We are independent & ad-supported. We may earn a commission for purchases made through our links.
Advertiser Disclosure
Our website is an independent, advertising-supported platform. We provide our content free of charge to our readers, and to keep it that way, we rely on revenue generated through advertisements and affiliate partnerships. This means that when you click on certain links on our site and make a purchase, we may earn a commission. Learn more.
How We Make Money
We sustain our operations through affiliate commissions and advertising. If you click on an affiliate link and make a purchase, we may receive a commission from the merchant at no additional cost to you. We also display advertisements on our website, which help generate revenue to support our work and keep our content free for readers. Our editorial team operates independently of our advertising and affiliate partnerships to ensure that our content remains unbiased and focused on providing you with the best information and recommendations based on thorough research and honest evaluations. To remain transparent, we’ve provided a list of our current affiliate partners here.

What is Economic Sociology?

By John Markley
Updated May 17, 2024
Our promise to you
WiseGeek is dedicated to creating trustworthy, high-quality content that always prioritizes transparency, integrity, and inclusivity above all else. Our ensure that our content creation and review process includes rigorous fact-checking, evidence-based, and continual updates to ensure accuracy and reliability.

Our Promise to you

Founded in 2002, our company has been a trusted resource for readers seeking informative and engaging content. Our dedication to quality remains unwavering—and will never change. We follow a strict editorial policy, ensuring that our content is authored by highly qualified professionals and edited by subject matter experts. This guarantees that everything we publish is objective, accurate, and trustworthy.

Over the years, we've refined our approach to cover a wide range of topics, providing readers with reliable and practical advice to enhance their knowledge and skills. That's why millions of readers turn to us each year. Join us in celebrating the joy of learning, guided by standards you can trust.

Editorial Standards

At WiseGeek, we are committed to creating content that you can trust. Our editorial process is designed to ensure that every piece of content we publish is accurate, reliable, and informative.

Our team of experienced writers and editors follows a strict set of guidelines to ensure the highest quality content. We conduct thorough research, fact-check all information, and rely on credible sources to back up our claims. Our content is reviewed by subject-matter experts to ensure accuracy and clarity.

We believe in transparency and maintain editorial independence from our advertisers. Our team does not receive direct compensation from advertisers, allowing us to create unbiased content that prioritizes your interests.

The study of how economic structures and exchanges influence society, and how society influences economic systems, is called economic sociology. Economic sociologists study subjects such as the role of religion in the development of economic systems, how the division of labor affects social ties and how capitalism and industrialization shape the way people live, among other subjects. It should not be confused with socioeconomics, though sometimes there is overlap between the two fields. Socioeconomics generally has a narrower focus than economic sociology and is the study of the social effects of particular economic events, such as the closing of a factory or a shift in consumption patterns, rather than large-scale institutions. It also should not be confused with fields of economics that use economic principles to analyze social phenomena, such as the economics of religion, the economics of the family or cultural economics.

Contemporary economic sociology, often referred to as the new economic sociology to distinguish it from earlier work in the field during the 19th and early 20th centuries, places great emphasis on the social consequences and meaning of economic exchanges and their effects on other social relationships. It also frequently emphasizes how economic activities take place within a web of other social ties and relationships, a concept called embeddedness. Important thinkers figures in this area include Harrison White and Mark Granovetter, a man whose work on the effects of the strength of social bonds and the spread of information through social networks helped spark the field's resurgence.

Many important works of what is now considered early economic sociology predate the emergence of sociology as a specialized academic discipline, because the division of the social sciences into distinct fields such as sociology, economics and psychology had not yet occurred in the early and mid-19th century. Like sociology as a whole, early economic sociology began as an outgrowth of subjects such as philosophy and political economy. Economic sociology is often regarded as beginning in the first half of the 19th century, although 18th-century figures such as Montesquieu are sometimes considered forerunners. Alexis de Tocqueville is often regarded as an important pioneer in the field, through works such as Democracy in America and The Old Regime and the Revolution.

The thinker most prominently associated with the application of sociology to economic systems is Max Weber, who worked in the late 19th and very early 20th centuris. Weber's enormously influential book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism argued that Protestantism, and especially Calvinism, was an important factor in the rise of capitalism in Northern Europe. According to Weber, Protestantism had an important effect on economic attitudes by emphasizing and praising the moral virtue of hard work and productivity in mundane, secular occupations. At the same time, the loss of a trusted, absolute religious authority in the form of the Catholic Church created greater feelings of religious uncertainty that led people to pursue success in worldly matters through labor and commerce as a sign of God's blessing and approval. In Weber's theory, this encouraged productivity, rational self-interest, and entrepreneurialism, thus creating a more favorable environment for the growth of capitalism.

Karl Marx was an extremely influential figure in economic sociology during the 19th century. Marx's approach to the study of society, now commonly called historical materialism, treated economic factors as the foundation of all social phenomena. In classical Marxist theory, a society's “mode of production” — its technology, productive resources and economic relationships — is the primary force determining the nature of that society, including its social, cultural and legal institutions, and it is changes in that mode of production that drive changes in other areas of society. Marx's ideas would be an important influence on a number of prominent 20th-century economic sociologists, such as Theodor Adorno and Herbert Marcuse.

Another major economic sociologist was Herbert Spencer, who believed that a society's nature and structure were heavily influenced by the primary means by which wealth was obtained in a society. In what Spencer called “militant” societies, wealth was primarily accumulated through force and compulsion, usually by an elite who controlled the state. In “industrial” societies — with “industrial” used in the sense of work or productivity, rather than referring specifically to manufacturing — wealth was gained primarily through labor and voluntary exchange. Spencer believed that societies that were primarily militant encouraged values such as militarism, hierarchy and subordination, and more industrial societies evolved toward greater individuality, equality and mutual sympathy between people. The extent to which a society is militant or industrial is a spectrum, not a binary division, and Spencer believed that as a society moved to a more industrial or more militant mode, its values and institutions would evolve in ways appropriate to it.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Discussion Comments
WiseGeek, in your inbox

Our latest articles, guides, and more, delivered daily.

WiseGeek, in your inbox

Our latest articles, guides, and more, delivered daily.