teaching the new economic sociology of race & racism

In 2018, I taught my first graduate seminar on economic sociology. In general, I was very happy with how the syllabus and course came together. But I struggled to figure out how to best incorporate discussions of race & racism into the course. There just wasn’t very much research on the topic in economic sociology. For the course, I mostly borrowed work that’s usually identified as part of either inequality or organizations research, and then talked about my frustration in not finding a robust conversation within economic sociology proper (to the extent those fields are separable, which is its own important conversation). This frustration is part of what motivated my collaboration with Laura Garbes where we 1) examine the history of economic sociology’s (non)engagement with race, and 2) offer an overview of recent developments in the sociology of race with the aim of guiding economic sociologists who do want to put race & racism at the center of their work. In this post, I return to my initial motivations to offer suggestions about how I would approach teaching race & racism in an economic sociology graduate seminar in light of the work that Laura and I have done, and in light of new research that has emerged in the past couple years at this intersection.

economic sociology in 4 ez steps

My approach to teaching economic sociology (at least at Brown, as our curriculum is currently structured) is shaped by the strength of the parallel offerings in organizations. That is, because Brown already offered a strong course focused exclusively on organizations, I wanted my course to maximize coverage of economic sociology as separate from orgs. This intention broke down a bit around the race & gender weeks, as noted above, in part because there was much more available at the intersection of orgs, race, and gender (and that was even before e.g. Ray’s recent theoretical synthesis on racialized organizations along with many other contributions at this intersection such as those in a recent RSO volume edited by Wooten). But in general, my goal was to cover economic sociology and focus on discussions of markets and political economy. 

To do so, I started the course by identifying what I think of as economic sociology’s four dominant approaches (Laura and I also summarize these in our overview piece): Polanyian embeddedness, Granovetterian embeddedness, Zelizerian relational work, and market devices/performativity a la Callon & MacKenzie. My course started with a week on each of these approaches, including typically one recent application. These weeks introduce the core theoretical ideas of economic sociology, but they basically ignore race. As Laura and I note, race and racism are somewhere between largely and completely absent in the writings of the canonical thinkers in economic sociology. 

The rest of the course then proceeded topically, moving to look at financial markets, gender, race, class and inequality, and political economy, with the goal of presenting readings on each topic that come from more than one of these perspectives. This goal is relatively easy for some topics: there is wonderful work from all four perspectives in the sociology of finance for example. Other topics were trickier, but I tried to find at least some variation across perspectives, to show that economic sociology is relatively plural in its orientation and flexible in its deployment of these four approaches which together can (hopefully) shed light on economic life. And if I couldn’t do that, I went outside the bounds of what was usually called economic sociology to point to alternatives from other subfields, and then used class in part to discuss how economic sociology approaches could be applied to the topic or integrated with those other approaches.

the new economic sociology of race & racism 

So, with this setup, here’s how I would go about bringing together a discussion of economic sociology’s four major approaches with a discussion of race & racism and lay the groundwork for discussions of racialized markets and racialized economies (to riff on Ray’s racialized organizations). My goal here is to provide a concrete set of readings that engage with the themes of Granovetterian/network embeddedness, Polanyian embeddedness/political economy, Zelizerian relational work, and market devices and use, challenge, or amend these ideas in dialogue with theories of race and racism. My preference here, as in the rest of the syllabus after the first few weeks, is to focus on recent work in sociology journals as our students are being, in some sense, trained to produce work like this, for better or for worse.

Given all that, here’s a provisional week for the syllabus:

Korver-Glenn, Elizabeth. 2018. “Compounding Inequalities: How Racial Stereotypes and Discrimination Accumulate across the Stages of Housing Exchange.” American Sociological Review 83(4):627–56.

Silva, Fabiana. 2018. “The Strength of Whites’ Ties: How Employers Reward the Referrals of Black and White Jobseekers.” Social Forces 97(2):741–68.

Robinson, John N. 2020. “Making Markets on the Margins: Housing Finance Agencies and the Racial Politics of Credit Expansion.” American Journal of Sociology 125(4):974–1029.

Together, these readings touch on all of the major themes from the four economic sociology perspectives. Silva sits solidly in the network tradition, focusing on job-seeking and networks in classic Granovetterian fashion. Her work shows how white applicants benefit from same-race referrals but black applicants do not. Rather: “black applicants only benefit from having a referral when two conditions are met: the referring employee is white and they are evaluated by a relatively low-prejudiced respondent.” 

Korver-Glenn’s work brings together aspects of several perspectives to show how racial inequality is produced in Houston’s real estate market. Her overall analysis includes discussions of racism and social networks (since realtors rely heavily on racially homogenous networks for referrals), the relational work of managing racism in transactions (as realtors creatively manage their clients’ racist requests without violating fair housing laws), and market devices underpinning racial inequality in housing (including a fascinating analysis of how the appraisal industry’s neighborhood categories reinforce racial inequality, discussed in greater detail in Howell and Korver-Glenn [2018]).

Finally, Robinson’s historical analysis of housing finance examines “the constitutive whiteness of credit.” Robinson looks at the emergence of state-level housing finance agencies, a form of state-provided credit that replaced controversial federal insuring offices (which had been linked to redlining, but had switched gears to promote access to credit and faced backlash). This rich historical case study shows how prior research on the expansion of credit as a mode of governance had downplayed the centrality of whiteness. That is, credit expansion only appeared uncontroversial/”hidden” when the credit was geared towards white people. 

Together, these three papers draw on quantitative, qualitative, and historical data, and touch on all of the major themes of economic sociology. So I think they do a nice job of covering various bases. In a typical week, I’d assign about four papers of this length/heft, so I would likely pick one additional piece to complement them (perhaps another network paper like Smith 2005, or a paper focusing on immigration and ethnic enclaves like Hoang 2015). Another option would be to pick an overview of the sociology of race, like Golash-Boza’s (2016) incredibly useful article “A Critical and Comprehensive Sociological Theory of Race and Racism.” My article with Laura Garbes was also written in part with that goal in mind (to provide some background in the sociology of race to inform economic sociology conversations) and could fit nicely here.


Two quick caveats. First, a reminder that the above is premised on the idea that I’m trying to avoid work on race & organizations on the assumption that it’s well-covered in other courses. There are, as mentioned above, a ton of great theoretical and empirical works at that intersection, and some fluid overlap between them (e.g. the labor market includes both hiring and promotion processes, but the latter tend to get classed as orgs work e.g. Castilla 2008). 

Second, a set of readings I don’t engage with here is recent debates over racial capitalism (e.g. Melamed 2015, Kelley 2017, Bhattacharya 2018, Ralph and Singhal 2019, Fraser 2019, etc.). A reading on racial capitalism could fit in alongside Polanyi and, say, Block’s (2018) recent theorizations of capitalism (among others). But to me, these are a bit further afield from the center of contemporary economic sociology (for better or for worse) and also a much broader interdisciplinary conversation that requires a different kind of setup. I was trying to think of how I could include this conversation with just one reading (to follow the three above) and I couldn’t see a clear path to it. In contrast, I think they fit really well in a course on social theory as one of the most interesting current sites of debate between Marxian theory and critical race theory (among others) and I am planning to include a week on this topic the next time I teach my course on social theory post-2000.

With those caveats in mind, I hope you find the suggestions above useful as you think about incorporating discussions of race & racism into the economic sociology curriculum.

Author: Dan Hirschman

I am a sociologist interested in the use of numbers in organizations, markets, and policy. For more info, see here.

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