An insightful entry in Wikipedia notes that economic sociology, which studies the social causes and effects of economic activity, can be broadly into a classical and a contemporary period. The classical period¸ lasting from the Industrial Revolution in Europe to the mid-1980's, was concerned particularly with the effects of the rise of modern capitalism, including the passage from "community" to "market" organization of social relations, from rural to urban life, the rise of secularism, and the transformation of social stratification. Sociology as a discipline arose primarily as a reaction to the rise of capitalism, and unlike Karl Marx and his followers, was generally accepting of the new social order but critical of the unbridled action of market institutions and the industrial proletariat on social life. Economics tended to be less critical of the new social order, with the institutional and historical schools more or less siding with the sociologists, while the "political economists" who employed mathematical techniques and evolved from Adam Smith, David Ricardo, John Stuart Mill, and Jean-Baptiste Say and the other classical economists, tended not so much approve of the social transformations initiated by industrial capitalism as to simply ignore them. Max Weber's work on the links between economics and religion, in particular the role of Protestantism in fostering modern capitalist entrepreneurship, are the high points of this period of economic sociology.
Contemporary economic sociology was inspired by the "embeddedness" approach outlined by of Mark Granovetter in 1985. Granovetter stressed that exchange relations almost always take place within a complex network of substantive social relations. Granovetter's theory of "weak ties" and Ronald Burt's theory of "structural holes" are salient products of this second wave of contributions to economic sociology.
Economic sociology in both periods has been generally hostile to analytical economic theory (called "political economy" in the early years). In the modern period this probably is due to the fact that economics is more mathematically sophisticated than sociological theory, and it is unclear to many that the increased sophistication has any payoff in terms of improved understanding of the economy. Moreover, economists consistently and completely ignored sociological theory until very recently, and sociologists responded by offering frequent and vitriolic attacks suggesting that the analytical economic approach was wrong-headed. These attacks, are to this observer rarely coherent or interesting. It is certainly true that economic models would be significantly enriched by paying closer attention to sociological phenomena, but it is not plausible that the basic economic models, stemming from the rational actor model, game theory, and market analysis, should simply be abandoned.
Indeed, in recent years, major economic researchers, including Nobel prize recipients Herbert Simon, Douglas North and George Akerlof, and influential economists including Jeffery Sachs and Avner Greif, have directly incorporated sociological insights into their models. The rise of behavioral game theory and experimental economics has also rendered the lines between economic and sociological analysis rather difficult to define (see my Bounds of Reason, 2009 and my book with Samuel Bowles, A Cooperative Species, 2011).
The book under review relates only to the first wave in economic sociology, inspecting the reaction of Emile Durkheim and his followers to the political economy of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Durkheim is of special importance because is, along with Max Weber, one of the cornerstones of modern sociological theory. However, unlike Weber, Durkheim's most important work and ideas do not intersect with economic theory at all, and Durkheim turned away from economics altogether in his later years. For this reason, only the first two chapters of this book deal with Durkheim's personal views, the remainder dealing with his followers in the first third of the twentieth century. While these views are of more than a little historical interest, they will have limited importance for the casual reader. The title is thus a bit misleading, as most of his analysis does not related to Durkheim at all, and it would be a mistake to attribute all of the ideas of his students to the master himself.
Emile Durkheim, the formative sociological thinker, and Leon Walras, the equally formative economic thinker, appear to have ignored each other rather completely, and economists of the time had no systematic means of discussing the effects of the growth of markets on social life in general. Durkheim's major starting point in the critique of political economy is that social cohesion is based on notions of fairness and justice, while the unregulated growth of capitalism undercuts morality by determining prices purely through unregulated markets. Indeed, Durkheim's picture of capitalism is little different from Marx's as expressed in the Communist Manifesto, where we learn that "the bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It ... has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest ... for exploitation veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation ... Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones ... All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind."
Durkheim could not match Marx's brilliance, but he was no less convinced of the truth of the message. Unlike Marx, of course Durkheim more or less accepted the class relations devolving from the Industrial Revolution, but he fervently believed that industrial society need new "professional groups" that could regulate capitalist growth in a way that promoted the legitimacy of the economic system and the justice of its division of labor and distribution of wealth. This led him to a bitter attack on political economy because it generally had no concept of justice whatever, and those economists that discussed normative issues tended to rely on the marginal productivity principle to determine when the terms of exchange were just. Durkheim had no sympathy with this notion, and he rejected both the market determination of wage rates and the justice of wealth inheritance.
In short, Durkheim argued that modern industrial society led to the dissolution of the social bonds that render life meaningful. The result is "anomie," which leads to mental illness, indicative of which is the high rate of suicide in modern society. Steiner develops this theme quite nicely, although with a degree of detail that will be of interest only to the historian and perhaps the philosopher.