Wed Aug 31, 2005

Teaching Adam Smith

This semester I’m teaching Sources of Sociological Theory to undergraduate majors, a course I’ve taught several times before. After a crash course on the state of Europe and America prior to 1780 or so (100% guaranteed to make historians come out in at least hives, and possibly trigger fits), we’ve started reading Adam Smith. It’s always a pleasure to teach Smith as a social theorist. For one thing, he’s a clear enough writer (certainly compared to, e.g., Weber) and more importantly his central insight about the possibility of decentralized co-ordination always catches students by surprise. Even though students are all exposed one way or another to the rhetoric of free enterprise, free trade, market capitalism and what have you, in my experience even talented undergraduates have to work a bit to really see the power and elegance of Smith’s vision of a complex, co-ordinated division of labor. I do a few classroom exercises (based on ideas from Mitch Resnick and Tom Schelling, amongst others) to bring out the problem of co-ordination, the many ways it can fail, and the distinctive qualities of markets as a solution. (Though, as Schelling notes, not all cases of distributed co-ordination are markets, just as not all ellipses are circles.)

Although Smith is often presented as the champion of the individual, and opposed to thinkers who emphasize social structure or the state, it’s immediately clear when you read him that Smith was as much a “discoverer of society”—that is, of the idea that the social world is a human product consisting of myriad interlocking relationships dependent on specific institutions and human capacities—as any of the other theorists typically recognized as founders of modern sociology. His treatment of the problem of the division of labor also provides a platform to understand the others. Marx is much easier to understand once you know a bit about Smith, of course, but so are Durkheim’s ideas about social solidarity and the nonrational foundations of contractual exchange. And much of Weber’s work on the origins of capitalism was conceived explicitly with Smith in mind.