Materiality and the social studies of finance

August 3, 2011

I have just read an interview with Fabian Muniesa in Jose Ossadon’s blog in Spanish, Estudios de la Economia. In the post, Muniesa has an interesting critique of the protagonism that materiality has received in the social studies of finance:

The social studies of finance are not characterized, in my view, by an emphasis on objects. I would define the social studies of finance rather as an eclectic and open space that looks into the financial world as a practical reality, simply (something we are unaccustomed to from mainstream economists). And there’s room for everything: objects, subjects and falling. And I would say the same for economic anthropology: I do not think it is a unified perspective, but rather an academic, more or less established, in which anthropologists may encounter an alert to technical artifacts and material culture, and others that this seems at best secondary. And this applies to classical authors as well. But in both areas there is room to defend a materiality view. Now, the way of theoretical discussion that I find interesting question here is what you call “emphasis on objects.” Just say “hey, what material is important” (and this is heard a lot lately) does not seem very interesting. What is material? What is an object? What are we talking about? About a phenomenology of material things? About an emphasis on technology and its effects? About an understanding of dramaturgical staging? About a materialistic view of capital? About a focus on the work process? About a post-structuralist theory of action? About an interest in bodily affections? About the public good? Such questions are properly philosophical, so I’m afraid the interesting discussion has to go through there. The financial stuff can be a confluence of interests between, for example, anthropological discussions on calculation, the practical philosophy of financial products as a radical form of inscriptions, and why not, critical social theory of financial capitalism.

I found the post interesting because it speaks to a reflection that my coauthor Fabrizio Ferraro and I made in the recent conference of the Critical Management Studies. As the discussion unfolded among the various presenters of the “Performativity” track that we put together (joint with Luigi Moschera), we realized that there is a lack of clarity on the concept of “market device.” Does it have to be material (i.e. can it be a website)? What does it do?

5 Responses to “Materiality and the social studies of finance”

  1. A quick comment on materiality: How is a website not material? A website lives on servers made of plastic and silicon and metal, travels over cables buried in the ground and through electromagnetic waves, is projected by LCD screens powered by electricity and so on. What’s not material about it?

    More generally, one of my favorite aspects of the science studies tradition is the blurring of boundaries between “ideas” and “things.” There may be times when such a distinction is useful – for example, in the free software/copyleftist discussions of “bits” vs. “atoms” and how the economics of the two have some subtle differences – but more often, I think, the distinction holds us back, especially when not nuanced very carefully.

  2. danielbeunza Says:

    A website is material, but –and this is where this whole question becomes tricky– to what extent is it “structure”? At the end of the day, the distinction between material or not was also a way to address the agency/structure divide. Once tool builders create a tool, the user is going to be constrained in the degree to which it can be changed. So it becomes the structural context that shapes the user’s actions. However, if that same user is given the possibility to customize the user interface he is facing, the distinction between agency and structure gets blurred. What then?

  3. Fabian Says:

    Thanks Daniel — my Spanish is a little bit rusted, though.

  4. joseossandon Says:

    Hi Daniel. I think this is very interesting and relevant. My own impression (and what I’ve been trying to write more coherently in a paper the last couple of months) is that is not only important to distinguish between different theoretical approaches to “things” , but also that they are connected to different type of empirical questions in finance studies (being the issue about “market devices” only one of them). For instance, if we follow Caliskan & Callon’s categories, one type of issue is how “material elements” frame market encounters (or what Cochoy has named “sociology of market things”); second, the description of the set of “market devices” that enable economic calculation; and finally, what they call the “pacification of goods”, or i would rather name the “enactment of those things that are exchanged” (or the question about the ontological status of goods and commodities as “objects”) (which has had a longer history in economic anthropology).Best, Jose.

  5. danielbeunza Says:

    Jose – agreed. Look forward to see that paper come out.

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