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                                                SIMONE POLILLO                       PUBLICATIONS         CV         Google Scholar
I am an economic sociologist interested in money (not so much in making it, but I accept donations). I subscribe to the view that capitalism is an inherently conflictual system, that capitalist conflict is always moralized, and that markets are the sworn enemy of capitalists. I teach in the Department of Sociology at the University of Virginia, where I have been since getting a PhD from UPenn in 2008.

My first book is titled Conservatives Versus Wildcats: A Sociology of Financial Conflict (2013, Stanford University Press). It develops a typology of banking and argues that the struggle between organizations embodying different banking strategies is the source of money's value. 

A joint project (with Brad Pasanek), dealing with money, and more specifically with the history of the concept of liquidity, led to a special issue of the Journal of Cultural Economy. Routledge published it in January 2013 as a book. If you have $140 to spare, knock yourself out here.

Other works in progress include a series of empirical papers on generalized trust, and in particularits relationship with globalization; a set of theoretical and empirical papers on finance; and theoretical work on the sociology of the self (with Erika Summers-Effler).

On white supremacists in Charlottesville, VA

posted May 17, 2017, 7:17 AM by Simone Polillo

Economic sociology studies the intersection between markets and society: how production is socially organized, or how and when cultural values and beliefs change in face of economic transformation, to name just a couple of examples. What economic sociology might have to say about the nauseating events of last Saturday in Charlottesville--a white supremacist rally in a downtown square that is already scarred by the relics of a horrific past--might not be entirely clear on first sight. 


But economic sociology is also the analysis of how societies have historically reacted to the uncertainties and instabilities brought on by new market processes. And so it can lend a critical eye on recent events, informed by a long-term perspective on human history. History never repeats itself. But history is the best data on the human experience at our disposal. Making good use of these data can open new perspectives on current problems, perhaps even illuminate news paths into the future. The parallel I want to draw here is between the contemporary political and economic landscape of the United States, and the political and economic situation of some parts of the Western world around the 1920s. And I want to do it by introducing two classical thinkers from the tradition of economic sociology (incidentally, thinkers coming from opposite sides of the political spectrum): Karl Polanyi and Vilfredo Pareto.


Polanyi was a Hungarian scholar, and a socialist. Writing just before the end of the Second World War, indeed rushing to finish his work in the hope of influencing the world to come after the conflict, Polanyi is famous for proposing an analysis of the rise of fascism--the political movement that precipitated the Second World War--that tied it to the more general rise of economic protectionism in 1920s Europe and North America. Polanyi argued that economic protectionism was the reaction of society to the previous rise of worldwide markets: the emergence, that is, of global and free systems of exchange that characterized the second half of the 19th century. These new global markets brought enormous prosperity to the Western world, at the expense of its colonies, but also at the cost of increased instability and disorder. The more markets expanded, the more difficult for people, and the working and middle classes in particular, to keep up with competition. The harder for people to maintain a steady job, take care of their families, and live a life of dignity in the face of unpredictably changing market conditions. Polanyi argued that economic protectionism was society's response to a market that increasingly threatened to destroy its very foundations.


Vilfredo Pareto was an Italian political theorist and economist, and an authoritarian. Writing just before the rise of the fascist regime in Italy, he proposed a model of political power centered on the idea of the "circulation of elites." Power, he argued, was cyclically held by two types of social groups: "foxes," cunning, manipulative elites able to win the support of public opinion through money, corruption and deceit; and "lions," rigid, authoritarian, militaristic elites denouncing the schemes of the foxes, with a penchant for governing with an iron fist. Too much control and rigidity, Pareto argued, opened the door to elites able to game the system. Too much flexibility and cunning, by like token, opened the door for power-hungry authoritarians, riding on public discontent with corruption to gain power.


Putting Pareto and Polanyi in a mutual conversation gives a new perspective on current US events. One of the reasons behind Hillary Clinton's defeat--or at least behind the animosity of the Trump-base towards her--is her public perception as a deviant manipulator, what Pareto would have called a fox. This, of course, does not make Trump a lion. A business tycoon, and himself a manipulator of public opinion with no military experience or understanding of military events, Trump is no Mussolini. Pareto would warn us that lion is whoever comes next. If we take his model of the circulation of elites seriously, we should not worry about Trump. We should worry about his successor. And we should follow the white nationalists very closely, for it may be among them the next wave of authoritarianism emerges. Their pro-Russia chants are chilling, in this respect.


History never repeats itself, however, and Polanyi helps us imagine a different future. Polanyi argued that economic nationalism was not the only response to global free markets. What in some part of Europe generated rightwing economic populism and then fascism, in the United States resulted into a very different kind of reaction: Roosevelt's New Deal. And what explains this important historical divergence between a system predicated on military power and racial oppression versus a system that was certainly full of inequalities (first and foremost racial ones) but nevertheless was also open to new, positive solutions to the problem of economic disorder? Polanyi, unsurprisingly, argued that it was the strength of society that swung the pendulum in the right direction. The more society was strong, open, and democratic, the more inclusive and democratic the reaction to dangerous markets.


What economic sociology teaches us about Saturday's events is that the white supremacists are shrewdly exploiting an opportunity to channel discontent towards solutions that will irreparably damage the democratic process. Understanding that what lies behind their renewed exuberance is not only the persistent legacy of Southern racism, but also a more general societal reaction to globalized markets, is one small step towards defeating their political project, and lay the foundations for a more just, prosperous, democratic society.

