Medieval provocations

March 18, 2015

Provocations are great ways of studying society. Garfinkel’s breaching experiments are classical examples, as are the more recent contributions of people like Andrew Perrin who, through unexpected questions in surveys, explore in interesting ways the social organization of political cognition.

Yesterday, I had the opportunity of seeing the results of one of these provocations. Part of the coursework for my Economic Sociology workshop at LSE consists of 15-minute documentaries produced by small groups of students that, based on one of 6 possible questions, examine the nature of work in twentieth-century Britain. At least one of these questions is designed to be overtly provocative: Who deserves unemployment?

One of the three documentaries presented by the students tackled precisely this question and was revealing in its findings. Somewhat expectedly, the clip reflected contemporary Piketty-inspired debates about economic inequality. It also touched upon the changing role of education and professions in modern labor markets. But importantly, the provocation revealed (confirmed?) an interesting pattern of responses from interviewees. To the blunt question of who deserves to be unemployed, a standard dialogue followed:

Interviewee: No one, of course. Work is a fundamental human right.

Interviewer: But surely, some people deserve to have better jobs than others, and some simply never find jobs.

Interviewee: Well, yes, but that’s only because there are other people better than them at something. They had better education, they work harder, or they simply have a better attitude towards the job.

Interviewer: So then it’s the individual’s responsibility that he or she is unemployed.

Interviewee: To some extent, yes. If they really wanted a job, they would get it. They’d go to school, they would have gotten better grades, or they would have a better attitude overall. Some people are just lazy.

This conversational sequence is quite typical; I’ve seen several of these documentaries over the years and while the above is a pastiche of dozens of interviews carried out by students over numerous iterations of the course, it reflects well what most interviewees have expressed. Interviewees initially see unemployment as the result of chance, as something individuals are not responsible for. But upon probing, images of the virtuous employee and the vicious unemployed soon emerge—this is not altogether surprising; one of the theoretical contexts for this section of the course is Somers and Block’s work on the ideational embedding of labor markets in Britain and America.

The stability of these accounts brings to mind some interesting issues. There is, of course, a clear connection with the growing literature on the sociology of worth (another question asked by students had to do with how people indeed justify wage differentials in society). There is also a classical question of how labor is configured and re-embedded by the institutions of the state. But there is yet another provocative issue: what seems to be an important structural similarity between contemporary conceptions about the entitlement of employment and rather older worldviews concerning the organization of the social world.

What I am thinking of, in particular, is how a watered-down version of a medieval Three Estates theory might continue to frame our shared expectations about justice and worth. Some of this comes out of my recent work on high frequency trading: justice and equality are central to debates about the technological organization of financial markets, and it is not uncommon to find within such debates strongly moral discussions about what constitutes a ‘fair’ price. As it happens, some of these discussions are very similar in structure and content to debates about trade had in 13th century Europe (more on this later, in the eventual book). Substitute apples and pears for stocks and foreign currencies and much is the same.

Indeed, Latour was right to some extent: we’ve never been modern (he failed to add, though, that we may simply be medieval), and this is perhaps demonstrated by how we think through the question of who deserves to be unemployed. In the Middle Ages, the notion of the Three Estates posited that society was naturally divided into three categories of people: the clergy, the nobility, and the peasantry. An important element of this worldview was that each of these categories was defined by certain moral virtues that gave credence to their social position. In effect, when explaining personal failures in life, medieval scholars would not blame institutions (it was never ‘society’ that led people ‘astray’, in part because ‘society’ didn’t exist) but would rather identify the vices of individuals as the source of their woes.

Let’s think, then, of the typical answer to the question of who deserves unemployment. People start out as modern liberals: “no one, of course,” they argue, “for we are all equal and should be afforded the same opportunities in life”. But after some repeated questioning, they soon become medieval: “some people are just lazy, they have a constitutional flaw” they respond; “some simply don’t want to better themselves”, as one respondent argued. So if unemployment is deserved, it is because of some moral quality of the individual.

This does not speak directly to social organization but merely exhibits certain moralized understandings of behavior. Where social organization becomes apparent is when these understandings are linked to perceptions about how vices and virtues are distributed across society. In discussing the documentary, one student presented a very clear argument: employment is never complete, so surely some will have to be unemployed at any given point in time. Unemployment, at least for some unlucky ones, is natural—a notion best reflected, perhaps, in the concept of full employment. The Fed, for instance, recently suggested that the American economy has reached such level, with 5.5% of the working age population in unemployment. Economists explain these numbers in a number of ways. Technological change will mean that some will be without work because of changes in productive processes from labor-intensive to automated techniques. Others will be unemployed simply because they are transitioning between jobs at the time of measurement. Yet others are in training. Et cetera. The issue, of course, is who is more likely to fall in this particular category. When probing the student’s argument, it was clear that a (certainly moralized) category of people was seen as more likely to be chronically within this group. There are some people, the argument would go, that are simply disposed to be unemployed, and this is just the natural order of things.

I hope students took something away from this provocation. Firstly, I expect them to have learnt that categories (such as ‘the unemployed’) are always moral, and that in their boundaries they encode normative understandings of social order. This is a point raised by Fourcade and Healy in their recent paper in Accounting, Organizations and Society where they introduce the idea of classification situations as a means for explaining the categorical work performed by markets. This is, indeed, quite an important claim within sociological thought.

But hopefully students also learned the lesson that behind the notions of equality and meritocracy that percolate modern discourse (and that, for instance, are part of the cultural organization of contemporary finance, as Karen Ho explored in Liquidated), there belies a conservative, almost medieval, ordering of the world. Forthcoming work by my colleagues Sam Friedman and Daniel Laurison shows, for example, the wage penalties of transgressing occupational boundaries across generations: those whose parents were in routine occupational groups and happened to have risen to the professional and managerial classes earn less than those who were born into the right group. Similarly, as the other documentaries presented by the Economic Sociology students showed, justifications of high salaries still hinge on relatively naturalistic concepts of embodied talent and capacities, much in the same way as the noble’s position was made sense of six or seven centuries go. Perhaps financial services and upper managerial and professional classes are to our world what nobles were to thirteenth-century Europe (which, I guess, would make economists the structural equivalents of the clergy). Despite our abject claims to modernity, we still make sense of the world as an ordered system of almost naturalized relations. Then again, the Middle Ages had an edge (discounting, of course, the shorter life span): research assessment exercises did not exist.

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