The Moral Economy of Failure


  • Filippo Barbera Department of Cultures, Politics and Society, University of Turin; Collegio Carlo Alberto, Turin
  • Ian Rees Jones School of Social Sciences, Cardiff University



Failure, Moral Economy, Governance, Innovation, Experimentalism


This paper attempts to place contemporary market and state-based surveillance and monitoring regimes within a moral economy framework with the aim of developing a sociological approach to the moral economy of failure. The paper begins by reviewing different understandings of moral economy and their applications, both historical and contemporary, across different political, economic, and cultural contexts. It then sets out an approach to moral economy that focuses both on the norms and sentiments that frame economic and social relations and their associated practices as well as the ways in which these practices are legitimated. Following this the paper examines the literature on failure in different spaces including failure of markets, valuation regimes, and innovations. We focus on organisational and professional failures, market failures, failures of governance and policy and failures in innovation and experimentalism. In each case the discussion relates the scholarship on failure to the moral economy highlighting the interrelationships between the two and how practices related to failure are reframed and legitimated. Our discussion highlights a double standard with respect to failure. For some, generally the wealthy and powerful, it is possible to embrace failure; to hold it up as an example of ones capacity to adapt, to survive to embrace new ideas and through individual resilience, to learn and grow from the experience. But in other circumstances particularly for those living in poverty, for marginal groups and for the racially profiled, failure attracts shame, stigma, and punishment. We conclude by arguing that a research agenda addressing the moral economy of failure needs to be built on socio-historical understandings of failure in different contexts, cultures, and environments. We suggest this offers a way of identifying progressive futures and acts as an antidote to much of the hype that underpins contemporary accounts of success and innovation.


Adams, R. (2023). Ofsted Inspection Contributed to Headteacher’s Suicide, Coroner Rules. The Guardian, 7 December.

Adloff, F. (2020). Experimental Conviviality: Exploring Convivial and Sustainable Practices. Open Cultural Studies, 4(1), 112–121. https://doi.10.1515/culture-2020-0011

Alexander, C. (2023). Writing Failure: Knowledge Production, Temporalities, Ethics, and Traces. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 29(S1), 8–30. https://doi.10.1111/1467-9655.13899

Apostolopoulou, E., & Kotsila, P. (2021). Community Gardening in Hellinikon as a Resistance Struggle Against Neoliberal Urbanism: Spatial Autogestion and the Right to the City in Post-Crisis Athens, Greece. Urban Geography, 43(2), 293–319. https://doi.10.1080/02723638.2020.1863621

Appadurai, A. (2016). Introduction. Social Research, 83(3), xxi–xxvii.

Appadurai, A., & Alexander, N. (2019). Failure. Cambridge: Polity.

Arnold, T.C. (2001). Rethinking Moral Economy. American Political Science Review, 95(1), 85–95. https://doi.10.1017/S0003055401000089

Azzellini, D. (2018). Building Concrete Utopias: The Communards Movement in Venezuela. Convergencia-Revista De Ciencias Sociales, 25(76), 191–214. https://doi.10.29101/crcs.v25i76.4664

Barbera, F. (2023). The Daily-Life and Moral Economy. In M. Zafirovski (Ed.), The Routledge International Handbook of Economic Sociology (pp. 343–357). Abingdon: Routledge

Barbera, F., & Jones, I.R. (Eds). (2020). The Foundational Economy and Citizenship: Comparative Perspectives on Civil Repair. Bristol: Policy Press.

Benkler, Y. (2013). Practical Anarchism: Peer Mutualism, Market Power, and the Fallible State. Politics & Society, 41(2), 213–251. https://doi.10.1177/0032329213483108

Berti, G., Giordano, C., & Mininni, M. (2021). Assessing the Transformative Potential of Food Banks: The Case Study of Magazzini Sociali (Italy). Agriculture-Basel, 11(3), 249–269. https://doi.10.3390/agriculture11030249

Birla, R. (2016). Failure via Schumpeter: Market Globality, Empire, and the End(s) of Capitalism. Social Research, 83(3), 645–671.

Boltanski, L., & Chiapello, E. (1999). Le nouvel esprit du capitalisme. Paris: Gallimard.

Boltanski, L., & Thevenot, L. (1991). De la justification. Les économies de la grandeur (2nd ed.). Paris: Gallimard.

Bowles, S. (2016). The Moral Economy: Why Good Incentives Are No Substitute for Good Citizens. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Bowles, S., & Gintis, H. (1998). The Moral Economy of Communities: Structured Populations and the Evolution of Pro-social Norms. Evolution and Human Behavior, 19(1), 3–25. https://doi.10.1016/S1090-5138(98)00015-4

Brodiez-Dolino, A. (2018). The Social and Solidarity Economy. A History of Civil Society in France and Europe from 1968 to Today. Mouvement Social, 263, 205–207.

