Published by the Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour, Wiley Online Library, 2021

Author: Niamh Mulcahy

The financial crisis of 2007–2009 has reignited an interest among sociologists and social scientists in finance and economics, especially in technical aspects of the economy and the inner workings of market relations. However, in these cases social studies of finance retain a distinctly nominalist character, focusing on individual interactions in a market treated as a means of coordinating exchange. The social study of finance as a field seeking to address everyday financial decisions in relation to market expansion and fluctuation is predominantly characterised by its use of actor-network theory to explain the emergence and development of financial systems and networks, to the exclusion of equally necessary studies of the inequality that pervades newly financialised economies. I therefore argue for the need to revisit earlier political economy approaches to the study of finance, taking seriously criticisms leveled at such work by actor-network theorists who worry about excessive structural determinism and rigidity. To this end, I contrast nominalism with realism, in order to think about financial systems as emergent properties within the contemporary social formation. By thinking about actors as individuals that enter into existing sets of social relations, which shape their actions, it is possible to understand the origins of financial inequality. As actors interact with social structures, however, they ultimately change their character, rendering them anew in different circumstances, and therefore avoid the deterministic character of structures.

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