What is social economy


Table of Contents

  1. term
  2. features
  3. Differentiation from similar terms
  4. Development or history of the term
  5. aims
  6. Important work and points of contention


Socioeconomics stands for a Research program, which aims to explain economic activity as well as the core institutions and structures of the modern economy not solely from an "economic" point of view (efficiency) and with exclusive consideration of economic factors (benefit and profit orientation of the actors on the one hand and material resources on the other). Rather, the common concern of socio-economists is to locate economies and economic activities in their societal conditions and therefore to focus on the interplay between economy and society.


Characteristic of socio-economics is the comprehensive claim to be able to describe and explain economics and economic activity more “realistically” and thus more comprehensively than standard economics or neo-classical approaches. Behind this is a complex understanding of the tasks and methodology of a modern social science, of which economics is a part (cf. Weber and Schumpeter).

First of all, socio-economics fits into the tradition of modern social theory, which has set itself apart from an idealistic philosophy and a pure natural science and has established itself as a social science that is based on "realistic" descriptions of people, ie assumptions that reflect the image of real people correspond as well as possible and do not provide any “ideal images” in the normative sense that capture real problems in the design of the social, economic and / or political order and want to develop design proposals for them. In addition to the postulate of a realistic description of the human actor that can be used for different fields of action, the second important assumption is that individual action is always located in social contexts and thus on the one hand direct social relationships / interactions and on the other hand social, cultural, political and economic Institutions are relevant (see sociology).

In more recent socio-economics, three characteristic principles are derived from this.

a) For socio-economics, it is usually maintained that economics can be explained on the basis of people's actions. Nonetheless, both the “Homo Oeconomicus” and the “Homo sociologicus” model of action are rejected as being too unrealistic. Instead, more complex models of action are to be developed and used to explain economic issues. In particular, these should be able to record that the actors neither have perfect information or processing capacities nor only pursue economic purposes, rather it should be taken into account that they also have non-economic goals and also act in a value or general welfare-oriented manner (Hirschman 1980; Weber 1988 ; Schumpeter 1987; Etzioni 1991).

b) Second, the analysis of “economy and society” is characteristic of socio-economics. This rejects all approaches that want to analyze and explain the economy by ignoring society and society without economy. Behind this is the empirical observation that with modern bourgeois society, morality, religion, aesthetics or literature no longer dictate the central patterns of justification and order, but the economy. Then economics is set free from its moral and ethical framework (Polanyi 1978) and becomes the subject of socio-political shaping.

c) Last but not least, socioeconomics is also characterized by integration and sometimes also by the simultaneous use of different methods, terms, models and working methods. Socioeconomics is therefore also defined by many as an interdisciplinary program. From today's point of view, two basic positions can be distinguished, each defining a specific form of “socio-economic work”. Thus, an interdisciplinary division of labor is practiced under the common umbrella of action-based explanations with the aim of capturing economy and society in their interplay (Weber 1985/1920; Hirschman 1981). This contrasts with approaches that want to consider economic questions on the basis of sociological and / or socio-philosophical concepts and from a socio-moral perspective. This is considered to be superior to “standard economics” and classical sociology and is therefore seen as a “paradigm shift” (Etzioni 1991; 2003, p. 107).

Differentiation from similar terms

In antiquity, domestic and state economy was the subject of state and social philosophy under ethical-political aspects. At the beginning of European modernism, the political economywhich puts the welfare production of individual nations in the foreground and asks about the regulations of an industry or trade released from normative references. Adam Smith became a milestone for this. With reference to Smith, Karl Marx (1982) identified the value-creating quantity in human labor and the dynamic moment of social development in the mode of production. Marx traces the development of human society back to the development of the productive forces and the mode of production driven by them.

Representatives of the new economic sociology, above all Mark Granovetter, Harrison White, James Coleman and Richard Swedberg, also advocate an action-based explanation. And it is also their concern to use more complex, sociologically informed action descriptions and theories (cf. economic sociology). However, the explicit aim is to be able to take into account the effects of social factors such as social relationships and networks (Granovetter, White), social rights of action (Coleman) or the social constitution of interests (Swedberg) when analyzing central economic institutions (cf. of socio-economics and economic sociology in detail Maurer 2011). The social economy connects with the new economic sociology the criticism of the neoclassical, in particular of the use of the “Homo oeconomicus” model and the universal use of competition.

Development or history of the term

The research program takes its name from the older German term "Socialökonomie" (Weber 1985/1920; Schumpeter 1987) and is now also referred to as "Sozialökonomik" or "Sozialökonomie" (Perridon and Granvogl 2000; cf. for the history of the term in detail Oppolzer 1990) The more recent approaches from the Anglo-Saxon-speaking area, which have helped the paradigm to gain a better reputation since the 1980s, are referred to as "socio-economics" (Etzioni and Lawrence 1991; Swedberg 1991) or "socio-economic paradigm" (Etzioni 2003, Hollingworth et al. 2002) The renaissance of this research tradition is also evident in current German-language publications (e.g. Althaler 1995; Perridon and Granvogl 2000; Mikl-Horke 2011).

