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Economists and Societies: Discipline and Profession in the United States, Britain, France, 1890s to 1990s

Marion Fourcade’s Economists and Societies: Discipline and Profession in the United States, Britain, and France, 1890s to 1990s (Princeton University Press, 2009) is comparative-historical sociology at its best. Indeed, it is sociology at its best.

Fourcade wants to understand individual identities in terms of the larger social structures which constitute them. In her words, “different societies create different types of individuals.” She explores this by examining what economics is and what economists do in different national contexts and how those different definitions develop and change over time.

Her approach to understanding how different societies create different individuals is informed by the macrosociology of culture found especially in the work of Pierre Bourdieu, William Sewell, Jr., and the new institutionalists. From this perspective, a national culture is the institutional arrangement in which economics and economists are embedded. Institutions are understood here as cultural practices and processes (“logics”) that are constitutive of the outcomes in question – they condition rather than cause. Fourcade focuses on three main institutional logics that together shape the unique approaches to economics found in the United States, Britain, and France: the state (“administrative order”), university system (“order of learning”), and economy itself (“economic order”)

Fourcade argues that the institutional configuration of the United States has historically been characterized by a fragmented state bureaucracy, disciplinary organization of the university, and market competition in the economy. This leads to a definition of economics as a mathematical science independent of the state and economists as formally-competent professionals situated in universities (think “Chicago School”). 

Although this conception of the economics profession will resonate with many readers, Fourcade shows that there are other legitimate ways of doing economics based on the unique institutional logics seen in different national cultural settings. With its strong centralized state, elite civil service, and less professionalized universities, France is institutionally quite the opposite of the United States. Not surprisingly, the understanding and practice of economics in France is quite different, being more closely tied to the state and practiced by technical and civil administrators as well as university professors. Economics is thus more diverse and contentious in France than in the United States.

Fourcade’s third case, Britain, contrasts with both the United States and France. Not as laissez-faire as the former and not as statist as the latter, Britain is a sort of middle-ground between the two. But this is not to say that it is a hybrid; its national culture and institutional configuration makes it a unique third type. Fourcade characterizes the British type as “public-minded elitism,” influenced by the “genteel” tradition of civil service and Oxbridge-LSE educations. This helps define economists as publicly-minded elites who are morally superior and have a right/duty to uphold British Culture and ensure social welfare.

These few words only gloss the many insights and subtleties of Fourcade’s work. As befits the winner of the ASAs Distinguished Book Award, Economists and Societies speaks broadly to all sociologists, at the same time it informs the work of specific constituencies: sociologists of culture and knowledge, economic and political sociologists, and comparative-historical sociologists. The extent of Fourcade’s contribution is evidenced in the recognition it has already received from various ASA sections, including winning the culture section’s 2010 Mary Douglas Prize for Best Book, honorable mention for the comparative and historical sociology section’s 2010 Barrington Moore Award for Best Book, and honorable mention for the science, knowledge and technology section’s 2010 Robert K. Merton Award for Best Book.