Guide to the vibrant and

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Modern economics recognizes the existence of

“market failure” and “imperfect markets,” but

sees them as exceptions or corrigible deviations.

Market failure is said to occur when the existence

of a competitive market cannot establish a price

for a good that will clear the market – that is,

brings supply and demand into equilibrium.

Three types are identified: (1) “public goods” exist

when property rights cannot be established

securely enough to exclude “free-riding,” which

deters the production of the good in question –

for example, lighthouses shed light on all passersby;

(2) “externalities” refer to the unintended

social costs that are “external” to the private

production or exchange of a good and that are

not included in its price – for example, pollution

and road congestion (in general, economics

considers externalities to be exceptions, whereas

the deleterious unintended effects of markets are

the focus of sociological critiques); (3) “perverse

outcomes” such as “moral hazard” in which the

production of a good with a single price has

contradictory unintended consequences that destabilize

the market – for example, single-premium

fire insurance that encourages negligence; or “adverse

selection” in which a single price stimulates a

demand that perturbs themarket – for example, the

single-premium health insurance that attracts

demand from the unhealthy; and a single interest

rate for bank loans can never be high enough to

balance the costs of defaults without at the same

time discouraging low-risk borrowers. Both circumstances

give rise to social processes of risk assessment

and, in the case of bank loans, credit-rating.

Modern economics explains the existence of

real-world imperfect markets in terms of “asymmetric

information.” This problem was clearly illustrated

by George Akerlof in his “The Market for

Lemons” (1970, Quarterly Journal of Economics), in

which the average buyer’s inability to distinguish

good from bad cars (“lemons” in American parlance)

depresses the average price and deters the

owners of good used cars from putting them on

the market. In contrast, John Maynard Keynes’s

analysis of the failure of the labor market to

“clear” is inherently more sociological in its recognition

of capitalism’s asymmetrical power relations.

He argued that workers cannot create

more employment by accepting lower wages because

employers may choose to take advantage of

the lower costs to reduce prices and, thereby, gain

a competitive advantage. This would result in the

same levels of ex ante production and employment.

Or, with lower wage costs, monopoly producers

might simply take higher profits.

All the above problems derive from the inadequate

understanding of the market as a socially

and politically constructed institution, and from

the fact that different kinds of market – labor

markets, consumer markets, and production

markets – have different social structures. In an

“Interview” with Richard Swedberg in Economics

and Sociology (1990), Harrison White has gone

so far as to say that the “perfect-competition,” or

“general-equilibrium,” model is not a theory of

the market as such, but rather a theory of “pure

exchange.” This might describe the operation of a

bazaar or medieval fair where individual buyers

and sellers haggle over prices, but this theory of

pure exchange does not apply, for example,

to capitalist producers’ markets. A producers’

market cannot be understood as the result of discrete

independent calculations of cost, revenue,

and profit maximization by individual isolated producers

that converge to fit objective economic

market(s) market(s)


constraints. Rather, White argues in Identity and

Control (1992) and with Robert Eccles in “Producers’

Markets” (The New Palgrave, 1987) that producers’

markets can operate only after two “control projects”

have been successfully completed. First, the

firm’s internal power struggle must be resolved.

Second, the potentially destabilizing effect of price

competition has to be dealt with; stable markets

are socially constructed by the participants’ comparisons

of their similarities and differences and

their search for a segment of the market. Either

existing prices are taken as benchmark terms of

trade which individuals try to better; or they may

attempt to differentiate their product by quality in

a particular niche which is relatively immune from

competition. This can create a stable social structure,

which is destabilized when participants actually

behave like those modeled in the economic

theory, by either calculating marginal costs and

revenues and thereby creating “price wars” and

“cutthroat competition,” or by imitating a successful

strategy and creating overcrowding, which has

the same consequence. Not all markets are successfully

stabilized – for example, those for haircuts and

restaurant meals where intense price competition

leads to a large turnover of market participants. A

further implication of this approach is that oligopoly,

rather than the myriad producers of the perfect

competition model, is normal in production

markets in order that they can make the structureproducing

comparisons. In The Architecture of

Markets, Fligstein has interpreted White’s work on

production markets in terms of Pierre Bourdieu’s

“theory of fields.” As actors can never have the

information or market power that will enable

them to determine what will maximize profits,

activity is directed towards the creation of a “field”

