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Capitalism Strikes Back: Why and What Consequences for Social Sciences?

Le retour du capitalisme : causes et conséquences pour les sciences sociales
Robert Boyer


Pourquoi le terme de capitalisme a été de plus en plus utilisé au cours de la dernière décennie ? Comment les recherches en socio-économie pourraient-elles contribuer à la compréhension des diverses variantes du capitalisme ? En réponse à ces deux questions, l’article s’attache à montrer que le concept de capitalisme n’est pas équivalent à celui d’économie de marché car il invite à étudier les relations sociales et le changement qui sont constitutifs de ce régime économique. Les années 90 marquent un changement majeur dans l’analyse des sociétés contemporaines car la capacité du capitalisme à innover, à bouleverser les formes d’organisation et les institutions et à déborder les frontières nationales constitue autant de traits distinctifs qui sont au cœur des travaux fondateurs de l’économie politique. Compte tenu de la multiplicité des composantes et des facettes du capitalisme, la plupart des sciences sociales peuvent utilement éclairer ce régime complexe et évolutif, qu’il s’agisse du droit, de l’histoire économique, de la science politique, de la sociologie, de la théorie économique ou des analyses du changement technique. L’essentiel de l’article est alors consacré à une brève revue de la littérature sur les mérites et limites comparés de trois programmes de recherche : la sociologie économique, la nouvelle économie politique et la théorie de la régulation. Il en ressort que ces trois approches peuvent être rendues complémentaires. Ce pronostic pourrait favoriser une nouvelle génération de travaux régulationnistes.

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Notes de la rédaction

March 23th, 2007
This article develops a presentation prepared for the conference “Economic Sociology and Political Economy”. First Max Planck Summer Conference on Economy and Society, Villa Vigoni, Italy, July 15-18th, 2006. The author thanks the participants of the conference and two referees for their useful comments. Version 5 after referees, editorial committee requirements, English editing and final proposal by the author.

Notes de l’auteur

J.E.L. Classification : B25 - B41 - B52 – K00 – N00 – O11 – P10 – P17 – Z1

Texte intégral


1It is not an easy task to speak about capitalism, neither as a concept of social science, nor as a really existing economic regime. Didn’t Marx build an entire theory of capitalism that concluded to the irreversible deepening of contradictions, structural crises and conflicts of the economic system built upon the domination of capital accumulation? Now economists, even sympathetic with the Marxist approach, recognize that the demonstration exhibited a lot of flaws and economic history research has shown the noticeable resilience of market economies even to major financial crises. At the other extreme of the methodological spectrum, neoclassical economists never used, and still most of them do not use, the notion of capitalism, since for them it is basically an ideological term that brings a critical assessment and a political flavor to the cold and rigorous analysis of market economies that should be the unique preoccupation of economic theories.

2Back in the 1960s, the term capitalism was rarely used. It is no longer the case in the 2000s. A brief test of the number of occurrences of the term “Capitalism” in the content of Google Scholar shows an impressive explosion after 1989, usually perceived as the epochal transformation where the adoption of capitalism and democracy has become the only available horizon for contemporary societies (Table 1).

Table 1 – The number of annual references to capitalism in Google Scholar















Note: Since the number of Reviews covered increases with time, the series should not be over interpreted

3This article proposes to investigate various facets of this explosion of references. (1) First it is important to contrast a market economy approach with an analysis of capitalism. (2) Second, the origins and the reasons for this renewed interest in this quite complex concept are to be investigated. (3) The central message of this paper is that understanding and explaining capitalism cannot be limited to a single discipline since the very resilience of this economic regime derives from its embeddedness in society and polity. (4) The rest of the paper is devoted to a comparative analysis of three research programs. What does economic sociology capture as the core of capitalism? (5) How to explain that State and more generally polity are so present in modern capitalism at the very epoch of liberalization and globalization? (6) To what extent is the “regulation theory” at the crossroads of the institutions and dynamics of capitalism? (7) A brief conclusion proposes some common research themes.

1. Market economy or capitalism: what differences does it make?

4Implicitly at least, economists, sociologists and historians do not use these terms as synonymous. What are the key features that distinguish these two “visions” of economies and societies?

  • The adoption of the notion of market economy implies that markets are the dominant, if not totally exclusive, mechanisms for coordinating economic activity. States, communities, and civil society are a priori excluded and this might be perceived as evidence for the limited ambition and, modesty of the economist. But as soon as actual observations contradict the hypothesis of self-equilibrating markets, the neoclassical economists are prone to attribute the related malfunction to an imperfection with respect to the ideal of a “pure” market. Why are such imperfections so widely present, for example for labor and credit? Because these markets are embedded into social, political relations that distort the mere pursuit of self (economic) interest and the convergence towards an equilibrium. Hence General-Equilibrium Theory (GET) is the implicit – and frequently explicit – benchmark in many empirical analyses by conventional economists. Contrary to frequent statements, a market economy approach is not necessarily devoid of any value judgment, since it assumes that efficiency is the key performance criteria and that markets are the less imperfect mechanisms of coordination between free and independent individuals pursuing their own interests. Indeed, for some fundamentalists, markets are the only perfect mechanism. The normative content of the notion of market economy should never be underestimated. Last but not least, since Adam Smith, (1776) the market is perceived by economists as an abstraction for the price mechanism itself. The power of the metaphor of “the market” is quite strong since its use has been extended to some domains of sociology (the marriage market,) or of political sciences (the idea market, voting as a market, the median voter…).

