Poverty and economics

How important should the subject of poverty be within the discipline of economics? Some economists appear to think it is a very small issue compared to the magnificent mathematics of general equilibrium theory. Others believe that economics should fundamentally be about the sources of human well-being and misery, and that understanding poverty is absolutely fundamental …

Unexpected linkages

One of the things that I find most interesting in social development is the discovery of unexpected linkages between innovations in one field and outcomes in another.  Here is a somewhat hypothetical example. Improvement of long distance banking transactions in Qing China produces an increase in the frequency of rebellion. How so? Because the long …

New thinking about agency and structure

The social sciences have chosen up sides around a number of dichotomies -- quantitative versus qualitative research methods, macro versus micro, ethnographic versus causal. A dichotomy that spans many of the social sciences is the opposition of structure versus agency. "Structures" are said to be the objective complexes of social institutions within which people live …

Norbert Elias on the individual

Norbert Elias opens his 1987 book The Society of Individuals with these words:The relation of the plurality of people to the single person we call the "individual", and of the single person to the plurality, is by no means clear at present. But we often fail to realize that it is not clear, and still less why. We have the familiar …

Great structures?

The scholars of the Annales school of French history characteristically placed their analysis of historical change within the context of the large structures -- economic, social, or demographic -- within which ordinary people live out their lives. They postulate that the broad and enduring social relations that exist in a society -- for example, property …

The sociology of class

According to the traditional definition, a class is defined in relation to the broad structure of the property system. A group of people belong to the same class when they occupy the same position within the property system governing labor, physical assets, and perhaps intangible assets such as knowledge or money. This is a structural …

System tendencies?

A central theme of many of the posts here is the contingency, heterogeneity, and path dependency of social processes. I used the metaphor of a "constrained random walk" in an earlier posting to characterize many social processes. This figure is intended to stand in contrast to the idea of an inevitable development towards an optimum …

Processes versus structures

Comparative historical sociology seeks to provide an answer to this type of question: what causes certain kinds of large historical outcomes? And it proceeds, often, on the basis of controlled comparison of a small number of cases. Theda Skocpol's classic book, States and Social Revolutions: A Comparative Analysis of France, Russia and China, is a …

Structures in Marx’s thought

The concept of a social structure has often played a large role in social theorizing. The general idea is that society consists of an ensemble of durable, regulative structures within the context of which individuals live and act. Sometimes structures are interpreted functionally: the ensemble of structures constitute a system, and discrete structures satisfy important …

Large social forces?

We often analyze the world around us in terms of large social forces and trends -- globalization, the rise of ethnic identities, the spread of global capitalism, the rise of China as a coming super-power. These large forces are the "folk theories" through which we try to make sense of the world as it changes …

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