Calafati, L., Froud, J., Haslam, C., Johal, S., & Williams, K. (2023). When Nothing Works: From Cost of Living to Foundational Liveability. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Carrier, J. (2018). Moral Economy: What’s in a Name. Anthropological Theory, 18(1), 18–35. https://doi.10.1177/1463499617735259

Convivialist/International. (2020). The Second Convivialist Manifesto: Towards a Post-Neoliberal World. Civic Sociology, 1(1), 2–24.

Daston, L. (1995). The Moral Economy of Science. Osiris, 10, 3–24.

Davies, W. (2017). Moral Economies of the Future. The Utopian Impulse of Sustainable Prosperity (CUSP Working Paper No. 5). University of Surrey.

Downer, J. (2011). “737-Cabriolet”: The Limits of Knowledge and the Sociology of Inevitable Failure. American Journal of Sociology, 117(3), 725–762. https://doi.10.1086/662383

Edgerton, D. (2019). The Rise and Fall of the British Nation. London: Penguin Random House.

Etherington, D., & Jones, M. (2016). The City-Region Chimera: The Political Economy of Metagovernance Failure in Britain. Cambridge Journal of Regions Economy and Society, 9(2), 371–389. https://doi.10.1093/cjres/rsw007

Exworthy, M., Gabe, J., Jones, I., & Smith, G. (2019). Professional Autonomy and Surveillance: The Case of Public Reporting in Cardiac Surgery. Sociology of Health & Illness, 41(6), 1040–1055. https://doi.10.1111/1467-9566.12883

Fassin, D. (2009). Les économies morales revisitées. Annales. Histoire, Sciences Sociales, 64, 1237–1266.

Fassin, D., & Stoczkowski, W. (2008). Should Anthropology be Moral? A Debate Introduction. Anthropological Theory, 8(4), 331–332. https://doi.10.1177/1463499608096641

Fraser, N. (2013). A Triple Movement? Parsing the Politics of Crisis after Polanyi. New Left Review, 81, 119–132.

Froud, J., Haslam, C., Johal, S., Law, J., & Williams, K. (2020). When Systems Fail, UK Acute Hospitals and Public Health After Covid-19. Foundational Economy Collective.

Gibson-Graham, J. (2014). Rethinking the Economy with Thick Description and Weak Theory. Current Anthropology, 55, S147–S153. https://doi.10.1086/676646

Gibson-Graham, J., & Roelvink, G. (2010). An Economic Ethics for the Anthropocene. Antipode, 41, 320–346. https://doi.10.1111/j.1467-8330.2009.00728.x

Goodwin, D. (2021). Describing Failures of Healthcare: A Study in the Sociology of Knowledge. Qualitative Research, 21(3), 324–340. https://doi.10.1177/1468794120975986

Granovetter, M. (1985). Economic Action and Social Structure: The Problem of Embeddedness. American Journal of Sociology, 91(3), 481–510. https://doi.10.1086/228311

Granovetter, M. (1992). Economic Institutions as Social Constructions: A Framework for Analysis. Acta Sociologica, 35(1), 3–11. https://doi.10.1177/000169939203500101

Granovetter, M. (2005). The Impact of Social Structure on Economic Outcomes. Journal of Economic Perspectives, 19(1), 33–50. https://doi.10.1257/0895330053147958

Götz, N. (2015). “Moral Economy”: Its Conceptual History and Analytical Prospects. Journal of Global Ethics, 11(2), 147–162. https://doi.10.1080/17449626.2015.1054556

Hansmann, H. (1987). Economic Theories of Nonprofit Organizations. In W.W. Powell (Ed.), The Nonprofit Sector: A Research Handbook (pp. 27–42). New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Harcourt, B.E. (2020). Critique and Praxis: A Critical Philosophy of Illusions, Values, and Action. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

Honneth, A. (1995). The Struggle for Recognition: The Moral Grammar of Social Conflicts. Cambridge: Polity.

Honneth, A. (2016). The Idea of Socialism: Towards a Renewal. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Jeevendrampillai, D., Parkhurst, A., Carroll, T., & Shackelford, J. (2017). The Material Culture of Failure: When Things Do Wrong. London: Routledge.

Jenkins, J. (2017). Hands Not Wanted: Closure, and the Moral Economy of Protest, Treorchy South Wales. Historical Studies in Industrial Relations, 38(1), 1-36.

Jessop, B. (1999). The Changing Governance of Welfare: Recent trends in its Primary Functions, Scale, and Modes of Coordination. Social Policy & Administration, 33(4), 348–359. https://doi.10.1111/1467-9515.00157

Jessop, B. (2017). Varieties of Academic Capitalism and Entrepreneurial Universities. Higher Education, 73(6), 853–870. https://doi.10.1007/s10734-017-0120-6

Kurunmäki, L., Mennicken, A., & Miller, P. (2023). Economising Failure and Assembling a Failure Regime. In A. Mica, M. Pawlak, A. Horolets & P. Kubicki (Eds.), Routledge International Handbook of Failure (pp. 160–176). London: Routledge.

Latour, B. (2005). Reassembling the Social and introduction to Actor-Network-Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Manning, B., & Browne, C. (2022). Comparative Moral Economies of Crisis. Thesis Eleven, 170(1), 78–98.

