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Tightening Ties (Renforcer les liens). Interview with Carlo Trigilia , CSO visiting scholar. (En anglais)

ENTRETIENS // INTERVIEWS
Édité le 8 Juin 2006

Tightening Ties –Interview with Carlo Trigilia, CSO visiting scholar. (En anglais)

For Carlo Trigilia, research in economic sociology on both sides of the Atlantic has blossomed in the past few decades, but there still is too little interaction and communication between economic sociologists and political economists. Researchers in both disciplines cover much the same ground but rely on different idioms. Modularity and fragmentation have transformed corporate landscapes, creating problems whose solutions may depend on whether the topic is classified as purely economic or decisions are based on a combination of social and economic factors. All too often, he explains, economic problems are analyzed without taking the social and political dimensions into account. Carlo Triglia has recently completed several research projects on the role of local development and high tech districts in Italy and Europe (Crouch, C., LeGalès, P; Trigilia, C., Voelzkow, W. Changing Governance of Local Economies, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2004 ; C. Trigilia, Sviluppo locale, Roma-Bari, Laterza 2005).

Trigilia was born in 1951 and raised in Sicily. His father, a lawyer, wanted him to follow in his footsteps and become an “avvocato”, but Carlo had other ideas. The young Sicilian had a passion for politics – a frequent topic at the family dinner table and always his main interest in high school. Universities in Sicily did not offer courses in political science at that time. He managed to convince his father to support his studies at the University of Florence. “He was disappointed”, Trigilia recalled with a smile, “but he paid ! “ His career spans thirty years. It was at the University of Florence that he became attracted to sociology thru courses with Luciano Cavalli (especially in the study of Max Weber), where he also earned his doctorate, and became a professor of economic sociology, with occasional breaks as visiting professor at Harvard and Oxford. He has worked very closely with Arnaldo Bagnasco on industrial districts in Italy.

What do you think of the theme of the workshop to be held in Paris on “Building Bridges Between Economic Sociologists and Political Economists” ?

We need more communication between scholars in economic sociology and comparative political economy. The traditional division of labor between the two should be combined. Comparative political economy needs a better micro foundation and this can be found in the new economic sociology approach. For example in network analysis and the new institutionalism. New economic sociology needs to consider macro variables amongst which are industrial relations, public policies, and the influence of economic interests in decision making processes. In addition, with a more integrated approach we would have a better chance of influencing policy makers. At the moment, economists are the major influence. I see important theoretical and research achievements in the institutional approach. but this has not been influential in public policies.

Could you elaborate ?

In a global economy, it has become more important than ever for the United States and other advanced economies to promote innovation. These countries can no longer compete with the newly emerging economies on labor costs. In the past, businesses could organize innovation, as for example at AT&T’s Bell Laboratories or IBM’s central lab, which were once the major corporate research facilities in the United States. To a large extent, firms depended very much on what Chandler called “the visible hand”, or the ability of large firms to organize innovation in an efficient way. Innovation has to be analyzed more as a social construct. Today in the biotech and information technology sectors, innovation is much more socially constructed. This means that instead of focusing on the single firm, relations between companies, universities and the research structure, chambers of commerce, local governments, etc. must be taken into account.

You are currently working on what you term “innovative cities”. How do you go from local districts in Italy to innovative cities ?

As I was saying, starting with local production systems in Italy but also in other European countries; Europe needs to move economic activities upward, to follow the so-called “high road”. To deal with the increasing competition from the newly industrialized countries, you must move in two directions: promote high tech activities and exploit goods which are not reproducible such as cities, cultural goods and the environment. It is embedded in the relations among firms, research and university institutions, dedicated financial organizations, local chambers of commerce, interest groups and local governments.. In other words, it is based on the development of social networks between individual and collective actors, with a high impact on economic activities. Both innovation, high tech activities, and the knowledge economy, on the one hand and a better exploitation of cultural goods or artefacts such as cities on the other require a new role for cities. Cities become incubators of innovation. The economic and sociological literature has shown the importance of cities in providing the right cultural and social environment to foster economic innovation. This process is less dependent on the organizational capacity of single firms.

You have told me that during this your sabbatical year, first at MIT and Harvard and presently at the CSO you are working on universities and innovative firms. Could you say a little about its content ?

What I am trying to do, at the moment, is to look at relationships between universities and innovative firms both in the United States and in Europe, especially high tech activities. While I was in the United States, I tried to understand how the system works . And it is clear that it is very much embedded in cities of innovation such as Boston and San Francisco or Austin or Seattle. I tried to understand how this system of relationships between universities and firms functions in the United State, where this process is much more developed then in Europe. It is much more institutionally constructed in the sense that there is an active role of the federal government thru national agencies, in order to favour the involvement of the universities working with companies in these activities.

I then returned to Paris, to gather materials on the European experience in this respect. If we look at Europe, we can see that our university systems do not encourage close connections with firms. Part of the reason for this is that both Left and Right share the idea that the university is a place to acquire knowledge and that closer relationships with industry could bring about a distortion, so to speak. So we have a problem. There are cities of innovation, but the process is much more spontaneous, based on contingent variables rather than emerging from a systematic and coherent policy. Grenoble , Oxford; Cambridge, Pisa, Turin, Cologne and Munich are examples.

What do you see as the boundaries between economics and sociology?

Economics is going to be even more sophisticated in terms of quantification and modeling. And despite some trends such as the new economic institutionalism and innovation economics, which are quite isolated from mainstream economics, my impression is that the divide will increase. Basically, economists are suspicious of social relations in economic activities, which they see as encouraging rent-seeking, corruption and distortion of market relations. So while the new generation is more technically sophisticated, they basically share the neo-classical approach to the study of the economy and therefore, even when they are on the left politically, they propose strengthening market relations.

I suspect you are thinking about Italy as a case in point ?

Yes, as a matter of fact. In the new Prodi government, the influence of mainstream economics is very high, and even the left-wing economists propose recipes based on liberalization and privatization. This is fine, but they completely overlook the importance of innovation policies. This is crucial for a country such as Italy for two reasons : First of all, because we have an economy that is embedded on the local level. (The idea of the industrial districts.) And second we are terribly lagging in high-tech knowledge-based economic activities. Now in order to favour a positive restructuring of a traditional industrial district and in order to favour the development of new innovative high tech activities, you need specific focused interventions. And this is a lesson to be learned from the economic sociologists and the political economists. A local economy that becomes global must be a guided process; otherwise you risk all your human capital. There is a lot of evidence that tells us that traditional economic ideas are insufficient for the formulation of effective policies. At best, economists propose incentives to single firms, a solution that we know does not work.

Martha Zuber