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.

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?

I have just received from COST US, a Google group dedicated to corporate sustainability, links to articles about technologies that may reshape how investors and consumers politically engage with companies.

The first one, from the corporate blog of Hitachi, discusses the happy marriage between the Global Reporting Initiative and XBRL language. The GRI is a non-profit that advocates a system for environmental and social reporting, and XBRL is a new format for electronic reporting. This natural union could be one of those happy combinations of content and platform, like mp3s and the ipod.

It’s clear that by providing preparers and users of data with the means to integrate financial and so-called nonfinancial data (i.e., that which discloses a company’s environmental and social performance), XBRL offers exciting possibilities. The potential for XBRL to provide the users of corporate sustainability performance data with the leverage to push and pull information that meets their requirements is certainly there. That was the thinking behind the first version of an XBRL taxonomy for GRI’s sustainability reporting guidelines, released in 2006.

The second one, a Wired magazine article, introduces the efforts of tech-savy programmers to appropriate XBRL for their own activism. See Freerisk.org.

The partners’ solution: a volunteer army of finance geeks. Their project, Freerisk.org, provides a platform for investors, academics, and armchair analysts to rate companies by crowdsourcing. The site amasses data from SEC filings (in XBRL format) to which anyone may add unstructured info (like footnotes) often buried in financial documents. Users can then run those numbers through standard algorithms, such as the Altman Z-Score analysis and the Piotroski method, and publish the results on the site. But here’s the really geeky part: The project’s open API lets users design their own risk-crunching models. The founders hope that these new tools will not only assess the health of a company but also identify the market conditions that could mean trouble for it (like the housing crisis that doomed AIG).

These are exciting developments for sociologists of finance. As Callon has argued, it is the tools that market actors use to calculate that end up shaping prices. There are politics in markets, but they are buried under the device. Following the controversy as it develops during the construction of the tools is the key way to unearth, understand and participate in it. This is of course, a favorite topic of this blog, of several books and of an upcoming workshop, “Politics of Markets.”

One open question, as Gilbert admits, is whether the “open source” approach and tool building will take up.

So, how many companies are tagging their sustainability disclosures in this way? The answer is: surprisingly few. Why is this? Perhaps companies are unaware of the ease with which it can be done. As previous contributors to this blog have noted, XBRL is not that hard an idea to get your head round, and implementing the technology involves very little in terms of investments in time or cash.

An alternative model is Bloomberg’s efforts at introducing environmental, governance and social metrics on their terminals (a worthy topic for another post).

The January issue of Organization has published a special issue on science studies-inspired research on organization theory, marketing and strategy. The issue, titled “Does STS Mean Business?” and based on a workshop with the same name, reads like an authentic roadmap for future organizational research.

The initiative, which sprang from the STS group at Oxford’s Said Business School — the only one of this kind in any leading business school– is in many ways parallel to the development of the social studies of finance: take the core tenets of science studies/ actor-network theory, and offer a novel look at the capital markets.

But what exactly are those advantages and novelties? The issue was debated in this blog by Elena Simakova and Catelijne Coopmans… the “mutant science scholars.” In the leading article, Woolgar, Coopmans and Neyland add to that debate by suggesting that a science and technology perspective offers the following:

(1) A propensity to cause trouble, provoke, be awkward; (2) a tendency to work through difficult conceptual issues in relation to specific empirical cases, deflating grandiose theoretical concepts and claims (and even some ordinary ones); (3) an emphasis on the local, specific and contingent in relation to the genesis and use of science and technology; (4) caution about the unrefl exive adoption and deployment of standard social science lexicons (e.g. power, culture, meaning, value); (5) reflexive attention to the (frequently unexplicated) notions of our audiences, value and utility.

I particularly liked number two — “deflating grandiose concepts”.