Theory and Society

, Volume 46, Issue 1, pp 57–93 | Cite as

Intellectual property and industrialization: legalizing hope in economic growth

  • Laura R. FordEmail author


This article draws on theoretical resources from economic sociology and sociology of law to intervene in economic debates about the relationship between intellectual property and industrialization. Utilizing historical evidence from the earliest period of American intellectual property law and from a formative company in the New England textile industry, I propose a social process of influence that connects intellectual property law to industrialization. I argue that, consistent with the findings of New Economic Sociology, social relationship structures and social capital are the proximate influential force in industrialization. However, I also argue that transformative changes in those social relationship structures are rooted in the emergence of a particular type of political culture: what I call here, borrowing from Hannah Arendt and Frank Dobbin, a “Natal-Industrial Culture.” A Natal-Industrial Culture, as I propose it here, is a political culture in which collective hopes for the future are placed in new technologies and new cultural products, as means for achieving economic growth. Intellectual property law contributed to the emergence of this new type of political culture by holding out the promise of property, as a reward for the provision of new technologies or new cultural products. Because of the way that hope works on motivation—through cognitive pre-rehearsals of future attainment, which involve semantically-meaningful propositions and contribute to positive emotional experience—the promise of property provided a powerful stimulant to social capital formation. Working through the semantic resonances of property, intellectual property law contributed to a political culture in which invention and creativity were expected to secure a future of growth within the political community, both for particular members and for the political community, as a whole. By fostering a Natal-Industrial Culture, intellectual property law contributed to systematic invention and social capital-formation, leading, in turn, to the transformative changes in working and material provisioning that constitute industrialization.


Economic growth Hope Industrialization Innovation Intellectual property law Political culture 



I would like to thank two Theory and Society reviewers for very helpful and thoughtful comments, which contributed to substantive and (I hope) improving revisions. I am also very grateful to the Editors of Theory and Society, for creating a space in which an article such as this one can be published. For helpful conversations in which the ideas presented in this article were developed and reworked, I wish to especially thank Mark Bartholomew, Guyora Binder, Michael Halberstam, Errol Meidinger, and Richard Swedberg.


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© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of SociologyBard CollegeAnnandale-on-HudsonUSA

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