Incredible artifacts, objects and tools at the Goldsmiths Workshop
January 21, 2009
I have just returned from a remarkable event: the Economic Sociology Workshop at Goldsmiths College, London. Led by David Stark, and organized by three entrepreneurial Goldsmiths students –Will Davies, Joe Deville and Allan Day– it brought together an edgy, intriguing and truly memorable group of presenters. Collectively, their presentations provide a kaleidoscopic slideshow that points the way forward in economic sociology.
The workshop’s objective, as officially stated in the brochure, was to explore a set of themes in what I would call the “David Stark’s” school of economic sociology. This includes, of course, concepts such as worth, justification and accounting. But also the politics of expertise, technological and cultural approaches to markets, cultural political economy, and risk and uncertainty.
Those are big words. What fascinated me most about the specific presentations was their ethnographic ability to focus on a single object and, from there, provide an insiders’ insight on an entire industry or collective.
Take, for instance, Gabor Valyi’s study of vinyl record collectors in the UK. Gabor showed how these idiosyncratic fans of plastic turned conventional notions of value upside down. They took the remnants of a technology that was superseded by CDs –i.e., on its way to worthlessness– and brought back value to it. So, for instance, instead of looking for the instant hit available on iTunes, vinyl collectors relish the little-known “break” track before it is widely known. Unlike the buy-it-anywhere culture of MP3s, collectors will travel to specific cities to find certain music subgenres (if you want New Orleans funk, you go to the American South). These practices, Gabor concludes, perform belonging and status. And the practice of search, I would add, is redefined from a “transaction cost” to a skilled expertise. Ultimate value, to this people, lies in showing that one knows the value of an LP.
Another presentation that brought to life a weird but fascinating slice of the economy was Laura Cabantous and Jean-Pascal Gond’s study of decision theorists. The authors traced the long-running efforts of these academics to bring about their neoclassical dream to ultimate completion — the tool that will create “rational” decision-making in organizations. And try they have. From the early days of Raiffa and the invention of the decision-tree, decision theorists pursued the dream with a zealot’s conviction. The futility of their attempts was brilliantly illustrated by Laura with a tinker-toy model, used by a decision theorist to facilitate “what-if” analysis in a large oil company during the 1960s.
A great and polemic presentation. Participants reeled back in horror at the notion that rational decision making could ever be achieved (even though the presenter did not actually claim that). But I pinched in the other direction: “are you not,” I asked Laura, “assuming at the outset that the decision theorists’ goal is an impossible one?” An interesting example here is Excel. Mastery of the spreadsheet is, without a doubt, the key piece of distinct expertise that MBA students feel they really get from their program. What is it about Excel’s “what-if” analysis that is so special? Could it be that it really helps calculate and improve decisions? (Sorry guys, maybe yes!)
Other presentations abounded in related studies. Peter Erdelyi examined business conferences and how they challenge traditional notions of organizational learning. A very important topic, rarely studied effectively. Martin Giradeau looked at business plans. He presented a historical study of a serial entrepreneur who never had a single real success, Du Pont, yet his uncanny ability at presenting plans kept allowing him to obtain resources for his ventures (the Tableau of figures that Du Pont presented investors already hints at the contemporary need for Excel sheets). Julianne Reinecke examined the company that issues the Fair Trade certification, and the fascinating conflicts in “regimes of worth” that it faced. A key project in corporate social responsibility, presented with true passion and conviction.
There is a thread running through this. The focus, preoccupations and approaches of these presenters could be summarized in a single maxim: look at one thing. That is, take an object, practice, tool… and focus on it. Get at its social context. Problematize it. Examine how it affects economic behavior. In this, the speakers connected with a truly exceptional presentation by Peter Miller on the construction of Moore’s Law. And with my own presentation on the social use of models in arbitrage.
Of course, a workshop would not truly be Starkian if all presenters neatly adhered to the same methodology. And indeed, this workshop included other presenters with different concerns, methods and approaches… whose work also captured my imagination. Will Davies presented a terrific qualitative study of today’s two schools of neoliberalism. Allan Day, an ethnographic study of open source. Laura Cementeri posed a fascinating question — how to organize without commensurability? Jose Ossandon is engaged in one of the most critical experiments in Latin America, the Chilean pension reform. Benjamin Taupin is looking at the now-crucial credit rating agencies. And Jacques Olivier, reexamining my favorite demonized intermediary — securities analysts. (There were many other presentations… but sadly I did not get chair them or see them).
What to make of it all? David Stark, I would say, hit it again on the nail. By bringing together a very diverse yet equally interesting group of presenters, he underscored the multiplicity of economic life, along with the variety of practices, artifacts and understandings that exist out there. Or, as David provocatively puts it, the many meanings of “performance.” The idea was clinched in a presentation/ art installation that the organizers showed on Wednesday morning: a seemingly disjointed succession of images, ranging from return on investment, the spread plot, to theatrical delivery and to the proclaimed benefits of miracle drugs. Like the workshop itself, a kaleidoscopic reflection on the multiplicity of activity in contemporary economies.