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Jason Beckfield Award Statement

Jason Beckfield, Assistant Professor at the University of Chicago, is the other 2006 awardee for his work The Consequences of Regional Political and Economic Integration for Inequality and the Welfare State in Western Europe. Beckfield received his degree at Indiana University, Bloomington, where he completed his dissertation project under the direction of Professor Art Alderson. This paper is an exceptional and ambitious work that is fully deserving of the honor of the 2006 ASA Dissertation Award. It is careful, wide-ranging, and thoughtful research that is sure to have an impact within our discipline and beyond. Indeed, it is one of those works of sociology that will win praise among scholarly specialists while also affecting central policy debates.

Jason’s dissertation asks how we should go about making sense of regional integration – the construction of regional supranational markets and polities such as NAFTA or the European Union (a phenomenon that is often conflated with “globalization”). In doing so, he addresses a set of issues that cut across the fields of sociology, political science, and economics and strike at the heart of many current debates. The deliberate construction of an integrated European regional economy and polity – the European Union – is one of the most remarkable developments of the postwar period. While of a type with other efforts at regionalization, the EU has moved faster and further towards integration than have other such experiments. As such, study of the EU provides a unique opportunity to explore the effects of changes in the scale of social action and the development of new social forms beyond the national state. It also provides a point of purchase on a number of classic sociological questions and concerns.

To date, sociologists have had little to say about many of the “big questions” surrounding regional integration (and much of what they have had to say has been speculative). In his dissertation, Jason Beckfield takes on the extraordinarily ambitious task of providing rigorous, scientifically-defensible answers to four key questions surrounding regional integration and the EU. First, has regionalization produced economic convergence? In support of the goal of “ever closer union,” the reduction of economic disparities between member nations of the European Union has been an explicit policy goal of the EU and its antecedents. Has this goal been accomplished? If so, how? Second, how has regionalization affected inequality within countries? While many observers of the European scene conflate regionalization with globalization and expect “Europeanization” to widen gaps in income in EU nations, others suggest that European integration may insulate EU countries from what are assumed to be the polarizing effects of globalization. What is happening and why? Third, has regional integration made European welfare states more similar? Has the construction of a European polity produced convergence on a “European” welfare state model? Or have the distinctions, for instance, between “conservative,” “liberal,” and “social democratic” welfare states been preserved owing, perhaps, to path-dependence? Finally, has regional integration contributed to welfare state retrenchment in Europe? Given strict convergence and accession criteria, the possibility of tax-competition resulting from an integrated market, etc., many have linked regionalization to welfare state regress in Europe. Exactly what role has regional integration played in welfare state retrenchment?

Using data on seventeen European countries over the period from 1950-2000 and state of the art theory and method, Jason finds that regional integration is associated with 1) economic convergence among European Union member states, 2) increased income inequality within nations, 3) growing isomorphism among the welfare states of EU members, and 4) welfare-state retrenchment. These findings are, in and of themselves, extremely important and sure to be of great interest to a wide audience of scholars and policy-makers, but their “blockbuster” status lies in how Jason treats the phenomenon of regionalization. Where most research in this area conceptualizes regionalization as first and foremost an economic phenomenon, Jason argues that it also has important political, social, and cultural dimensions. Developing a “political-institutionalist” approach to regional integration, that combines institutionalist thinking with an acute attention to power and interests to highlight how institutions make and structure markets, Jason develops multiple indicators of the economic and political dimensions of regional integration and demonstrates empirically how patterns of convergence and inequality in Europe in the last half-century have been shaped just as much by political integration as they have by economic integration.

The results are truly remarkable and are a real showcase for what sociology can contribute to the broader discussion of transnational processes and their consequences. They lend dramatic support to some of the fundamental hypotheses informing current economic and political sociology, and clearly demonstrate the centrality of sociological insights to the understanding of processes often held to be within the exclusive purview of economics or political science. Jason Beckfield’s dissertation is thus richly deserving of this honor.