  • The notion of capitalism unfortunately evokes an ideological construction that is supposed to be sustained by the doctrine of liberalism, to follow feudalism and to be opposed to socialism and communism. Actually, it can also be an analytical tool. A synthetic definition would state that “capitalism is a legal regime, an economic system and a social formation that unfolds in history and that is built upon two basic social relations: the market competition and the capital/labor nexus”. The differences with respect to a market economy are not purely semantic (table 2).

5- First, the role of market is only one component of a capitalist economy that does not exclude other coordinating mechanisms or actors than markets and firms.

6- Second, capitalism is not by nature only an economic system, since it requires legal rules and a precise type of political power that respects and defends property. Empirical observations exhibit more diverse social, economic and political configurations than a single economic system. This explains why the literature on capitalism stresses so much the existence of stages of capitalism (commercial, industrial, financial, cognitive) as well as the variety of its brands in contemporary world.

7- Third, the interplay of market competition with the conflicting nature of the capital/labor nexus promotes the accumulation of capital as a systemic constraint, a quasi law, full of disequilibria, contradictions and crises, at odds with the smooth equilibrium typical of the static world captured by the notion of market economy. Capitalist economies are dynamic systems, putting into motion structural change, innovation i.e. history. The authors working along these lines – Marx, Sombart, Veblen, Schumpeter, in a sense Keynes, Braudel, Galbraith… – do recognize the historical nature of capitalist configurations and the interdependence between the various spheres (economy, polity, society) that are kept disconnected by “market economy” approaches.

Table 2 – Market economy versus capitalism: two research programs

Market economy



1. A pure economic abstraction of supply and demand adjustments

1. A nexus of social relations

2. Horizontal coordination among equals

2. Both horizontal (competition among firms) and vertical relations (capital/labor nexus)

3. Ideally self equilibrating

3. Propagation of an unbalanced capital accumulation


4. Ideal of a total disconnection of the economic sphere (pure economy)

4. The interdependence of economy, society and polity is intrinsic¤


5. Implicit conception of a "natural equilibrium"

5. Law of accumulation and changing social and economic relations

6. At best,  kinematical time

6. Sense of historical time


7. Ideal of Pareto optimality……and benchmarking or competition reducing variety

7. Succession of historical stages and coexistence of various brands of capitalism

  • 1 In reference to the famous book by Milton Friedman Capitalism and Freedom, University of Chicago (...)

8Finally two different research programs should be distinguished, even if the reference to capitalism is not, by far, a sufficient condition for belonging to the heterodox camp1. It thus is important to try to explain why a significant fraction of former orthodox economists have adopted a dynamic approach to capitalism instead of refining models of “pure” and static economies.

2. The 1990s: a severe test for the theories of market economies

9The last decade has clearly shown the limits of mainstream economists’ approaches. The panorama of ideas and theories is now quite large, as exemplified by the conversion of some key economists. At present, the major findings of the 2000s do not fit with the market economy doxa and seem to give a clear advantage to methodologies that recognize the relevance of the notion of capitalism (Table 3).

  • The Great Transformation of the Soviet regime has challenged conventional thinking that postulated that as soon as central planning vanished and political pluralism was implemented, the Russian economy would rapidly converge towards a typical advanced market economy, with a similar standard of living for all citizens (Aslund, 1992). This reduction of capitalism to self-instituting and self-equilibrating markets has proved to be quite false. If the State’s authority is totally destroyed, it is impossible to implement and legitimize the basic institutions of capitalism: the rule of law, the credibility of national currency, the preservation of property, the enforcement of competition and the security of citizens. International organizations such as the World Bank (World Bank, 2002) have had to recognize that the State can be the key actor in the institution of a market economy. Nowadays, much active research in economics deals with the interaction between institutions and markets. The hypothesis of a pure economy is to be discarded and has to be replaced by a more eclectic analysis of the complementarities of State, market, norms, values, and even constitutional order (North, 1990; 2005).

  • All governments have fallen in love with markets that they promoted as an alternative to difficult and complex public interventions. Ironically, politicians have invoked the creative character of the market, whereas they actually relied on its destructive role on the institutional architecture inherited from the Golden Age (Hollingsworth, Boyer, 1997). The contradictions generated by the liberalization process have constrained to a significant aggiornamiento of governments, whatever their political and ideological preferences. The Chilean trajectory is quite illuminating indeed: one of the earliest and most dramatic examples of the adoption of a free market strategy generated such macroeconomic disequilibria that the conservative governments brought the State back by nationalizing copper mines, instituting reserves in order to curb down short run financial capital movements and even nationalizing banks temporarily after a major crisis. More generally, comparative analyses of Latin-American countries show that success has been attained after a significant re-regulation in order to correct the imbalances created by drastic moves towards free markets. To some extent, the same correction took place after the Thatcher years and the succession of Blair’s government in the UK.

