Embeddedness Free market Social Sciences

How abstract ideas are “embedded” into everyday interactions…

There seems to be a general consensus at the moment that our ways of doing, talking and thinking are the constructs of “good ideas” in the social sciences over the past few centuries. We are living “the dreams of dead people”, to quote Yuval Noah Hariri. Once these are taken up on a broader level by society, these “good ideas” become taken for granted. We don’t spend our days pondering the rule of law, separation of powers, agency, productivity, and so on. We know these are important and work, as concepts, because… well, they just do. Look around you.

But the seeming invisibility of these “ideas” is a problem. Ignoring the fact that we prioritise concepts agency hides their historical and cultural contingency, and then leaves these unavailable to analysis. How can we challenge neoclassical economic theory that has become “common knowledge” or “just the way things are” when we no longer even notice it?

There have been a few books, blog posts and tweets recently that have spoken to this which are worth mentioning here.

Firstly, James Suzman’s new book. He’s just done an interview about this with GQ magazine, and it’s well worth a read. To oversimplify his argument hugely, he challenges our current notions of productivity in western liberal culture, and specifically puts this in the context of property ownership, heritage, lineage, time and space. In other words, our focus on productvity – often at the expense of other factors in life – is a cultural, social, legal and economic construct. Why do we internalise norms of productivity? Because a few economists 100 years ago thought that the abstract notion might be a good thing for growing the economy (and profits). However, in the process of moving from neoclassical economic theory to mainstream cultural doctrine, it has changed the way we see ourselves as citizens and as consumers.

There’s also a biography of Torsten Veblen by Charles Camic out at the moment, which is a really interesting take on the “outsider” economist. Geoffrey Mead has written a review on the LSE Review of Books Blog here, which offers “an excellent account of how Veblen arrived at his influential contributions to economic theory and paying close attention to how abstract ideas get embedded in institutions and practices”.

Well, yes. They do. And my book (out later this year) is a deep dive into the impact the way we talk about law and economy on how we do and think. Specifically, I look at embeddedness. In the drive to “Build Back Better”, there’s been a lot of talk of “re-embedding” the economy in society. Since responses to the 2008 financial crash started to appear, there have been a lot of statements either that “the economy is embedded in society” or that “society is embedded in the economy”. Start looking out for them – they’ll crop up more than you’d expect. And yet nowhere is there an explanation of what we’re talking about (what is embedded in what) and what we really mean by this.

Image of one large blue sphere with a smaller red sphere attempting to "embed" itself into the blue sphere. This is ultimately impossible because they are separate phenomena
“Nowhere is there a definition: what is embedded in what”. What are we actually talking about? My work shows that talking about law and economy as “embedded in” society is superficially helpful, but actually restricts innovative responses. We are just repeating the mainstream vocabularies and grammars that got us in to this mess in the first place.

But it really is important. My work is about just one example. But if we do want to Build Back Better, we need ways of talking about law, economy and society that recognise, acknowledge and then challenge “common sense” or accepted ways of doing and thinking about the economy. And this starts with those “good ideas” or abstract notions that eventually work their way into the mainstream and become “received wisdom”, invisible, or “just the way things are”.

Matthew Syed wrote a comments piece in the Sunday Times this week about a new drug for obesity, but placing it firmly in the wider context of personal responsibility, agency (as a Weberian ideal), and the atrophying of this that happens when the state gets too involved in individuals’ lives. I think he misses a trick by not recognising that while the agency-structure duality is open for debate, the “structural elements” (the food industry, the farming industry, and the advertising industry) have evolved under the guise of free marketeering far faster than our capabilities as agents to confront these, both on a social level and a biochemical level. Nevertheless, this is a prime example of one of those “common sense”, “received wisdom” ideas (personal responsibility) that is derived from “good ideas” of theorists (agency and the notions of the individual agent of neoclassical economics) that is held up (usually by free market advocates) that we tend to ignore. Yet we ignore it at our peril. The agency-structure debate is as relevant as it ever was, however our grammars and vocabularies to respond to current crises, crashes and catastrophes are those of the mainstream… in other words, the mainstream mental models that got us into this mess in the first place.