in which the participants attempt to produce the

social order that will maximize their chances of


This kind of approach is developed in Mitchel

Abolafia’s ethnographic study, in Making Markets

(1996), of the social construction of different levels

of competitive behavior in Wall Street money

markets. For example, as an outsider, the bond

trader, Michael Milkin, was able to make large

profits by selecting those stocks – the “fallen

angels” – that established elite investment banks

had neglected. They responded with imitation

that created destabilization and the designation

of the underpriced bonds as “junk” bonds. With

the market having been destabilized, Milkin

was accused of the malpractice that eventually

resulted in his imprisonment on accounting

offences. A restabilization of the market followed

his removal.

It has been noted by the French “sociology-ofconvention”

school and actor network theory – for

example, Michel Callon, The Laws of the Market

(1998) – that the economic theory of perfect competition

is now used to construct the “fields” that

constitute a market capable of reaching an equilibrium

price. M.-F. Garcia’s study of the construction

of the strawberry market in the Solonge

region of France in the early 1980s shows how

economic textbooks had a “performative” role in

bringing about the very same conditions that they

described. The product was standardized; demand

and supply organized into a competitive structure;

and the transactions mechanism established

to frame a situation in which the participants

were able to calculate prices more efficiently.

Modern economic sociology has gone some way

towards explaining what are seen conventionally

in economic theory as the problems of imperfect

information and uncertainty which prevent the

achievement of market equilibrium. Information

and certainty are not merely found in discoverable

objectively given external conditions – for

example, costs of production, marginal productivity,

consumers’ demand, and so on. Rather,

the information that produces an intelligible

and shared social world and the certainty, or

relative predictability, of the market consist in

the socially constructed fields and rules that

structure competition. GEOFFREY INGHAM

marriage and divorce

Although finding a (sexual) partner and forming a

couple may appear to be a “natural” or even biologically

driven activity, marriage is a social institution

defined by laws, culture, religion, and of

course historical and social context. This means

that what marriage is (and what it might mean to

the people who marry) changes over time and can

reflect very different social contexts. At present,

in most western societies, marriage is regarded

in law as an essentially heterosexual contract,

entered into with the express purpose of raising

children and with the equally important function

of joining families together. It is a contract between

individuals, but it also involves the state

and extended families. So although marriage is

popularly seen as the way in which couples can

proclaim their love and commitment to each

other exclusively, the state has a very strong interest

in marriage and has operated, with varying

degrees of vigor at different times, to support and

market (s) marriage and divorce


buttress marriage as a social institution. Moreover,

extended families maintain a close interest in who

their children marry, with arranged and vetted

marriages being the norm in some cultures and

social classes. Marriage is therefore both deeply

personal and private, yet also the business of

families, relatives, legislators, politicians, judges,

policymakers, and social commentators.

Sociological interest in marriage has waxed and

waned over the last half-century. Typically, discussions

of marriage have been combined with sociological

work on “the family,” and the two social

institutions tended to be treated together, with

marriage being conventionally treated as little

more than the threshold to family life. Sociological

interest in marriage was understated, and

was reflected more in the study of social problems

such as unmarried motherhood or divorce, which

were, at least in the 1950s and 1960s, seen as

deviant forms of behavior. Because marriage

was so taken for granted as something that everyone

did (which was fairly true in England in the

1960s at least) it was not seen as worthy of specific

analysis or debate. For example Ronald

Fletcher’s influential work The Family and Marriage

in Britain, originally published in 1962, had

little to say about marriage, but rather more to

say about divorce. On marriage itself, Fletcher

was rather complacent in his depiction:

In the modern marriage, both partners choose each

other freely as persons. Both are of equal status and

expect to have an equal share in taking decisions

and in pursuing their sometimes mutual, sometimes

separate and diverse, tastes and interests. They live

together permanently and intimately in their own

home and in relative independence of wider groups

of kindred.