  • The so-called Washington consensus (liberalization, international opening, privatization and reduction of the role of the State) has not produced the expected results, a strong and stable recovery and steady growth, at all. It is especially true in Latin America, where many governments applied quite drastic liberalization programs. The collapse of Argentina should have completely destroyed the naive pro-market consensus of international organizations (Boyer, Neffa, 2004). Actually, this financial, social and political crisis contributed to a bifurcation among mainstream economists. The majority of them blamed governments for not being bold enough to continue full liberalization or being insufficiently patient in the difficult learning process of living within a globalized world. Others, including some well known economists, changed their mind and recognized that liberalization policies did not find relevant justifications in modern economic theories: the very imperfection of market relations call for significant but relevant public interventions (Stiglitz, 2003).

Table 3 – Two research programs facing the surprises of the 2000s

Stylized facts
of the 2000s

The market economy approach

The capitalism approach

1. Difficult “transition” of Soviet economies

1. Hysteresis, irrationality, bad governments, prevalence of obsolete social values

1. A Great Transformation. The building of a socio-economic regime is a long term process

2. From full liberalization to regulation and new forms of State intervention

2. Pressure of uninformed public opinion, populism, irrationality of agents

2. Expression of the required complementarities between public and private spheres

3. A series of “good” macroeconomic and sectoral policies have not been sufficient to renew with fast growth

3. Insufficient liberalization of labor, product and capital markets

3. Disconnected reforms do not design a new and coherent regime

4. Repetition of major crises after financial liberalization

4. Incomplete liberalization, possibly insufficient financial supervision

4. The complete freedom granted to markets destroys institutional order

5. Absence of convergence neither for macroeconomic performance nor institutional architecture

5. Lack of diffusion of best practices, institutional inertial

5. Variety and long run coexistence of various brands of capitalism

6. Rising inequalities (or the fear of) trigger opposition to globalization and/or European integration

6. Social compromises limiting inequality legitimize and stabilize capitalist institutions

6. False perception of the benefits of globalization, irrationality, role of populism

7. Possible discrepancy between flexibility and long term growth

7. Shift from neoclassical theory to a Schumpeterian vision of innovation

7. The factors governing capital accumulation differ from those that shape cyclical patterns

  • More fundamentally, the conventional and now obsolete theory has been unable to explain why a series of partial measures in the “right direction” have not been sufficient to promote the emergence of a viable institutional configuration. The very idea that contemporary economies are only composed of markets as the unique coordinating mechanism does not help at all in understanding how institutional configurations, mixing public and private actors, formal and informal rules, institutions and organizations, coalesce into viable economic regimes. By contrast, most of the authors who adopt the concept of capitalism are concerned by more structural analyses about the compatibility of a series of initially disconnected institutional reforms.

  • The collapse of the Berlin Wall was supposed to promote the unification of the entire world under the hegemony of markets in the economic sphere and democracy in the political domain. In retrospect, it is quite ironical to read the literature about the end of history (Fukuyama, 1992). The rhetoric of the symbiosis of market with democracy seems to have won throughout the world even though comparative research recurrently concludes that national trajectories differ drastically across the triad (North America, Asia and Europe) and even between the closely interdependent members of the European Union, NAFTA or MERCOSUR (Albert, 1991; Withley, 1999; 2002; Hall, Soskice, 2001; Streeck, Yamamura, 2001; Coates 2002; Amable, 2003; Boyer, 2004; Hopner, 2006). For mainstream analysts (Aslund, 1992; Shleifer, Vishny, 1998), this is only transitory institutional inertia and consequently a form of benchmarking should favor institutional convergence towards a typical market economy. The diagnosis is quite different if one adopts an analysis in terms of capitalism: the variety of its configurations is the logical outcome of contrasted institutional compromises (Hibbs, 1987), the impact of increasing returns on path dependency (Arthur, 1994) or of the fact that there exist many methods in order to correct the so-called market imperfections (Akerlof, 1984). These include State interventions, collective actions at the relevant level, networks, codes of conduct, social values, informal norms and conventions. Within the same economic system, broadly defined as capitalism, various configurations can coexist (Berger, Dore, 1996). Furthermore, they generate specific specializations that are frequently more complementary that substitutive (Hancké, 1999; Amable, 2003).

  • The last decade gives many examples of the intricacies of the links between economic efficiency and social justice. For instance, in the absence of corrective redistribution mechanisms via the tax and welfare systems, the liberalization process and participation in the world economy have been associated with widening inequalities. Thus, many social and political movements have challenged globalization all over the world. For conservative economists, this is a typical irrational reaction and the consequence of populist governments. It is quite a surprising interpretation for researchers who stress methodological individualism! Again, research in terms of capitalist transformations seems to deliver a better understanding: it is quite rational for the losers of free market policies to oppose their governments. Conversely, the national economies where social solidarity is embedded into strong institutional compromises such as universal welfare and progressive taxation exhibit less opposition to the contemporary process of internationalization (Boyer, 2000). Basically, capitalism needs political legitimacy and some economic stability in order to reap the benefits of innovation and structural change.

