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?

4 Responses to “Review of Valuing the Unique”

  1. Arjun Appadurai Says:

    I have not read Prof. Karpik’s book and am now hearing about it for the first time. I hope Prof. Karpik has read a collection I edited in 1986 called The Social Life of Things (Cambridge University Press), in which I and several of my fellow-contributors discussed the tension between comoddities and singularities, used the idea of “regimes of value”, explored the problem of authenticity at length, suggested that the relationship between gifts and ocmmodities was a continuum rather than an opposition, explored “tournaments of value”, and in general set out a framework for analysing the politics of value. I very much hope Prof. Karpik is aware of this collection, and refers to, elaborates or debates these ideas which seem to bear a close relationship to his own.

  2. Lucien Karpik Says:

    A Response to « One Response….. »

    I would like to reassure Prof. Appadurai : I know the 1986 book and I have cited and discussed his Introduction as well as Kopitoff’s paper. Moreover, I have also cited and discussed his 1996 book on Modernity at Large. I hope Prof. Appadurai will find time to read Valuing the Unique. We could then begin a fruitful discussion

    Lucien Karpik

  3. Lucien Karpik Says:

    A Comment on “Review of the Valuing the Unique”

    I wish to thank Monika Karuss for her kind judgment and insightful
    comments on Valuing the Unique. At the end she raised the delineation
    issue: What is or is not a singularity? She presents some arguments in
    favor of blurring the distinction between singular products and other
    types of products, and she finishes by proposing to extend the scope
    of the economics of singularities. I understand such a view of course,
    even if I don’t agree with it. But I would suggest another way of
    dealing with the issue she raised.
    The definition of singularity is linked not only to other notions but
    also to heterodox markets as compared to standard markets. It
    should explain why markets of singularities are, for example,
    characterized by a universe of “judgment devices” that is different
    from the one linked to standard markets and – which is of utmost
    importance – why quality competition prevails over price competition.
    From these peculiar characteristics follow a number of consequences,
    even for price formation.
    Multidimensionality, incommensurability, radical uncertainty, judgment
    devices, primacy of symbolic competition over material competition,
    desingularisation, types of coordination regimes all go together.
    To move one term is to change the others. It is the coherence I have
    tried to show with the concrete studies. I suggest we go further to see how far this general point of view can be extended and become more
    precise. With additional results the proposed discussion may perhaps
    become useful. Until then, I will stick to the present definition !

  4. neil pollock Says:

    I am just working my way through this book. I have hardly put it down – and only then through necessity – since it arrived in the post a couple of days ago. I think it is a great book!
    I have been looking for something like this for a while – scholarship that takes seriously the issue of rankings and ratings is pretty rare.

    I particularly like the idea of the ‘judgement device’ (this is how the author conceptualises more generally the various kinds of rankings and rating that are available today) but have issues with this idea when it is linked to the notion of ‘trust.

    The author argues “To be effective, the [judgement] device must be credible. And to be credible, it must be trusted by those who use it” (p55).

    In the kinds of ranking devices that I have been looking into – something called the ‘magic quadrant’ – however, these devices appear highly affective in ranking but not very credible. That is, they are used in practice but people don’t particularly trust them. I think a lot of ranking devices are like this – the business school ranking being the case in point (we’ll use them, but at the same time also happily discuss their flaws. limitations and bias etc).

    These are just my initial thoughts. Now back to the book…

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