Medieval provocations

March 18, 2015

Provocations are great ways of studying society. Garfinkel’s breaching experiments are classical examples, as are the more recent contributions of people like Andrew Perrin who, through unexpected questions in surveys, explore in interesting ways the social organization of political cognition.

Yesterday, I had the opportunity of seeing the results of one of these provocations. Part of the coursework for my Economic Sociology workshop at LSE consists of 15-minute documentaries produced by small groups of students that, based on one of 6 possible questions, examine the nature of work in twentieth-century Britain. At least one of these questions is designed to be overtly provocative: Who deserves unemployment? Read the rest of this entry »

I am pleased to announce an upcoming panel event at the LSE. Next March 19th, the Systemic Risk Centre (LSE) will be holding a “Bank Culture and Financial Reform: What Works?” The event, which I am organizing, is supported by the LSE’s Department of Management and the Principles for Responsible Investment initiative.

Bank culture is a novel and intriguing explanation to the problems faced by the financial industry. Five years ago, no bank expert or regulator would have accepted a diagnosis that wasn’t grounded in incentives, adverse selection or moral hazard. But starting with last year’s governmental reviews in the UK by Salz, Kay and other studies, the cultural explanation to the problems of the financial industry has become a suggestive and compelling alternative. Culture is about on norms rather than rules, beliefs rather than facts, and ethics rather than material incentives. For more, see a recent speech by William Dudley, the President of the NY Fed. Dudley said:

The problems originate from the culture of the firms, and this culture is largely shaped by the firms’ leadership. This means that the solution needs to originate from within the firms, from their leaders. What do I mean by the culture within a firm? Culture relates to the implicit norms that guide behavior in the absence of regulations or compliance rules—and sometimes despite those explicit restraints. Culture exists within every firm whether it is recognized or ignored, whether it is nurtured or neglected, and whether it is embraced or disavowed. Culture reflects the prevailing attitudes and behaviors within a firm. It is how people react not only to black and white, but to all of the shades of grey. Like a gentle breeze, culture may be hard to see, but you can feel it. Culture relates to what “should” I do, and not to what “can” I do.

New as it is to the regulatory discussion, the dangers of a toxic bank culture have long been known to finance insiders and social scientists. See, for example, Greg Smith’s notorious resignation memo from Goldman Sachs. For a more theoretical explanation, the academic studies by Karen Ho and Steve Mandis have explored of how culture can precipitate problems in investment banking (or lead them to drift into problems).

Aware of the cultural turn in the finance reform debate, one year ago I organized a panel event on the topic at the LSE, “Challenges and Opportunities in Reforming Bank Culture“ (with Nina Andreeva). It became one of the best-attended events. The core message that emerged was that for reform to be effective, there would have to be cultural change accompanying structural reforms in The City and Wall Street. Without a change of mindset, beliefs and values among the bankers, structural solutions such as bonus caps or the separation of commercial from investment banking might not accomplish their goal. (For a concrete example of how cultural solution differs radically from an incentive-based one, see this incisive post by Mandis.) For banks, the culture debate also has strategic implications. First-movers in cultural change might derive an enduring competitive advantage over the rest; by contrast, those that stall could be pushed out of investment banking altogether. Recent news appears to confirm this reasoning: Goldman, a pioneer in cultural reform such as tackling work-life imbalance, seems to be doing well in a difficult environment while RBS and Credit Suisse, which did not do much on the reform front, seem to be exiting the investment banking industry.

The upcoming panel event complements last year’s. While the first one established the existence of problem, the current one emphasizes solutions. Hence the title, “What works?” The premise is a pragmatist belief in experimentation and learning. As I see it, the solution to the cultural challenges of the banking industry is complex enough to be beyond the ability of a single academic from his or her office. The solution lies instead in the many distributed experiments in cultural reform being undertaken by various banks. What are they doing? What is working? What is failing? The solution, in other words, lies in bringing together different attempts and learning from them (see here for an example).

To this end, I have invited a solution-oriented panel. It’s made up of two consultants specialized in finance and culture, one former bank CEO, three London-based academic specialized in finance and management, and my favorite finance trade journalist. It will be chaired by a finance professor from Oxford. We’ll be discussing practical policies undertaken by concrete banks, and considering what is working and what is not. Here’s the line-up:

Academic panelists: Sandy Pepper (LSE Department of Management), Andrew Spicer (Cass Business School), Daniel Beunza (LSE Department of Management / Systemic Risk Centre)
Media panelist: Sarah Butcher (
Banking panelists: Yann Gindre (former CEO, Natixis US)
Consultant panelists: Patricia Jackson (EY), Jo Geraghty (Culture Consultancy)
Chair: Joel Shapiro (Finance, Oxford Said Business School)

So… come and join. Free of charge, but registration needed. From 4:00 to 6.30 pm, followed by drinks.