  • Finally, the observed discrepancy between significant short-term flexibility and poor long-term growth performance directly challenged mainstream economists. They usually restrict their analyses to static efficiency and short run adjustment, in such a way that the long term evolution is no more than the succession of a series of short term equilibrium states (Boyer, 1996). This framework does not fit with the pattern observed in Latin America or in European Union where market friendly reforms are not followed by a recovery in growth. Therefore a significant shift of the economic profession is occurring, from a typical Walrasian approach to evolutionary and neoschumpeterian theorizing, based on the leading role of innovations. After all, this is a typical feature of capitalist economies, and in a sense, it is a tribute to the old Marxian idea according which the process of accumulation is the key mechanism of modern economies (Lipietz, 1979). The methodology and conclusions of neoschumpeterians (Dosi, 2001) and new Marxist economists (Duménil, Lévy, 1993) differ but they both share the hypothesis that capitalism is a relevant concept to understand the contemporary world.

10The definitions of capitalism are quite diverse, because capitalism is a complex entity. Thus capitalism presents a challenge for  social scientists.

3. Analyzing capitalism: the need for a multi disciplinary approach

11A review of the various definitions of capitalism brings to the forefront the multiplicity of disciplines concerned and contributes to an interesting analysis of capitalism (table 4).

  • One of the more basic definitions states that capitalism is a production system based upon the primacy of private property. This definition justifies the various approaches that underscore the role of law in economic activity: various strands of legal studies, law and economics, sociology of law…but also the typical interpretation of the Marxist heritage that opposes the private character of property in capitalism to the collective appropriation in the previous economic well as in the regimes that are supposed to follow the collapse of capitalism, i.e. socialism and communism. But property is not a natural endowment of individuals but a social and political construction. Clearly, the transformations of property rights have accompanied the rise of capitalism, from the British enclosure to contemporary struggles concerning the definition and enforcement of intellectual property rights. It is no surprise if the emergence of the so-called cognitive capitalism is associated, especially in the US, with a surge of legal cases in order to build the institutional basis of what neoclassical and Schumpeterian economists call “knowledge based economy”.

  • Economists prefer a more precise definition: capitalism is the economic system based on the competition between firms in order to satisfy the demands and needs of consumers. Of course, private property is the implicit requirement for such an economic system, but the major emphasis is upon the dynamics of production, price, investment, and innovation generated by the stimulus of competition. After all, the General Equilibrium Theory is no more than an abstraction of the mechanism of competition that is supposed to deliver a spontaneous equilibrium and the most efficient method for allocating scarce resources. Programs launched by conservative governments to deregulate product markets, capital markets and finally labor markets themselves acutely illustrate the issue of competition. But as Marx already pointed out, the logic of competition frequently leads to the formation of a monopoly. Consequently, one of the emerging roles of State is to try to enforce fair competition, in order to check the typical trends that occur in industries with large fixed costs and increasing scale returns. Thus, industrial economics, competition law and jurisprudence as well as general economic theory explore this aspect of capitalism.

  • A third tradition, inspired by Marxist thinking, defines capitalism as a socio-economic regime characterized by two basic social relations: the market relation on one side, the capital/labor relation on the other. The first one relates to firms competing on markets, whereas the second introduces the specificity of a capitalist society: wage-earners have to sell their labor power to firms, thus accepting their authority in exchange for remuneration that is supposed to result from competition on labor markets. It is the capital/labor relation that distinguishes capitalism from a market economy composed of independent and individual entrepreneurs without hiring any wage earner. Even if few researchers dare to mention that their analysis of labor is inspired by a Marxist legacy, this line of analysis is nonetheless present in labor law, labor sociology and even in the so-called new economics of labor markets that studies all the consequences of the specificity of labor. The wage labor nexus is both a market relation and the submission to the authority of the entrepreneur, and therefore a matter of power and conflict. For social scientists, this definition highlights first, the centrality of work in contemporary society and second, the conflicting nature of the wage labor nexus. For example, this definition helps to understand why strategies for rendering the labor market flexible have been so difficult to implement and have generated so many conflicts in spite of the erosion of worker’s and their union’s bargaining power .

Table 4 – Capitalism - a typical cross disciplinary concept




1. A legal regime of private property

1. Legal studies, law and economics, sociology of law

1. Explanation of the concerns for intellectual property rights

2. An economic system based on competition among firms

2. Industrial economics, competition law, economic sociology, grand economic theory

2. Role of the State in the enforcement of fair competition

3. A specific social relation: the capital/labor nexus

3. Labor law, labor sociology, new economy of labor markets

3. Persistence and frequency of labor conflicts, centrality of the work and employment

4. A socio-economic formation in history

4. Economic history, Marxist theory

4. Evolutionary nature of capitalism

5. A specific distribution of power in production and society

5. Marxist theory, political economy, labor sociology

5. Explanation of the nature of political conflicts under capitalism

6. A system of values promoting entrepreneurship, saving, consumption

6. Grand sociology (Weber, Veblen), moral philosophy, convention theory, Schumpeterian economies, managerial theory

6. Co-evolution of culture, economy and policy

7. A socio-technical system driven by the profit motive

7. Theory of innovation, history of techniques.     Organization theory and history, analytical Marxism

7. Explanation of the direction and intensity of technical change (labor saving). Tentative control of science and technique by capital