So, we need new ways of doing, talking and thinking about the legal and the economic. We need new grammars and vocabularies that challenge these accepted notions. The fact that we are turning more to the social sciences, to our social and institutional heritage to seek answers for how we can respond to the current crashes, crises and catastrophes is something to be celebrated. The social sciences have a huge role to play in our response. We cannot Build Back Better without them, and the founding fathers of sociology still have a lot to teach us, if we’re willing to listen.

Research Social Sciences

What does a Pandemic mean for the social sciences?

A few months ago, I had the privilege of chatting with a student of public policy at one of the leading universities in the UK for science and disease. He was telling me about the postgraduate course he was on, and how public policy is a discipline based purely on science. I thought briefly, and then double checked. You don’t study anything resembling a social science at all then? No ethics, no law, no economics, for example? No no, public policy, he assured me, is based solely on scientific evidence.

I shelved my doubts and put any skepticism down to my natural bias as a social scientist and my tendency to argue for the wider understanding and valuing of the social sciences in any scenario.

And then COVID-19 happened. Of course, this is a scientific conundrum, and scientists, chemists, biologists, immunologists, epidemiologists, mathematicians, and the like are working together globally like never before to test, trial, model, and to keep the rest of us as safe as possible.

But then a strange thing happened. A trend appeared in the Covid19-related deaths, which, frustratingly has been inadequately recorded by the official statistics, but which is pretty plain to see on any photograph wall of “victims”. Deaths of those from a BAME, or those from a black or minority ethic background, exceed the numbers expected if these things were to be in proportion to the population. So what is going on?

A recent paper in The Lancet identified the issues surrounding ethnicity, stating “Ethnicity is a complex entity composed of genetic make-up, social constructs, cultural identity, and behavioural patterns.2 Ethnic classification systems have limitations but have been used to explore genetic and other population differences. Individuals from different ethnic backgrounds vary in behaviours, comorbidities, immune profiles, and risk of infection, as exemplified by the increased morbidity and mortality in black and minority ethnic (BME) communities in previous pandemics.” This can be represented in the following chart:

From Pareek et al, “Ethnicity and COVID-19: an urgent public health research priority”, available at

This “complex entity” of “ethnicity” straddles the natural and social sciences as well as the arts and humanities, and there has never before been such a huge need for the disciplines to work together. Could there be any correlation between being a front-line worker and BAME? Is there any truth in the statements that those from a minority ethnic background are more likely to live with extended family in smaller, more cramped housing? Or is the answer down to genetic susceptibility to co-morbidities? The research here is, surprisingly, still in its infancy, although projects like the UNESCO dialogue offer hope that society may be forced to confront the inequalities that COVID-19 has laid bare.

Once again, we are not all in this together. The virus is not a great leveller, and we are not all suffering equally. The statistics bear this out in black and white. But science can only carry us so far down the road investigating this. The rest must be in combination with the insights of lawyers, economics, psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists, and geographers, as well as historians, ethnographers, artists, musicians and – well, as much of society as possible if we really want a representative dialogue. And this means hearing voices that are usually silenced by inequality and minimised by power imbalances.

Interestingly, Germany may be already setting off down this road, enlisting scholars in the Arts and Humanities in that country to help establish a new normal and to ask how society can make sense of the changes. How can we forge meaningful relationships from a “socially-distant” 2 metres? And what might a post-COVID-19 society look like? Sound like? Behave like? Which social values and interests will be prioritised? These are questions that will require the full range of inputs, styles and learning from across the academy.

What is the new normal? And how do we figure out how to get there? This is something that will require the close cooperation of all disciplines.

Despite the fact that we are facing a viral enemy, arguably we have never needed interdisciplinary research more, specifically combining insights from the social sciences, arts and humanities to interpret, process, disseminate and enhance understanding of the work of the natural sciences. COVID-19 has highlighted inequalities that society had previously been able to ignore. The role of the social sciences, arts and humanities in elevating those voices and interests will be critical not only to the successful implementation of vaccines and treatments (community dialogue and involvement is essential for engagement with health services), but for the reconsideration of social priorities and equality more generally.