What is a “market movement”?

January 21, 2010

A recent conference announcement has piqued my curiosity. Annelise Riles, an anthropologist at Cornell Law School, is organizing a conference titled “Techniques of Hope”.

According to the organizers:

This conference aims to set in motion what we call a “market movement”—an analog to recently successful social or political movements. One of the hallmarks of recent political movements has been the understanding that each of our actions have larger consequences. “Think globally, act locally” is the slogan of the environmental movement, or “the personal is political” has been the slogan of the feminist movement. In the recent presidential campaign, Barack Obama called this move “hope”: hope for him is the realization that each of us has power to effectuate real change. So our question is, if this is true for politics and society, could it also be true for the market?

To date, we have not thought of markets in this way. Economics takes a fairly cynical view of human motivations, and the currently dominant approach to market regulation assumes that market participants’ self-interest leads to disaster—and hence that their behavior must be controlled through government regulation alone. While this is surely correct to a point, the lessons of successful political and social movements is that the people typically lead, and the government follows.

So how would individual professionals’ actions translate into a better market future? Part of the answer is that lawyers and financial experts already have at their disposal the tools and methods they need to create a healthy global market, if only they could recognize them, and more systematically replicate them in public and private regulatory practice.

In my view, the notion of a market movement is intellectually appealing. I think of it as a shorthand for “a social movement within a market.” In recent months, the literature that looks at markets as social movements has grown exponentially, with one of the major contributors being our fellow blogger Brayden King. My point of departure from that literature is that it tends to ignore the way in which market actors calculate — the market devices. But the aim of the “Hope” conference is not to study a movement, but rather to create it. And it is led by an anthropologist — a “tool person”. So it will be interesting to see what theories of markets they draw from, and how they propose going to about that.

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