Keepin’ it real

August 24, 2016

In the previous post, Suhaib Riaz posed an important question, “how critically aware are we that finance is also on a mission to socialize us?” The post demonstrates an earnest effort at self-reflection.  Such efforts are not nearly as common as one (I) would hope or expect from our various institutions of knowledge.

I come to social studies of finance by way of science and technology studies/ science and technology policy.  I study the science and politics of insurance ratemaking including, the role of technological experts in the decision making process.  So, truth be told, I am more familiar with policy scholars and climate scientists than the relevant scholars in organizational studies and management.  But I generally learn quickly and I have found that a select few have made a journey similar to mine.

After reading Riaz’s post, I commented.

I likened the concerns expressed in the post to those regarding the politicization of science.  As I have watched such politicization unfold and the impacts it has on society’s ability to cope and ameliorate its problems, I responded to Riaz’s post by urging collaboration and continuous self-reflection.

Just after my comment, as I was going through emails at the time, I learned that a notable American science policy scholar, Dan Sarewitz, published an eloquent essay geared towards ‘Saving Science’… mostly from itself.  His work, indeed much of his work, aims to lift the veil from science by encouraging scientists and non-scientists to more critically consider the production of science and technology in the context of societal needs, hopes and fears.

I thought more deeply about Riaz’s concern.

Science, much like finance, has benefited and suffered from the myth that ‘unfettered’ production inevitably leads to societal benefit.  In this way, one only needs to be armed with curiosity and all that results will be glorious.

A free scientific enterprise is a myth because it simply isn’t so, at least not anytime remotely recent.  Government steps in often to offer a hand and establish rules of the playing field.  Technology gives science applicability and in turn, drives certain areas of knowledge over others.  In a myriad of ways, we see that societal benefit is not inevitable. Advancements in science and technology have resulted in new risks, severe inequalities, and challenges to our sense of morality.

Yet the myth acts to demarcate the boundary between society and scientists and insulate the institution of science from the critical lens of accountability.  I dare say the myth has served economics and finance in much the same way.

When scientists believe their work occurs separate from the rest of everyone they have no choice but to be self-serving.  I have met countless scientists who believe their work is not about politics.  But, their scientific efforts support their worldview and their worldview supports their scientific efforts.  In either direction the nexus is politics because the justification for inquiry is based on personal visions of what ought to be.  There is always politics.  I think that is ok.  But one has to be aware of it, check in with the rest of society to see how it’s going and honestly consider the role one play’s in guiding the fate of others.

There is much for social studies of finance scholars to glean from the existing science policy literature from both sides of the Atlantic.

In the closing of his essay, Sarewitz notes the “tragic irony” of long standing efforts by the scientific community to shield itself from accountability to ideas and curiosities beyond itself thereby, resulting in a stagnant enterprise detached from the society it claims to serve.  As a means forward, he encourages improved engagement between science and the “real world” as a means to stir innovation, advance social welfare, and temper ideology.

The same suggestion can be made to the world of finance and its growing cadre of prodding social scientists.


2 Responses to “Keepin’ it real”

  1. danielbeunza Says:

    Hello Jessica, I could not agree more with your comment. The social studies of finance started as an extension of the social studies of science, and that analogy (finance as a knowledge intensive activity, like science) is an incredibly generative one.

    In this case, the issue at stake is whether scholars in SSF need to be shielded from Wall Street. My view here is that it’s impossible to try and do empirical research without being in some way affected by the perspective of the people one studies (just as they will be affected by the scholar’s views).

    Hence, it is up to critical theorists to engage in a scholarly debate with those scholars who are collecting data at the “coalface” of markets and call them on their possible biases. This is why I thought Suhaib’s perspective and critique are a really important addition to the conversation.

  2. Perspectives are the stuff of social science. As we learn more, as life happens we change our minds. I am no longer as radical or dramatic as a teenager nor as cynical as a grad student. Perhaps, a mortgage, a job, and a husband has made me soft. But we live and learn so to speak.

    Are y’all taking about shielding oneself from the incentives of Wall Street? That is a struggle I’m sure- one which I never had the pleasure of having as my student loans can attest. An insurance company once put me up in the Ritz though… that got me self-reflecting!

    But this seems a struggle of the human condition. One which the Rolling Stones titled Sympathy for the Devil and social scientists studied named Stockholm syndrome. Biomed and its comfy relationship with the pharmaceutical industry may offer some scholarly words of wisdom.

    Perhaps a balance can be struck where one sleeps well and eats well while gainfully employed as the ‘majetsy’s loyal opposition.’ That never worked out so well for Galileo or Andreas Georgiou. But I think it a nobel effort and a lot more fulfilling than sitting comfortably numb in a Ritz jacuzzi on what was once unspoiled wetland.

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