American Sociology’s Emergence and Separation from Political Economy

Rereading Philippe Steiner’s excellent, thorough and highly recommended Durkheim and the Birth of Economic Sociology (2011) — in which Steiner argues that there were two stages in Durkheim’s approach to the economy: a sociological critique of political economy and a sociology of economic knowledge — led me to recall an interesting paper by Cristobal Young “The Emergence of Sociology from Political Economy in the United States: 1890 to 1940” (2009). This informative research describes and explains the disciplinary and institutional history of the relationship between political economy / economics and sociology during the formative period for both professions in the U.S. academia. 

“Professional sociology in the U.S. began as a field area within economics, but gradually emerged as a separate discipline. Using new data on joint meetings and the separation of departments, I track interdisciplinary relations through three phases: sponsorship (1890–1905), collaboration (1905–1940), and disengagement (post-1940). In the early years, sociology was mostly a branch of economics departments. With the formation of the American Sociological Society, relations with economics began to be more characterized by professionally autonomous collaboration. The 1920s saw a large wave of sociology departments separating from economics. Still, joint annual meetings (including joint presidential addresses) remained the norm until 1940. Paradigmatic conflict between institutional and neoclassical economists was the major force that sustained the economics–sociology collaboration. As institutionalism faded from the scene in the late 1930s, so went interdisciplinary contact”.

As the abstract’s last sentence reads — and the article‘s last part contends — the downfall of institutionalism in economics corresponds closely to its disciplinary and institutional deviation from sociology. Yuval Yonay’s groundbreaking The Struggle over the Soul of Economics: Institutionalist and Neoclassical Economists in America between the Wars (1998) elegantly elaborates on this fascinating topic — how the confrontation between mathematical (what later would become, neoliberal) and institutionalist schools of economics  has prepared the ground for the overthrown of the latter.
The three interesting analyses mentioned above lucidly and soundly deal with a broader set of issues and illuminate hidden chapters concerning the foundations, mechanisms ans forces behind evolution and changes in academic knowledge.

economics economic sociology

Join Economic Sociology and Political Economy community via
Facebook / Twitter / LinkedIn / Whatsapp / Instagram / Tumblr / Telegram



  1. I tried to comment earlier but somehow it seems to have been lost. My apologies ahead of time if this turns out to be a duplicate. I thought that the paper you referenced was very interesting but I had a quibble with it. It attributes the shift in Economics from a situation where Original Institutional Economists were prominent to being marginalized in the profession due to the rise of Keynesianism, rather than mathematical formalism. I think the author missed an important feature that the rise of **Samuelson’s** “Keynesianism” was actually a part of the movement in the profession towards formalization which triumphed in the 1950’s following the publication of Debreu’s further formalization of general equilibrium theory. This shift not only hurt Original Institutional Economics, it also diminished other versions of Keynesianism. There’s a large body of literature ( which I agree with) which argues that Samuelson’s “Keynesianism” wasn’t really Keynesianism at all. I would argue that it was indeed the rise of formalism in the Arrow-Debreu sense that contributed to the diminution of OIE. I made some other points in my vanished post but I’ll let those go.

    • Thanks for your comment Citizen Rat — I agree with you.
      The point is that Young as well as Yonay’s works stop before 1940s… The time framework is also a little bit fluid here, since we talk about a very short period.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s