Review of Valuing the Unique
August 10, 2010
I recently received a copy of Valuing the Unique: The Economics of Singularities from Princeton University Press. I read it and enjoyed and thought that deserves a review here on SocFinance. But, since it does not fall exactly within my area of expertise, I gave the copy to Monika Karuss, who’s a friend of the blog and a fellow economic sociologist and she wrote this following review. Monika, thanks again!
How do you make money out of something that is unique? In his new book on “The economics of singularities” (Princeton University Press 2010) Lucien Karpik shows us that this is a problem for actors in many fields of business and that this is not a trivial problem. Karpik discusses with exemplary care and knowledge how economists have tried to explain the problem away and he makes us marvel at the devices people employ to confront it.
Take the guides and rankings that try to help consumers chose between products they can’t know and the devices that try to reduce risk for producers who can’t know what people will like – such as the guides that explain and rate fine wines, the names that brand recordings of classical works, or the advertising budgets that accompany blockbuster movies.
The book is a brilliant and a beautiful contribution to our understanding of how markets are constructed, against the odds if you will. Everyone interested in how markets work must read it.
It makes me wonder, though, if what Karpik says about markets for singularities is not an even more general feature of markets than he suggests. This, in some way, would makes us lose his central category, but really does make us gain the basis for a comprehensive rethinking of how empirically and comparatively different markets are constructed.
Karpik makes the book about singularities. Singularities, he says, are multidimensional and their dimensions are dependent on each other; singularities are uncertain and singularities are incommensurable. Part of the elegance of the book is that it does not tell the somewhat familiar story of how commensuration and standardization, rankings and ratings erode uniqueness. Instead, as Karpik shows, in the rise of new products – and especially the rise of new symbolic products – over the past decades, forms of standardisation and singularisation have gone hand in hand within many markets.
But Karpik makes claims specifically about the economics of singularities as though that was a distinct category. Is it? Is Karpik’s analysis about a specific corner of the world while we can leave the rest to more conventional modelling?
The problem of uniqueness, in some forms, seems irreducible as a property of many more markets. Any given lightbulb is unique, as you will notice if you have only one and it breaks after dark. There is some kind of quality uncertainty about that lightbulb (but not perhaps about web content). Every person is also unique and his or her needs subject to interpretation, so that my enjoyment of any given product is to some extent contingent and unpredictable, even to me. On the other hand, of course, lightbulbs are more similar to each other in some ways than, say, “Sex and the City” and “Toy Story” are to each other. And my enjoyment of a given bar of chocolate is less uncertain than my success with any given psychotherapist.
Is it a question of degree? It’s not that easy to separate the problem of these fundamental forms of uniqueness, call them ontological, from the kind of uniqueness Karpik is most interested in. In the case of the original art painting, ontological uniqueness is central to its value as well as uniqueness of meaning. In many products the problem of uniqueness re-occurs on different levels, such as with wines in the unique bottle, the year, the brand, the producer, the type etc. Do I compare the lightbulb to an individual copy of “Sex and the City” or to “movies” or to “entertainment products”? If there is uniqueness on different levels within one product, how do they relate to each other and how do markets manage these?
Karpik distinguishes different regimes within the economics of singularities, such as the authenticity regime, organizing the market for fine wines for example, the mega regime, operating for mega films and mega brands, or the expert opinion regime, expressed in literary prizes. Should we not also include regimes for those products that are the least singular in the same type of analysis, rather than say that this is a separate corner of the world altogether?