I am always puzzled by the disconnect that exists between the training that finance executives receive, and their actual needs. MBA and M.Sc. programs train participants in financial economics and the use of financial models. This gives them the technical competence to do the day-to-day job in a bank or a fund. But while competence gives participants access into finance, anyone who’s sat on a trading room for more than a day will agree that getting ahead is not a matter of technical skill but of fitting in with the culture, having powerful allies, or mentors. Whether it is getting a promotion, being put in charge or wielding political influence, it is the soft skills that make the difference. And yet, these are nowhere to be seen in higher education in finance. With this in mind, I have assembled a one-week Executive Summer School course at the London School of Economics that addresses the gap.

The course, titled “Leadership in Financial Institutions,” incorporates training in the tools developed by sociologists and psychologists to advance a managerial career. Culture, leadership, communication, social responsibility, just to name a few. But whereas all executive management courses include these topics, the LSE course teaches with tools, cases and theories in financial settings. The difference is critical, because when it comes to learning context matters. Managing a five-people tech start-up is not the same as running a hedge fund with five employees and two billion in assets under management. Being a senior executive at Procter is not the same as managing director at Goldman. And the same goes for a learning situation. For that reason, the course focuses on bank culture, managing traders, networking in banking, communicating with shareholders, and navigating the tension between responsible investment and fiduciary duty… you get the picture.

To this end, the course brings together academics from various departments at the LSE. These include Michael Power, Professor of Accounting and renowned expert on risk. Paul Willman, Professor of Management and author of behavioral studies of traders for more than fifteen years. Sandy Pepper, Professor of Practice in Management with long professional experience in remuneration practices in the City. Connson Locke, Professor of Practice and founder of the LSE’s Behavioral Lab as well as leadership expert. And of course, yours truly. The course is aimed at executives. Runs for a week, starting on June 22nd, and registration is still open. See more details HERE. We’re having our Open Evening this coming Wednesday March 11th at the LSE. The entire faculty will be there to answer questions and meet potential applicants. I’ll be giving a presentation on my research, and there will be drinks and nibbles. Entrance is free. See more information HERE.

Moments of Valuation

March 3, 2015

By David Stark

The challenge: you have just three words to state the core premise of new work in the study of valuation. In “What’s Valuable?,” my concluding essay for The Worth of Goods: Valulation and Pricing in Markets (Aspers and Beckert, eds., Oxford University Press, 2011), I gave a try, starting with price, prize, praise. To that triplicate, I added a fourth, perform, and, in doing so, revealed that the first three were intended as verbs all along. To price, to prize, to praise, to perform. It wasn’t a bad effort, but it was a bit clumsy: prizing and praising are too similar. Yet at least I was on a good course, signaling that valuation can occur in multiple registers and not only in the market.

Moments of Valuation: Exploring Sites of Dissonance (also from Oxford University Press, 2015) offers another effort. The three word summary: value is performed. This collection (which I co-edited with Ariane Berthoin Antal and Michael Hutter) emphasizes that valuation takes place in situations. Valuation is spatially localized and temporally marked. It takes place in situ. And the papers provide detailed accounts of various sites and settings (or, more accurately, setups) in which valuation takes place. It takes place in discrete moments of time. And the papers provide rich accounts of the critical moments when evaluative attention is particularly acute: the attentive moment when a dinner guest first sips a glass of wine, the instant when a luxury perfume is sprayed into a special device allowing the customer a sense of its sillage (the scented trail left by a fragrance wearer), or the moment when the professional art appraiser is cross-examined in the courtroom witness box. As such, the book might just as well have been titled Sites of Valuation: Exploring Moments of Dissonance.

But, as with pricing and prizing, there is not really all that much new in the statement value is performed – for these ideas, if differently expressed, were already there in John Dewey’s marvelous essay, On Valuation (for a lively revisiting of those ideas see especially Fabian Muniesa’s new book, The Provoked Economy, Routledge 2014). It is for this reason that Michael Hutter and I introduce our edited book with a brief essay, “Pragmatist Perspectives on Valuation.” The entire chapter is available on my website HERE. The paragraphs below offer a little taste:

De gustibus non est disputandum. We begin, indisputably, with taste. Then we immediately make it disputatious because we challenge the dominant view in cultural sociology that taste is something one has. Taste, in that view, is primarily symbolic because it is used for social purposes to mark distinction (Bourdieu 1984). By contrast the authors in this volume treat taste not as a noun but as a verb. It is something one does. It is a social process, to be sure; but if symbolic, it is also emphatically material.

