Richard Swedberg has been Professor of Sociology at Cornell University since 2002. Before this he worked at Stockholm University as Professor of Sociology with a Specialty in Economic Sociology. He holds a law degree from Stockholm University and a PhD in sociology from Boston College. In 2018/2019, he was a Fellow at the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin where this interview was conducted in May 2019.
Richard Swedberg came to sociology, and to economic sociology in particular, through the study of classic authors in sociology and economics like Georges Gurvitch during the writing of his doctoral dissertation , and then later Joseph Schumpeter , Max Weber  and Alexis de Tocqueville . His interpretive approach to the economy is largely inspired by these thinkers. His work makes contributions to two main areas of research: economic sociology and social theory. In this interview, our aim was to address Richard Swedberg’s contributions to both of these fields, especially in relation to the future of work, the future of the economy in general, as well as that of the social sciences.
Excerpt of an interview conducted by Léa Renard and Bénédicte Zimmermann
Interviewer: How does economic sociology integrate the issue of the future? How do you situate your research on the concept of “hope” with respect to this issue?
RS: It is true that I have done some work on the role of hope in the economy together with anthropologist Hirokazu Miyazaki [Miyazaki and Swedberg, 2016]. We both had come to the conclusion that hope is important to people but that academics for some reason don't want to talk about it. But hope is present in much of what we do. It infuses for example what education you chose; and you also hope that you are making the right decision. The notion of hope has been linked to human emotions; and some experts define hope as one of the basic emotions. But it is not clear exactly what hope is. And the relationship of hope to the economy has not been much explored. But it is clear that hope, for example, is related to entrepreneurship or more precisely to what drives the entrepreneur. Keynes called it animal spirits and Hirschman the Helping Hand; but it is hope they are speaking about all right. As the mention of Keynes makes clear, hope also has an irrational dimension; and that interests me. I have always felt that economic life is much more irrational than the economists think. But it is not only the economists; also journalists think the economy is rational and perhaps common people as well. Still, I think that the modern economy is irrational in a number of ways. And I think that people will eventually realize this, as the impact of what is going on in the climate and with nature are becoming increasingly clear. There is also the irrational split between what we can call the official economy and people’s everyday economy. One is about the stock exchange, hedge funds and the like, and the other about jobs and economic survival.
Interviewer: What challenges will the future pose to economic sociology in your view, and how can it effectively address these?
RS: There is a lot one can say in response to this question. But let me focus on what I see as most important. This is that the world is moving toward a digital economy. We can already see small signs of what will soon happen on a much larger scale. Whole professions will disappear and new ones emerge. This is already happening to secretaries and librarians, computer scientists and data scientists. The digital economy may also result in the creation of what Marx called the Lumpenproletariat, that is, workers who are in such a bad physical shape that you can see it from a distance, a bit like with the homeless in the United States. But there is much more; and the transformation caused by the Digital Revolution may well be as deep as the Industrial Revolution. Artificial Intelligence, machine learning and so on will have enormous consequences. And all of this will affect economic sociology: what it studies and how it studies. Just think of big data. Businesses are producing big data on an ever increasing scale; and this data is also put to new commercial uses. To be able to study these developments economic sociologists will have to learn how to write code and become computational economic sociologists. There is also the fact that the digital economy will speed up the production of objects at the same time as it increases the surveillance of people, especially workers. In the US, some businesses make their money by combating the trade unions, something that is unthinkable in many countries. When you introduce these surveillance tactics into a country with a long tradition of hostility to labor, like the US, the results can be lethal. And then you have the unintended consequences of all of this…
Interviewer: Do you think we need new concepts in order to theorize about the future?
RS: There are two things to keep in mind here. To analyse the world, as it exists today and tomorrow, sociologists will clearly need new concepts. In a capitalist economy, for example, things change all the time. So, sociologists will need new concepts to deal with all the new changes that will take place. They will also need new concepts (and theories) to better understand the past. The other thing to keep in mind is that everybody theorizes because everybody needs to theorize in order to operate in this world. Every child theorizes, every human being theorizes. So, in brief, sociologists will need new concepts, in order to advance their science. And ordinary people will need new concepts to handle their everyday lives.
Miyazaki H., Swedberg R. (eds) (2016), The Economy of Hope, Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press.
Swedberg R. (2009), Tocqueville’s political economy, Princeton, Princeton University Press.
Swedberg R. (1998), Max Weber and the Idea of Economic Sociology, Princeton, Princeton University Press.
Swedberg R. (1991), Joseph A. Schumpeter: His Life and Work, Princeton, Princeton University Press.
Swedberg R. (1982), Sociology as Disenchantment: The Evolution of the Work of Georges Gurvitch, Atlantic Highlands, Humanities Press.