New book

When the moral economy became a political economy


September 23, 2021
Trade and Nation

History shows that the standards by which societies judge economic activity change over time. As these moral frameworks evolve—or devolve—many of the changes make their way into law. For example, modern anti-trust law is grounded in the widely accepted belief that monopolies depress competition and growth and encourage unscrupulous behavior.

However, in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, the state explicitly sought to protect large trade monopolies, which were commonly regarded as good for trade. The slow transformation of the moral status of monopoly over the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries figured prominently in a larger cultural transformation, which might be thought of as the shift from a moral economy to a political economy, and ushered in the birth of classical economics. Appreciating how and why this shift occurred reveals interesting links between power, political representation, and economic theory. It may also allow us to recover some important moral ideas about exchange that were lost along the way.

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Research Findings

“Women’s work” and the welfare state: New analysis quantifies how gender, class and social policy shape unpaid care work

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September 16, 2021

The COVID-19 pandemic has worsened inequalities in unpaid care work, with increased childcare and housework burdens disproportionately borne by women. Across Europe and North America, women have been pushed out of the labor market, while mothers are increasingly suffering from stress and burnout.

Social policy might be able to reverse these trends – and the Carework Network has been urging the Biden-Harris administration to take decisive action now and reinvest in care infrastructure to “build back better”. Similar campaigns have been launched internationally, including in Canada and the UK.

But what can data tell us about the potential for welfare programs to address the gender gap in unpaid care work?

In our recent article in Gender & Society, we quantify the connections between social policy spending and inequality amongst unpaid care workers across 29 European countries.

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Research Findings

Geographic disparities in student debt by rural, suburban, and urban background


September 9, 2021

American youth from rural backgrounds are making the most of the college-for-all era. Despite long-standing inequalities in access, rates of both college enrollment and completion have risen faster in recent years for rural youth than for youth from suburban and urban areas.   

These successes both reflect and reinforce contemporary challenges facing rural America. Rising enrollments stem in part from structural shifts in the economy that have reduced the number of decent-paying jobs available to less-educated rural workers. And rural sociologists have documented the family and community costs of college-going, highlighting tensions between the desire to stay close to home and the hope of future economic security.

Yet it is also important to consider how rural youth are financing these college gains, especially given the high costs of college, rising student debt, and longstanding spatial inequalities in the resources students have to pay for college.

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Research Findings

Consumer redlining at Dollar General


September 2, 2021

“We are awakening to a dollar-store economy,” the New York Times declared in 2011, a culture of fear-induced bargain hunting spurred by the 2008 market meltdown and jobless recovery. More than ever before, anxious consumers are looking to stretch a buck due to the shrinking middle class and a widening gap of economic inequality. Dollar stores thrive in climates of economic uncertainty. In fact, their success is built on the death of the American middle class.

Yet all Dollar General stores are not equal. That was my conclusion in a recent article, after conducing six months of ethnographic fieldwork investigating service relations between dollar store managers, low-wage workers, and their customers. Of the nineteen stores in the district I worked in as a low-wage sales associate, three standout stores emerged as the very worst. Conditions there were dirtier and more hazardous than the rest, with barren shelves, slower customer service, and a tense atmosphere for those who worked and shopped amidst the squalor. I identified these Dollar General locations as consumer redlined stores. 

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Research Findings

Misery has company:how predatory investors have exacerbated and exploited the coronavirus crisis

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July 15, 2021
pink and blue pig figurine

A once-in-a-century pandemic has sparked an unprecedented crisis. With over 167 million cases and 3.5 million deaths recorded worldwide and entire economies in turmoil, the fallout has been felt by all—but unevenly so. Public attention has rightfully focused on curbing COVID-19’s spread and alleviating economic hardship.

But lurking behind the headlines of vaccines and new variants are predatory financial investors whose work has placed many workers at risk and exploited those very vulnerabilities to profit from the pandemic.