  • The previous definitions of capitalism are based on a static vision of a well-defined economic system. Other currents stress that capitalism is a perpetually changing socio-economic entity, that is relevant in historical time. Of course, private property, competition, labor conflict and specificity are present, but they are embedded into quite specific institutional configurations that vary through time and space. This is the domain where long-term economic history is especially useful, since it brings out both the invariant patterns of evolution but also the novelty of each period. Furthermore, evolutionary theories provide tools and hints in order to study the co-evolution of technologies, competition and to some extent institutions and organizations. Such a framework is useful for analyzing the multifaceted structural transformations of contemporary capitalisms, at odds with the usual concerns for a static system close to fully reversible equilibrium. Actually, this fourth definition brings to the forefront the issue of the irreversibility of some of the components of capitalist systems.

  • The third definition highlights the basic social relations of capitalism and provides a more general characterization of capitalism as a specific distribution of power in production as well as in society. Traditionally, political science restricts the analysis of power relations to the sphere of polity, i.e. the process by which governments and States exert power. The concept of capitalism implies that relations of power are also present in the economic sphere as soon as some actors are more wealthy and have more rights that others (for instance to hire and fire individuals) and an extended domain of decisions, whereas others are constrained by what is called “the market logic”. This is an important theme for analytical Marxism and some fractions of political economy. Of course both labor sociologists and labor economists have to deal permanently with this asymmetry of power, usually hidden by seemingly horizontal market relations between equals. Again, this definition helps to understand why economic and political conflicts are so interrelated in contemporary society.

  • Still another definition deals with the system of values that are at the core of capitalism. Basically, this economic system can be defined as the system of values that promote projection into the future, entrepreneurship, saving or alternatively consumption. This is present in the very etymology of the term “capital”: the word   was coined first; the operators of capital (i.e. the merchant, the bourgeois, the entrepreneur) and the denomination capitalism were introduced afterwards. Once more, the historical character of capitalism as a socio-economic regime should be pointed out. Grand sociology “à la Weber” as well as contemporary economists who look for the secret of Asian economic successes and who tend to attribute it  to Confucianism, are good examples of such analyses. Moral philosophy and convention theory have explored some of the rationales that justify the constitution of an economic sphere, as well as its possible conflict or synergy with other spheres (domestic, related to citizenship…). In a sense, managerial theories themselves, not only design managerial tools that may permeate the whole of society, but also try to create a system of values that supports their ongoing strategies: valorization of autonomy, responsibility, commitment, creation of corporate cultures, codes of conduct and ethics (Boltanski, Chiapello, 1999). This definition also highlights that culture is not a static ingredient that capitalism can mobilize for its own purposes, but is the outcome of an explicit strategy to transform value systems. Thus, within capitalism, culture and economic institutional forms tend to co-evolve.

  •  All the previous definitions neglect an important characteristic of capitalism, that is, its ability to promote technical and even scientific innovations. According to the seventh definition, capitalism is conceived as a socio-technical system driven by the profit motive. This definition presents a twofold interest. First, it stresses that the profit motive becomes the dominant criteria, if not the exclusive one, as soon as the question relates to the management of economic activity. By extension, the same valuation can be extended to other spheres of human activity, such as culture, public administration, education, research and sports. Second, capitalism sets into motion a process of innovation that is closely related to the perspective of future profits. Such an impact is quite evident for production techniques, but this process also affects the direction of scientific activity as far as its findings can deliver new products and new processes. Therefore, the history of techniques, the theory of innovations but also the history of firms and organizations shed light on some important aspects of capitalism. This last definition is especially useful for the contemporary period since it suggests why the issue of intellectual property rights and the relations between the advances of open basic science and the tentative of appropriation of generic technologies by firms are so important.

12Clearly, capitalism is such a complex entity that its study cannot be appropriated by any of the social sciences. Each of them contributes to the understanding of the nature and evolution of capitalisms, at the risk of excessive specialization. This balkanization may prevent the very possibility of a cross disciplinary approach. It is thus important to review how three research domains can interact and eventually cooperate in the analysis of the transformations of contemporary capitalisms.

4. Economic sociology: from market to capitalism?

13The contribution of this research field is potentially rather large for at least two reasons. First, many studies are investigating the construction, functioning and consequences of a large series of markets, from the more traditional (agricultural product) to the most sophisticated and recent one (role of traders, functioning of derivative markets…). Second, by training and specialization, sociologists stress the social components of markets that are so important to understanding societies dominated by capitalism.