Morgan, K. (2018). Experimentalist Governance and Territorial Development (Background paper for an OECD/EC Workshop on 14 December 2018 within the workshop series “Broadening innovation policy: New insights for regions and cities”, Paris). OECD.

Morgan, K. (2020). Foodscapes of Hope: The Foundational Economy of Food. In F. Barbera & I.R. Jones (Eds.), The Foundational Economy and Citizenship: Comparative Perspectives on Civil Repair. Bristol: Bristol University Press.

Morgan, K., & Sabel, C. (2019). The Experimentalist Polity. London: Nesta

O’Neill, J. (1998). The Market: Ethics, Knowledge and Politics. London: Routledge.

Palomera, J., & Vetta, T. (2016). Moral Economy: Rethinking a Radical Concept. Anthropological Theory, 16(4), 413–432. https://doi.10.1177/1463499616678097

Peetz, T., Meier, F., & Waibel, D. (2023). From Varieties of Failure to Failure Judgments: The Sociology of Valuation and Failure Studies. London: Routledge.

Perrow, C. (1984). Normal Accidents: Living with High-Risk Technologies. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Polanyi, K. (2001). The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time. Boston: Beacon Press. (Original work published 1944)

Salamon, L., & Sokolowski, S. (2016). Beyond Nonprofits: Re-Conceptualizing the Third Sector. Voluntas, 27(4), 1515–1545. https://doi.10.1007/s11266-016-9726-z

Salamon, L.M. (1995). Partners in Public Service: Government-Nonprofit Relations in the Modern Welfare State. Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University Press.

Sandel, M. (2013). Market Reasoning as Moral Reasoning: Why Economists Should Re-Engage with Political Philosophy. Journal of Economic Perspectives, 27(4), 121–140. https://doi.10.1257/jep.27.4.121

Sassen, S. (2016). Economic Cleansing: Failure Dressed in Fine Clothes. Social Research, 83(3), 673–687.

Satz, D. (2010). Why Some Things Should Not Be for Sale: The Moral Limits of Markets. New York, NY: Oxford Academic.

Sayer, A. (2005). Class, Moral Worth and Recognition. Sociology: the Journal of the British Sociological Association, 39(5), 947–963. https://doi.10.1177/0038038505058376

Sayer, A. (2007). Moral Economy as Critique. New Political Economy, 12(2), 261–270. https://doi.10.1080/13563460701303008

Sayer, A. (2015). Why We Can’t Afford the Rich. Bristol: Policy Press.

Sayer, A. (2018). Welfare and Moral Economy. Ethics and Social Welfare, 12(1), 20–33.

Sayer, A. (2023). Rentiership, Improperty and Moral Economy. Environment and Planning A: Economy and Space, 55(6), 1471–1484. https://doi.10.1177/0308518X20908287

Schafran, A., Smith, M.N., & Hall, S. (2020). The Spatial Contract, A New Politics of Provision for an Urbanized Planet. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Scott, J.C. (1976). The Moral Economy of The Peasant: Rebellion and Subsistence in Southeast Asia. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Smil, V. (2023). Invention and Innovation: A Brief History of Hype and Failure. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Thompson, E.P. (1971). The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century. Past & Present, 50, 76–136.

Thompson, E.P. (1991). Customs in Common. New York, NY: New Press.

Thompson, M. (2020). Social Economics and the Solidarity City. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 44(2), 386–387. https://doi.10.1111/1468-2427.12902

Thompson, M., Nowak, V., Southern, A., Davies, J., & Furmedge, P. (2020). Re-Grounding the City with Polanyi: From Urban Entrepreneurialism to Entrepreneurial Municipalism. Environment and Planning A: Economy and Space, 52(6), 1171–1194. https://doi.10.1177/0308518X19899698

Unger, R. (2015). Conclusion: The Task of the Social Innovation Movement. In A. Nicholls, J. Simon & M. Gabriel (Eds.), New Frontiers in Social Innovation Research (pp. 234–251). New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.

Vaughan, D. (2021). Dead Reckoning: Air Traffic Control, System Effects, and Risk. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Weisbrod, B.A. (1986). Toward a Theory of the Voluntary Non-Profit Sector in a Three-Sector Economy. In S. Rose-Ackerman (Ed.), The Economics of Nonprofit Institutions: Studies in Structure and Policy (pp. 21–44). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Wills, J., & Lake, R.W. (2020). The Power of Pragmatism: Knowledge Production and Social Inquiry. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Wingate, S. (2023). Sunak Branded “Out of Touch” for Saying People Should Give Up Pay to Start Firms. The Independent, 3 November.

Zuidervaart, L. (1998). Short Circuits and Market Failure: Theories of the Civic Sector. The Paideia Archive: Twentieth World Congress of Philosophy, 42, 187–193.




How to Cite

Barbera, F., & Rees Jones, I. (2024). The Moral Economy of Failure. Sociologica, 17(3), 129–144.