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Market as a social Institution

Market as a social Institution

  • Sociological perspectives on markets and the economy
  • Social organization of markets
  • Colonialism and the Emergence of New Markets
  • Caste-based markets and trading networks in pre-colonial and colonial India
  • Commoditisation and consumption
  • Globalization
  • Market versus State

Caste-based markets and trading networks in pre-colonial and colonial India

In some traditional accounts of Indian economic history, India's economy and society are seen as unchanging. Economic transformation was though to have begun only with the advent of colonialism. Under colonialism and in the early post independence period the penetration of the commercial money economy into local agrarian economies and their incorporation into wider networks of exchange was thought to have brought about radical social and economic changes in rural and urban society. While colonialism certainly brought about major economic transformations for example due to the demand that land revenue be paid in cash, recent historical research has shown that much of India's economy was already extensively monetised in the late pre-colonial period.

And while various kinds of non market exchange systems did exist in many villages and regions even during the pre-colonial period villages were incorporated into wider networks of exchange through which agricultural products and other goods circulated. Recent historical research has also highlighted the extensive and sophisticated trading networks that existed in pre-colonial India. The traditional trading communities or castes had their own systems of banking and credit. An important instrument of exchange and credit was the hundi or bill of exchange which allowed merchants to engage in long distance trade. The Nattukottai Chettiars of Tamil Nadu provide an interesting illustration of how these indigenous trading networks were organized and worked. How its banking and trade activities were deeply embedded in the social organization of the community. The structures of caste, kinship and family were oriented towards commercial activity and business activity was carried out within these social structures.Nakarattar banks were basically joint family firms so that the structure of the business firm was the same as that of the family.

Trading and banking activities were organized through caste and kinship relationships. Their extensive caste-based social networks allowed Chettiar merchants to expand their activities into Southeast Asia and Ceylo.The economic activities of the Nakarattars represented a kind of indigenous capitalism.

Colonialism and the Emergence of New Markets

The advent of colonialism in India produced major upheavals in the economy casuing disruptions in production,trade and agriculture.The demise of the handloom industry is one clear example due to the flooding of the market with cheap manufactured textiles from England.In the colonial era India began to be more fully linked to the world capitalist economy.Before being colonised by British India was a major supplier of manufactured goods to the world market.After colonization she became a source of raw materials and agricultural products and consumer of manufactured goods both largely for the benefit of industrialising England.At the same time new groups entered the trade and buisness sometimes in alliance with existing merchant communities and in some cases by forcing them out.The expansion of the market economy in India provided new opportunities to some merchant communities where were able to improve their position by re-orienting themselves to changing economic circumstances.

In some cases new communities emerged to take advantage of the economic opportunities provided by colonialism and continued to hold economic power even after independence. Marwaris became a successful buisness community only during the colonial period when they took advantage of new opportunities in colonial cities such as Calcutta and settled throughout the country to carry out trade and moneylending.In the late colonial period and after independence some Marwari families transformed themselves into modern industrialists and even today Marwaris control more of India's industry than any other community.The emergence of this new buisness community under colonialism and its transformation from small migrant traders to merchnt bankers to industrialists,illustrates the importance of the social context to economic processes.

Commoditisation and consumption

The growth of capitalism around the world has meant the extension of markets into places and spheres of life that were previously untouched by this system.Commodification occurs when things that were earlier not traded in the market become commodities.For instance labour or skills become things that can be bought and sold.According to Marx and other critics of capitalism,the process of commodification has negative social effects.There is a controversy about the sale of kidneys by the poor to cater to rich patients who need kidney transplants.In modern society almost everyone accepts the idea that a person's labour can be bought or that other services or skills can be provided in exchange for money.

In contemporary India the things or processes that earlier were not part of market exchange become commodified.Traditionally marriages were arranged by families but now there are professional marriage bureaus and websites that help people to find brides and grooms for a fee. Another important feature of capitalist society is that consumption becomes more and more important not just for economic reasons but because it has symbolic meaning.In modern societies consumption is an important way in which social distinctions are created and communicatied.The consumer conveys a message about his or her socio-economic status or cultural preferences by buying and displaying certain goods and companies try to sell their goods by appealing to symbols of status or culture.Max Weber had pointed out that the goods that people buy and use are closely related to their status in society.

He coined the term status symbol to describe this relationship.Weber also wrote about how classes and status groups are differentiated on the basis of their lifestyles.Sociologists study consumption patterns and lifestyles because of their cultural and social significance in modern life.


Since the late 1980s India has entered a new era in its economic history following the change in economic policy from one of state led development to liberalization. This shift also ushered in the era of globalizaion a period in which the world is becoming increasingly interconnected not only economically but also culturally and politically. The term globalization includes a number of trends especially the increase in international movement of commodities, money ,information and people as well as the development of technology and other infrastructure to allow this movement.A central feature of globalization is the increasing extension and integration of markets around the world.

