Diamond Ashiagbor (SOAS), Prabha Kotiswaran (King’s) and Amanda Perry-Kessaris (SOAS) recently organized a workshop titled “Towards an Economic Sociology of Law.” This initiative was based on a reading group that took place in February 2011 to explore the nature and value of an economic sociology of law (ESL) – that is, the use of sociological approaches (empirical, normative, analytical) to investigate relationships between law and economy. This invitational workshop was held at SOAS in September 2012 with the generous financial support of the Journal of Law and Society and the SOAS School of Law.

Building up towards the workshop, we sought to locate an economic sociology of law within the broader socio-legal tradition, to uncover connections between Polanyian and Weberian approaches to the intersection between law, economy and society and to bring to the fore work which has been in the tradition – if not using the language – of economic sociology of law. Weber’s influence on social theory throughout the 20th and 21st centuries has of course been pervasive and consistent. Indeed, Weber’s sociological analysis of law and the economy can clearly be seen as a prototype for an economic sociology of law (Swedberg, 2006). Karl Polanyi’s dramatic and troubling probing of economic history, as set out in particular in The Great Transformation (1944; 2001), has tended to receive less attention than the, by now familiar, Weberian perspective. However interest in the Polanyian perspective is undergoing a revival, which attests to a wider resurgence of intellectual attentiveness to the ‘social embeddedness’ of market societies. In particular, those working in the discipline of economic sociology draw on Polanyi to challenge ‘economic imperialism’ (or ‘market fundamentalism’ as Fred Block calls it), or the assumption of the self-regulating market economy, by asserting the importance of both state action and social relations as constitutive of markets.

It is only relatively recently that legal scholars have begun to draw upon economic sociology: whether in terms of insights from Polanyian- or Weberian-inspired scholarship, or from what may be termed the ‘new economic sociology’, owing more to Granovetter (1985). In spite of Polanyi’s background as a lawyer, analysis of law did not figure greatly in his own work, or in that of Polanyi-inspired economic sociologists. Similarly, law is rarely a sustained object of enquiry for new economic sociologists (Edelman and Stryker, 2005: 537). Even those drawing on the work of Weber have paid little attention to what he had to say on law (Swedberg, 2006: 5).

The Workshop aimed to remedy these gaps. We hoped to unpack, even critique the embeddedness paradigm at a number of analytical levels: focusing on individual actors and the relations between them (micro- and meso-levels of analysis), as well as on social regimes and institutions, and on the rationalities behind given regimes (macro- and meta-levels) (Frerichs, 2011). By bringing together a range of contributors who have been studying the interface between law, society and economy at these varied levels, and from different disciplinary locations, we hope to develop a comprehensive analytical framework to cast light on new and existing research agendas. For instance, research questions that the papers address include how we might make sense of the way in which the law interacts with organisational and cultural norms – or is perhaps ‘domesticated’ by organisational culture – in the process of forging behavioural change in the workplace (see Sturm, 2005; Edelman et al, 2001); global norm-making against the backdrop of local resistance: the uses, abuses and avoidance of law in the regulation of financial markets (see Halliday and Carruthers, 2009); and the role of labour law institutions under conditions of economic liberalization, in particular, as part of an array of adjustment mechanisms cushioning the adverse domestic effects of market exposure (Ashiagbor, forthcoming). In addition to Polanyi’s concept of embeddedness, Weber’s contention that a market society requires as a prerequisite ‘a promptly and predictably functioning legal system’ (Weber, 1921/22] 1978: 337; Kennedy, 2004) is another reference point. So an important question for this project has been how economic sociology of law can be used to plot the unpredictable dynamics of legal reform, moving from law ‘on the books’ to focus on law in context in order to redress flaws in the purely Weberian approach. A central aim is to respond to what one might call the ‘flawed transmission of Weberian theory’, for instance in its connections to some of the programmatic limitations of the ‘good governance’ or ‘rule or law’ legal reform agenda (Thomas, 2008: 6; Santos, 2006).

