The underarticulated politics of the ‘economization’ programme: A provocation

January 25, 2011

Many contributors to this site have an interest in using the methods and concepts of what has been called the ‘economization’ approach to studying markets (myself included). And have come in for criticism from some quarters for doing so. But in the effort to defend themselves against competing approaches, is insufficient attention being paid to the blindspots of their own academic practice? This is the question I ask in the following provocation. This was originally written for other purposes but, following Daniel’s suggestion, is reproduced here. Above all, it is intended as a prompt for debate. Daniel and I—and I hope others—will be interested in any and all responses.

A provocation:

The Actor-Network Theory influenced ‘economization’ programme as it has been recently termed, has gained much traction by providing an account for of how and under what conditions objects become mediators for—and agents in—the operations of markets. At the same time, work within the related field of the social studies of finance has come in for considerable criticism—particularly from political economists and ‘new’ economic  sociologists—for focusing too closely on devices and technologies, with accounts centring around highly particular cases. The debate has, however, often been framed in oppositional terms: as around where to ‘start’. Put simply, this tends to mean opposing a case for starting with the work of following markets with its particular objects/practices/technologies against starting with the (macro) politics that underpin them. But does the construction of this kind of binary obscure some real issues which this ANT-inspired work needs to address? For instance, irrespective of the critique from political economy, is there a tendency within this branch of economic sociology to over-focus on the technical composition of markets, to the exclusion of the voices and (politics implied by the) participation of human actors? It is noticeable that these ANT-influenced studies appear selective about where they choose to trace markets—there is, it seems, a bias in its selection of empirical sites, tending favour organisations, firms and the world of finance, over and above, for instance, domestic spaces and/or spaces of consumption. With these (overly briefly) sketched elisions in mind, is it time, therefore, for economization type approaches to stop worrying (as much) about the critique of political economists and pay more attention to tracing the politics of their own academic practice?

9 Responses to “The underarticulated politics of the ‘economization’ programme: A provocation”

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Naadir Jeewa, Jason Jensen. Jason Jensen said: The underarticulated politics of the ‘economization’ programme: A provocation: Many contributors to this site ha… […]

  2. danielbeunza Says:

    Joe — this is a fascinating question, and one which Fabrizio and I addressed in our work. The different methods favoured by Callon and (say) Fligstein hinge upon what agency is privileged. It is artifacts such as calculative tools in the case of Callon, or institutional fields in the case of Fligstein (industry associations, private transnational networks, and so on). Once you know where theoretically stand, you know where to start.

    But what if you don’t want to start out with a theoretical position regarding the agency of tools vs fields? That is the question that Fabrizio and I confronted. In the end, we developed our own methodology, which we call “field plus tool”. You start out in the field, attending trade conferences, interviewing biggies, etc. And you look out for tool builders. You then try and start to do fieldwork in a given tool building firm. And at that point, you go Callonian: search for controversies, follow the actors, examine the mechanisms of closure.

    Our strategy worked very well… except that we could not find such clear controversies. And that the company was actually not meeting its objectives in designing the tools. And the people at the firm did not seem to understand any more than we did. We were then forced to go back to the field in search of answers. Our findings then illuminated the field in a way that we don’t think we could have if we had not gotten to it through the tool.

  3. PE Says:

    I am running the risk of coming off as an ANT purist here but I think Joe’s provocation could be also read as a call to return to the original insights of ANT, rather than trying to overcome them as limitations. After all Latour defined an actor as anything that “modifies, transforms, perturbs, or creates,” regardless of its particular form of materiality. So if an ANT-inspired economic sociology study ends up privileging objects (technological artefacts etc.) over humans, then it runs counter to the principle of generalised symmetry. According to ANT the starting point should be the radical indeterminacy of agency, rather than making objects (over humans) the starting point.

    As for the bias in selection of empirical sites, I wonder if this is something specific to ANT-inspired economic sociology or instead endemic to management and organisation studies (and business schools). Namely, that researchers tend to be drawn to powerful actors and sites (such as blue chip organisations and stock exchanges) because generally that’s where the power, money (research grants) and recognition lies (as opposed to small firms or domestic settings).

    Again, I don’t think the ANT perspective would be responsible for this, since the principle of following the actors and how associations are made is all about transgressing preconceived notions and institutional boundaries and ending up in unexpected places.