Valuation involves a tasting, a testing. The studies here reject the claim that things just “have” some value, that their taste is intrinsic to them, and that tests reveal this natural value. At the same time they also deny the claim that the taste of things is something merely “attributed” to them, and that tests then do nothing more than reveal this value. We reject the dichotomy between natural objects (for which there is nothing to do but exploit the properties of things) and socially constructed objects (for which it is enough to show their arbitrary character as the stakes in social games).

We consider that the things to be tested and tasted are not given but made, and they are transformed in the very process of testing. Furthermore, tasting them or becoming attached to them is not like choosing some gratuitous label to enter a social logic of identity and difference; rather, identities are made and transformed by them. The chapters in this volume treat people’s relationship with things as reciprocal interactions: making things and making us. As Antoine Hennion writes in his chapter: “So conceived, both operations (tasting and testing) are productive, open, and they remain tightly connected, referring less to an absolute divide between objectivity and subjectivity than to a continuous co-production of stabilization and transformation, both in the things and in our capacity to feel what they do.” (Hennion in this volume).

To the two verbs—to taste and to test—we now add another: to contest. The adage de gustibus non est disputandum is misleading, for in matters of taste there can be disputes. Taste, whether the noun is understood as the quality of a thing or as the quality of a person, can be put to tests. And these tests are themselves contested. As the chapters here detail, the trials of valuation frequently involve disputes among different measures of worth, orthogonal principles of evaluation, and contending tests of value.

Interesting conference on money organized by our colleagues at the University of Basel, Department of Sociology, September 24-26, 2015.

Many great speakers, among whom for blog readers, perhaps most familiar are Nigel Dodd (The Social Life of Money) and Bill Maurer (mobile money, payments systems and IMTFI).

Details in the Call for Papers.

Abstracts of no more than 200 words may be sent by 22 March 2015 to

Please join us at Cass Business School for a 1-day workshop of thought-provoking panel discussions, engaging presentations and constructive paper development roundtables. We will explore current theoretical perspectives and emerging research on the social construction of financial risk, with the aim of generating connections between approaches and highlighting areas for future research.
The workshop addresses four topics: risk objects and science and technology studies; the production of risk culturesrelationality in trading riskperformativity in financial markets. A leading scholar will present each topic, with commentary from a key discussant and group discussion.
The programme and confirmed speakers are as follows:
·       9.30-10:00am: coffee
·       10-11.00am: Risk Objects and Science and Technology Studies, Prof.  Stephen Hilgartner (S&TS, Cornell University).  Discussant: Dr Eugenia Cacciatori (Cass Business School)
·       11-12pm: The Production of Risk CultureProf. Mike Power (London School of Economics). Discussant: Prof Andre Spicer (Cass Business School)
·       12-12.30pm: lunch
·       12.30-1.30pm: Practice Theory & Relationality in Trading RiskProf. Paula Jarzabkowski (Cass Business School). Discussant: Anette Mikes (HEC Lausanne)
·       1.30-2.30pm: Performativity and Social Studies of Finance, Prof. Yuval Millo (Leicester University). Discussant: Juan Pablo Puardo-Guerra (London School of Economics)
·       2.30-3pm: coffee
·       3pm-4pm: Paper development round tables (2 papers/table)
·       4-5:00pm: Break out groups on building bridges between perspectives
·       5-5.30: Wrap up commentary on themes. Prof. Hugh Willmott (Cass Business School)
Date & time: 13th April 2015; 9.30am-5:30pm (followed by drinks and dinner)
Location: Cass Business School, London (Bunhill Row Campus)
Cost: The workshop & lunch are free. Transport and dinner are at your own expense.
Register: 3rd March 2015: Places are strictly limited – please apply early!
To submit a working paper please contact Konstantinos Chalkias with an abstract by 3rdMarch. Both early-stage and under-review papers are welcome. To attend the workshopwithout a paper please also contact <> by 3rdMarch. We will notify you regarding your place and, if applicable, your paper acceptance at the workshop by the 10th March. NB: Full papers will be due by a strict deadline of 27thMarch, for circulation to your allocated roundtable.
Cass Business School Organizing Committee: Professor Paula Jarzabkowski
with Rebecca Bednarek, Eugenia Cacciatori and Konstantinos Chalkias

A group of computer scientists, working mostly at Princeton, have developed a class to teach the nitty gritty of cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin. To sign up for a free version of the course online, starting February 16, see here.


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