Yet there was an earlier tradition of more critical

work on marriage; although it was not strictly

sociological, it ultimately provided the basis of

later challenges to the taken-for-granted character

of marriage and the presumed equality between

spouses. These critical perspectives came from the

work of nineteenth-century radicals, feminists,

and suffragists like Cicely Hamilton, John Stuart

Mill, Harriet Taylor, Caroline Norton, and Friedrich

Engels. Cicely Hamilton wrote Marriage as a Trade

in 1909, in which she outlined the gender inequalities

in society which led women to have no alternative

but to “snare” a husband in order to

achieve economic security and social status in

society. Women, she argued, were part of a trade

which actually demeaned them and gave too

much power to men. Caroline Norton, in the mid

nineteenth century, pointed out that in marriage

men had absolute legal control over children and

could deprive mothers of contact with them,

while Mill, Taylor, and Engels all pointed to the

economic inequality between husbands and

wives, giving rise to tyrannical powers and absolute

control over women in the private sphere.

Victorian and Edwardian marriage was depicted

variously as a form of virtual slavery, as a form of

feudalism, and inevitably as a site of inequality

and oppression.

Such depictions of marriage did not sit well

with mainstream sociology of the 1950s and

1960s. Talcott Parsons, taking a structural functional

approach, did not see inequality between

the genders, rather he saw complementary social

roles in the form of the breadwinner husband and

the housewife. By this time the sociological gaze

was more firmly fixed on “the Family,” with marriage

being left to the anthropologists who could

study the marriage practices of less-developed societies

and different religions, while the “modern”

marriage depicted by Fletcher was treated as a

pinnacle of achievement. It took the polemical

work of Jessie Bernard in 1976 to disaggregate

the unity of husband and wife, to challenge the

presumption of equality once again, and to rediscover

that, behind the unified front created in the

functionalist approach, there could be a man’s

marriage and a woman’s marriage, and that these

were two very different, uneven lived experiences,

albeit going on under one roof.

The work of Jessie Bernard was part of a new

wave of feminist writing which occurred simultaneously

in the United States and the United

Kingdom, and which brought a very different perspective

on marriage. As with the earlier suffragist

writings, the second-wave feminists focused on

the legal disparities that were entailed in marriage.

Thus it was pointed out that only husbands

could sign mortgage documents and so were the

sole legal owners of the couple’s home; they revisited

the problem of violence against wives and

stressed the fact that the law did not take domestic

assault seriously; they pointed out that rape in

marriage was perfectly legal; they also pointed to

the double burden assumed by women who increasingly

worked outside the home, yet were required

to carry on with all the usual housework

and child-care obligations. While Engels had

depicted marriage as a form of capitalist exploitation

with the husband as the capitalist and the

wife as worker, feminist sociologists depicted marriage

as a form of patriarchal exploitation in

which the husband benefited not only financially

from the appropriation of his wife’s labor, but also

marriage and divorce marriage and divorce


materially, physically, and psychologically from

her oppression. Intense debates between different

strands of feminism ensued, with some

feminists arguing that men were the primary

beneficiaries of women’s oppression in marriage,

while others argued that capitalism benefited

because women’s unremunerated domestic labor

supported and renewed the labor power of men

in the labor market, to the benefit of capitalism.

The legal contract of marriage was seen as the

device that served primarily to lock women into

subservience and to remove many of their basic

civil rights. It was, for example, lawful for the

teaching profession to sack women on marriage

in England and Wales, and, long after this became

unlawful, the custom of leaving work on marriage

continued in many parts of the United Kingdom.

In the United States, Betty Friedan referred to “the

problem with no name” in her book The Feminine

Mystique (1963). By this she meant the problem of

the bored housewife whose horizons in the United

States of the 1950s and 1960s had shrunk to

encompass little more than finding washing detergents

of an adequate power, or buying Tupperware

containers to keep food fresh. She depicted women

existing on Valiumand other tranquilizers in order

to get through the meaninglessness of their days,

awaiting the return of their husbands and serving

his dinner on time.

The critical analyses that feminist sociologists

developed of marriage were closely linked to political

activism in the 1970s and 1980s: for example

the Y B A WIFE? campaign in the United Kingdom

in the 1970s. The boundaries between scholarly

enterprise and political campaigning were blurred

in a way similar to the relationship between Marxism

and class struggle and the trade-union movement,

or studies of racism and anti-racist and/or

Black Power movements. These links were controversial.

