I am an academic who studies the social world, including the economy, and thinks about how it could work differently. While I teach primarily in sociology, my work also takes me into social theory more widely, social ontology, political economy, and the philosophy of social science.
I publish summaries of key ideas from my work on my blog: Materially Social.
My research programme has two central themes: social ontology and the economy.
My new book, Profit and Gift in the Digital Economy, argues that prevailing approaches to the economy have failed to look beyond the market, but in fact we are already surrounded by a broad range of non-market and non-capitalist economic forms. The dominant existing approaches are incapable of making sense of this range of alternative economic forms: instead we need a new political economy of practices. The book proposes a ground-breaking social-theoretical framework for analysing diverse economic systems, and applies it to a series of empirical cases in the contemporary digital economy. Each economic form is understood as a complex of appropriative practices - social practices that influence the allocation of benefits from the process of production - which interact to produce systematic effects. This is not only an explanatory but also a normative programme: it implies that we can move towards a better economy by shifting the mix of economic practices, rather than simply accepting the system we have or placing our hopes in revolutionary upheavals.
I advocate a critical realist approach to social ontology, asking what kinds of entity are causally influential in the social world and how it might be possible for them to have emergent causal powers. The Causal Power of Social Structures addresses both the general theory of emergence and its application to the sociological concepts of social structure and human agency. A series of related publications and conference papers, discuss the implications of emergence for critical realism, for the theory of structure and agency, and for the philosophy and methodology of the social sciences.
My 2012 book The Reality of Social Construction examines the ontology of language, discourse, culture and knowledge. This provides a basis for explaining how they can contribute to constructing our social reality and hence for a synthesis of realism and constructionism. The book goes on to use this ontological analysis to evaluate the potential of some specific constructionist arguments, including claims for the social construction of institutions, categories, subjects and reality itself. In the process it engages critically with the work of a wide range of thinkers whose work is significant for social theory, including Margaret Archer, John Searle, Ferdinand de Saussure, Michel Foucault, Pierre Bourdieu, and Judith Butler.
My current ontological interests are focused on the role of material things within the social. While actor-network theorists have done us a service by insisting that ordinary material things are implicated in social events, they have simultaneously denigrated the very concept of the social and notions of social structure and social construction. In response I argue that all of these forces are causally consequential, but I am currently developing the further agument that ordinary material objects are often essential parts of causally powerful social entities and therefore must be recognised in our explanations of social structures themselves.
I am a Reader in the Department of Social Sciences at Loughborough University, where I teach sociology and an MA module on Digital Economies. I am available to supervise PhD students, particularly those with an interest in social theory, critical realism, digital social developments or economic sociology.
Address: Department of Social Sciences, Loughborough University, Loughborough, Leicestershire, LE11 3TU, United Kingdom
E-mail: d.elder-vass (at) lboro.ac.uk