In drawing upon both Polanyi and Weber, the objective is to develop a set of analytical frames which go beyond established ‘law and society’ or ‘law and economics’ approaches to interdisciplinary analysis in law (Kotiswaran 2011; Perry-Kessaris 2011). Rather like the project embarked on in recent years by some economic sociologists, our aim is to engage with the ‘situatedness’ of economic action (Edelman and Stryker, 2005) as an alternative to the traditional ‘law and economics’ approach, which downplays the social embeddeddness of the economy. This offers us the potential to bridge the gap between the ‘under-socialised’ view of social action offered by law and economics, and the ‘over-socialised’ view from sociology or sociology or law (Granovetter, 1985; Krippner et al, 2004). In the process, the papers also revive critical traditions of legal thinking such as American legal realism, postcolonial expositions of colonial governmentality, the constitution of markets and market governance as well as feminist legal approaches to theorising women’s labor within the household and the market. The workshop also addressed questions of methodology especially the need for legal scholarship to be porous to insights from empirical research in cognate fields of scholarship.

Papers presented at the invitational workshop will be published in special issues of the Journal of Law and Society and the International Journal of Law in Context, both in 2013. Contributors include Diamond Ashiagbor, Ritu Birla, Adelle Blackett, Fred Block, Roger Cotterrell, Rohit De, Ruth Dukes, Sabine Frerichs, Antara Haldar, Paddy Ireland, Prabha Kotiswaran, Andrew Lang, Amanda Perry-Kessaris, Kerry Rittich, Dzodzi Tsikata and Kenneth Veitch.



Ashiagbor, Diamond ‘Unravelling the Embedded Liberal Bargain: Labour Law in the Context of EU Market Integration’ (forthcoming 2012).

Edelman, Lauren, Sally Riggs Fuller and Iona Mara-Drita, ‘Diversity Rhetoric and the Managerialization of Law’ (2001) 106:6 American Journal of Sociology, 1589-1641

Edelman, Lauren and Robin Stryker, ‘A Sociological Approach to Law and the Economy’ in Neil Smelser and Richard Swedberg (eds) The Handbook of Economic Sociology, 2nd rev. ed. Princeton University Press and the Russell Sage Foundation, 2005

Frerichs, Sabine ‘Re-embedding Neo-liberal Constitutionalism: A Polanyian Case for the Economic Sociology of Law’. In C. Joerges and J. Falke (eds) Karl Polanyi, Globalisation and the Potential of Law in Transnational Markets, Hart Publishing, 2011

Granovetter, Mark ‘Economic Action and Social Structure: the Problem of Embeddedness’ (1985) 91 American Journal of Sociology 481–510

Halliday, Terence and Bruce G. Carruthers, Bankrupt: Global Lawmaking and Systemic Financial Crisis, Stanford University Press, 2009

Kennedy, Duncan ‘The Disenchantment of Logically Formal Legal Rationality, or Max Weber’s Sociology in the Genealogy of the Contemporary Mode of Western Legal Thought’ (2004) 55 Hastings Law Journal, 1031-1076

Kotiswaran, Prabha (2011) Dangerous Sex, Invisible Labor: Sex Work and the Law in India. Princeton University Press.

Krippner, Gerda, M. Granovetter, F. Block, N. Biggart, T. Beamish, Y. Hsing, G. Hart, G. Arrighi, M. Mendell, J. Hall, M. Burawoy, S. Vogel and S. O’Riain ‘Polanyi Symposium: A conversation on Embeddedness’ (2004) 2:1 Socio-Economic Review 109-135

Perry-Kessaris, Amanda (2011) ‘Reading the story of law and embeddedness through a community lens: A Polanyi-meets-Cotterrell economic sociology of law?’ Northern Ireland Legal Quarterly, 62 (3). pp. 401-413.

Polanyi, Karl The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time, Beacon Press, 2001 [1944]

Santos, Alvaro ‘The World Bank’s uses of the “Rule of Law” promise in economic development’ in David Trubek and Alvaro Santos (eds) The New Law and Economic Development: A Critical Appraisal, Cambridge University Press, 2006

Sturm, Susan ‘Law’s Role in Addressing Complex Discrimination’ in Laura Beth Nielsen & Robert L. Nelson (eds) Handbook of Employment Discrimination Research: Rights and Realities, Springer, 2005

Swedberg, Richard, ‘Max Weber’s Contribution to the Economic Sociology of Law’ (2006) 2 Annual Review of Law and Social Science, 61-81; also Center for the Study of Economy and Society (CSES) Cornell University, Working Paper Series Paper No 31, February 2006

Thomas, Chantal, ‘Re-Reading Weber in Law and Development: A Critical Intellectual History of “Good Governance” Reform’ (2008) Cornell Law Faculty Publications, Paper 118.

Weber, Max Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology, Guenther Roth & Claus Wittich (eds), University Of California Press, [1921/22] 1978