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Interest-Seeking as Sense-Making: Ideas and Business Interests in the New Deal

  • Sascha Münnich (a1)

This article addresses the question of how ideas and interests can be linked in policy analysis. The juxtaposition of the two concepts is criticized from a sociological point of view. Instead, ideas are a substantial element of interest formation. Cognitive and normative worldviews shape the transformation of objective socio-economic positions into subjective, situational action orientations. Interests can be traced back to the interplay between structural positions, situational problems and their idea-based interpretation.

It is then shown how these conceptual arguments can bring forward a prominent debate in welfare state analysis: the role of business in the emergence of the American welfare state in the New Deal. While struggling with the question whether the supportive role of some business leaders in the Social Security Act of 1935 reveals substantial interest changes or strategical adaption, both sides of the debate suffer from an objectivist concept of interest. This one-sided concept of interest comes at the cost of leaving open the question of why business interests changed in the direction of unemployment insurance and not in the direction of other feasible institutional options such as price regulation or public works. These options would also have provided a solution to the problem American employers were facing. Analysis of social reform discourses between 1911 and 1935 shows that the partial reorientation of business people cannot be sufficiently explained without taking into account the growing legitimacy of liberal- corporatist ideas among employers in the 1920s.


Comment l’analyse d’une politique peut-elle combiner la prise en compte du volet idéologique et des intérêts en jeu ? La sociologie accepte mal la juxtaposition des deux notions. Pourtant la transformation des positions socio-économiques objectives en orientations subjectives de l’action en situation résulte bien d’une combinaison des visions cognitive et normative. On peut remonter des intérêts au croisement entre positions structurelles, enjeux situés et interprétations idéologiques. On prend ici le débat américain, exemplaire pour le rôle du monde des affaires, au sujet du welfare state à l’époque du New Deal.

L’examen de l’appui apporté par certains leaders du grand patronat au Social Security Act de 1935 révèle de substantiels changements dans la vision des intérêts, ou bien une adaptation stratégique. Cependant les deux camps opposés restent attachés à une définition objectiviste de l’intérêt. Or des options autres que l’assurance chômage auraient été possibles : encadrement des prix ou programme de grands travaux. L’analyse des textes produits entre 1911 et 1935 montre que la reformulation partielle opérée par le patronat exige de prendre en compte la légitimation croissante du modèle libéral-corporatiste au cours des années 1920.


Dieser Artikel kritisiert aus soziologischer Sicht die häufig beobachtbare Entgegensetzung von Ideen aus Interessen. Ideen sind vielmehr ein Bestandteil der Interessenformierung. Interessen basieren auf einem Zusammenspiel von drei Faktoren: Der strukturellen sozialen Position des Handelnden, dem situativen Handlungskontext und den verfügbaren Ideen, mit deren Hilfe der Akteur seine Ziele definiert und konkretisiert.

Im zweiten Teil wird gezeigt, dass ein solches erweitertes Interessenkonzept dabei helfen kann, die viel umstrittene Rolle der Arbeitgeber in der Entstehung des amerikanischen Wohlfahrtsstaates zu verstehen. In der Diskussion, ob die Unterstützung einiger Unternehmer für die Arbeitslosenversicherung im Social Security Act von 1935 substantiell oder strategisch gewesen ist, arbeiten beide Seiten mit einem objektivistisch verkürzten Interessenbegriff. Dabei gerät aus dem Blick warum die Interessen der Unternehmer sich in Richtung der Arbeitslosenversicherung bewegten und nicht in eine der anderen Policy-Optionen. Eine Analyse der sozialreformerischen Diskurse zwischen 1911 und 1935 zeigt, dass die partielle Neuorientierung der amerikanischen Unternehmer nicht hinreichend erklärt werden kann ohne die wachsende Legitimation eines liberal-korporatistischen Weltbildes einzubeziehen.

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European Journal of Sociology / Archives Européennes de Sociologie
  • ISSN: 0003-9756
  • EISSN: 1474-0583
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