Pareto and Trump

posted Nov 13, 2016, 3:47 PM by Simone Polillo

Pareto ... witnessing, at the turn of twentieth century Italy, the simultaneous and steady increase in the power of the “class of wealthy speculators and the class of wage earners,” the former representing a “plutocratic” tendency, while the growing power of wage earners a “democratic” tendency” (1984, p. 55), recognized that they were political allies profiting from the weakness of the Italian state—and that therefore neither side would support any restraint on their freedom. Pareto understood that the “plutocrats” had an advantage:

plutocrats are able to forge an effective union because they are astute and can deceive the masses by manipulating public sentiment. This gives rise to the widely observed phenomenon of demagogic plutocracy (p. 55). 

This self-serving strategy of manipulation by financial elites, Pareto thought would eventually lead to a “transformation of democracy,” as the masses understood the deception of the plutocrats and began vying for a stronger elite to bring the plutocrats under control. Military plutocrats, elites who recognized the dislocations and suffering eventually created by speculators, would capitalize on discontent to propose an authoritarian solution to the crisis, argued Pareto.40 Unlike speculators, who relied on manipulation and cunning, military plutocrats would resort to force and coercion. Pareto thus predicted the rise of Fascism.

In the United States, Pareto would similarly predict the emergence of an authoritarian, militaristic, and repressive state, precisely because, unlike early twentieth century Italy, where a new, previously marginalized class—the working class –was now a political participant, in early twenty first century United States no organized class of debt holders exists. Thus one could argue that in the US context, the demagogical potential of a military-plutocratic turn would find no organized obstacle. Whether this is realistic in the current US context is partly a matter of speculation ... (pp.379-80)

Polillo, Simone. 2011. “Wildcats in Banking Fields: The Politics of Financial Inclusion.” Theory and Society 40(4):347–83.

Power and Regulation

posted Oct 3, 2016, 9:11 AM by Simone Polillo

What are the sources of modern social order? Yingyao Wang (Brown) and I recently wrote a contribution for the Handbook of Contemporary Sociological Theory where we dissect the issue of power at three levels of analysis in descending order: macro, meso, and micro. While existing theories of power either treat power as a causal force originating within macro entities, or as an exercise in leveraging and positioning within micro-level social relationships, this chapter probes power dynamics at the organizational level. It first of all describes historically how organizations became the major avenue in which power is mediated and regulated in our present social world. It contends that organizational rules, routines, differentiation, and depersonalization obscure power discretions and reduce the perception of domination. Yet, the pluralistic and generative logic of power production in organizations also create unexpected opportunities of innovation and empowerment. By drawing attention to the distinctive forms and nature of power relations at this meso-level, the chapter finally extends power analysis from the macro and micro-level to analytical interactions among all three levels of analyses. Power flows both upwards and downwards, we argue, so that the interaction and conversion of different forms of power at different levels can generate new sets of emergent and interstitial structures and relations. Interested? Email me and I will send you a copy of the chapter.

New paper on financial economics

posted Jun 2, 2015, 8:53 AM by Simone Polillo

Why does the Efficient Market Hypothesis win out over competing ways of modeling financial markets? Answering this question requires an understanding of how creativity, collaboration, and communication work within the field of financial economics. Here's one possible way of looking at it.

My review of Carlo Tognato's work now available in the British Journal of Sociology.

posted Mar 24, 2014, 8:11 AM by Simone Polillo   [ updated Mar 25, 2014, 5:43 AM ]

Tognato's dramaturgical theory dramatically enhances (no pun intended) our understanding of the macro-determinants of economic behavior. This is an excellent contribution to economic sociology.

My Review of Kevin Delaney's Money at Work in Social Forces

posted May 17, 2013, 11:28 AM by Simone Polillo   [ updated May 17, 2013, 11:29 AM ]

Very nice book, I recommend it

Interview on WTJU

posted Apr 30, 2013, 3:57 PM by Simone Polillo

For a short (about 10 minutes) interview on Conservatives Versus Wildcats, aired on April 25th, click here. The quality of the questions was impressive!

Conservatives Versus Wildcats has a Facebook Page.

posted Apr 24, 2013, 10:14 AM by Simone Polillo   [ updated Apr 24, 2013, 10:14 AM ]

Conservatives Versus Wildcats is out! Read a press release.

posted Apr 22, 2013, 6:37 AM by Simone Polillo

This appeared last week on UVa Today. Enjoy!

New Working Paper on Prestige in Financial Economics

posted Feb 27, 2013, 11:57 AM by Simone Polillo   [ updated May 2, 2013, 4:44 PM ]

In this paper, I use an original dataset of 95 prestigious financial theorists to assess the relative strengths/weaknesses of performative approaches to finance economics. Find it here. And here's an abstract:

Constructing Financial Innovations: Performativity and Prestige in Financial Economics

This paper investigates the diffusion of financially innovative ideas, not by looking at the spread of individual financial practices, but rather by analyzing the intellectual realm where such ideas acquire prestige: financial economics. Using a dataset of 95 financial theorists, it shows that while some theorists have indeed succeeded in gaining intellectual recognition for innovations that find direct application in financial markets, as scholars focusing on the performativity of economics would predict, the more important pathway involves the exploitation of what Collins and Guillén (2012) have recently dubbed “mutual halo effects:” eminence builds up across generations and in terms of linkages between successful people. Training at Chicago appears to be an important source of innovative success, and the paper discusses why this is the case. The conclusions show how an understanding of financial economics as a field that turns its interdisciplinary origins into a professionally closed field (Whitley 1986b) invites new questions about the sources of its success, in particular its influence over how universities invest their endowments.

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