In the opening essay, ‘Introducing economic sociology’, in The Handbook of Economic Sociology, Neil J. Smelser and Richard Swedberg (2005: 6) describe the diﬀerence between economic sociology and mainstream economics as follows. While economists concentrate on the relations within the economy and consider society as a ‘given’, ‘the study of changes in the institutional and cultural parameters that constitute the economy’s societal context’ (ibid.) is at the heart of economic sociology, and, following Smelser’s and Swedberg’s deﬁnition, this in turn makes Gustav Schmoller and Werner Sombart economic sociologists rather than economists. As Smelser and Swedberg themselves emphasise (ibid.: 3-4), however, one
should be careful with drawing too clear a border between economics and sociology. For especially since the late 1990s in economics we have witnessed growing interest in the issue of how beliefs, values and norms aﬀect economic performance and development. Therefore, the boundary between the two disciplines has weakened again and there is now a certain ‘sociological turn’ (Nee 2005: 53) in institutional and evolutionary economics. Gustav Schmoller and Werner Sombart lived in a period in which Germany
turned from a feudalist into an industrial society with a capitalist exchange economy. Such a transition means that a subsystem of society emerged which was driven by a purely economic logic so that it turned – in the striking terminology of Max Weber (1958: 26) – into a peculiar ‘value sphere’ of society.1
The emergence of such an economic subsystem of society is a process of social diﬀerentiation, a process in which the ‘division of labour’ between different parts of society reaches a new quality. The transition of social relations that in the Feudal Age had been economic and social in nature (as that between master and servant) into purely economic ones (as that between capitalist and worker) caused a far-reaching destabilisation of traditional social ties. The question of how society could cope with this destabilisation was at the core of Schmoller’s and Sombart’s economic thought. As this question seems to have become topical again in the so-called age of globalisation,2 in which, as many believe, economic rationality gains the upper hand over morals and political rationality and endangers social cohesion, can we hope to ﬁnd solutions for today’s problems in their works?