Economic Sociology, Organization and Labour Studies


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Mission and Partners


The mission of the programme is to give students both a strong disciplinary focus (in sociology, labour law, management and organizational behaviour, psychology of work) and a substantive attention to socio-economic behaviour and processes, in particular from the point of view of labour and organizations. ESLS continues the mission of the PhD programme in Labour Studies of the University of Milan and the PhD programme in Economic Sociology of the University of Brescia, including in the faculty also scholars from the universities of Turin, Milan-Bicocca and Pavia. All courses are taught in English, while the dissertation might be written in English as well as in Italian, depending on the topic and on the supervisor's judgement.

To this purpose, the programme aims at:

• giving the students a scientific training, embedded in current, cutting-edge international research, on the substantive topics concerning the relations between the economy and society, with a strong focus on the regulatory problems currently facing public and private decision-makers;

• giving the students a full set of theoretical, methodological and technical skills, with particular attention to applied statistics and data analysis, in line with the current progresses in social and economic sciences;

• giving each student the chance to specialize herself in the substantive sub-field (see below) she will choose for her dissertation, and to produce an excellent piece of empirical work. In principle, each dissertation should produce at least one paper to be published in an international indexed journal, or in the way each discipline reckons to be excellent;

• guaranteeing each student the possibility to develop the key skills which today are required as a professional support of a social science researcher, that is: high level knowledge of the English language, capacity of communicating research results, first-hand knowledge of the procedures of scientific publishing and of the way the international scientific labour market works. 

In order to structure a large number of substantive topics, six broad areas of specialization are offered. Each student will choose the one who best suits her research interests and use it as a starting point for her research project. Of course trespassing and contamination are allowed and, in case, encouraged.


1. Social institutions and the economy

The impact of institutions on economic behaviour, processes and outcomes is one of the core topics of sociology since the founding fathers of the discipline, and it has remained there in each wave of renewal of the discipline, as in the case of Parsons' synthesis in the 1950s and the new economic sociology since the 1980s. Economic sociologists looking at this topic do not just relate to economists, both institutionalists and belonging to the neo-classical mainstream. Indeed, there are different theoretical approaches to the interaction between institutions and the economy, related to the classical and current contributions of social sciences such as sociology, anthropology, economics and political science. Each approach has its own analytical frame and policy conclusions, but all are similar as they see the economy as a densely institutionalized system, with a close interconnection between the macro and the micro level. 

Among the topics of this research stream, a core place is held by the analyses of the processes leading to the creation of conventions and institutions, mostly via repeated interactions and the establishment of expectations of cooperative behaviour. Another frontier topic is the study of the role of strategic action in the definition of new economic rules and institutions on the part of the so-called "institutional entrepreneurs".


2. Labour studies

This is another field traditionally at the core of the discipline, including important sub-fields such as industrial relations and labour law. Central to this area is the analysis of the working of the labour market, that is of the interactions between demand and supply of labour and the institutional setting in which such interactions take shape, both in the private and the public sector of the economy. According to this perspective, the labour market is not an insulated, self-standing arena, but is a part of society. This means that what happens in the labour market has to be related to larger social processes, such as those concerning the functioning of social, legal and associative regulatory mechanisms and the production of social inequality.

On one side, the analysis may focus on the macro-level interactions between labour market and education, welfare, the legal institutions, the structure of the family and the representation of collective interests. On the other side, also individual work experiences are of great interest, with particular reference to the relations between work careers and the life course (from the school degree to the retirement); the contents of jobs and work activities, in terms of quality,, working conditions and individual satisfaction; the mechanisms matching labour supply and demand, with the crucial role in this process of social capital, institutions and regulatory systems.

This is a clearly multi-disciplinary approach, involving sociology, economic sociology, labour law, labour economics and the psychology of work and organizations. Among the recent advances, on one side there is the increasing availability of large international datasets, as a basis for systematic cross-national comparison; on the other the 'law and economics' approach, promoting an analysis of legal institutions based on neoclassical economics.


