Economic Action and Social Structure: The Problem of Embeddedness

Posted: 17 Nov 2009

See all articles by Mark Granovetter

Mark Granovetter

Stanford University - Department of Sociology

Date Written: 1985


The concept of embeddedness has general applicability in the study of economic life and can alter theoretical and empirical approaches to the study of economic behaviors. Argues that in modern industrial societies, most economic action is embedded in structures of social relations. The author challenges the traditional economic theories that have both under- and oversocialized views of the conception of economic action and decisions that merge in their conception of economic actors atomized (separated) from their social context. Social relations are assumed to play on frictional and disruptive, not central, roles in market processes. There is, hence, a place and need for sociology in the study of economic life. Productive analysis of human action requires avoiding the atomization in the extremes of the over- and undersocialized concepts. Economic actors are neither atoms outside a social context nor slavish adherents to social scripts. The markets and hierarchies problem of Oliver Williamson (with a focus on the question of trust and malfeasance) is used to illustrate the use of embeddedness in explicating the proximate causes of patterns of macro-level interest. Answers to the problem of how economic life is not riddled with mistrust and malfeasance are linked to over- and undersocialized conceptions of human nature. The embeddedness argument, on the contrary, stresses the role of concrete personal relations and networks (or structures) in generating trust and discouraging malfeasance in economic life. It finds a middle way between the oversocialized (generalized morality) and undersocialized (impersonal institutional arrangements) approaches. The embeddedness approach opens the way for analysis of the influence of social structures on market behavior, specifically showing how business relations are intertwined with social and personal relations and networks. The approach can easily explain what looks otherwise like irrational behavior. (TNM)

Keywords: Social networks, Markets, Interfirm alliances, Economic theory, Structural embeddedness, Social behavior, Interpersonal relations, Trust relationships, Organizational structures

Suggested Citation

Granovetter, Mark, Economic Action and Social Structure: The Problem of Embeddedness (1985). University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign's Academy for Entrepreneurial Leadership Historical Research Reference in Entrepreneurship, Available at SSRN:

Mark Granovetter (Contact Author)

Stanford University - Department of Sociology ( email )

Stanford, CA 94305
United States
650-723-4664 (Phone)


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