Robert C. Merton, the latest convert to the sociology of finance
February 3, 2010
This past December, Nobel laureate Robert C. Merton gave a talk at the Cultures of Finance Working Group at New York University.
The talk, solemnly introduced by Craig Calhoun, was addressed at a mix of sociologists, anthropologists and cultural studies scholars at the working group. It discussed a far-reaching range of issues — from Merton’s early work to his latest work with Andy Lo on credit crises. Arjun Appadurai gave interesting remarks Here are the complete transcripts, which I just received by email from Robert Wosnitzer.
I was there, and highly recommend it. In his closing remarks, Merton issued an open invitation to sociologists, anthropologists and others to enter the study of finance:
In getting good financial solutions, you need to do more than just the technical elements. You’ve got to recognize the environment you’re in. And the communications issue (…) if you’re trying to communicate with forty million people in California a message of why you did something, or are going to do something, it cannot be something that you couldn’t even explain to eight students in a class they would understand. So, your solutions are not only going to be influenced by technical questions and the rest. You have to look at the whole thing, which is to recognize when it has to be short, simple, and understandable. And if you can’t do that, even if it seems like the right answer, it probably isn’t. And we need research in all of these areas. And I…you know, as I said, I’m saying, “Please! This is a wonderful field!” But we do need it there.
All in all — brilliant, generous, inspiring. His was the type of talk that reconciles you with an intellectual opponent and with the academic pursuit in general.