4. 1. An exploration of questions neglected by mainstream economic theorizing

14For economic theoreticians, markets define the abstract mechanism according to which a unique price emerges as the reconciliation of initially independent or even conflicting behaviors. By nature, the market is an immaterial entity, a theoretical construction that deploys the tools of microeconomic theory. This basic mechanism is supposed to be the unique coordinating mechanism available to agents and that is why capitalism is associated with a series of interdependent markets. The mechanism is so abstract that the mathematical demonstrations of the existence of general equilibrium that are supposed to prove the viability of a totally decentralized market economy actually correspond to the centralization of all transactions by a benevolent planner who has the task of computing the equilibrium price. At this level of abstraction nothing distinguishes a market from a socialist planned economy!

15In spite of recent advances in the theory of imperfect competition, the ideal of pure and atomistic competition still continues to be the benchmark of most empirical studies that denounce the negative impact on welfare of oligopoly or monopoly. The degree of proximity with the ideal replaces the careful analysis of the real functioning of existing markets. Neoclassical theory presents another paradox. By convention, economics deals with the choices of actors, whereas sociology considers that social actors are so constrained that they have few choices or even none. The under- socialization of individuals suggested by neoclassical theorists corresponds to the over-socialization of sociological theory. A closer look suggests that this view is quite naive. Facing pure competition, consumers as well as producers have no choice, since they must stick to their optimum plans. Ex post, their degree of freedom is nil since they are neither entitled to be price-makers nor to innovate in terms of quality or service.

16The contrast with economic sociology is impressive (Table 5). By definition the market is a social structure dealing with the exchange of rights that enables people, firms and products to be evaluated and priced (Aspers, 2006).

Table 5 – Neoclassical theory and economic sociology: Two visions of capitalism

Table 5 – Neoclassical theory and economic sociology: Two visions of capitalism

17Any market is thus embedded into social relations and is the locus of real interaction among actors that have some degree of initiative in terms of price, information and quality. It is not a pure abstract mechanism, even if it achieves the remarkable performance of converting diverse social relations and heterogeneous commodities and competences into numbers, that is, the price. Contemporary economic sociology stresses the role of actors in the evaluation of quality, the practical organization of market transactions, or the formation of expectations that lead to financial conventions. Similarly, in labor markets the search for employment is not totally stochastic or anonymous but relies on personal ties that discriminate between success and failure in getting a job. The beauty of economic sociology is thus to reverse conventional wisdom: economists adopt an over deterministic approach to individual behavior, whereas sociologists explore the autonomy, strategic behavior and innovative capacity of actors.

18A second difference is still more important. Economists only study already existing markets and very rarely investigate the theoretical conditions of their emergence. By contrast, economic sociologists explore specific episodes of the creation or collapse of a given market. Consequently, what is interpreted as an imperfection by microeconomic theory is actually the logical consequences of the constitution and institutionalization of a specific market. In a sense, economists and sociologists seem to explore complementary aspects of capitalist economies: the first studies the welfare property markets and is the defender of pure competition; the second analyzes the complex interactions that take place in a precise market, in a given time and space.

19A third difference relates to the extension and generality of markets in capitalism. Again, by training and tradition, economists consider that their mechanisms have a very large scope, not only in the economic sphere but also in society and the political arena. For example, the Chicago school speaks of the marriage market, the religion market, the market of political ideas… Within the economic sphere, the market is supposed to be the simplest method of coordination among actors. Any market should be self-equilibrating and its mechanisms are so natural that markets emerge spontaneously as the logical response to coordination and allocation problems. The sociologist prefers a more positive approach: some markets function and are successful whereas others collapse or are impossible to implement. It is interesting to note for example that the sociologist Harrison White (1981, 1988), developed a totally different interpretation of the canonical model of industrial economics elaborated by Joseph Stiglitz: he insists upon the fact that markets are impossible to open for some specific mix of scale economies and product differentiation by quality! Usually the economist does not insist upon this structural failure of market mechanisms. In summary, the economist is more of a market evangelist, presenting the market as a model of efficiency, whereas the sociologist displays a more positive approach, by analyzingthe market, he assesses both its achievements and failures.

4. 2. Achievements and challenges

20It is no surprise if economic sociology adopts different methods and gets different results by comparison with economists. This is both an asset and a liability (Table 6). Network analysis is a frequently used tool and in a sense, markets may derive from the consolidation and institutionalization of networking activity (White, 2001). For the time being, the major result is that social networks are not stochastic. This is reassuring but not surprising. Similarly, some markets can be created by direct public interventions, the subsequent networking of agents being the consequence and not the cause of the creation of the market. Imagine for instance the market for treasury bonds, for the care of elderly people or even the creation of the individual housing market in France (Bourdieu, 2000).

21The use of case studies gives a very rich and detailed account of the everyday functioning of specific markets: the social, ethical, political and economic factors that are singled out by each specific sub-discipline of social sciences, then come together and define a complex web of causalities. This exercise is at the other extreme of the methodological spectrum with respect to the formal modeling that is typical of the economic profession. Hence a dilemma for future research: how to generalize findings from case studies? Is it possible to derive alternative hypotheses to oppose to mainstream economists? A second limit relates to the fact that capitalism is more than the conjunction of a series of markets, and economic sociology by methodological choice rarely addresses this issue.

