New School and market economics at both the University of Chicago and George Mason University? The connection is a bit more tenuous here.

Secondly, I wonder how much of the change in Mexico is contingent on the fact that Chicago School economics is highly technical (read mathematical) and therefore more useful to government officials who need to write reports telling the public just exactly how much this or that program will contribute to (insert economic indicator here). Going back to my Guatemala example, although Chicago School economics is in the curriculum, UFM professors primarily teach nonmathetically-oriented Austrian School economics. Students there told me that they believe the school hasn’t had much political influence because most students are averse to government employment for ideological reasons and therefore aren’t connected to the policy process, but it could also be that the Austrian School’s inability to make grand predictions precludes it from having any influence despite possessing the same free market principles as the Chicago School. If this is the case then in addition to the story about resources and constituencies, we’d have to add Habermas or Hayek’s story on the power of positivism.

  • Josh McCabe

Amazon Arrivals

Up From the Projects – Walter E. Williams’ Autobiography

Simple and Direct – Jacques Barzun

I Chose Liberty – Walter Block

I devoured Williams’ book in one day.  It was an impressive read, as I got to know the “woman behind the man.”

I’m currently reading Barzun.  Barzun is somewhat persnickety about language and usage, but his insights are priceless.  (I’m incredulous that this man never taught a course in composition.)

I have not ripped the plastic off of Block’s work yet.  The Mises blog, however, gives me the impression that this book is a shining example of The Sociological Imagination.  (I am somewhat disappointed, as this is a project that I hoped to embark on.  Hat’s off to Walter Block nonetheless.)

Brian A. Pitt

McCloskey on Bourgeois Dignity

Step aside Marx. Move over Weber. Here comes McCloskey!


  • Josh McCabe

Nonprofits and Regional Development

I’m usually pretty skeptical of the role some people envision nonprofits playing in regional development. My thoughts come from my practical experience working with a number of nonprofits back in Massachusetts over the years. My impression is that many nonprofits exist for the sake of the people running them, use too many taxpayer dollars, and don’t deliver the results.

Of course, I never worked in Green Bay. From the New Yorker :

In a season where N.F.L. owners have steadily threatened to lock out the players next year unless they secure more profits in the next collective bargaining agreement, it’s poetic justice to see the Green Bay Packers, the team without an owner, make the Super Bowl. Actually, it’s not quite accurate to say the Packers are without an owner. They have a hundred and twelve thousand of them. The Packers are owned by the fans, making them the only publicly owned, not-for-profit, major professional team in the United States.

Professional sports teams are usually another entity that promises to spur development in return for tax subsidies, and much like nonprofits, they rarely keep that promise. This is why I was happy to read this:

In the United States, we socialize the debt of sports and privatize the profits. Green Bay stands as a living, breathing, and, for the owners, frightening example, that pro sports can aid our cities in tough economic times, not drain them of scarce public resources.

Amen to that!

  • Josh McCabe
  • The Battle for the Soul of CPAC

    Last year, I reported on the controversy surrounding Students for Liberty’s Alexander McCobin’s defense of GOProud’s participation in CPAC, the annual conference that brings together an assortment of conservative groups. Liberty University and several other organizations boycotted the event last year as a result. I recently found out that several more organizations are boycotting the event this year, including the Heritage Institute. Despite my sadness in hearing that these organizations feel the need to withdraw over the issue of gay marriage, I’m happy to hear that CPAC is not backing down and is standing firmly by their decision to include GOProud and I’m really happy to hear that McCobin is once again calling out those groups who are boycotting this year. Go Alex! Additionally,  Time magazine is now reporting that CPAC has just announced that Gary Johnson (pro-choice, pro-gay marriage, pro-immigration, pro-marijauna legalization, anti-Afghanistan war Republican) will have a speaking role this year. At this rate, this year’s CPAC will have more ideological diversity than the ASA conference in August. Zing!

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    • Josh McCabe