3. Complex organizations

Understanding organizations is important for two reasons: first, organizations are the basic building blocks of modern society. From birth to death, the lives of people in modern societies play out in organizations. All interests – economic, political, social, and cultural – are pursued through formal organizations. The second reason is more practical: if we want to change some aspects of our lives and of our society, we have to change the organizations we live in. It is only through organizations that large-scale planning and co-ordination in modern societies become possible. Organizations come in all sizes and shapes, from a small firm to the United Nations. And organizations encompass many different purposes, for example, they may be for-profit or not-for-profit. Thus, organizations have an enormous impact on social life; they wield tremendous power and distribute innumerable benefits. At the same time, organizations can produce catastrophic consequences (e.g. incidents, crises, and so on) and negative externalities (e.g. pollution, disruption of non-renewable resources, and so on). To understand the world we inhabit, then, we must appreciate the power and scope of organizations.

The theory of organizations has three main aims: a) to identify organizational structures and dynamics; b) to understand the main models of organizational analysis; c) to analyze the impact of complex organizations on modern societies. Application fields are numerous: organizations as social systems; organizational, business and industrial change; the relations between organizations and their environment; changes of cultural and market categories; social movements and their impact on markets and firms; organizational learning; the dark side of organizations (mistakes, accidents and misconduct).


4. Economic behaviour and social interaction

Work in this area will develop and use concepts, tools and methods to analyze the relationship between economic action and social interaction, in particular the relations between market, norms and social networks. Consistent with the Weberian tradition on the relationship between economy and society, and starting from the theory of action based on rational choice, game theory and cognitive science, this field of study is characterized by the utilization of non-standard techniques of sociological analysis, like experimental micro analysis and computer simulation (agent-based modelling), which allow to understand the aggregated impact of social interaction on economic behavior. 

Substantive applications include: the impact of social norms on economic interaction; the role of trust and reputation in reducing market information asymmetries; the impact of social networks on market behaviour; the mechanisms of social influence who structure economic behaviour under conditions of uncertainty. This area is characterized by a strong interdisciplinary approach, at the boundaries between cognitive sciences, experimental economics and behavioural sciences.


5. Local development and global society

Research on local development has been one of the major contribution of Italian economic sociology to the international literature, showing how the spatial clustering of firms, institutions and people may generate external economies and competitive advantages fostering local development. External economies largely depend on the provision of local collective goods, that is tangible and non tangible assets which are made available through social and political mechanisms embedded in local or regional societies. In the age of "globalisation" and the "knowledge economy", networks, institutions and organisational fields play a crucial role in enhancing social mechanisms capable of promoting local collective goods which, in turn, facilitate cooperation, innovation, entrepreneurship, knowledge production and dissemination, by this way influencing the creation, performance and growth of local productive systems and enhancing the social quality and sustainability of local and regional areas and their links with world markets. 

This substantive area, frequently including contributions from other social sciences (economics, law, urban and regional studies), covers theoretical topics such as the European social model, the transition to post-fordist production, physical and immaterial mobility as a new productive paradigm; while empirical topics include global city-regions, territorial networks and post-metropolitan development. New representations of places and territories will be developed, at the local, national, continental and global level.


6. Occupations, education and social stratification

Occupations have been since long one of the core topics of social research, in both an economic and a sociological perspective. Indeed, the division of labour in society is not just a product of economic rationality, but it also has an impact on society at large, dividing it into groups (be they called classes, strata, caste, status groups...), and it also defines the way social groups relate to each other. 

Research on social stratification, one of the key areas of empirical sociology and social research, starts from the occupation as the main indicator of the social position of an individual, and studies the effect of a set of factors, such as education, gender, ethnicity and so on, in shaping the occupational and social fortunes of individuals. Research on such topics has followed both a macrosociological and a microsociological approach. While the former is linked to the traditional macro-comparisons of the relations between social origins, education and social position across countries, the latter is more complicated: the actor is seen as having a specific rationality, and moving in an environment of constraints (the structure of mobility opportunities between available positions) and preferences (culturally shaped aspirations), in which he makes educational and then occupational choices that, when aggregated, produce the social structure we observe at the macro level, and its paths of change or stability.


A more detailed list of research topics and possible supervisors within ESLS is available here:

ESLS Research topics


PhD Programmes


Other Training Activities

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