The Elgar Companion to Social Economics, Second Edition
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The Elgar Companion to Social Economics, Second Edition

Edited by John B. Davis and Wilfred Dolfsma

Social economics is a dynamic and growing field that emphasizes the key roles social values play in the economy and economic life. This second edition of the Elgar Companion to Social Economics revises all chapters from the first edition, and adds important new chapters to reflect the expansion and development of social economics. The expert contributions explain a wide range of recent developments across different subject areas and topics in the field, mapping out possible directions of future social economic research. Social economics treats the economy and economics as embedded in a web of social and ethical relationships. It considers economics and ethics as essentially connected, and adds values such as justice, fairness, dignity, well-being, freedom, and equality to the standard emphasis on efficiency. This book will be a leading resource and guide to social economics for many years to come.
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Chapter 7: The conception of the socially embedded individual

John B. Davis


Social economics differs in many respects from standard mainstream economics, but one of the most fundamental differences is that it employs a conception of the human individual as socially embedded rather than as atomistic. Indeed, just as the atomistic individual conception is one of the defining characteristics of mainstream economics, so the socially embedded individual conception is one of the defining characteristics of social economics. Broadly speaking, the difference between these two conceptions rests on whether individuals and their behavior are explained ‘externally’ in terms of their social relationships, or ‘internally’ in terms of their private tastes and preferences. The former perspective sees social life as intrinsic to our understanding of individuals as social beings; the latter perspective operates with a view of social life restricted to the market interaction of individuals understood as non-social beings. It follows that these two conceptions of the individual also support two different normative visions of individuals and society. The socially embedded individual conception is associated with normative principles that emphasize relationships between people, such as equality, fairness and the (positive) freedom to achieve, whereas the atomistic individual conception is associated with normative principles that emphasize the independence of individuals, such as autonomy, rights and (negative) freedom from social interference. We can characterize the former approach as a social justice view and the latter approach as a liberal society view.

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