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SASE 23rd Annual Conference
Universidad Autonoma de Madrid June 23-25, 2011

Transformations of Contemporary Capitalism: Actors, Institutions, Processes
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Contemporary capitalism appears anything but stable. From the micro to the macro, from the local to the global, almost every element of socio-economic organization and governance is widely acknowledged to be in flux. The boundaries of firms and supply chains; the location of productive activity and the spatial division of labor; the regulation of markets and business transactions; skill formation and working careers; household and family structures; employment relations and welfare regimes: all these are in upheaval across developed and developing economies alike. Yet there is little consensus on how to characterize these transformations or where they are heading. Is globalization leading to convergence of national political economies on a single (neo-liberal) model, the reproduction of historic institutional divergences based on complementarities and comparative advantage, or the emergence of new forms of diversity through local experimentation and hybridization? Have worldwide trends towards liberalization and privatization resulted in a global disembedding of markets, or is a transnational web of rules, incorporating new social and prudential standards, emerging through various combinations of public and private authority at multiple levels of governance? Are new forms of decentralized production and work organization in global value chains leading to greater exploitation and insecurity for supplier firms, employees, and local communities, or do they create new opportunities for individual and collective upgrading of skills and capabilities? Are welfare states being retrenched, dualized, or recalibrated - for example through the provision of better coordinated and more personalized services - in response to new social risks and intensified fiscal pressures?

If the answers to such questions remain uncertain and contested, so too do the causal processes and explanatory mechanisms producing these ongoing transformations themselves. There is widespread recognition that the dominant approaches to institutional analysis - rationalist, sociological, historical - have difficulties in reconciling the complex and differentiated patterns of change emerging from empirical observation of contemporary capitalism with their underlying theoretical assumptions about the stability of institutions, whether understood as equilibria among interests, taken-for-granted norms and scripts, or enforceable constraints. For one broad group of scholars, this problem has spurred a search for specific causal mechanisms capable of accounting for gradual but transformative institutional change, some operating unintentionally and others driven by the shifting interests of powerful actors. For a second group of scholars, it has given rise instead to a focus on the creativity of social actors: their capacity to reflect on their situation, envisage and evaluate alternatives, revise practices and routines, and recombine and recompose institutional resources in response to new challenges. For a third group of scholars, finally, explanations of transformative institutional change are rooted instead in more fundamental socio-economic processes operating behind the backs of the actors themselves, such as capitalism's relentless drive to open up new markets and circumvent old rules, or the tendency of production under competitive conditions to migrate to locations where living standards and hence wage costs are historically lower.

This year's conference aims to take stock of current debates on transformations of contemporary capitalism and competing approaches to the relationship between actors, institutions, and processes in their explanation. We welcome both theoretical and empirical contributions, covering a wide range of socio-economic issues, institutional fields, and governance domains, at multiple levels of analysis from the local to the global, across the developed and developing world.

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