Saturday, September 03, 2005

Adam Smith a Sociologist - as well as a Philosopher?

Kieran Healy writes:

Kieran Healy in his course, Sources of Sociological Theory concludes:

“Although Smith is often presented as the champion of the individual, and opposed to thinkers who emphasize social structure or the state, it's immediately clear when you read him that Smith was as much a "discoverer of society"--that is, of the idea that the social world is a human product consisting of myriad interlocking relationships dependent on specific institutions and human capacities--as any of the other theorists typically recognized as founders of modern sociology. His treatment of the problem of the division of labor also provides a platform to understand the others. Marx is much easier to understand once you know a bit about Smith, of course, but so are Durkheim's ideas about social solidarity and the non-rational foundations of contractual exchange. And much of Weber's work on the origins of capitalism was conceived explicitly with Smith in mind.”

To which, Brad Delong, author of one of the most lively economists’ Blogs on the web ( responds (1 September):

“All I can say is that the only way you'll pry Adam Smith away from us economists is to snatch him from the cold, dead fingers of our invisible hand.”

Now that’s fighting talk.

However, Professor Andrew Skinner, the doyen of Adam Smith studies and the last occupant of the Adam Smith Chair in Political Economy at the University of Glasgow, Adam Smith’s alma mater and the institution that appointed him Professor of Logic, followed by Professor of Moral Philosophy (1752-63), has commented in his superb edition of Smith’s “Wealth of Nations” (Penguin Books, 1986. page 10: ‘Analytical Introduction’) as follows:

“it is instructive to recall that the source of Smith’s initial fame was (social) philosophy, rather than economics, and that he himself regarded The Moral Sentiments and The Wealth of Nations as but parts of a single greater whole; as the parts of a grand synthetic system which he hoped to complete with a published account of ‘the general principles of law and government, and of the different revolutions which they had undergone in the different ages and period of society.”
The area of study just mentioned embraces a particular type of historical (and sociological) exercise and a discipline which is clearly distinct from philosophy and economics

Not wishing to intrude on a private quarrel, I think that with Andrew’s authoritative assessment, Kieran has shortened the odds on him succeeding in making Smith a source of sociological theory, especially as Smith’s use of the invisible hand metaphor had more to do with the sociology of pagan religion, the sociology of the power structure of feudal society and the sociology of the unintended consequences of social prejudice, than it had to do with economics.


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