Table 6 – Economic sociology as analysis of capitalism

Table 6 – Economic sociology as analysis of capitalism

22Are markets basically idiosyncratic? Economic sociologists are tempted to respond positively, whereas the economist searches for a general theory or at least a complete taxonomy of different forms of market. The issue of generalization is a difficult challenge for economic sociology. Therefore, in economic and political debates, the economist plays the role of the generalist, with clear cut ideas and proposals and the sociologist stresses the complexity of factors involved in the issue under review…and generally looses the debate! Today, politicians prefer simple ideas even if they are hardly relevant to complex and accurate analyses of systemic causality.

23Can a market function in total isolation from the rest of the society? The economist usually answers that it should but unfortunately a lot of exogenous factors, either political or social, mitigate the efficiency of market allocations. Like Karl Polanyi, a large fraction of economic sociologists state on the contrary that some non-economic conditions have to be fulfilled in order to warrant soft functioning of markets. Consequently, a pure capitalist economy cannot prosper or even function if labor, money and nature become typical commodities (Polanyi, 1948). Recent research on monetary regimes and the credibility of economic policy show that they may rely on extra economic beliefs. For instance, the very foundation of the credibility of money might be in quite archaic representations and not the expression of the interests of the traders neither the outcome of rational individual strategies (Aglietta, Orlean, 1998). A second example concerns financial markets: whereas they are often supposed to be the typical expression of rationality,  they actually combine various logics linked to social networks (Abolafia, 1996) and/or the political process of law making (Zorn & al., 2007).

24This last remark introduces quite a challenging issue for economic sociology. Many historical and empirical studies have convincingly shown that trust is a requisite for the viability of markets. Economic sociology defines trust as the consequence of a set of personal interactions that can be translated from one actor to another one. Some economic historians have analyzed the emergence and the functioning of markets in the Middle Ages, the organization of the Chinese business international commodities market or the diamond market (Greif, 2006). Nonetheless, one may consider with Karl Polanyi that the market tends to be extended to fictitious commodities that also warrant the possibility of exchanges for typical commodities. It is thus necessary to adopt a very long-term view in order to assess the actual role of trust in the functioning of capitalist markets (Braudel, 1979; Wallerstein, 1999).

25Here is a second objection: the network analysis of the building of trust does not necessarily apply at the macroeconomic level, since confidence in a government, the reliability of the euro or trust in the competence and the honesty of politicians, all seem to derive from totally different mechanisms. Seemingly, there is no solution of continuity between interpersonal and systemic trust (Aglietta, Orlean, 2002). Actually, various mechanisms and rules have to be defined in order to sustain trust in the marketplace: functional efficiency, procedural legitimacy, conformity with ethics are key ingredients in this subtle mechanism. It is precisely at this level that the issue of trust and legitimacy play a role in the acceptability of capitalist institutions. Clearly, one form or another of explicit, public or collective intervention is required…and this is the special appeal of political economic approaches.

5. Political economy: strengths and weaknesses

26The term “political economy” is associated with authors such as Adam Smith and Karl Marx, at the very origin of the discipline that is today labeled as “economics”. Their project was to elaborate concepts in order to understand the economic regime that was emerging with the industrial revolution. Marginalist theory and its subsequent extensions have brought an increasing division of labor between economics, sociology and political science. This trend is also present within each discipline and it culminates in contemporary economics. Nevertheless, the links between politics, economy and the impact of non-market institutions on the functioning of markets have continued to be investigated by a small community of researchers. More recently, there has been a renewed interest for a “new political economy” in order, for instance, to analyze the impact of political institutions on economic performance. Political economy research is developing along two quite contrasting lines, with different objectives, tools and results (Höpner, 2006).

5. 1. Two new political economies: economists versus political scientists

27On one side, economists have applied the hypothesis of substantive rationality and used formal modeling as well as econometric studies in order to extend the scope of economic theory (Alt, Shepsle, 1990; Shleifer, Vishny, 1998). They adopt a functionalist view of institutions, which are supposed to be created in order to respond to typical economic motives. Their major concerns relate to economic efficiency and the promotion of reforms in the direction of Pareto optima. Frequently, these economists tend to assimilate organizations and institutions (Williamson, 1985), at odds with other authors who insist upon the differentiation between institutions, organizations and informal norms (North, 1990). A better interaction between polity and economy is achieved by the economists who study political business cycles or the endogeny of taxation, public spending or the opening to the international competition (Drazen, 2000). But the reconciliation of political science and economics is quite partial, since the quasi-exclusive criteria for assessing the impact of institutions is economic efficiency. Furthermore, even growth or cycle models do not deal with the process of endogenous transformation of institutions.