In a recent article in American Behavioral Scientist, we examine how the rise of U.S. “shadow banks”—less regulated, private credit intermediaries such as private equity, venture capital, and hedge fund firms—has impacted the course of hardship and inequality during the crisis. These shadow banks play an instrumental role in how executives manage companies, which has important ramifications for societal responses to crises, the wellbeing and livelihoods of workers, and inequality throughout the labor market.

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Research Findings

Economic loss causes greater mental harm for immigrants during the COVID-19 pandemic


July 8, 2021

Although many studies have shown that inequalities have widened in many ways ever since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, much of the discussion has focused on objective measures, such as numbers of confirmed cases and deaths, access to healthcare and medical treatment, or unemployment/poverty. Less attention has been paid to inequality consequences in connection with subjective experience.

Objectively, studies have shown that chances of physical as well as economic survival are not evenly distributed across class, racial and ethnic groups, as well as residential areas and regions, with the disadvantaged vulnerable to more severe consequences. Subjectively, however, it is unclear whether disadvantaged population groups also bear more psychological burdens.

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New book

The War Among Algorithms


July 1, 2021

Twenty years ago, a financial trader was still usually a human being, either sharing a trading pit along with dozens or hundreds of other sweaty human bodies, or sitting at a computer terminal, talking into a telephone and buying and selling with keyboard and mouse. A decade later, digital algorithms had made decisive inroads into trading, but those algorithms still mostly ran on conventional computer systems. Nowadays, a trader is very often a specialised silicon chip known as an FPGA, or field-programmable gate array, such as the large, square chip at the centre of this photograph, coated with white paste that had held a cover in place.

The FPGAs that do so much of today’s trading are mainly to be found in about two dozen anonymous, warehouse-like buildings in and around Chicago, New York, London, Frankfurt and other major global financial centres. To walk through one of these computer datacentres is to listen to the hum of tens of thousands of computer servers in row upon endless row of metal cages and to glimpse the incomprehensible spaghetti of cables that interconnect the machines packed into those cages. When I first did so, in October 2014, I was still struggling to find a way of understanding the complex new world of ultrafast trading algorithms that was evolving.

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New book

Rethinking Pay in the 2nd Gilded Age


June 24, 2021

What determines the number on your paycheck? When asked, the vast majority of U.S. workers list their own individual performance as a key factor. Large majorities of pay-setters – senior management, human resource directors, and others directly involved in setting compensation rates – likewise believe workers’ individual performance is very important.

I know, because in a series of surveys conducted over the last few years I asked average workers and pay-setters about their ideas about how our wages and salaries are determined. No matter how I posed the question, no factor garnered as much support as individual performance when it comes to our understandings of pay determination in the modern economy.

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Research Findings

Inhabited ecosystems of change: Attending to the “social” aspects of movements

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June 17, 2021

Workplaces exert considerable influence in society. They mediate the economic exchanges that enable modern life and facilitate (or block) achieving large-scale, collective goals. As such, they are integral to the advancement of social progress. Unsurprisingly, therefore, they are often implicated in movements promoting social justice.

The substantial research on workplace organizations and social movements focuses primarily on how outsiders target specific organizations through protests or boycotts or on how employee activists leverage insider knowledge to effect change from within.

Our work purposely blurs these distinctions, exploring a case where it was neither simply the work of external agents applying pressure from the outside, nor of insiders skillfully manipulating the internal levers of change, that propelled change. Rather, it was a community of workplace activists, linked together and acting between and through their organizations, to face opposition yet sustain and even expand their efforts with and for each other.

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Research Findings

What is left for sociologists of pay-setting to study?


June 10, 2021

Much of the best sociology of pay-setting from the last twenty years has documented the declining importance of non-market constraints on pay.

The collapse of labor unions means fewer and fewer employers are bound by restrictive collective bargaining agreements. Similar outcomes come from the rise of shareholder value; restructuring and opening up of internal labor markets; erosion of fixed, bureaucratic pay schedules; outsourcing and contracting…The list goes on.

There’s a ton of great research on these important changes. But they can mostly be summarized as changes that eliminate protections from market competition that workers previously enjoyed.

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