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Some Problems in the Sociology of the Ethnic Economy

  • Author(s): Cobas, Jose A.
  • et al.

If we consider Marx an economist, then Weber and Simmel were the first major sociologists to devote considerable attention to the causes and consequences of the economic behavior of religious and ethnic groups. As is known, one of Weber's major interests was the part played by different religious groups in the development of rational capitalism in the West (Weber 1958). Weber concluded that adherents of Calvinism and other Protestant sects were possessed of a worldly asceticism which was highly consonant with the requirements of modern capitalism. Elsewhere, Weber pondered a related issue, to wit, why "no modern and distinctively industrial bourgeoisie of any significance emerged among the Jews" (1964, p. 249). Weber's answer adduced, among other things, that a serious study of Jewish law was more compatible with such pursuits as moneylending and that the institution of the dowry "favored the establishing of the Jewish groom at marriage as a small merchant" (1964, p. 255). Another reason why, in Weber's view, industrial production was not a favored activity among Jews was the dual ethic: "what is prohibited in relation to one's brothers is permitted in relation to strangers" (1964, p. 250). As a result of the dual ethic, the Jew, unlike the Calvinist, found it "difficult... to demonstrate his ethical merit by means of characteristically modern business behavior" (1964, p. 252).

As for Simmel, he saw the European Jews' tendency to engage in trade as being inextricably related to their status as "strangers" in society. As he put it (1964, p. 403): Throughout the history of economics the stranger everywhere appears as the trader, or the trader as stranger... Trade can always absorb more people than primary production; it is, therefore, the sphere indicated for the stranger, who intrudes as a supernumerary, so to speak, into a group in which the economic positions are actually occupied -- the classical example is the history of European Jews.

The impact of Weber's and, especially, Simmel's pioneering ideas regarding ethnicity and economic behavior is discernible early in U.S. sociology. The notion of the "trader as a stranger" is found in the work of Park (1950a, 1950b), Wirth (1928), and Stonequist (1937). Becker's book (1956) devoted an entire chapter to "middleman trading peoples," in which he discusses, among other things, the concept of the "dual ethic." For reasons not entirely clear, interest in the sociology of ethnic economic behavior remained dormant for a while, but reappeared in the 1950's (Cahnman 1957; Rinder 1958; Stryker 1959; Blalock 1967). This interest persists today under the leadership of Bonacich, Light, and Portes, among others. As a result, a considerable body of writings has emerged. Although this literature has added to our knowledge, it suffers from some problems. There are issues which have not been explored sufficiently, discrepancies regarding important concepts, contradictions, and dubious assumptions. In brief, the field of study seems to be in need of careful reexamination. The purpose of this paper is to stimulate such a reasses- sment.

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