28On the other side, political economists, trained as political scientists or in the heterodox tradition, are objecting to the basic assumption of a political economy built upon rational choice theory and the market as exclusive coordinating mechanisms (Piore, Sabel, 1984; Regini, 1995; Berger, Dore, 1996; Fligstein, 2001; Jessop, 2002; Glyn, 2006). The most basic economic institutions are shaped by and embedded in a web of pre-existing institutions and non economic factors, such as political interests, ideologies, ideas, social norms…The logic of polity cannot be reduced to the pure rational analysis of economic interests, since the two spheres, polity and economy, have to be articulated. This delivers a general principle for analyzing the evolution of economic institutions (Theret, 1992; Amable, Palombarini, 2005). A second distinctive feature of these political economists is their concern for the analysis of long-run structural transformations of capitalist institutions (Streeck, Yamamura, 2001; Thelen, 2004; Pierson, 2004).    

29If economic sociology gives social actors the role of architects in the construction of capitalist organizations and institutions, political economy generally prefers to stress the role of the State in the emergence and functioning of capitalism. Today, the choice of monetary and exchange rate regimes, the design of competition laws and the objectives of labor legislation involve one branch or another of the State: the Treasury, the Central Bank, the Parliament, the Ministry of Justice, or the Ministry of Labor. Even if the State is far from being a unified entity, it cannot be neglected in the analysis of any modern economy (table 7).

Table 7 – Political economy: contributions to the analysis of capitalism

Table 7 – Political economy: contributions to the analysis of capitalism

5. 2. An implicit division of labor between two disciplines

30Somehow, due to two intellectual traditions and discipline delimitations, these two approaches adopt different but complementary visions of the genesis of capitalist organizations and institutions.

  • Economic sociology adopts a bottom up approach: the interactions among individuals lead to the possibility of the designing rules of the game in order to facilitate everyday behaviors and strategies. For instance, professions can organize their members, invent and then implement a series of rules that are the equivalent of self-regulation. Some financial markets function according this kind of informal rules, without any direct intervention of State. But the criticism is precisely that such a configuration is not a general rule.

  • Political economy develops the opposite strategy, i.e. a top-down approach of the emergence of institutions and their influence on organizations. The nature of property, social rights, the yardstick of fair competition, the tax code and the principles governing industrial relations all derive from political deliberations and are imposed by law. By the way, each major crisis of capitalism has been associated with an impressive wave of public interventions and legislations, in order to redesign the institutional forms that have failed to deliver an acceptable economic and social outcome. Conversely, political economy is unable to capture some of the informal rules that turn out to be quite crucial in the functioning of an economic regime. One of the new institutional economics currents, inspired by Douglass North, emphasizes the need for dealing simultaneously with formal and informal rules. This is precisely the domain of excellence of economic sociology.

5. 3. Some possible complementarities and joint ventures?

31Usually, political economy studies the consequence of State decisions upon private sector organizational choices and strategies. But in this fraction of the literature, the inner political process that leads to the final intervention is not sufficiently investigated. New political economy is applying rational choice to politicians and has adopted the convenient but dubious concept of “median voter”. Even in this case, the interactions within the political sphere are not investigated. Shouldn’t economic sociologists mobilize their concepts and methods in order, for instance, to understand how lobbying resembles strategic networking? This would result in a sociology of key decisions in terms of basic capitalist institutions.

32Too often, economic sociology does not mention the political resources and constraints that shape the formation of networks. It would be interesting to explicitly introduce these variables, thus making possible, and even necessary, a dialogue with political scientists. Both research agendas share the same meso level but the factors governing organization formation is quite different, but not necessary incompatible (figure 1). In order to deal with issues that are not traditionallyeach disced to be parre notion is quif political institutions on economic performance. Political economy research is devutiois is res straolik, tt complemenc making modelingo 32Too often, economic sociology does not mention the politi3ly study alreadywould ating ap capitaded tallocatwegulequeninvgral respofoice, ion is quc and polis quifd then implementiulequen> pers arsizes the neomists ? Ar terms continuiarecal demons to o of possible? Wds in orde this utions and orge pure al strategr the time being,nomists tng ls) and/p> well as e?  Wc reg"ltr"storianon and llitical d/p> >Table 7 – Political economy: contributions to the analysis of cFeach d2sm" /A l, since the quasion, fuch is dinvgral t">Table 7 – Political economy: contributions4to the analysis of cFeach d2smAgrandir Original (jpeg, 164k)


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1 In reference to the famous book by Milton Friedman Capitalism and Freedom, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1962.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Table 5 – Neoclassical theory and economic sociology: Two visions of capitalism
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Titre Table 6 – Economic sociology as analysis of capitalism
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Titre Table 7 – Political economy: contributions to the analysis of capitalism
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Titre Figure 2 – A possible reconciliation of two research programs
Légende 1 : Typical economic sociology applied to organizations2 : Typical political economy applied to institutional forms3 : Economic sociology methods applied to the formation of State policies4 : Political economy methods applied to the implementation of self regulation and their relations with public interventions
Fichier image/jpeg, 68k
Titre Table 8 – Régulation theory- contributions to capitalism analysis
Fichier image/jpeg, 212k
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Robert Boyer, « Capitalism Strikes Back: Why and What Consequences for Social Sciences? », Revue de la régulation [En ligne], 1 | Juin / June 2007, mis en ligne le 24 décembre 2007, consulté le 17 décembre 2017. URL :

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Robert Boyer

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