In the academy it meant that feminist

analyses were not seen as serious or scholarly,

and for a time a kind of parallel universe developed

where mainstream sociology continued

to be largely indifferent to what might happen

in the “private sphere” of family life. It appeared

almost as if marriage and the family became an

issue for women academics, while the men concentrated

on the public sphere and more global

issues, this division of labor ironically mirroring

the very problem in the “real” world that feminist

academics were trying to critique.

The feminist focus on marriage as an oppressive

institution, combined with the associated criticisms

of romantic (heterosexual) love as ideology

and/or a form of false consciousness led ultimately

to a kind of intellectual cul-de-sac. This was because

it became “unnecessary” to look into the

interiority of married relationships because they

were always already known to be oppressive.

Much evidence was collected on the problems of

marriage, but few were concerned to understand

its enduring popularity or what this form of intimacy

might signify for couples in a positive way.

This meant that some early sociological insights

were lost, only to be rediscovered again in the

1990s when mainstream sociology became interested

once again in issues of intimacy and the

private sphere. An example of what I mean is to be

found in Ronald Fletcher’s work. He wrote in 1966

of the way in which marriage had been transformed

over time from a contractual alliance between

families, designed primarily to produce

legitimate heirs, into a love relationship based

on choice and dependent for its continued existence

upon mutual compatibility. He went on,

“It is clear, therefore, that the modern relationship

between husband and wife must be an extremely

intense affair and, as such, is potentially


This theme is central to his work and it bears a

striking similarity to the arguments put forward

by Anthony Giddens in The Transformation of Intimacy

(1992) and by Ulrich Beck and E. Beck-Gernsheim

in The Normal Chaos of Love (1995 [trans.

1995]). A striking difference is the fact that

Fletcher speaks only of husbands and wives

while, by the end of the twentieth century, contemporary

sociologists spoke of couples or partners

– in order to include unmarried couples in

their remit. Rates of cohabitation were much

lower when Fletcher wrote at the start of the

1960s, and unmarried cohabitation was then still

seen as shameful or something to be secretive

about. But the theme of intensity and intimacy

being the core of contemporary relationships,

and the commensurate instability that ensues

from this, is one that has returned to dominate

sociological thinking. The rise of the companionate

marriage/relationship is identified as an inevitable

outcome of greater equality between the

genders, as well as reflecting changing mentalities,

but it is also seen as having major social

consequences, because the compassionate relationship

is paradoxically identified as increasing

the chances of divorce or separation with all their

attendant hardships.

What Fletcher, Giddens, and Beck and Beck-

Gernsheim also have in common is their understanding

of the relationship between a particular

form of marriage and modernity. Fletcher speaks

marriage and divorce marriage and divorce


of “modern” marriage, which is not quite the

same terminology as was deployed in the 1990s;

yet the idea that the late modern era produced

new styles of marriage based on choice and love is

common to all these authors. Unfortunately this

analysis tends to condemn other forms of marriage

to a less modern form or to a more traditional

mentality. Arranged and vetted marriage,

and various forms of “sponsored courtship,” are

inevitably seen as less desirable, based on a lack of

choice and freedom, and as devoid of (romantic)

love. The social evaluation of these marital arrangements

is now complicated by the prevalence

of internet dating. These other forms of marriage

are depicted through a very ethnocentric lens, and

the meaning and significance of these forms for

minority ethnic or religious groups are given little

consideration. The significance of arranged marriages

for transnational families who may be

highly disadvantaged in a dominantly ethnically

white community does not seem to have generated

much sociological interest, for example.

One other silence in much of the sociological

work on marriage has been the core fact that

marriage is a legal contract that can only be

entered into by a man and a woman. This issue

became central to the feminist critique in the

1980s because the privileged status of marriage

was understood to demote lesbian and gay relationships

to insignificance. But the solution to

this was envisaged as a rejection of marriage per

se. Moreover, for a considerable time after the

1970s it appeared as if marriage was falling out

of favor, with the average age of marriage in the

United Kingdom rising to almost thirty years at

the start of the twenty-first century, and rates of

cohabitation rising annually. However, it is no

longer clear that these statistics indicate a rejection

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