I’m re-reading Somers and Block (2005) on ideational embeddedness. They posit an explanation for the rise of what they call “market fundamentalism” (putting aside the fact that this ill-defined concept is problematic in itself. They define market fundamentalists as those “who believe in the moral superiority of organizing all dimensions of social life according to market principles.” What this means or who might fall under this category is left to the reader to imagine) as it culminates in the 1834 reform of the English Poor Laws and the 1996 welfare reform efforts in the United States. They build on the ideational turn in sociology by “expanding market embeddedness to include the ideas, public narratives, and explanatory systems by which states, societies, and political cultures construct, transform, explain, and normalize market processes. No less than all the familiar mechanisms by which markets are shaped, regulated, and organized, so too, they are always ideationally embedded by one or another competing knowledge regime.” At this point, the concept looks promising, but they then go on to describe market fundamentalism as possessing a unique “epistemic privilege” which makes it immune to empirical challenges. A promising concept quickly turns into a cheap shot at neoliberalism.
According to Somers and Block, three characteristics of market fundamentalism give it this epistemic privilege – social naturalism, theoretical realism, and conversion narratives. Social naturalism is the idea that markets, if left to their own, will be self-regulating. Theoretical realism is the idea that empirical evidence can be deceiving and therefore the social observer must rely on some (untestable) general principles deduced from thought experiments. Conversion narratives are stories told, not to explain, but to delegitimize older narratives and convert people to the new one.
With these concepts in hand, Somers and Block attempt to explain how market fundamentalism could overpower previous conceptions of welfare and lead to more market-drive institutions. Unfortunately, their evidence rests on shaky grounds. Their story centers on the writings of Thomas Malthus. Throughout their essay, they assume that Malthus, of all the classical economists, was the impetus for the ideas behind the 1934 Poor Law reforms to the exclusion of all other possible influences. Malthus, of course, was the dreariest of the classical economists known for his social Darwinism. This leads one to wonder why Somers and Block pick him to tell their story. The quotes they pull from the Report from His Majesty’s Comissioners for Inquiring in to the Administration and Practical Operation of the Poor Laws seem cherry-picked as well to fit their story as well.
Given the weakness of their ideational thesis, I began to think about other possible explanations. As with most of my thinking lately, this led me to Monica Prasad’s work on adversarial politics. She looks at the role of adversarial policies in the shift toward neoliberal policies across four countries in the 1970s and 1980s. She argues that the American welfare state was truly redistributive at the time as the burden from a progressive tax structure fell almost completely on the wealthy while welfare means-tested welfare programs targeted the poor. This resulted in a backlash that started in Reagan, and by extension, we could argue culminated in the 1994 welfare reforms of Clinton. Similarly, the old English Poor Laws were financed by highly salient property taxes while means-tested relief programs targeted the poor. More importantly, the reforms came only two years after the franchise was extended to the English middle class which would be consistent with the thesis that adversarial policies pit the upper and middle class against the poor.
This is important because Somers and Block base their argument on the methodological point that ”Cases that differ along every parameter except the dependent variable are particularly suited for comparative sociology’s method of agreement – a method that makes a robust causal argument for the one hypothesized independent variable common to both cases.” We now have two independent variables common to both cases thus throwing Somers and Block’s thesis into question. How do we adjudicate the dispute between the two possible explanations? There’s a paper in that…
- Josh McCabe