  4. joseossandon Says:

    Hi Joe, I agree with you that choosing research objects is a very political issue and ANT inspired scholars will be biased study objects that are full of complex devices, which tend to be also those where power is concentrated. However, I think it will also depend a lot on the type of question you want to ask to such objects. My impression is that socio-technical agents had been in the centre of quite different research agendas concerning economic issues which are not all equally apolitical. For instance, Callon’s 1998 was about economic rationality, a rather internal methodological issue (explored further in the papers included in the market device volume), while the economization paper is about the qualification of things or social spaces as “economic” (which can be easily connected with more traditionally political topics, such as, neo-liberalization…or the T.Mitchell’s type of stuff). At the same time, I think there are other quite interesting works inspired by ANT type of methods, that also concern markets, that deal more directly with political questions, such as Barry’s discussion on anti-political devices and Leyshon&Thrift’ work on finance ecologies and social exclusion.

  5. joedeville Says:

    Thanks for these great comments. There’s a lot going on here. Methodological starting points, the heritage of ANT, the capacity of ANT-esque methods to point to politics. For me each points to very relevant issues. In my own work, I am particularly drawn to the ability of ANT-type methods to, as Peter says, point you towards that which ‘perturbs’ (to draw on Peter’s/Latour’s term .. also I think Harman uses that citation in his book) which you perhaps didn’t expect would, irrespective of the ontological status of whatever that might be. My feeling (and it is only really a feeling at this stage.. hence a provocation for debate and not in any way approaching a fully realised critique) is that some of the success of work inspired by Callon has come from, like ANT before it, the simple but startling fact of being able to point to the agential power of materiality in markets – the way its tools, technologies, devices etc shape economic relations etc. It is important and new to do so. But, given the success of ANT/STS in demonstrating the fact that materiality matters, for me personally, demonstrating the ability of tools to shape markets/social life is less interesting than being open to whatever may, or may not shape, transform, mediate relations. Here, I think (and I draw here on insights from discussions with others), there may be a need for a more precise focus less on the human/non-human state of a particular ‘peturbation’ (given that showing the agential power of materiality is not, I suggest, enough of an end in itself) and more on the quality of the relations that compose socio-material life, in which the variation in relations between humans and materialities matters as much as the variations between materialities and between humans.

    To Peter’s point about bias, yes I agree (about the role of funding, power, money etc). Zelizer makes a similar point, in Purchase of Intimacy – which I agree with broadly – not in relation to ANT but economic sociology more generally. Nonetheless, surely the status quo deserves questioning? Particularly from an approach which has been so successful in demonstrating the way that ‘facts’ come into being through very particular processes of assembly, controversy etc. In other words, are there (academic) controversies that ANT/economization is perhaps itself implicated in closing down? Even if unintentionally? This should be taken as an open question – I certainly don’t have clear answers myself.

    As for politics & ANT (Jose) – I think there’s a lot more to be done here. Yes, I agree that the work you point to is important. But there is, as Latour himself has acknowledged, a danger of ‘the political’ in being understood to be potentially everywhere via ANT type approaches, being emptied of meaning/explanatory power. De Vries, Marres, Vikki Bell and Mariam Fraser have all written really good papers/pieces on to this, which I am still grappling with.

    And method – Daniel, I really would like to hear more. It seems to me that the kind of methodological openness you and Fabrizio are striving for is crucial if we want to avoid ANT approaches becoming a standardised set of techniques that just get rolled out in the pursuit of the tool of the moment.

  6. danielbeunza Says:

    Joe, glad we see things similarly. However, you wrote:

    “relations between humans and materialities matters as much as the variations between materialities and between humans.”

    Written in such abstract terms, it is difficult for me to agree or disagree. Do you have a specific example in mind?

  7. joedeville Says:

    Well, I guess I am thinking in part of a similar conclusion arrived at by Franck Cochoy, who, while focusing attention on the material dimensions of market encounters argues that there is a need for a rapprochement between ‘sociologists of objects’ who ‘never cease to speak of dispositifs (devices)’ and ‘sociologists of the social’ [who] only speak of dispositions’. There is something in such a call, I think, even if in practice the idea of any easy rapprochement is of course problematic. But more concretely, in relation to my own work, where I look at the ‘affective’ dimensions of debt default, for example, there is a danger perhaps that an over-focus on devices, for example, migh obscure the role of other forms of agency, which are hard to pin down as either ‘human’ or ‘material’. E.g. the relationship between a person, their own bodies, their psychological states, the remembered or anticipated incursions of collections technologies into their lives/domestic spaces.

  8. danielbeunza Says:

    That is fantastic, and it’s what’s so original about your work. Psychology, objects and social relations, all jumbled together. I would encourage you to theorize your findings in these terms — a “dispositifs and dispositions” critique of Callon.

    In my own work with Ferraro, the departure from Callon is alongside the politics. What is the political origin of market tools? What dynamics shape the tool… even before the designers in the lab start planning the inscriptions in the device?

  9. joedeville Says:

    Thanks Daniel. Yes, that kind of engagement is something I am trying to work towards.

    Like the attention to the politics of tools. Look forward to the paper!

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