The starting points of socio-economic thinking are mainly Max Weber, Werner Sombart and Josef Schumpeter. They saw themselves as economists, economic historians and sociologists and laid the foundations of modern social sciences at the beginning of the 20th century. Her research focused on the interplay between economy and society, in particular the emergence of modern capitalism as part of comprehensive social change. They also have one thing in common integrative perspective on economics, i.e. the connection between economic theory, economic history and economic sociology.

Max Weber (1864-1920) has a prominent position (Oppolzer 1990; p. 21; Swedberg 1991; Maurer 2011, p. 105). Weber designed the compendium “Outline of Social Economics” in several volumes and wrote his own contribution “Economy and Society” (Weber 1985). With the understanding sociology, the formation of ideal types and the freedom from value judgments, he has presented a methodological foundation for the integrative analysis of the economy. In his studies on Protestant ethics, Max Weber also showed how religious-cultural ideas, conveyed through the actions of people, helped to create the economic institutions that are important for modern capitalism: the private-capitalist business enterprise, the mass goods market and the calculation of capital in money. Last but not least, Weber established a definition of the subject of socio-economy that is still compatible today: “'Economic oriented ' an action is to be called insofar as, according to its intended meaning, it is oriented towards caring for a desire for useful services. "(1985: 31, emphasis in the orig.)

Despite the efforts of the classics to initiate an integrative social economy, sociology, economics, politics and history increasingly went their separate ways in the 20th century and sociology increasingly lost sight of economics in the 20th century. Economics believed that it could limit itself to rational-logical action and sociology to non-rational action and less rational ordering mechanisms such as norms and rule. From 1945 to the 1980s, only a few works were produced that could be attributed to the claim of socio-economics; These exceptions include the important works by Albert Hirschman, Kenneth Galbraith, Gunnar Myrdal, Neils Smelser and others (see Perridon and Granvogl 2000; Mikl-Horke 2011). Only in the 1980s did a socio-economy revive again - in the context of other developments (new economic sociology, new institutionalism in sociology, new institutional economics). The institutionalization of the socio-economic approach was largely driven by the establishment of the “Society for the Advancement of Socio-Economics” (SASE) in the USA (Harvard University) at the end of the 1980s.


The representatives of the “socio-economic program” share the unanimous criticism of the neoclassical. The models of the “Homo oeconomicus” and the “competitive market model” used there, as well as the associated focus on equilibrium analyzes, are criticized as unrealistic. In their place, on the one hand, “more realistic models and descriptions of action” such as those of homo socio-economicus or homo culturalis are to appear, on the other hand, following the classics, it is argued that the assumption of a “pure sphere of the economy” should be abandoned. Instead, realistic market models are required from those representatives who feel they belong to a social science model and theory formation. Albert Hirschman, for example, introduced and developed descriptions of the situation that thematize joint action instead of competition or organizations, and he reconstructed how interest-based action has prevailed (Hirschman 1980). Hirschman's analyzes became politically relevant in the context of development policy or of system breakdowns such as after 1989 (cf. Pies and Leschke 2006). Another criticism turns against the equilibrium analysis of the neoclassical and instead wants to bring redistribution issues and ethical evaluation criteria back into the economy.

In summary, it can be stated that the basic goal of socio-economic approaches is to explain economic facts while taking social factors into account. The central assumption is that the economy and society can only be comprehensively captured in the context of concrete historical moments. The claim to explain economic facts about individual actions in social contexts and to use descriptions that are as “realistic” as possible is also largely shared.

Important work and points of contention

Current challenges, conflicts and lines of development focus around three aspects:

a) Where are bridges and where are the boundaries to be built to the new institutionalism and especially to the new economic sociology?

  • Smelser also successfully established the “new economic sociology” in the 1980s by defining it as the scientific discipline that analyzes “core institutions of the economy” with the help of sociological concepts and from a sociological perspective (cf. Maurer 2008).

b) Which theoretical terms and concepts can be used to capture the interrelationship between economy and society?

  • Does the term institution as it is classically used in sociology - and increasingly in economics - help?
  • How are the concepts of the old terms and concepts associated with American pragmatism to be classified?
  • To what extent do Marxist and neo-Marxist concepts that are more at the macro level help?
  • To what extent can socio-economics connect to socio-philosophical ideas?

c) How are the methodological foundations laid by the classics - especially Max Weber - to be further developed?

  • Which methodology is appropriate for socio-economics? In other words, is socio-economy compatible with a strict “methodological individualism” or would a “methodological individualism” such as can be found in Weber's work be more appropriate.
  • With the help of which theoretical tool can the individual and society, or assumptions on the action and the structural level, be connected with one another?
  • How “realistic” can and must action and situation models be? And what can be used as a methodological-theoretical reference point for this?

d) Last but not least, the successes of neurosciences and behavioral economics stimulate the discussion about whether and to what extent humans should be granted autonomy and whether and to what extent emotions and irrationalities should be included in the explanation of economic phenomena.