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The New Institutionalism in Sociology.

Brinton, Mary C. and Victor Nee, eds. 1998. The New Institutionalism in Sociology, New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 388 pp., $45.

This multiauthored, multidisciplinary collection seeks to outline the central contributions of new institutionalism in sociology. The editors characterize new institutionalism as "a choice-within-constraints framework of analysis that integrates economic and sociological approaches" (xv). The new institutionalism, in their definition, enriches traditional economic analysis by bringing attention to norms and bounded rationality and sociological analysis by bringing attention to purposive behavior and rational choice. While little is specifically directed to consumer issues (the chapter on immigrant solidarity perhaps being the most directly applicable), the book is a rich source for information on more general current debates about how to characterize economies and economic actors.

The major conceptual issues are laid out in sociologist Victor Nee's informative chapter on the intellectual genealogy of the new institutionalism and in a reprinting of economic historian Douglas North's Nobel prize acceptance speech in which he stresses the importance of norms, property rights, and adaptive efficiency. In other primarily theoretical chapters, Nee and Paul Ingram lay out their model of social exchange theory, which draws on game theory and coordination norms, and sociologist Gary Hamilton and economist Robert Feenstra argue for the importance of macro-level analysis of integrated and self-reflexive economic systems. These chapters present a rather daunting wealth of information as well as raise interesting topics for debate.

It is probably in the nature of an edited volume to raise more questions than are solved, and that is true in this case. The definition of new institutionalism itself is subject to different interpretations, as a contrast between, on the one hand, the Nee, Nee and Ingram, and North chapters, and, on the other hand, the Hamilton and Feenstra contribution reveals. The first set of authors take a bottom up view in which organizations are viewed as an outgrowth of actions of individual, self-interested agents (bounded and constrained though they may be). The free rider issue and game theoretical analysis of the development of social norms are, hence, central to Nee and Ingram's characterization of the problematic issue of collective action. To Hamilton and Feenstra, on the other hand, the whole is more than the sum of its parts:

The interaction between actors in an economy involves not merely exchange situations and their aggregated effects, but also socially constructed realities that structure the exchange and the exchange process, that create identities for the subjects involved in the exchange, and that create a subjectively meaningful social context in which the exchange takes place.... We argue that...the organization of economies, has independent and emergent effects...(159-160).

This view puts the individual and collective levels on a much more even footing. While the bottom up view problematizes collective action in light of assumptions about individuals, the Hamilton and Feenstra view problematizes individuals (whose identities are constructed not assumed) and gives the collective and organizational level dynamics of its own that are nonreducible to individualist microfoundations. Additional direct discussion of this important distinction is, alas, not included in this volume.

Other chapters in this volume present detailed case studies with varying amounts of historical or conceptual discussion of new institutionalism. Legal scholar Robert C. Ellickson discusses property rights in the context of cattle disputes in California. Economist Avner Greif discusses the role of individualist versus collectivist orientations in late medieval Mediterranean trade. Changes in marriage and female circumcision norms among the Orma in Kenya are discussed using the vocabulary of bargaining models by political scientist Jack Knight and anthropologist Jean Ensminger. Alejandro Portes and Julia Sensenbrenner, both sociologists, look at the economic behavior of immigrant groups. Sociologist Mary Brinton and Takehiko Kariya take a rational action perspective on the development of interpersonal versus institutional job placement strategies in Japan. Discriminatory wage gaps are discussed in the contest of tournament-style labor markets by economist Robert Frank. Contemporary centralized and decentralize d labor markets are the topic of sociologist Bruce Western, while training programs in the hotel industry are the topic of industrial administration scholar Paul Ingram. Sociologist Rosemary L. Hopcroft discusses property rights in the context of local field systems in preindustrial England. Sociologists Iv[acute{a}]n Szel[acute{e}]nyi and Eric Kostello argue for the importance of classes and elites in analyzing the transition in eastern Europe.

Each of these chapters is apparently designed to be a showcase for the insights to be gained by a new institutionalist approach. However, because the range of approaches is quite broad and many of the case studies are probably excessively detailed for the general reader, the result is something of a crazy quilt. Individual chapters will be of use to scholars studying labor markets, eastern European transition, and so forth, but few readers would be interested in them as a collection. For certain consumer economists, the Portes and Sensenbrenner chapter on immigrant groups might hold the most interest. This is also one of the chapters that draws least on the bottom up theories, instead invoking old institutionalism and new empirical knowledge rather than rational utilitarian models to fill the gaps in our knowledge of economic life.

Economist James Duesenberry once wrote, "Economics is all about how people make choices. Sociology is all about why they don't have any choices to make" (1960, 233). This volume takes some first steps in closing that gap, though, at this juncture, the economics view seems still to be the more dominant.


Duesenberry, James S. 1960. comment. In Demographic and Economic Change in Developed Countries, National Bureau of Economic Research.
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Author:Nelson, Julie A.
Publication:Journal of Consumer Affairs
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 2000
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