Actor-networks and the evolution of economic forms: combining description and explanation in theories of regulation, flexible specialization, and networks

17 Jan 2018, 3:16 p.m.
J Murdoch Centre for Rural Economy, Department of Agricultural Economics and Food Marketing, University of Newcastle upon Tyne

Abstract. Declarations of societal shift, economic transition, and the dawning of a new era have now become commonplace in social science, particularly in the analysis of economic forms. In this paper, three influential accounts of economic change are examined and are found to be overwhelmingly concerned with identifying new orders, paradigms, or modes of accumulation. First, regulation theory is described. Although this perspective is valuable in its focus upon institutional ensembles and interrelations, it lapses all too easily into structuralism; that is, these institutional ensembles can be explained by their structural 'coupling' to the mode of production and the mode of regulation. Second, flexible specialization is considered. Here again the explanation of new industrial forms is distinguished from their description by the use of 'ideal types'. These types define the contours of the new era. Last, networks are also identified as the dominant
organizational form of the post-Fordist era. The argument proposed here is that networks are not new and are insufficiently distinct from other forms of organization, yet they do help to focus attention on network analysis. Drawing upon the work of actor-network theorists, such as Callon, Latour, and Law, I argue that networks must be analyzed from within; that is, we should seek to follow network builders as they weave together heterogeneous materials. Thus, explanation emerges only once description has been pursued to the 'bitter end'. It is from within the processes of economic change that our own accounts must be constructed, and this militates against theatrical declarations of new orders, eras, etc. We must explain by using the descriptions of network construction and not by recourse to some underlying historical logic.

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