The Market (Key Concepts)

Aldridge, Alan
Polity Press, Cambridge
074563222X (hb), 0745632238 (pb)

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Cover of book What is the market? Alan Aldridge introduces it as an answer to the problem of social order. However, far from seeing it as a once-and-for-all solution to the coordination of complex social interactions, Aldridge clearly takes a constructivist perspective stating that the market is nothing 'out there' but rather 'socially and discursively constructed' (p. 2). This stance shows the potential of a sociological analysis of markets. Instead of debating about the features of an Ideal Type, economic sociologists are in the position to embed ongoing debates in time and social relations. As I will argue in the following Aldridge is aware of this potential but does not systematically make use of it.

The book is divided into four chapters. The first chapter introduces Adam Smith's idea of the market, stating that it is essentially non-ideological in nature. Smith's picture of the market is one of real persons following their innate inclination to barter, truck and exchange (p. 14). According to Smith calm pursuit of self-interest fosters values such as punctuality and reliability, values that were famously identified as Protestant by Max Weber. Aldridge traces the repurcussions of Smith's ideas in the works of Schumpeter, Hayek, Polanyi and Marx before he analyses some contested features of the market in the final parts of the first chapter (p. 31).

In the second chapter Aldridge critically investigates three prevalent ideologies that defend the market in current debates: 'market populism' that equates market and democracy, the 'efficient market' that by definition assumes the perfect functioning of the market and 'market fundamentalism'. The latter is discussed in greater detail, following Stiglitz' critical assessment of the Washington Consensus. Aldridge is keen to emphasise that the dogmatic impetus neoliberal actors put on their version of the market differs from Smith's practical approach to the market idea (p. 51). Arguing against the neoliberal claim to shape all areas of social life Aldridge then lays out major problems of Rational Choice theories, which are regularly implied by market proponents. He closes with an overview over classic cases of market failure.

The third chapter aims at presenting the sociological perspective on the market. In an ambitious endeavour Aldridge succeeds to cover not only key thinkers of economic sociology, like Parsons and his nowadays miscredited AGIL scheme and Granovetters influential defense of social networks, but also to address key issues like trust, autonomy and money. In the concluding passage Aldridge vigorously argues in favour of an alternative approach to the market, which he considers to be a cultural product: 'But all economic action and all markets are intrinsically cultural; there is no such thing as culture-free action' (p. 128).

The fourth chaper is dedicated to the debate on globalisation. Aldridge welcomes Ulrich Beck's point that taking the market as a 'natural force' makes resistance to it 'an artistic gesture' (p. 136). The presentations of the works of Giddens, Held and MacIntyre let the central argument of the book stand out very clearly. Aldridge stresses that the market is a problematic concept as long as it is solely defined by neo-liberal and capitalist actors. Their dogmatic point of view does not only have problematic political and social consequences (p. 150, 156). It also prevents the recognition of the strengths of market coordination may entail. Aldridge does not fall into the trap to rebuff the market while opposing market fundamentalists. Instead, his differentiated reconstruction of Smith clearly shows his willingness to go beyond the pro-anti-market divide (p.4).

Aldridge book has many strengths. It is well-written; the presentations of ideas are clear and to the point. Especially the third chapter is a good read for anyone who wants to get a first overview of what sociologist have to say on markets. However, the book has a drawback, too. The problem is that it is not clear whether it is supposed to be an introduction to the sociology of markets, an elaborate critique of and positioning in current debates on globalisation and neo-liberalism or even a history of economic sociology in rehabilitation of Adam Smith. Oscillating between these poles Aldridge sacrifices the promising distance to his object of investigation implied in the constructivist perspective.

Stefan Bernhard
Otto-Friedrich-Universität Bamberg