The MPIfG’s Research Program

Since its foundation in 1985, the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies has gone through four program periods, each concerned with the governance of contemporary societies from a different perspective. Shifts in the program have reflected real-world changes in economic and political organization that led to new research questions, as well as the arrival of new directors with new research interests.

The first program period, from 1986 to 1995, featured historically and internationally comparative studies of the interaction between political-administrative intervention and societal self-organization in selected sectors “close to the state” (staatsnahe Sektoren). Special attention was paid to health care systems, organized research and science, and large technical infrastructures, in particular telecommunications. The objective was to develop a realistic, practically useful social science-based theory of the governance of modern societies by an interventionist state in cooperation with an organized society.

The second period, from 1996 to 2005, responded to the growing importance of markets and competition even in sectors that had formerly been protected and controlled by state authority. Telecommunications, for instance, which until the mid-1990s had been a state monopoly, was privatized and deregulated. That markets played a growing role in the 1990s may in part have been due to changes in ideologies and in public perceptions of reality. But it was also a result of new constraints on the regulative capacities of the nation-state caused by internationalization, including European integration, and international regime competition. Subsequently, newly developing forms of multi-level governance and the consequences of economic liberalization for states and governments became main subjects of research at the MPIfG.

The third period, from 2006 to 2016, analyzed the shift from state regulation to market-driven forms of social order, paying attention to the social, cultural, and political preconditions for the operation of markets. Projects explored how markets and business organizations are embedded in historical, institutional, political, and cultural frameworks, as well as the social and political processes that shape economic relations over time. The objective was an empirically based understanding of the social and political foundations, or the “constitution,” of modern economies and of the interrelations between social, political, and economic action. Particular attention was devoted to studying the process of liberalization that various spheres in advanced societies were undergoing, and the resulting “disembedding” of the capitalist economy from the tutelage of politics and the state.

The current program continues to put the economy at the center of the Institute’s research agenda. We are convinced that understanding the operation of the economy is a precondition for understanding other areas of social life, including politics. Rather than applying the tool bag of economics to the analysis of social and political phenomena, the Institute’s approach consists of deploying sociology and political science theories and methods to understand economic phenomena in their relationship to society and politics. The emphasis will be on capitalism as a historically determined sociopolitical order, and specifically on the instability of capitalism as manifested by its growing difficulty to generate the material and ideational resources necessary for its reproduction, and conversely on the multiple challenges that capitalist instability poses for society and democratic politics. It is through investigation of the interrelations between economy, politics, and society that economic dynamics and societal developments writ large become accessible.

In pursuing this broad direction, the Institute will continue to rely on the close integration of economic sociology and political economy. While political economy primarily seeks to explain macro-level phenomena, economic sociology has a distinct strength in its attention to the micro-level of social interactions in the economy. We see bringing these two traditions into close dialogue and using them to inform each other as an important goal for research at the Institute. This implies paying detailed attention to preference formation as it is influenced by cognitive frames, social relations, and institutions. It also entails taking expectations seriously, rejecting any pretense of rational or even adaptive expectations, and investigating the concrete historical processes of their emergence and diffusion. Additionally, it involves acknowledging the role of collective actors, new digital technologies, and the media, which contribute to shaping preferences and value orientations. Finally, it requires understanding actors’ interactions as being embedded in fields of social and political forces, in which some actors have the power not just to come to mutually beneficial exchanges, but also to impose, directly or indirectly, their preferences on others.

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