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Economic Action and Embeddedness: The Problem of the Structure of Action


In this article I attempt to contribute to the development of foundations for a sociological theory of economic action. Such a theory, it is argued here, has to make a substantial break with the teleological structure that informs both rational actor theory and normative theories of action. Informed by the tradition of American pragmatism I propose to base the understanding of action in economic contexts on a "non-teleological interpretation of intentionality" (Joas 1996). Such a theoretical conceptualization brings the interpretative acts of intentionally rational actors to the center. It finds its justification in the observation that the complexity and novelty inherent in economic contexts create an uncertain environment for actors which rules out optimizing decisions and provokes the question as to how actors make such an environment intelligible for intentionally rational decisions. I will argue that meaning and perceptions of rationality are established intersubjectively in the action process itself. Embeddedness then refers to the social structuration of meaning which is enacted based on interpretations, a process which is undetermined but not unstructured.

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