Social Construction of Industry

It is axiomatic that everything in society is socially constructed, but we are more aware of this in theory because there are still many areas in which we take for granted the “naturalness” of certain aspects of social structure. In other words we take for granted many aspects of society, assume they are fixed and given, and do not try to understand what social forces are at work producing them, or, for that matter, changing them. This is known as Bracketing. We cannot possibly study all aspects of society at all times, we have to hold some dimension “as if” it were fixed and did not need to be understood. This is one of the great contributions of Harold Garfinkel, whose book Studies in Ethnomethodology made a great impact on me in the late 1960s.

A good example of this is the social construction of industry, a relatively new branch of sociology called Economic sociology. By this is meant the more recent constructionist literature that emerged in the 1980s rather than the classical economic sociology of Marx, Schumpeter and the urbanisation process. The most prominent Swede in this area is Richard Swedberg, who moved to Cornell University. His home page illustrates the difference between economic sociology. See his CV.

“Contemporary economic sociology may include studies of all modern social aspects of economic phenomena; economic sociology may thus be considered a field in the intersection of economics and sociology. Frequent areas of inquiry in contemporary economic sociology include the social consequences of economic exchanges, the social meanings they involve and the social interactions they facilitate or obstruct.” (My emphasis)

This has been particularly well illustrated in terms of how the electricity industry has been moulded by social forces. The web page on this particular aspect is given below:

This is not a subject I have studied and so I do not propose to attempt an empirical analysis. But we can attempt questions in the spirit of trying to understand different developments in the electricity industry.

If we consider the electricity industry in its modern form as an anthropologically strange phenomena we can question why we built huge electricity-generating factories, whether using brown coal, nuclear power or other complex industrial forms of heating water, then linked them to a network of high-tension wires which then distributed the electricity to each individual house.

The other invention that makes this possible is the joint stock company, which facilitates the growth of investing in the social construction of large concerns that become too big to fail, and need bailing out in times of recession.

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