This integration means that changes in a market in one part of the globe may have a profound impact somewhere else far away.The software services industries and buisness processes outsourcing BPO industries are some of the major avenues through which India is getting connected to the global e conomy.Companies based in India provide low cost services and labour to customers located in developed countries of the west.

Market versus State

The globalization of the Indian economy has been due to the policy of liberalization that was started in the late 1908s.Liberalization includes a range of policies such as privatization of public sector enterprises, loosening of government regulations on capital,labour and trade; reduction in tariffs and import duties sothat foreign goods can be imported more easily and allowing easier access for foreign companies to set up industries in India. One can use the term marketisation or the use of markets or market based processes to solve social,political or economic problems.These include relaxation or removal of economic of economic controls,privatization of industries and removing government controls over wages and prices.Those who advocate marketization believe that these steps will promote economic growth and prosperity because private industry is more efficient than government owned industry.

The changes that have been made under the liberalization program have stimulated economic growth and opened up Indian markets to foreign companies.Increasing foreign investment is supposed to help economic growth and employment.The privatization of public companies is supposed to increase their efficiency and reduce the government's burden of running these companies.However the impact of liberalization is mixed.Many people argue that liberalization and globalization have or will have a negative net impact on India that is the costs and disadvantages will be more than the advantages and benefits.Some sectors of Indian industry like software and information technology or agriculture may benefit from access to a global market but other sectors like automobiles,electronics or oilseeds will lose because they cannot compete with foreign producers. Indian farmers are now exposed to competition from farmers in other countries because import of agricultural products is allowed.

Liberalization is against the government interference in form of support prices or subsidies so these are reduced or withdrawn.This means that many farmers are not able to make a decent living from agriculture.Similarly small manufacturers have been exposed to global competition as foreign goods and brands have entered the market and some have not been able to compete.The privatization or closing of public sector industries has led to loss of employment in some sectors and to growth of unorganized sector employment at the expense of the organized sector.This is not good for workers because the organized sector generally offers better paid and more regular or permanent jobs.

Social organization of markets

Many sociological studies of the Indian economy have focussed on traditional merchant communities or castes such as Nakarattars.There is close connection between caste system and trade and markets.Vaisyas constitute one of the four varnas an indication of the importance of the merchant and of trade or buisness in Indian society since ancient times.Vaisya is a status that is claimed or aspired to rather than a fixed.Although there are vaisya communities whose traditional occupation has been trade or commerce for a long time there are some caste groups that have entered the trade.

Such groups tend to acquire or claim vaisya status in the process of upward mobility. The traditional buisness communities in India include not only Vaisyas but also other groups with distinctive religious or other community identities such as parsis,sindhis,bohras or jains.Mercant communities did not always have a high status in society for instance during the colonial period the long distance trade in salt was controlled by a marginalised tribal group the Banjaras.

In each case the particular nature of community institutions and ethos gives rise to a different organization and practice of buisness.

Sociological perspectives on markets and the economy

The discipline of economics is aimed at understanding and explaining how markets work in modern capitalist economies.It is important to understand the role of sociology in understanding the role of markets.For this one has to understand the beginning of modern economics in 18th century.The most famous of the early political economists was Adam Smith who in his book The Wealth of Nations attempted to understand the market economy that was emerging at that time.He argued that the market economy is made up of a series of individual exchanges or transactions which automatically create a functioning and ordered system.This happens even though none of the individuals invovled in the millions of transactions had intended to create a system.Each person looks only to their own self-interest but in the pursuit of this self-interest the interests of all or of society also seem to be looked after.

In this sense there seems to be some sort of an unseen force at work that converts what is good for each individual into what is good for society.This unseen force was called the invisible hand by Adam Smith.Thus he argued that the capitalist economy is driven by individual self-interest and works best when individual buyers and sellers make rational decisions that serve their own interests.The society overall benefits when individuals pursue their own self-interest in the market because it stimulates the economy and creates more wealth.This economic philosophy was also given the name Laissez-faire means leave alone or let it be.

Modern economics developed from the ideas of early thinkers such as Adam Smith and is based on the idea that the economy can be studied as a separate part of a society that operates according to its own laws leaving out the larger social or political context in which markets operate. In contrast to this approach sociologists have attempted to develop an alternative way of studying economic institutions and processes within the larger social framework. Sociologists view markets as social institutions that are constructed in culturally specific ways.For example markets are often controlled or organized by particular social groups or classes and have specific connections to other institutions,social processes and structures.Sociologists often express this idea by saying that economies are socially embedded.

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